Six Uplifting Books to Read If You’ve Had a Really Bad Year

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Eva Woods spent a lot of time thinking about the concept of happiness when writing her new novel, Something Like Happy. The book tells the story of two women who are seeking joy in the midst of sadness, heartbreak, and tragedy. Like many of us readers, Woods turns to books when she’s feeling low. Here, she shares some of her favorite uplifting titles.

My new book, Something Like Happy, is the story of two unlikely friends who’ve hit crisis points in their lives and decide to see if the #100HappyDays social media challenge can make a difference when you’ve truly reached rock-bottom. At times of hardship in my own life, there are certain soothing, feel-good books I like to reach for as a comfort and aid. It’s not about escapism so much as facing the sadness head on and realizing there is happiness on the other side. Here are my go-to happy reads.

Saint Maybe

Saint Maybe is a beautiful, quirky story of how a family manages not to break after a terrible tragedy, but bends and adapts instead, welcoming in new members and sharing the love. It’s a wonderful tale of guilt and sadness giving way to hope and joy. I cried my eyes out when reading it. The Accidental Tourist is another great Anne Tyler book about loss and hope.

Rachel’s Holiday

This is a book about addiction, self-destructiveness, denial, and pain, but it’s written with humor, lightness, and love. The author draws on her own experiences with addiction, and the book pulls off an incredibly clever feat of unreliable narration, all while celebrating family, friends, and forgiveness. As comforting as a big bubble bath.

The Secret Garden

In the darkest times, sometimes only children’s books will do. This classic story of two lonely, neglected cousins in a spooky house has it all:  mystery, sadness, joy, and an uplifting ending that sees the barren garden (both literal and metaphorical) return to life. Angry, spoiled orphan Mary Lennox is a heroine we can all relate to.

Eat, Pray, Love

A bit of a cliché this one, but I’ve read it several times at crisis moments, turning to it again after my own divorce and finding it uncannily resonant. If you ever need permission to go a little wild and let yourself be sad and crazy and eat a lot of ice cream, this book gives it, with warmth and understanding.

Between Silk and Cyanide

I recently read this riveting memoir of life in the Special Operations Executive during World War II, and I highly recommend it if you ever need reminding of just how brave and noble we can be in the face of great tyranny. It’s also very funny and really brings home the fact that the people behind these amazing feats were just humans like the rest of us, complete with office squabbles, black market tea, love affairs, etc.

A God in Ruins

I love all of Kate Atkinson’s books (Case Histories is another favorite), but this tale of a wartime pilot had me in tears, thinking about the impact of our lives on others. Again, there’s lots of stirring wartime bravery and suffering, and it’s told with a fascinating structure that really makes you think about what we leave behind.

Eva Woods was born in Ireland but now resides in London and has published two women’s fiction novels with Mira UK and also writes crime fiction for Hodder UK as Claire McGowan. In addition to writing novels, she teaches creative writing and has written for GlamourYou magazine, the Guardian, the Dublin Herald, and more. Something Like Happy marks her North American debut.


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Yiyun Li

Interviewed by Lara Touitou - Yiyun Li is a Chinese American award-winning writer. She was named a MacArthur fellow in 2010. Kinder Than Solitude is her second novel.
*Author photo © Randi Lynn Beach

Kinder Than Solitude

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The novel deals with the weight of the past and how we choose to deal with it. Do you think that, whatever we make of it, past ends up being what defines us?

My major motivation to write the novel was to see how one thing can cast a long shadow on those characters’ lives. Things never die. People never die, they are always in us. I’m always curious about that. Even small things in life would cast a big shadow. Personal and private history are what I’m interested in, and they never die.

Do you feel that the behaviour of the characters in the novel mirror the behaviour of your own generation?

I think that in my generation, marriages have fallen apart much more frequently in recent years. I think there’s the instability of marriage, but also people moving around. People used to stay in the same place all their lives, now they change careers and countries, and all these things add to the instability of marriage.

I think people on China looked to the West, to America, and would say “oh, they’re free”, as in “they’re free to divorce”, but now, in China, people are free to divorce too, so it’s an interesting journey that these characters came to America.

One particular element in Ruyu and Moran’s lives is that they make a particular choice of solitude. As a way to preserve themselves?

I think it’s interesting, because Ruyu has solitude, but at the end of the novel, she admitted she never had solitude: what she had was loneliness. This is a huge difference. What she had was a life-long quarantine against love, which, again, was not solitude. I think that for Moran, solitude was a dream she had. She thought that with solitude, she could protect herself from the world, but she did not succeed. For Ruyu, I think people like her would be better staying off of people’s lives, and I think she knew that too. She doesn’t really desire to get into people’s lives, she thinks it’s easier to be on her own.

