Really Underrated Books (Part One)

I’m sure I’m not alone when I express my love for Goodreads lists.  I’m not really a reader of popular fiction, and prefer those works which sneak under the radar for the mostpart, so the ‘underrated’ section for books to buy and consequently fall in love with is perfect for me.  To procrastinate ever so slightly from a proofreading manuscript, I have decided to detail fifty very underrated books which I have my eye on over the next week.  They are certainly a mixed bag, but all have intrigued me.  Have you read any of these?


1. Collected Stories by Wallace Stegner 9780143039792
‘In a literary career spanning more than fifty years, Wallace Stegner created a remarkable record of the history and culture of twentieth-century America. Each of the thirty-one stories contained in this volume embody some of the best virtues and values to be found in contemporary fiction, demonstrating why the author is acclaimed as one of America’s master storytellers.’


2. The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis
‘Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout) is one of the most alluring and memorable characters in the fiction of the last twenty-five years. His extravagant and hopeless undertakings, his brushes with the law and scrapes with death, and his enduring friendships and unlooked-for love affairs make him a Don Quixote for our day, driven from one place to another by a restless and irregular quest for the absolute. Álvaro Mutis’s seven dazzling chronicles of the adventures and misadventures of Maqroll have won him numerous honors and a passionately devoted readership throughout the world. Here for the first time in English all these wonderful stories appear in a single volume in Edith Grossman’s prize-winning translation.’


97800620590553. The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell
‘There was once a little brown bat who couldn’t sleep days—he kept waking up and looking at the world. Before long he began to see things differently from the other bats who from dawn to sunset never opened their eyes. The Bat-Poet is the story of how he tried to make the other bats see the world his way.  With illustrations by Maurice Sendak, The Bat-Poet—a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book selection—is a collection of the bat’s own poems and the bat’s own world: the owl who almost eats him; the mockingbird whose irritable genius almost overpowers him; the chipmunk who loves his poems, and the bats who can’t make heads or tails of them; the cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, and sparrows who fly in and out of Randall Jarrell’s funny, lovable, truthful fable. ‘


4. An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton
‘An “exaltation of larks”? Yes! And a “leap of leopards,” a “parliament of owls,” an “ostentation of peacocks,” a “smack of jellyfish,” and a “murder of crows”! For those who have ever wondered if the familiar “pride of lions” and “gaggle of geese” were only the tip of a linguistic iceberg, James Lipton has provided the definitive answer: here are hundreds of equally pithy, and often poetic, terms unearthed by Mr. Lipton in the Books of Venery that were the constant study of anyone who aspired to the title of gentleman in the fifteenth century. When Mr. Lipton’s painstaking research revealed that five hundred years ago the terms of venery had already been turned into the Game of Venery, he embarked on an odyssey that has given us a “slouch of models,” a “shrivel of critics,” an “unction of undertakers,” a “blur of Impressionists,” a “score of bachelors,” and a “pocket of quarterbacks.” This ultimate edition of An Exaltation of Larks is Mr. Lipton’s brilliant answer to the assault on language and literacy in the last decades of the twentieth century. In it you will find more than 1,100 resurrected or newly minted contributions to that most endangered of all species, our language, in a setting of 250 witty, beautiful, and remarkably apt engravings.’


5. Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon by Marjorie Kellogg
‘Junie Moon, Warren, and Arthur meet in the hospital and decide to live together when they leave. Each is coping with a disability with courage, strength, and friendship.’


6. The Tightrope Walker by Dorothy Gilman 9780449211779
‘When the quiet and shy Amelia Jones reads these words, her life changes irrevocably. She’s just become the new owner of the Ebbtide Shop, a musty antique store filled with merry-go-round horses and hurdy-gurdies, and it is while fixing one of these barrel organs that the scrawled and threatening note falls out. Armed only with the strange woman’s first name and the note written years before, Amelia begins a journey into the past, a search that takes her from the protective cocoon she’s wrapped herself in to a precarious world where passions boil underneath the surface, where nothing is the way it seems, where fear is second nature, and dark secrets just might uncover murder—her own…’


7. The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall
‘Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody were in many ways our American Brontes. The story of these remarkable sisters — and their central role in shaping the thinking of their day — has never before been fully told. Twenty years in the making, Megan Marshall’s monumental biograpy brings the era of creative ferment known as American Romanticism to new life. Elizabeth, the oldest sister, was a mind-on-fire thinker. A powerful influence on the great writers of the era — Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau among them — she also published some of their earliest works. It was Elizabeth who prodded these newly minted Transcendentalists away from Emerson’s individualism and toward a greater connection to others. Mary was a determined and passionate reformer who finally found her soul mate in the great educator Horace Mann. The frail Sophia was a painter who won the admiration of the preeminent society artists of the day. She married Nathaniel Hawthorne — but not before Hawthorne threw the delicate dynamics among the sisters into disarray. Marshall focuses on the moment when the Peabody sisters made their indelible mark on history. Her unprecedented research into these lives uncovered thousands of letters never read before as well as other previously unmined original sources. The Peabody Sisters casts new light on a legendary American era. Its publication is destined to become an event in American biography. This book is highly recommended for students and reading groups interested in American history, American literature, and women’s studies. It is a wonderful look into 19th-century life.’


