What to Read When the World Is Ending

By

We are only five days away from the midterm elections. Five weeks ago, Christine Blasey Ford testified in front the Senate and the country to her certainty that Brett Kavanaugh had attempted to sexually assault her years ago. Nine days later, Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report which found that we are likely to see extreme damage from climate change by 2040 if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t curtailed rapidly. Last Saturday, Robert Bowers walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and committed what the media is calling the worst anti-Semitic incident in US history. Eleven people died, and six more were injured. The next day, Brazil elected far-right and dangerous candidate Jair Bolsonaro as its next president. This week, Trump and the GOP announced plans to end birthright citizenship.

The above cataloguing of recent atrocities isn’t exhaustive. If the world isn’t truly ending, it’s certainly in the midst of several significant crisis. And in moments of crises, we at The Rumpus find solace in, and draw strength from, literature. Below is a list of books our editors think are especially appropriate to read right now, in this fraught political moment.

P.S. You need to vote on Tuesday.

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One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses by Lucy Corin
At the heart of Lucy Corin’s dazzling collection are one hundred apocalypses: visions of loss and destruction, vexation and crisis, revelation and revolution, sometimes only a few lines long. In these haunting and wickedly funny stories, an apocalypse might come in the form of the end of a relationship or the end of the world, but they all expose the tricky landscape of our longing for a clean slate.

 

Field Guide to the End of the World by Jeannine Hall Gailey
This collection delivers a whimsical look at our culture’s obsession with apocalypse as well as a thoughtful reflection on our resources in the face of disasters both large and small, personal and public. Pop-culture characters—from Martha Stewart and Wile E. Coyote to zombie strippers and teen vampires—deliver humorous but insightful commentary on survival and resilience through poems that span imagined scenarios that are not entirely beyond the realm of possibility. The characters face their apocalypses in numerous ways, from strapping on rollerblades and swearing to taking notes as barns burn on the horizon. At the end of the world, the most valuable resource is human connection—someone holding our hands, reminding us “we are miraculous.”

 

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okrafor
In a post-apocalyptic Africa, the world has changed in many ways; yet in one region genocide between tribes still bloodies the land. A woman who has survived the annihilation of her village and a terrible rape by an enemy general wanders into the desert, hoping to die. Instead, she gives birth to an angry baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand. Gripped by the certainty that her daughter is different—special—she names her Onyesonwu, which means “Who fears death?” in an ancient language. Even as a child, Onye manifests the beginnings of a remarkable and unique magic. As she grows, so do her abilities, and during an inadvertent visit to the spirit realm, she learns something terrifying: someone powerful is trying to kill her.

 

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
Unrelenting drought has transfigured Southern California into a surreal, phantasmagoric landscape. In Los Angeles’s Laurel Canyon, two young “Mojavs squat in a starlet’s abandoned mansion. The couple’s fragile love somehow blooms in this arid place, and for the moment, it seems enough. But when they cross paths with a mysterious child, the thirst for a better future begins. Watkins’s novel explores the myths we believe about others and tell about ourselves, the double-edged power of our most cherished relationships, and the shape of hope in a precarious future that may be our own.

 

The Declarable Future by Jennifer Boyden
The poems in this book inhabit a world uneasily familiar and promising, but from the distance of a few possibilities into the future. In this collection of sharp, hallucinatory, and often darkly humorous poems, a lost man wanders among the towns of people who can’t remember what they named the children, how to find each other’s porches, or whether their buildings are still intact. That’s why they need the person with the loupe. Among the poems where doorknobs emit the daily news, stone angels fall from the sky, and the floating world’s harvest is whatever swims too close, the person with the loupe steadfastly verifies only what can be measured, while the lost man is witness to the unquantifiable and the limitless. And throughout, precise and observant language leads us expertly into the gorgeous, precarious wilderness of The Declarable Future.

 

The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt
In her study of the state of modern humanity, Hannah Arendt considers humankind from the perspective of the actions of which it is capable. The problems Arendt identified in 1958—diminishing human agency and political freedom, the paradox that as human powers increase through technological and humanistic inquiry, we are less equipped to control the consequences of our actions—continue to confront us today. A classic in political and social theory, The Human Condition is a work that has proved both timeless and perpetually timely.

