Thursday, August 20, 2009

Books Guaranteed to Make You Think Your Life Isn't So Bad After All

The Good EarthWhile I was feeling so "woe is me" over here I decided it was time for a pick-me-up. Time to put together a list of things that showed that in fact things are not so bad after all. I like book lists anyway and usually I'm okay with a sad ending but the guys on this list go way beyond mere sadness and slip right on down into to absolute, abject despair with a side of creamed Zoloft.

Forget merely shedding a tear or two at the end, when you read these books you're safe from thinking that someone's grass is a little greener and instead are quite sure that your own little patch of sod with a few wayward dandelions will do quite nicely, thank you very much, because the stuff on the other side is trampled dead and is probably seeping with underground toxic waste.

Cheery, huh?

1. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
You may be down on your luck but at least you aren't an impoverish Chinese peasant plagued by malicious family members and starvation, right? It could always be worse. And of course by the end of this book it is worse. You follow the fortunes (or misfortunes) of Wang Lung's family as they face malnutrition, set their children to begging, endure war, pestilence and calamities and still make it through for 300 pages to the gloriously bitter, tragic end.

I bet if you knew nothing about this book but that I told you it won both the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes you'd know for sure that it was a real downer because everyone knows the real glory always goes to books that convince you you're glad you're not the next guy.

Escape from Sobibor2. Escape from Sobibor by Richard Rashke
I must have something about the Holocaust on a list like this but not just any old book or movie would do. If I'm not careful I'd put up something like Schindler's List or The Hiding Place that, while terribly sad and depressing, is able to pull itself from the ashes long enough to give you a taste of true human courage and resilience. That man (and woman) can succeed and be better than their surroundings. But that wouldn't do for a list like this.

No, I needed something that wasn't quite so cheerful and this one will do nicely.

This novel tells the story of the most successful uprising ever at a Nazi extermination camp. Notice I said "most" which should give you an idea of the level of rosiness you can expect from this one. I believe this was made into a fine movie with Alan Arkin (a favorite) but don't expect it to have any song and dance numbers--and bring the Kleenex.

The Grapes of Wrath3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Can any one of you honestly tell me that there isn't a final scene in all of Western literature as depressing and gut-wrenching as the one at the end of this colossus?

Of Mice and Men is sad. The Pearl is even sadder (and pointless). But this? This closing scene is not only sad but disturbing and despairing in a way that a mere euthanasia or infanticide can't rival. Rose of Sharon nursing a homeless man in the barn as everyone succumbs to poverty and ruin is pretty much the complete antithesis of Cinderella and I still remember the shock of reading that scene for the first time. It's like the exact opposite of Disney and it sticks with you. Ugh.

4. The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson
It was probably the Cinderella reference that triggered this memory but if you've ever had the mistaken notion that fairy tales are about happiness and fairies you haven't read this one.

The Little Match GirlIn a nutshell the plot is this: A little girl--on New Year's Eve of all times--is out in the cold, frigid night selling matches. No one is buying her matches but she can't go home because she knows her father will beat her for not finishing her work so, freezing and alone, she ends up striking a match to keep warm.

In her hypothermic condition she slips into hallucinations that end with her grandmother, the only person to have ever shown her any kindness in her meager life. Striking match after match to keep the vision alive the girl's grandmother eventually takes her home with her and in the morning the townspeople find the little girl dead in the snow.

Yes, that's a bedtime story for you. "Nighty-night kids. Go to sleep . . . see you in the morning!"

Misery5. "Misery" by Anton Chekhov
Not actually a novel at all but a short story and I'm going to include it anyway. With misery as only the Russians can tell it, it is the story of a cart driver in Petersburg (I think) who, during one particular winter, picks up passengers and takes them to their destinations.

Each person he carries is in a hurry and eager to get where they're going but none understand his pain because yesterday his son died. He tries to tell his grief and misery to someone but no one will listen so he eventually talks to his horse.

It does not get more pathetic than that.

Even Crime and Punishment had its bright spots but this? Nothing but misery--which is probably why it's titled like that.

Angela's Ashes6. Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
I can't remember why I even bothered to read this one, it is so not my style, but read it I did and talk about depressing.

Written as a memoir, the McCourt family lives in poverty in Brooklyn but that's not quite enough for them, what they're looking for is real poverty so they return to the homeland--Ireland--to remedy the mistake their parents made by emigrating in the first place. After all, there can't possibly be a good reason for them leaving a country whose population was starving could there?

So back they go and little Frankie records his father's alcoholism, his mother's begging and his siblings dropping like flies from the horror of it all.