97801411837498. Southern Mail by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
‘In his first novel, Saint-Exupéry pays homage to “those elemental divinities-night, day, mountain, sea, and storm,” turning an account of a routine mail flight from France to North Africa into an epic rendering of the pioneer days of commercial aviation. The book is also a poignant reminiscence of a tragic affair, in which the uncertainties of love and flight enhance the mystery of one another.’


9. At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom: Stories by Amy Hempel
‘Amy Hempel’s collection of 16 stories seems to ask: “What if people could be just a little more like dogs – -forever loyal, ardent and loving in our hearts?”‘


10. Later the Same Day by Grace Paley
‘In the 17 short stories collected here, Paley writes with verbal economy and resonance, pithy insights, and warmth and humor. The themes are familiar: friendship, commitment, responsibility, love, political idealism and activism, children, the nuclear shadow.’


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American Literature Month: ‘Crossing to Safety’ by Wallace Stegner ****

Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety was recommended to me by the lovely Andrea, and was purchased as my second #TBR20 reward.  Before I began, I had no real idea as to what the novel was about, but I am so thankful that it was recommended to me, and just in time for American Literature Month too.

Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for his novel Angle of Repose, and I for one am so surprised that he isn’t better known or more widely read – here in the United Kingdom, at least.  Crossing to Safety is his final novel, published in 1987, when he was 78 years old.  It has been heralded by The Washington Post as ‘a magnificently crafted story…  brimming with wisdom’. 

Crossing to Safety centres around two young couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang, who meet one another during the Great Depression.  The husbands both work within the English Department at the University of Wisconsin, and the wives are both pregnant.  They forge a lifelong friendship with one another almost immediately.  This ‘becomes increasingly complex as they share decades of love, loyalty, vulnerability and conflict’.  It is, says its blurb, ‘a beautiful and deeply moving exploration of the struggle of four people to come to terms with the trials and tragedies of everyday life’.

The novel is largely told from the perspective of Larry, who is looking back upon the pasts of both couples in the summer of 1972.  Larry and Sally have returned to the Langs’ cottage because Charity is ‘at death’s door’.  We are given a picture of the past dependency the couples have shared with one another in the following speech of Sally’s: ‘”They’re the only family we’ve ever had.  Our lives would have been totally different and a lot harder without them…  Except for Charity I wouldn’t be alive. I wouldn’t have wanted to be”‘.  Stegner has rather cleverly included a thread of omniscient narrative too, which loses none of the pull or interest which Larry’s voice holds.

The opening passage which Stegner crafts is beguiling: ‘Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface.  My eyes open.  I am awake’.  The descriptions which he provides of the natural world bring it immediately to life, and he uses personification marvellously: ‘I ignore the Ridge House road and choose instead the narrow dirt road that climbs around the hill to the right…  It is a road I have walked hundreds of times, a lovely lost tunnel through the trees, busy this morning with birds and little shy rustling things, my favourite road anywhere’, and ‘Over Stannard Mountain the air is hot gold, and as I watch, the sun surges up over the crest and stares me down’.  So much thought has been put into every element of Crossing to Safety, from the fresh and striking dialogue exchanges to the deftly crafted characters who are brought to life as three-dimensional beings beneath Stegner’s pen.

The Penguin Classics Edition which I read is introduced by Jane Smiley, herself a recipient of the Pulitzer.  Smiley terms Stegner the ‘anti-Henry James’, as he places much interest into such things as ‘how towns are founded ad built, how leisure and culture are supported and paid for, how wealth is made, and how people retain their human complexity in the most primitive conditions’.  She goes on to write that the novel ‘takes as one of its central subjects the nature of long-term marriage…  it explores two marriages in the twentieth-century mould, one without money and one with money…  it is more the complex depiction, sometimes light but often dark, of the multiple compromises involved in three marriages – that of the Morgans, that of the Langs, and that between the Morgans and the Langs’.  To Smiley, the Langs ‘personify old money and new’, and the Morgans ‘personify self-help’.

There is so much within Crossing to Safety to admire; the novel is incredibly intelligent, and full to the brim with both beautiful quotes and profundity.  If you do nothing else today, please go and seek out a copy of this novel, and then join me in thanking Andrea.

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