Escape your isolation, witness human decency, and take comfort in stories.
In our current situation, it’s extremely hard not to sink into the swamp of sadness. And with all the extra time on our hands and literally not being allowed to leave home, it’s hard to fill that space with activities that don’t induce more anxiety. Especially for lovers of travel, who often use physical movement as a means to stimulate their brains and satisfy a need for engagement, being stuck in one place can be deeply disheartening. So why not take some time away from hard-hitting reality and find some pleasure in a book? These ones won’t just distract you, they’ll remind you just how wonderful people are, and what grand places there are, all over the world. Hold on, fellow traveler. We’ve got you.
'Exit West' by Mohsin Hamid
“The end of the world can be cozy at times.”
―Mohsin Hamid, Exit West
Magical realism dusts this novel with a perfect amount of sparkle to make the story shine. In an unnamed city in an unnamed country brimming with violence and civil war, two lovers must find a way to escape their past and their home to create a future. So, they take a leap through one of the newly discovered “doors”–portals to other locations–strewn worldwide to take a chance as migrants in a new home. When place, country, and citizenship could be anywhere, citizenship becomes global, and our struggles universal. Heartbreakingly beautiful prose and sentiment will have you feeling the deepest empathy for all of us who just can’t help being human.
'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage' by Haruki Murakami
“The heart apparently doesn’t stop that easily.”
― Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
An underrated, underread Murakami novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage follows Tsukuru Tazaki as he comes of age with four friends, all of whom take color as part of their surnames–leaving him “colorless.” In further ostracisation, his friends suddenly ghost him, leaving Tsukuru mystified. His quest to understand begins when, as a 36-year-old man about to marry, his fiance demands he faces his past. His pilgrimage across Japan and the world to confront each of his colorful friends builds with momentum; its driving force, peace.
'Americanah' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“This was love, to be eager for tomorrow.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
A love story for our times–one to root for–neither simple nor fated, never straightforward and always hard-fought. lIfemelu and Obinze are young lovers in Nigeria whose paths divulge due to time and space–Ifemelu to the United States, where she becomes a successful writer dissecting race and racism; and Obinze to England, where he ends up undocumented. The two reunite in Nigeria years later to rediscover home and heart. With themes of race, class, and globalization, this modern examination of the Western world’s patronizing attitude toward African countries and the racial disparity it sows showcases what it means to be American–from another culture’s point of view.
'How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals' by Sy Montgomery
“I often wish I could go back in time and tell my young, anxious self that my dreams weren’t in vain and my sorrows weren’t permanent. I can’t do that, but I can do something better. I can tell you that teachers are all around to help you; with four legs or two or eight or even none; some with internal skeletons, some without. All you have to do is recognize them as teachers and be ready to hear their truths.”
― Sy Montgomery, How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals
Naturalist Sy Montgomery reflects on 13 animals that have inextricably changed her life for the positive, as teachers, friends, and companions. Fortunate enough to have had encounters with rare and exotic animals as well as lifelong relationships with dear pets, Montgomery takes the reader on a journey around the world, from her small farm in New Hampshire to the wilds of Papua New Guinea and the outback of Australia, revealing the empathy and grace of the animals with whom we share this world.
'A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster' by Rebecca Solnit
“What you imagine as overwhelming or terrifying while at leisure becomes something you can cope with when you must–there is no time for fear.”
― Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Solnit, who famously coined the term “mansplaining,” is known for her work in revealing human nature. So it speaks to the beleaguered soul that she sought to understand why communities band together and become otherwise self-sacrificing in the wake of catastrophes ranging far and wide: Hurricane Katrina, the great earthquakes in San Francisco and Mexico City, a massive ship explosion in Halifax, Canada, and 9/11 in New York City, to name a few. It’s reassuring just to see how good humanity can be.
'White Oleander' by Janet Fitch
“I wanted to tell her not to entertain despair like this. Despair wasn’t a guest, you didn’t play its favorite music, find it a comfortable chair. Despair was the enemy.”
