Archive for the ‘underappreciated books’ Category

Jeffrey Frank Recommends

Wednesday, September 12th, 2007

sorrentino1.jpeg“By a miracle of publishing, Gilbert Sorrentino’s 1971 novel, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (a deeply cynical look at the Manhattan art world of mid-century) is available, barely, and it hasn’t lost a bit of its nasty comic brilliance. Begin, for instance, with the beginning: “What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slips up to the top of her stockings? It is an old story.” Sorrentino, who died not long ago, was always defiant, hugely incorrect, and unfailingly original; his Mulligan Stew remains a mildly insane and exhilarating satire about publishing (and literature itself), and his more recent Little Casino is a “deck” of fifty-two little linked stories, most of them terrific. But nothing was quite like Imaginative Qualities, which reads, still, as if it might have been written today or, perhaps, tomorrow.”

Jeffrey Frank is the author of four novels, most recently Trudy Hopedale, and co-author, with his wife Diana, of The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen: A New Translation From the Danish. He lives in New York, where he is a senior editor at The New Yorker.

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Gayle Brandeis Recommends

Tuesday, March 13th, 2007

inlanguageoflove.jpg“Diane Schoemperlen’s In the Language of Love: A Novel in 100 Chapters is structured around the 100 stimulus words from the Standard Word Association Test. Each of these words– words like “soft”, “mutton”, “priest”, “red”, “needle”, “thirsty”–becomes a jumping off place for Schoemperlen to explore the different forms of love (as child, as mother, as wife, as lover) in her character Joanna’s life. While such a structure could feel like a gimmick in the wrong hands, Schoemperlen uses it to frame a strange and beautiful meditation on the wayward ways of the heart.”

gayle_braindeis.jpgGayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write and The Book of Dead Birds: A Novel, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change. Her second novel, Self Storage, was recently published by Ballantine.

Robert Marshall Recommends

Tuesday, December 12th, 2006

“Lynne Tillman’s Motion Sickness helped change my conception of what a novel could be,” Marshall writes. “Published in 1992, it’s an account of an unnamed female narrator’s post modern “grand tour” of Europe. She bounces – or ricochets – between Paris, Istanbul, Amsterdam and other destinations. Her background, as well as the specific motivation for her travels, remain mysterious, although some sort of loss seems implied. In each city she knows or meets people. As the novel progresses, an increasingly dense web of interrelationships emerges. All the while she reads, she thinks, has doubts, and writes postcards (which she may or may not send).

Formally, the novel Motion Sickness most resembles is, to my mind, Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, first published in 1995. In both, a somewhat arbitrary physical tour provides the occasion for a mental journey. But while Sebald’s work has begun to travel into the canon, Motion Sickness has gone out of print. Why? Several possible explanations occur. Certainly, although Tillman’s vision can at moments be grim, her darkness never approaches the Sebaldian. She is too often too riotously funny. I’ve sometimes wondered whether it is precisely this sense of humor, along with her rigorous refusal of any hint of pretentiousness, that has kept her work from being regarded with the same seriousness as that of her German contemporary. Or is it simply (and depressingly) because women writers still aren’t supposed to write major novels of ideas? Or did Motion Sickness just appear before its time?

Unanswerable questions. The world – and Tillman’s work – abounds in them (in this sense, although I suspect she would beg to differ, I think Tillman is a great realist). But thanks to the wonders of the internet, although Motion Sickness may be out of print, it isn’t unavailable. Buy it. Read it. Help it on its journey. Pass it along.”

robertmarshall.jpgRobert Marshall’s debut novel, A Separate Reality, is newly published by Carroll & Graf.

Joe Miller Recommends

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

salvation.jpg“No writer has brought America into sharper focus for me than bell hooks,” Miller says. “My biggest epiphanies in recent years have arrived while her books are on my nightstand. Of all of them, Salvation: Black People and Love had the greatest impact because it offers a different perspective of the Civil Rights Movement and, in doing so, gives a clearer sense of the possibilities for this nation, and how close we once came to realizing them.

Love is the ultimate revolutionary force, hooks argues, and it was at full fury in the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, though they were both individually incomplete in their manifestation of it. Malcolm was a prophet of self-love (always vital in a system of oppression such as ours), while Martin helped change the course of history with an ethic of loving thy enemy. Had the two come together — as it appears they were about to do before Malcolm was assassinated — hooks suggests we might well be living in a different world today.

Where I was most touched, however, was in hooks’ suggestion as to who might rise to carry on love’s call: single mothers. As a child of divorce, this resonates deeply with me. But more importantly, I’m humbled and set straight. In America, unwed moms are at best invisible and at worst vilified. Yet they’ve raised most of us. If anyone has the power to shape our world, it’s them.”

joemiller.jpgJoe Miller is a journalist who lives in Kansas City, Missouri. His first book, Cross-X: A Turbulent, Triumphant Season with an Inner-City Debate Squad, was published October 2006 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Suzanne Kamata Recommends

Tuesday, September 19th, 2006

wanderingstar.jpgThe young Jewish and Arab women portrayed in Wandering Star are so convincing that it’s easy to forget that the book was written by a sixty-something-year-old French man. J.M.G. Le Clezio also understands that while in wartime it is most often the men who go off to fight and die, it is the women who bear the brunt of their battles.

