You might think you know what you’re going to find on this list of “books that will take your breath away”, but I’m making it my personal mission to up-end your expectations today, Keeper-Upperers. This week, I reviewed The Bell Jar, and if I were wearing socks it would’ve knocked them right off. It took my breath away literally, at times, and it got me to thinking about the books that do that, and the varying reasons why. So, here’s a list of five books that will take your breath away (and not always for the reasons you’d expect).
Breathtakingly Beautiful Prose: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Elena Ferrante is not here to play, people. I’m not (currently) capable of reading My Brilliant Friend in the original Italian, but I can only assume it’s at least as breathtaking as Ann Goldstein’s fantastic English translation. My Brilliant Friend is, at times, toe-curling and stomach-churning. The titular character, the brilliant friend, is sometimes chilling and calculating and cruel… and, yet, Ferrante’s writing is always, always, always just fucking beautiful. If you asked me, apropos of nothing, to name a book of incredible prose, this is the first book I’d recommend. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.
Breathtakingly Bad: American Sniper by Chris Kyle
“Breathtaking” is not always a good thing: just ask anyone who’s ever had a panic attack, or listened to a really awkward eulogy, or witnessed a car crash. I am still haunted by American Sniper, and Chris Kyle’s truly stunning lack of self-awareness. He’s amused by his own inhumanity, he’s dismissive of his wife and children, he’s remarkably lacking in empathy for people who don’t look like him or worship the same god, and he’s got a massive, throbbing boner for his gun. I hold American Sniper up as the worst example of just about everything, and it is, without a doubt, breathtakingly bad. Read my full review of American Sniper here.
Laugh ‘Til You Can’t Breathe: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
You might never have heard of Cold Comfort Farm, and that’s okay; heck, I hadn’t, until I began Keeping Up With The Penguins. I don’t mind telling you, though, it’s a travesty that this one is so often overlooked, because Gibbons had a brilliant comedic mind. Cold Comfort Farm is the funniest classic I’ve ever read. An Austen-esque protagonist, finding herself unexpectedly orphaned and ill-equipped for any type of gainful employment, cheerfully imposes upon her long-lost relatives, hell-bent on civilising them through sheer force of will. Do not read any extracts online (indeed, skip the introduction, even), because they won’t seem half as funny out of context and they’ll give you the wrong idea. Trust me on this. I have an excellent sense of humour. Read my full review of Cold Comfort Farm here.
Breathtakingly Sad: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I’ll concede, this must be the least surprising inclusion on this list. It’s an alarmingly autobiographical story of a young woman’s descent into deep depression. The life of Esther Greenwood (the protagonist) mirrors the real life of writer Sylvia Plath in almost every way – except that Esther gets an almost-happy ending. Plath, sadly, died by suicide just weeks after The Bell Jar’s publication. It is, of course, beautifully written – at least on par with My Brilliant Friend, in my humble opinion – but it is excruciatingly sad, and not for the faint of heart or easily triggered. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.
Honourable mention: Still Alice – the prose doesn’t compare in terms of mastery, but Lisa Genova’s story of a middle-aged woman’s descent into Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease is still heartbreaking.
Hold Your Breath ‘Til It’s Over: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
I’ve never quite reconciled my love of Lolita. Nabokov’s writing is awe-inspiring, the beauty of the language almost incomparable, and yet the subject matter… it’s haunting, horrifying, and hypnotic, in equal measures. Humbert Humbert is truly despicable, and reading the entire story from his perspective (the voice of his victim, the young Lolita, is completely silenced) is too much for some readers. It’s a book often abandoned and it’s not hard to see why. But I loved it in a way that, like I said, I can’t quite reconcile. I insist that everyone at least gives it a go (somewhat selfishly, I’ll admit – I just hope I won’t be the only one who sees its beauty!).
Honourable mention: A Clockwork Orange – Burgess depicted the most gut-churning gore and violence (both criminal and state-sanctioned) in a nonsense language (Nasdat) of his own devising, and yet the imagery was crystal clear.
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