 

An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941-1943 and Letters from Westerbork by Etty Hillesum
For the first time, Etty Hillesum’s diary and letters appear together to give us the fullest possible portrait of this extraordinary woman in the midst of World War II. In the darkest years of Nazi occupation and genocide, Etty Hillesum remained a celebrant of life whose lucid intelligence, sympathy, and almost impossible gallantry were themselves a form of inner resistance. The adult counterpart to Anne Frank, Hillesum testifies to the possibility of awareness and compassion in the face of the most devastating challenge to one’s humanity. She died at Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of twenty-nine.

 

Those Who Knew by Idra Novey
On an unnamed island country ten years after the collapse of a US-supported regime, Lena suspects the powerful senator she was involved with back in her student activist days is taking advantage of a young woman who’s been introducing him at rallies. When the young woman ends up dead, Lena revisits her own fraught history with the senator and the violent incident that ended their relationship. Why didn’t Lena speak up then, and will her family’s support of the former regime still impact her credibility? What if her hunch about this young woman’s death is wrong? What follows is a riveting exploration of the cost of staying silent and the mixed rewards of speaking up in a profoundly divided country.

 

Coming of Age at the End of Nature edited by Susan Cohen and Julie Dunlap
In Coming of Age at the End of Nature, insightful millennials express their anger and love, dreams and fears, and sources of resilience for living and thriving on our shifting planet. Twenty-two essays explore wide-ranging themes that are paramount to young generations but that resonate with everyone, including redefining materialism and environmental justice, assessing the risk and promise of technology, and celebrating place anywhere from a wild Atlantic island to the Arizona desert, to Baltimore and Bangkok. The contributors speak with authority on problems facing us all, whether railing against the errors of past generations, reveling in their own adaptability, or insisting on a collective responsibility to do better.

 

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch
Lidia Yuknavitch offers a vision of our near-extinction and a heroine—a reimagined Joan of Arc—poised to save a world ravaged by war, violence, and greed, and forever change history. A riveting tale of destruction and love found in the direst of places—even at the extreme end of post-human experience—The Book of Joan raises questions about what it means to be human, the fluidity of sex and gender, and the role of art as a means for survival.

 

Engine Empire by Cathy Park Hong
Engine Empire is a trilogy of lyric and narrative poems that evoke an array of genres and voices, from Western ballads to sonnets about industrialized China to fragmented lyric poems set in the future. Through three distinct yet interconnected sequences, Cathy Park Hong explores the collective consciousness of fictionalized boomtowns in order to explore the myth of prosperity. Hong draws together individual voices at odds with the world, voices that sing their wonder and terror.

 

Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey
Without telling her family, Elyria takes a one-way flight to New Zealand, abruptly leaving her stable but unfulfilling life in Manhattan. As her husband scrambles to figure out what happened to her, Elyria hurtles into the unknown, testing fate by hitchhiking, tacitly being swept into the lives of strangers, and sleeping in fields, forests, and public parks. Her risky and often surreal encounters with the people and wildlife of New Zealand propel Elyria deeper into her deteriorating mind. Haunted by her sister’s death and consumed by an inner violence, her growing rage remains so expertly concealed that those who meet her sense nothing unwell. This discord between her inner and outer reality leads her to another obsession: If her truest self is invisible and unknowable to others, is she even alive?

 

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
A chilling dystopian novel both provocative and prescient, Future Home of the Living God is a moving meditation on female agency, self-determination, biology, and natural rights that speaks to the troubling changes of our time. Erdrich paints a startling portrait of a young woman fighting for her life and her unborn child against oppressive forces that manifest in the wake of a cataclysmic event.

 

The Ecopoetry Anthology edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street
The Ecopoetry Anthology is the authoritative collection of contemporary American poetry about nature and the environment—in all its glory and challenge. From praise to lament, the work covers the range of human response to an increasingly complex and often disturbing natural world and inquires of our human place in a vastness beyond the human.

