Casting Light on Neglected Books
Upper Valley Authors Recommend Works That Deserve Attention
Author Jo Knowles poses for a portrait at the King Arthur Flour Co. Cafe in Norwich, Vt. on November 19, 2013. The local author recently published another young adult book called "In Search of Jackie Chan." (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
Joseph Olshan (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
Former Dartmouth President James Wright at his Hanover, N.H., office in June 2012. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
Thetford resident Do Roberts is one of the founders and editors of Bloodroot Literary Magazine. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
Thomas Powers at his South Royalton, Vt., office in Feb. 2011. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
Jeff Sharlet on the Dartmouth College campus in Hanover, N.H., in Sept. 2011. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
Jodi Picoult (Courtesy photograph)
Ernest Hebert opens a program on an e-reader at his office at Dartmouth in Aug. 2011. (Valley News - Polina Yamshchikov)
Edward Behr. author of "50 Foods" at his home in St. Johnsbury, Vt., on Nov. 26, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
Author Sarah Stewart Taylor, of Hartland, collaborated with illustrator Katherine Roy on the book The Expeditioners after they met at the Center for Cartoon Studies. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
Kathryn Joyce (Courtesy photograph)
Writer’s Center Director Joni Cole discusses a prompt response while Sasha Mordecai of Plymouth, Vt., listens during Pinot and a Prompt night at the Writer’s Center in White River Junction earlier this month. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
Jeffrey Lent (Michaela Findeis photograph)
Every year, we in the media, with laxative regularity, trot out our Best Of lists. Best movies, books, music, restaurants, television, hotels, art shows, apps, spas, farmers markets: there is almost no artistic or commercial enterprise for which a Best Of list doesn’t exist.
A Best Of list is one way to take the temperature of a culture, and readers like lists that sum up what critics think we should pay attention to. But there can be something reductive about the exercise. The national arbiters of taste work within a fairly narrow frame of reference, one dominated by the urban marketplaces of the coasts, and fed by the churning publicity machines of the corporations releasing the music, movies and books we consume.
Some of that is inevitable. Critics can’t see, read or listen to every movie, book or album. But there’s an echo chamber effect, too; what’s worthy is what they say is worthy. They read each other and they report to each other in the same publications, and so you have a boomeranging of opinion centering around the same works, many of which deserve the praise and attention, but some of which seem predictable.
Is it any surprise that the New York Times Best Books list tends to reinforce the commercial interests of the publishers themselves, or that the same names appear on it over and over? What about the books that aren’t easily slotted into a pigeon hole, or aren’t written by the usual suspects?
Granted, it’s a tricky proposition. Critics follow careers, and some careers are more significant than others in terms of quality or quantity of output. However you feel about him, John Updike was a writer of quicksilver brilliance who also produced a range of work on the scale of a 19th century man of letters: novels, essays, short stories, poetry, even the occasional children’s book. You follow an Updike, or a Toni Morrison or Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat or Joyce Carol Oates.
But there are scores of works that deserve to be noticed, but aren’t. They’re not widely reviewed, or reviewed at all. They fall through the cracks or they’ve fallen out of favor as tastes and subject matter change.
Look at the book Stoner by John Williams, who died in 1994. Stoner was published in 1965, and in retrospect, one can understand why it might have come and gone with little fanfare. It’s the story of a young man in the Midwest whose life is changed by literature. Everything else in life disappoints him; his parents, his marriage, his job as an English professor. What sustains him is a life devoted to reading.
In an era in which America was heading into noisy, adolescent, experimental rebellion, a book that wasn’t noisy, adolescent or experimental ran against the current, and it seems to have dropped from view rather quickly. It was reissued in 2006 by the estimable New York Review of Books Classics, which rediscovers and republishes international literature that disappeared into relative obscurity, or wasn’t much noticed to begin with.
So Stoner has been resurrected. It was named the book of 2013 by the British book seller Waterstones, and, according to a report in The Guardian, is currently the best-selling novel in the Netherlands and is selling briskly in France, Spain and Italy. For a novel about a relatively lowly professor at a state university in 20th century rural Missouri, this is remarkable. It comes, sadly, too late for Williams, but, happily, not for readers.
With this in mind, the Valley News recently asked area writers to name a book (or books) that they think have been overlooked and deserve to reach a wider audience. The title could have been published in 2013, or any era.
