One excruciatingly hot and oppressively muggy day in August several years ago, my roommate's horse died. Now, to understand the scope of the tragedy you need to know that this horse had been with her as long as she could remember — she became a real rider with this horse, she learned responsibility with this horse, and she loved this horse as much as anyone could love a horse. Then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, her horse simply no longer existed in this world. This was one of those days that chocolate was made for. Chocolate, and hot tea, and a good book, because sometimes the best way to cope with a situation is by finding solace in between the pages of the right literary work.
We scoured the shelves and wracked our brains and ultimately... ultimately, I have no recollection of what we settled on, but I can tell you that it helped. Maybe not immediately, and certainly not completely, but the right book (and a warm bubble bath) can make all the difference in the world on those days when you just simply cannot make it on your own. We all need a little help from time to time, and sometimes the best friend you can turn to is a fictional one.
So in the spirit of that fateful day in August, and the hundreds of other times I've turned to literature to get me through a very long day, here are nine books to help you cope with whatever life might throw your way:
With Family Issues
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Whether your family feels a lot more like Leave it to Beaver or recent episodes of Breaking Bad, every family has its good, bad, and very ugly moments. You may be estranged from everyone but that one sister you just can't shake, or you might just be looking for a little comfort after a particularly brutal fight, but either way I'm here to tell you that no one does the drama justice like Jonathan Franzen. With wit, sarcasm, and the kind of brutally realistic honesty you rarely find in fiction these days, Franzen brings family to life in all it's poignant glories and painful missteps. So on those days where you find it hard to imagine making it work with the genetic lottery ticket you've landed, turn to The Corrections and revel in a little literary empathy.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Joan Didion is a literary heroine to many, myself included, and her heartbreaking autobiographical search for meaning after the critical and incapacitating illness of her only daughter and the subsequent and sudden death of her husband brought me to gasping sobs on more than one occasion. And yet through the tears, and for many years to follow, Didion's staggering poise and raw, emotional prose, provided a path, a way forward, when I could not see my way through the clouds of fear and sorrow that descend with death itself. Far from the prescriptive self help titles offering to steer you through the 12 stages of grief, Didion's work attempts no authority and offers no guidance, The Year of Magical Thinking simply lingers in the aftermath of tragedy, questioning, agonizing, and offering the most honest look at the darkest days and coldest nights we all have to make it through at one time or another.
With Difficult Friendships
The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
If there is a better place to explore the intricacies of friendship than an all-girls high school, I certainly don't know what it is (and this is coming from the graduate of one such institution — scars, sisterhood, and all). Emotions run wild, tempers are tested, and tantrums are startlingly common in Eleanor Catton's debut novel, The Rehearsal. With a surfeit of drama, The Rehearsal weaves together stories of teenage friendship and far-flung family with passion, purpose, and searing black comedy. So, whether or not you've slept with your saxophone teacher or betrayed your bestie, this novel is guaranteed to help you come to terms with the ups and downs of friendship at any age.
With Coming of Age
Go Tell It on The Mountain by James Baldwin
Baldwin's searingly astute coming of age story follows John Grimes as he questions his relationship with his father, his sexuality, his god, and his society. For a novel that's nearly half a century old, Baldwin's themes are strikingly current and powerfully familiar. Whether or not you're struggling with the same trials and tribulations troubling Grimes, you're sure to find something to ease the pain of coming of age in Baldwin's painful, hopeful, beautiful story of a boy becoming a man.
With the Pains of Love
The End of the Affair by Graham Green
Trust, jealousy, love, loss, bombings — this book as it all, and so much more. Graham Greene's loosley fictionalized opus to his own lost affair invites us to share in the heartbreaking ecstasy of true and tortured love. Whether you're coping with a breakup or settling into something new, The End of The Affair brings love and life into a delicate narrative balance that's sure to resonate in meaningful ways.
With Hating Your Body
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Let me be clear — we all have body issues. Where we think we're too fat or too thin or too bony or too tall or too white or too brown or too busty or too flat, we struggle against the confines of heredity with all of the tools modern society has too offer (and, boy, are there a lot of them). But sometimes, it's time to sit back and find a little acceptance, maybe with some help from a literary all-star. With Middlesex, Pulitzer Prize-winner Jeffery Eugenides transforms the struggles of the body into a multi-generational epic reminiscent of The Odyssey and Hedwig and the Angry Inch simultaneously. No matter how you're feeling about your body today, give yourself a bit of a break and gain some perspective by focusing on someone else's pain for once. Trust me, there are more than enough physical struggles in Middlesex to keep you away from the mirror for hours, and maybe even just enough to help you feel more comfortable when you finally make it back to the looking glass.
With Identity Struggles
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Identity, as Shrek was so astute in pointing out, is like an onion — there are layers upon layers upon layers of self, and with each peeling away a raw, rough new being is exposed. Poignantly commenting on the formation, dissolution, and resolution of an ever-changing identity, Chimamanda Adichie's lingering tale of African womanhood in America is as thought provoking as it is sympathetic, opening up new windows onto the way we understand our selves and calling into question all the stereotypes, caricatures and expectations that limit our understandings of our own unique being. So, when you're feeling a little less than sure of yourself, turn to Americanah for a masterclass on the meaning and making of identity.
The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers
I am not someone who copes well with change — when my parents tried to move our family just up the road to a larger, newer, altogether nicer house, I mutinied at the ripe old age of 8, and thanks to audiovisual aides managed to talk them out of it. If you're anything like me and the very notion of "new" causes you to hyperventilate into your cupped hands, let me suggest a brief sojourn with Carson McCuller's The Member of the Wedding. Follow along with Frankie as she struggles with the oncoming wedding of her beloved older brother and his bride, and relish the power change has over all of us, for better and worse.
With The Future Coming
The Circle by Dave Eggers
Were you concerned about those unmarked google barges skulking off the coast of California? Outraged about the NSA data collection controversy? Deeply disheartened by the radical intrusion of big technology companies into the day to day intimacies of your online life? Unless you've been hiding under a large and soundproof rock for the past few years, chances are at least a few of these concerns resonate with you on one level or another, and if so Dave Egger's The Circle is a must-read. Of course, if you've been imagining an alternative future where none of these issues abound, then stop what you're doing right now, head out to your local bookseller, and pick up a copy of The Circle. Yep, that's right, it's a Catch 22 — no matter how you think about the future this shocking text is sure to help you cope, through satire, social commentary, or simply a brief respite from reality.
Image: Michael Cory/flickr