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Wendy Blackburn Recommends

Tuesday, September 5th, 2006

therearejews.jpgThere Are Jews in My House is a collection of stories that takes its title from the first (and longest) story, in which a young gentile woman offers refuge to a Jewish friend and her daughter during World War II, and then grows so resentful about their presence that she contemplates turning them in. The five stories that follow are also about Russian, or Russian-American, culture, but Vapnyar goes so far beyond the sleeping-four-to-a-room-and-smell-of-boiling-potatoes immigrant story cliché and so deep into the emotional lives of the people in these stories that it is impossible to lump There Are Jews in My House in with other WWII/Russia/Coming to America tales-these are stories woven together by the common threads of longing, secrecy, and emotional turmoil; these are stories about the human experience with all its intricacy and contradiction and complexity. And I fell in love with it from the opening line (which, incidentally, does involve potatoes, but excusably so).

Vapnyar’s voice is distinct, her command of the language impressive-even without this added wow-factor: English is not her native tongue (she emigrated from Russia to the US just 9 years prior to the publication of this book). But rather than putting a limitation on her writing, this newness frees her; she is not bogged down by decades of vocabulary, blinded by the glare of abundance, compelled to sling adjectives around haphazardly. Nothing clutters the starkness, not one stray phrase that she left in simply because she liked the sound of it. Her brilliance lies in her subtlety-she is painstakingly careful with her words, as with a strong spice: use sparingly. Vapnyar extracts moments, gentle and precise like a surgeon, from her subjects’ lives. Like:

(From the title story) “She took a cold teakettle off the stove and began drinking hungrily right out of its rough tin spout. The streams of water ran down her chin and her neck, causing her skin to break out in goose bumps.”

(From “Ovrashki’s Trains,” a story told from the point of view of a 5-year-old girl about her summer spent in a dacha near a train station, and her obsession with finding her long-absent father) “I pulled on my old rubber boots, which were a little too tight around the toes, and my shiny bright blue raincoat. I splashed down the steps and ran into the garden that smelled of jasmine and rain.”

Imagine: 149 pages of this delightfully bare prose. As a writer, I am in awe. As a reader, this book has never left my nightstand.

It’s not just that the stories are so striking, or that Vapnyar’s writing is so exquisite-though either of these things on their own would be reason enough to recommend this book-it’s the uncanny way in which the two are fused together: like an onomatopoeia of sorts, the words themselves feel like the worlds she writes about. There is grace, and sadness, and not a lot of fluff. No fluff at all, actually. Her work is elegant and plain and pure, pared down-like bones, or a single flame burning in a dark room.

LAcrop.jpgWendy Blackburn is the author of Beachglass (May 2006) which is a St Martin’s Reps’ Pick, an Amazon.com editor’s pick, and a PNBA award nominee. She is also a counselor and a mother, and she lives in the Seattle area.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

Deborah Alkamano Recommends

Tuesday, June 6th, 2006

ithedivine.jpegRabih Alameddine’s I, the Divine has a very innovative narrative style. Each chapter lays claim to a new beginning and retraces the lives of the vibrant narrator, Sarah Nour el-Din, as she crosses transnational borders and psychological landscapes. We experience the Lebanese civil war as Sarah experienced it–in fragments and in small doses. I, the Divine is funny, painful, and solid. Alameddine writes very convincingly of young womanhood, sexual awakening, and the devastating effects of war on a culture. These days, we don’t need any more reminder about war’s injuries, but we do need a writer who may offer ways of redeeming ourselves in the face of loss and alienation.

Dalkama.jpgDeborah Alkamano was recently elected secretary of Radius of Arab American Writers. She is also a member of a Dearborn/Detroit subcommittee that will help mobilize women for a national gathering organized by AMWAJ, Arab Movement of Women Arising for Justice.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

Essence Ward Recommends

Tuesday, May 16th, 2006

waitingforanangel.jpg“The man dies in him who stands silent in the face of tyranny.” The words are Wole Soyinka’s, a longtime critic of Nigerian corruption and brutality. When first quoted by a student organizer in Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel, the rallying cry ushers in a demonstration that, despite the rubber bullets, teargas and temporary shuttering of the university, leave the campus heady with triumph. But a few pages later, a character unhinged by the sudden death of his parents and sister, launches into a speech with this phrase and is carried off by security agents; their vicious beating seals his insanity.

