As a librarian and a reader, my goal is always to ferret out (and introduce other readers to) books — both fiction, poetry, and nonfiction — that are sometimes not easily found. I call these sorts of books — variously — "under the radar" titles, or "hidden treasures."
Those two phrases put together describe the books below, which make for wonderful reading during the dog days of summer and beyond.
Instead of a Letter
By Diana Athill, paperback, 237 pages, W. W. Norton & Company, list price: $14.95
Over the past decade or so, Diana Athill has written a series of well-reviewed accounts of her life as an editor and writer in London. It's hard to see how any inveterate reader wouldn't devour them with joy. Yet each time a new book was published, I wondered anew why her first — and to my mind, still her best (as much as I've enjoyed the others) — memoir, Instead of a Letter had never been reprinted. I loved it when I read it in 1962 and lent copies to all my friends until it went out of print, and I sent my last remaining copy to a friend in Australia a few years ago. But now, mirabile dictu, her publisher, W. W. Norton, has remedied this situation and made Instead of a Letter available for a new generation of readers.
I have to admit that I had some misgivings as I opened the new edition to the first page; I worried that it wouldn't live up to my memory of it. (As all re-readers know, this happens frequently.) But to my great relief, I was quickly reassured that the book had not lost any of its appeal for me. Athill grew up bookish in a large country home outside of London that was owned by her grandparents. When she was 15, she fell passionately in love with a young man, whom she calls Paul, who was then an undergraduate at Oxford and a member of the RAF (Royal Air Force). When Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, however, Diana knew that nothing would (or could) ever be the same. Does Paul live? Do they marry? Are they happy together? Readers of her later memoirs like Stet and Somewhere Towards the End will already know the answers to these questions, but even they, I think, will enjoy this early, sterling example of what a memoir can — and should — be. (Read Athill's poignant description of watching her grandmother die slowly, all the while praying fervently that God will not "let her start breathing again.")
Finding George Orwell in Burma
By Emma Larkin, paperback, 304 pages, Penguin, list price: $15
When I was scouring bookstore and library shelves for books to read in preparation for writing my new book, Book Lust To Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers, I came across Emma Larkin's fascinating Finding George Orwell in Burma. I was taken (as many readers before me have been) by her discussion of how Orwell's three best-known novels were a metaphor for most of 20th-century Burmese history. To some Burmese, she tells us, Orwell is known as "the prophet." She goes on to say:
In Burma there is a joke that Orwell wrote not just one novel about the country, but three: a trilogy comprised of Burmese Days, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Finding George Orwell in Burma is a lively combination of biography and armchair travel, as Larkin travels to all the places where Orwell lived and worked. I found the book completely riveting, not least because Burma and its history were pretty much unknown to me. And I realized that in writing, or even talking about a book like this, one cannot avoid making a political statement — first Larkin, and then I, chose to refer to the country as "Burma," rather than use the name its current military rulers prefer, which is "Myanmar." (Read more about George Orwell's connection to Burma and Emma Larkin's quest to answer a burning question: "Why, after nearly a quarter of a century away from Burma, did he look to the country for inspiration while he lay on his deathbed?")
The Good Son
By Michael Gruber, hardcover, 400 pages, Henry Holt and Co., list price: $26
New thrillers cross my desk with sometimes depressingly relentless frequency; good ones, not so often. Two of the best I've read recently are Michael Gruber's The Good Son and S. J. Bolton's Blood Harvest. They're both perfect choices for this summer's beach and airplane reading, or end-of-the-summer's-coming-up doldrums.
Gruber's The Good Son is one of those few and far between thrillers that, in addition to providing the requisite thrills, is both complex, intelligent and gives us a fully developed cast of characters. The protagonist, Theo Bailey, is a Special Operations soldier who decides to take a more or less unauthorized leave from the Army to locate his mother, Jungian psychotherapist Sonia Bailey Laghari, who's disappeared near Kashmir. Sonia, who'd become a practicing Muslim when she married a Pakistani, was in South Asia to convene a symposium on "Conflict Resolution on the Subcontinent: A Therapeutic Approach" with a group of fellow pacifists. Ironically — given the title of the symposium — she and her fellow participants, who include an American billionaire, a Jesuit priest and a Quaker couple, are kidnapped by terrorists, who may or may not have nuclear weapons at their disposal.