Do you think that solitude is given a bad name in our world where we are supposed to connect with each other?

Absolutely. You feel like a dinosaur if you are not on social media, and I think people forget how to be with themselves sometimes. They always have to have a witness to anything! To their lunch, or their drink, or their party. But I think the best life, the most solid life, is a life without a witness, and that’s when solitude really works for us. I don’t know what it’s like elsewhere, but in America, people really don’t like solitude.

Although there are four characters in the novel whose stories are interconnected, each chapter is dedicated to one character or the relation between two of them. Why this choice?

When I structured the novel, there were two timelines: 1989 and 2010. To me, it’s important, because we have to know both timelines at the same time. What’s important to me is that all the characters are together in 1989, and they dispersed, they never got together again, but they are lonely back in 1989 too, for this and that reason, and they never changed that much.

One of the running interrogations in the book is what makes a family, which is not necessarily a biological family, but rather what you make of a family.

I think family is always the backbone of any person’s life. Some of the characters in the novel have parents, but they don’t have them around. Ruyu is abandoned, brought up by these two strange ladies. Moran has a good family, but she orphaned herself from her parents. For me, through these kinds of people, it’s always interesting to look at life that way: orphans want a family, and children with parents want to be orphans.

What led you to write on the subject of Tiananmen?

It really is my generation’s history. I think the poisoning and all those things would have happened without Tiananmen Square, but if I wrote about China without writing about this, it’s like writing about Europe in the 1940s without any war going on in the background. I write about those people because history already happened to these people’s lives.

History, especially big events, happens always on the surface. I look at Tiananmen square, and it has a lot of lies. So I think personal history is more interesting, because you cannot lie about people’s personal history. The moment Shaoai was poisoned, she could never be unpoisoned, you cannot write that out. But in China, if you are in Tiananmen Square, they can write you off as if you never existed. I think physical violence is not as interesting as psychological violence, and Tiananmen Square was physical violence, but psychological violence is what I am interested in.

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Christos Tsiolkas

Interviewed by Lara Touitou - Christos Tsiolkas is an Australian writer. Barracuda is his latest novel since his bestselling novel The Slap.
*Author photo © Zoe Ali


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Barracuda deals with the violence and frustration and blind dedication that comes with high-level sport training, in this case the world of swimming. Water is Daniel’s greatest ally and but also his worst enemy. Why did you choose this sport in particular?

The most immediate reason is that I swim. Never professionally, but I know something about the movement of the body in water. I knew that I could rely on my knowledge to help create the character and the situation. The notion of the athlete was how I made my entry into the novel, when I thought about what I wanted to create. I knew Danny couldn’t be involved in a team sport, he couldn’t be play football or basketball. It had to be an individual pursuit. Swimming is one of the most individual of sports, because it is yourself and the water. The other reason is the cultural meaning of swimming in Australia.

I come from a country that is an island and also an immense continent. It’s an island surrounded by water, and because of a very conflicted colonial history, there’s something about water that could represent a lot of things for me, and for Danny Kelly.

The book is about a lot of things, but it is about belonging. It is about where Danny belongs. He is this working-class boy who is broken from his world and sent to another world because of his phenomenal talent. Water is the only place he has that he feels a belonging to. He feels he can be something in water, but that too is taken away, and that’s when, I think, the real battle begins. From this moment, he really doesn’t have a place to belong.

I guess there are three reasons why I chose this sport: because I swim, because of what swimming means in the Australian context, in terms of a nation still trying to define itself, where sports become an obsession by definition, and of course because of the metaphor of water.

In the uncompromising picture you paint of Australia and its many disparities, in terms of class, race, or even religion, Daniel Kelly seems stuck between two worlds, between his working-class family and another world he would eventually aspire to. Do you feel he echoes a certain kind of malaise among the young generation in Australia?

I began writing Barracuda by wondering how to enter into the novel. I began by hearing the voice of a 14-year-old boy, a kind of insistent angered voice, and I started writing down in this voice. It was the germination of the book. I started to wonder what to say about this place, what to say about Danny Kelly, what to say as a writer. In that moment, after having had a significant success with the last book, I wondered what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about something called class, which I think had disappeared from Australian literature, or that we no longer were talking about. I think that the great success of the previous novel, The Slap, had taught me something. For the first time of my life, I had money, and I realized that it is true: money does change things and does lead to enormous opportunities. Barracuda was a kind of return to thinking about the journey I’d made, in my life, as a writer. That break had come, for me, with going to university and suddenly going from one class to another class. It was particularly acute, I think, as a child of immigrants. I think you carry the weight of that history with you, when you have that background. It seems that there was an immense pressure on young people in Australia that wasn’t being articulated. One of the reasons why it wasn’t being articulated is because we had lost the language of class.