Such is the ambiguous but no less astute commentary on the wisdom of protest that flows throughout this novel. At its end, which is actually the beginning of the story, the fate of the central character, Lomba, who has raised his voice against the regime, remains unknown. Still, what is fully resolved, is Habila’s accomplishment in crafting a story that remains all too rare in contemporary fiction. It is an intimate look into the soul of a young, African man who has prioritized artistic expression, intellectual diligence and emotional honesty.

essence-ward.jpg

Essence Ward is a freelance radio producer living in Atlanta.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

NancyKay Shapiro Recommends

Tuesday, April 4th, 2006

herfirstamerican.jpg

I found Lore Segal’s strikingly unique debut novel Her First American through the process of judging a book by its cover: the hardcover and early paperback editions were decorated with a detail from a Reginald Marsh painting of passengers in a New York City El Car. Attracted as I am to all things New York (and a fan of Marsh), I picked up the book at a library, and immediately fell head-first into the vividly disoriented and disorienting worldview of its young Viennese heroine, the WWII refugee Ilka Weissnix:

Ilka had been three months in this country when she went West and discovered her first American sitting on a stool in a bar in the desert, across from the railroad. He was a big man. He bought her a whiskey and asked her what in the name of the blessed Jehoshaphat she was doing in Cowtown, Nevada.
“Nevada?” Ilka had said. “I have believed I am being in Utah, isn’t it?”

The man Ilka meets at that railway café is Carter Bayoux, a middle-aged black intellectual with ties to the brand-new United Nations. At that first encounter, she has no frame of reference for Carter–she doesn’t understand that he’s black, let alone what that means in America. Once back in New York, where much of the novel’s action takes place, we watch through Ilka’s point of view as, via her burgeoning affair with Carter, she learns from scratch about what it is to be a displaced Jew, a real New Yorker, a woman in love with a fascinating, depressive and self-destructive man, and a member of a loose-knit circle of African-American and Jewish activists in the 1950s civil rights movement whose assumptions of comradeship are constantly undermined by implicit racism, anti-Semitism, suspicion and resentment.

All of which makes this book sound like a chore, when in fact it’s full of frequently hilarious conversations and set-pieces (the whole section at the summer cottage peopled by a seething variety of inter-racial couples is indescribably rich and strange and feels absolutely true to life) as it unfolds a tender love story of unpredictable complexity.

I’ve never found characters in fiction anything like Carter, Ilka, and their circle in Her First American. Ilka’s alien point of view on post-war America alternates with that of Carter, down-trodden and all-too-familiar with the daily grinding oppression that sends him to the bottle. As Ilka becomes an American, and rises into a better position in life, Carter inexorably sinks. Through Ilka and Carter, Segal juxtaposes the combined struggles of two dispossessed minorities, even as she unflinchingly and mournfully illustrates their ultimate inability to really communicate with one another.

shapiro_nancykay.jpgNancyKay Shapiro is a writer in New York City. Her novel, What Love Means To You People, was published by Thomas Dunne in March 2006.
(Photo by Greg Marin)

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

Bill Gordon Recommends

Tuesday, February 14th, 2006

mollflanders.jpgI wholeheartedly recommend Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, also known as The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, published in 1722 and widely considered to be one of the first English-language novels (Defoe himself, some say, being the father of the novel form). When I first came to the book, I was halfway through drafting my own first novel, Mary After All – the story of a Jersey City woman who comes of age during the turbulent 1970s and discovers her own route to independence along the way – and it certainly made quite an impression on me: both as a reader and as a writer. So many things seemed more possible – not the least of which was the idea that you could, as a man, convincingly tell a story from a woman’s perspective, and in that woman’s voice. (Worth noting is the fact that Defoe wrote Moll Flanders under a pseudonym so that his readers would believe it was the actual journal of a bawdy, adventurous woman in the eighteenth century.) There was also, in those pages, validation of the concept that by creating a full-blown, closely-examined character who is chock full of flaws and fully revealing of them… who is driven by decisions, sometimes awful but always explained, that make sense at the time – in Moll’s case she is, by turns, a good wife, a hooker, a pickpocket, a convict and a “reformed” bad mother of sorts – you could make the reader like your heroine even more. I surely did! I also shared in her joys and sorrows and successes more completely, I think, because none of her many “warts” were hidden. My own narrator, Mary, leads a rather quotidian existence compared to Moll – although she does have a stint as a bookie and kicks the woman who slept with her husband down the stairs. But in Moll Flanders there was the refreshing concept, clear in its early pages, that fairly ordinary details – personal finances, daily routines and decisions – could be fascinating – not just interesting — if the conveyance was intimate and accurate enough. And in that intimacy grew drama. Drama that could build and be felt by the reader with each move and plot twist, no matter how large or small, because you were there *with* her. And nearly four hundred years after the initial publication of Moll Flanders… you still are.

36651_gordon_bill.jpgBill Gordon‘s work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Mississippi Review, New York Press, Christopher Street, and Downtown. He received an MFA from Columbia University. He grew up in Jersey City and now lives in New York. Mary After All is his first novel.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

Jamie Callan Recommends

Tuesday, February 7th, 2006

edges.jpg“Leora Skolkin-Smith’s Edges was featured this year at the Virginia Festival of the Book, but it doesn’t seem to be noticed much. I hope more people will read it. Written in lyrical and arresting language, it bridges a rift between the “political” and the universal, telling a story about mothers and daughters and a young woman’s sexual awakening. The geography and tensions of Israel and Palestine before the Cold War are especially glowing in this book. Leora Skolkin-Smith is very gifted at expressing complex, nuanced moments with rare precision. I highly recommend this unusual and brief novel.”