Readers: If you have book titles that you’d like to recommend, send them to me. If enough people respond, the paper will publish a Round 2. The book (or books: no more than two titles, please) can come from any era and be by any writer, even the most famous, but it has to be unappreciated, underrated or simply forgotten.
Jodi Picoult, author of many novels, including Sing You Home, Lone Wolf and The Storyteller
Recommendation: Nothing to Declare by Mary Morris (Picador) and First Light by Charles Baxter (Vintage Contemporaries)
“Mary Morris is a terrific writer who is often confused with Mary McGarry Morris (another good writer, incidentally). The book Nothing to Declare is a memoir about her travels and how they helped her find a sense of home. It is lyrical, lovely, touching — it was Eat Pray Love before that book existed. Another favorite of mine is by Charles Baxter — First Light. It is a novel written entirely in reverse, timewise — and is not just an astonishing feat of literary mastery but is also a brilliant character study of a brother and sister and what it means to be a family.”
Joseph Olshan, author of Cloudland, The Conversion and Clara’s Heart, and editorial director of Delphinium Books
Recommendation: The Outlander by Gil Adamson (HarperCollins, 2008) and The Purchase by Linda Spalding (Pantheon, 2013)
“I would like to cite two recent Canadian novels that have been published in the U.S. and to my mind, could have been given a great deal more attention, both of them prize-winning books in their native country.
“The Outlander, by Torontonian Gil Adamson, is a remarkable piece of writing that sentence for sentence is as pure and lyrical and crystalline as a novel by Jean Stafford. The author began her career as a poet and labored over this book for eight years. A young woman, abused by her husband, murders him and flees into the wilderness of the American west, chased by her two brothers-in-law determined to avenge their younger sibling’s death. The novel takes place in the early years of the 20th century, and the heroine’s flight into the wilderness becomes a harrowing journey as well as an exploration of her own inner life. Adamson’s descriptions of the natural world are breathtaking and lyrical, and yet her great poetic gift never compromises the book’s driving narrative.
“Linda Spalding’s The Purchase shares many of The Outlander’s strengths: narrative daring, passages of pure poetry, all of it belied by a touching modesty. The author, an American living in Canada, based her novel on documents that she unearthed that detailed the life of her great-great-great-grandfather, who as it turned out, was shunned by his Quaker brethren to the point where he had to flee Pennsylvania. The novel begins in 1799 and follows the travails of Daniel Dickinson, an abolitionist (he shares the name of Spalding’s grandfather) who relinquishes his place in a tightly knit Quaker society and decamps with his young wife and five children, horses and cow for parts unknown. When he finally settles on the frontier, which was then the Cumberland Gap, Daniel is forced to take on a slave in order to survive. Spalding’s novel claws at the deepest nerve of American history: our shameful practice of keeping (and for the most part mistreating) slaves.”
James Wright, President Emeritus of Dartmouth College and author of Those Who Have Borne the Battle (Public Affairs)
Recommendation: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (Mariner Books) and The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh (Riverhead Books)
“I am currently writing a book seeking to introduce some of those American servicemen and women who served and died during the Vietnam War. While I am a historian, looking at the data, the official casualty reports, the records of battle, the memories of those who survived, I recognize the power of fictional accounts written by those who were there—those of Tim O’Brien, Jim Webb, Larry Heinemann, Karl Marlantes, and others.
Just last week I read again O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. On a third reading this remains a powerful description of American soldiers in Vietnam. I immediately followed this by reading an account by a North Vietnamese soldier whose service in the war overlapped with O’Brien’s. Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War is a haunting book, poetic and evocative, that should be read more widely. It serves both to introduce the particularity of the Vietnamese experience in their war and, read with O’Brien, the common experience and memories of all who served in combat in Vietnam.”
