This is the final installment of my “Most Vivid Reads” series. (See below for the full list of books).
The Book of Nightmares — Galway Kinnell
I loved this poetry collection when I read it in college, and I still do. It’s melodramatic, its images are overwrought and its underlying emotion is morbid. It talks madness, birth and death, and how mortality underlies everything, speaking alternately straight up and with a bemused chaser, and that’s exactly why I love it. It hits that youthful ‘but life leads to death, death, death’ phase we all go through (especially (?) us artsy types), but it’s such well-written morbid angst. It’s like the best part of revisiting your youthful darkness-obsessed phase, because Kinnell has such a great control of language. I don’t find it amazingly profound or deeply moving in its mysticism, which is what some claim about The Book of Nightmares. But I do love it.
(For the record, I think “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps” and “The Tragedy of Bricks” are excellent Kinnell poems, and I’m one of those who thinks “The Bear” is great (the world can be divided into those who love that poem and those who just don’t understand why anyone would love that poem. Well, and also those who’ve never heard of it), but most of the time I’m pretty take or leave it on Kinnell’s work).
p.s. I read this in college for a “Reading for Writing” independent study with Martha Collins.
The BFG — Roald Dahl
Given my love of language, it shouldn’t be a surprise that as a kid I adored a book that includes the following vocabulary: snozzcumbers, frobscottle, quogwinkkles, ringbeller, whopsy, trogglehumper, delumptious, redunculous, and fizzlecrump, just to name a few. The BFG, The Big Friendly Giant, “the only nice and jumbly Giant in Giant Country,” says words “is oh such a twitch-tickling problem to me all my life” but I love how he speaks — “Titchy little snapperwhippers like you should not be higgling around with an old sage and onions who is hundreds of years more than you.” And so on.
It’s also, being Roald Dahl, a delightful and, being Roald Dahl, slightly wicked story. The nine other giants in Giant Country gobble up human beans every night, but the BFG instead catches dreams with a net “the same way you is catching butteryflies,” and bottles them so he can go around the world at night, unseen, blowing “whopsy-whiffling” dreams into children’s bedrooms with a long trumpet. An orphan named Sophie, who saw him blowing dreams, enlists his help to execute her plan to dispense with the human bean-eating giants, which involves an audience with the Queen of England (at which the BFG lets out some giant musical whizzpoppers, to the Queen’s amusement). I think all children should read Roald Dahl. If you know one who hasn’t, go them them The BFG right now (or The Witches, or The Twits, or Fantastic Mr. Fox…).
p.s. My dad read Roald Dahl books aloud to us when we were kids, and then I re-read them obsessively myself later on.
Fredy Neptune — Les Murray
I’d read other book-length poems before, but not one that put quite such equal emphasis on both the novel part and the verse part. Fredy Neptune packs a viscerally vivid punch, and the story is on the epic end of the scale, with an epic’s cast of characters. (Les Murray, by the way, is regarded as Australia’s pre-eminent, though not un-controversial, poet). The main character, Fredy Boettcher, is a German-Australian man who gets shanghaied into WWI, witnesses a war-time atrocity and becomes numb (Literally. He can’t feel the chair under his butt, or pain, so he winds up with both a huge secret and superhuman strength). He winds up traveling all over the world struggling with his alienation, is the boring way to state the plot. It’s a challenging read, but Murray’s language can really be amazing — “She shook, in nice places, laughing” or “I would roll half a thought between finger and thumb all day” or “It reminded me how for many people / work is the dragon and they’re the heroes, killing and killing him / and laying him down, real and gigantic, on the world.”
p.s. My friend Jennifer Mason turned me on to Les Murray in grad school.
The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead — Heather Pringle
Today’s post seems to be focusing on books where the description needs to be followed with “trust me, read it.” A novel in verse, an 800 page novel…and a book about the science of mummies. The Mummy Congress is riveting, no more gross than a CSI episode, and though packed with scientific information, eminently readable. I had no idea that mummies existed outside of Egypt, that they can happen accidentally, or how much information is preserved inside those remains, and how one gets at it. Pringle’s journey into the tiny but very passionate ranks of mummy scientists is fascinating, and speaks to both the science and the emotion of bodies after death.
p.s. If I remember right, one of my parents picked this book up at Darvill’s Bookstore, the excellent institution on Orcas Island. And then I borrowed it and didn’t get around to reading it for about a decade. Which is one of the reason I myself never lend books!
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — Susanna Clarke
This is my favorite 800+ page book. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a fabulous read. It’s an extraordinary novel (a more accurate term than its usual moniker of “fantasy,” I say, though really it’s kind of uncategorizable, in terms of genre). It’s also engrossing, with memorable characters and a very well put together plot. Susanna Clarke builds a thoroughly realized world that is parallel to our own (in the 19th century) but that world has always known magic, and it’s used to effect historical events which in other ways parallel real history. (I think this book is often mis-categorized, and that people go into it expecting one thing and then getting, in fact, a really well-written novel whose best parts aren’t the wand-waving Disney-magician sorts. The kind of magic in this book is the earthier, weirder kind.)
I will warn you, as I’m so glad someone warned me, that you do have to just get through the first 150 or so pages before it really gets good. I nearly gave up, but kept at it and I’ll tell you, it was well worth it. Once she’d finished the work of setting up this world and all its complicated premises, and the novel really began, it just exploded into awesomeness, and all her careful setup absolutely paid off.
p.s. I can’t remember who suggested I read this, but whoever it was, thank you!
Most Vivid Reads (to date) — the full list:
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje
The Book of Nightmares by Galway Kinnell
The City in Which I Love You by Li-Young Lee
Fredy Neptune by Les Murray
Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Doomsday Book, Blackout, and All Clear by Connie Willis
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The First Books by M.B. Goffstein
My Antonia by Willa Cather
The Master & Commander series by Patrick O’Brien
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke
Honey in the Horn by H. L. Davis
The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper
Maida’s Little Shop by Inez Haynes Irwin
The BFG by Road Dahl
The Essential Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson
The Mummy Congress by Heather Pringle
Chickenhawk by Robert Mason
The Redneck Way of Knowledge by Blanche McCrary Boyd