As the novel developed, and as I built the structure, I realized that another story was developing along something called shame, and the kind of violence that can come from the experience of shame. That became almost more important than the question of belonging.

Danny has his grandparents, he has his immediate family, and I think they’re really good people. I wanted to paint a portrait of a young man who does something shocking but who has got really good people around him. The difference between Danny and his family is that his parents have a language of class, his grandparents have a language of class, and he’s part of a generation that doesn’t have this kind of language.

I think that Danny’s story is different from Christos Tsiolkas’s story, because he doesn’t go to university but to a private school. It’s the scholarship that he gets that begins that break, but I did draw on my own experiences.

If you were to sit down with any of us from a wide variety of groups, religions, or races—we were the first generation to go to university and to leave that working-class life, I think we’d all share an understanding of how dislocating that experience is. You have this astonishing opportunity where you are introduced to this world that you had no idea existed, it could literally be just a few kilometers down the road from where you grew up, and you did not know that this world and these opportunities were there, but you find that you go back, and you no longer know how to use a language that once was central to your identity and who you were. That was very much my experience.

If you come from an immigrant background, that break is also linguistic. You lose the language of your home. At university, you’re introduced to some very sophisticated and astonishing language. When you go back home, you’re still speaking in Greek or in Arabic or whatever the language is, and you become less and less confident in the language, because you don’t speak it anymore. In France, you speak French, in Australia, you speak English, but you don’t know how to translate your world back to your parents, or your old friends, or your sisters, or your brothers.

How do you speak when the two languages are no longer in balance? It’s almost as if there’s no translation possible. Part of what I’m trying to do with my writing is to translate that shock, to give it a voice.

How different was it for you to write Barracuda, compared to your precedent books?

I think each book has its own history of creation. It wasn’t that Barracuda was particularly hard to write. Writing for me is an apprenticeship: you learn how to do a particular craft, but unlike apprenticeships, it never finishes, it goes on until the rest of your life, so you’re always learning.

It’s true that after a while, you get confident in what you do. That doesn’t mean the self-doubt goes away, but you know how to structure a novel.

It felt that, after The Slap, I had to dive back in. I had to reconfirm to myself what I wanted to do as a writer. I wanted to find a language to talk about, so in some ways, Barracuda is closer to the first novel I wrote, both thematically and also as an experience I had as a writer. It felt as if I was writing a first novel again, but with a 25-year experience.

Do you feel there would be any distant connections between Danny and Ari, the protagonist from Loaded, your first novel?

I think they share the rage and the shame. The difference is that I was in my twenties when I wrote Loaded, and I was in my mid-forties when I wrote Barracuda. I have a very different relationship to the characters. In Barracuda, I wanted him to survive, I wanted to take care of him, so I think that corresponds to the older Christos Tsiolkas. There is a ways to atone, to reconstitute oneself, there is a ways to finding how to speak, in life.

Another thing that connects those two characters is inarticulateness. When Ana Kokkinos directed the adaptation, she thought the novel was very cinematic. When she and Andrew Bovell came to writing the script, they realized that Ari hadn’t said anything at all! I think that inarticulateness is something that connects those two young men, that experience of translating yourself in a language you don’t know.

Literature is one of the things that allows Danny to breathe again, in many ways.

Yes, and as I said, writing it felt like writing a first novel. I’ve been touring for the book in several different countries, and what struck me in the Francophone countries is that no one asked me “who do you write for?”, whereas the English and Australian journalists always ask that. I’ve always found it a hard question because the only answer I could give is that I write for myself.

Writing Barracuda, I found myself answering the question the way I had 25 years ago, which is that I write for myself. The way I got confident about my writing was by re-reading the books that had inspired me as a young person. Some of those are the books that Danny Kelly is reading: Dickens, Malouf. For me there is something about the humanism of the great novels that can actually shine a light into your misery, into your darkness, into your shame, into your fear. That is what brought me to writing, and before writing, to reading. I think it’s very easy to lose sight of that, we’re all so suspicious of words like humanism these days. It made perfect sense to me that when Danny was at his most miserable, the light would come from those books, because those are the books that shone a light for me.

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Darragh McKeon

Interviewed by Lara Touitou - Darragh McKeon grew up in Ireland and worked as a theater director before writing All That is Solid Melts Into Air. This is his first novel.
*Author photo by Philippe Matsas

All That is Solid Melts Into Air

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What drew you to this subject in particular?