Unless Theo can figure out what's going on and how to foil the terrorists' plans, his mother is doomed: At worst, the terrorists will, indeed, have nuclear devices and use them; at best, Sonia and the rest will die by beheading. Because you're immediately sucked into the intricate and page-turning plot, this is a good novel to lose yourself in, but readers who are also looking for a thriller with a strong philosophical subtext — the sort of novel that makes you think about things like families, loyalty, religion and politics — will find just what they're looking for in Gruber's finest novel to date. (Read the book's mysterious opening, in which our narrator is awakened in the middle of the night by a call from his mother — who, despite being under a fatwa, is about to jet off to Pakistan.)
By S. J. Bolton, hardcover, 432 pages, Minotaur, list price: $25.99
Before she published Blood Harvest, S.J. Bolton wrote two mysteries. The first (Sacrifice) was terrific; the second (Awakening) was even better; and Blood Harvest is, not to put too fine a word on it, outstanding. First, I should let you know that I generally stay away from books that look too scary, and the typeface of the novel's title on the cover seemed so creepy that it almost dissuaded me from picking up the book. But since I had so enjoyed the first two, I gave it a shot — and am I glad I did.
When the Fletchers, an American family (mother, father, 10-year-old Tom, 6-year-old Joe, and Millie, who's 2), move into a house that overlooks the graveyard in a small, secluded English town, it soon becomes clear that someone or something doesn't really want them there. Tom's insistence that he's seen someone watching them goes unheeded, an accident (or was it?) puts Millie's life at risk, Joe goes missing, and there's a general feeling of secrecy and fear that's infected Heptonclough like a virus. Toss into the plot the new vicar, who suspects that something sinister just might be afoot, and a local female psychiatrist who takes on Tom, with his possibly overactive imagination, as a patient, and you have all the ingredients for a top-notch psychological mystery by a novelist who adroitly melds the natural and (possibly) supernatural into a spine-tingling gothic thriller. Fans of Barbara Vine, Mary Stewart, Daphne DuMaurier and Dorothy Eden shouldn't miss this one. (Read the novel's chilling beginning, in which a vicar named Harry discovers something disturbing hidden in a child's grave.)
By Frank Baker, paperback, 336 pages, Bloomsbury USA, list price: $14
Frank Baker's Miss Hargreaves is a perfect exemplar of my as yet unnamed proposed new genre (read more about that and help me name that genre here.) It is, according to the blurb on the back cover, one of the first in "a new library of books from the early twentieth century chosen by readers for readers." The story is this: Norman Huntley is the sort of young man who has "never lied in order to get out of things, so much as to get into things," a condition that leads his father to warn him to "beware of the Spur of the Moment." However, his father's advice goes unheeded when Norman and his friend Henry, On the Spur of the Moment, and for their own amusement, invent "Miss Constance Hargreaves."
They imagine her as an elderly poet (there's an example of her work at the end of this paragraph), with a touch of rheumatoid arthritis, who travels everywhere with her harp, her cockatoo, her Bedlington terrier named Sarah and a large hip-bath. After Norman (all in the spirit of getting into things) writes her a letter, you can imagine his shock when Miss Hargreaves (pronounced Har-graves, rather than with a long e, and she shares some qualities with Mary Poppins, I think) not only quickly replies, but invites herself to come stay with Norman's family for a good long get-reacquainted visit. And then she arrives, which inevitably complicates Norman's relationship with his family and his girlfriend. How this deliciously impossible but strangely believable plot (think of it as a Wodehousian fantasy, perhaps) works itself out is a treat to behold. I can't wait to discover what the Bloomsbury Group has in store next for American readers. (I have lots of suggestions, though.)
