Enjoyable books about bad things.
January 23, 2007 3:54 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for good books about other people's misery.

An odd combination of circumstances -- looking for volunteer work and getting frustrated with all the useless "help" being offered, living with a social policy analyst, having met some hard-luck cases, issues of the 'New Yorker' with essays on various social ills -- has got me interested in books on the topic.

They need not be analytical or packed with statistics; I quite enjoyed 'Random Family.' And Barbara Ehrenreich, a book on meth addicts, Johnathan Kozol...

Homelessness, extreme poverty, drug addiction, teen-age pregnancy, etc, etc.

I am aware of the 'white liberal' voyeurism going on here, yes.

Suggestions for further reading...?
posted by kmennie to Society & Culture (37 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
What about fiction?
posted by box at 3:57 PM on January 23, 2007

Best answer: William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor.
posted by russilwvong at 4:05 PM on January 23, 2007

Best answer: Yes, go read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and And Their Children After Them. The first book is a somewhat famous book about tenant farmers in rural Alabama in the thirties and the complete wretchedness and hopelessness of their lives. The second is the follow up, several generations later and the sad realization that in many cases, not much has changed. Both very good writing and the first book has photos by Walker Evans and is a real classic. I read both these books last year and have not ben able to get them out of my head since.
posted by jessamyn at 4:09 PM on January 23, 2007 [3 favorites]

If your search includes historical novels, The Jungle will leave you good and depressed.
posted by evilcolonel at 4:15 PM on January 23, 2007

Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder, is about Paul Farmer, a doctor who works mostly in Haiti.
posted by rtha at 4:17 PM on January 23, 2007

Best answer: Jason DeParle, American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare. The author's website has excerpts.
posted by russilwvong at 4:22 PM on January 23, 2007

posted by phrontist at 4:38 PM on January 23, 2007

Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres. Both funny and a giant, giant bummer.
posted by lemuria at 4:43 PM on January 23, 2007

I definitely second The Jungle - how depressing. Also, if you want to look into the lives of people dealing with tragedy, A Death In The Family (James Agee) was quite a beautiful book. It's fiction.
posted by crapples at 5:04 PM on January 23, 2007

The Glass Castle and Change Me into Zeus's Daughter.
posted by LoriFLA at 5:06 PM on January 23, 2007

If the book can be fiction and non-US-centric, you'd be hard pressed to find a more miserable story than Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya.
posted by brain cloud at 5:08 PM on January 23, 2007

Is Angela's Ashes too obvious?
posted by teleskiving at 5:09 PM on January 23, 2007

Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking" is a wrenching account of the death of her husband and her grief.

Seconding Jeannette Walls' "The Glass Castle." I work with Jeannette, and her story is every bit as amazing as she is. Cannot praise her enough.
posted by GaelFC at 5:45 PM on January 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I nominate James Ellroy's My Dark Places. Mother murdered, addicted to drugs, homeless... his early life was full of such overwhelming bad luck & suckage.
posted by miss lynnster at 5:49 PM on January 23, 2007

the book that russilvwong mentioned (by jason deparle) is amazing.
posted by faux ami at 5:52 PM on January 23, 2007

Dave Eggers' What is the What, a novelized autobiography of a survivor of one of Sudan's civil wars who comes to the US currently has me under its spell. Coupling an incredible (true) life story with Eggers' amazing writing, this is one of the most powerful books I've ever read.
posted by i love cheese at 5:57 PM on January 23, 2007

I really liked All Souls by Michael Patrick MacDonald, which is not just about all the many terrible things that happened to various members of MacDonald's family, but also about how race (and specifically their being white and thinking that being white made them better than other poor people) obscured their oppression and convinced them to put up with violence and exploitation that should have outraged them.
posted by craichead at 6:14 PM on January 23, 2007

White Oleander. Most depressing book I have ever read. Ugh.
posted by crackingdes at 6:15 PM on January 23, 2007

Best answer: Growing Up Fast by Joanna Lipper
Hands to Work by LynNell Hancock
posted by mamaquita at 6:23 PM on January 23, 2007

Laughter In The Dark by Nabokov
posted by nj_subgenius at 6:39 PM on January 23, 2007

The Collector by John Fowles is in a different vein, but still about misery. It is the most disturbing book I have ever read.
posted by unreasonable at 6:43 PM on January 23, 2007

Voltaire's Candide.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 6:51 PM on January 23, 2007

"Tess of the Deubervilles" by Thomas Hardy
posted by hortense at 6:53 PM on January 23, 2007

Best answer: It's a sociological study, but a fascinating one: Down on Their Luck: A Study of Homeless Street People. Lots of case studies, not just numbers.
posted by wheat at 7:02 PM on January 23, 2007

Best answer: If you like Jonathan Kozol (one of my favorite non-fiction authors, particularly for Savage Inequalities which outlines the public education issue so succinctly), I recommend There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz.

