My favorite books about change
Come gather 'round, people, wherever you roam,
And admit that the waters around you have grown,
And accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you is worth saving
Then you'd better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone,
For the times, they are a-changing.
Here are a few of my favorite literary novels about moments of great and undeniable change.
The Nix - Nathan Hill.
How to describe this book? A big part of it is set in Chicago in 1968, so of course there's a strong theme of the fight for social justice and protest against oppression, which is obviously relevant to our present moment. But there's a lot more in this book--many other settings and characters spanning from a remote fishing village in Norway in the 1930s to a present-day university somewhere in the Northeast US, with other stops in between. It tells the story of one family and some of their closest friends, a story about the human need for place and belonging, and self-determination. It's beautifully, engagingly written--a book that has earned a permanent spot on my book shelf, which is a rarity for me.
Spring - Ali Smith
Part of Smith's "Seasonal Quartet"--a truly magnificent and incisive work of contemporary literary fiction--Spring is the one which touches most strongly on a rapidly changing world. The climate is changing, UK immigration policies are changing, and reality is changing for one of the main characters, Richard Lease, who must come to terms with the fact that the woman he has always secretly loved is dying, and will soon be gone from the world entirely. Richard's story interweaves with those of a few other intriguing and touching characters, including a little girl who may or may not be real. Certainly, very few people seem to see her. Like all of Ali Smith's books, this one is atmospheric, intense, occasionally disorienting, and rife with lots of mystery that never is fully explained. I love those kinds of stories, myself. If you're a fan of the spooky and bizarre, you'll love Ali Smith, and if you want a novel about a changing world, Spring is the one for you.
Weather - Jenny Offill
I have a funny story about this book. I've recommended the nonfiction book Big Magic (Elizabeth Gilbert) on my blog before, and in it, Elizabeth shares an anecdote about how an idea for a novel came to her and then left her again for another author. It's an entertaining anecdote; Big Magic is worth reading for that story alone, but there's lots of other good stuff in there for creative types. Anyway, Weather did that to me. It came to me in the summer of 2018 and very briefly INSISTED that I write it. It tormented me for weeks. I managed to sell the idea to my publisher on a very sketchy outline, because I really didn't have a clear idea of what exactly this book was, but I sold it all the same because it really was determined to come into the world, and then the moment I began working on the manuscript, it left me cold. The whole concept was just GONE, along with all that obsessive drive to work on it. Eventually, in reading the deal announcements on Publisher's Marketplace, I figured out why that happened: Weather had found Jenny Offill to be a better match for its particular goals. The idea had settled with her instead.
I eagerly read the book when it was published earlier this year because I was dying to know what it was actually about, what it had been trying to do with all its weird partial visions of this woman who's the main character and her feelings about all the changes going in her life. It turns out that, in the hands of the right author, it's a pretty good story. Centering on Lizzie, a woman who feels obligated to hold everyone else together, it explores the slow falling apart of the world we once knew--and what a vision for a new world might look like, in the hands of loving people.
The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
If you haven't already read this classic, I am amazed. If you have read it, now is the perfect time to read it again.
The Grapes of Wrath holds special meaning for me on two fronts: First, because my family was mostly made up of migrant farm workers on both sides (it's rare for white people to be in migrant farm work, but it does happen, even today) and I am therefore keenly invested in the themes of injustice toward workers and the brutality (and unnecessary nature) of poverty. Second, because when I was a teenager I managed to weasel my way into an arts-focused high school, and there I helped adapt The Grapes of Wrath into a musical (!!!) and directed it as my senior project. I know a musical version of The Grapes of Wrath sounds absolutely insane and unfathomable, but honestly, it was amazing. I'm seriously thinking about getting up a revival at the local community theater once the pandemic is over.
Anyway, this is a tale about a family struggling to survive one of the most abrupt and damaging changes in recent history--the Great Depression--so yeah, it's a tad relevant just now, isn't it? Plus, I love Steinbeck's writing style so much. I don't think I've ever failed to fall in love with one of his books.
Beloved - Toni Morrison
It's hard for me to pick a favorite Toni Morrison novel because, as with Steinbeck, I love them all. But Beloved is somewhere in my top three or four. I chose it for this list because it's about the space just after a huge, world-shaking change: the years after the Civil War ended and the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Beloved follows the life of Sethe, a woman who, years before, escaped enslavement. She was forced to make some harrowing decisions on her flight, and the consequences of those decisions literally haunt her and her family even after slavery is outlawed. As with all of Morrison's work, Beloved is both beautiful and profoundly uncomfortable--which happens to be the kind of book I enjoy the most.