In trying to come up with this list of books, I changed my mind at least six times. There were the obvious choices of “What to read when the world is on fire/gone mad/awaiting the second coming/trying to survive the apocalypse,” but to be honest, I didn’t think I had the appropriate books for any of that. Then there was the more personal, “What to read when you’ve just lost your uterus and, all your children are leaving home.” Still, given the world’s aforementioned state of crisis, and my need to hold on to whatever sanity I have left, I decided that one was a bad idea. (And, I don’t think I have the appropriate books for that one, either.)
So I began pulling books, digging them out of closets, collecting them from my office, unburying those that I’d squirreled away while waiting for another bookshelf to appear. I began flipping their pages and found all my “reading love notes” in the form of underlined passages, and things like *see p. __ ¶ __ of ___.
The more I looked, the more I began to wander. I read a page here, a paragraph there; I dug through my stack to find something else, needed to go back to the office for a different book and left with four. Then it occurred to me that this is what I do, and that this is the kind of list I should be writing: what to read when you’re no good at reading something straight through because you’re constantly pausing to look up a painting, listen to a song, pull out a map, or grab another book from the shelf in order to understand things in a larger context. This last bit is key, but obviously, that title was way too long. This is how I settled on the rabbit hole.
Because understanding things in a larger context, and all kinds of sense-making, have been increasingly difficult for me over the last five years, I’ve decided to limit this list to the books and authors that have genuinely made a difference to me over this period. Some of these differences have been large and personal; others have been quiet awakenings. Each has sent me on a trip to unexpected places and helped me to grow and learn and be more complete in a world, and profession, that doesn’t always make sense to me.
I’m starting with a craft book because I believe it to be relevant for both reader and writer, and because perspective matters in every case. I’ll then turn to some of the best essay collections I’ve ever read before moving on to fiction (and half-fiction) that changed my life. Finally, I’ll close with a group of lectures that make poetry feel like nonfiction and fiction feel like poetry.
The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story by Christopher Castellani
Whether you’re a writer in search of direction or a bibliophile who loves reexamining texts you’ve read a dozen times over, The Art of Perspective is a quick read that packs a punch. Using examples from authors such as Brontë, Dostoyevsky, Paley, O’Brien, and many others, Castellani shows us that not all narrators are equal, arguing that if a writer struggles to tell the story, it’s probably because they’ve got the point of view wrong. I first picked up Castellani’s book when I believed I had an out-of-control protagonist that needed to be reined in. Instead of helping me do this, The Art of Perspective provided an up-close analysis of how point of view shapes a story and the problems that occur when the author inserts too much control. Short, concise, and informative while being keenly aware of writing trends and a writer’s ability to subvert them, The Art of Perspective provides invaluable advice for any writer who finds themself struggling with a need to control.
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
First, Baldwin’s use of visuals within many of his essays is positively stunning—he drops the reader right into where he’s standing. The pulse of his words helps feed this feeling while reflecting his willingness to be in the moment, walking the reader through the scene. As a writer, it is fascinating to go back and track the narrative stance Baldwin chooses between essays. How the mood, or temperament, are reflected in his use of the first-person “I,” the plural “we,” or the stand-offish reporter approach. Baldwin’s writing is both thought-provoking and witty while analyzing prejudice and the personal and cultural identity of being Black in America. One of the hardest things about reading Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son is accepting the fact that despite the shiny veneer (white) people have wanted to put on things, very little has changed in race relations since the book’s publication in 1955. It’s difficult to move on from that and say anything more, but I also believe it’s important to repeat: very little has changed.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
The bravery Hanif Abdurraqib shows in They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is perhaps not the first thing people think to comment on. But the fact that you cannot read this book without feeling like intimate friends with the man behind it is nothing short of bravery from where I’m sitting. Abdurraqib engages the reader in authentic conversations about life, love, friendship, and his experience of coming to age as a Black man in the States. A true teller of stories, his use of pop culture and song creates a shared experience that seamlessly bridges the gap between author and reader. I have not read a more relevant book than this in the last three years, nor have I recommended another book more often than I have recommended this one. They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, is not really about the music, but if you believe there’s a soundtrack for life and are interested in hearing someone else’s, this book is for you.
Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit by Aisha Sabatini Sloan
I need to preface this by saying Aisha was a teacher at my first MFA residency (November 2016—during the election). I hadn’t read any of her work, had no idea who she was, but honestly believed her to be some kind of angel while also being the epitome of everything cool. After the residency was over, I read a few of her essays and was so overwhelmed that the next time I saw her, I was a blundering idiot in her presence. Aisha Sabatini Sloan had become my übermensch. I’m a huge fan of her writing. The essays comprising Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit feel, at times, like walking through someone else’s lucid dream. There is an erudite exactness and a logic to them, but there is also a floating soap bubble’s view of the world that drifts and bounces and reflects until—poof, it’s gone. More often than not, the sharp brilliance of Sloan’s words makes me cry, but the reasons for this are more complicated than what’s happening on the page. Her words hold a meditative quality that, at times, forces you to stop and sit in the moment. Sometimes these moments are filled with all the light and love that the universe has to offer; other times, they’re filled with all the knowledge and understanding you can humanly hold. Sometimes, that last bit is more painful than you expected.
Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot by Vera Tobin
Ever wonder about the cognitive science behind good storytelling? Elements of Surprise covers an incredible amount of territory surrounding the storyteller’s effort to pull off a satisfactory plot, while also offering up how and why the audience continues to buy into surprises. Tobin argues that the curse of knowledge makes both possible and uses other cognitive biases to show how we humans are easily fooled, and in a lot of ways, allow it to happen. (Think The Sixth Sense and how obvious the truth became once the surprise was revealed.) The list of writers Tobin references is extensive, and not limited to those who write mystery, suspense, or thrillers. As a warning, a spoiler alert is given in the introduction, but if you’re not one to read them, many plot twists and surprise endings may be ruined for you throughout this book. Elements of Surprise lands on my list for a few reasons, but primarily it’s Tobin’s use of the last chapter. Here, she moves our thoughts away from literature and film and draws attention to how these same cognitive biases come into play wherever rhetoric is used.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
I had no idea how much anger hid below the surface of my womanhood until I read “The Husband Stitch,” the first short story in Machado’s debut collection, Her Body and Other Parties. Talk about rabbit holes… I first read this book during the #MeToo movement’s peak, and I’m going to say I sought therapy soon after. Though this collection of short stories is alternately described as experimental, horror, fantasy, and magical realism, I think it’s unnerving and remarkably telling that, as a woman, it’s easy to forget Her Body and Other Parties is fictional. While reading, one can easily see it’s not taking place in this world, but the feelings it stirs up are so big and so real that upon reflection, “fiction” is the last thing that comes to mind. As someone who was told, “That’s just a part of being a woman” by every woman I knew as I was growing up, Machado’s words helped validate my experience of wanting to scream back, “Well, it shouldn’t be!” To say that this book changed my life would be an understatement; the conversations it brought into my home, with my husband and children, changed all of us.
The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter
First, you should know the main character, her mother, and her grandmother all have knots in their torsos. The family earns its money through a Meat Quarry that has been passed down through generations—sidenote, this quarry is every bit as disgusting as you’d imagine. But then you should know that despite the surreal nature swimming around The Book of X, it’s easy to connect to the genuine emotional truths it discusses. Clear and oppressive gender roles, a woman’s discomfort with her own body, the allowing of that body to be used in the hopes of being loved in return, the inadequacy of healthcare systems, and the core belief that we’re never quite good enough as we are. As complicated as it is brilliant, The Book of X is hands-down the best book I read in 2019. I love its story. I love its layout. I love how Etter ends each—can I call them chapters?—with random factoids; some I had to share with everyone I spoke to for several days afterward, and some I spent weeks researching the roots of. Sara Rose Etter deserves mad props for this work. Though it was much easier for me to hold this work as fiction, this book, much like Machado’s, changed my perspective of womanhood.
A Bestiary by Lily Hoang
I’ve noticed another common element shared between many of these books: their forms are atypical, and maybe that’s why they lend themselves so easily to the rabbit hole. A Bestiary is by no means an exception. Written as thirteen linked essays, each braided with a mixture of fact and fable, Hoang covers everything from identity to addiction in fragments and one-liners that seem to hold eternal truths. As the reader compiles details and allegories, full stories begin to reveal themselves and wind up saying way more through their interweaving than they ever could if told straight. Sometimes I found myself wondering if it was easier for Hoang to write it out this way—skimming off the details, jumping between fact and fiction, not having to face things head-on—but the reality is, the skill necessary to pull off such an intricate piece of writing would call for more attention to detail.
Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle
Ruefle’s Madness Rack, and Honey was compiled out of a series of once-a-year lectures she was required to give graduate students where she worked. I have no idea what this book is about, or whether it’s supposed to be “about” anything, but I love everything that happens on its pages. Frequently written in fragments that slip up, down, and around again, the fluidity of Ruefle’s thoughts lulls you in and then sends you downstream like a leaf in the water. Its soothing nature can be misleading. Especially by the time you get to the chapter titled “On Fear.” It is raw, like the rest of the book, but so full of life and movement that it’s easy to forget how everything ends. I wanted to flip through and get a better grip on the unnamed thing Madness contains and this is what I got:
- There are poets who are resigned to not being able to save the world, who barely have enough time to catch up with themselves and the attendant mystery of their fear and being.
- At the beginning of this century, the elders decided to change the nature of Shaker burial and removed all of the individual headstones, using them for sidewalks, countertops, and ironing boards.
- To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations.
- What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. (Kafka quote)
- Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11: There are no comments by Mr. Armstrong.
Then, I realized, this is what I love about Madness, Rack, and Honey. It isn’t just a rabbit hole; it’s a complete warren.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Tiffany’s new novel, M-Theory, forthcoming from Baobab Press on February 9! – Ed.
M-Theory by Tiffany Cates
Donovan James enjoys his routine. Wake up. Catch the El. Teach high school English. Run the track. Return home on the train. Repeat. In a turbulent Chicago, this routine keeps his mind from wandering. Well, from wandering into the less-immediate world anyway. You see, Donovan can’t seem to stop watching the people who frequent his morning commute, or from dissecting their lives based on these regular but limited encounters. He believes that he knows them well. That is until one morning, he runs late, and by a series of minuscule events he runs into her, the lady in the blue coat, a passenger on his train car whom he has seldom paid attention. The moment is fleeting, but now everything has changed. The routine is disrupted. Lives are not what they seem. Soon Donovan will be caught up in the investigations of Detective Lesley Powell as well as a train full of other lives and their lies, careening toward something mysterious and sinister. Donovan knows where he got on this train, but where will he get off?