Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Discussion: Books For People Who Are Alone, Together

So, this Coronavirus thing has been interesting. For me, it’s been lonely and stressful, even though I’m stuck inside with my family. Being trapped with other people is challenging for a hardcore introvert like me. It’s bizarre to miss Target and burrito restaurants while simultaneously feeling overwhelmed by my fellow humans. Since I use books to understand the world, I thought I’d make a list of stories that capture the “isolated with others” experience.

When I first came up with this idea, I was tempted to fill my list with dystopias, cults, wars, prisons, and The Shining, but the world probably doesn’t need that list right now. I tried to think outside the apocalypse box. I chose books about remote communities or people who have to lean on their friends or family to survive. All of these characters are alone, but they’re not really alone. They’re alone, together.

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Alone, Together Reading List


The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins

Humor Graphic Novel

On the buttoned-down island of Here, all is well. By which we mean: orderly, neat, contained and, moreover, beardless.

Or at least it is until one famous day, when Dave, bald but for a single hair, finds himself assailed by a terrifying, unstoppable . . . monster*!

Where did it come from? How should the islanders deal with it? And what, most importantly, are they going to do with Dave?

*We mean a gigantic beard, basically.

Why I recommend it: The plot is freakin’ hilarious, but it also has depth. It’s about an isolated community of like-minded people. There’s xenophobia, distrust of the “other,” and fear of change. It’s relevant to the real world. And, it’ll make you laugh really hard. We could all use that right now.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Historical Fiction

Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam War a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: he will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.

Thirteen-year-old Leni, a girl coming of age in a tumultuous time, caught in the riptide of her parents’ passionate, stormy relationship, dares to hope that a new land will lead to a better future for her family. She is desperate for a place to belong. Her mother, Cora, will do anything and go anywhere for the man she loves, even if it means following him into the unknown.

At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers. In a wild, remote corner of the state, they find a fiercely independent community of strong men and even stronger women. The long, sunlit days and the generosity of the locals make up for the Allbrights’ lack of preparation and dwindling resources.

But as winter approaches and darkness descends on Alaska, Ernt’s fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to fracture. Soon the perils outside pale in comparison to threats from within. In their small cabin, covered in snow, blanketed in eighteen hours of night, Leni and her mother learn the terrible truth: they are on their own. In the wild, there is no one to save them but themselves.

Why I recommend it: The author brings the remoteness of Alaska to life, but the characters aren’t alone. They’re with a community of quirky, memorable weirdos. When humans and nature turn deadly, they rely on each other’s skills to keep (most of) the community alive.

Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones


He was born an outsider, like the rest of his family. Poor yet resilient, he lives in the shadows with his Aunt Libby and Uncle Darren, folk who stubbornly make their way in a society that does not understand or want them. They are mongrels, mixedblood, neither this nor that. The boy at the center of Mongrels must decide if he belongs on the road with his aunt and uncle, or if he fits with the people on the other side of the tracks.

For ten years, he and his family have lived a life of late-night exits and close calls—always on the move across the South to stay one step ahead of the law. But the time is drawing near when Darren and Libby will know if their nephew is like them or not. And the close calls they’ve been running from for so long are catching up fast, now. Everything is about to change.

Why I recommend it: It’s about a family of nomadic werewolves who are on the run from the law. Yes, werewolves. Their lifestyle makes it challenging for them to form friendships with regular people. The author has thought of everything, from werewolf biology to werewolf legal problems. If werewolves existed, they’d be like the characters in this book. Their realism makes them easy to love.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Literary Fiction

The Bigtree alligator-wrestling dynasty is in decline, and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, formerly #1 in the region, is swiftly being encroached upon by a fearsome and sophisticated competitor called the World of Darkness. Ava’s mother, the park’s indomitable headliner, has just died; Ava’s sister, Ossie, has fallen in love with a spooky character known as the Dredgeman, who may or may not be an actual ghost; and her brilliant big brother, Kiwi, who dreams of becoming a scholar, has just defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their family business from going under. Ava’s father, affectionately known as Chief Bigtree, is AWOL; and that leaves Ava, a resourceful but terrified thirteen, to manage ninety-eight gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief.

Why I recommend it: Karen Russell is one of the most creative authors I’ve come across. Everything about this book is beautiful. It has stunning nature writing and a close-knit family of gator wrestlers. The family members each have their own (bizarre) problems, but they’ll do whatever it takes to save their home.

Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire


Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere . . . else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced . . . they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.

No matter the cost.

Why I recommend it: A strangely fascinating murder mystery. It’s about a community of children who’ve had similar pasts. Most of the kids bond over their shared experiences, but even in a home for unusual people, there are a few dangerous outsiders.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater


It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.

At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.

Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a chance. So she enters the competition—the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

Why I recommend it: Who wouldn’t want to read about meat-eating horses that crawl out of the ocean? Locals train the dangerous horses while tourists flock to the island to bet on the races. The world-building is excellent. The island has its own culture, landscape, and small-town politics.

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

Literary Fiction

Part detective novel, part psychological thriller, Surfacing is the story of a talented woman artist who goes in search of her missing father on a remote island in northern Quebec. Setting out with her lover and another young couple, she soon finds herself captivated by the isolated setting, where a marriage begins to fall apart, violence and death lurk just beneath the surface, and sex becomes a catalyst for conflict and dangerous choices.

Why I recommend it: If you love nature writing, this is a must-read. It’s stunning! It’s also the most serious book on my list. I decided to include it because isolation is difficult. The main character goes into the wilderness with her friends and lover, but she still succumbs to loneliness.


