15 Women Writers Discuss Their Favorite Overlooked Books
As a child, I idolized both my grandmothers. They seemed better to me than other adults—wiser, calmer. Also, they had mighty powers. Rules didn't apply to them. My parents submitted to their will.
This is why I adore The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, an obscure little novel that features my favorite grandmother in all of literature. You may know of Jansson from her Moomin children's series, but The Summer Book is decidedly not for kids, though it is about a kid—a 6-year-old Scandinavian named Sophia, who spends the summer alone with her grandma on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland.
The setting is mythic: This is Viking territory, after all. The island is beautiful, but dangerous. The grandmother is as tough as her surroundings—and so is Sophia. There's nothing sentimental about these two. Jansson does not regard children as innocents, or old ladies as kindly simpletons. Instead, she depicts Sophia and her grandmother as a pair of well-matched powerhouses who provoke each other and vie for control, alternating tenderness with aggression. They are clearly the most important people in each other's lives.
Their time together is limited. This book is short because summer is short. Childhood is also short, and grandmothers don't last forever; mortality's shadow looms. Yet I always feel buoyed by it because I get to watch something amazing: a strong old woman teaching a willful young girl how to be.
Amazon does not deliver to the unnamed ice fields of Antarctica. Nothing gets delivered there but the occasional research team, their stuff, and the even more occasional journalist coming to interrupt their work. In 1996, I was that journalist. A Twin Otter dropped me off, but was days late picking me up because when weather blows in and the pilot can't tell ground from air, he has to turn back. The ice fields are stunning when you can see them, but when you're confined to a tent camp with no toilet and Tang-marinated chicken for dinner again, and no book to read in that 24-hour light, even Antarctica becomes the tiniest bit trying. It was late December, and it was looking like I might not make it home for the holidays. Then Ralph Harvey, the lead researcher, came over to my tent with an early Christmas gift: a copy of Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, Alfred Lansing's account of the explorer's harrowing slog to safety after his ship was crushed by pack ice. Nearly 40 years before the Caroline Alexander book of the almost identical name, long before Kenneth Branagh donned sealskins for the TV movie, there was this perfect account. Shackleton's story would be compelling in anyone's hands, but Lansing got the pacing exactly right. I could look up from the page into the same gorgeous, ghastly white that Shackleton faced. It turned a great read into an unforgettable day.
There are different ways a book can become underappreciated. Sometimes (though not often) a literary novel can be too fortunate: Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres won the Pulitzer Prize and sold very well, but I sometimes think its true artistic achievement got lost in all that success. Its brilliant recasting of King Lear to the pathologies of Iowa families and farming transforms the barren Goneril into a sympathetic woman whose haunted heart controls the narrative of the book. And the novel bears up beautifully upon rereading—it more than renews any respect for it that one might have shoved into the back of the mind's china cabinet.
Another way a book can be underappreciated is to have no real success at all. Julie Hayden's The Lists of the Past is a lyrical, brainy, moving collection of stories that was published in 1976 and then went quickly out of print. The author's life was sad, if not tragic—she died quite young (at age 42) of cancer. As this was all long before the Internet, it was as if she vanished without a trace. Now, after almost 40 years, the collection has been reprinted by Pharos Editions with an introduction by Cheryl Strayed. To see a writer be rediscovered by others—or encountered for the first time—is a thrilling thing.
A third way a book can go underappreciated is to be written by a writer so hardworking and productive that new readers don't know where to begin. Such is perhaps the case with Joyce Carol Oates. When people ask, "What should I read of hers?" I always say, "Start with You Must Remember This." It is a great portrait of the American 1950s, with a stirring coming-of-age story at its center. Oates has written of families and girls in upstate New York many times, but this novel pulls it all together with historical sweep and wrenching precision.
Finally, a book can be underappreciated because it receives some hysterically harsh reviews in its native land. This may be true of the British writer Rachel Cusk, who is just now getting the American audience she deserves. I recommend Aftermath, a memoir of her divorce, and Outline, a novel that looks at the same general subject but in sunlight. Ignore any negative reviews you read. Cusk has a Plathian talent, and the English were a little hard on Plath as well.