Callan.jpgJamie Callan’s fiction has appeared in Best American Erotica 2002, The Missouri Review, Story Buzz Magazine, American Letters and Commentary, OntheBus, The Baffler, and Turnstile. Callan teaches fiction at Yale University, NYU, and Wesleyan University. She is also a Master Teaching Artist with the Connecticut Commission on the Arts.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

Michelle Lin Recommends

Tuesday, January 31st, 2006

goodplacefornight.jpgA Good Place for the Night by Savyon Liebrecht, Persea Books. I found this Israeli author’s short story collection at the Independent and Small Press Book Fair back in November. The first story, “America”, had me hooked after the second page. The collection is made up of seven short stories, each taking place in a different locality (America, Germany, Hiroshima, a kibbutz, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and a post-apocalyptic world.) The book blurb says that the collection focuses on “place, on men and women physically or emotionally distant from home.” I would go further and say that place is, in these stories, often an imagined construct (most obviously in “America”). The collection also seems, to me, to be about the precarious lies we tell ourselves to make our lives bearable, and what happens when these lies fall apart. To summarize: “America” is told from the point of view of a little girl whose mother runs off with another man and his daughter to America, and her and her father’s attempts to cope with this betrayal. “The Kibbutz” is about an orphaned child of a mistreated and mildly handicapped couple, and his eventual discovery of the truth behind their deaths. “Germany” focuses on an Israeli reporter in Munich who is covering the trial of a former Nazi commander responsible for his father’s death. “Hiroshima”, one of my favorites in the collection, is about an Israeli woman’s nine years’ stay in Japan and the terrible forces that drive her to leave. And “A Good Place for the Night”, the title story, is about a post-apocalyptic world, an inn where several survivors take refuge. I would highly recommend this book.”

michelle006.jpgMichelle Lin writes for New York Brain Terrain, a cultural events blog for NYC.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

William Lychack Recommends

Tuesday, January 24th, 2006

lostworldofthekalahari.jpg Bill Lychack writes in to recommend The Lost World of the Kalahri by Laurens Van Der Post. Says he: “Surely, it must be true, everyone has a book that truly changes their lives. There’s always a context to how this book finds you-a context which probably isn’t that interesting or magical to anyone except yourself-so I’ll spare you the story of how a stranger handed me this book, how forlorn and lost I must have seemed, how this strange quest of Van Der Post’s spoke directly to me. But I would, if I could, give you a copy of the book, if I saw you in such a state right now in front of me. And I’d make you wait a moment until I found a brief passage I’ve all but memorized. I’d tell you that you don’t need any context for it, but then I’d probably say that, in the book, Van Der Post, who’d dreamed from boyhood of finding the nearly-exterminated Bushmen, had just committed to organizing his expedition into the Kalahari desert of what is now Botswana: I’d tell you it’s a spiritual quest for him and would read this to you:

In fact all the aspects of the plan that were within reach of my own hand were worked out and determined there and then. What took longer, of course, was the part which depended on the decisions of others and on circumstances beyond my own control. Yet even there I was amazed at the speed with which it was accomplished. I say ‘amazed,’ but it would be more accurate to say I was profoundly moved, for the lesson that seemed to emerge for a person with my history of forgetfulness, doubts and hesitations was, as Hamlet put it so heart-rendingly to himself: “the readiness is all.” If one is truly ready within oneself and prepared to commit one’s readiness without question to the deed that follows naturally on it, one finds life and circumstance surprisingly armed and ready at one’s side.

“Then I’d hand the book to you and simply disappear, just as someone handed the book to me and never appeared again. And maybe you’d read it. And maybe it would speak to you the way it did for me. You never know. ”

lychack_william.gifWilliam Lychack is the author of The Wasp Eater, a novel.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

Stephan Clark Recommends

Tuesday, January 17th, 2006

Amanda Filipacchi’s Nude Men may be the funniest novel I’ve ever read and you’ve never heard about. Please, introduce this to your mother’s book-club: the story of 29-year-old Jeremy Acidophilus and the eleven year-old girl who seduces him. Not sold yet? How about this: it includes a dancing magician. C’mon. Just listen to Acidophilus, who at the start of the novel believes his lunch at a crowded Manhattan café ruined when a beautiful woman asks to share his table. “I am a man without many pleasures in life,” he says, “a man whose pleasures are small, but a man whose small pleasures are very important to him. One of them is eating. One reading. Another reading while eating.” After that, what writer could deny Filipacchi a lunch companion?

stephanclark.jpgStephan Clark’s fiction has been published by, or is forthcoming in, The Cincinnati Review, The Portland Review, Night Train, Barrelhouse, Fourteen Hills and Drunken Boat. He is currently on a Fulbright Fellowship in Ukraine, where he’s researching and writing about the “mail-order bride” industry.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

Michelle Herman Recommends

Tuesday, January 10th, 2006

startingoutevening.jpg“Brian Morton’s Starting Out in the Evening was published in 1998 and while it was by no means ignored–as I recall, it received glowing reviews and was nominated for some major awards–it’s a book hardly anyone seems to know about just seven years later. Thus I am always giving people copies of it as gifts, and everyone I’ve given it to (a group that includes other writers and artists as well as lots of civilians, including both of my parents–and my father never reads “this sort of book,” i.e. “literary fiction,” unless it’s one I’ve written) has fallen in love with it.

