Further Under the Radar: More Books Not to Miss

In May, Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl pored through her shelves and pulled down several books that are read by a few but deserve wider attention. Well, there are more where they came from. Pearl is back with another armload of what she calls "under-the-radar" books.

'Dingley Falls'

Cover Image: 'Dingley Falls'
Dingley Falls by Michael Malone, paperback, 640 pages

One of my favorite novels was written more than a quarter-century ago, and yet each time I read it, which I do every couple of years, I fall in love with it all over again. Michael Malone has written many terrific novels, including Foolscap, Time's Witness and Handling Sin, but for some reason it's Dingley Falls that I go back to time and time again. For me, Dingley Falls is the uber-soap opera as novel, or novel as soap opera — take your pick (this makes a lot of sense because for many years Malone was one of the writers on that uber-television soap opera One Life to Live). It's one of those novels in which you're immediately drawn into the world the author has created, so that when the book ends — and it's not a short book by any means, thank goodness — you're left feeling bereft, as though you've somehow been banished from a familiar and well-loved place.

 

The seemingly bucolic Dingley Falls, Conn. (the sort of town in which being a nut and an egghead are nearly synonymous, Malone tells us), is celebrating the 300th anniversary of the year of its founding, and strange events are occurring. Love is on everyone's mind, as are a series of very nasty anonymous letters, strange lights in the sky and an uncommonly large number of deaths from heart failure. Evil is afoot in Dingley Falls, and no one is quite sure what to do about it, except, perhaps, 16-year-old Polly Hedgerow, who's wiser than her years might indicate. The novel is a bit racy in places, with some somewhat raunchy sex occurring both behind closed doors and in the woods surrounding the town, but Malone's descriptions are offered in such good humor that it's all simply irresistible. And how could you not love a book that begins not only with a map, but also a four-page alphabetical listing of all the characters, with short identifying phrases: Sidney Blossom — town librarian and former hippie; Louie Daytona — gorgeous bisexual sculptor and ex-convict befriended by Tracy Canopy; and Polly Hedgerow herself — a bookworm, gossip, and sleuth.

'Gertrude Bell'

Cover Image: 'Gertrude Bell'
Gertrude Bell by Georgina Howell, hardcover, 481 pages

Gertrude Bell has been called both the female Lawrence of Arabia and the woman who invented Iraq. Both descriptions, as we learn from Georgina Howell's riveting biography, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, are justified but they suggest only a part of this remarkable woman's life. Born in 1868 to a wealthy British family, she had a life full of firsts for her gender: she was the first woman to achieve a First in Modern History at Oxford; the first to win a prize from the Royal Geographical Society; and the first female British intelligence officer. After graduating from Oxford, she visited Tehran, and, much as T.E. Lawrence did, fell in love with the Middle East. Gertrude Bell ended up devoting a good portion of her life to understanding the region's complexities and shaping its future. (She was also an intrepid mountain climber — there's a pulse-pounding account here of one of her ascents in the Alps. Plus, she organized the care of the wounded in France during World War I, and, somewhat surprisingly, spoke out passionately against women's suffrage in England.)

 

She taught herself to speak and read Arabic and Persian and, in the years leading up to World War I, explored the desert terrain by camel, always accompanied by a devoted group of servants who toted along everything that might be needed by a proper British lady on such a journey, including pistols, a canvas bath, tea sets (one imagines they were Spode, or Wedgwood), evening gowns, fur stoles, and Zeiss telescopes to serve as gifts to the tribal leaders she met along the way. Following the War to End All Wars, she drew up, on behalf of the British government, the boundaries of a new country to be carved out of the sands of Mesopotamia, and picked Faisal, son of a tribal chief from Mecca, to be Iraq's first king. Howell, who clearly fell in love with her subject while she was researching and writing this book, gives us a compulsively readable (and information packed) account of the life of one of the most fascinating women of the last 150 years. Highly recommended for biography fans, history buffs, or any reader with an interest in the deep background of events playing out in the Middle East today.

