Books for people who can't cope good.
August 31, 2006 9:09 AM   Subscribe

Recommendations for books that aren't overly sad? Yes, I did a search and checked out previous threads.

I'm two thirds into Elliot Perlman's Seven Types of Ambiguity and am considering to just stop reading there (again) because it's way too depressing (well, and contrived). I adored the language of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, but don't think I could read it again anytime soon. By the end of The Corrections I was a bit annoyed with Franzen, not because I didn't like his style, but because I felt getting to people by writing about unhappiness just wasn't all that hard, really. Admittedly, I haven't read a whole lot of non-genre fiction in the past years, but I get the impression that good novels tend to be about loss and disappointment and generally bad experiences. "Happy families are all alike..." etc.

My question is, are there any contemporary works of non-genre fiction that are somehow beautiful/moving/non-tacky (!) without focusing on anguish/hopelessness/violence too much?

For the record, I love Douglas Adams and David Sedaris, own most of Terry Pratchett's stuff, really don't like Milan Kundera's style and prefer <4 00 pages to>500. Also, I'm German, but the vast majority of books I've read in the last ten years have been in English, so bonus points for suggesting German authors/books that you think fit the criteria. Thanks very much in advance.
posted by mumble to Writing & Language (41 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You might like Murakami, even though his stuff does tend to be very sentimental and emotion-packed. It's a matter of style, I think. Try Kafka on the Shore or Norwegian Wood and see if you like it!
posted by kcm at 9:13 AM on August 31, 2006

I LOVED Steinbeck's East of Eden.
posted by kdern at 9:14 AM on August 31, 2006

I just hit this wall recently, as well. I used to be impervious to such things, but I tried to read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and then The Giant's House and had to put both down because they were so sad, even though both were expertly written.

My recommendation is anything by Christopher Moore, my favorite being Island of the Sequined Love Nun. It's fun stuff, well written, and fits with the irreverance of the authors you mention.
posted by mcstayinskool at 9:17 AM on August 31, 2006

Ack, no Murakami! I read Wild Sheep Chase and cried for days... admittedly, reactions to novels are so personal, and your literary mileage will vary.

However, what you want, is you want some Banana Yoshimoto. People seem to believe that true beauty is only possible in the context of tragedy, and maybe that's true. This leads many authors to end their novel with tragedy... Yoshimoto's books (often) occur just after a tragedy, and are about how life continues... Which makes them sound cheesy and awful and they are not. They are quirky and weird and beautiful.

Rushdie's nice, too.
posted by Squid Voltaire at 9:31 AM on August 31, 2006

Charlie Baxter's The Feast of Love is great. It is a number of stories that are intertwined and is beautifully written. A rereader for me.
posted by sulaine at 9:34 AM on August 31, 2006

Thanks everyone, keep 'em coming.

So far I'm leaning towards Christopher Moore and Charlie Baxter, but will have another look at the others as well. I remember reading Murakami's story about the 100% perfect girl, which I enjoyed, so I'll tentatively put him on the list too (thanks for the warning, Squid Voltaire).

Does anyone know if MeFi benefits from purchases at and if so, how I can put together a URL with #1's referrer ID?
posted by mumble at 9:48 AM on August 31, 2006

Candide by Voltaire

Don't Point That Thing at Me and After You With the Pistol by Kyril Bonfiglioli: hilarious, short, and not read by nearly enough people.

I haven't read either of them yet, but a lot of Pratchett fans also like Robert Rankin and Tom Holt.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 9:59 AM on August 31, 2006

Candide? That's not contemporary. Or non-violent.

One of my favorite books that seems to fulfill your criteria is Janet Lewis' The Wife of Martin Guerre, if that's not too old for you (1941).
posted by smorange at 10:04 AM on August 31, 2006

James Baldwin is awesome. Go Tell it on the Mountain is amazing; Another Country is a bit like the film Closer in terms of its themes, only with much more depth. His short stories are quite good too. Only thing you need to do is stay away from Giovanni's Room, which is just bleak.

Salinger is also really good. Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters is the best book ever written.
posted by chunking express at 10:09 AM on August 31, 2006

Feat of Love is indeed a lovely book, as is Christopher Moore's stuff.

How about CD Payne's Youth in Revolt? It's not serious literature but it's a good read and funny as hell.
posted by dobbs at 10:19 AM on August 31, 2006

Oops, that should say Feast of Love. ;)
posted by dobbs at 10:20 AM on August 31, 2006

Oh, and I finished 7 Types of Ambiguity last year. I'm still undecided on what I think about it.
posted by dobbs at 10:22 AM on August 31, 2006

Candide?? Jesus Christ, that's one of the most depressing books ever written! The Wikipedia article calls it "a showcase of the horrors of the 18th century world."

