Book Blitz

Overlooked Fiction

 Bloggers and booksellers recommend their favorite little-known reads.

Click here to read more from Slate’s Fall Fiction Week.

As we put together Slate’s annual Fall Fiction Week, we realized that it was focused largely on familiar names and literary all-stars. Yet a great deal of interesting fiction is published every year that either doesn’t get the critical attention it deserves or receives excellent reviews but fails to reach a broader audience. So we asked a group of people who regularly read lots of fiction—literary bloggers and booksellers at some of the country’s best independent bookstores—to recommend their favorite underappreciated novels and story collections from the past several years. Their responses are below.

We’d also like to enlist our readers in nominating their favorites. Click here for guidelines. Next week, we’ll publish a selected list of “overlooked” books, drawing on your nominations.

Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution
Javier Cercas’ Soldiers of Salamis (2004) is moral and political fiction at its best. A modern-day novelist attempts to uncover how a fascist writer escaped an execution during the Spanish Civil War. Once we start searching for the roots of legend, we realize we never find the bottom. The book didn’t get much attention in the United States, but it was a critical hit in Spain and parts of Latin America. Here are some other endorsements.

Jessa Crispin, Bookslut I recommend Renée French’s The Ticking (2006), a David Lynchian graphic novel dressed up like a children’s book about a child with a deformity rejected by his father. It’s heartbreaking and demented and beautifully drawn. And I cannot say enough good things about Shalom Auslander’s Beware of God (2005), a collection of twisted short stories that are part religious fable and part heresy, with titles like “Holocaust Tips for Kids.” The fact that they’re written by a man obviously conflicted about his faith makes them even better.

Mark LaFramboise, Politics and Prose Bookstore, Washington, D.C. I think Justin Tussing’s The Best People in the World (2006) is a marvelous first novel. It’s well-written, very original, suspenseful, and sometimes brilliantly funny. I think it will be an easier sell in paperback, but as a hardcover it has definitely been overlooked. The Epicure’s Lament (2004) by Kate Christensen does well here at P&P because we love it, but I don’t know if it causes much of a ripple anywhere else. Dan Chaon’s You Remind Me of Me (2004) is emotionally powerful. My colleague Katherine Broadway hand-sold a boatload of Sarah Bynum’s Madeleine Is Sleeping (2004). (Hand-selling is bookseller lingo for selling through an in-store recommendation.) We both loved A Complicated Kindness (2004) by Miriam Toews and recommend it often.

Laila Lalami, Moorishgirl I think everyone should read Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Desertion (2005). It’s about a love affair between a divorcée from a conservative Muslim family and a British Orientalist who has gotten lost in the desert, and how it affects successive generations. It is set in Zanzibar in 1899, but it may as well have been set today, so little seems to have changed after a century of cross-cultural encounters. Gurnah’s prose is simply exquisite, with entire paragraphs to which you will want to go back again and again.

Cathy Langer, Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver Logan Mountstuart, whose fictional journals make up William Boyd’s novel Any Human Heart (2003), began his writing life at the age of 6, in 1912, in his native country of Uruguay. His journals begin in earnest at the age of 17. The Great War had ended and Logan is ensconced in a boarding school in England. And so begins the unflinching chronicle of a life lived fully, honorably and sometimes less so, but always full-on. Mountstuart can tally among his occupations journalist and spy, prisoner of war, lover, husband, father—all aspects of which are detailed without shying away from both the awful truths of his character or the heart-wrenching grief of his many losses. Any Human Heart reveals the life of an ordinary man in extraordinary times; it gives the reader both broad and intimate views of the 20th century, from the mundane to the horrific. This novel is so satisfying, and one that we enthusiastically hand-sell, with readers of all ages and both sexes coming back and begging for another one just like it. Happily, we have Boyd’s latest novel, Restless (2006), newly released to keep our customers happy.

