Ever come across a book—on a nightstand in an Airbnb, in a box of your mom’s college junk, on a shelf at a friend’s Bachelor viewing party—that’s so energizingly rip-roaring, so envelopingly world-building, that you can’t really believe you’ve never heard of it before? A book that you find was admired in its time but is now sorta shoved to the side and forgotten, except by the most trusted reader-friends in your life? Well, these are those books. And your reader-friends, in this case? They’re 21 of our favorite writers from the past several years. Kick back and listen to them stump for the most criminally underappreciated books on their shelves
suggests The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead (1940)
As in a dream where I’m shouting at the top of my lungs and nobody can hear me, I’ve been advocating for Christina Stead’sThe Man Who Loved Children for 20 years, describing it as the greatest family novel ever written and one of the greatest 20th-century novels of any kind, and waiting for even one person to tell me I’m right. Only in Australia, where Stead was born and lived until she was 25, do I regularly encounter people who’ve even heard of it. But here, I’ll say it again: For psychological depth, for indelible characterizations, for savage humor, for muscular prose, for disciplined insanity,The Man Who Loved Children has very few peers in world literature. Please, will someone who is reading this get back to me and say I’m right?
suggests The Motion of Light in Water by Samuel R. Delany (1988)
I cannot imagine confessional literature without this genre-shattering memoir. To see how this queer black young artist came into himself during the tectonic delirium of the ’60s is to be given a revelation of near biblical intensity.
suggests American Youth by Phil LaMarche (2007)
This is one of the best novels of the past ten years, and meaningful to me in two ways: first, as a reminder of how efficiency and a fast pace are a writer’s best friends; second, as a profound meditation on the particular American soup of guilt, violence, and denial.
suggests Stoner by John Williams(1965)
Stoner is what I loved most to hand-sell when I was a bookseller—it’s a sad, dark little book about one professor’s depressing life. Williams’s beautiful prose manages to make the whole thing sing, though, and readers would almost always come back and thank me for bringing the book to their attention.
suggests My Abandonment by Peter Rock (2009)
This is probably the recent novel I recommend most. This short, disciplined, unsettling book is about a girl, Caroline, who’s living with her father off the grid in the Oregon woods. One of the things I love most about this novel is how much it manages to do in so little space, and with such grace and subtlety. Father is a wonderful, mysterious, vivid creation who manages to be compelling while not quite pinnable: Is he really what he seems? What does he want, and what has he done? And then there’s Caroline herself, whose affectlessness becomes heartbreaking as the narrative progresses. The mood of dread that hovers over the book culminates in a single, spectacular scene of violence, but one that’s more suggested than shown. And that, really, is this novel’s power: It demonstrates how the most resonant fiction is by writers who have mastered the art of absence, who have found a way to wield negative space as a literary weapon.
suggests Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban (1980)
There aren’t many post-apocalyptic novels as post as Riddley Walker, which opens 2,000 years after we finally push the red button and drop the big one. In an instantly recognizable England that nobody remembers, humans are back to being hunter-gatherers, scrapping for iron that they’ve forgotten how to make. Killer dogs roam the roads, priests with belly scars preach prophecy by watching Punch and Judy, and Riddley Walker—just named at 12—is trying to become a man. But the shock of the book, especially in its dazzling language, is the old, not the new. What does 2,000 years in the future sound like? Two thousand years in the past, “Beowulf” smashed into “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” Riddley Walker was nominated for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Nebula Award back in 1981, but if it wasn’t for Salman Rushdie, I would never have heard of it.
suggests Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack (1993)
Basically this book feels, today, like a novel set in the unending nightmare aftermath of a Trump presidency, and in the meantime, here in the real world, we have come to have the dystopian coming-of-age narrative as a hugely popular form.Random Acts is exactly that, but scripted in the mode of Cormac McCarthy, set in New York City, and narrated via the heartbreakingly convincing point of view of a young girl.
suggests Little Big Man by Thomas Berger (1964)
If you crossed Moby-Dick with Huck Finn,set it in the American West of the 19th century, and threw in big dollops of Don Quixote and magical realism, you might get within range of one of the great American novels of the last century or any century, Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. “I am a white man and never forgot it, but I was brought up by the Cheyenne Indians from the age of 10.” Thus begins the tale of Jack Crabb, the 111-year-old Little Big Man himself, who, in his long life, roams the West like a frontier Zelig, rumbling with Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok, fighting for and against Custer, living and loving amidst the Cheyenne, and surviving the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the self-proclaimed only white man to achieve this distinction. Berger’s novel is a rollicking masterpiece, one I return to over and over again.