'The Grand Complication'

Cover Image: 'The Grand Complication'
The Grand Complication by Allen Kurzweil, paperback, 368 pages

The Grand Complication, Allen Kurzweil's clever and often laugh-out-loud funny second novel, is ostensibly about the search for a watch supposedly made for Marie Antoinette. The main character is Alexander Short, a reference librarian in Manhattan who carries around a notebook "tethered" to his waist just as the monks of old used to carry their journals around. His attachment (literally as well as figuratively) to girdling — obsessively writing notes about everything that occurs to him — is described by his "shrimp" (as Short's French wife refers to his therapist) as "a buffer against shame offering the precarious semblance of order to an emotionally blocked, obsessive young adult male." Despite (or perhaps because of) being obsessive and blocked, he's hired by Henry James Jesson III, a wealthy bibliophile and aesthete, to research the whereabouts of the aforementioned watch. The search wreaks havoc on his relationship with his wife, who doesn't trust Jesson at all.

 

As you page through this novel, you'll see that Kurzweil has filled this intellectual romp with delightful wordplay, hilarious scenes set in the library (including a contest, "Class Struggle," to see who can attach the correct Dewey Decimal number to the most abstruse subjects — the winner is invariably the building's janitor), a real-life mystery (the actual watch in question, which disappeared in Jerusalem in the 1980s, and has never been found), and some wickedly entertaining characters. A must read (and perfect gift) for anyone who loves books, and most especially anyone who has lately despaired of finding an intelligent and humorous novel to read.

'In the Woods'

Cover Image: 'In the Woods'
In the Woods by Tana French, hardcover, 448 pages

Tana French's intense debut novel, In the Woods, is part whodunit, part psychological thriller (à la Barbara Vine and Patricia Highsmith), and wholly successful. Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are Dublin police detectives who are called in to investigate the murder of a young girl. For Rob, the murder forces him to remember the central event of his life — the woods where Katy was found are the same woods where his two best childhood friends disappeared. All he remembers from that awful day is that he was found terrorized and traumatized, with his sneakers filled with blood. Following that event, Rob's parents sent him away to boarding school, and when he does return to Ireland to work for the police force near his childhood home in a Dublin suburb, it's with a new name, a posh accent, and a well-hidden secret. Rob has shared his connection to that cold case of the missing and long presumed dead children with only one person: his partner and best friend, Cassie.

 

As past and present crimes collide uneasily, French's plot twists and turns will bamboozle even the most astute reader, and the scene, close to the end of the novel, in which Cassie interrogates a suspect, will remain in your mind long after you finish the book. Because these characters are so well drawn, I almost wish French would write another novel about them, but a more sensible voice (my own) tells me that it wouldn't be the same and I should just be delighted to have found such a well-written, expertly plotted thriller.

'Then We Came to the End'

Cover Image: 'Then We Came to the End'

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, hardcover, 400 pages

Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End is one of those novels that slowly grew on me. I enjoyed it right from the beginning, but it wasn't until I turned over the last page that I was struck by just how good this first novel really is. The story begins as the economic boom of the 1990s is beginning to head south. The writers and designers in a rapidly failing Chicago ad agency are just waking up to the reality of a world marked first by austerity measures (no flowers in the lobby), and then layoffs and firings, which are known in the agency's parlance as "Walking Spanish down the hall," a reference to pirates' treatment of their prisoners (and a Tom Waits song). Told in the first person plural (the "we" voice is my favorite narrative style when it's done well, as it is here), Ferris' novel is about work and identity — the extent to which we define ourselves by how we make a living — and how people behave (often badly) in the face of change, particularly change for the worse.

 

There are the rumors flying, the infighting, the paranoia, and the incessant gossip around the water cooler about who's in and who's out, who's doing what to whom, who's going crazy, who's brought a gun to work, who's still showing up at the office (even though he was fired weeks ago), whose marriage won't make it through the downturn, not to mention the endless pettiness. One unforgettable series of scenes involves the machinations the characters go through in order to capture a particularly coveted chair that belonged to one of the first people fired. But Ferris goes beyond the work, exploring how people cope with change. In one very moving section (for which he switches to the third person), he writes with compassion about the ramifications of one character's bout with breast cancer, leavening the inherent oppressiveness of the situation with humor. Reading Then We Came to the End made me feel good about the state of contemporary fiction.