It’s the kind of book you do fall in love with, a book that is not only written gorgeously but is full of truths–that is, actual wisdom–and the main characters (Schiller, an obscure novelist/intellectual; Heather, the bookish, brazen girl who half-falls in love with him as she sets about trying to write about him; and the Schiller’s daughter, Ariel, an ex-dancer turned aerobics teacher) are so lovingly and brilliantly drawn it is almost unbearably sad to come to the end of the book.

The character Heather remembers that her life was changed when at 16 she discovered Schiller’s first novel, Tenderness: “It was as if Schiller had explained her life to her more sympathetically than she’d been able to explain it to herself.” That’s exactly how I felt reading Starting Out in the Evening, a novel that does something that hardly any contemporary novel (and for that matter hardly any contemporary art) troubles to do: it looks at the goodness in–and of–life. This is not to say that it is sentimental, or “soft.” In fact Starting Out in the Evening is full of in-passing, apparently throw-away observations (“You desire the woman who intimidates the woman you desire,” says one character) that are startling in their shrewdness. A novel that is this smart and this generous, with characters who feel entirely real, is so rare that I have never understood why it isn’t more generally acknowledged as one of the best novels of our time.”

mherman.jpgMichelle Herman is the author of the short novel Dog and the memoir The Middle of Everything.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

Samantha Dunn Recommends

Tuesday, December 13th, 2005

crossthewire.jpg“As far as I’m concerned, everybody in America should read Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border by Luis Alberto Urrea. It strips the ugly political rhetoric around immigration and reveals the very human face of this issue. The book came out in 1993, but I think it’s more relevant today than when it was published. More than sociopolitical analysis, though, Urrea has created a heartbreaking, tough and compelling narrative in this collection of essays. (Try to read the section titled “Father’s Day” without crying. I dare you.) This work is a testament to survival, and to hope, but never becomes sentimental. Urrea is a storyteller to be envied and emulated.”

samdunn.jpgSamantha Dunn is the author of Failing Paris, a finalist for the PEN West Fiction Award in 2000, and the memoir, Not By Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life, a BookSense 76 pick. Her most recent memoir, Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex and Salvation, is published by Henry Holt & Co.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

Lisa Teasley Recommends

Tuesday, December 6th, 2005

milk.jpg“I spent a gray February morning in bed reading Darcey Steinke’s Milk. After the last page, I sobbed so long and hard my partner thought it had something to do with him. He pulled me out of bed, took me to the Sunday farmers’ market to feel the harvest of the world. Still I was changed, in whatever small way a really good read does. Steinke’s language is so gorgeously sensual and succinct. She illuminates the struggle of reconciling the sexual with the spiritual, as well as how they pull from the very same places.”

Lisa_Teasley.jpgLisa Teasley is the author of the award-winning story collection Glow in the Dark and the critically acclaimed novel Dive. Forthcoming spring 2006 is a story in Black Clock, and in the summer, her new novel Heat Signature. She lives in Los Angeles.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

Scott Turow Recommends

Tuesday, November 29th, 2005

bookofsplendor.jpg“I’ll recommend two books,” Turow writes via email. “Frances Sherwood’s The Book of Splendors, a fantasy about the golem of Prague, published a few years back to almost no notice, and Scott Simon’s Pretty Birds, which is a magnificent novel about the Bosnian war from the point of view of a 16 year old female sniper. It’s a significant book which didn’t get its full due.”

scottturow.jpgScott Turow is a writer and attorney. He is the author of seven best-selling novels, including his first, Presumed Innocent and his most recent novel, Ordinary Heroes published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in November, 2005.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

Mitch Cullin Recommends

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2005

notesofadesolateman.jpg“One of my favorite modern works, Notes of a Desolate Man by Chu T’ien-Wen, perfectly captures the alienation and internal ruminations of many gay men; that it was written by a Taiwanese woman is no less remarkable, although Chu T’ien-Wen–acclaimed in her homeland as a novelist, intellectual, and screenwriter–has long been one of the best-kept literary secrets (at least in the West, surely due to so little of her work having been translated here). Free-flowing, non-narrative in the traditional sense, rich with metaphors and allusions, the narrator, Shao, reflects on, among other things, the death of a childhood friend from AIDS, Fellini, Levi-Strauss, and, ultimately, himself.”

mitchcullin.jpgMitch Cullin is the author of seven books including A Slight Trick of the Mind and The Cosmology of Bing. His novel Tideland is now a motion picture by Terry Gilliam. Besides writing, he continues to work on projects with his partner Peter I. Chang, among them a documentary about Hisao Shinagawa and the forthcoming Howe Gelb concert film This Band Has No Members.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