C. E. Morgan
suggests The Time of Man byElizabeth Madox Roberts (1926)
A portrait of a poor woman’s life rendered in sublime prose and granted bone-deep dignity, this is a modernist masterpiece by a once internationally acclaimed writer. It should be read by everyone who loves truly great literature.
suggests The Warriors by J. Glenn Gray (1959)
It was from the same packet of mail in 1941 that J. Glenn Gray learned both that his doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University was conferred and that he was being drafted into the U.S. Army. He went on to serve in counter-intelligence units in North Africa, France, Italy, and Germany, coming face-to-face with, as he would later put it, “some of the most evil human beings of our time,” all the while recording his day-to-day experiences in his journal. Fourteen years later, he went back to that journal, seeking not to write a memoir of his experiences but to use his philosophical training to analyze what he’d been a part of and to hopefully help heal the “intellectual wounds of World War II.” Even today, Gray’s book remains discomfiting, taking the raw experience of war and using it to reflect on what combat reveals about the nature of human beings and the societies we form and fight and die for.
suggests Buffalo Soldiers by Robert O’Connor (1992)
When it was published two dozen years ago, Buffalo Soldiers flashed neutron-bright into my literary vision. Its savage humor and scabrous story line follow Ray Elwood, a jaded U.S. soldier attempting to navigate the corrupt and carnivorous nature of America’s war machine in peacetime Germany. Heroin deals go bad, tanks are stolen, and a beautiful one-armed woman free-falls from the high dive. As timely as ever, this dark and blistering novel is an important antidote to all those feel-good tales of human triumph.
John Jeremiah Sullivan
suggests American Purgatorio byJohn Haskell (2005)
I’m surprising myself by naming something so recent. I keep trying to kick it off the top of the list and replace it with something older, weirder, and longer out of print, but it sits there. A novel that meets the problem of the inherent gimmickiness of fiction by diving into the gimmick so deep it emerges out the other side, like the best noir, but not noir, something closer to spiritualism. I remember finishing it and just feeling shattered. Best not to know anything about it plotwise, just to start reading it. Is it an unsung masterpiece? I haven’t lived in New York since 2004, the year before the book was published. People may be arguing about it in coffee shops. But I don’t hear it mentioned, and it is in some ways a small, quiet, modest book, and I am sure that it is a modern classic. I met Haskell once maybe ten years ago at a patio/bar area. I asked him if he had intended his narrator’s passing through Central Kentucky (which the person does at one point) as an homage to Thomas Merton, who lived in a monastery there and wrote the other great American riff on Dante, The Seven Storey Mountain. Haskell said no, coincidence, but I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter. The real writers are not in control of the connections they’re making.
suggests Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys (1934)
Perhaps it’s not fair to say that Jean Rhys is underrated, but the acclaim enjoyed by her final novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, tends to leave the four early ones in the shade. They’re all impressive and pretty similar—women adrift in Paris or London—but I think Voyage in the Dark is the strongest and strangest, the most prescient and technically astonishing. Lacking the overt ambition and complexity of Woolf or Joyce or the messianic self-belief of Lawrence, Rhys seems, in many ways, more contemporary than any of them.
suggests Good Morning, Midnight byJean Rhys (1939)
Jean Rhys is most famous for her stunningWide Sargasso Sea, a blistering retelling of Jane Eyre from the perspective of the Creole “madwoman in the attic,” but her penultimate novel, Good Morning, Midnight, is one of the most troubling, moving, nightmarish, and strange narratives I know, a modernist masterpiece that’s not nearly as celebrated as it should be. In an era when autofiction feels like a new discovery, it’s nice to remember that great prose stylists like Rhys mastered the form a very long time ago.
