With summer on its way, the weather is getting warmer, the hours of daylight are lasting longer and everyone’s spirits are starting to lift after the long, cold winter months and the dreary springtime rain.
This is a guest article contributed by Kayla Matthews from Productivity Theory.
However, sometimes it takes more than some sunshine and freshly mown grass to get me in the summer mood, and a well-timed positive read can be just what the doctor ordered. Here’s a list of books that always help lift my spirits and get me ready to face the day.
1. Confederacy of Dunces, by Kenneth Toole
Follow the ridiculous journey of Ignatius Reilly, a would-be scholar from the Dark Ages, as he confronts New Orleans — in all its zany glory. From selling hot dogs on the street corner to disrupting a ladies’ art gallery with his apocalyptic pronouncements, Reilly is a character equal parts unforgettable and hilarious. Bolstered by an ensemble cast of side characters and intertwining events, Confederacy of Dunces is a masterpiece of comedy.
2. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson
As the father of gonzo journalism, Hunter Thompson lived a strange, absurd and erratic life up until his death in 2008. Fear and Loathing, Thompson’s breakout non-journalistic work, revolves around a road trip he and his attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta took to Las Vegas in 1971. While disturbing in parts, and wholly swept with a hurricane of hallucinogenic substances, the book is a wild ride through the mind of one of America’s greatest writers, and sure to distract its readers from normal life.
3. A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson
While walking the Appalachian Trail is usually seen as a daunting and serious task, Bryson’s gift for describing the bizarre characters and his own misfortunes along the way never fails to draw a laugh. For those who love the outdoors, or who have ever thought about hiking the Appalachian Trail, this book should be next on the list.
4. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, by Peter Hedges
This 1991 novel follows Gilbert, a disillusioned grocery clerk living with his dysfunctional family in a tiny Midwestern town. For its part, the story seesaws between depressing and hilarious, and ends with one of the most heartfelt and oddly uplifting scenes in modern American literature. Gilbert Grape is an emotional rollercoaster and one that will hold any reader’s attention from start to finish. Also catch the film adaptation, which includes Leonardo DiCaprio’s first main role.
5. Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh
Oddly enough, this graphic novel — which covers depression as its central theme — is also heartwarming and extremely uplifting throughout. With wonderfully creative art and a talent for making the most serious subjects simultaneously approachable and hilarious, Hyperbole captures the hearts of its readers and helps keep the blues in perspective for anyone feeling down. Read either the graphic novel or its webcomic predecessor.
6. Illusions, by Richard Bach
Bach is known for his tales of limitless possibility and spiritual discovery, and he doesn’t disappoint with this short novel that features the adventures of a nomadic pilot, flying from one small Midwestern farm town to the next, paying for his food and gas by offering five-dollar rides to the townspeople. This book — at once lighthearted and deeply philosophical — will have any reader questioning his or her own reality and the amazing possibilities of life, reality and friendship.
7. I am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak
A taxi driver, Ed Kennedy, receives an ace of diamonds and a list of addresses. In time, he comes to understand each address corresponds to an individual in need of some help or guidance, and that he is the messenger of goodwill to them all. One by one, Ed continues thanklessly helping strangers, resorting to strange and offbeat tactics — and often sacrificing his own happiness — to complete each task. Expect tears of happiness by the end.
8. Clear: A Transparent Novel, by Nicola Barker
The crowds are watching as David Blaine suspends himself high above London in a transparent box. And even as they watch, Blaine, the protagonist of this novel, is watching them. This book treats readers to a truly insightful critique of a modern culture that feels partly dramatic, partly comedic and wholly genuine, all framed against the backdrop of Blaine’s reality-defying starvation stunt. Expect some of the most original and memorable scenes in modern writing.
9. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloane
When Clay Jannon loses his Silicon Valley job, it’s the beginning of an adventure far larger than he could ever imagine. Soon he’s cracking ancient mysteries and unraveling secrets behind a bibliophilic cult with a combination of modern technology and old-school methods. An exciting, effortlessly fun novel about bridging the gap between the present and the past, an undying love for texts and words and a feel-good cast of characters young and old.
10. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
This classic novel is a timeless tale of childhood and adult role models, and of the struggle for fairness and dignity among everyone within a racist and traditionalistic culture. Protagonist Atticus Finch teaches us what it means to live a deeply moral and loving life, even as he struggles with getting questioned and scorned by his own community. Jean-Louise, his daughter and the narrator of the story, begins to understand the impact and importance of her father’s actions in what might be the best father-daughter relationship in all of American literature.
11. The Order of Odd-Fish, by James Kennedy
Readers ought to prepare themselves for a wild ride with James Kennedy’s high-octane romp through the fantastic and bizarre world of Eldritch City. Be prepared for moray eel mobsters, an assassin in a Sonic the Hedgehog outfit and a retired Russian colonel with a prophetic digestive system. Add to it one of the strangest and most frightening villains of recent memory, a healthy dose of friendship and the makings for an epic confrontation, and you have the recipe for a book that will always drive the blues from your mind.
