Dystopian Book Recommendations: Misery Reading Round Up

“He had…discovered the outermost limit of faith and, in doing so, had located the exact boundary of despair. It was at that moment that he learned, truly, to fear God.”

THE SPARROW, Mary Doria Russell

Several years ago I was in an interfaith book club that read only spiritual books. Sadly, it dissolved as people moved on and away, but it was during that time that I had asked a dear priest friend of mine his favorite work of fiction, with strong faith elements. He replied, without hesitation, THE SPARROW, by Mary Doria Russell.

Father Michael, you must be nuts.

I forgot about the book until one of my blogger friends, Heather Johnson, recommended it to me. I bought it, couldn’t put it down, and was depressed for weeks afterward.

And now, I have to recommend it to you.

It has taken me a month since reading it to figure out how to encourage you to read it when it made me so miserable, when yesterday, I saw someone write on Twitter that she enjoyed novels that made her miserable. I realized that in some sick way, I do, too. It’s like a car accident–I can’t look away.

I can’t do justice to the elegance of prose, the depth of theme, and the complexity of the characters and their interactions in THE SPARROW because Russell is one of the finest writers of our generation. The reason I was so devastated by the novel was because of how much I loved the characters. I’ve never met a more “real” cast of people, and even though I knew from the first chapter that only one of them would make it back from a mission to another planet–and horribly scarred, physically and emotionally–I couldn’t stop reading.

I haven’t loved and felt this horrible after a book since THE ROAD, a novel set in post-apocalyptic America, where the burning question of the book is will the father have the courage (?) audacity (?) to shoot his son with their one bullet before he, himself, dies, so the boy is not left to roaming bands of meat-hungry cannibals?

If you haven’t read it, you must.

And along this line of misery reading, I have to recommend THE HUNGER GAMES TRILOGY. I’m sure most of you have heard of it: it’s LORD OF THE FLIES meets SURVIVOR on steroids. Teenagers from each district of another version of a post-apocalyptic U. S. battle to the death for one victor to win food and prizes for his or her impoverished home city. It’s brutal and horrific and I couldn’t put it down.

So, there you have it: a collection of books with high marks in writing, plot, character development, and devastation. Have you read any of these books? Do you enjoy reading books that make you miserable? Do you have any to add to the list?


7 thoughts on “Dystopian Book Recommendations: Misery Reading Round Up

  1. Erika Marks says:

    I am such a wimp, Erika! I wanted so much to read THE ROAD–I still do! But this is a woman who begged her husband to google the plot for I AM LEGEND to make sure the dog didn’t die as she feared and then promptly left the room (and the movie) in tears when she found out he, indeed, did.

    I have grown so thin-skinned emotionally which shouldn’t be the case–one would think one would be better equipped to read tougher subjects but I struggle to do so–even when I know the books are so powerful.

    And then I think on a book like LIFE OF PI which, in truth, is a truly horrific tale but as those who have read it (no spoilers here, I promise!) know the key is in the treatment of the subject matter, that is its brilliance–and that is one of my favorite books of all time.

    • erikarobuck says:

      I, too, have grown thin skinned. I honestly didn’t think I’d ever be able to write up these books for recommendation, but I feel like I’ve learned something about myself that I might have needed to learn in reading them, so I did it.

      But, for the record, I need a little pick me up. I’m trying to watch light and fluffy movies this weekend to counter the PTSD from reading those books.

      PS: Thanks for the warning on I AM LEGEND. Animals dying slays me more than people.

      • Erika Marks says:

        Good for you, my dear. Maybe you’ve inspired me to toughen up a bit and get my hands on a copy of THE ROAD at last.

        (But I’ll make sure to have a good happy show near by, maybe THE HOLIDAY–just in case!)

  2. Barbara says:

    I read THE SPARROW many years ago at the recommendation of a priest also. If his last name began with an S and he is a Jesuit – maybe the same one. Tough, tough book. I have mentioned this book to others over the years but I can never even begin to tell them the plot line. I think I once compared the plot to how the Jesuits evangelized the New World centuries ago (think of the move: The Black Robe…horrible).

    As for your other recommendations, I will not likely pick up THE ROAD but our children (college age) have been recommending THE HUNGER GAMES for a while now. Maybe. I’m really satisfied to re-read Harry Potter. Over and over again.

    • erikarobuck says:

      Barbara, What’s with these priests? 🙂 My friend is not a Jesuit, but I can see why a Jesuit would recommend it.

      Reading Harry Potter over and over is probably a great idea.

      Thanks for stopping by my blog!

  3. Erika,

    I smile as I read your post. I, too, struggle with reading books that challenge my worldview … books that bring to life the stark reality of the human condition. Having been brought to tears several times while touring Nazi concentration/ death camps here in Europe, I had to push myself to read Jenna Blum’s THOSE WHO SAVE US. But with all books I’ve read that give the reader a sharp dose of humanity, I walk away post-read with a new capacity for love, for gratitude, for hope. Maybe that is why a difficult book can be beloved, too? But, I do know, that in reading a tough book, I need it not to be needlessly grim, extreme. A fine balance, I think.

    One book you might like, a sweeping historical set in 14th century Barcelona, is Cathedral of the Sea by I. Falcones. Just a thought … not fluffy, by any means, but infused with hope, reality, whopping history, and love.


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