Really Underrated Books (Part Three)

With this post, we reach the midway point of this series of Really Underrated Books.  As ever, there are some very different tomes highlighted here, from essay collections to books hailed ‘impossible to define’.

1. Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural and Political by James Kelman
James Kelman is justly celebrated as a major European novelist, short story writer, and playwright. Yet crucially his “artistry, authenticity and a voice of singular power” (Independent) flow from being an engaged writer and a cultural and political activist. In this collection of essays, polemics, and talks, Kelman directs his linguistic craftsmanship and scathing humor at the racism, class bias, and elitism of the English literary scene, the Labour Party’s establishment role, the treatment of asbestos victims, the media, and other political and cultural questions. Essays include “Artists and Value,” “Art and Subsidy,” “Some Recent Attacks on the Rights of the People,” “A Brief Note on the War Being Waged Against the Victims of Asbestos,” and “The Importance of Glasgow in My Work.”


2. The Passive Vampire by Gherasim Luca 3240545
Originally published in 1945 by Les Éditions de l’Oubli in Bucharest, The Passive Vampire caught the attention of the French Surrealists when an excerpt appeared in 1947 alongside texts by Jabès and Michaux in Georges Henein’s magazine La part du sable. Luca, whose work was admired by Gilles Deleuze, attempts here to transmit the “shudder” evoked by some Surrealist texts, such as André Breton’s Nadja and Mad Love, probing with acerbic humor the fragile boundary between “objective chance” and delirium.  Impossible to define, The Passive Vampire is a mixture of theoretical treatise and breathless poetic prose, personal confession and scientific investigation – it is 18 photographs of “objectively offered objects,” a category created by Luca to occupy the space opened up by Breton. At times taking shape as assemblages, these objects are meant to capture chance in its dynamic and dramatic forms by externalizing the ambivalence of our drives and bringing to light the nearly continual equivalence between our love-hate tendencies and the world of things.


3. Berlin Wild by Elly Welt
Banned from school by Nazi proclamation, 16-year-old Josef Berhardt enters the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute as a lab assistant, but the guilt he feels for spending the war drinking laboratory-brewed vodka and discovering sex with female researchers will haunt him for 20 years. How he finally learns to forgive himself makes this black comedy a moving, rewarding novel.


18075654. Diary of Gesa Csath by Gesa Csath
An acclaimed neurologist widely viewed as Hungary’s first contemporary author, Geza Csath was also a morphine addict who shot and killed his wife before killing himself. The diary begins as a clinically graphic depiction of Csath’s conquest of dozens of women – from chambermaids to aristocrats – during his tenure as a doctor at a Slovakian health spa in 1912.


5. In the Hour of Signs by Jamal Mahjoub
Nineteenth-century Sudan, wracked by religious, cultural, and political differences, is brilliantly evoked in the most ambitious book yet by this talented novelist. This, Mahjoub’s 1996 novel, centers around the Battle of Omdurman—one of the great colonial wars in Britian’s attempt to gain control over the Sudan. Mahojoub brings this period to life with perception, honesty, and integrity.  This is a story of fighting men, most Sudanese but some British; some showed wisdom, but for the most part they were either mad or misguided. Mahjoub writes with a profound, poetic intensity that illuminates a wide range of characters; from the cook to the Mahdi, from an Arab prostitute to the gentle Hawi, whose powerful message combines with the judgment and blindness of the other characters to bind the story together in a satisfying yet disturbing way.


6. Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding by Dorothy Ko
The history of footbinding is full of contradictions and unexpected turns. The practice originated in the dance culture of China’s medieval court and spread to gentry families, brothels, maid’s quarters, and peasant households. Conventional views of footbinding as patriarchal oppression often neglect its complex history and the incentives of the women involved. This revisionist history, elegantly written and meticulously researched, presents a fascinating new picture of the practice from its beginnings in the tenth century to its demise in the twentieth century. Neither condemning nor defending foot-binding, Dorothy Ko debunks many myths and misconceptions about its origins, development, and eventual end, exploring in the process the entanglements of male power and female desires during the practice’s thousand-year history.  Cinderella’s Sisters argues that rather than stemming from sexual perversion, men’s desire for bound feet was connected to larger concerns such as cultural nostalgia, regional rivalries, and claims of male privilege. Nor were women hapless victims, the author contends. Ko describes how women—those who could afford it—bound their own and their daughters’ feet to signal their high status and self-respect. Femininity, like the binding of feet, was associated with bodily labor and domestic work, and properly bound feet and beautifully made shoes both required exquisite skills and technical knowledge passed from generation to generation. Throughout her narrative, Ko deftly wields methods of social history, literary criticism, material culture studies, and the history of the body and fashion to illustrate how a practice that began as embodied lyricism—as a way to live as the poets imagined—ended up being an exercise in excess and folly.


7. No Way of Telling by Emma Smith (of Persephone fame!) 6111016
The day they were sent home early from school because of a threatening blizzard, Amy rode with the other pupils in Mrs. Rhys’s van to where the road ended, but from there she had to trudge by herself through the driving snowflakes to the Gwyntfa, the gray stone cottage where she lived alone with her grandmother, Mrs. Bowen. Once home, Amy knew she was safe. With a well-stoked larder and plenty of oil for the lamps, her grandmother promised her they might even enjoy being snowed in. They liked each other’s company and every night would sit one on each side of the fire, working at their patchwork quilt until it was time for a cup of tea and a game of Patience or Two-handed Whist before bed.  But on the day the snow began they never played their game of cards. They were interrupted by a growl from Amy’s dog, a tremendous thump at the door, and an intrusion of such violence as they had never in their lives met before. Yet though there was no way of telling who their intruder might be, Mrs. Bowen somehow knew he meant them no harm; and in the four extraordinary days that followed, bringing intruders of a different kind, Amy discovered that her grandmother’s instinct had been right.  Against the beautifully portrayed background of a Welsh hillfarm in winter, suspense mounts almost unbearably for Amy and her grandmother – and for the reader as well – as they face ruthless evil in this contemporary story superbly told by a distinguished writer.


8. Corrigan by Caroline Blackwood
Corrigan is at once a mordant comedy of manners and a very modern morality play. Since her husband’s death, the increasingly frail Mrs. Blunt has had only her trips to his grave to look forward to. Her raucous housekeeper’s conversation, and cooking, are best forgotten. Nadine, her daughter, is an infrequent, uneasy visitor. Then one day a charming, wheelchair-bound Irishman shows up at Mrs. Blunt’s door in search of charitable contributions. Corrigan is an arch manipulator, Mrs. Blunt is his mark, and before long we realize that they are made for each other. As the two grow ever more entrenched, Nadine fears for her mother’s safety (or is it for her own inheritance?). With Corrigan Caroline Blackwood takes a long, hard look at our dearly beloved notions of saints and sinners, victims and villains, patrimony and present pleasure—and winks.


1291889. Seeing Through Clothes by Anne Hollander
In this generously illustrated book, Anne Hollander examines the representation of the body and clothing in Western art, from Greek sculpture and vase painting through medieval and renaissance portraits, to contemporary films and fashion photography. First published ahead of its time, this book has become a classic.


10. Requiem by Shizuko Go
The end of World War II in the city of Yokohama, Japan, is portrayed through the heartfelt conversations and letters of two young women. Setsuko and Naomi, classmates and friends living in a bombed-out city, sort through their individual beliefs: “two girls, seventeen and fifteen at their next birthday, and though their real lives had yet to begin they were talking like old folk lost in reminiscences. Or perhaps this was their old age, for the hour of their death was near, as they well knew.” Everyone close to Setsuko is dead as a result of the war, yet she believes in the war unquestioningly and writes letters to soldiers on the front urging them to fight to the finish. Naomi’s father is imprisoned because of his anti-war beliefs and she struggles to find justification for war. Over the course of the novel, through flashbacks that occur within sentences or paragraphs, the horrors of the war are brought painfully to life and each young woman questions her own stand. Who is more patriotic? What are the rules of war when it is in your front yard? Shizuko Go, herself a survivor of the bombing of Yokohama, has written a devastating and important novel.


Purchase from The Book Depository


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