We asked staff and friends to name books they thought the reading public may have unwittingly passed by, whether because they’re gems that have gone unnoticed in the gravel or because they “deserve” to reach a wider audience. The collection below is delightful in its diversity. (The book covers link to their Amazon pages.)
Isabella David McCaffrey
I’ve always loved Indian-American or Indian-British authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy, perhaps dating from the time I was a little girl and fell in love with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s and M. M. Kaye’s little Anglo-Indian heroes and heroines. While R. K. Narayan is solidly Indian, he did grow up in British India, spoke mostly English among his family, and his books are written in English. The first I was to encounter was his novella The English Teacher, an autobiographical story written in his signature simple prose style married with Faulkner’s humanism. It details his marriage and his grief after his wife’s death. It’s a style so unexpectedly powerful that whenever I think of the story, it’s as if I can still feel the hole in my heart, reflecting the space where I lost my own beloved wife.
It’s one of those crimes of our modern times that Submergence, a gorgeous, innovative love story by J.M. Ledgard that plays with time and narration just as cleverly as Gone Girl, has only 68 reviews to Gone Girl’s 40,000+. It’s written in short, poetic passages that are never as cloying as that description might make them sound, and, added up, break your heart and open your eyes to the current world climate we’re living in, both scientifically and politically speaking.
The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss. The first book in this fantasy series, The Name of the Wind, opens with the protagonist’s claim: “I am a legend.” I laughed when I read this, thinking, The balls on this guy (Rothfuss)! I’d have never put myself under the burden of such a promise to my readers on page one, sentence one. Within 50 pages, I discovered why I want to be Patrick Rothfuss when I grow up: he delivers. And he delivers with a prose-style that moves me with that unnamed quality that belongs to music.
We the Animals, by Justin Torres. I admire any author who can write a convincing novel in 128 pages. The “Animals” in this autobiographical novel are three brothers stumbling through boyhood. Each chapter reads like flash fiction—brief, immediate, and poignant—but Torres employs his sense of transition and scene-selection to build a novel’s arc. If you don’t have a lot of time to read, invest the little you do have in We the Animals.
One of mine would be The Bookmaker’s Daughter, a memoir by Shirley Abbott of growing up in a household where the father is a professional gambler. The contrast between the innocence of the young girl in the mercenary but courtly world of horse-racing is drawn with a matter-of-fact hand and without sensationalism or sentimentality.
C.S. Lewis’ Til We Have Faces is his retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Though most people know of Lewis for his Narnia Chronicles or even his examination of Christianity through The Screwtape Letters, his final novel—though celebrated at its release—is little known these days. Til We Have Faces is a departure for Lewis, though he’d been working on it for 35 years by the time it was published. Transcending the myth, the book is the story of two sisters, one strong, one beautiful. Their transcendent love is tested by jealousy, loyalty, men, friendship, and most importantly, the gods. There is a great deal of character development in this book—if one wanted a true example of what a character arc can and should be, one need look no further.
Three parts fantasy, two parts satire, and ten parts weird, German author and cartoonist Walter Moers outdid himself with The 13 and 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear. Zany and referential, the book flopped in the US while doing well overseas. I am not even sure how I got a hold of the book, but I was enrapt by Bluebear’s adventures through a biblical maelstrom to his witnessing the downfall of Atlantis to his Odyssean journey to Gourmet Island. It’s the narrative voice here that works so well. Though if you have no use for whimsy, don’t pick this book up, it will only frustrate you.
A Month of Sundays, John Updike, is the story of a pastor whose sexual and financial ethics have placed him a rehabilitative facility for errant men of the cloth. They play golf all day and then spend multiple hours on meditative writing. A large part of this story-within-a-story is the pastor’s journal entries, and as they evolve he suspects someone is reading them while he is on the golf course, so he begins to address this party directly. I think it is the most elegant crack-up ever. It might have been a big deal in 1974, but I was a junior in high school.
