As a reader, you stumble across countless gems that don’t seem to get a whole lot of attention from the greater reading community. These can be books that are relatively obscure or that made a small splash upon publication only to disappear from view over time, or they can be works by known authors that don’t get the degree of fame (or infamy) as that author’s other books.
Here are the lesser-known books I most frequently recommend to people.
All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews
This is one of the rare books that can make you cry and make you laugh–often on the same page. It’s a fictionalized version of Miriam Toews’ relationship with her real-life sister, which only makes it even more heartbreaking. Yoli and Elf are sisters. Elf has always been a brilliant but troubled girl who grew up to be a famed concert pianist. After a failed suicide attempt lands Elf in the psychiatric ward of a hospital, she turns to Yoli for help in her quest to die. Naturally, Yoli balks at the very suggestion, but once Elf makes up her mind she doesn’t change it, and Yoli must grapple with the question of how you help someone who is determined to die.
By all rights, this should be a bleak book, but it’s not. Toews is a master at making you laugh through your tears, for one thing. For another, All My Puny Sorrows is a glorious celebration of life, sisterhood, love, and the dual natures of life and death. I cannot recommend it enough.
Full review here.
Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn
This charming and creative novella is a delightful read you can devour in a single afternoon if you would like. The title, which is also the name of its protagonist, is a play on the letters in the alphabet: LMNOP. Ella lives on the fictional island of Nollop, off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop is ruled by a council who is obsessed with its founder and his claim to fame: authoring the pangram “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” (pangram meaning a sentence that contains every letter of the alphabet).
Trouble starts when letters from that pangram begin to fall off of a statue commemorating that founder and the council decides that it’s a sign and forbids the use of that letter. As letter continue to fall they are also forbidden and disappear from the book, which is comprised of letters written by Ella. This may sound silly, but this simple set-up tells a deeply moving story about freedom of expression and the dangers of totalitarian rule. It’s also a creative tour de force and deeply entertaining.
Full Circle, by Michael Thomas Ford
When Ned Brummel finds out that a longtime friend of his is dying, he travels to be at that friend’s side and begins to tell his life story. Having been born in 1950, Ned’s lifetime just so happens to span a lot of history and tumult for a gay man living in America. That’s what I find so captivating about this book: it’s like a primer on the enormous change that has happened for the LGBTQ community in America and the progress that is still to come for us. This is particularly interesting for me because my father, who is also a gay man, was born in 1950 just like Ned Brummel. Their lives take two different paths–my father remaining closeted until my mother and he divorced when he was in his 40s, Ned living fairly out in the open–but it’s fascinating for me to glimpse what it was like to grow up gay a generation before I was born and began my own quest.
Michael Thomas Ford isn’t the best writer and Full Circle does sometimes feel like it’s straining very hard to put Ned, in the manner of Forrest Gump, directly in the path of big moments from Stonewall to Bette Midler performing in bathhouses. But I couldn’t help but be captivated by the time and the lives it portrays. It’s easy to forget that so much of the progress we’ve made for queer citizens in America is only in the last twenty (and frequently more like ten) years. We can’t forget the way it was before, and for that reason I recommend that you discover Full Circle.
Full review here.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne
This book also deals with societal changes over time, specifically dealing with Ireland’s progression from a deeply Catholic nation to a more open place where homosexuality is accepted. And like All My Puny Sorrows, this is one of the rare books that made me both laugh and cry.
When we begin, our protagonist, Cyril Avery, hasn’t been born yet. His mother is cast out of her family and her hometown for being unmarried and pregnant. She ends up in Dublin, where she finds a temporary home with a closeted gay couple and decides to give her child up for adoption. We then fast forward seven years–a form the novel follows throughout–jumping seven years in each section to check in on Cyril at a new stage in his life. This first jump gives us a look at Cyril’s childhood being raised by outlandish adoptive parents who are like Dickens by way of Roald Dahl.
In the next section, Cyril is a closeted gay teenager deeply in love with his best friend, and things progress from there until the present day. I confess it kind of irritated me that each section builds to a big moment and then cuts away, and because each section jumps ahead seven years we rarely have to deal with the big moments in Cyril’s life, just the aftermath. But I do think there’s quite enough heft in what we do get to make up the difference.
This was one of my favorite books of 2017 but a lot of book people I know haven’t heard of it, so I’m doing what I can to get it out there so more people discover how delightful it is.
Full review here.
Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan
Many people are familiar with Esi Edugyan thanks to her 2018 Man Booker finalist Washington Black, but not many people seem to have read her previous novel, which was a finalist for the same prize back in 2011. Consider this my plea to get more people on board the Half-Blood Blues train. It’s wonderful.
My elevator pitch for this book is that it’s Amadeus crossed with Cabaret with a dash of Atonement for good measure. And I mean really, do I need to say more?
Full review here.
Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli
The pitch I heard for this book when it first came out was this: “it’s the great American novel, but as a graphic novel.” I was young enough at the time that I didn’t think to question how frequently stories about men are described as the great American anything, and thankfully I know enough now to find it problematic, but this remains a wonderful and insightful read.
Asterios is a middle-aged architect and womanizer who finds his life upended after a fire burns down his apartment. He escapes to a small town and as the story progresses, we learn more about Asterios and the motivations behind what happened to him. It’s wonderful, and take that from someone who usually doesn’t like stories about men who can’t seem to help but misbehave. Perhaps what makes all the difference here is that Asterios Polyp is actively questioning the lifestyle of its protagonist and where he has ended up as a result of it. It’s very good.
Persuasion, by Jane Austen
Okay, so Jane Austen is a classic writer whose works are very well known, but Persuasion is a criminally overlooked masterpiece. It ranks right up there with Pride and Prejudice, and that is not an overstatement.
The book is about Anne Elliott. She broke off an engagement with Frederick Wentworth eight years before the novel begins at the behest of a friend, Lady Russell, who convinced her that the match was unsuitable for her family’s position. Now the tables have turned–Wentworth returns to England a rich and successful naval captain and Anne’s family is in financial distress. Naturally, Anne and Wentworth run into each other again and over the course of the book, we must see if they can reconcile their broken love affair.
Persuasion is a sharply observed social comedy centered around the question of marriage–in other words, it exemplifies the typical Jane Austen novel, and it does so with indelible characters and great humor.
Intoxicated by My Illness, by Anatole Broyard
Anatole Broyard was a literary critic and editor for The New York Times. In 1989, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer before he could finish his seminal book about Greenwich Village after WWII, Kafka Was the Rage (which is another book people should discover, even if it remains unfinished). He put that book to the side in order to write a series of essays in which he struggles to come to terms with his own death, and those essays are Intoxicated By My Illness. It’s a stunningly eloquent and well-reasoned treatise on how to die, how to treat the dying, and, indirectly, how to live.
Throughout his life, writing was how Broyard made sense of things, so in this book you feel him struggling to reconcile himself with the end of his life. He also deals with the fear of being forgotten, expressing a hope that he will say something brilliant when he dies. With Intoxicated by My Illness, he did just that.
The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanigahara
Most people know Hanya Yanigahara as the author behind the ultimate love-it-or-hate-it novel A Little Life. That book happens to be one of my most hated of all time, but I first met Yanagihara through this book, which was part of the Tournament of Books the year it was released. It’s the fictional biography of a fictional Nobel Prize-winning scientist named Norton Perina, and it has footnotes from the colleague of Perina’s who is sharing the story with us. Sidenote: I adore books that have footnotes.
Perina, now an elderly man, has been the subject of some Bill Cosby/Michael Jackson level controversies and the colleague is hoping that telling Perina’s story will clear his name. So we hear about how Perina grew up and was educated and how he came to the island of Ivu’ivu, where he discovered the secret behind how some native residents of that island have achieved remarkable lifespans.
This book works on multiple levels, all of them gorgeous. The anthropology angle gets in some really profound thoughts about interference in other cultures and the myriad ways in which western (read: white) society has co-opted and even destroyed other cultures for its own ends. Through the colleague who is telling Perina’s story, we also get a very deep look at how stories are crafted and how they lead to perceptions about the past that may or may not be true.
It’s a wonderful book, and I wish it had the recognition that A Little Life does.
Full review here.
The Dubious Salvation of Jack V., by Jacques Strauss
The elevator pitch for this book is that it’s a South African version of Atonement. Jack Viljee is eleven years old and has grown up under apartheid in South Africa. His household is basically a stand-in for South Africa at large under apartheid. Jack roams about his world oblivious to the privilege that gives him the opportunity to be carefree, selfish, and spoiled. The family’s black maid, Susie, is his bedrock even though he takes her for granted and frequently mistreats her.
Things begin to spiral out of control when Susie’s son, Percy, comes to live with them. Jack is jealous of Percy’s claim to Susie and when he gets embarrassed in front of Percy, Jack’s act of revenge will turn out to have drastic consequences far out of his own control.
It’s a devilish, wickedly funny book that has some serious twists and turns. I also find the writing of Jack to be a refreshingly honest portrayal of childhood with all its obliviousness, self-righteousness, curiosity, and longing.
Stitches, by David Small
This gothic-inspired graphic novel tells the story of how David Small woke up from what he thought would be a minor surgery to find that he was unable to speak because a vocal cord had been removed. He had had cancer and been expected to die. His parents had thought they were doing their best to spare him from fear but ended up making a mess of the situation. From there, we hear about the abuse David had suffered at the hands of his parents and how his father may have caused his cancer in the first place.
It’s a harrowing coming of age story told in a profound and unsettling way. It also reads very quickly. I have been haunted by this graphic novel since I first read it. It’s phenomenal. Do yourself a favor and check it out.