Under the Radar: Books Not to MissPlenty of books find a few devoted readers but leave the rest of us unaware that they were even there. Librarian Nancy Pearl reviews some of these "under the radar" books, including fiction, short stories and poetry.
It seems to me that there's frequently neither rhyme nor reason to which books garner tons of readers and which are read by only a few, devoted as they may be. Somehow, books in the latter category don't seem to register on the radar of public awareness. This is a shame, because in this large group of books, you'll find some of the most splendid reading (and writing) around.
'Magic for Beginners'
On the one hand, reading Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link's exquisitely loopy collection of stories, demands a certain suspension of disbelief, not unlike when you read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, or the other magical realists. (As Shakespeare had Hamlet note, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.") You simply have to accept — at least for the length of the story — that there might be zombies around, or that a purse can expand to hold a complete village. On the other hand, Link's writing is so remarkable, her use of language so mind-bogglingly perfect, that you're sucked into the world of the stories before you know it, beguiled by descriptions like this one, of a sofa covered with "an orange-juice-colored corduroy that makes it appear as if the couch has just escaped from a maximum security prison for criminally insane furniture." My favorite is the title story, which reminds me of M.C. Escher's picture The Drawing Hands. It's intricate, wildly imaginative and totally wonderful. Whether or not you think you like fantasy, if you're a fan of inventive plots and good writing (her use of language will fill you with awe), don't miss Kelly Link's collection.
In Truck: A Love Story, Michael Perry — writer, confirmed bachelor, volunteer firefighter and EMT in his small Wisconsin town — writes about his momentous 40th year. It's a time when he restores his 1951 International Harvester pickup truck to working order and falls in love, for real. It's hard for me to think of anyone who wouldn't enjoy this heartfelt and humorous tale, filled as it is with accounts of gardening (Perry's description of reading seed catalogs almost made me get up from the chair where I was reading and rush out to the hardware store to buy a hoe), book tours, deer hunting, recipes, country music, Roland Barthes and wedding planning. Perry's narrative voice — smooth and low-key — invites readers along for what turns out to be a most pleasurable ride.
Howard Frank Mosher's The True Account: A Novel of the Lewis & Clark & Kinneson Expeditions tells the story of a Vermont ex-soldier named True Teague Kinneson and his nephew, Ticonderoga, who race Lewis and Clark to the Pacific. Ticonderoga narrates their adventures — which include a run-in with Daniel Boone (who believes that True has jilted his red-headed, 6-foot-2-inch daughter, Flame Danielle), a historic baseball game with the Nez Perce Indians, frequent death-defying escapes, and periodic encounters with the more famous pair of explorers (who often need to be rescued by means of True's ingenuity). Ticonderoga's descriptions of his uncle and their adventures across the Louisiana Purchase territory to the west are related with a straight face but will leave the reader with anything but. True — a philosopher, inventor, classicist and Ticonderoga's much-loved teacher — dresses in chain mail, sports an Elizabethan codpiece, and wears a cap festooned with bells to cover the copper plate that protects the top of his head from further injury (he fell while he was celebrating with Ethan Allan after the victory at Fort Ticonderoga during the Revolutionary War). He clashes constantly with the devil (whom he calls the Gentleman from Vermont), and carries his hemp habit across the continent, generously sharing his stash with all and sundry. Don't miss this gem.
I can't remember when I've laughed aloud so frequently during the reading of a book as I did with Chelsea Cain's Confessions of a Teen Sleuth. This is a wonderful send-up of the Nancy Drew novels. The parody is framed by the premise that Carolyn Keene (the pseudonym under which the Nancy Drew series was written) was actually Nancy Drew's roommate for a short time at Bryn Mawr, and basically stole Nancy's life from her out of jealousy, retelling all of her detecting adventures through a somewhat skewed lens. Here, the real Nancy Drew redresses the balance in a manuscript that she had sent to writer Chelsea Cain after her death. We learn of Nancy's involvement with Frank Hardy (who, you will hardly need to be told, is the hero, along with his brother Joe, of another series of detective novels for kids). We also learn of her challenging marriage to Ned Nickerson and the birth of her beloved son, and the fate of Nancy's mother (and Nancy's iffy relationship to her father's second wife). The fates of George Fayne and Bess Marvin, Nancy's two best chums, play out as well, and so much more. Cain's love of the Nancy Drew books and her ability to draw out and twist every ridiculous morsel from the originals combine to make for an hour or two of tremendously entertaining reading.
Maybe the best way to describe Kings of Infinite Space by James Hynes is to imagine Stephen King writing satirical fiction. The life of the main character, Paul Trilby, has never been the same after he drowned his wife's cat, Charlotte, in the couple's bathtub. Charlotte now haunts every move that Paul makes, foiling any opportunity for happiness. Paul finally ends up as a temporary technical writer at TxDoGS, a government office in what seems to be Austin, Texas, where a series of encounters with his weird co-workers (not to mention the unnoticed-by-anyone-else dead body in the next cubicle) forces him to choose between a life of ease at TxDoGS and an honorable but probably unsuccessful future. It's a question worthy of Faust. Without giving away too much of the plot (except to say that it includes human sacrifice and zombies), it's best to just say that the cat, Charlotte, who's bent on revenge, continues to run Paul's life.
It's probably safe to say that most books of poetry can be considered to exist under the radar. What makes it worse is that there are poets out there, like David Kirby, whose work will delight many readers, if only they will pick up the books and begin reading. Kirby's newest collection, The House on Boulevard St., includes new poems as well as poems selected from his earlier collections. Kirby writes what I call "kitchen-sink poetry." He's not a formalist or a lyricist, or any other "ist" or "ism" by which we label writers. He has a conversational, more or less stream of consciousness approach to his subjects (which are wacky in their own right). The poems, filled with specific details, invite readers into often complicated and convoluted stories, and you can never predict from the opening lines just where the poem is going to end up. They're filled with humor, but they're not light verse. For anyone who feels baffled and/or put off by poetry, Kirby's the man to change your mind. You might want to start with these poems: "The Search for Baby Combover," "The Exorcist of Notre Dame" and "The Elephant of the Sea," which begins:
Because I make the big bucks fooling around with words, in France sometimes I like to say "Sylvia Plath" instead of "s'il vous plait," as when I open the door for Barbara and say, "Apres-vous, Sylvia Plath!" But yesterday the lady in the boulangerie asked me what I wanted, And I said, "Une baguette, Sylvia Plath! Crap..."
Kate Walbert's hauntingly beautiful Our Kind: A Novel in Stories is written in seductively oblique prose. It describes the lives of a group of upper-class women who married in the early 1950s, raised children, divorced in the 1970s, and are now soldiering their way through the illness, regrets, persistent sorrows and indignities of growing old. The group includes the artistic one, the recovering alcoholic, the one whose daughter killed herself, and more. Narrated by these women collectively ("Years ago we were led down the primrose lane, then abandoned somewhere near the carp pond"), the stories of their current lives include an intervention with the local Realtor, trying to save the geese at the Country Club, calling old lovers on the phone — and my favorite, a priceless chapter called "Sick Chicks," which describes a book discussion group that meets in a local hospice (at this meeting, they're talking about Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway).
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.