― Janet Fitch, White Oleander
One might think a bildungsroman about a teenage girl bouncing from one derelict foster home to the next after her mother is put in prison for murdering her boyfriend might not be the uplifting story a wallowing heart craves. But stick with Astrid as she wades through a cast of Los Angeles’ most dastardly characters and fights her way out of the muck. Showcasing the parts of the City of Angels that don’t often make it into movies and television shows, there’s beauty to be found even in the parts of town that don’t drip with wealth.
Landline by Rainbow Rowell
“How does anyone ever know whether love is enough? It’s an idiotic question. Like, if you fall in love, if you’re that lucky, who are you to even ask whether it’s enough to make you happy?”
― Rainbow Rowell, Landline
Even for a book that’s part science fiction, part romance, and all whimsy–a landline telephone functions as a portal to the past, calling her husband from when they were courting–the premise might seem a little shaky. But don’t be fooled: protagonist Georgie McCool’s passivity in her career, family, and ambition bring relatable substance to the novel, and her action’s (and inaction’s) consequences remind us all just what’s at stake. The tension between Midwestern values and West coast ambition dissolves when we remember the ties that bind us: family.
'Becoming' by Michelle Obama
“Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?”
― Michelle Obama, Becoming
Honestly, is there anyone more inspiring and uplifting than Michelle Obama? No one can resist her smarts and charms. In her memoir, Obama takes us from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her advocacy work as the First Lady in Washington D.C., with revelatory takes on pop culture, politics, and raising children. Becoming is like getting a comforting hug and a kick in the pants from a mom.
'Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened' by Allie Brosch
“But when you’re concerned that the miserable, boring wasteland in front of you might stretch all the way into forever, not knowing feels strangely hope-like.”
― Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened
Don’t let the rudimentary MSPaint drawings fool you–this knee-slappingly funny “memoir” (in the style of webcomic stories) of Allie Brosh’s life will bring tears to your eyes in its hilarity, but also its poignancy. From rural Montana and Idaho to mountain towns in Oregon, Brosh’s whacky childhood, day-to-day musings, and goofy dogs are on full display, knitted together by her paralyzing depression and dark, absurdist humor.
'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' by Betty Smith
Look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.
― Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Perhaps the most wonderfully hopeful book I’ve ever read, and without a doubt one of the best books ever written, this is the beautiful tale of Francie Nolan growing up in poverty in the early 20th century, experiencing a Brooklyn vastly different from its modern-day equivalent. Never Pollyanna but always idealistic, the pragmatic Nolans use their greatest strength–tenacity–to persevere through both everyday woes and dire straits. This book will not fail to move you.
'How to Be a Person in the World: Ask Polly's Guide Through the Paradoxes of Modern Life' by Heather Havrilesky
“And honestly, I don’t know a better way to battle existential angst and fear than by seizing each day by the throat and forcing it into a shape that feels productive and healthy and on track. You do not sit around bemoaning the big picture, day in and day out. NO. You focus on charging forward, on becoming a better, healthier, more generous, more balanced sort of a person; you call your friends and your family to talk often; you give of yourself; and you resolve to do that again and again, every second of every goddamn day until they come and grab your dead body and shove it into a coffin.”
― Heather Havrilesky, How to Be a Person in the World: Ask Polly’s Guide Through the Paradoxes of Modern Life
Ask Polly began as an advice column in New York magazine’s The Cut and developed a cult following of readers who couldn’t get enough of writer Heather Havrilesky’s empathy and tough love. Each submitted question is so utterly relatable, you might think, “Damn, did I write this letter asking for advice and then just black-out forget that I sent it?” And then Polly tells you how to deal, shaking you (roughly) out of your funk and sending you on your way with a big bear hug and the confidence to conquer the world. She’s been where you are, everyone’s been where you are, and you need not go through it alone–she won’t let you. Anywhere you are, you’re still a person in this world, and that matters.