Here's a verse from one of Miss Hargreaves' poems:
O, bring me the cornet, the flute, and the axe,
The Serpent, the drum and the cymbals;
The truth has been told;
I've laid bare all the facts —
I cannot make bricks without thimbles.
(Read Norman and Henry's absurd first meeting with Miss Hargreaves, who muses that she feels "as though [she] had been born last week!")
By Guy Gavriel Kay, hardcover, 592 pages, Roc Hardcover, list price: $26.95
Then there's Guy Gavriel Kay's superb Under Heaven. Like many of his earlier novels (including The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Last Light of the Sun, Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors), this is historical fiction at its absolute best. It's gorgeously written and, though thoroughly researched, wears its scholarship lightly. Under Heaven is set during the 8th-century Tang Dynasty, one of the most dynamic in China's history (although in the novel the country is called Kitai). Shen Tai, the son of a general who'd led the Kitai armed forces in its last, devastating war two decades before, decides that he is going to spend the requisite two years of mourning his father's recent death by journeying to the distant battle site and burying the dead from both sides of the battle, all the while living among the still suffering ghosts of the unburied.
As a result of this seemingly simple decision to honor his father in a nontraditional way, Shen Tai's life is forever altered in ways that couldn't be foreseen. Here, the turn into fantasy is barely noticeable, because it makes perfect sense in the cultural context, and is both poignant and beautifully described. For me, though, the best aspects of Kay's novels are always his characters, who are utterly human (and therefore somewhat flawed, with difficult and complicated lives), sympathetic and amazingly real. They don't always get want they want, or at least not in the way they would wish for; Kay's endings are really never completely happy — his characters are always marked in some manner by the experiences they've undergone; they always pay a price for the choices they make.
It's a shame this book will be shelved in the fantasy and science-fiction section of bookstores and libraries, because that inevitably makes it highly unlikely that fans of historical fiction will find it on their own. (That's a good example of one of the many reasons that I dislike our reliance on genre divisions in describing fiction). Kay is a best-seller in his native Canada, and one of my life's missions is to have him be just as popular with readers here in the U.S., too. (Watch an interview I did with him in 2007, and read about Kay's hero, the soldier-poet Tai, as he prepares for a new day — which he will spend burying casualties of war.)
Words for Empty and Words for Full
By Bob Hicok, paperback, 96 pages, University of Pittsburgh Press, list price: $14.95
I kept changing my mind about which of Bob Hicok's books of poetry to include in this list. Should it be Words for Empty and Words for Full or This Clumsy Living? I love them both. I finally decided on Words for Empty and Words for Full, although right up until the last minute I was undecided. What I most appreciate about Hicok's poetry is its conversational tone and ways he has of turning the world inside out and making me think about it in unexpected ways. When I'm immersed in reading these poems, I feel as though the poet is talking to me about his own feelings and observations, and something more: the universality, and yet singularity, of those feelings.
The second section of this book deals with the shocking shootings at Virginia Tech University where Hicok teaches English. Take a look at "Whimper," which describes — in one long sentence — a search for reasons to help explain the tragedy, and ends with this long stanza:
... and why ask that why
of the larger why, why did this happen, and why from that why
branch to the why am I alive why, there's the why
are we here why and the why do we let so many questions
begin with a bang why and the why do we say aftermath
when it never ends, the desire to add for some and subtract
for others, we say we want answers, that it's very quiet
around here now, all this light, the sun more full of itself
by the day until July will strip us of shadows and time
will seem to have given up on night, why is the song
we add to nature, we're like birds as kids, why why why,
we sang, we sing, whole flocks of us swirling now,
turning our turns into turning, not knowing
in our direction what our direction is, how things
get decided undecided, lost if you need to find us
is where we are.
Whether it's the progression of his musings that results from breaking a coffee carafe to the wars in far-away countries ("Kinesis"); or a description of a conversation he had with his plumber, in to fix a leaky hot-water heater ("Redoubling Our Efforts"), which includes doubles, Noam Chomsky, and the plumber's son who wants to join the Army; or, perhaps my favorite, "from the history of grade school," (which contains several pie charts); reading Hicok's poetry is often a journey into uncharted waters. At various times, as I read and re-read these poems, I am filled with happiness at Hicok's language play and humor, impressed by the way he makes language new, and terror at the randomness and unexpectedness of our life. (Read three more of Hicok's poems — "A primer," "Epithalamium" and "First do no harm.")