suggests Le Piccole Virtù (The Little Virtues) by Natalia Ginzburg (1962)
I really love and admire Le piccole virtù by Natalia Ginzburg. I don’t know how unsung she is—she’s very well-known in Italy but perhaps less well-known in the Anglophone world. She writes beautiful, short essays about very simple things: shoes, food, children, writing itself. Her sentences have great precision and clarity, and I learn a lot when I read her.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
suggests Our Sister Killjoy: or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint
by Ama Ata Aidoo (1977)
In Our Sister Killjoy, a young woman from post-independent Ghana goes to Europe. This book is grittily true—a paean (to belonging), a polemic (on colonialism), and a prose poem. It is nimble, lucid, witty. And it has what most of the post-independence novels of its time did not: a complex, thinking, bold female character.
suggests The Book of Ebenezer Le Page
by G. B. Edwards (1981)
A message in a bottle, the sole surviving novel of an unknown writer, published after his death. A work of seaweed, heart, and waves that break on granite, this novel reaches human vastnesses from a tiny island in the English Channel. Ebenezer’s voice is like the oyster, briny and scabrous in proportion to the tenderness within.
suggests The Box Man by Kobo Abe(1973)
If you enjoy the dreamlike surreality of Haruki Murakami’s novels, you should pick up this novel by Japanese author Kobo Abe, who brings a nightmarish humor and sharp sense of social satire to bear on his depictions of the individual’s place in society. The novel tells the story of a nameless man who decides to take up residence inside a large box with an eyehole cut into it, through which he is free to observe the world without participating in it. As he sheds his own identity and assumes the identity of a Box Man, he discovers that he has not severed his relationship to others but formed a new and more dangerous one. This book is a wild and unsettling descent into the wilderness of the self.
Mary McCarthy (1952)
Every generation or so, there is an outbreak of hand-wringing about the state of American higher education. Amid the current agitation about political correctness, corporate-style management, and the crisis in the liberal arts, it’s both instructive and a little alarming to learn that there’s nothing new under the sun.The Groves of Academe, Mary McCarthy’s tart academic satire—based on her experiences teaching at Bard College—was published in 1952, and while some of the details are particular to its Cold War moment, it hasn’t dated much at all. Fictional Jocelyn College is staffed by self-righteous hypocrites, dim-witted bureaucrats, petty grifters, and sexual adventurers. The students are earnest and clueless. The place runs on paranoia and betrayal. And yet, somehow, the life of the mind endures, if only barely and by default. As I said: Nothing has changed.
T. C. Boyle
suggests Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson(1985)
Denis Johnson’s second novel is set in the Florida Keys, post-apocalypse, and it’s an extended meditation on culture and myth and how we build our belief systems. The principal characters—the adolescent boy, Fiskadoro, and his clarinet teacher, Mr. Cheung—grope toward an understanding of the culture that preceded them while they live amongst its artifacts. The centerpiece is a harrowing account of the ordeal of Mr. Cheung’s grandmother after the fall of Saigon. Concrete and lyrical, it’s a book like no other.
suggests Love Me Do: The Beatles’ Progress by Michael Braun (1964)
Braun was an American journalist who lingered in the Beatles’ vicinity on assignment for a few key early months in their career, and in a way did nothing more than the simplest thing you could do: He noted, with clear eyes and sharp senses, exactly what was happening around him. All of it. John Lennon’s belated endorsement of the book after the Beatles split—“He wrote how we were, which was bastards”—is a little fanciful; Braun is neither besotted nor skeptical, just calm and perceptive as the hysteria around him swells. Consequently, Love Me Do is one of the great near forgotten pop-culture documents, a kind of deadpan new journalism and a masterpiece of astute, forensically well-observed reportage. About the Beatles, yes, but more so about celebrity, and the media, and the kaleidoscope of tiny ruptures created each time our world suddenly changes.
23–27 minutes to read