Bryan Lee O’Malley

Books against Sadness […and Loss, and Grief]: Personal Book Recommendations

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„I’ve been in an emotionally fragile state for a couple months. I’m looking for some literature that will help me be happy with existing again. What do you recommend?“

Books That Will Help Me Grapple With Existence? [a recent discussion in the „books“ section of Reddit.com]

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Last night, I wrote a quick list, answering the above question.

Here are my recommendations [Link]:

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Let’s split this up in… books that deal with dark/depressing themes, but show lots of hope and will be uplifting BY THE END (…but not neccessarily right from the beginning):

  • Gabriel Bà: Daytripper [mortality; life is short]
  • Evan S. Connell: Mrs. Bridge [everyday life is depressing; make your own decisions)
  • Cormac McCarthy: The Road [life can be hell; love prevails]
  • Stewart O’Nan: A Prayer for the Dying [everyone is mortal; you can overcome any loss]
  • Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking [it’s not the end that counts; it’s the memories you make]
  • David Mazzucchelli: Asterios Polyp [everyone’s an island, but the happy, accidental connections between people make life worth living]
  • Randy Pausch: The Last Lecture [you might die tomorrow; strife harder TODAY!!]
  • Jean-Paul Sartre: No Exit [hell is other people; avoid the ones that belittle you]
  • Bryan Lee O’Malley: Lost at Sea [it’s okay to feel adrift once in a while]
  • Rob Sheffield: Love is a Mixe Tape [you will lose love – but you’re stronger than you think!]
  • Gayle Forman: If I stay [even with horrendous loss, there’s lots to live for!]
  • Brad Kessler: Birds in Fall [grief is complex and frightening, but consolation can be found in the weirdest moments]
  • Miriam Toews: Swing Low [if a parent decides to die, it does not mean that he didn’t love you]

I also very, very much would like to recommend the anime series „Neon Genesis Evangelion“. It has a fragile, nervous, deeply unhappy soul-searching main character who has an existential struggle with questions like „Why should I care? What can I do? Who should I fight for?“. The answers are complex, and not sugar-coated at all.

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Then, there’s a second, different category: feel-good books, with lots of joy, energy and a life-affirming atmosphere. If you want to feel… happy, warm and consoled, pick the follwing books:

  • Kyohiko Azuma: Yotsuba&! [everyday life is an adventure]
  • Jiro Taniguchi: A distant Neighborhood [when youth is gone… your sense of wonder should remain!]
  • Tove Janson: A Summer Book [life is like the weather. the harsh moments are as much a part of life as the lush ones.]
  • Harper Lee: To kill a Mockingbird [stand up for your beliefs, and reach out to the people around you]
  • Banana Yoshimoto: Kitchen [find your family. they don’t have to be the people you were born with.]
  • Haruki Murakami: Kafka on the Shore [life is rich, magical, paradox, scary and unpredictable. and that’s a good thing!]
  • Joyce Maynard: The Usual Rules [kids are growing. and you are, too.]
  • Kurt Busiek: Superman: Secret Identity [every step of growing up is scary. there’s a fuller picture. don’t get clouded by fear and alienation.]
  • Julie Orringer: The Invisible Bridge [every moment counts. celebrate reality. tell people you love them. make a difference.]

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That’s all for today: a couple of quick book recommendations for anyone who felt sad or needed consolation. Enjoy!

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Related Links:

LGBT Graphic Novels: Recommendations for Teens & Young Adults

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Good Graphic Novels for school libraries, teenagers and a Young Adult audience… with GLBTQ themes?

Over at „DC Women Kicking Ass“ (Link), one of my favorite feminist super-hero blogs, author/webmaster Sue opened an interesting discussion:

„A while back, I got a request for a list of LGBQT Young Adult graphic novels for a High School library.

So far I have Young Avengers, Runaways, Pedro and Me, Tough Love, Strangers in Paradise, Skim and Batwoman.

Please let me know your recommendations and I will compile a list and publish it.

