Gilead — Marilynne Robinson
Gilead is a luscious read, a quiet, powerful, resonating read, the epitome of the sort of book you might find yourself refusing to read the last page of because it will be awful to have it be over. The narrator is an old man, a minister, nearing his own death and writing a letter (the book is the letter) to his young son. “My custom has always been to ponder grief,” he says partway through,
That is, to follow it through ventricle and aorta to find out its lurking places. That old weight in the chest, telling me there is something I must dwell on, because I know more than I know and must learn it from myself—that same good weight worries me these days.
And you will remember, and slow down to think about, his voice, I daresay, off and on for all of your days.
p.s. My sister Lisa indirectly led me to Gilead; she made me watch the movie Housekeeping, which was based on Robinson’s novel of the same name, when we were kids (I was young enough to think I wouldn’t like a movie like that, from looking at it at the video store, but wound up thinking it was great), so when I heard Robinson had at long last written a new novel, I picked it up.
Good Omens — Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
This silly and wickedly irreverent novel about the end of the world is replete with, as the dramatis personae notes, “Footnotes of an Educational Nature and Precepts for the Wise.” Among the cast of characters there’s of course God, and the Four “Apocalyptic Horsepersons” who are actually The Four Motorcyclists of the Apocalypse now, and “Aziraphale (An angel, and part-time rare book dealer),” and “Crowly (An Angel who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards).”
It wasn’t a dark and stormy night.
It should have been, but that’s the weather for you. For every mad scientist who’s had a convenient thunderstorm just on the night his Great Work is finished and lying on the slab, there have been dozens who’ve sat around aimlessly under the peaceful stars while Igor clocks up the overtime.
I got such a big kick out of Good Omens the six or seven or twelve times I read it in high school and college…
p.s. Did I introduce this to my father or he to me?
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid — Michael Ondaatje
I already raved about The Collected Works of Billy the Kid last year; you can find that post here.
Chickenhawk — Robert Mason
Robert Mason, a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, does something in his massively best-selling memoir Chickenhawk that most memoirs fail to do — he writes of his time as a younger, naiver man without any of the overlaying filters of having lived through it. He takes you back to what he felt like when he didn’t know what he was getting into, and is able to do so without any hints of the wisdom, knowledge, pain or experience that will come later. And the result is gripping. The book really does take you on the journey with him, as he was then, through the harrowing 1,000 helicopter combat missions, and into the aftermath. Taut and gripping. Tough stuff to read, well-worth reading.
p.s. My friend Jeremy suggested I read this, in relation to a poem I was writing at the time about Rambo.
All the King’s Men — Robert Penn Warren
I think this is one of the best-written novels I’ve ever had my hands around, period, the way it all goes along all conversationally, and then all comes together brutally (emotionally brutal, I mean). The novel is told very out of sequence, but by the end all the threads are so tightly connected it makes me wonder how Warren could possibly have written something to complicated before computers were around to help you keep track. But more than the big-arc plot stuff, which is certainly powerful, it’s the fascinating, larger-than-life but also ordinary characters, such human (despite being outsized) humans, that make it so hard to put down. Also the immersive sentences:
So I went up to Mason City in the Model-T, and kept my jaws clamped tight when I went over the washboard and hung to the steering post when I went over the sideslipping dust, and that was a very long time ago.
And the mesmerizing paragraphs too:
The Judge didn’t sit down. He stood in the middle of the floor and looked down at the Boss, who had his legs stuck out on the red carpet. And the Judge didn’t say anything. Something was going on inside his head. You knew that if he had a little glass window in the side of that tall skull, where the one-time thick, dark-red, mane-like hair was thinned out now and faded, you could see inside and see the wheels and springs and cogs and ratchets working away and shining like a beautiful lot of well-kept mechanism. But maybe somebody had pushed the wrong button. Maybe it was just going to run on and on till something cracked or the spring ran down, and nothing was going to happen.
p.s. I managed somehow to not have to read this so-often-assigned classic in school, and finally just got around to it in the last year.
The Essential Calvin & Hobbes — Bill Watterson
Calving & Hobbes used to be so ubiquitous in the funny papers they wouldn’t need an intro, but they’ve been retired long enough now that I guess I need to explain that it’s a comic strip, and that Calvin’s the highly mischievous kid and Hobbes is his highly intelligent stuffed tiger who is, of course, actually alive (except not to Calvin’s long-suffering parents), and that they are some of the most timeless (in the really good sense of that word) comics you’ll ever run across. (Bloom County almost made this list too, but all the politics mean you have to know what was going on in the 1980s to truly appreciate them.) Calvin & Hobbes still works — the simple kid-perspective brilliance of small moments, and the expressive drawings, are a delight.
p.s. My whole family loved Calvin & Hobbes, growing up.
The Redneck Way of Knowledge — Blanche McCrary Boyd
The Redneck Way of Knowledge was my first thorough introduction to “creative nonfiction” or “personal essays.” The essays here are strong and wicked and wise and damned funny. All the books on this list are ones you want to take down off your shelf and press into friends’ hands, but then you snatch them back because to lend is to risk not getting back. This book particularly so — you should all read it but no you can’t borrow mine.
In Dorothy Allison’s intro to the 1994 re-issue she says “Blanche Boyd tells us down-home redneck truths about family and the wisdom to be found in grating your own nerves against those of the ones you both love and despise. I recognize it as a redneck variation on a Zen insight.” The essays cover family, the Pope delivering Communion at Yankee Stadium, more family, stock car racing (“I had never experienced noise and speed straight up before, like bourbon. My chest cavity was vibrating, So were the bleachers. I began to feel oddly happy. “IT’S LIKE A RAMONES CONCERT WITHOUT THE MUSIC!”), the Rockettes, drugs, writing, and going back home. As Boyd says “Southerners are known as storytellers; creative lying is a source of pride.”
She also says things like, “What logic can’t grasp metaphor can. Metaphor is the hand thrust under the water, catching living fish. Metaphor is the passageway between fantasy and logic; it will take you someplace new” and things like “The Popemobile is a Bronco jeep, which I suppose is as close as you can get to a donkey in the age of automobiles.”
p.s. Blanche was one of my writing professors during my unhappy stint at Connecticut College (before I transferred to Oberlin), a real bright spot in that otherwise bad idea.