I’m not sure—there are many reasons why you do something… There was a charity in Ireland that brought children from Chernobyl to Ireland. When I was 12 or 13, this bunch of children came over to my very sleepy hometown, and I think they might have been some of the first foreign people I’d ever met. The girls were very beautiful, and we were all very intrigued. Then we began to hear little stories about their lives. They didn’t speak any English and we didn’t speak Russian, and we’d hear about the apartments that they lived in, in those kind of monolithic Soviet apartment blocks, on the ninth floor or the fifteenth floor. Where I am from, the countryside is very flash, and the highest buildings are maybe two or three storeys high, so I just began to be very intrigued by their lives. Then, as I began to research about Chernobyl, when you begin to read the history of it, you can almost feel the fabric of the society beginning to rip apart. I think it was Mikhail Gorbachev who said that it was the catalyst towards the end of the Soviet union. It was the beginning of the end.

When you set out to research this topic, did you encounter any obstacle or had difficulties retrieving some facts?

My main difficulty was myself! I didn’t really known how to research, I just kind of walked very blindly into the subject, and spent about a year researching chemical equations and what happens on a level of physics, in the middle of a nuclear meltdown. I tried to really understand that, for about a year and a half. I went to a lot of very obscure sites and did not really get it. I began to look at the human side of the story, and began to actually understand that. I did read a Russian physicist who quoted H.G. Wells, and I put it in the epigraph of the book. It’s about what happens on a molecular level, or on a level of matter, on an atomic level in a nuclear reaction. It replicates the breakdown of traditions in society, and that was very interesting to me.

The Chernobyl stuff was not actually difficult to research, there was a lot of material available. There was a lot of photographs, documentaries have been made, but material from the 80s was actually difficult to access. People didn’t take photographs on the street. If you took photographs, people would have suspected that you were a spy! So there was news footage, but not a lot of day-to-day material, or anything about what it was like to live in Moscow in the 1980s.

In terms of social history, did you get to talk to people whose life had been impacted by this event?

Actually, no, partly because I didn’t have access. I was writing from Dublin and then I was writing from London, and also, until you have a publishing deal, you’re just a guy with a laptop.

One distinctive element in the novel is that there is an atmosphere which plays on two levels: an atmosphere made of radioactive matter, and an atmosphere thick with silence and oppression, forcing people to hide everything. How meaningful was it for you to have this element weighing on the characters’ lives in every way?

I think that was very deliberate. Something I was interested in was the way the institutions affect an individual. I wanted to question how the morality imposed on you by institutions affects the day-to-day conversations, the way that people live their lives, on a very small level. In Ireland, the institution would have been the Catholic Church. That would affect the way people talked to each other, or the way they would be around each other, or the way they would behave.

There’s a beautiful video that I saw in Dublin a couple of years ago. A documentary photographer just put a camera outside a church, and he would spot people walking past and just blessing themselves, almost instinctively. They didn’t even realize that they were doing it. So those little ways that an institution can get into the thoughts of a person, that was very important to me. When we talk about Soviet Russia, or even the Soviet Union, we tend to think of the 1950s, but even by the 1980s, the intense fear and the intense paranoia that were around at that time, this was only thirty years later. This doesn’t dissipate very quickly or very easily.

One of the other important elements in the novel is music, and overall the book is quite intrinsically linked to the senses…

I was a theater director before I was a writer, and I think it came out of that. It’s hell when you’re going through it, but the beauty of it is that you’re overseeing lighting, or sound, or movement. You get an appreciation for how these things combine, and that stuck with me in my writing.

Actually I initially wanted to ask you if you think your background in drama had had an effect on your writing…

It was that, and then, I think, one thing that was very useful is that, as a theater director, your job is just to observe and see between two actors or a dozen actors, and you begin to identify when a scene is alive or when it is dry and has no life to it. That really helps in your writing as well. After a while, you begin to spot when you’re writing something that has a certain amount of dynamic to it, or something that is very flat and dry.

We follow Yevgeni during several decades. Would you say that it is a kind of coming-of-age story for him?

I think so. Since I’ve written the novel, I’ve come across a Nietzsche quote, which says “we have art so that we will not be destroyed by the truth”. I really like it, because I think that works in two ways. You could say that art is just a distraction, and that it’s something that occupies our time, while the world is crumbling around us. Or you could look at it and say that it’s something that endures and gives hope. I think that, in retrospect, I was looking at that, at the two sides of that phrase.

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