Bleak Books to Read in January
January is bleak. Cold. Dark. Depressing. Gone are the merry, or mandatory, festivities around fireplaces; the warm glow of either love or alcohol has crystallized into the hard-eyed stare of a sober new year. Embrace it. Here is the time to look inward. Reflect. Drink cocoa and organize the apps on your phone between four-hour naps and Game of Thrones reruns.
If you are like me, you also find yourself picking up books as bleak as the weather. So while the cold wind is still cutting past windowpanes and winter coats, escape the dreary doldrum days of January, with the warmth of dreary, lovely prose. Last January, I read, and then reread, Bough Down, the poet Karen Green’s book of graceful, deliriously sad prose-poems about grief and life after her husband, author David Foster Wallace, committed suicide; the year before that, it was Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, about a starving man’s tenuous grasp on reality. You get the idea. So let’s celebrate the sad, strange beauty in this time of year by getting cozy with sad, strange, and beautiful new books. It’s either that or go to the gym.
Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck (Weinstein Books; January 27, 2015)
A chilling reminder that winter is probably not as cruel as it could be. Ekbäck’s novel is set in Swedish Lapland in the early 18th century, during the “wolf winter”—the harshest one in the region’s memory. A young family relocates to a village below a mysterious mountain, and the dark days and nights of Scandinavian winter reveal the community’s secret history of violence and possibly magic. Is it wolves killing the neighbors, or something else?
Binary Star by Sarah Gerard (Two Dollar Radio)
A young woman struggling with anorexia embarks on a cross-country road trip with her alcoholic boyfriend, where they clash with what it means to be sick in a culture that constantly peddles celebrity-gossip–fueled tabloids and quick-fix solutions to souls in need of deeper healing. Gerard has written characters, in lyrical and deeply affecting prose, who are burned out and burning up what substance they have just to be known to each other.
The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac by Sharma Shield (Holt Paperbacks; January 27, 2015)
More spooky and whimsical, than stunning and miserable, this generation-spanning novel delves into a man’s obsession with a mythical monster. As a child, Eli Roebuck’s mother abandoned him to follow a man, who may or may not have been a Sasquatch, into the forest forever. Roebuck’s search for the monster turns into an examination of what is wild—and potentially monstrous—within us all.
Lost & Foundby Brooke Davis (Dutton Adult)
This is a novel about the quiet coldness of grief, and the longing to feel what you know has been lost forever. Three strangers come together through their separate grief at being left behind—a young girl whose mother abandoned her in a department store; a widow who hasn’t left her house since the death of her husband; and a heartbroken widower confined to a nursing home—and learn to move forward again, in this enchanting debut from Davis.
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck
This book, by German author Erpenbeck, follows, in five different narratives, five different lives and deaths of an unnamed woman. All of her lives are set in Central and Eastern Europe, and, in her different incarnations, she succumbs to the sad, inevitable fate of the time she has been born in. Haunting and stark, but inspiring in its scope, one Amazon reviewer called it “misery city.” Fair enough.
Midnight in the Centuryby Victor Serge
Inspired by Serge’s arrest under Stalin in 1933 and exile to a remote city in eastern Russia, Midnight in the Century examines what it means to be a revolutionary. The main character, Rodion, finds himself in a strong community of other exiles: Bolsheviks, workers, educators, and “Old Believers,” members of the Russian Orthodox Church who have been punished for their faith. To survive, Rodion escapes his captors, but soon learns that there is only one way to elude the dark Russian winter.