TPM Reporter Kate Riga: My Literary Collection of ‘Demented Girls’

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We’re asking our fellow TPMers to share their own personal reading recommendations: books they love or that have shaped their lives.

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Reporter and co-host of The Josh Marshall Podcast Kate Riga is up this month. Check out her literary collection of ‘demented girls.’

My addiction to Shirley Jackson’s writing is like a physical hunger — I rip through her short stories, devour her novels, forget to chew her letters. 

While weaving worlds shot through with malice and dread, she populates them with characters, usually women, whom I adore. They are high-strung and intuitive and neurotic and passionate and inextricably tangled up inside their own heads. 

Jackson’s mother, frequently cruel and belittling towards her work, dismissed in a letter Jackson’s overuse of these “demented girls” in her stories. 

As the pandemic drags into its second winter in a cloud of malaise and listlessness, all I’ve found myself wanting to read is stories of women — demented, difficult, troubled, malicious, weird. Here are some of my more recent favorites: 

We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson

While Jackson’s short stories lay closest to my heart, I return to this perfect novel again and again. The stunted Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood lives with her angelic older sister and uncle on their estate. An incident that comes into focus as the slim novel unwinds has left them marooned from, and ostracized by, the surrounding village. 

A book of social isolation and bona fide cancel culture, this creepy story takes on a whole new poignancy as we continue to live at arm’s length from the people around us.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

The narrator of this novel is a boy, but the real main character is his mother: the glamorous, self-obsessed, destructive, vindictive alcoholic he orbits around. The family, until the older children escape mother Agnes’ black hole of misery, lives in shabby public housing in Glasgow, Scotland in the 1980s. 

Shuggie, the narrator and the youngest in the family, reckons with his sexuality and their poverty as his tornado of a mother and her addiction keep his life in constant, violent instability. 

It’s a blistering novel, somehow still retaining its warmth and compassion, and captures the immense power parents have over their children. 

Nothing To See Here by Kevin Wilson

The superbly weird protagonist Lillian is an aimless and apathetic 20-something when she gets a letter from her beautiful former roommate (who has since married a U.S. senator) offering her a job opportunity. The job ultimately entails nannying for the senator’s kids from a previous marriage — who, alas, spontaneously combust when they get upset. 

This book is a blend of estranged families and the powerful and often unspoken dynamics of female friendship. And best yet, it made me laugh aloud. 

Dietland by Sarai Walker

Where Wilson’s Nothing to See Here is whimsical, Dietland is angry. It’s the story of a fat woman hellbent on undergoing weight loss surgery, who stumbles into a cabal of radical feminists that changes her life.  

It’s intensely dark, a barbaric yawp of the rage and pain that all women, but particularly those not considered beautiful, are subjected to in a patriarchal society. It’s a journey of a woman’s self-acceptance in a society that hates and tries to punish her for doing so. 

I tore through this book in one sitting, and it connected to a very visceral anger that I think many women share, but have to suppress to get through the day. 

Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda

This short-story collection is a reimagining of traditional Japanese folktales, many with a feminist bent. The ghosts of the ancient stories populate the modern world, working in factories, taking baths, badgering people to buy their products. 

Many of the stories intertwine and overlap, with characters starring in one story occupying the periphery of the next. 

I found this read to be totally delightful, a perfect escape from winter boredom. 

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