Also, it's been a while since I read it but I think Michael Gold's Jews Without Money may also fit your bill.
posted by onlyconnect at 7:16 PM on January 23, 2007

I enjoyed this one: A Man with No Talents: Memoirs of a Tokyo Day Laborer by Oyama Shiro. He was an occasional day laborer, pretty close to homeless. Not quite sure if it qualifies though, since he didn't seem to be suffering that much.
posted by DarkForest at 7:18 PM on January 23, 2007

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
posted by stevis23 at 7:21 PM on January 23, 2007

Sophie's Choice by William Styron. A movie was made from this book. Yeras later, it will come to mind at times.

posted by JujuB at 7:52 PM on January 23, 2007

Best answer: Mama Might Be Better Off Dead: The Failure of Health Care in Urban America is a great book, and rather sad. I had to read it for my Introduction to Nursing class, and it still influences the standard of care I try to give all my patients today.
posted by nursegracer at 7:59 PM on January 23, 2007

Best answer: The Corner by David Simon and Edward Burns. Brutal.
posted by transient at 8:17 PM on January 23, 2007

Best answer: Off the Books a recent book by Sudhir Venkatesh, examines this economy in a 10-square-block neighborhood in Chicago. Off the Books highlights one neighborhood's economic struggle and cooperation. In one of the city blocks, only two of 21 families are traditional family units and only 10 percent of shop owners have good credit. Venkatesh obtained his data by "hanging out" with the people. In particular he developed friendships with three women: Bird, a prostitute; Eunice, an office cleaner; and Marlene, a nanny who is president of the neighborhood association. These women provided a window into the invisible economic dealings of the neighborhood. Marlene
allowed Vankatesh to observe a summit between
herself, a local pastor, and a gang "king pin," known as Big Cat, in which Big Cat agreed to stop selling drugs in the park during after-school hours if the pastor persuaded a local store owner to let Big Cat us his parking lot and Marlene agreed to ask the cops to ignore the dealers in their new location. This adaptive strategy is a theme throughout the book. It provides a safety net allowing neighbors to borrow and repay one another in creative ways, prostitutes to work in harmony with legitimate businesses, and a currency exchange to sell fake Social Security cards obtained by a local pastor. (Description by Patrick Radden Keefe, of Slate Magazine, via e-mail forward)
posted by alms at 8:19 PM on January 23, 2007

The border trilogy by Cormac McCarthy. Or really, anything by him.
posted by BluGnu at 8:27 PM on January 23, 2007

Seconding The Year of Magical Thinking and What is the What.

I'm trying to read A People's History of the United States, but can only get through about a chapter a month because it's such a collossal bummer. This might be right up your alley.

The Speckled Monster is a really fantastic book about smallpox, if you're into disease-related misery. Also, The Great Influenza is pretty miserable-tastic.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:30 PM on January 23, 2007

Not a book, but I was really affected by "The Street," a radio documentary by Joe Frank consisting of interviews with homeless drug addicts in L.A. It was available as a podcast a few months back, but I can't find it online anywhere other than his official website, and you have to be a "premium member" to listen to it. I think it's worth it (also because Joe Frank is awesome).
posted by granted at 9:31 PM on January 23, 2007

Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore.
posted by crocomancer at 2:15 AM on January 24, 2007

I popped in here to suggest Dave Eggers and saw i love cheese already mentioned What is the What, I'd like to add A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It's about his parent's death and picking up the pieces thereafter, You Shall Know Our Velocity is great as well although it deals with physical pain more. He has a heavy handed style that some might find annoying, -or fun.
posted by sweetmarie at 10:18 PM on February 12, 2007

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