What to Read When You’re Waiting for the World to Feel Normal Again
One of the things I like to do in my writing—my project, my writer move, my crutch—is to take a ridiculous situation and say, okay, what if that actually existed? What would it be like to live in this world? What would that woman from the Cialis commercial be thinking as she sits in that tub, next to her husband a few feet away in his own personal tub? I’ve written stories from the perspective of Baby Hitler, Porky Pig, Jake from State Farm, eight clowns and a monkey packed into a spiraling clown car, a Cadillac, and a high school basketball team. I can tell you that writing from the perspective of an old man who believes everything Donald Trump says is the absolute craziest goddam thing I’ve ever tried.
My short novel Howard and Charles at the Factory is about two old men who, believing everything Donald Trump says, show up at their old and now-shuttered factory on the day of his inauguration and proceed to sit there and wait for their jobs to come back. In the acknowledgements I, um, acknowledge that this story is where I’ve put all my anger, confusion, incredulity over what’s happened in/to our country for the past several years. Whatever people think of the book, it helped me to have a place to put all of this, something potentially more constructive than yelling at high school classmates on Facebook or burying my head in a box of wine. (Okay, I did both of those too, but you get the picture.)
We all need something to help us make it through this night. Here are some books (and one album) that might help as we step into another election cycle.
Burn It Down: Women Writing about Anger edited by Lilly Dancyger
Okay, yeah, I’m angry, but I’m also a fifty-two-year-old white man living in Central Pennsylvania, so while I feel pretty okay about that anger I also try to understand that there are loads of other people—like, say, all women?—who have every reason to be much more angry than me. This anthology is more than blowing off steam, though, even if a great amount of steam-blowing is warranted. It’s an examination of women’s anger from a wide selection of women writers who bring different viewpoints and approach anger from very different angles. I keep buying copies and giving them away and every time I do it makes me slightly less angry (for at least an hour or so).
How to Be Safe by Tom McAllister
This novel about a teacher caught in the aftermath of a school shooting provided a kind of template for me about how to come at an “issue” in a way that’s more personal, interesting, character-driven, and downright weird. Here is a book that manages to be both profoundly angry and very, very funny all at once—and it has a lot to say about gun culture, media, the internet, misogyny, and what it’s like to be a maybe not entirely normal but also not totally crazy person in a world gone completely bonkers.
Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias
People use the word “gutpunch” when they talk about this book. They talk about being devastated. They call it a story collection and a novel and a crime book and a horror book and a book that also gets at some very real issues happening around the US/Mexico border. Whatever it is, this is a beautiful, bloody, heartbreaking work of art. It offers us another model for how to take all we’re feeling and create something new and unique.
How to Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays by Tyrese L. Coleman
In a world where it has maybe become impossible to determine fact from fiction, Tyrese L. Coleman throws out the distinction between the two in this “memoir in stories and essays” and takes on issues of race, sex, class, and family. The phrase gets thrown around too often but this thing is an actual tour de force. Here is amazing writing and storytelling, no matter what genre its author is working in.
Continental Breakfast by Danny Caine
For the past four years I’ve felt like I must not be living in the same country some other people are talking about, so this book of poems is a real comfort. Danny Caine is definitely living in the same America I’m walking around in—the one populated with second-rate chain restaurants and places that used to be a photocopy place before they were a video place before they were a Starbucks, and he understands the hopes and dreams, low stakes, and stark disappointments that happen here.
Infomocracy by Malka Older
This is the first book in Malka Older’s The Centenal Cycle and it imagines a world divided up into blocks of one hundred thousand people (“centenals”), each of which votes in a government, with the planetary controls given over to a “supermajority” (the government that has the most centenals). It’s a sci-fi book but also a thriller and an accomplishment of world-building on every level—a fun, politically savvy, socially interesting book. (Side note: I think I might be down for this as an actual political structure? I just need 99,999 more people to sign on and we got this.)
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
As a writer I’m so grateful this very weird book was as popular as it was—it’s so strange, even structurally, and so great, and so many people loved it; I could feel possibilities opening up as I read it for the very first time. As a person who works in technology, I really appreciate the wonder this book takes at the seemingly small technological miracles we can take for granted—like the fact that I’m typing this in a hot, well-lit room while it’s twenty degrees outside, on a machine that is saving each word immediately into a cloud that actually doesn’t exist but is instead comprised of thousands of servers, each one a small miracle in itself, all over the world.
The Companions by Katie Flynn
This book is forthcoming in early March from Gallery/Scout Press, and I was lucky enough to have access to an advance copy. A great counterpart/companion to Station Eleven, this book reads like a very long and beautifully written episode of Black Mirror, a page-turner that takes on the project of asking what it means to be conscious, to be human. An amazing trick and a great time.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
Sometimes you just need some comfort food, and this fun, ragtag-team-of-scrappy-underdog-space-adventurers book is a great diversion. Smart writing and fun characters I still think about, and a plot about a bunch of stuff that seemed important when I was reading about it but was really just a way for me to hang out for awhile with these cool beings doing cool things in space.
Darkness on the Edge of Town by Bruce Springsteen
When people in this country started waxing nostalgic about the good old days of coal mines and steel mills, I thought, huh. I thought, nope. I thought Bruce Springsteen warned us about all of that and how it was going to kill our bodies and our souls. My book opens with a Trump speech in Pittsburgh touting how “we’re going to bring back your coal industry, your steel industry” and a quote from the Springsteen song “Factory” about how “men walk through these gates with death in their eyes” and “somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight.” As I worked on Howard and Charles at the Factory I referred back to those lyrics nearly every day because I think they highlight the stark difference between the America in Donald Trump’s head (if indeed there is anything in there) and the actual America that exists. The characters in my book can never quite remember what it was they did in their factory, even as they sit outside it, bodies and minds breaking down as the weather turns colder—because what they’re waiting for never existed in the first place. Darkness on the Edge of Town is my reality check on all this nostalgia for the good old days of factories and coal mines.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Dave’s novel, Howard and Charles at the Factory, out now from Outpost19 Books! – Ed.
Howard and Charles at the Factory by Dave Housley
In this remarkably funny short novel, two aging men arrive at their old factory to wait for their jobs to come back, believing the promises of Donald Trump’s campaign. In a pair of lawn chairs, they keep watch over the abandoned site, echoing the president’s words and weathering the disorientation that follows, from visions of a dinosaur and a hovering UFO to the opportunistic violence of a white nationalist influencer. A swift meditation on the brute force of words, with all the comedy and urgency of Dave Housley’s expert wit.