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.


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.


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 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 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


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.

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