I’ve noticed that some of my favourite books don’t show up on “must-read” lists, or “best hundred books in the English language”, or on the bestseller lists, either. Just for fun, I thought I’d list a few of them here, in no particular order, along with why I love them. I think you can take it as read that they’re all written well enough that the style doesn’t disrupt the story.
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
The narrator, Steven, returns to his childhood home in England after the war. The house is at the edge of a wood, and Steven’s late father was obsessed with the idea that the wood gave form to “mythagos”, prototypes of the myths we tell. Steven and his brother Christian are both drawn into their father’s research. I love this book because of its treatment of myth and the roots of myth, and the influences that go both from myth to us, and back.
The Wood Wife by Terri Windling
Maggie Black inherits the house of a poet with whom she has corresponded for years, but who has never permitted her to visit him. Along with the house are his papers, his late wife’s paintings and journals, and a mystery. Like Mythago Wood, this story is about myth and an otherworld that lies close to ours and sometimes intersects with it. It’s also a lot about poetry.
Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins
I don’t love all of Robbins’ work, but I love this one. Art, religion, sex, history and an Airstream trailer with legs and wings. What’s not to love? Seriously, there are so many amazing ideas tangled together in this book that I think it has something for anyone who’s the least interested in art – or religion. The passage where our heroine, Ellen Cherry Charles, spends the rent in an art store, is pure poetry.
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Flora Poste, orphaned and with only a small inheritance, goes to live with her mother’s relatives, the Starkadders, at Cold Comfort Farm in Howling, Sussex. The Starkadders are an odd lot, from Elfine, desperately in love with the son of the local gentry, to Amos, the blood-and-thunder preacher at the Church of the Quivering Brethren. Flora is a sensible and practical, not to say headstrong, young woman, who proceeds to sort out the tangled web that is the Starkadder family. English humour, all the way.
Realms of Gold by Margaret Drabble
Frances is an archaeologist, a tough and independent woman with four children. There’s no way to summarize the plot without making it sound boring, and plot is not what this novel runs on. It’s character – Frances, her married lover Karel, who attracts needy people, Frances’ family. I went looking for this novel after I read an excerpt in Ms Magazine. There was something about the language, and the way in which Drabble shows us the emotions and inner life of her characters, that made me want to read the book.
The True Account of the Death by Violence of George’s Dragon by Stan Washburn
“At one time the depredations of manticores were such that people scarcely dared stir from their homes.” This is a very short story, published in the seventies in a small, hardcover edition. The humour is understated and brilliant, and the illustrations, all etchings and pen drawings by Washburn, clever and funny. A passing dragon kills some manticores for his own amusement and is hired by the Duke to take care of the problem. The dragon, by the way, looks rather like Beaky, the baby vulture in the Bugs Bunny cartoons.
Lion by William Pene du Bois
It’s a shame this lovely children’s book is out of print. The story of Foreman, who works in the design room where animals are invented by artists (who look very much like angels!), is charming and simple. The illustrations are clear and attractive, and the story of how lions came to look as they do still delights me.
The Golden Treasury of Poetry edited by Louis Untermeyer
One of my favourites when I was a child, and still a treasured part of my library. Joan Walsh Anglund illustrated this volume of poetry and verse. I found it new in a bookstore in 1973 and bought it without a second thought. It may not be the definitive book of poetry, but it’s an excellent introduction, and a collection with staying power.
I could go on, but these will do for starters. These books – along with my manuscript facsimiles, more about those in another post – are some that I can’t see me ever parting with. Although most of them are by now only available used, I saw “Mythago Wood” in Chapters a few months ago, so it at least has been reprinted. I recommend them all.