Alexander Chee's Edinburgh is a beautifully written book whose every word makes me ache, a story of coming of age, trauma, and redemption. When the novel opens, Fee, a 12-year-old Korean American boy in Maine, is a talented soprano in an exclusive boys choir. His life is irrevocably changed after he falls prey to chorus director and pedophile Big Eric. While Fee and his fellow victims harbor their tormenting secrets, in their shared suffering they develop intense bonds of friendship. Fee and Peter, one of Big Eric's favorite boys, grow especially close, but their relationship becomes fraught as Fee grapples with his homosexuality. This is a novel whose sense of intimacy belies its expansive themes. Chee allows us to feel the aftermath of the boys' ordeals. All pay a steep price for one man's misdeeds. Written with exquisite empathy and grace, Edinburgh tackles taboo subjects in ways that reveal how utterly human we all are, and how tough it is to forgive ourselves even for sins that weren't ours.
My youngest son headed for middle school just after I'd finished writing my third children's novel and before I started my fourth. Ahead of me stretched a time when work could at last come first, and I felt relieved, but also at sea. A sadness seeped in. Aside from the short sprint of writing I managed each day, I began to feel useless. It no longer seemed to matter if I climbed into bed every day at noon. Some days I did.
Donald Hall's Life Work saved me. Part essay, part journal, part family history, it considers the nature and necessity of meaningful employment, paid or otherwise. Hall traces the mineral veins of his writer's life back to his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. His people, New England farmers, were driven by sun and season—milking, harvesting, canning—and he has invented his own patterns of nourishment and preservation. His goal: "absorbedness," to be sure, but for him utility is also key to happiness. Hall reserves a special tenderness for his mother, who rarely felt essential in her role as a housewife. She was often ill, and at age 53, soon after losing her husband, she was diagnosed with an ulcer. "Work," her doctor advised. She listened, and regained her health.
I grew up surrounded by books, though not a lot of art books. But my parents had briefly met a young photographer named Arthur Tress, and he gave them his thin soft-cover, The Dream Collector. It sat on our shelves between tomes about Jung and Reich. I was drawn to it because it was filled with pictures of children—haunted, trapped, wistful kids my age. Tress approached them in public places (this was the '70s) and invited them to describe a dream they'd had. He taped these descriptions, then played the tape back, asking the kids to imagine they were still dreaming. Together they made photographs of the dreams. He worked quickly, using whatever props happened to be nearby: steam from a vent, an old staircase, an abandoned wheelchair. He was trying to catch that "transformation" moment, when illusion becomes reality. Tress didn't hide how easy it was—anyone could capture a dream; they just had to listen carefully and intuit what was really important. This book has never stopped being relevant to me. It suggests both a way to work (engaged with the hidden worlds around you) and what might be made from this kind of respectful listening. Something familiar, something problematic, something deeply unsettling—because dreams at any age are so often nightmares.
I would like to remind American readers of the Italian writer Elsa Morante (1912–1985). She wrote four novels, each astonishing for its quality, for the gripping density of its narrative and depth of its characters, for the complexity of its invented world and its wide-ranging view of the human condition. I love them equally: Menzogna e sortilegio ("House of Liars"), L'isola di Arturo ("Arturo's Island"), La storia ("History") and Aracoeli. I recommend starting with History. It's the story of Ida Mancuso, a widow, a mother, a Jew frightened by the racial laws of 1938, who in 1941 is raped by a German soldier and becomes pregnant. It's a stunning book about the insecurity that erodes the lives of those who, for the sin of being born, as Morante suggests, can be devoured and annihilated at any moment by "the universal power." Morante infuses the conventions of the novel with an innovative spirit, with uninhibited modernity. One reads with one's heart in one's throat.
Carol Shields wrote ten great novels, four wonderful story collections, and a deep, compelling biography of Jane Austen. She won many of Canada's literary prizes, England's Orange Prize, and a Pulitzer. But she would have been the last person to be surprised if you hadn't heard of her. She was in the business of writing seriously (with great wit) about serious women—and often men. Shields saw the great and the small simultaneously: The woman cleans the house because it is her obligation, because it is soothing, because she wishes not to know what she knows, because there is grace and pleasure in a domestic chore.