Last Night in Montreal
By Emily St. John Mandel, paperback, 256 pages, Unbridled Books, list price: $14.95
I've just discovered Emily St. John Mandel. I had the good fortune to come across her first novel, Last Night in Montreal, while browsing at my local library. I was so entranced by it that I immediately headed out to my favorite independent bookstore to buy my own copy. I knew it belonged with all those other books on my bookshelves that make me happy just knowing that they're there, within easy reach (whether or not I actually re-read them). And when, shortly thereafter, I read Mandel's brand new second novel, The Singer's Gun, I was wowed by it, too.
I've been trying to think of what metaphor to use in order to convey my experience with both these outstanding novels. To me, reading them was like watching through the lens of a camera as its focus gradually widens from a close — up shot; with each page the camera pulls farther and farther back, and we see more and more detail about how that initial view (person, event) fits in the larger picture. Or, alternatively, reading Mandel's books is akin to watching the ripples spread out from the initial "plunk" of a pebble tossed into a pond.
I am also at a bit of a loss as to how to describe Last Night in Montreal concretely enough to give you a sense of the story, but here goes: When Lilia — who has a history of never staying in any one place for more than a few months — abruptly leaves her lover, Eli, without any explanation, he's determined to find her. Gradually, through the author's adroit use of flashbacks, the reader comes to understand Lilia's compulsion to flee, to disappear, to always need to be anywhere else than where she is.
The story is important (and the ending is breathtaking), but the plot details are not — to me — the most important aspect of Mandel's novel. For me, that would be the characters and the writing. Each of the characters — major and minor — is wholly alive, three-dimensional in all their complexity, bad choices, general quirkiness and flawed decisions. I loved how Mandel wove in the subject of Eli's long unfinished doctoral dissertation (on dead and dying languages) into conversations or musings that illuminated the various characters. Last Night in Montreal is about love, loss, obsession and how we never quite escape the past.
And the writing simply blew me away. Here's a rather long quotation from the beginning of Chapter 3, when Eli is falling into despair about Lilia's absence from his life:
The problem, Eli used to think before he met her, was that he'd never suffered except insofar as everyone does: the stalled trains, the alarm clocks that don't ring when they're supposed to, the agony of being surrounded by other people who all give the impression of being way more prolific and considerably more talented than you are, wet socks in the winter, being alone in any season, the chronic condition of being misunderstood, zippers that break at awkward moments, being unheard and then having to repeat yourself embarrassingly in front of girls you're trying to impress, trying to impress girls and failing, girls who can be seduced but remain unimpressible, girls who can't be seduced and/or turn out to have boyfriends in the morning, girls, being alone, paper grocery bags with falling — out bottoms, waiting in line at the post office for a half hour and then being snapped at because you don't have the right customs declaration forms to send the birthday gift to your perpetually traveling brother, waiting in line anywhere, phone calls from a disapproving mother who doesn't understand, the crowd of overeducated friends who understand too much and can't resist bringing up long — dead philosophers and/or quantum physics over an otherwise perfectly civilized morning coffee, girls, an overall lack of direction and meaning as evidenced in your inability to either finish the thesis, abandon the current thesis and write a different thesis altogether, finish the different thesis, or heroically give up the whole thing completely and go to work at a gas station somewhere upstate, stepping in things on the sidewalk, lost buttons, most kinds of rain, standing in line at the grocery store behind the lady who just knows there's a coupon in here somewhere, girls, and the sense that all of this adds up to a life that's ultimately pretty shallow and doesn't really mean that much, particularly in comparison to his older brother saving children in Africa.
Goodness, what a great sentence. I can just see Mandel sitting at a desk or coffee-shop table writing out this list, and the picture made me smile.