Try Richard Powers; certainly not all happy happy joy joy, but I don't think you'll find him depressing. I highly recommend Galatea 2.2.
posted by languagehat at 10:25 AM on August 31, 2006

chunking express: Another Country

Wikipedia: ... Rufus is abusive towards Leona and she is eventually committed to a mental hospital and Rufus returns to Harlem in a deep depression. He commits suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. ...

I wonder what you would have suggested if I had asked for really depressing books. :-)
posted by mumble at 10:26 AM on August 31, 2006

How contemporary? Becuase I just finished the Cout of Monte Cristo and I LOVED IT. Not sad. I don't know how I lived life this long without reading it. I'm also reading Updike's Rabbit books, but I'm not far enough along to tell you whehter or not its sad.

And aboslutely with Christopher Moore. Lamb is my favorite, but I also liked his latest one (about death, but not sad, really).

I also really liked "the Brothers K" and didn't think it was sad overall, even though it had sad parts.
posted by dpx.mfx at 10:26 AM on August 31, 2006

I'd avoid Richard Powers; he wrote some of the most depressing books I've ever read. Operation Wandering Soul was crushing; Plowing The Dark was so bad I threw it out, and I never throw books out. Gold Bug Variations is fine, Galatea is ok, but careful with the rest.
posted by ook at 10:33 AM on August 31, 2006

Richard Powers as a wonderful writer. I wouldn't call his books cheery, though. A Time for Our Singing was a very good book...but it has a lot of sadness in it. Gold Bug Variations was fascinating but at times the science was tough sledding.

My recommendation would be to read Jonatahn Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn. If this book doesn't make you laugh, nothing will. And there's a message in there about being different and folks being accepting of differences.
posted by bim at 10:35 AM on August 31, 2006

Oh, F#@K. Here's the amazon link for Motherless Brooklyn.

...and Antigone Rising (the wrong copy/paste) IS a great band. I love them. Sorry for the screw-up! If it's not one thing it's the other!
posted by bim at 10:44 AM on August 31, 2006

I just looked over all the books I've read in the past year and a half and every single one was depressing. So I guess I'll be monitoring this thread.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay?

1: happening, existing, living, or coming into being during the same period of time
2a: simultaneous b: marked by characteristics of the present period : modern, current

posted by Terminal Verbosity at 10:46 AM on August 31, 2006

Actually, now that I think abuot it more, Another Country might be a bit much. I like really depressing books, so Another Country wasn't that bad in my head. Sorry. Go Tell it on the Mountain is good though. Really.

I actually think Salinger is a good idea. Franny and Zooey is good too. Same with a bunch of the stories in Nine Stories. For Esme, With Love and Squalor is really really good. I feel like reading it again right now just thinking about it.

The Five People You Meet In Heaven is probably touching, albeit sappy.
posted by chunking express at 10:51 AM on August 31, 2006

I love finding other people who liked The God of Small Things. It's probably my favorite book.

I would recommend Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie. And I'll add my voice to those recommending Christopher Moore's Lamb, as it was thought-provoking and still amusing.

Finally, have you read anything by Jeanette Winterson? She's not for everyone, and I'll be the first to admit it, but I think she's worth reading at least once to find out. I can't really explain my reaction to her work, but from a purely intellectual level, it's incredibly tantalizing to me. Sexing the Cherry would be a good place to start as it's not as experimental as some of her later works, and I think that's what throws some people off.
posted by monochromaticgirl at 11:25 AM on August 31, 2006

Children's/YA books are my favorite way to escape from the dreary world of Adult Fiction, but barring that, I'd suggest Tom Robbins (Still Life with Woodpecker and Jitterbug Perfume are among my favorites) for oddly moving, non-depressing fiction. I also thought Maya, by Jostein Gaarder, was beautiful. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel is a brilliant novel, but it may be bit to long, and too genre-y.

I'll also nth the Christopher Moore suggestion, and point out that I love Murakami, but he almost always makes me cry.
posted by logic vs love at 11:30 AM on August 31, 2006

Kafka Was the Rage by Anatole Broyard
post WWII Greenwich not contemporary ... And well... it is not exactly fiction either... and therefore not what you are looking for... but still a great read and rather short.
posted by nimsey lou at 11:32 AM on August 31, 2006

Try "A Short History of a Small Place" by T. R. Pearson.
posted by of strange foe at 11:34 AM on August 31, 2006

Salinger?! The whole Glass family saga revolves around Seymour's suicide, Walt's death in the Navy, and their hyper-intelligent siblings' underwraught reactions. No.

You might like my brother-in-law's novel, Gentlemen of Space.
posted by nicwolff at 11:39 AM on August 31, 2006

White Teeth
posted by pracowity at 11:41 AM on August 31, 2006

Oh! The Historian. (I'm sure I' ve recommended that one before....)
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:44 AM on August 31, 2006

Salinger?! The whole Glass family saga revolves around Seymour's suicide, Walt's death in the Navy, and their hyper-intelligent siblings' underwraught reactions. No.