Jervey Tervalon Recommends

Tuesday, November 15th, 2005

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“Zoger Zalazny’s Lord Of Light is a science fiction novel about a world run by a super-advanced human like race that has adopted all the attributes of the Hindu pantheon. They ruthlessly use their technology to oppress the lower castes, while taking god like privileges for themselves. Lord Kalkan, once one of the ruling elite, decides to teach Buddhism and to become a revolutionary. I suspect that Lord of Light is a homage/parody of Lord of the Rings, but it stands on its own as a wonderfully funny, thoughtful and beautifully written book. Though I don’t write science fiction, this book meant the world to me when I discovered it in high school. I grew up in south central LA in the seventies and this book somehow made sense of the world for me and my pootbutt, nongangbanging friends. I just reread it and its still holds up as a call to speak truth to power.”

jtervalon.jpgBorn in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, Jervey Tervalon is the author of five books including Understanding This for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voice’s Award. He was the Remsen Bird Writer in Residence at Occidental college. His current novel is Lita and his current project, The Cocaine Chronicles was published in April, 2005. Currently he teaches at Occidental College, and the Center for African American Studies at UCLA.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

Rigoberto González Recommends

Tuesday, November 8th, 2005

tetched.jpgTetched by Thaddeus Rutkowski is a fitting second punch follow-up to his debut novel Roughhouse, which also straddles the startling fine line between pleasure and pain. Erotic pleasure. Erotic pain. But this is not a playful foray into S&M–though it takes as many risks–Rutkowski’s journey is much more complex than that as he unravels both psychology and sexuality through one of the most memorable of protagonists: an awkward biracial youth who escapes the small town repressions (and oppressions) to explore the big city ones. Only the thick-skinned will resist the urge to flinch; and the meek will find it difficult to leave this enticing book of unconvetional lust and love. By the end of this novel, the real world will seem a little less shocking, and, thankfully, a little less dull. I highly recommend both these titles that connect preadolescence to adulthood in a most unusual and intelligent way.”

robertogonzalez.jpg Rigoberto González is the author of four books, most recently the controversial children’s book Antonio’s Card. The recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and a contributing editor to Poets & Writers Magazine, he is currently associate professor of English and Latina/o Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

Hayan Charara Recommends

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

askthedust.jpg“One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.”

This is how Arturo Bandini introduces himself in John Fante’s 1939 novel, Ask the Dust. I’ve read the book several times, and with each re-read, I stop after this opening paragraph. This go-at-it, I tell myself, I’ll know what to make of this indifferent, slack writer who constantly refers to himself in the third person. But soon after, Bandini not only surprises me but also forces me to empathize with him.

Addressing himself, he says, “…you were born poor, son of miseried peasants, driven because you were poor, fled from your Colorado town because you were poor, rambling the gutters of Los Angeles because you are poor, hoping to write a book to get rich, because those who hated you back there in Colorado will not hate you if you write a book. You are a coward, Bandini, a traitor to your soul, a feeble liar before your weeping Christ. This is why you write, this is why it would be better if you died.”

A struggling writer with only a single story under his belt, Bandini goes to LA to make it. He barely gets by, eating oranges, stealing milk, all the while waiting for word from his editor out east, Hackmuth, who Bandini sees as a God–the man who will save him from a destitute life. To complicate matters, Bandini falls for Camilla Lopez, a Mexican bar maid, who is in love with another failed writer, a bartender who is dying. Eventually, Bandini achieves literary success, but his relationship with Camilla, not to mention his notions of the writer’s life, are ultimately doomed.

Charles Bukowski called Fante’s writing “superb simplicity.” He and others, including Carey McWilliams and Robert Towne, consider Ask the Dust as one of the greatest novels published in America. Fante’s been compared to Dostoevsky, Hamsun, Hemingway, Wolfe, Steinbeck, Saroyan and Nathanial West–and deservingly so. But unlike them, his classic novel is oft forgotten. It shouldn’t be. It’s at once tender, harsh, funny, sad. Ask the Dust is a kick in the pants, an eye-opener, a lesson in humility. Whenever I start to take myself too seriously, I pick it up and within minutes I am humbled.

HayanCharara.jpgHayan Charara is the author of two books of poems, The Alchemist’s Diary (Hanging Loose, 2001) and The Sadness of Others (Carnegie Mellon, 2006). His poetry has appeared in numerous publications, among them Chelsea, Cream City Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and the anthology American Poetry: The Next Generation. Born in Detroit, he lived for many years in New York City before moving to Texas. Like Arturo Bandini, he’s waiting to hear back from his agent about his first novel, Regret.

Marcy Dermansky Recommends

Tuesday, October 4th, 2005

frostinmay.jpg“I was thirteen the first time I read Frost in May by English writer Antonia White. I can’t even say how many times I have read this perfect novel. First published in 1933, and then rediscovered, reprinted in 1982 by Virago Modern Classics (a beautiful and unfortunately defunct press devoted to restoring the works of women authors), Frost in May tells the story of Nanda Grey, nine years old, who is sent by her convert Catholic father to receive her education at the formidable Convent of the Five Wounds.

