After writing this list, a theme emerged: give me the weird—
Dark Tales – Shirley Jackson
These macabre short stories, in classic Jackson fashion, mostly take place in the light of the suburban day—no jump scares or gore here. If you read “The Lottery” in high school, you know Jackson is the master of that kind of eerie, seeping horror that sticks to your bones like poisoned oatmeal. Everything is always fine at first: the sun is shining, everything is clean, and everyone knows what is expected of them. And yet, as you read, you realize that something is just slightly off-kilter—but when did that happen? In what paragraph, what sentence, what word did the world just tilt a bit into such utter wrongness? The fact that often you can’t quite pinpoint that moment is Jackson’s most terrifying trick: suddenly, you realize, your own “real” world isn’t so plumb after all. Ottessa Moshfegh provides the excellent forward; the pairing of Moshfegh (herself a deeply creepy writer) and Jackson is inspired, but Moshfegh drops a few spoilers you might want to avoid for full effect.
Women Who Run With the Wolves – Clarissa Pinkola Estés, PhD
This book was recommended to me by a tarot card reader. But that in itself makes wonderful sense here: part critical theory, part guided self-help, the book uses fairy tales and myths from around the world to explore the deeper, often repressed meanings of images and behaviors the daylit world silts over. Estés argues that human beings—and especially women—have been alienated from their animal natures, with ruinous psychological consequences. Freedom and wholeness lie in recovering those moments of intuition, courage, and even fear that tales like Bluebeard and The Crescent Moon Bear try and try to tell us:
We are all filled with a longing for the wild. There are few culturally sanctioned antidotes for this yearning. We were taught to feel shame for such a desire. We grew our hair long and used it to hide our feelings. But the shadow of Wild Woman still lurks behind us during our days and nights. No matter where we are, the shadow that trots behind us is definitely four-footed.
Indeed I Was Pleased With the World – Mary Ruefle
I always have a Ruefle nearby. Her particular brand of utter weirdness is the antidote to a late-capitalist existence; reading her poetry unpicks the fine stitches of a desperately ordered existence and reweaves something misshapen and impractical and so, so right.
In this collection, and scattered throughout many others, Ruefle’s wonky religiosity actually ends up making more sense than any other version. She is a visionary and a humanist, a doubter and a profound lover of the world. Also I once saw her fold a fitted sheet onstage at a poetry reading. As a poem. It was awesome.
I came across the living one night
moving in files through the forest.
I came across the living one night
in a double swarm of snow.
When they stopped to eat the charred lump of a log
I noticed they were wearing scarves on their feet.
As far as I could tell there weren’t any real leaders
but staring at a rock they formed decisions
and when asleep one would very often suddenly
wake at the edge of dawn,
cry out like a bird
then sob like a human.
The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie (audiobook narrated by Steven Pacey)
Now this is just pure fun. My sister, a great listener of audiobooks, knows that a) if a narrator’s voice is in the least bit irritating, I can’t listen to it, and b) if the writing in a fantasy novel is in the least bit lazy, I can’t read it (the only book that had passed the writing-and-telling test had been the audiobook version of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. I’ve listened to its 36 hours six times; my sister’s in the double-digits). So I knew that when she recommended Abercrombie and his narrator, Steven Pacey, it would be worth my earwidth. This, the first novel in the First Law trilogy, is funny, dark, and in love with its characters enough to let them take real physical and emotional risks, and Pacey takes the writing seriously enough to have fun with Abercrombie’s wry humor and precise characterization. I haven’t yet finished the first book, but I can’t wait to spend more time with Pacey’s delightful interpretation of the dashing-soldier-turned-crippled-Inquisitor.
Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? – Kenneth Koch
Any practitioner of anything hopes they can hold on to the “beginner’s mind,” in which everything is possible and the inner judge hasn’t taken up unwelcome residence. The surrealists, for example, tried to liberate their socialized minds, uncovering the freshness of the more “natural,” beginner, childlike state. And yet, as Koch argues, the way poetry has been taught in school strangles the child’s innate access to the subconscious. Koch may have written this handbook for teachers of small children, but I have used this book whenever I need to go back to my own artistic third grade and start over. There is no condescension here, only the real stuff of poetry made clear. Is there anything more fundamental, for example, to centuries-worth of love poetry than “Write an exaggerated compliment poem to someone you like very much, in which you tell where that person gets his or her nicest characteristics”?
The gang’s all here: you’ve got a bunch of European and American Greats (Shakespeare, Rimbaud, Blake, Dickinson, Stevens, Lorca, etc.), as well as some wonderful representations of Chinese, Japanese, “African Tribal,” and “American Indian” poems (this was 1973, remember). Grownup poets will be both humbled and inspired by the anthology of poems written by third and fourth graders; here’s kiddo Edgar Guadeloupe inspired by Robert Herrick:
My poem is about a banana who walked away from
the store with his friend the apple
The banana was green and the apple was yellow
pink but I saw the apple and banana walking and
my head fell off
I put it back on again
I went walking home with my left hand in my right hand
When I got home I didn’t know what was with me I
fell on the floor and went crazy.
Man, I wish I had written that.