The Flannery O’Connor Award is given every year for a collection of short stories, and there have been over fifty awards given. They are published by the University of Georgia Press. I’ve probably read eight of them and I keep a list for my Amazon visits hoping for used volumes to pop up. Never have I been disappointed. Just terrific writing. I do not collect anything whatsoever but these books. No little salt-and-peppers, no brass candlesticks, nothing but these books.
So, with bucketloads of trepidation as stupidity lives forever in pixels, I’ll nominate In Cold Blood as an underappreciated novel. It transforms elements of a true story through Capote’s imagination and extraordinary amounts of still largely uncredited and perhaps forever unknown help from Harper Lee into something magical that worked in a magazine, as a best seller of its time and as a work that continues to hold interest of high school students “forced” to read it. Regarding Lee’s Mockingbird, it would be wonderful for more attention to shine on how Capote helped shape her work on that … and certainly there is room and a crying need for a magnificent dual biography of the two and how they lived opposite and intimately intertwined public and private and literary lives.
Possibly (?) the more traditional choice in answer to this kind of question is Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist, which I’ll admit I haven’t read in years approaching 40. I found it attracting dust on a California community college library shelf and felt a poppers-like (a brain-scarring drug popular around that time), scary rush upon finishing it. I fear the disappointment of not experiencing the feeling with a re-read (similar to my worry of revisiting Kerouac’s On the Road), but with the hope that others would have the same feeling their first time I have always been saddened that (as far as I know) few others still chance upon the work.
One book that hasn’t gotten the specific recognition I think it deserves is: Moby Dick. Yes, by Herman Melville. Now, I’m going to ask you to do a radical thing: ignore the whale. Forget Ahab, let Queequeg and Ishmael and Starbuck all sail the Pequod off into the sunset unaccompanied. Set aside, for the moment, that Melville commits a strange singular error in biological identification by insisting a whale is a fish even as he stands knee-deep in its clearly mammalian anatomy. Go instead and read the chapters that you probably skipped when you read it for class, 55-60 to start. These are the ones that do nothing to advance the plot; the ones where Melville has written an unabashed and kind of creepily lyrical love letter to the mid-1800s whaling industry. It may be heretical, but I found myself far more fascinated by folklore and minutia of that background than I ever did the symbolism or the main story. Even better, hunt down an audio-book copy or have someone else read those chapters to you. It’s definitely one of the places Melville earns the title Romantic.
The second is the only fictional work to truly frighten me as an adult: House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski. I wouldn’t call it a horror story per se—and if it was it probably wouldn’t have had the effect on me it did, to be honest—but there are aspects of it that even after significant time has passed I find chilling. It’s a complex work, with a lot of textual and meta-textual pieces; it even has a “parallax” companion album of music released by (Danielweski’s sister under her stage name of) Poe called Haunted. There are at least three nested narratives and a slew of semi-reliable narrators, but it is the events at and the eponymous house (and that word should really be in blue, to be accurate) that make me shiver and eye the tome askance. If you are uncomfortable with ambiguous endings, give this a miss. It has a cult following (and fora dedicated to its discussion) but I think it deserves wider recognition.
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. While this novel and its author do not exactly fit into the obscure or unknown category—the book was, in fact, adapted into a movie in 2010—it is vastly overshadowed by its popular predecessor, The Remains of the Day. Still, by no means has this work gone unappreciated.
It was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker for the 2006 Arthur C. Clarke Award and for the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award and it received an ALA Alex Award in 2006. TIME magazine named it the best novel of 2005 and included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
Despite this exposure, I’m left feeling this novel did not have the large scale impact I would have expected. It did not “break the internet” or become that thing, love it or hate it, that you grow weary of because everyone is talking about it. And you will either love it or hate it. I loved it. It drew me in. No, actually it dragged me in with the morbid, horrifying fascination of watching a train wreck.
Weighing in just barely over the line of dystopian science fiction, it was real enough to be haunting. Most works of this genre place us a comfortable distance from our own reality, allowing us to intellectually contemplate the masked horror of the situation. Not this one. The causal way in which the characters accept the unacceptable leaves the reader cold and asking the proverbial, “could this happen?” … or worse, “has this happened?”
