The best books that are sad but funny and qualify as bummer literature but are so great they make the reader feel joyful

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m no particular expert on anything, but I know what I love in a book, and I’ve read approximately a million books, plus or minus. I’ve written novels with the hope that they will be funny and poignant in about equal measure, I value humor in books more than just about anything, and here I have listed books that I cherish.  


I wrote...

The Excellent Lombards

By Jane Hamilton,

Book cover of The Excellent Lombards

What is my book about?

Mary Frances Lombard is so in love with her family and her childhood on an apple orchard in Wisconsin that she never wants it to end. Time, stop! She is fierce and wrong-headed and poignantly funny, and creates havoc for her brother and parents, and the extended orchard family, a cast of complicated characters, as she grows up.  

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Lessons

Jane Hamilton Why did I love this book?

I fell off the Ewan McEwan wagon for several years. 

Why? His sentences are gorgeous and impeccable but sometimes his plots seemed glitchy to me or his research was too in your face. But, Lessons! It’s one of those books that has so much of the world in it, while at the same time the characters are deep, vivid, flawed (yes, indeed), and the scenes intense and unforgettable. 

The clarity of his thinking and his understanding of politics, the eras we’ve lived through, the confusion of emotions we suffer from, and the way people fail each other as well as show up—I clutch this book to my heart.  

By Ian McEwan,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Lessons as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Discover the Sunday Times bestselling new novel from Ian McEwan.

Lessons is an intimate yet universal story of love, regret and a restless search for answers.

When the world is still counting the cost of the Second World War and the Iron Curtain has descended, young Roland Baines's life is turned upside down. Stranded at boarding school, his vulnerability attracts his piano teacher, Miriam Cornell, leaving scars as well as a memory of love that will never fade.

Twenty-five years later Roland's wife mysteriously vanishes, and he is left alone with their baby son. Her disappearance sparks of journey of…


Book cover of The Professor's House

Jane Hamilton Why did I love this book?

Should there be an afterlife and if there’s someone greeting me in the sweet hereafter, let it be Willa Cather. 

Maybe you read her in high school and did or didn’t fall in love, but in any case, no one in school reads The Professor’s House. As always, Cather looks down upon her characters with severe compassion, the sharp eye of someone who has seen all, and she’s wryly amused by her people. 

Professor Godfrey St. Peter is going through a mid-life crisis, he’s got a wife, two daughters, and he’s trying to see the way ahead. The center of the novel is devoted to a former student of St Peter’s, Tom Outloud, now dead, who it also happens was his daughter’s fiancé. 

At the center: Tom Outland’s experience of an ancient cliff city in New Mexico. It’s not a snooze, I promise! St. Peter’s recollection of Tom’s spiritual experience is lodged in my heart and brain. St. Peter is depressed—in the era before pharmaceuticals but it is Tom’s journey that allows St. Peter to—well, I won’t spoil it.  

By Willa Cather,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Professor's House as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From Pulitzer Prize winner Willa Cather, The Professor's House is a vivid look into the domestic life of a 1920s Midwestern town and its people. Godfrey St. Peter, a professor at the unnamed Midwestern university near Lake Michigan, is preparing to move into a new home with his wife. As he looks upon the shabby house he's grown comfortable in, St. Peter muses about his life and his scholarship, philosophizing particularly on the people whom he's loved. His relationship with his wife and his daughters have become more and more strained over the years as St. Peter has alienated himself…


Book cover of Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

Jane Hamilton Why did I love this book?

Say Nothing is nonfiction. Keefe is a first-rate storyteller, an expert researcher, and a writer who can explain complex matters simply and beautifully. 

Even if you’re not interested in the Troubles of Ireland, or in Ireland, this book allows for an understanding of how local war is, how neighbors become enemies, how war breeds war, and how governments don’t work to erase poverty or manage the anger of young people. 

On top all of that, there are the archives at Boston University, which figure in the tale, and, the passage of time, which allows the participants to reflect on their youth. This was the best book that I read in 2018.  