In Shields's novel Unless, Reta Winters is a 40-ish writer and translator of light, summery books who has lived life with insistent optimism—until her daughter leaves the family and drops out of college to sit on a downtown street corner, wearing a sign that says GOODNESS and holding a begging bowl in her lap. She will not come home, she will not explain. Unless is not heartwarming; it is witty, subtle, disturbing, a laser into the center of loss and grief that makes you laugh out loud and think again.
Certain debut novels become so instantly well known that they magnetize readers to their force fields at the expense of other writers' first books, which is the only explanation I can think of for why Clark Blaise's Lunar Attractions isn't already on everyone's radar. Blaise's beautifully written novel reads as if intended to be absorbed in one great gulp, a story whose protagonist functions as both reporter and subject being reported on—not so unusual. What sets the book apart is how the author trusts the visual—using language infused, in the author's words, with "atmospheres and geographies, pattern and contour" that work their way into his subconscious—to convey and emphasize meaning.
Halfway through this narrative of a young boy and his gradually less circumscribed world, we're told: "Another thing I know—and I have learned it as I write—is that my kind of innocence, because it is so complicated, is the most dangerous, most corrupt kind of knowledge. We all 'know' this, of course—what is propriety but the stench of repression?" Aha! So the character is a writer. And like so many questions in life and in fiction, to ask the question is also to answer it; questions create character as they express personal concerns.
Based in Palestra (a.k.a. Pittsburgh), and in inherently mysterious Florida, the novel features a sad shocker of a sex scene that certainly doesn't end with a cigarette or a midnight dish of ice cream. Without flinching, Blaise underscores the subtext of his tale with a kind of pantomime that darkly enlightens the character. And reader.
I don't wish to imply that J.M. Ledgard's magnificent 2013 novel, Submergence, went unnoticed. There were good reviews. And appearances on several very respectable best-books-of-the-year lists. And yet it came and went without much fanfare. There is always a certain randomness in terms of books that fill the sky (to paraphrase Martin Amis's long-ago New York Times piece on Don DeLillo's Underworld) and those that barely rise above the horizon. I can't help thinking that if Submergence had been written by someone better known, it would have been heralded as a masterpiece.
It is a masterpiece, and so it deserves your attention. Ledgard interweaves the stories of Danielle Flinders, a biomathematician preparing to descend in a submersible to the bottom of the Greenland Sea, and James More, a British spy being held captive by jihadists in Somalia. The two met and fell in love some time ago, and now they are reunited—at least in their thoughts. As a writer, I find there are books that serve as guides to the kind of work I'd wish to write. Submergence is a shining model that both sings with tension and radiates immense humanity and tenderness.
Many times people who know how to set the world on fire don't have a clue how to write, while those who can make a pretty sentence have nothing to say. What's hard to find is someone whose life has been marked by a fully engaged intellect and a taste for reckless adventure, who also knows how to shape those experiences into heart-stopping prose. Geoffrey Wolff is that writer, and it's high time his brilliant essay collection and memoir, A Day at the Beach, moved from overlooked to celebrated.
A Day at the Beach offers up tales of daring along with expansive thinking, the bright light of humor, and the dark night of the soul, and delivers it all in writing sharp enough to cut your fingers on. As far as I can tell, Wolff's made the most of every single thing that's come his way. I love him for it.
Carson McCullers may seem an unusual choice for an undersung author—her 1940 debut novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, was a best-seller, and Tennessee Williams hailed her as "the greatest prose writer that the South produced." But I called myself a McCullers fan for years without ever having heard of her Reflections in a Golden Eye. It's her sophomore work, slender but with the concussive force of a Greek tragedy. It includes a young soldier's nude horseback ride in the woods and ends with a murder. There are many species of outlandish cruelty, spooky voyeurism, several demented love affairs, a horrific scene with pruning shears. Yet McCullers's skill at rendering her characters' terrible loneliness, and the wingbeats of their trapped desires, makes the book's chilling climax feel not only plausible but inevitable.