The Reef, by Edith Wharton. Wharton’s novels, most notably The Age of Innocence and Ethan Fromm, have certainly captured and maintained widespread attention. Except, that is, for this little gem, a drama about four Americans living in Paris and their intricate and tumultuous relationships
Critics of the time (1912) insisted that she should write about “the brighter and nobler aspects of life.” That she did not is exactly what I love about this book. It is psychologically complex. It is brooding. It is dark and twisty … like life. Personally, I don’t need to spend much time on the brighter and nobler aspects of life. Those are easy. I can handle those myself. It is a glimpse into the less bright and less noble aspects of the human condition that help me understand myself and others better.
The novel is said to be largely autobiographical and depict various life troubles with which Wharton was grappling at the time. Perhaps reflecting her inner conflicts, she first admitted, “I put most of myself into that opus,” but later, in hindsight said, “… remember it’s not me, though I thought it was when I was writing it.”
Oh dear Edith, don’t we all …
(Note: The Reef is available to download free of charge from Project Gutenberg)
The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, by Vivian Gornick. I don’t know how it happened that I hadn’t read this book until now, but I’m so glad I finally did. It’s helped me to see the importance of the narrator in memoir and creative nonfiction, right at the time that I’m working on a memoir and trying to find the voice, the persona, that I want to tell the tale. The narrator is the story, argues Gornick. And the more contradictory, uncertain, or just plain human that narrator is, the better the story. It’s something I’m still struggling to learn, understand, and put into practice, but Gornick has started me down that path.
John Glenn’s New Concord, by Lorle Porter. This is a book in the Images of America series, and it’s not one you read so much as flip through. It’s full of historical facts and old photos taken in and around the village where I live, New Concord, Ohio. I’ve been trying to write about my life this village over the last twenty years, trying to make sense of this place and its people, and this book has helped me with that project. There’s an artist’s rendering of the first buildings of the Scots-Irish settlement near the modern-day village’s downtown, an early twentieth-century photo of my street, a hundred years’ worth of photos of Main Street and the National Road, and photos documenting John Glenn and the 1962 parade honoring his space flight. Old photos like this have the power to drop you into a place and time, to cut through the clutter and confusion of the present, to make the past seem real and alive.
Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Vonnegut needs no help from me, but Player Piano isn’t often cited when his work is bandied about. It was his first novel, and he took great pains to get it right. As his writing matured he allowed himself increasingly greater leeway with traditional elements of fiction. Player Piano is a textbook example of how to write a novel, at least a conventional one. In fact, that’s the context in which I first read it; a writing instructor at the University of Illinois made it required reading. I believe every novelist ought to read and study it.
Shane, by Jack Schaefer. Once again, yes, of course you’ve heard of it, and you may already have read it, or seen the movie. I recommend you read it again, this time with my little voice in your ear, saying, “This is a model story.” It’s YA, and a western, nevertheless everyone ought to pick it up. If you have any doubts, just ask my eighth grade English teacher…
This Perfect Day, by Ira Levin. For dystopian lovers. My favorite thing about this book is that it speaks to the obvious—that limiting freedom of choice for the “betterment” of the populace is bad—but then Levin masterfully turns around and proposes the philosophical question, “Is it any better than the sometimes soul-crushing horrors of modern reality in which we are free to choose?” In this book the answer is not as easy as you might think.
Oryx & Crake, by Margaret Atwood. It’s hard to beat Atwood’s world-building. I fell in love with her work when I read The Handmaid’s Tale and she does it again in this series where corporations rule and genetic engineering for a better future is the norm.
The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. This children’s book is not just for children. It’s full of amazing wordplay and metaphor, puns and just general fun with the English language, and probably the most clever book I’ve ever read.
Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow. Seventeen-year-old Marcus and friends, arrested by the Department of Homeland Security following a terrorist attack on San Francisco, realize the city has become a police state and vow to take the DHS down. I think everyone should read this book.