Nomadland: Surviving America In The Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

Travel / Economics / Sociology

From the beet fields of North Dakota to the National Forest campgrounds of California to Amazon’s CamperForce program in Texas, employers have discovered a new, low-cost labor pool, made up largely of transient older Americans. Finding that social security comes up short, often underwater on mortgages, these invisible casualties of the Great Recession have taken to the road by the tens of thousands in late-model RVs, travel trailers, and vans, forming a growing community of nomads: migrant laborers who call themselves “workampers.”

On frequently traveled routes between seasonal jobs, Jessica Bruder meets people from all walks of life: a former professor, a McDonald’s vice president, a minister, a college administrator, and a motorcycle cop, among many others—including her irrepressible protagonist, a onetime cocktail waitress, Home Depot clerk, and general contractor named Linda May.

In a secondhand vehicle she christens “Van Halen,” Bruder hits the road to get to know her subjects more intimately. Accompanying Linda May and others from campground toilet cleaning to warehouse product scanning to desert reunions, then moving on to the dangerous work of beet harvesting, Bruder tells a compelling, eye-opening tale of the dark underbelly of the American economy—one that foreshadows the precarious future that may await many more of us. At the same time, she celebrates the exceptional resilience and creativity of these quintessential Americans who have given up ordinary rootedness to survive. Like Linda May, who dreams of finding land on which to build her own sustainable “Earthship” home, they have not given up hope.

Why I recommend it: Living in a van and traveling from job to job seems like a lonely experience, but the resilient people in this book have found ways to build communities. They connect online or meet in remote deserts to share tips for being “houseless.” I admire their tenacity and creativity.

Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-Up World, One Long Journey Home by Leigh Newman


Growing up in the wilds of Alaska, seven-year-old Leigh Newman spent her time landing silver salmon, hiking glaciers, and flying in a single-prop plane. But her life split in two when her parents unexpectedly divorced, requiring her to spend summers on the tundra with her “Great Alaskan” father and the school year in Baltimore with her more urbane mother.

Navigating the fraught terrain of her family’s unraveling, Newman did what any outdoorsman would do: She adapted. With her father she fished remote rivers, hunted caribou, and packed her own shotgun shells. With her mother she memorized the names of antique furniture, composed proper bread-and-butter notes, and studied Latin poetry at a private girl’s school. Charting her way through these two very different worlds, Newman learned to never get attached to people or places, and to leave others before they left her. As an adult, she explored the most distant reaches of the globe as a travel writer, yet had difficulty navigating the far more foreign landscape of love and marriage.

Why I recommend it: Isolation is a major theme in this one. The author writes about how she wants connections with people, but she doesn’t stay in one place long enough to make friends. The book is about learning to take risks to make relationships work. It’s honest and surprisingly funny.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing


In August 1914, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton boarded the Endurance and became locked in an island of ice. Thus began the legendary ordeal of Shackleton and his crew of twenty-seven men. When their ship was finally crushed between two ice floes, they attempted a near-impossible journey over 850 miles of the South Atlantic's heaviest seas to the closest outpost of civilization.

Why I recommend it: If you think being stuck in the house with your children is tough, imagine being stuck in Antarctica with 27 men and no internet. The men were impressively optimistic about the whole ordeal. I would have lost my mind for sure. This is one of the greatest survival stories ever. It’s a testament to human courage and human stupidity.

Do you have any books to add to my list?


  1. The Great Alone has been on my TBR since it released but it just hasn’t happened yet. I keep telling myself that I need to be in the right mood for it but I’m not exactly sure what that mood is. LOL

  2. Great list! The Scorpio Races and Every Heart a Doorway have been on my TBR list for quite a while now. And Nomadland looks really interesting.

  3. My mistake was trying The Great Alone on audio. I think it's a bit too slow to ingest that way for me. One of these days, I will pick up the book.

  4. Swamplandia has been on my TBR list for a while. I've read Endurance years ago. You seem to be interested in Alaska and you need to realize that beards are NOT evil! :)


  5. Great concept for a post, and nice varied book list also - Nomadland & Endurance are both on my nonfiction wishlist.

  6. Almost none of these would be on my TBR normally, but reading your descriptions honestly makes me want to read every single one of them.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

  7. Endurance really was an incredible read - there's no way I would have survived that!

  8. Interesting list! I have to admit, as you were describing the 'alone, but together' concept, the first book I thought of was The Great Alone. I really liked that one :) Thanks for sharing!

  9. I love what you did with this list. The Great Alone is definitely perfect choice for your theme. I loved that book.

  10. Okay, I think I need The Giant Beard that was Evil. Thanks for sharing all of these!


  11. Thanks for recommending these books to your readers! I feel like we're all at the same place in our thoughts, because I felt just like you.
    Over here, in The Netherlands, things are slowly opening up, and you feel, as of right now, how much you've missed the small things.

    Like me ordering an iced tea for dinner last week, I was CRAZILY happy. We learn not to take everything for granted and all, but I'm also happy that things are slowly getting back to normal here. Hope things are slowly going better over there as well.

  12. This is such a creative list, I really need to read Every Heart a Doorway!

  13. I love this list! So many of these books have been on my TBR for far too long. I really should dive in soon!

  14. Ah yes Endurance. That was isolation in a whole new way!

  15. Great list! I have Swamplandia on my tbr for this year!

  16. I definitely need to read The Great Alone! It's funny, I think I was stressed out by The Scorpio Races BECAUSE it felt so isolating! I liked the story but I found it very confining which is weird and something I haven't really felt about other books. I love this list idea, thanks for sharing it!