November 26, 2011

Loving those BFBs (Big Fat Books)

“A big book is generally referred to as a 'tome', and can be 'a weighty tome' or 'a mighty tome'.” 
 
I noticed that the person who made this deathless pronouncement on an online forum for helping non-native speakers with the fine points of the English language was banned from further posting. After 8,797 posts! Had he proven to be a sort of Typhoid Mary of the Trite, heedlessly spreading clichés among clueless ESOL speakers, despite perhaps having been warned time and time again about it, just as the infamous healthy carrier would be severely enjoined from working as a cook and yet always end up back in someone's kitchen, preparing her contagion-laden meals?

If so, I ought to alert the Times Literary Supplement, which has been featuring on its back page submissions from the public for a "Dictionary of Received Phrases", modelled on Flaubert’s Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues. These are those words which always appear together, like “high dudgeon”. Had you noticed how no one is ever in dudgeon without it being high dudgeon? Ardent admirers, slippery slopes, you get the idea.

I have used the word “tome” in my life, but only drily, and the phrase “a mighty tome” has certainly never escaped my lips. How do I describe, say, Wolf Hall (651 pages)? Offhand, I'd probably say, “A big fat book”. But if you seemed susceptible to it, I might say, “a BFB”, which is my favourite name for those 600+ pagers which you experience almost more as a cohabitation than as a read.

I wish it would catch on more: a whole movement of people talking about their favourite BFBs. (Everyone’s non-favourite BFB being, probably, Infinite Jest (1079 pages). From what I hear it's the most purchased-but-not-read book in publishing history, after Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, that is. I had to chuckle the other day when I spotted a Reader’s Companion to A Brief History of Time on our library shelves - not checked out, you'll notice.)

So to start us off, here are some of my favourite BFBs:

Gone with the wind by Margaret Mitchell (1042 pages)
 
Gone with the wind marked its 75th anniversary this year. Don't underestimate it, though. I am sure it still boasts a fine-turned leg under its hoopskirts, like those Broadway musical comedy stars who are still high-kicking into their seventies, their hair dyed an improbable red or platinum. I'm pretty sure it's the most bodice-ripping book I've ever read, and I've probably read it five or six times -- I still remember the tattered red cover of my sister's paperback copy which we all shared, even well past the point at which all the pages started falling out. It didn't really matter, of course, as by then we knew most of them by heart. I can still recite the opening line, or at least most of it. "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realised it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were..."

Added bonus, I can also recite the verse by Ernest Dowson (unhappy, alcoholic poet doomed to die young) which gave Margaret Mitchell her title:

I have forgot much, Cynara, gone with the wind,
flung roses, roses wildly with the throng
dancing to put thy pale lost lilies out of mind...

 
Added added bonus: in the movie version of Gone with the wind, my great-grandmother, from New York and Boston, played the part of Mrs. Elsing, one of the Atlanta dowagers scandalised by Scarlett's defiant lack of interest in The Cause, as the rebel war effort was known on its home turf. When the movie had to be trimmed from 8 hours to 3 or whatever it eventually ran to, nearly all her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, but her southern accent, which came and went but was quite good when it was there, remained a favourite family story forever.


Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (659 pages)
 
I loved noticing a while back on the library catalogue that this BFB had gone missing on the Library book bus! Did someone at one of the resthomes which the bus visits think that even with all that leisure time it would be tough going to finish it in 4 weeks plus 2 weeks renewal?

What can I say about this book or about Tom Wolfe that Tom Wolfe hasn't said better? I aspire to do enthusiasm the way Tom Wolfe does it. When it comes to that, I aspire to do sarcasm the way he does, too. Rather than compete with the man in the three-piece white suit, I'll just quote the library catalogue summary, which manages to describe Tom Wolfe (I think turning 80 this year definitely qualifies him as vintage) and his book both:

"Vintage Tom Wolfe, the #1 bestseller that will forever define late-twentieth-century New York style."


War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1273 pages)
 
How many times have you seen this book at the top of someone’s list of the greatest books ever written? I myself often think that it’s the best book I have ever read, but I am always loathe to say so, for fear that some other book will come to mind a few minutes later. But maybe after half a lifetime in which I haven’t thought of any, I ought not to worry about it.

The Sun Also Rises, which I read about the same time as War and Peace, may have had a greater influence on me in terms of lifestyle choices, and this other book may have had this other thing, but reading War and Peace truly is one of those standout experiences, like scaling Everest for mountaineers, I suppose, or mastering the Concierto de Aranjuez for guitarists.