But survive he does only to end up on a boat back to America to meet up with prostitutes (apparently the Welcome Committee) in time for the closing pages. Grim doesn't even begin to cover it but oh how those Pulitzer people loved it.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles7. Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Girl is pressured by family to work for rich relatives. Rich relatives--namely dissolute son--think girl is hot and seduce girl, making her with child. Family is not so happy but girl returns home to have baby whereupon baby dies at birth. Girl tries to get life back together and eventually finds True Love. She's worried True Love won't like her sullied past but takes courage after he confesses one of his own sins to her.

Bravely girl tells True Love about her past and the wrongs committed against her but instead of acting like a human being True Love dumps girl with self-righteous horror. Girl goes back to original seducer-guy who never stopped lusting after her. When True Love finally comes to his idiot senses and realizes his mistake and goes to reclaim girl he finds her shacked up with original Bad Guy.

When girl realizes that True Love has come back she takes the only route she sees available and stabs Bad Guy, effectively removing him from the equation and allowing her to pursue life with True Love (even though he's late to the party). Of course the local law enforcement isn't as sympathetic with her plight as we, the readers, are and end up hanging her for that whole pesky domestic stabbing episode. Oh, and True Love ends up marrying her younger and purer sister. It's a story you'd see on Jerry Springer.

It's a toss up as to which is more depressing--Tess or Jude the Obscure which I won't summarize because it would make this entry too long but trust me, it's possibly worse than the fallen woman done wrong story.

Flowers for Algernon8. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Written in 1966 this is a science-fiction style story where a lab mouse, Algernon, is treated to increase his mental abilities. Charly, the first human test subject, is a mentally retarded man who at first responds well to the treatment but soon realizes his gains are short-lived as Algernon regresses to his previous state in an ominous foretelling of the future Charly himself can expect to suffer.

Nothing like descending into darkness and knowing just enough to comprehend your prison to brighten the mood. Not a happy story. Not even an inspiring story--just sad and gooey like a melted Rocky Road bar that's been left on your car upholstery in the hot sun. Not a pretty sight.

L'Etranger9. L'Etranger by Albert Camus
I should say anything by Camus is worthy of this list but instead I'll focus on this, my first introduction to this existentialist-who-claims-he-not (which is indeed ironic if you ask me, kind of the complete opposite of the whole philosophy, n'est pas?).

I read L'Etranger (or The Stranger) in my French studies in college alongside other cheeries such as Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory. Boy that's a cure for what ails you. If you're ever feeling like you have too many friends and your life is going just too darn good and what you need is some good ol' fashioned nihilism and abandonment then this is should be the first stop on your road trip to Agony-ville. Population: 1.

Oh, and before I forget, the story is about a man who kills an Algerian man while on vacation (because nothing says relaxation like a bloodthirsty crime) and the accompanying results of his actions. Skip it.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich10. The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
This novella is almost too moral to be included on the list (because after all, if the reader actually learns or gains something rather than feeling as if all is lost then it's not really depressing but instead rather enlightening) but regardless I'll include it just for the sake of the Russians.

I could have padded this whole list with Russians--Crime and Punishment with its axe murdering student, Anna Karenina with its tribute to Amtrak, The Brothers Karamazov with some juicy patricide but really, where is the challenge in that?

Instead I'll just leave you with this story where the titular character, after an accident that leaves him dying a slow death over a period of weeks, realizes that not only was he a jerk and a rotten husband and father but that he lived completely for himself as selfishly as one can. While this causes mental anguish worthy of this list the real cherry on top is that deep down (I think) he still really doesn't care about his actions and that he's just screaming because he's dying--and dying alone. No remorse, just more selfishness.

Yea, that Tolstoy must have been the life of the party.

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miriama said...

Wow...I am so depressed and sad now. :)

Flowers for Algernon was something I read in junior high in the 70's. It is a book that stayed with me. You know it seems that it is the ones that don't have happy endings that you remember the most. At least that is true with me. You have listed some excellent books there and some classics that I meant to read and shall now pass on. LOL I am not in a place now to add any more depressing stories.

Gina said...

At some point in my life I've read all those books with pretty much the same results, but I have to say "your" synopsis of them made me laugh out loud!

Amanda said...

I am the same as miriama - Depressed and Sad - but that makes my blog entry that I wrote today rather trivial. I have read a few of these and even though they might be depressive, it's like a red rag to a bull really - you just have to read them!!!

Great blog! :-)

Jolanthe said...

I started watching Tess on PBS this last year and then had to stop because I knew how depressing it was going to be...

And you are right - those are some sad reads. :( But I'm with Gina - your description of them made me laugh!


Jennifer said...

Flowers for Algernon is standard reading fair for 8th graders in FL, only most read an abridged version in their text book. And it is a good thing too... there is so much sexual tension between Miss Alice and Charles in the full-length novel it is hard to teach it to 8th graders (ask me, I tried once!).

Meg said...