The Singer's Gun, her second novel, is very different, yet is concerned with similar themes of disappearances and striking out for new lives in new places, all the while questioning how far your loyalty to your family should take you. The problem with saying any more is that I want you to discover those ripples, that expanding field of vision of the camera, for yourself, and not have it be spoiled by me telling you what's going to happen. In an oddly paradoxical way, this is a thriller (by definition plot-driven) whose plot details are much less important than the characters and the gorgeous prose. (Read the passage in which Lilia goes out to get the morning paper, then doesn't return — thus breaking Eli's life "neatly into two parts.")
The Lotus Eaters
By Tatjana Soli, hardcover, 400 pages, St. Martin's Press, list price: $24.99
Two superb debut novels about the Vietnam War were published earlier this year. The first, Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn, definitely deserves the wide readership that made it a New York Times best-seller and a library top-circulator. (As I write this, I see that there are 241 holds on 30 copies at the Seattle Public Library; 53 holds on 73 copies at the Cuyahoga County Library System; and 232 holds on 57 copies at the King County Library System, so those readers have a terrific reading experience in store.)
The other — far less well-known, with lower sales numbers, and many fewer copies and fewer holds at libraries around the country — is Tatjana Soli's The Lotus Eaters. And that's a shame, because this is — not to mince words — a devastatingly awesome novel. It's one of those books that I didn't want to put down — I resented everything else that I needed to do in my life, because I didn't want to stop reading it. In Greek mythology, the lotus-eaters were so addicted to the narcotic properties of the lotus plant that they were unable to live in the real world. The irony of Soli's title is that what her characters become addicted to is the antithesis of narcotic bliss and lethargy, lassitude and dreaminess: It's not sloth, a dream life, or a being stoned that they crave, but rather the frightening narcotic of war and its attendant dangers.
Without it coursing through their blood, the main characters in Soli's novel are pretty much unable to function. The novel opens on a scene of chaos: the end (for the U.S.) of the Vietnam War in 1975, marked by American soldiers in helicopters departing Saigon from the roof of the American Embassy, and thousands of South Vietnamese trying desperately to get aboard the choppers before Ho Chi Minh's troops take over the city and the country. Helen Adams, an American photojournalist, and her lover, Linh, a Vietnamese photographer, are in that group trying to get back to the U.S. Through a long flashback, Soli describes the previous decade, which includes Helen coming to Vietnam to discover the circumstances of her brother's death in the country, meeting Sam Darrow, the best-known photojournalist of his day, and his assistant, Linh, and her initial bewilderment at Darrow's attitude toward his job before she herself becomes hooked on danger and fear's adrenaline high. This is not a novel about politics, and it doesn't attempt to be a history of the war. Instead, it's about people caught up in events much larger than themselves who change in ways that are both welcome or not as a result of those experiences. (Read the book's opening paragraphs, in which Helen tries to help a sobbing young Vietnamese girl she discovers in the street.)
The alter-ego of librarian and book reviewer Nancy Pearl. Yes, she really has her own action figure! You can follow her on Twitter @Nancy_Pearl and read her blog, Book Lust Forever.
The alter-ego of librarian and book reviewer Nancy Pearl. Yes, she really has her own action figure! You can follow her on Twitter @Nancy_Pearl and read her blog, Book Lust Forever. Heather Murphy/NPR
I only recently realized that many of the works of fiction that I most enjoy are those that push genre boundaries. I especially like fiction that is mostly realistic, but every once in a while zigs confidently into fantasy. We tend to call such works "magical realism" when they're written by South American or Indian or Latin American writers — think Jorge Luis Borges' short stories, Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, or Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. But in fact, these great works are being written by authors of all countries. Since the books themselves can be mainstream fiction, mysteries, Westerns or fantasy (or any mixture thereof), I'd love to come up with a one- or two- or possibly three-word label for such works that captures their essence (something other than "unclassifiable"), but so far I've drawn a blank. Anyone care to help? Have at it — I'll give you some examples of books that fit what I have in mind — Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker, Under Heaven or The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke — and you find the best descriptor. Okay? You can send me your suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.