“Do” Roberts, editor and publisher of Bloodroot Magazine
Recommendation: Robinson Jeffers
“Widely published and highly regarded in the early part of the 20th Century, Robinson Jeffers seems somewhat neglected today. … Poet, critic, and anthologist Louis Untermeyer praised Jeffers for his ‘gift of biting language and the ability to communicate the phantasmagoria of terror.’ Critic Selden Rodman noted that Jeffers wrote his poetry ‘with a one-dimensional straightforwardness that is almost Homeric. And the similes he uses, if not Homeric, are as primitively American as the flintlock and the Maypole.’ ”
Edward Behr, author of 50 Foods and publisher of The Art of Eating
Recommendation: Seaweeds: Edible, Available and Sustainable by Ole G. Mouritsen (University of Chicago Press)
“Among the thousands of food and wine books published each year, it’s hardly surprising that in 2013 so many readers and reviewers have overlooked a book titled Seaweeds: Edible, Available and Sustainable, written by a biophysicist and translated from the Danish. But Ole G. Mouritsen brings passion and a scientist’s care to his interest in gastronomy. He is a glutton for information, and his book is a celebration of all the variety and diversity and, perhaps, eccentricity of knowledge that exists in the world.
“This is THE book on seaweeds as vegetables. The writing is clear and straightforward, and the photographs are outstanding. Seaweed has been gaining ground in Western kitchens, moving from Japanese cuisine into North American, at first by way of sushi and sashimi and lately more generally. It is part of cutting edge international haute cuisine. ‘Nearly all seaweeds are edible,’ to quote the title of one section of the book.
“Mouritsen presents a deep picture of seaweed in the wild and in aquaculture, with visits, for instance, to producers in Japan and in British Columbia. He describes varied kinds and uses in the kitchen. If you are drawn to eating seaweed and certainly if you are a sushi-sashimi geek, this book is for you. Even if you never want to taste seaweed, but are fascinated by the world’s variety and complexity, this book is for you.”
Jeffrey Lent, author of the novels In the Fall, Lost Nation and After You’ve Gone
Recommendation: The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G. B. Edwards (NYRB Classics)
“The story behind the writing of this novel can be found in John Fowles’ wonderful introduction, but the book itself is the real feast. Ebenezer is a life-long bachelor inhabitant of the island of Guernsey and tells us his story in the first person, as an old man. In a clear direct prose that is fully of its place, we are taken by hand and ear through a time and way of life that’s otherwise largely lost to us now.
“There’s a sense of Hardy about the book but with a directness and humor, as well as the squinting eye of one who has lived out his years in a small, isolated but deeply complicated and connected community. We’d not have been surprised to meet Ebenezer 50 or 60 years ago in northern New England. This is one of those novels that is the cause of great delight when you run across someone else who’s read it. I own an old ex-library hardcover that came to me with a broken spine and dog-eared pages, the most certain proof of a book that’s not only been read but re-read over and over again.”
Sydney Lea, Vermont Poet Laureate and author of I Was Thinking of Beauty and A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife
Recommendation: The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G. B. Edwards
“In 1981, a novel appeared under the title The Book of Ebenezer LePage; it was published in this country by Knopf. The author was one G.B. (Gerald Basil) Edwards, and the novel is a fictionalized autobiography of the title character, the oldest living man on the isle of Guernsey. Few now know of this wonderful book (reissued by NYRB Classics), despite the enthusiasm of readers from John Fowles to the prickly Harold Bloom, who included it in The Western Canon.”
Joni Cole, author of Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive and founder of The Writer’s Center in White River Junction
Recommendation: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Grove Weidenfeld)
“My choice is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, is one of the most memorable characters ever created — vain, pretentious, peevish, intellectual, a gluttonous slob of a lunatic. From a craft standpoint, just the dialogue alone sweeps the reader away. And while Ignatius’s rantings and misadventures reveal the tragedy of the human condition, this is still, hands down, the funniest book I’ve ever read.
“It’s worth noting too that this Pulitzer Prize-winning book was published in 1980, 11 years after the author’s suicide. Toole’s mother, Thelma, found a smeared carbon copy of the manuscript and relentlessly pushed it on editors until finally, reluctantly, author and college instructor Walker Percy read it and was blown away.”
Ernest Hebert, author of The Old American and Never Back Down
Recommendation: Travels in North America by Peter Kalm, published in English in 1770 (Dover)
“I could not have written my novel The Old American without it. Peter Kalm was a Swedish naturalist, a disciple of Carl Linnaeus, who was sent to North America by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to collect plant specimens and do research, in 1747, the exact time period of the novel I was writing. Kalm walked from Delaware all the way to Quebec. He took notes on animals and people as well as plants. I trusted his insights, his impartiality; the clarity of his diction and core humanity comes through even in translation; his detailed descriptions were invaluable to me as a novelist.