 

Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea by Jang Jin-Sung
As North Korea’s State Poet Laureate, Jang Jin-sung led a charmed life. With food provisions (even as the country suffered through its great famine), a travel pass, access to strictly censored information, and audiences with Kim Jong-il himself, his life in Pyongyang seemed safe and secure. But this privileged existence was about to be shattered. When a strictly forbidden magazine he lent to a friend goes missing, Jang Jin-sung must flee for his life.

 

Weather Woman by Cai Emmons
Thirty-year-old Bronwyn Artair, feeling out of place in her doctoral program in Atmospheric Sciences at MIT, drops out and takes a job as a TV meteorologist, much to the dismay of her mentor, Diane Fenwick. After a year of living alone in Southern New Hampshire, enduring the indignities of her job, dumped by her boyfriend, she discovers her deep connection to the natural world has given her an ability to affect natural forces. When she finally accepts she really possesses this startling capability, she must then negotiate a new relationship to the world. Who will she tell? Who will believe her? Most importantly, how will she put this new skill of hers to use?

 

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush
Harvey. Maria. Irma. Sandy. Katrina. We live in a time of unprecedented hurricanes and catastrophic weather events, a time when it is increasingly clear that climate change is neither imagined nor distant―and that rising seas are transforming the coastline of the United States in irrevocable ways. In this highly original work of lyrical reportage, Elizabeth Rush guides readers through some of the places where this change has been most dramatic, from the Gulf Coast to Miami, and from New York City to the Bay Area. For many of the plants, animals, and humans in these places, the options are stark: retreat or perish in place. Weaving firsthand accounts from those facing this choice with profiles of wildlife biologists, activists, and other members of the communities both currently at risk and already displaced, Rising privileges the voices of those usually kept at the margins.

 

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end. Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as the story takes off, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.

 

Black Nature edited by Camille T. Dungy
Black poets have a long tradition of incorporating treatments of the natural world into their work, but it is often read as political, historical, or protest poetry―anything but nature poetry. This is particularly true when the definition of what constitutes nature writing is limited to work about the pastoral or the wild. Camille T. Dungy has selected one hundred and eighty poems from ninety-three poets that provide unique perspectives on American social and literary history to broaden our concept of nature poetry and African American poetics. Black Nature brings to the fore a neglected and vital means of considering poetry by African Americans and nature-related poetry as a whole.

 

California by Edan Lepucki
The world Cal and Frida have always known is gone, and they’ve left the crumbling city of Los Angeles far behind them. They now live in a shack in the wilderness, working side-by-side to make their days tolerable in the face of hardship and isolation. Mourning a past they can’t reclaim, they seek solace in each other. But the tentative existence they’ve built for themselves is thrown into doubt when Frida finds out she’s pregnant. Terrified of the unknown and unsure of their ability to raise a child alone, Cal and Frida set out for the nearest settlement, a guarded and paranoid community with dark secrets. These people can offer them security, but Cal and Frida soon realize this community poses dangers of its own. In this unfamiliar world, where everything and everyone can be perceived as a threat, the couple must quickly decide whom to trust.

 

WHEREAS by Layli Long Soldier
WHEREAS confronts the coercive language of the United States government in its responses, treaties, and apologies to Native American peoples and tribes, and reflects that language in its officiousness and duplicity back on its perpetrators. Through a virtuosic array of short lyrics, prose poems, longer narrative sequences, resolutions, and disclaimers, Layli Long Soldier has created a brilliantly innovative text to examine histories, landscapes, her own writing, and her predicament inside national affiliations.

 

Witz by Joshua Cohen
On Christmas Eve 1999, all the Jews in the world die in a strange, millennial plague, with the exception of the firstborn males, who are soon adopted by a cabal of powerful people in the American government. By the following Passover, however, only one is still alive: Benjamin Israelien, a kindly, innocent, ignorant man-child. As he finds himself transformed into an international superstar, Jewishness becomes all the rage: matzo-ball soup is in every bowl, sidelocks are hip, and the only truly Jewish Jew left is increasingly stigmatized for not being religious. Since his very existence exposes the illegitimacy of the newly converted, Israelien becomes the object of a worldwide hunt. Meanwhile, in the not-too-distant future of our own, “real” world, another last Jew―the last living Holocaust survivor―sits alone in a snowbound Manhattan, providing a final melancholy witness to his experiences in the form of the punch lines to half-remembered jokes.