My husband told me this story: that when he was a teenager and used to get into terrible arguments with his father, at a certain point his father would say "Have you read War and Peace?" and when he would admit that no, he hadn't, the reply would come back, "Well then, how can you think you understand anything about life? I'm off! No point in arguing with you!" And then, years and years later, he discovered that his father had never actually read War and Peace himself. It didn’t make him angry, though. Because in the meantime he had gone and read it and he figured his father was right.


The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens (800 pages)
 
I’ve always been a Dickens fan. I come from a family of Dickens fans. My earliest and strongest literary memories include having A Christmas Carol as a bedtime story at Christmas season and subsequently being terrified of being visited after dark by a moaning, clanking ghost; being taken to see David Lean's movie version of Great Expectations and being terrified by the convict materialising out of the fog (in the cemetery, yet!) to grab the hapless Pip, not to mention terminally horrified by Miss Havisham's screams as she burned to death in her papery old wedding gown; and playing a card game called "Authors" where you won points by collecting four cards of the same author, and my oldest sister would always try to pad out a set out of three Charles Dickens (chestnut locks, long curly beard, balding) cards with an Alfred Lord Tennyson (chestnut locks, long curly beard, balding) card.

What I mean is, Dickens and his books, a number of which are BFBs, are a part of my life. But The Pickwick Papers foiled me. Even before I tried unsuccessfully to read it, I had always found the part in Little Women where the March girls refer to each other as characters from The Pickwick Papers a bit irritating. It must have been a premonition, I told myself.

And then one year Paul Reynolds came to my Desert Island Reads event and his chosen book was The Pickwick Papers, which he introduced by saying that it was the funniest book he’s ever read. I told him about my Pickwick Papers problem and he looked at me in that way Paul always had of intently relishing how you’d given him something new to consider, no matter how unearthshattering a topic it might seem, and he said “That’s because you didn’t read far enough. It's no good reading The Pickwick Papers unless you read to where Sam Weller comes into the story. Read as far as Sam Weller and then see.” So not right away, but at some point, I decided to do it, to read as far as Sam Weller. And Paul was absolutely right! As soon as Sam Weller came into the story, I couldn’t wait for night to come to be able to pick up the book again. I might not ever have laughed out loud so many times in the course of reading one book.


Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (945 pages)
 
It's hard for me to separate this book from the fantastic television version in which Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones played Captains Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, not the heroes of the book which has no heroes, just two retired Texas rangers doing their damndest not to go gentle into that good night. It might be hard for Larry McMurtry too, as I believe the book started life as a filmscript, but was then turned into a novel, which had such great success that it was turned back into a script again, this time for television.

I once read an interview with Robert Duvall in which he said that Lonesome Dove was his Hamlet, and this vast epic might be Larry McMurtry's War and Peace. Only, this being the West, the soldiers are cowboys and the campaign is a cattle drive. Instead of Moscow and its salons, there's a town called Lonesome Dove, and a saloon called the Dry Bean. The supporting characters are all unique and colourful and I'm willing to bet you won't need to flip back through the pages to remember who they are, the way you (or at least I) have had to do with more than one Russian novel on first reading (blame it on the patronymics, I say). And most of all, there's Texas. The whole vast boneyard of Texas, which however, as one of the rangers says in the book, does look pretty in the sun.


A suitable boy by Vikram Seth (1349 pages) and A fine balance by Rohinton Mistry (603 pages)
 
I'm presenting these two BFBs together because that's what they are in my mind, a sort of BFBinary star. For years, when I hadn't read either of them, I could never remember which was which. Now that I've read A fine balance I can usually distinguish between them, although, if I am in one of my periodic bouts of distraction I will sometimes still have to ask, when someone starts talking about A suitable boy (the more often mentioned of the two), "Is that the one with the scene of people chatting on a train?" The reason I know about the scene of people chatting on a train is that at the same Desert Island Reads where Paul Reynolds read from The Pickwick Papers, Jennifer Ward-Lealand read a scene from her favourite book, A suitable boy, which took place on a train. The prevailing sensations were great heat and chattiness, the various tones and accents of which Jennifer rendered fabulously, as she would.

