The best books about the old (and new) weird America

Who am I?

Author Greil Marcus’ phrase “the old, weird America” gave me exactly the right words for something I’ve always felt: that there is a specific weirdness to the American landscape, an uncontrollable current of strange that runs beneath the carefully cultivated surface of heroes and neighbors and shared, stable dreams. Of course, as William Faulkner observed, the past isn’t past, and America is as weird as it’s ever been. Maybe weirder. Look at the news. Look out your window. No surprise, then, that I’m drawn to such a perspective when I read other people’s stories, and seldom get completely away from it when I write my own.


I wrote...

The End of All Our Exploring

By F. Brett Cox,

Book cover of The End of All Our Exploring

What is my book about?

A collection of 27 stories that move through multiple genres and many times and places, from the monsters of the 19th century to the future fields of war, from New England to the South to the American West, from the strange house at the top of the hill to the bottom of your childhood swimming pool. But whatever the time and place, and whether utterly fantastic or all too real, all of these remarkable fictions pose the fundamental question: what’s next? 

The books I picked & why

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Wisconsin Death Trip

By Michael Lesy,

Book cover of Wisconsin Death Trip

Why this book?

A stunning assembly of archival photographs and newspaper clippings from Jackson County, Wisconsin, in the last decade and a half of the 19th century, and the definitive explanation of why nobody in old-time photographs is ever smiling—and, I choose to believe, the real reason the parts of The Wizard of Oz set in Kansas were filmed in black and white. Economic privation, unceasing bereavement, disease both physical and mental—in other words, Tuesday. Was there any joy in Jackson County? Somewhere, I’m sure. What’s documented here is a stark, powerful beauty. The most real book I’ve ever encountered, and one of two on face-out display on my bookshelves.

Wisconsin Death Trip

By Michael Lesy,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Wisconsin Death Trip as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book is about life in a small turn-of-the-century Wisconsin town. Lesy has collected and arranged photographs taken between 1890 and 1910. Against these are juxtaposed excerpts from the Badger State Banner, from the Mendota State (asylum) Record Book, and occasionally quotations from the writings of Hamlin Garland and Glenway Wescott.


In Advance of the Landing: Folk Concepts of Outer Space

By Douglas Curran,

Book cover of In Advance of the Landing: Folk Concepts of Outer Space

Why this book?

The other book face-out on my bookshelves, in some ways almost too obvious—what’s weirder than UFO culture? This photo-laden account of the material expressions of faith that Something Is Out There (including a house shaped like a flying saucer I used to drive by regularly when visiting Pensacola Beach) seems almost innocent after the toxic eruptions of conspiracy paranoia of recent times. With its rich Kodachrome record of how a sideshow can become the main event, a perfect complement to Wisconsin Death Trip. Whenever I look at either book, I find it hard to look away.

In Advance of the Landing: Folk Concepts of Outer Space

By Douglas Curran,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In Advance of the Landing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since it was first published in 1985, Douglas Curran's photographic exploration of the strange world of UFO "true believers" has established itself as a classic work not only within the New Age/UFO community, but among sociologists, psychologists, and in the art and photography communities. This new edition, with an expanded text revisiting the Roswell, New Mexico, incident of 1947, brings back this essential work in a handsome new edition. As Tom Wolfe explains in his foreword: "Douglas Curran is not only a photographer but also a reporter, and an extremely gifted one. I am tempted to suggest that he also…


Sarah Canary

By Karen Joy Fowler,

Book cover of Sarah Canary

Why this book?

When talking with younger writers, sooner or later I ask them to name a writer or a book they can point to and say, “That’s the goal. That’s what I care about. That’s what I want to do.” If I asked myself this question, one of my answers would be Karen Joy Fowler’s first novel, a pitch-perfect account of 19th-century America and the mysterious title character, a weird woman whose weirdness confirms how weird everything else already is.

Sarah Canary

By Karen Joy Fowler,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Sarah Canary as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the Old West in 1873, a woman of indeterminate age and great ugliness appears without warning in the camp of Chinese railway workers, babbling incomprehensibly. Chin Ah Kin thinks she may be an immortal sent to enchant him - his more practical uncle sees trouble.


The Ballad of Black Tom

By Victor LaValle,

Book cover of The Ballad of Black Tom

Why this book?

What’s truly evil? Who’s the real monster here? Victor LaValle’s repurposing of H.P. Lovecraft in 1920’s Harlem does many things brilliantly, but for me most importantly it proved that, after a lifetime of reading, studying, teaching, and writing fiction, I can still read a new book and wind up asking, “How did he do that?” 

The Ballad of Black Tom

By Victor LaValle,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Ballad of Black Tom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there.

Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic…


The Sundial

By Shirley Jackson,

Book cover of The Sundial

Why this book?

Sometimes you come to an older book as an experienced reader and can still be amazed. Everyone knows The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but everyone should also know this remarkable novel about a world that may or may not be ending, a family that may or may not have special knowledge, a society that may or may not deserve to continue. No one understood the concept of “just beneath the surface” better than Shirley Jackson, and few if any explored it with more wit and grace.  

The Sundial

By Shirley Jackson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Sundial as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Before there was Hill House, there was the Halloran mansion of Jackson’s stunningly creepy fourth novel, The Sundial

When the Halloran clan gathers at the family home for a funeral, no one is surprised when the somewhat peculiar Aunt Fanny wanders off into the secret garden. But then she returns to report an astonishing vision of an apocalypse from which only the Hallorans and their hangers-on will be spared, and the family finds itself engulfed in growing madness, fear, and violence as they prepare for a terrible new world.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher…


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Interested in Wisconsin, African-American men, and Chinese Americans?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Wisconsin, African-American men, and Chinese Americans.

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