Like Virginia Woolf in The Waves, McCullers moves fluidly among the minds of her characters, creating a dazzling chorus of six overlapping consciousnesses (seven, if you count the horse). Part of the sly joke of this book is its setting: a Georgia army post "in peacetime." McCullers shows us just how elusive peace is when you have a cast of misfits and love-starved loners strapped into the wrong relationships. These men and women are round pegs in square holes, shipwrecked in their marriages or marooned in careers that offer no outlet for their true natures; they will be immediately recognizable to those of us who sometimes feel claustrophobic inside this finite life. The turbulence the book describes reads as an uncanny valentine to anybody who has ever been stunned by the hammer in the face of arbitrary fortune, or simply sort of lonely on a Tuesday. Which is surely all of us!
Karen Russell's most recent book is story collection the Vampires in the Lemon Grove.
Apparently, under any circumstances, money cannot buy you love, but in antebellum Georgia it could buy the one you love, according to the extraordinary 1857 novel The Garies and Their Friends by the novelist, poet, and essayist Frank J. Webb. One of the first novels published by an African American, it debuted with a glowing endorsement from Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Mr. Garie, the master of a prosperous plantation, had seen the woman who would become his wife—a woman who was not entirely black, not entirely white—for sale in Savannah; he bought her, brought her home, and proceeded to treat her and their two children as any nice and decent man would treat his family. Mr. Garie is a very happy fellow when we first meet him: His wife is beautiful; his children look white; there is plenty of delicious food on his table. But Mrs. Garie worries, aware that if Mr. Garie should die, his survivors would be regarded as property, not heirs, and sold, most likely separately. To avoid such unbearable sorrow, Mrs. Garie persuades her husband to move them all away, to Philadelphia. There they are free from the horror of slavery, but not from everlasting prejudice.
In the South, Mr. Garie's privilege was enough to protect them as long as he lived; in the North, they all are in danger because Mrs. Garie is not white. Webb brilliantly shows how white society in the North had its own obsessions with the presence of black people, rarely leaving them alone to simply cope with the difficulties of ordinary human existence. That this American classic does not occupy a prominent place in the literary canon is not really a mystery, though it is a shame. Its subject is not the almost invisible flaw in a golden bowl carved from pristine crystal, but the visible fracture in our American ideal; its scarlet letter is the color of our skin.
I loved Karen E. Bender's Like Normal People when I originally read it 15 years ago and have occasionally found myself thinking about it and going to my bookshelf to read passages from it ever since. Its characters became real, complicated, stirring people—and that's a necessity for me in a novel. The women who populate this book are not only believable, but they can also make me hold my breath with worry or anticipation: matriarch Ella; her daughters, Lena and Vivien; and her granddaughter, Shelley. Lena, referred to by the outdated term "mentally retarded," is at the heart of the story. The book explores her deep bond with Ella, a bond that grows more complex over time, and Shelley's discovery that it is with her Aunt Lena that she feels most at home.
Like Normal People is a novel unafraid of emotion; it doesn't try to offset strong, even overwhelming feelings with ironic observation. Yes, Bender is a witty writer, and the word normal in the title surely has a touch of archness to it. But Bender is also tender, and never judgmental–a writer I can always count on whether I want to turn to familiar pleasures or find new ones.
Bender is also the author of Refund.
What child doesn't occasionally fantasize that maybe she's been adopted and one day her real parents will show up to rescue her from the crazy clan she's stuck in? Who doesn't question the identity the world endeavors to tether her to even as she struggles to create her own self? And who isn't fascinated by the dynamics of other people's families? Or maybe it's only me. Perhaps that's why I regularly revisit the world inside Catherine McKinley's The Book of Sarahs: A Family in Parts. The first time I picked up McKinley's memoir, I felt like I had fallen into my own life, though in truth her narrative is far removed from my own. Catherine, the biracial adopted daughter of a white couple, sets out to find her "true" mom and dad and discovers a Jewish birth mother and an African American father. The Book of Sarahs questions everything from motherhood to transracial adoption to coming out. It's written for adults, but inevitably takes me back to childhood reveries of escape. These days, though, I also appreciate the book from the other side—as a mother making choices that will change the course of my children's lives.