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Jessa CrispinBack to OpinionJessa Crispin

Bright books for dark times

I have to admit, the comments on my last blog post about utopian thought made me a little sad:

I am very much one of those people that thinks the world is going the way of ‘The Road.’ This made me stop and think that maybe I can find hope again.

I could use a new ‘escape route from the labyrinth of cynicism’ or two.

It’s not just that the news is bleak, it’s the powerlessness that everyone feels. When it’s a torrent of oil spilling into our oceans, deep underground, it’s not the kind of thing you can roll up your sleeves and solve yourself. It’s the same with most of the news: everything is just too big to do anything about yourself. And watching the politicians squabble is not exactly reassuring.

So below is a reading list, about humor in dark times, the strength of community, and people who, no matter how far gone things seemed, shook off apathy and got to work at tipping the scales back to something resembling balance.

“The Jokers”
By Albert Cossery

Albert Cossery was born in Egypt but moved to Paris when he was 17 to devote his life to writing. But his books came back to the place of his youth again and again. In “The Jokers,” just out in English in a new translation, the setting is a fictionalized Middle Eastern nation, and it imagines a life of protest under a dictatorship.

The leaders are not so much evil as they are narcissistic and idiotic, but after years of one imbecile after another, it’s hard even to imagine a competent government. The protesters, however, are playful, and they use their best weapons: wit and satire. When begging on the street is banned, they place life-sized mannequins in beggars’ clothing, so that horrified onlookers can watch what they think is a policeman ripping the head off of a homeless man. When disagreement is outlawed, they sarcastically praise the government to the high heavens. Cossery’s account of finding the space to protest and retain your sense of humor is equal parts funny and vicious.

“Bird, Kansas”
By Tony Parker

The state I was born and raised in, Kansas, is a mass of contradictions. It’s best known now for its rigidly conservative politics, yet it has a celebratory mural of John Brown in the state capitol. It has a deeply populist past, yet social programs, civil rights for homosexuals, and the separation of church and state are all contentious issues. Yet there is one constant in its ever-evolving political situation: the strength of its communities.

So while nothing much happens in British journalist Tony Parker’s document about life in the (fictionally named) town of Bird, Kansas, it’s the sense of community that shines through. And yes, it completely ignores the darker side of life in a small, rural town, but life in small agricultural towns is hard. Everyone looks out for one another, and the ties are strong, and the people make do. While it’s an imperfect portrait, it’s the Kansas I remember.

“American Moderns”
By Christine Stanselly

The birth of the American 20th century took place in one tiny little New York neighborhood: Greenwich Village. People came from all over to converse and band together for social change, and Stansell has written a rousing and detailed account of how it was all accomplished.

Writers and editors like Margaret Anderson fought censorship and helped to get obscenity laws repealed. Margaret Sanger protested and overturned bans on basic birth control. John Reed reported bravely from revolutionary Russia and Mexico. Orator Emma Goldman demanded political and sexual freedom. They transformed journalism, the political scene, rights for women and workers, and literature, and, in many ways, they set in motion the revolutions that would transform the United States over the next 50 years.

“A Religious Orgy in Tennessee: A Reporter’s Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial”
By H. L. Mencken

The axis of religion and science has become so sadly polarized that each side seems to believe that if they admit middle ground exists all is lost. So the “New Atheists” continue to insist that all belief in the divine is simply delusional, and fundamentalists want to alter our textbooks to omit basic scientific fact.

And while everyone is probably familiar with “Inherit the Wind,” the staid and slightly dreary films (it was remade — a lot) about the original fight for the teaching students evolution, less known is H.L. Mencken’s original account of the same trial, “A Religious Orgy in Tennessee.” It’s a wild story, and told in the usual rabblerousing Mencken style. It may be a battle we are still fighting, but it started with one teacher and one incomparable Clarence Darrow.

“My Year of Meats”
By Ruth Ozeki

The news about our meat industry is not good, nor, really, our entire food system. We hear the stories about antibiotics in the meat, the cruel treatment of the animals, the toxic sludge that seeps into our water supply, but how do we turn that into action? Organic meat is expensive, and our culture, our cookbooks, our restaurants, our family traditions revolve around one slab of meat, next to some neglected, sad vegetables.

When Ozeki’s protagonist Jane Takagi-Little is hired by a beef lobbying firm to help promote their product, she learns just a little too much about what she’s been eating all of her life. She tries to just do her job and laugh it off, but when the politics, the health issues, and the corporate greed all becomes too much, she vows to fight. And watching Jane plan her mode of attack is inspiring and thought-provoking, rather than dreary and depressing. Learning what you’re up against does not always lead to apathy.


  • Michelle

    Thank you so much for the great suggestions! I want to check several of these out. We all need to stay optimistic when things are tough and help each other constantly.

  • Susan

    Great list … I needed this today. Now, off to the library (another bright spot).

  • Seth

    Great books. I just wish there was a little more fiction on there.

  • Beth McKenzie

    Although, I am not in complete political or theological agreement with these works. As a librarian, I want to read at least one of these because the topics and thoughts of Americans are relevant for today. I want to read the book about the meat industry by Ms. Ruth Ozeki. Thanks for the suggestions and keep folks eyes open to your point of view, Jessica. :)

  • Tammy

    Loved “My Year of Meats” — one of my favorite books. A great suggestion!

  • Mark

    Great list. Here are some suggestions for summer reading as well…most are oldies but good ones.
    -”The Legend of Bagger Vance” by Stephen Pressfield – Not what you expect. It’s better.
    -Also by Pressfield, a manly read, but good: “Gates of Fire.”
    -50 years of readers can’t be wrong: “To Kill A Mockingbird” is a classic. Period.
    A trilogy with science, environmentalism, spies, and a family in the center of it all: Kim Stanley Robinson’s “40 Days of Rain,” “50 Degrees Below Zero” and “60 Days and Counting” a.k.a. the “Science In The Capitol” series. Also by Robinson, should you be in the grip of a heat wave: ‘Antarctica.”
    Want a great laugh? The revised edition of “The Von Hoffman Brothers’ Big Damn Book of Sheer Manliness.” I dare you to keep a straight face. Completely, delightfully not P.C.
    Have fun…and thanks for these suggestions.

  • Alan

    Is it Christine Stansell or Stanselly? (I’ve heard of anglicising a name, but not ever of magyaricising it. This is supposed to be humourous.)

    Maybe your readers are self-selecting for taking themselves too seriously and catastrophising. Sitting around reading doesn’t always lend itself to instilling joy; it works to get up and walk around on occasion.

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  • Anders Matthiasson

    Excellent post. May I add one more? That would be the recent historical novel “Deep Creek,” by Dana Hand. Based on a real event, one of the darkest in American history, it nonetheless moves from darkness toward light, bringing renewal for its core trio of investigators, peace for its dead, and a kind of justice for the story’s (extremely convincing) villains.

  • miriam

    I see this post  is from last summer, but I just wanted to add a comment. 

    Thank you so much for including Cossery on this list.  I am currently writing my master’s thesis on the political possibility found in his novels, and it is encouraging to see others who see his works as offering hope and possibility instead of the more typical cynical readings!

    You should look to the publication of his last novel in English this June, The Colors of Infamy trans. by Alyson Waters.

  • Razmyoosen

    Please add FOXAVIER AND PLINKA to your list of best dark humor novels. It is a wonderfully poignant and funny satire of the mental health system and ethics in the food industry.