When the conversation turns to A suitable boy, and I have established that it is not the one I read, I try to avoid feeling as if I picked, between the two, the "starter". Certainly there are a lot of people out there, besides Jennifer Ward-Lealand, who are fanatical about A suitable boy, even if not as good at doing the accents. Will it be on my bedside table soon? Hmmm. It might be the fact of having so frequently encountered the word "leisurely" being used about it, as in "a leisurely read", not to mention this noteworthy phrase I once saw being used about it: "The action, if you can call it that...", which makes me think that yes, I will read it someday, but that I might be taking the road to that moment at a leisurely speed.

On the other hand, if I wait too long, I will have two leisurely Vikram Seth reads ahead of me, and I might not actually have enough years left in my life. Vikram Seth is working on a sequel to A suitable boy, due out in 2013.


M by Peter Robb (567 pages)
 
The person this book is about would approve of my including it here: it isn’t 600+ pages -- although my copy, which I got at a library book sale, is a real brick, must be very thick paper -- plus it clashes with all the other titles for being non-fiction and not a novel; and then, I haven’t even read it.

“M” is how Peter Robb refers to the late-Renaissance painter Caravaggio, christened Michelangelo but known by the name of the Northern Italian town where his family originated, whose greatness I discovered -- late, not until I was given a monograph about him by a famous Italian art historian to translate (no, the library does not hold a copy of my only published oeuvre).

Up until then, Caravaggio to me was luscious boy Bacchuses posed with bowls of luscious fruit. Why had no one ever told me about David holding up the severed head of Goliath, hunted, defeated, but still violent as all hell, and how Caravaggio had given David the semblance of his lover, and Goliath his own? Why had no one told me about the warring light and dark, the white gauze skittering across the breasts of Salomé? The cardsharps, the ugly old women, the ruffians, the dead Madonna the Carmelites contracted him to paint and then wouldn’t hang in their churches because she was so carnal, a whore dragged from the Tiber?

Looking at Caravaggio paintings is a bit like reading Bret Easton Ellis – afterwards it's hard to find a contemporary novel that doesn't seem lackluster; after Caravaggio Titian and Tintoretto seem stilted, somehow. Caravaggio’s life, too, was revolutionary, dramatic and outside the law. Peter Robb is the Australian who wrote the superb Midnight in Sicily about the collusions between Italian national politics and the Mafia. The back cover of his book quotes Nicholas Poussin as saying in 1660 that Caravaggio “came into the world to destroy painting”, and Robert Hughes describing him in 1985 as “saturnine, coarse and queer.” I haven’t read M – yet, is what I meant to say in that first line.


The complete Terry and the Pirates Volumes 1-6 by Milton Caniff, edited by Dean Mullaney (each about 375 oversize pages)
 
I am not actually co-eval with this great old comic strip (although some people might think I am) but when I was little our newspaper's Sunday comics section reprinted old Terry and the Pirates strips, which fortunately allowed me to become acquainted with the sultry Dragon Lady. Everyone's childhood should include a Dragon Lady. I just opened Vol. 6 at random to see if I could find her and there she was, being rowed across a dark moonlit harbour which I imagine Saipan, 1945. She's with Terry and his sidekick Hotshot, and here's what the speech bubbles are saying:

Dragon Lady: "Right, Terry! It is a trick the Dragon Lady used when she was a -- ah -- in business before the war."

Terry: "When is a pirate not a pirate? Answer: when she is beautiful and on our side against the Japs! -- Even if she does go in for kidnaping pilots!"

Dragon Lady: "Do you enjoy seeing me writhe under the whip you hold?"

Hotshot (who would be played by Mickey Rooney in a movie version): "You hear the darndest things on these night boats!"

Despite such fantastic scenes as this, this is not actually one of my favourite BFBs, but I put it in anyway so that I could finish up with an extremely funny BFB-themed video which I discovered on Tom Richmond's The Mad Blog. It appears that RC Harvey, noted for ranting and raving about cartoons and cartooning lore on his website RCHarvey.com, and who wrote the introduction to Vol 6 and possibly others of The Complete Terry and the Pirates,a mere five pages, has also written a big fat biography (900 pages) of Milton Caniff.

"This isn’t really a Ken Burns documentary," Tom Richmond lets on."This is one of several brilliant videos shot for the NCS Reuben Awards show by Tom Gammill. This one had me in tears… Tom is one funny guy. Hopefully R.C. got a chuckle out of it." I'm sure he did.


 
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