By Patrick Radden Keefe,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Say Nothing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER •From the author of Empire of Pain—a stunning, intricate narrative about a notorious killing in Northern Ireland and its devastating repercussions

"Masked intruders dragged Jean McConville, a 38-year-old widow and mother of 10, from her Belfast home in 1972. In this meticulously reported book—as finely paced as a novel—Keefe uses McConville's murder as a prism to tell the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Interviewing people on both sides of the conflict, he transforms the tragic damage and waste of the era into a searing, utterly gripping saga." —New York Times Book Review

Jean McConville's…


Book cover of Brood

Jane Hamilton Why did I love this book?

This beautiful short novel about various matters, including chickens, house cleaning, idiosyncratic neighbors and parents, is funny—really, how can you not laugh at a hen named Miss Hennepin Country.  (Her owners live in Minnesota.)

Also, the novel goes to the heart of the grief of infertility. At the same time, Jackie Polzin is very, very funny in a remarkably quiet way. Her writing is spare, eloquent, and precise. She is, as we say in the biz, The Real Deal. I can open this book at any page and marvel and be filled with happiness.  

By Jackie Polzin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Brood as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An exquisite new literary voice—wryly funny, nakedly honest, beautifully observational, in the vein of Jenny Offill and Elizabeth Strout—depicts one woman's attempt to keep her four chickens alive while reflecting on a recent loss.
 
“Full of nuance and humor and strangeness…[Polzin] writes beautifully about everything.” —The New York Times

Over the course of a single year, our nameless narrator heroically tries to keep her small brood of four chickens alive despite the seemingly endless challenges that caring for another creature entails. From the forty-below nights of a brutal Minnesota winter to a sweltering summer which brings a surprise tornado, she…


Book cover of This Is Happiness

Jane Hamilton Why did I love this book?

This book is happiness

Okay, but here’s the thing: It takes about 30 pages for Niall Williams to hit his stride. There’s a lot about weather at first, the whole Irish rain situation. Stick with it. Once Christy comes on the scene in this small Irish town, Faha, and is hoping to have a meeting with a woman he left at the alter 30 years before, and once our young narrator gets involved in his plan—BAM. 

The reader is fully in the world of Faha as electricity is introduced into the village, as Noel begins to figure out love and the insanity that is normal around him—well, I did not want it ever to end, even as at the beginning I was waiting for it to begin. Another book to clutch to the heart.    

By Niall Williams,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked This Is Happiness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Shortlisted for Best Novel in the Irish Book Awards Longlisted for the 2020 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction From the acclaimed author of Man Booker-longlisted History of the Rain 'Lyrical, tender and sumptuously perceptive' Sunday Times 'A love letter to the sleepy, unhurried and delightfully odd Ireland that is all but gone' Irish Independent After dropping out of the seminary, seventeen-year-old Noel Crowe finds himself back in Faha, a small Irish parish where nothing ever changes, including the ever-falling rain. But one morning the rain stops and news reaches the parish - the electricity is finally arriving. With it…


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The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

Book cover of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

Kathryn Betts Adams Author Of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I was first a clinical social worker and then a social work professor with research focus on older adults. Over the past few years, as I have been writing my own memoir about caring for my parents, I’ve been drawn to memoirs and first-person stories of aging, illness, and death. The best memoirs on these topics describe the emotional transformation in the writer as they process their loss of control, loss of their own or a loved one’s health, and their fear, pain, and suffering. In sharing these stories, we help others empathize with what we’ve gone through and help others be better prepared for similar events in their own lives.

Kathryn's book list on Memoirs illness aging death moving vivid prose

What is my book about?

The Pianist's Only Daughter is a frank, humorous, and heartbreaking exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her mother, an English scholar and poet, and her father, a pianist and music professor. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' newly single father flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Their daughter watches in disbelief…

The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

What is this book about?

Grounded in insights about mental health, health and aging, The Pianist’s Only Daughter: A Memoir presents a frank and loving exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her English scholar and poet mother and her pianist father. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' father finds himself single and flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with…


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