“For example, he wrote that Indians in Vermont wore hats made of birch bark. He wrote about the diets and condition of the teeth of the French and English colonists, as well as the native peoples. Let me add that I ran across this very thick volume while browsing in what was then the 100th Monkey Bookshop in White River Junction back in the late 1990s, (owned) by David Holtz. Dave sold only quality books. He had dog named Dylan that used to lay in the doorway. You had to step over the dog to get in.”
Jo Knowles, author of Living with Jackie Chan and Jumping Off Swings
Recommendation: Borrowed Names by Jeannine Atkins (Henry Holt)
“Borrowed Names received several starred reviews but still missed several bookstores. This perfectly-crafted book tells three mother-daughter stories of famous strong women: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J. Walker and Marie Curie. It’s one of those books I want everyone I know to read and love as much as I did.”
Thomas Powers, author of The Killing of Crazy Horse and Heisenberg’s War
Recommendation: Damon Runyon: A Life by Jimmy Breslin (Laurel)
“At the end of a circuitous road of exploration a few months back I came upon Jimmy Breslin’s great biography of the man behind Guys and Dolls, Damon Runyon, who wrote about Broadway night life and the New York underworld for 30 years when New York City had six or eight daily newspapers which valued reporters who could write.
“Few of them could write as well as Runyon, who covered every major murder trial and sporting event for Hearst papers, and wrote dozens of short stories on the side. The characters in the stories have names like Nicely-Nicely, Big Jule, the Seldom-Seen Kid, Nathan Detroit, and Sky Masterson. Runyon’s own life was as improbable as the lives he wrote about. He met Pancho Villa in Mexico and a few years later, chasing Villa with General Pershing’s force in 1916, he took pity on a young street girl whom he placed in a convent school. Twenty years later, when she was a dancer in a New York night club, he married her. But Runyon’s life was mainly a life of writing, and every time his fingers paused over the typewriter keyboard, he took a puff of his cigarette. That added up to a lot of cigarettes. When he finally allowed a doctor to look into his throat it was too late for anything but a farewell tip of the hat.
“Jimmy Breslin is a great writer, too, and he knows the New York newspaper world that is now passing from this earth. When Breslin’s Damon Runyon: A Life came out in 1991 it attracted modest notice and shortly disappeared. You can find a hardcover copy online at abeBooks for roughly what it costs to buy a copy of the Sunday New York Times. In these simple facts you may find evidence of the collapse of literary culture, or a happy bargain, take your pick.”
Jeff Sharlet, author of Sweet Heaven When I Die and C Street, and Mellon Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College
Recommendation: Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere by Lucas Mann and The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption by Kathryn Joyce (Public Affairs)
“It was another bad year for ‘best-of’ lists for the genre in which I work and teach, creative nonfiction. With a few notable exceptions — Rebeccca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages — such lists were once again chockablock with plodding histories of wars and dead presidents. Here are two innovative books that should have made more best-of lists.
“Lucas Mann’s Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere revitalizes not just the small-town sports story but the genre of creative nonfiction itself, moving nimbly between the game, the people who play it, and the people who hope — or fool themselves into believing — that it will save their economically blasted town. Woven into the story is a profound essay on men, masculinity, and delusion. It’s brilliant, even if, like me, you don’t care much about baseball.
“Kathryn Joyce’s The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption is more traditional nonfiction, but like all genuinely honest investigative journalism it challenges conventional wisdom and narrative conventions, too. The Child Catchers is a mix of reportage, character, travel, and sharp but empathetic thinking, a terrifying story but a crucial one.”
Sarah Stewart Taylor, author of The Expeditioners and Amelia Earhart: The Broad Ocean
Recommendation: The Barrytown Trilogy by Roddy Doyle (Penguin Books)
“I recently went back to Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy and it struck me how fresh the novels felt and how much I found in them on rereading. Many Americans are more familiar with the film versions of The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990), and The Van (1991), starring the fabulous Colm Meaney as Northside Dublin patriarch Jimmy Rabbitte Sr., but the novels are a different kind of pleasure. Read together (20 years after I first read them) I found a treatment of joblessness and poverty that felt achingly timely, along with Doyle’s spot-on characterization of human beings longing to be artists, trying to love their families against the odds, and facing middle age with terror and good humor.”