Rest assured: you have not lost your sense of humor!

Marielle said...

Agreed on all counts. I remember crying my way through Flowers For Algernon as a young girl.

I'll throw another one in there for you in case you need extra oomph:

Child of the dark, the story of Carolina Maria de Jesus a woman living in the slums of brazil.

MommyJ said...

The only one on your list that I've read is Grapes of Wrath, and I whole heartedly agree with your assessment. I read in high school and thought it was miserably depressing. I vowed to never read any other Steinbeck. And I didn't. Until recently, when I decided I ought to give him another chance. I read East of Eden, and though still tinged with a similar overall feeling of sadness, it wasn't quite as dismal as Grapes of Wrath. I'm not sure Steinbeck had a very high opinion of the human spirit. But that's just me. :)

Janelle said...

I've only actually read three of these -- Angela's Ashes (my second favorite book ever), Flower for Algernon (definitely makes you sad), and The Little Match Girl (which was actually made into a short animated film a few years ago by Disney and released as a special feature on 2006 The Little Mermaid platinum edition).

Others I would add to the list:

*Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton
*Night, by Elie Wiesel
*In My Hands, by Irene Opdyke
*White Oleander, by Janet Fitch
*Of Time and Memory: My Parents' Love Story, by Don J. Snyder (but nobody read it while you're pregnant)
*Hiroshima, by John Hersey
*One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
*The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (and probably 1000 Splendid Suns, too, but I haven't read it)

MommyK said...

I loved Angela's Ashes and also the two books that Frank McCourt wrote after it. Amazing how someone could have such a childhood and come out of it intact.

Dona said...

I re-read The Grapes of Wrath this summer and boy do I feel rich!

The Texas Bakers said...

I just finished reading James Kunstler's The Long Emergency, and, while it's not a novel, it's guaranteed to keep you up nights thinking about the future. Or the lack thereof.

Phyllis Sommer said...

okay so let's alternatively title this post: The Most Depressing Literature Of All Time!!!!

Your comments about these books/stories had me ROTFL - if you can't laugh...

Dan said...

Flowers for Algernon is one of my favorite stories - although I classify it as horror rather than depressing.

The Camus and the Tolstoy are good depressing reading, but the titles are not my favorites of the pair ... I always thought that The Metamorphosis was more depressing. {*grin*}

But you missed one modern classic on the theme at hand - Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" That should put a head on it!

Carinne said...

I haven't read Grapes of Wrath, but I really loved The Pearl by Steinbeck in high school. That one isn't any cheerier. I remember thinking as I read this "Am I totally sick for enjoying this?". I don't think Steinbeck was a "glass half full" kind of guy.

Patricia Linehan said...

Flowers for Algernon-- Yes, the movie version Charley-- Not so much. I swear there is an acid trip in the middle of the movie.

Also, Escape from Sobibar was a movie w/ Mr. Arkin. We watched it in my HS Social Studies class... gripping.

angie said...

Great list of books guaranteed to make your life isn't so bad after all.

I can't think of ANY book by a Russian author I've read that doesn't fit into this category! :)

Mimi said...

Three of these are on my "best reads" list: Escape from Sobibor, Flowers for Algernon, and The Grapes of Wrath. LOVE these books. Putting The Good Earth on my next-to-read list. Thanks for sharing!

nicole said...

So, am I crazy if I like some of these books? I love Thomas Hardy. Something about the bleak and depressing stories just gets me. And The Brothers K was a great book! But I totally agree about The Good Earth. And some of the others you mentioned. And now I know why I have never read Angela's Ashes too.

Kerri Anne said...

I always imagine Tolstoy to be the Debbie Downer of the dinner party. But what an interesting! Debbie Downer he would be.

MamaBee43 said...

I just picked up a book at Costco called Henry's Sisters by Cathy Lamb. If I didn't know better, I would swear she is Wally Lamb in disguise! I could barely bring myself to continue through the first 25 chapters as the family relationships were so disturbing to me. Then I literally bawled my way through the last 100 pages. I would not recommend reading this book in public! A good way to put your own issues in perspective? Read about someone else's family dynamics!

Carina said...

Yes, thank you for sucking all the joy out of my afternoon. Schluuk! It's gone.

Another awful one is The Wall by John Hersey. This is about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and it's based on an actual diary found in the Warsaw ghetto that is even more depressing.

The LIbrary Lady said...

Hey, you forgot "The Little Mermaid" with the real, non-Disney unhappy ending!

Personally when I'm depressed I go for the opposite, the chick lit and the other cozy sort of fluff with happy endings. Working my way back through Jan Karon's "Mitford" books right now and just re-read Fannie Flagg's stuff!

Michelle said...