Young Nanda is just my kind of protagonist: introverted and smart and painfully sensitive, always uneasy with herself and her circle of friends. She is also a tormented writer. At thirteen, Nanda secretly begins to write her first novel. When her work in progress in discovered by the nuns, the consequences for the aspiring author verge on tragic. Antonia White’s prose is both spare and engrossing. Her depiction of the convent’s rites, the kindness and the cruelty of the nuns, is positively fascinating, providing entry into a truly foreign universe.

White, who was plagued by both mental illness and writer’s block, continued Nanda’s story with three additional novels. Nanda Grey becomes Clara Batchelor. These additional volumes (“The Lost Traveler,” “The Sugar House,” and “Beyond the Glass”) also deserve to be read and reread. I certainly have.”

marcydermansky.jpgMarcy is the author of Twins, a MacDowell Fellow and the winner of the 2002 Smallmouth Press Andre Dubus Novella Award, and the 1999 Story Magazine Carson McCullers short story prize. Her stories have been published in numerous literary journals, including McSweeney’s, The Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Indiana Review, and included in the anthology Love Stories: A Literary Companion to Tennis. She is a film critic for About.com and belongs to the New York Online Film Critics Society. She lives in Astoria, New York. She is not an identical twin.

Christopher Castellani Recommends

Tuesday, September 27th, 2005

lifetocome.jpg“Rarely do we get to peek into the pornography of great writers,” Castellani writes. “Not so with E. M. Forster. In fact, many readers and admirers are not aware that Forster wrote his own porn — a dozen or so short stories collected in the bawdy little volume The Life To Come.

Forster wrote these stories ‘not to express myself but to excite myself’ and knew they (like Maurice) dealt too candidly with (homo)sexuality to be published in his lifetime. Unlike Maurice, though, the stories are far from romantic or sentimental. They are brutal, eerie, ironic, damning of a hypocritical society, and more than a little twisted, even by today’s standards all without resorting to a single explicit sex scene. As in allgreat literature, the characters in The Life to Come are fully human and encounter various emotional obstacles; most of them just happen to involve illicit trysts.

You may want to keep a copy on your nightstand.”

christopher_castellani.jpgChristopher Castellani was born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware. His parents immigrated to the United States from a small village in Italy in the years following World War II, and their experiences have been a significant inspiration. Castellani’s first novel, A Kiss From Maddalena, was published in 2003, and won the Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction in 2004. His second novel, The Saint of Lost Things, is published this month.

Jess Row Recommends

Tuesday, September 20th, 2005

seaunder.jpg“Every time I try to describe David Grossman’s See Under: Love, I get the same reaction: raised eyebrows and skeptical laughs,” Row says. “One writer, after hearing my attempt at a plot summary, said, ‘That sounds like the worst novel I can possibly imagine.’ OK, so I don’t have much of a future as a book publicist, but I’m going to keep trying to spread the word about this remarkable novel, which seems almost unknown outside Israel, though it’s been available in translation for fifteen years.

See Under: Love is about the Holocaust, about the origins and future of Israel and the persistence of Eastern European Jewish culture in the most extreme circumstances, but it’s so radically ambitious and makes such strange demands on the reader that to call it a “Holocaust novel” is almost beside the point. It’s been compared to The Tin Drum, The Sound and the Fury, and Midnight’s Children, and it certainly belongs in that company. It’s one of the most hallucinatory and transporting experiences I’ve ever had as a reader.”

row.jpgJess Row is the author of The Train to Lo Wu (Dial, 2005) and a professor of English at Montclair State University in New Jersey. His story “For You” will appear this fall in an anthology of Buddhist fiction from Wisdom Publications.

Yiyun Li Recommends

Tuesday, September 13th, 2005

otherpeople.jpeg“I would very much like to recommend William Trevor’s novel Other People’s Worlds,” Li writes. “Trevor may not be an underread author but often when he is mentioned, he is called a master of short stories. He is also a master of novels. Other People’s Worlds was published in 1980, Trevor’s eighth novel and twelfth fiction work–just think how many authors’ twelfth book would be considered an early work. (As of last year, Trevor has published twenty-nine books.) It starts with a slightly unconventional wedding between a forty-seven-year old widow and a young, attractive, second-rate actor in a tranquil stone house where everyone tries to stay positive about the marriage, while a sales assistant in a department store in London drinks every night and dreams that the actor, who was the father of her only child, would come to her like a husband. The narrative then moves from one character’s world to another’s and unfolds the most horrible tragedy in a very humane and sympathetic way. Unlike a lot of novels where, by the last chapter or two, we can feel the authors’ eagerness to wrap up everything, Trevor is very patient and makes every line matter till the very end. Read slowly and marvel at this perfect novel.”

yl.jpgYiyun Li grew up in China and started to publish in English in 2002. She is the author of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

Neale Desousa Recommends

Tuesday, July 26th, 2005

pickup.jpeg “With all that is going on in Iraq and the world, all the Harry Potter and chick Lit discussions need to take a hiatus,” Desousa says. “Not that I do not read strictly for entertainment. But we are running out of time and in this frame of mind I went out and bought The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer. It’s a story of a white South African woman’s journey to the village of her Muslim lover. I think there is no way to understand a religion without experiencing the culture that nurtures it and this book takes its time (another virtue one needs to develop when reading serious lit). It’s a slim novel and it’s amazing how I am not feeling rushed to finish it, but instead am savoring it, one awkward compromise at a time. Ever since I read The House Gun, I have liked Gordimer’s writing. Her treatment of gay men in the novel was so subtly woven into the broader conflict of race.”