'The Unknown Terrorist'

Cover Image: 'The Unknown Terrorist'
The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan, hardcover, 336 pages

If what you're looking for is a good beach read, you can safely skip The Unknown Terrorist, Richard Flanagan's deeply unsettling new novel. However, if you're interested in first-class writing, a central character whose past and present will tear your heart in two, and a plot that carries you inexorably along to the last sad and awful climactic scene, this is definitely the book for you. In his previous novels, including Gould's Book of Fish, Death of a River Guide, and The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Flanagan has never shied away from depicting the wretchedness and sorrows of his characters' lives. But his newest novel ratchets things up considerably. The morning after a nightclub pole dancer known as "the Doll" picks up a man named Tariq and spends a cocaine-laced night with him at his apartment, she discovers her face splashed all over television and the newspapers: She's been linked to a group of terrorists rumored to be planning to bomb Sydney's Olympic stadium.

 

As the media frenzy grows, egged on by a self-serving sleazebag television journalist, and as the police narrow in on her identity and whereabouts, the Doll tries desperately to figure out how to save herself. Should she turn herself in? Can she manage to leave Australia? Once you start this book there's no way to stop reading it, nor do you have any doubt in your mind that there is no way this can end well. You know, with the Doll, that she's "... alone in a world without divine saviors, without rules, a world in which she could see nothing and everyone could see her ... that her life was no longer what she made of it, but what others said it was." And, at that moment, we understand, as the Doll herself understands, her fate.

'After'

Cover Image: 'After'
After by Jane Hirshfield, paperback, 112 pages

The poems in After, Jane Hirshfield's newest collection, reflect and refract on her Buddhist practice of many years. In these gorgeously wrought poems, each word somehow feels as though it were handmade for the particular purpose of being part of that particular poem. How we experience ourselves, how we experience the world around us, the actual sensations of being in the world, the language we use to describe our experiences, the death of friends, the very lives we choose to live — all of these become part of Hirshfield's poems, transmuted, through her quiet genius, into something very close to wisdom. From the first poem, "After Long Silence," to the last, "It Was Like This: You Were Happy," I predict you won't be able to stop.

About Nancy Pearl

Since the release of the best-selling Book Lust in 2003 and the Librarian Action Figure modeled in her likeness, Seattle's Nancy Pearl has become famous among readers and NPR listeners alike. She is a regular commentator about books on Morning Edition and NPR affiliate stations KUOW in Seattle and KWGS in Tulsa. Her latest book is Book Crush, recommended reading for kids and teens.

Books Featured In This Story

Dingley Falls
Dingley Falls

A Novel

by Michael Malone

Paperback, 588 pages | purchase

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  • Dingley Falls
  • A Novel
  • Michael Malone
Gertrude Bell
Gertrude Bell

Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations

by Georgina Howell

Hardcover, 481 pages | purchase

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Purchase Featured Books

  • Gertrude Bell
  • Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations
  • Georgina Howell
The Grand Complication
The Grand Complication

by Allen Kurzweil

Paperback, 359 pages | purchase

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  • The Grand Complication
  • Allen Kurzweil
In the Woods
In the Woods

by Tana French

Hardcover, 429 pages | purchase

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  • In the Woods
  • Tana French
Then We Came to the End
Then We Came to the End

A Novel

by Joshua Ferris

Hardcover, 387 pages | purchase

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  • Then We Came to the End
  • A Novel
  • Joshua Ferris
The Unknown Terrorist
The Unknown Terrorist

A Novel

by Richard Flanagan

Hardcover, 325 pages | purchase

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  • The Unknown Terrorist
  • A Novel
  • Richard Flanagan
After
After

Poems

by Jane Hirshfield

Paperback, 97 pages | purchase

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Purchase Featured Books

  • After
  • Poems
  • Jane Hirshfield

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