Reading in Tough Times

For readers, often this is on the pages of a book. In these tough times, we are grateful when we find books that inspire us, enlighten us, and give us strength and energy as we usher in a new year.

One of the joys and gifts of fiction is that it takes us into new worlds, offering us new perspectives. It is a way to escape the present for a few healing hours.

Some believe that escape reading needs to be mindless happy talk, but tales of difficult things, stories that are thought-provoking and engaging, also can let us escape the present and return with renewed hope.

Consider, for example, the latest novel from Minnesota treasure Louise Erdrich, “The Night Watchman.” This novel is about hard things — violence against women, poverty, the struggle of Native Americans in the 1950s to keep their tribal identities and lands — yet it is a deeply hopeful tale, with characters from whom the reader can learn much.

In her Afterword, Erdrich encourages the reader: “If you should ever doubt that a series of dry words in a government document can shatter spirits and demolish lives, let this book erase that doubt. Conversely, if you should be of the conviction that we are powerless to change those dry words, let this book give you heart.”

Reading memoirs and biographies of real women we admire is another way to find inspiration that takes us away from the discouragement that is so easy to fall into.

The new memoir-in-essays from celebrated local writer and literary activist Carolyn Holbrook, “Tell Me Your Names and I Will Testify,” is such a book. As described by publisher University of Minnesota Press: “Holbrook traces the path from her troubled childhood to her leadership positions in the Twin Cities literary community, showing how creative writing can be a powerful tool for challenging racism and the healing ways of the storyteller’s art.”

Readers looking for hope in distilled form might try picking up children’s books for their own reading pleasure. Decades ago, when we had a small bookshop as part of Minnesota Women’s Press, we sold a lot of children’s books, and we believed that they were not just for kids. We believe every woman should have her own children’s book collection.

The best books written for children offer beauty in both words and images, along with engaging tales and characters, and life truths valuable for all ages.

The extraordinary Twin Cities writer Kao Kalia Yang has two new children’s books out this year, both worth a read by adults: “The Shared Room,” with illustrator Xee Reiter, and “The Most Beautiful Thing,” with illustrator Khoa Le.

“The Shared Room” is about death, and “The Most Beautiful Thing” is about immigrant struggle, but you can’t finish reading them without a new sense of inspiration and gratitude.

Here are other recommendations of books you might not have discovered, which come from the readers who participate in our BookWomen reading groups, reading retreats, and book trips. Enjoy!

“All Passion Spent” (1931), a novel by Vita Sackville- West, which reveals the grace and depth of spirit of the aging protagonist
“Etta and Otto and Russell and James” (2015), a novel by Edith Hopper about memory, love, determination, and the long loop of existence

“The Golden Age” (2016), a novel of connections, kindness, and resilience, by Joan London

“The Secret Garden” (1911), the classic children’s tale of the healing power of nature, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

“Lab Girl” (2016), memoir by Minnesotan Hope Jahren, a remarkable scientist and teacher
“I Am Malala” (2013), memoir of a courageous girl, by Malala Yousafzai
“Wonder” (2012), by R. J. Palacio, a story for all ages about courage and the gift of kindness

“Gathering Moss” (2003), lyrical nature essays,
by Robin Wall Kimmerer
“Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening” (2014), memoir of unexpected connection and hope, by Carol Wall
“The Samurai’s Garden” (1992), a novel by Gail Tsukiyama, which offers a quiet and gentle story of friendship across cultures