Category: underappreciated books

William Lychack Recommends

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. ”

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

Stephan Clark Recommends

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?

Stephan 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

“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.”

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

Samantha Dunn Recommends

“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.”

Samantha 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.


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