12. A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold
Leopold’s 1949 nonfiction masterpiece is a must-read for any budding conservationists, casual nature lovers and anyone in between. Within its pages, Leopold takes the readers on a tour of his land, the local creatures and plant life, and the impact it all has on his own life and the lives of those around. He sharply criticizes progress that destroys nature and disrupts the natural cycle, even as he rejoices in the amazing and wonderful ability of nature to endure and evolve. It’s best to indulge in this read from a hammock or under the shade of a fine oak.
13. The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho
Part spiritual journey, part coming-of-age epic, The Alchemist evokes the timeless themes of growing up and seeking greatness with humility and mercy, creating a truly classic novel all wound into the great allegory of alchemy — transforming lead to gold. A young shepherd finds himself compelled to visit the pyramids of Egypt, where riches are waiting for him, and sets out on a perilous journey across the desert. Readers find their own hearts yearning for the adventure, their minds at ease following the conclusion.
14. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
An expansive look at past and present life in the Dominican Republic, as told in the distinctive and compelling voice of Junot Diaz, this staple of modern literature follows the trials and tribulations of the young Dominican nerd Oscar, his mother, his sister and his college roommate. Brutally open at times, and revealing of a culture many know little about, this novel is a breath of fresh air and a fine departure from the normal heroes of literature.
This novel probes the depths of human possibility, from a thuggish regime to a single young man who loves to write, and will leave readers crying and laughing at the same time.
15. The Giver, by Lois Lowry
The Giver has become a staple in high schools around the U.S., as well it should be. This story begins in a world robbed of its zest, where society functions as one great efficient cycle, and anything that might cause true human suffering has been excised. In the midst of it all lives the Giver, the only one allowed to experience dreams of the past, who stores memories of all the harm and pain that were once part of human life. Those searching for the meaning of life’s pain will find a compelling argument in these pages.
16. Kiss of the Spider Woman, by Manuel Puig
It’s hard to label this one uplifting, but then again, this dialogue-driven novel defies all labels. Puig’s 1976 piece reads more like a play without stage directions and brings to life the daily interactions of two prisoners — a young revolutionary and a middle-aged gay man — locked in an Argentine prison. In the darkness of the cell, the prisoner Molina conjures the stories of movies he once saw, weaving his vivid descriptions in beside the unfolding stories of their lives. Readers experience the power of human love battling a hopeless situation.
17. The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson
When art clashes with family, the results aren’t always pretty. Involved as pseudo-props in their parents’ bizarre performance art since their youth, Buster and Annie have started their own lives and left the performances far behind — or so they had thought. When life brings them back under their parents’ roof, a strange and delightful journey follows. Sad at times, this novel nonetheless questions the place of free will, parenting and art. Plus, the performances are pure chaotic fun and will bring a smile to the hardest reader’s face.
18. The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God & Other Stories, by Etgar Keret
Centered in modern-day Israel, this book of short stories uses a lighthearted and often absurd worldview to touch on much deeper topics. From a man running late for his date to another man that designs crazy metal tubes to roll marbles down, we are treated to a series of wonderful and wacky stories, some of which are grounded in reality, and many of which venture into the allegorical or metaphorical. This is a wonderful book for remembering how fun and weird the world can be.
19. The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
An old Cuban fisherman hooks the largest marlin he has ever seen and sets out on a multi-day odyssey as the fish takes his small boat far out to sea. A novella of human suffering and determination, and the struggle of man against a cruel and unyielding nature, Hemingway’s story almost entirely avoids dialogue and focuses instead in the character of the man and his adversary. This story is both beautiful and haunting, and one that stays with a reader forever.
20. Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie
Reservation Blues is Sherman Alexie’s debut novel, and it solidified a multi-decade career for one of America’s most renowned Native American writers. Strange magic inhabits a punk-rock-blues band trying to get their start out of the poverty and depression of Spokane Indian reservation in Washington. Even as anger and greed tears at the band’s heart, the love of music and a poignant, dark humor keep the novel afloat. Readers should prepare for enchanting, strange writing that never quite leaves them.
It’s important to point out that these are not all “happy” books. While all the books appearing on this list will help readers understand life and put their own suffering or sadness into perspective, many of these books accomplish that by delving into the same suffering and emerging on the other side.
Some of these stories are best to enjoy as a blissful escape from the troubles of life, and others exist to help understand and value the trials life presents to us all.
It’s also worth noting that these books are all extremely well-written and compelling stories, ones that will keep any reader turning the pages until they hit the back cover.
These are stories that touch us, move us and make us truly value the aspects of this strange — and sometimes sad — life. And that’s really the point of reading, isn’t it?
About the Author:
Kayla Matthews is a productivity blogger who has written for online publications such as Houzz, Inc.com, Asian Efficiency, Lifehacker and more. To read more by Kayla, visit her productivity and lifestyle blog, Productivity Theory.