 

Black Wave by Michelle Tea
Desperate to quell her addiction to drugs, disastrous romance, and nineties San Francisco, Michelle heads south for LA. But soon it’s officially announced that the world will end in one year, and life in the sprawling metropolis becomes increasingly weird. While living in an abandoned bookstore, dating Matt Dillon, and keeping an eye on the encroaching apocalypse, Michelle begins a new novel, a sprawling and meta-textual exploration to complement her promises of maturity and responsibility. But as she tries to make queer love and art without succumbing to self-destructive vice, the boundaries between storytelling and everyday living begin to blur, and Michelle wonders how much she’ll have to compromise her artistic process if she’s going to properly ride out doomsday.

 

Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment by Juliana Spahr
In 1956 W. E. B. Du Bois was denied a passport to attend the Présence Africaine Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris. So he sent the assembled a telegram. “Any Negro-American who travels abroad today must either not discuss race conditions in the United States or say the sort of thing which our State Department wishes the world to believe.” Taking seriously Du Bois’s allegation, Juliana Spahr breathes new life into age-old questions as she explores how state interests have shaped US literature. What is the relationship between literature and politics? Can writing be revolutionary? Can art be autonomous, or is escape from nations and nationalisms impossible?

 

We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation by Jeff Chang
In these provocative, powerful essays acclaimed writer/journalist Jeff Chang takes an incisive and wide-ranging look at the recent tragedies and widespread protests that have shaken the country. Through deep reporting with key activists and thinkers, passionately personal writing, and distinguished cultural criticism, We Gon’ Be Alright links #BlackLivesMatter to #OscarsSoWhite, Ferguson to Washington, DC, the Great Migration to resurgent nativism. Chang explores the rise and fall of the idea of “diversity,” the roots of student protest, changing ideas about Asian Americanness, and the impact of a century of racial separation in housing. He argues that resegregation is the unexamined condition of our time, the undoing of which is key to moving the nation forward to racial justice and cultural equity.

 

Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
In her fourth collection of poetry, Nezhukumatathil studies forms of love as diverse and abundant as the ocean itself. She brings to life a father penguin, a C-section scar, and the Niagara Falls with a powerful force of reverence for life and living things. With an encyclopedic range of subjects and unmatched sincerity, Oceanic speaks to each reader as a cooperative part of the earth, an extraordinary neighborhood to which we all belong.

 

Blindness by Jose Saramago
A city is hit by an epidemic of “white blindness” which spares no one. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, but there the criminal element holds everyone captive, stealing food rations and raping women. There is one eyewitness to this nightmare who guides seven strangers—among them a boy with no mother, a girl with dark glasses, a dog of tears—through the barren streets, and the procession becomes as uncanny as the surroundings are harrowing.

 

The Glacier’s Wake by Katy Didden
In her debut poetry collection The Glacier’s Wake, Katy Didden attends to the large-scale tectonics of the natural world as she considers the sources and aftershocks of mortality, longing, and loss. A number of the poems in the collection are monologues in recurring voices—specifically those of a glacier, a sycamore, and a wasp—offering an inventive, prismatic approach to Didden’s ambitious subject matter. In The Glacier’s Wake, the scientific, the elegiac, and the fantastical intertwine in the service of considering our human place—constructive and destructive, powerful and impermanent—amidst the massive shiftings that are occurring endlessly all around us.

 

Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler
Lilith Iyapo is in the Andes, mourning the death of her family, when war destroys Earth. Centuries later, she is resurrected—by miraculously powerful unearthly beings, the Oankali. Driven by an irresistible need to heal others, the Oankali are rescuing our dying planet by merging genetically with mankind. But Lilith and all humanity must now share the world with uncanny, unimaginably alien creatures: their own children.

 

From the New World by Jorie Graham
In From the New World: Poems 1976-2014, we can witness the unfolding of Graham’s signature ethical and eco-political concerns, as well as her deft exploration of mythology, history, love and, increasingly, love of the world in a time of crisis. As the work evolves, the depth of compassion grows—gradually transforming, widening and expanding her extraordinary formal resources and her inimitable style.