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Books to read when you’re feeling low-energy

Vox’s book critic recommends books to fit your very specific mood.

Ask a Book Critic Amanda Northrop/Vox
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to the latest installment of Vox’s Ask a Book Critic, in which I, Vox book critic Constance Grady, provide book recommendations to suit your very specific mood: either how you’re feeling right now or how you’d like to be feeling instead.

This week I’ve been reading Brit Bennet’s The Vanishing Half and feeling faintly stunned by it. I liked Bennet’s debut novel The Mothers quite a bit but didn’t fall in love with it. But The Vanishing Half has me head over heels. I’ll tell you more about it later in my review, but right now I can say that I have to keep pausing while I read to luxuriate in how beautiful the sentences are.

But honestly, maybe you don’t want to read something that’s super beautiful and a little surreal right now? Because I have been there! Beauty takes a lot of energy!

Whatever you want, I’m here for you. Tell me how you’re feeling, or how you’d like to feel, and I’ll find the perfect book to match.

The recommendation requests below, submitted to me via email and on Twitter, have been edited for length and clarity.

Reading The Secret History, I really got into the book in a way that I haven’t been able to for a while. Developments in the plot felt like gut punches. So: Recommend me something that will provoke visceral reactions and intense feelings?

I am so glad to hear that you enjoyed The Secret History! (I’m assuming you read it with our book club, and anyone else who is reading this post should check out our discussion series there.) For something else that’s intense and plot-driven in a smart way, I’d point you toward literary thrillers. Gillian Flynn and Tana French are both always safe bets, and The Likeness by Tana French is actually very close in mood and tone to The Secret History.

Can you recommend books as madcap, inventive, and hilarious as Eoin Colfer’s Plugged and Screwed? I’ve tried Google and Goodreads to no avail. Help!!

Ooh, this is a tricky one. My normal go-to author for this sort of request would be Jasper Fforde (The Eyre Affair is a start-to-finish delight), but when I suggested Fforde, you wrote back that you already read and liked him. In that case, I have to assume you have probably already read both Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, the two best other sources for this particular kind of quirky British genre humor, and at this point I start to come up dry.

So I called in an assist from my good friend Lisbeth Redfield of Pen + Brush, who has an enviable used book habit and thus the most impressive knowledge of obscure genre fiction of anyone I know. Lisbeth recommends the ’90s sci-fi caper Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon by Spider Robinson, who has won about a million Hugos and Nebulas. She describes Callahan as having “a Hitchhiker’s energy with Ffordian wordplay,” and truly I can think of nothing better for an Eoin Colfer fan.

I am feeling very low on energy these days. I want to read about some real love with a happy ending that gives me hope of a happier world and future.

Try An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole! It’s lovely and smart and tender, and like all true romance, it has a happy ending.

So far in lockdown I have read most of the novels of James Herriot and would be grateful for a recommendation of something similar. I’m looking for a book(s) set in a rural or natural setting, with nice people, fairly low stakes, lots of laughs, and evocative writing.

Oh man, James Herriot novels are such a good idea for what to read right now. Nothing but a vet roaming the English countryside and having some animal-centric hijinks. What could be better? Well, a couple of things come close, which is why we’re all here.

The best books I know of for that kind of pastoral low-stakes playfulness would be the Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery. They have a reputation for being very frilly, but they’re mostly just about people running around small towns in Canada getting into small scrapes and then looking at the beautiful natural landscapes all around them and pushing through. I would also recommend Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, which is a little more satirical in its humor than Herriot is, but is also extremely funny and ends up being very kind to most of its characters.

I’m looking for something short, engaging, and approachable in the classics — think Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, but not epic-length. I’m most familiar with the ancient Greco-Roman tradition, so suggestions outside that area and era are especially welcome.

If you have not already read Anne Carson’s translation of Antigone, I’d point you in that direction, it’s a gorgeous one. (The kids on Tumblr are always quoting from it, which never ceases to delight me.) Also check out The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon; it’s an incredibly charming and elegant memoir-of-sorts of court life in 10th century Japan. The Meredith McKinney translation is best!

If you’d like me to recommend a book for you, email me at with the subject line “Ask a Book Critic.” The more specific your mood, the better!

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