Category: underappreciated books

Jeffrey Frank Recommends

“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

“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 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

“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.”

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

Joe Miller Recommends

“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.”

Joe 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.