Oh my god, I did laugh at this post. I found it to be hilarious (most of the comments too, especially Carina's with her 'schluuk, it's gone' bit ahahahaha!) I love miserable books. Look forward to reading them. Loved all the books on this list that I've read (ESPECIALLY Grapes of Wrath) but maybe that's just me..

~3 Sides of Crazy~ said...

Wonderful list to make us all remember to stay positive and be thankful for what we have.

Carrie said...

Whenever I'm feeling overwhelmed about raising my one little boy (soon to be two little ones in December), I like to re-read Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth Prentiss - she had trouble & sickness & everything & was SO selfless (well, it's fiction, but still, her spirit shines through). Always reminds me that I don't have it that bad.

Daisy said...

I actually liked Angela's Ashes, despite the sadness and poverty and suffering. I'd suggest East of Eden for the list, too; it starts sad and gets downright depressing.

Inkling said...

You know, I came over here to get distracted from my own woe, and ironically, this post actually worked. The BC government is out of money for healthcare, which means I get to wait for surgery to fix childbirth injuries until my son is over 1 year old, and I found out about that today. I won't bore you with the gory details of what that means. But as I sit feeling sorry for myself and wondering how in the world I'll keep going, I have to admit that it's comforting knowing there are stories much "suckier" than mine. Why that is comforting is not something I really want to dwell on right now, but it is. However, instead of depressing myself further, I got the bright (crazy?) idea to watch every cheesy, inspiring, underdog wins in the end movie over the coming weeks to keep me alive and ticking. Most of them seem to have a football theme, but hey, whatever works. At least it's not Tolstoy. He does make me sad.

Stephanie said...

Dear Michelle,
You are right all those books will make you realize others have had it worse than you. However...
having had a child with spina bifida and all the trauma that entails along with many economic setbacks I mentioned before........
you may find Erma Bombeck or someother comic relief will help even better to uplift and bring peace.

During one of our horrible times they came out with that silly singing fish on a plaque. I had bought it for my Dad who lived on Kentucky Lake . It would sing Don't worry be happy. We all laughed and laughed . It brought joy to our weary souls.

So pull out your favorite comic movie and laugh your heart to a better place.

I am rooting for you.

My Ice Cream Diary said...

But a good sad book can be such a lovely thing. I've read half of these and loved every word.

9milemom said...

You could rename this post:

Books to read with a large bottle of wine

JGH said...

What a great list. I read "Misery" years ago and still think it is one of the saddest things I've ever read. I didn't think anyone else knew about that story - it seems kind of obscure. I'll have to take another look at it.

M said...

Honestly, The Good Earth is one of those books I've read over and over at different times in my life and come away with something every time.

Kerry said...

I just recently finished The Good Earth (and blogged about it, too). I loved every word and while I agree that it will make you appreciate what you do have, it made me sad, for us too that we haven't learned the lesson: "When the family begins to sell the land, it is over." Wang Lung saw the beauty in his former, poor life and how empty his "rich" life was. He realized, although too late, that being removed from what is true and real is true poverty.

Kristen M. said...

Why is it that I love depressing books? I'm going to add a few of these to my reading list.

J at said...

The amazing thing about "Grapes of Wrath", for me, was that it was written at the time, when the dust bowl and the depression were raging. Hence the no hope thing.

I always thought I could make decent money from the ironic book market by making a pop-up version of The Stranger, with a little gun shooting that poor Arab.

The most depressing book ever was probably The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. I suspect everyone in every one of these books has it better off than the father and son in this book.

And you know what? Some days, reading the newspaper is worse than all of this. There are some stories I've read there that make the Little Match Girl look like Cinderella. Years ago, some of them, and they stick with me. Ugh.

Love Little Match Girl, by the way. SO sad. SO tragic. Still, the beauty of the afterlife she imagines...lovely.

Brian Gerstenberger said...

We read most of these books when I was in highschool. I can remember everyone moaning and groaning about them, but I remember being somewhat intrigued. We live these cushy little lives (well, a lot of us here in America do anyway) and sometimes it's good to read something that actually makes you think about that and appreciate it.

Robin in New Jersey said...

Thanks for the warnings! I have been looking for a "good" book to read. I now know whcicho nes to stay away from!

You did a great job giving a synopsis, by the way.

Andrea McMann said...

I did read The Good Earth. It can definitely affect a person! Have you ever seen the movie? It's pretty old, too, and it had white people dressed as Chinese people for the characters!

Serena said...

Huh. Duly noted and placed on "Do not read" list.

Janet said...

For once, I have read everything on one of your lists. Given that it's this particular list, I don't know what that says about me. :)

Cookie baker Lynn said...

So glad to see Tess of the Durbervilles is on the list. Can't stand that one. Why waste days of your life slogging through a book like that?

Great round up of most depressing literature ever! My life feels so much better now.