What Would You Do? Inspiring Reads for Tough Times | The Reader’s Shelf, March 15, 2012

For better or for worse, it’s our struggle to get through the rough spots in life that shape us into the people we are and forge us into what we become. Defeating, and emerging from, that crazy out-of-control feeling of struggle can help make us more confident in our choices, more compassionate toward ourselves and others, and, one hopes, remind us to live in the moment. Learning to look for a positive change in even the worst situation might seem impossible, but the following nonfiction titles are full of inspirational moments and ideas.

Elisabeth Tova Bailey contracted a seemingly incurable viral illness that left her weak, unable to do much more than lie prone on a bed, with no hope in sight. It was a small woodland creature that helped Bailey see her world in a new way. This tiny snail’s quiet determination, adaptability to circumstances, and the companionship it provided renewed the author’s spirit. She gracefully details her discoveries and odd scientific facts about snails in The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Algonquin. 2010. ISBN 9781565126060. $18.95).

In 1979, John Busby was a happily married policeman on Cape Cod, MA, with three children, including nine-year-old Cylin. On the way to work one night, Busby was shot in the head and neck at close range. He required multiple surgeries, with recovery time in-between, and the family was placed under constant police surveillance to ensure their safety. The deep financial and emotional toll on the family led the Busbys to leave their old life behind and begin again in a different state. Told in alternating voices between John and Cylin, The Year We Disappeared: A Father‚ Daughter Memoir (Bloomsbury USA Children’s, dist. by Macmillan. 2010. ISBN 9781599904542. pap. $9.99) recounts their struggles in an honest and open way, but it is how the Busbys managed to remain a loving family that gives this story its power.

At age 53, John Kralik changed his life with thank-you notes, a journey he details in 365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life (Hyperion. 2010. ISBN 9781401324056. $22.99). Just when it seemed like things couldn’t get any worse‚ his law firm was failing, his second marriage was falling apart, and a client was suing him‚ Kralik found the inspiration to try something from his past. His grandfather had encouraged sending thank-you notes, but over time the value in that idea became lost. When Kralik resolved to write one note daily, he began to realize how fortunate he really was. Starting with thank-you notes for Christmas gifts, it was a fairly steady progression into noticing and appreciating the less tangible gifts of time, consideration, and love.

In An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination (Back Bay: Little, Brown. 2010. ISBN 9780316027663. pap. $12.99), author Elizabeth McCracken tells readers she never thought she’d be married and having a baby. But when she learned she was pregnant, she was happier than she ever expected to be. McCracken and her husband, fellow author Edward Carey, decided to name their son Pudding. Then the unthinkable happened‚ their baby died in utero. But McCracken’s memoir doesn’t focus on her son’s death but rather celebrates Pudding and the whole new world of possibilities that he represented. The safe arrival of Pudding’s little brother gives readers the gift of knowing when things look their worst, they can get better.

Unbeknownst to Amy Solomon or her family (her dad is journalist Roger Rosenblatt), she had a weak valve in her heart. One morning as Amy exercised at home, the valve gave way, and she was gone. Amy left behind her loving husband, Harris, three small children, a thriving pediatric practice, and a close-knit extended family, all of whom felt the loss of her bright spirit keenly. In the beginning, Rosenblatt and his wife, Ginny, moved in with Harris to help with the children and the house. In the end, they had made a new kind of family unit, with plenty of everyday joys and sorrows. Rosen blatt’s memoir of this time, Making Toast: A Family Story (Ecco: HarperCollins. 2010. ISBN 9780061825958. pap. $12.99), is a story of what determination and love can create after a great loss.

What if you have been lucky enough to have avoided some of these challenging life experiences? How can you learn to recognize and embrace the happiness you already have? How can you find a way to let in even more joy? Gretchen Rubin tackles these questions in her how-to manual, The Happiness Project (Perennial: Harper Collins. 2011. ISBN 9780061583261. pap. $14.99). Rubin outlines 12 big ideas of happiness, one per month, with a nice dose of humor, allowing readers to choose their own level of commitment to change.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net