1. Belfast Confetti by Ciaran Carson
On average, I mention this book three times a week to anyone willing to listen. It’s the book that got me to remember that I love poetry, and that poems are infinitely more malleable than we often realize. To that end, Carson employs long poems with long lines, haiku, and even prose pieces to relay the complicated history of his city. Whenever I want to rekindle excitement for the written word, I go back to this collection. Carson’s technique of using punctuation marks to represent violence (asterisks for explosions, ellipses for gunshots) has always struck me as eerie—benign symbols for horror are perhaps the best means of communicating the odd banality of terror.
2. The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov
Attempts to describe this book never do it justice. Grounded by discussions of the Minotaur myth, the book quickly becomes an exploration of Gospodinov’s family history that jumps through eras coming back to idiosyncratic mediations on socialism, Bulgaria, vegetarianism, and pretty much everything but the kitchen sink (though I’m willing to bet it’s in there somewhere). I’m a sucker for all-encompassing books that defy easy categorization, and while ambition itself is admirable, it takes a master writer like Gospodinov to construct something that works better than a mere collection of experimental ramblings. I read this in May of 2015 with my dog in my lap, a drink by my side, and the growing realization that anything is possible in literature.
3. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
When asked, I usually tell people that this is my favorite novel. It’s in a seven-way tie for my favorite book, and the only book I’ve collected so obsessively. I found my first copy at a bookstore in the basement of the Sears Tower while I was on my lunch break. The first pages drew me in and I spent much of that afternoon reading this masterpiece of 20th century literature (thankfully my boss didn’t notice I’d taken a two and half hour lunch). The plot is loosely based on the Faust legend, and the exploits of the devil and his retinue wreaking havoc in Moscow have amused and confounded readers since its earliest publication in samizdat publications. I’ve seen this book described as an absurdist comedy, a satirical response to Stalin’s oppressive regime, and a symbol of the enduring will of writers living under tyranny, all perfectly apt yet incomplete assessments.
4. Profit and Loss by Leontia Flynn
When otherwise literate people tell me that they don’t like poetry, I usually reply: “Maybe you’re reading the wrong poems.” While I realize that can sound condescending, I do wonder why poetry has gotten such a bad reputation, especially here in the U.S. A lot of the blame should be laid on the poets themselves who often seem determined to keep their chosen genre isolated and precious. But then I read a book like Profit and Loss and remember that poetry is supposed to be exhilarating, engaging, and—believe it or not—fun. Flynn tackles issues big and small with a keen wit and sharp attention to detail that feels effortless, though a deeper look at the craft of her poems reveals enviable precision. Her crisp, damn near flawless writing makes me wonder why anyone would read anything other than poetry.
5. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
I know, I know—the book is supposed to be unreadable. To that I say: hogwash. Yes, it’s a challenge, maybe the biggest challenge in all of English language literature, but it’s a challenge with deep rewards. If you’re willing to wade through the density, there are jokes galore (and who doesn’t like a good joke?) along with… well, everything you can think of. Seriously. I make no claim to be a perfect reader of the Wake. I know that I only understood the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg during my year of reading Joyce’s masterpiece (yes, it’s even better than Ulysses), but the joyous experience of reading this book was unlike any I’ll ever have again. And—lucky me, lucky all of us—one is never really finished reading The Wake. I’ll spend my life returning, falling back into the dream, and finding something completely different each time. I can think of no other book with such possibilities.
Bio: Vincent Francone’s memoir, Like a Dog, was published in the fall of 2015. Since then, he has been publishing poems in journals and working on a collection of poems as well as a long essay on the joy and burden of book collecting. He lives in Chicago where he will be teaching a poetry workshop for Story Studio . Visit www.vincentfrancone.com to read his blog, see some photos, sample his writing, and send him a message or complain about any of these recommendations.