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I read lots of „literary“, more serious graphic novels this winter (recommendations here, Link), so for starters, here are some strong, personal recommendations:

Inclusive, serious, engaging titles for a young audience that will work well in a school setting / book club / discussion group:

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1: JUDD WINICK, „Pedro and me“, 192 pages, 2000.

gay main character  |  HIV prevention  | activism  | reality TV  | gay-straight friendship  | Cuban immigrants  |  autobiographical

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2: ALISON BECHDEL, „Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic“, 232 pages, 2006.

lesbian narrator / main character  |  coming-of-age  | suicide  | identity politics  | family secrets  | living in the closet  |  homosexual parents  | autobiographical

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3: HOWARD CRUSE, „Stuck Rubber Baby“, 216 pages, 1995.

gay narrator / main character  |  journalism / documentary  |  coming-of-age  | civil rights  |  discrimination, politics, activism  |  1960ies small-town USA  |  pre-Stonewall

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4: DAVID SMALL, „Stitches: A Memoir“, 326 pages, 2009.

straight narrator / main character  |  throat cancer  | identity politics  |  coming-of-age | family secrets  | suicide  |  lesbian parent  |  living in the closet  |  autobiographical

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5: DAN PARENT, „Archie Comics presents: Kevin Keller“, 160 pages, 2012.

gay main character  |  middle school audience  |  coming-of-age  |  Don’t Ask Don’t Tell  |  cartoon / slice-of-life / humour  |  harmless / bowdlerized / non-sexualized

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queer-positive YA books with a focus on trauma, loss, bullying or teenage alienation:

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6: DANIEL CLOWES, „Ghost World“, 80 pages, 1998.

friendship between girls  |  alienation  |  dark humour  |  everyday life  |  post-high school career  |  small-town USA  |  hook-up culture  |  loneliness

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7: JOE KELLY, „I kill Giants“, 184 pages, 2009.

middle-school female narrator  |  alienation  |  magical realism  |  everyday life  |  friendship between girls  |  personal trauma  |  cancer  |  anger / abandonment issues

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8: SARAH LEAVITT, „Tangles: A Story about Alzheimers, my Mother and me“, 127 pages, 2010.

lesbian main character / narrator  |  Alzheimer’s  |  family secrets  |  mother-daughter-dynamics  |  loss  |  leaving for College  |  coming-of-age  |  everyday life  |  autobiographical

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9: BRYAN LEE O’MALLEY, „Lost at Sea“, 160 pages, 2003.

teenage, female main character  |  magical realism  |  coming-of-age  |  friendship  |  soul-searching  |  alienation  | road trips  |  acceptance  |  everyday life

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super-hero books with gay and lesbian heroines:

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10: GREG RUCKA, „Gotham Central: Half a Life“, 168 pages, 2005.

lesbian main character  |  police procedural  |  coming out  |  lesbian relationships  |  second-generation Puerto Ricans in the US  |  Batman  |  psychological thriller

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11: GREG RUCKA, „Batwoman: Elegy“, 176 pages, 2010.

lesbian main character  |  Batman  |  magic, monsters, horror  |  Don’t Ask Don’t Tell  |  power fantasy  |  family dynamics  |  military families  |  self-acceptance  |  loss

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in 2011, the – mediocre, crass and often poorly-written – monthly YA super-hero comic series „Teen Titans“ (Link) added a gay character, Bunker (Link). I can’t recommend the series, per se. But the character has gained a vocal following, and some media attention:

Notes from Bunker, Link (Tumblr)

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another note-worthy and worthwhile read / discussion is this (Link) letter column / exchange between Marvel writer Christos Gage (Link) and an anti-gay reader unhappy with teenage gay and lesbian characters in the „Avengers Academy“ series (Link).

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notable series / titles that I cannot recommend (because the LGBT part is marginal or the overall writing is too weak):

  • „Buffy: Season 8“ (Joss Whedon, Link)
  • „Y: The Last Man“ (Brian K. Vaughan, Link)
  • „Friends with Ghosts“ (Faith Erin Hicks, Link)
  • „Scott Pilgrim“ (Bryan Lee O’Malley, Link)

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titles I have not read myself, yet:

  • „Runaways“ (Brian K. Vaughan, Marvel Universe, Link)
  • „Young Avengers“ (Allan Heinberg, Marvel Universe, Link)
  • „Strangers in Paradise“ (Terri Moore, Link)
  • „Revolutionary Girl Utena“ (Chiho Saito, Manga, Link)
  • „Wandering Son“ (Takako Shimura, Manga, gender-nonconforming, transsexual (?) elementary school kids, Link)

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and finally: five LGBT prose novels / literary fiction for a High School audience that I enjoyed:

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