There are times when life seems like a joyful ride. Perhaps you’re doing that thing you love, making music, travelling, riding a bike. Perhaps you’re enjoying a quiet dinner with family or a raucous party surrounded by people you love. Whatever it is, you look around and think, I am happy, life is good.
And then there are other times when life seems like a burden to be borne. Perhaps it’s the death or illness of someone you love, the end of love, or loss of something you hold central to your being. Whatever it is, you are filled with pain and sorrow.
Sometimes events beyond our control skew our thoughts and the world seems to have been titled off its axis. Tragedy, hate and hurt dominate the news cycle and it’s difficult to see through the darkness.
Here are five different stories that address the powerlessness one can feel when facing daily life. All are beautifully told, and find hope and inspiration within the challenges explored, whether it’s aging, or health issues, or political and historical turmoil. These writers capture the triumphant spirit that can battle what seems overwhelming, and somehow find the positive in the negative.
Companion Piece by Ali Smith
Smith’s stunning Quartet is made up of seasonally titled topical fiction on subjects of the immediate moment. Her new novel stands alone but fits perfectly into what the Guardian called her “writerly collage”. This story in which choice and language are playfully intertwined is set in both contemporary times and during the Black Plague. It’s not only a companion piece to her previous work but a celebration of companionship, an astonishing book to savour and give to others.
Brisbane by Eugene Vodolazkin
This timely publication by a prize-winning Russian author who was born in Kyviv, Vodolazkin’s newest novel arrives as his birth country is being decimated by war. We look to the history of Russia and Ukraine to help us understand the conflict. This coming-of-age story uses music and language to explore the differences in the cultures, featuring a renowned guitarist diagnosed with Parkinson’s who must face that he will not be able to express himself as he once did.The novel explores music and fame, heritage and belonging, time and memory in this beautifully-wrought and relevant tale.
This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub
Straub’s latest hits close to her home as well as being a time travel novel. Like the movie Pleasantville, it has revelations for our protagonist, Alice, when she revisits her life at 16 years of age from the view of turning 40. There, her father, now an ailing writer, was a vibrant 40ish man himself. This lively trip back to the past is touching, with deep resonance for anyone with aging parents. But, of course, it’s also witty and fun and delivers the perfect summer reading.
Poguemahone by Patrick McCabe
McCabe’s novel, The Butcher Boy, which brought him literary acclaim, was published thirty years ago. In the meantime, he continues to write dark, acerbic stories of the Irish. In his most recent, a 600-page novel in verse, he tells the story of a man caring for his sister in a nursing home as she slides into dementia. It showcases McCabe’s skills in the creation of gothic worlds while he examines the nature of memory against the backdrop of 70’s Irish London. The music in his head as he wrote, led by David Bowie, juxtaposes a woman slipping away with the exhilaration of those times she fondly remembers.
Mean Baby by Selma Blair
The first story Blair ever heard about herself was that she was a mean, mean baby. With her mouth pulled in a perpetual snarl and a head so furry it had to be rubbed to make way for her forehead, she spent years living up to her terrible reputation. Although she went on to become a celebrated Hollywood actress and model, she could never quite shake the period of darkness that overtook her. In this beautiful and, at times, devastating memoir, Blair lays bare this darkness with passionate love, true friendship, the gift of motherhood, and finally the surprising salvation of her diagnosis of MS in 2018. A deeply human memoir and true literary achievement.
It’s challenging sometimes to pull ourselves up and remember that for all the horrible tragedies bombarding us on the news cycle, there are more people doing good for others. There are stories of resilience and hope, love and compassion. I hope you can find solace in these stories and in those close to you.
Covid is still with us, my friends, and in my experience, it’s a beast. Wear a mask, get vaxxed, and show a little compassion to your fellow humans. It’s not that hard.
(P.S. This is my dog, Vigo, in a daffodil patch. Hope he puts a smile on your face)
In the meantime, happy reading.