Top Ten Books That Were Out of My Comfort Zone

“A gift, a love gift/Utterly unasked for/By a sky//Palely and flamily igniting its carbon monoxides.”

Sylvia Plath

  1. The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon. I had to read this in my first year at university, as part of a week on Postmodernism. It looked scarily like Catch-22, which I despised. In actual fact, it was awesome: clever, funny, surreal, paranoid, and one of my favourites.
  2. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe. Another university read, which I thought would just be awful, not least because it is a good 700 pages long. But, being Gothic, it’s a hypnotic, fascinating and involving novel which sucks you in and never lets you go.
  3. Ariel – Sylvia Plath. Modernist, obscure poetry like Plath’s was never high on my list of favourites, but I studied it intensely¬†at A-level, and her poetry may not be the nicest thing on the planet but it is powerful, primal and deeply emotional: “O my God, what am I/That these late mouths should cry open/Like a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.”
  4. The Waste Land – T.S. Eliot. As with Ariel, I thought I would hate this: deliberately obscure, famously unfathomable, a patchwork of unconnected references. But it does have its own apocalyptic beauty: “I can connect/Nothing with nothing.”
  5. The Haunter of the Dark – H.P. Lovecraft. I literally only bought this anthology of short stories because it had a cat story in it. (“The Cats of Ulthar”, may it please ya.) And I don’t often read horror: though I find it potentially fascinating, I also don’t have a high tolerance when it comes to waking in the small hours of the night sweating. (Slender Man, I’m looking at you.) But Lovecraft’s tales have a fascinating imaginative potential to them – though they are also very sexist, racist and numerous other ists.
  6. Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl. The Resident Grammarian brought this home for me from the library at some point. I don’t often read contemporaries, but then Special Topics isn’t exactly a contemporary: it’s a sort of metafictional murder mystery, and it led me on to Pessl’s sublime second novel, Night Film.
  7. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier. My Arrow edition looks like some dire romance from the 40s, so it was a leap of faith buying it from a second-hand bookshop in Kent, but one that paid off: Rebecca is another deeply hypnotic, beautifully excessive book, winding you in the trap of a summer at Manderley.
  8. The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. I was sort of dreading this one just a little bit; I like my SF to have characters in it, not just people talking at each other, and the Circumlocutor had told me there was lots of science in it. But it is fantastic and feminist and I even managed to ignore the physics.
  9. The Making of Mr Gray’s Anatomy – Ruth Richardson. As you may have guessed from the above, I am not a scientist, and this was a slightly odd book to receive as a prize for Biology in my last year at school, but it was surprisingly interesting, full of details on book-making and engraving and grave robbing. Also, Henry Gray was horrible to his illustrator.
  10. Courtesans and Fishcakes – James Davidson. On a similar theme, this was also a slightly odd school prize to get for Latin, since it’s about Ancient Greece. But it turns out that Ancient Greek food is quite interesting. Apparently they were obsessed with fish.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

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