Born in Kenya, raised in Goa, corrupted and educated in Bombay, Neale Desousa now lives in Los Angeles. His work has been published in Chiron Review, Slipstream, and is forthcoming in Swink.

Nick Arvin Recommends

Tuesday, July 19th, 2005

worksoflove.jpg“Wright Morris published more than thirty books and won a National Book Award before he died in 1998, yet his work was never widely read and now seems–alas–in danger of slipping entirely from sight. The Works of Love was my introduction to Morris, and it remains my favorite among his novels,” Arvin says. “It is a strange novel, although strange in a manner that is not currently in fashion. Its protagonist, Will Brady, is a Midwesterner, gentle, quiet. He is lonely, but has little bitterness. The book has almost no plot–which usually I cannot bear in fiction, but in Morris’s beautiful, descriptive prose, as the novel drifts on the intense but curiously disengaged observations of Brady, it attains a unique power. Brady rarely knows quite what to make of the world around him or how to react to it, which has a tragic aspect, but it is also unexpectedly liberating, and it allows the novel to explore that extraordinary emotion–difficult to write about and often neglected in fiction–called wonder.”

arvin_photo_2.jpgNick Arvin is the author of a collection of stories, In the Electric Eden, and a novel, Articles of War, which was published in February.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

Naomi Shihab Nye Recommends

Tuesday, July 12th, 2005

stafford.jpg“I strongly recommend the book Every War Has Two Losers: William Stafford on Peace and War,” Shihab Nye says. “It’s edited by his son Kim Stafford, who also provides the introduction. Poetry and prose by a dedicated, articulate conscientious objector, one of the most beloved poets of the 20th century. Mandatory reading, I think, for anyone troubled by the “news” and deeply helpful for thought processes in a time when “patriotism” has been maligned and misinterpreted in all sorts of dubious ways.”

NaomiNye.jpgNaomi Shihab Nye’s books of poetry and prose include Going Going, A Maze Me, Habibi, Sitti’s Secrets, among many others. She lives in San Antonia, Texas.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

Daniel Alarcón Recommends

Tuesday, June 21st, 2005

“Last year I went through a Polish phase,” Alarcón says. “At one point I was doing some serious ethnic profiling, buying almost every book I came across by an author with a Polish surname. Janusz Anderman, Tadeusz Borowski, Bruno Schulz, Maria Kuncewicz, Jerzy Andrzejewski and of course, Ryszard Kapuscinski. I’m not really sure how to explain this, and I can’t really remember how it began. It’s a strange way to come to know a country, a people, a culture-necessarily incomplete of course, especially given that my knowledge base of Polish history is limited to what I learned in high school and whatever I picked up the summer I stayed with a friend in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. But I don’t really know any Polish folks, have never been there, don’t speak the language-but what struck me was how much I recognized in the work. They say that winners write history, but losers write the literature: I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Poland has lost quite a bit throughout history. My own country-Peru-has done its share as well. Maybe that’s what I recognized: the dark humor, the fatalism, the savage beauty of the prose and the strong, unflappable, acidly funny people these authors described. Everything. I won’t lie. I loved all of it. These writers could be Peruvian, I thought. What’s more, I wished they were. We have our own masters, but still.

konwicki.jpgThe novel that has stayed with me most is A Minor Apocalypse by Tadeusz Konwicki. The copy I found at University of Iowa Library was from an old one, but it turns out it has been re-released by Dalkey Archive Press (God bless Dalkey Archive Press) in an the same excellent Richard Lourie translation. I don’t think I’ve ever read a funnier, sadder, stranger novel. When the novel opens, a older man, a writer, is visited by some Communist dissidents: you’re done, they say. You’ve accomplished all you’ll ever do, probably more than you could have hoped, but let’s face it, you might as well kill yourself. They propose he set himself on fire in front of the Congressional building that evening, in protest. The writer agrees to spend the day thinking it over. And so he does, and we follow him as he half-heartedly prepares for his death, writes his last will and testament (which is outrageously funny) and wanders around a crumbling, chaotic Warsaw that is as much a character as any in the novel. Bridges collapse around him, no one seems to know if it’s warm for fall, or cold for spring-but everyone agrees the weather is very, very strange. People stroll onto the scene, disappear, the action and dialogue is almost continuous with very few breaks. Everything is negotiable, everything is unstable, as the narrator gets drunk, falls in love, avoids friends, makes enemies, and prepares for the inevitable. It’s trite to say that I didn’t want this book to end, but it’s true. Konwicki is the real deal.”

alarcon.jpgDaniel Alarcón is the author of the story collection War by Candlelight.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

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