But it's not incredibly sad. I can't picture someone crying over Salinger. I think the books are quite good; touching while not being bleak.

Or are they sad, and am I just dead inside?
posted by chunking express at 12:23 PM on August 31, 2006

You might want to check out Spider Robinson or Neil Gaiman; in the former's case I'd recommend any of his Callahan stories (Lady Slings the Booze is a favorite of mine) and in the latter's case, Anansi Boys is very good. Lynn Flwelling's Shadowhunter's series is lighter; even when bad things happen there is a 'moving on' aspect to it which I found refreshing. It is more on the horror side, though.

Robin McKinley writes some excellent stuff, as does Patricia A. McKillip; in the latter case I'm most fond of her Fool's Run book and her short stories. I quite like Anne Bishop, too, but I'm not sure how her Black Jewels Trilogy would stand up to your 'not depressing' rubrik. Also, the book Cold Comfort Farm and anything by Jane Austin is wonderful; in the latter case, while my favorite remains Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey is absolutely charming.

Robert Asprin's Phule's Company and resulting books are wonderful, too, as are his Myth series. Both run heavy on the pun. I also recently picked up collector's editions of all of the Sherlock Holmes opus, but again that might be getting a bit close to depressing for you.
posted by Deoridhe at 12:59 PM on August 31, 2006

If you like Sedaris you should check out fellow This American Life alums Sarah Vowell and David Rakoff.
posted by Sara Anne at 1:14 PM on August 31, 2006

chunking express: But it's not incredibly sad. I can't picture someone crying over Salinger.

Well, I can only speak for myself, but I don't usually cry over books, ever.

There are two books that really fucked with me: The God of Small Things and American Gods by Neil Gaiman, but otherwise things just tend to ... really get to me, especially themes of violence and injustice.

Now, while I want to be moved by art, I was wondering if there'd be anything as beautiful as Roy's writing (or close to it, anyway) but not quite as heartbreaking. I imagine it's really hard to do, so I thought I'd ask for suggestions. Not surprisingly, people have vastly differing definitions of "depressing", heh.

For anyone keeping score, I'll start by checking out the following: The Feast of Love, Lamb, Go Tell It on the Mountain (probably not all that joyful, but I'm drawn to the topic) and Galatea 2.2, and will definitely check back on this thread for more. Again, thanks everyone.
posted by mumble at 1:23 PM on August 31, 2006

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Beautifully written, epic in scope, lots of situations that could induce all kinds of pathos, but the protagonist, Cal(liope) Stephanides has a certain grace and perspective that help, uh, him rise above his situation.
posted by pardonyou? at 1:38 PM on August 31, 2006

If you like Graphic Novels, Persepolis is really good. As is V for Vendetta. Sandman by Neil Gaiman, who you mention above.

The God of Small Things is amazing. Very depressing. If you want to read more stuff like that, I have you covered.
posted by chunking express at 1:38 PM on August 31, 2006

Microserfs (Douglas Coupland).
posted by teleskiving at 1:43 PM on August 31, 2006

I'm starting to realize how depressing literature is in general. Why, oh why, did I learn to read??
posted by languagehat at 1:54 PM on August 31, 2006 [4 favorites]

Kurt Vonnegut?
posted by kmel at 5:27 PM on August 31, 2006

I thought Galatea 2.2 was sad.

How about kids books? Adventures? Take a break and read childrens lit for a while.
posted by bleary at 6:16 PM on August 31, 2006

"Russian Debutante's Handbook"
posted by ch1x0r at 8:04 PM on August 31, 2006

Don't Stop the Carnival: A Novel by Herman Wouk? should definitely try Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis.
posted by Jahaza at 11:35 PM on August 31, 2006

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry -- the life story of a contented man. His life could have been presented in a depressing way, but both the gentle, moving language (like watching a slow river) and the main character being happy with his life, make this a good and non-depressing book.
This was written recently, but set in the last century, spanning from maybe the 1920's until the 1970's.

I'm less sure that Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is not depressing -- but I don't like depressing books, and I liked it quite a bit. There are some sad bits, but many more moving and thoughtful ones. Again, a life story, this one told as a letter written to a young son, who the narrator may not live to see grow up. (Yes, that does sound depressing, but it ends up more being about his life than his death -- and even his death he isn't very sad about, because he's had a good long life.) And, again, written recently, but set from about 1860-1950.

And I'd second Banana Yoshimoto, with the proviso that it can be depressing reading about characters who are moving on from sadness. Also, that NP is too depressing. I'd recommend Lizard, her book of short stories.
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:17 AM on September 2, 2006

Okay, I just thought of another.

The Outside World by Tova Mirvis -- about Orthodox Jewish families and how they reconcile their faith with being part of the world.
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:30 AM on September 2, 2006

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