Michael Russo, St. Mark’s Bookshop, New York I have to confess that I was drawn to Todd McEwen’s Who Sleeps With Katz (2003) mainly by its smart cover image (an area in which Granta seems to excel), then hooked by the word Joycean set like a gem in the blurb along the bottom. The premise is simple: Two men think about women, drink, and smoke while apart, and talk about women, drink, and smoke while together. But that’s like saying that Ulysses is about an ordinary day in Dublin. McEwen does many things well, but two in particular make this book extraordinary. First, he has imagined his characters as complete identities, their different aspects revealed by their language and the language that describes them instead of by actions that serve a scene or plot point. Second, he handles the basic idea of sequence freely and wonderfully. There appears to be no exterior ordering of time, no strict clock or calendar that the novel must obey, only a series of colorful nows artfully related through an endless supply of befores and laters. Events occur in an almost thematic progression, moving outward like one endless conversation. I double-checked my findings by reading McEwen’s earlier Arithmetic (1998) recently and was not disappointed. Who Sleeps With Katz is a tough hand-sell, but I like to think McEwen is a writer more readers would want to know about.

Mark Sarvas, The Elegant Variation Given the number of book-review column inches compared with the number of worthy titles out there, the challenge isn’t to name a worthy, under-reviewed title—it’s to be able to stop at one. I’ve failed that test, since I can’t decide between two titles that weren’t merely memorable but are, in my estimation, of lasting value. David Albahari’s Götz and Meyer (2005) examines the roles of two noncommissioned SS officers in the murder of Belgrade’s Jews. The tale, told by a teacher to his students on a class trip, merges historical fact with imagination and speculation and demonstrates how the Holocaust continues to haunt and inspire a generation of European writers. Closer to home, Sheila Heti’s bleakly hilarious Ticknor (2006) is a brilliant anti-history, recasting the warm friendship between a pair of 19th-century Boston historians as a scalding study in bitterness and envy. It’s a tour de force of ventriloquism reminiscent of The Remains of the Day, and is exactly the sort of book I launched my blog hoping to find.

Christina Sheldon, Vroman’s Bookstore, Pasadena, Calif. Dara Horn’s second novel, The World to Come (2006), tells the tale of a painting by Marc Chagall, from its origins in a Russian orphanage during the 1920s to its theft from a New York museum during a contemporary singles mixer. The story of the painting is also the story of a family, and the two are elegantly interlinked by a plotline that flits between the historical past, the fictional present, and a folkloric “world to come.” Horn’s ultimate effect is pleasantly dizzying, and her work—like the ones poured by librarian-sommeliers at the book bar described in the novel’s final pages—possesses a “peculiarly balanced sweet-and-sour flavor” that evokes and illuminates the human condition. Consume it as you would a wine on reserve, with attentive patience, and you’ll be amply rewarded with the richness and resonance that characterize the finest vintages and books.

Megan Sullivan, Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Mass., and Bookdwarf One book that leaps to mind immediately is The Exquisite (2006) by Laird Hunt. It’s one of those books where at the beginning, you have no idea what is going on, and you keep wanting to put it down—but you can’t. It tells two stories with some of the same characters. The main character, Henry, stages fake murders in one story; in the other he is a patient in the hospital. The best way I’ve heard it described is that the stories are echoes of each other. It’s a fascinating book. The other book I’ll mention is Joe Meno’s The Boy Detective Fails. It’s the story of former child sleuth Billy Argo, who just got out of a mental hospital. Haunted by the suicide of his sister, he’s determined to solve the mystery of her death. He gains the help of two children living across the street. It’s too simple to call it a dark Nancy Drew. That detracts from Meno’s great writing.

Carol Wald, Three Lives & Co., New York Emmanuel Dongala’s Johnny Mad Dog (2005) should’ve had more readers. A window on the devastating and terrifying war that’s consumed Congo for years, through alternating stories of 16-year-old child soldier “Mad Dog” and Laokole, a 16-year-old high-school girl, both caught in the maelstrom. Two extraordinary portraits in chillingly page-turning prose. Another great book is Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope (2003), the dazzling U.S. debut of an author already well-known in the United Kingdom (and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year for his 2005 follow-up, Mother’s Milk). This is the story of a privileged young man’s headlong descent into squalor told with sparkling wit and brilliant verve—in the words of Sam Lipsyte, an “exquisitely harrowing” read.

Dave Weich, Powell’s City of Books, Portland, Ore. I recommend The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel (2006). It would not be unfair to call Hempel a writer’s writer, but it might be misleading—she’s a reader’s writer, too. Some of her stories contain only a few lines; few run longer than 10 or 12 pages. None rely on high-concept mechanics or lofty language. She demands very little of her readership, and then delivers in spades. Hempel has been called a miniaturist—fair enough—but if her stories tend to be small in scale, they drill as deep as fiction goes. Emotionally charged, fantastically precise, an Amy Hempel story is a miracle of articulation.