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Last night (well, actually, around 4:30 this morning) when I couldn't fall asleep, I had this list going through my head, of books I love to death, but think are not very widely read or known (in the U.S., at least):

1. John Crowley, Little, Big (novel) -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez meets Ray Bradbury meets William Shakespeare meets Charles De Lint meets Isabelle Allende. This is my absolutely favorite book, full of beauty and mystery and passion and serenity and humor and everything that makes life worth living. Crowley writes like a poetic angel who sees the magical underpinnings of the everyday world, and entire sections of this book just beg to be read aloud for the pure enjoyment of the beauty of the language. I can't rave about this book enough, can't recommend it highly enough, can't read it enough. It is, in my opinion, an absolutely magical miracle of modern literature.

2. Daniel Pennac, Better Than Life (non-fiction) -- The best book I've read about the world of reading. If you love to read -- or teach any subject that relates to reading -- you should try to find this book. (It was originally published in French, and I think it's out of print in the U.S., but it's worth looking for!)

3. Nancy Mairs, Plaintext (essays) -- Nancy Mairs is one of the most interesting women alive, and she writes about all aspects of her life with a compelling intimacy, honesty, perceptiveness, and humor. I can't recommend this book of essays highly enough, especially to other women.

4. John Welter, Night of the Avenging Blowfish: A Novel of Covert Operations, Love, and Luncheon Meat (novel) -- I think this novel made me laugh out loud more frequently and more loudly than any other book I've read in my entire life. If you take the world (or even just the U.S. government, baseball, romance, or Spam) really seriously, then this book most likely isn't your cup of tea. But if you find yourself frequently mocking the absurdities of the world, then it's well worth a read. I wish there were more books like this one!

5. Max Frisch, Man in the Holocene (very short novel) -- Normally, I can't stand experimental literary stuff, because it seems so pretentious. But I read this slim little book slowly and with growing awe as it chronicled an elderly man's crumbling memory and thoughts. Words simply cannot describe this book. It is powerful and important and very, very deeply moving. I can say with no hesitation that it is one of the finest books I have ever read.

6. Eric Hansen, Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo (travel memoir) -- Eric Hansen has a lovely self-effacing sense of humor, a rare talent for submerging himself in other cultures, a wicked instinct for finding interesting characters, and an unerring eye for detail. Both this book and Motoring with Mohammed are fabulous books, full of anecdotes you'll want to read aloud to the person sitting next to you on the bus, they're so fascinating.

7. Karen Pryor, Lads Before the Wind: Diary of a Dolphin Trainer (non-fiction) -- Shannon and I read this book aloud to each other while we were vacationing in Hawai'i, and we were both completely blown away. Karen Pryor writes very clearly and interestingly about the training process of instrumental conditioning ... but the real stars of this book are the animals she trains. She writes about them with a compassion and love that make you feel that you truly know them. Some of the dolphins in this book were more fully developed than human characters in most novels.

8. Susan Minot, Evening (novel) -- My copy of this book says "National Bestseller" across the top of the cover, and yet I had never heard of it when I stumbled upon it in a bookshop. Maybe I'm wrong, and you've all heard of this book before, but I just had to include it on this list anyway. This quietly introspective exploration of the nature of memory, love, loss, death, passion, youth, and joy haunted me for weeks after I finished reading it. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

9. Michael Ondaatje, Running in the Family (biographical / autobiographical memoir) -- You think your family is crazy? Michael Ondaatje (whom you've no doubt heard of, since he wrote The English Patient ... and if you haven't read that, go do so right now, because it's about 100 times better than the movie) decided to explore his family history in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), and this book full of real-life eccentricity was the result. Sections of this book had me laughing so hard my eyes were watering. It's worth reading for the story about his grandmother's wandering boob, alone.

10. R.K. Narayan, The English Teacher (novel) -- Though R.K. Narayan is extremely well-known and -respected in his native India, his work can be relatively difficult to find here in the U.S., but it's worth the search. This gorgeous autobiographical novel describes one man's emotional and spiritual renewal after the death of his very deeply beloved wife, as he follows an unclear path through loss and isolation to acceptance and joy.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 6th, 2002 10:31 pm (UTC)
Little, Big is one of my favorite novels, too, for exactly the reasons you describe. But like his earlier Engine Summer, I haven't been able to re-read it in years because it stirs up too many aches, too much sadness in me. I've become more fragile over the years. Actually, Engine Summer has always had that effect on me -- the second time I read it, in college, a friend of mine walked into my dorm room just as I finished the last page and startled me, and I started crying uncontrollably. She was kind of surprised, but borrowed the book and read it, and afterwards said she could understand why. I haven't been able to re-read it in about ten years. Have you read it?

The only other books I've read more recently that I can compare, in terms of their emotional effect on me, are Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. I find most fantasy to be derivative crap, but Pullman is so original and his characters are so human. The ending is all about the transition from childhood to adolesence, the sexual awakening, played out as the Fall (in Biblical terms) but as a good thing, and it brought up so many memories and emotions in me that after finishing the 3rd book I spent the next week in a bit of a daze.

Which one of those ten books would you most recommend to me knowing that I treasure Little, Big?
Nov. 6th, 2002 11:12 pm (UTC)
I adore Engine Summer, as well (and have been unsuccessfully trying to convince my husband to read it for more than 3 years).

The hubby has actually been thinking about buying the first book in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy for the past couple weeks. Based on your recommendation, I'm going to pop over to my favorite used book store and look for it tomorrow. :-)

Which one of those ten books would you most recommend to me knowing that I treasure Little, Big?

Just one of the ten books? Little, Big. Heh. Okay, seriously. Lemme think a sec. Probably Man in the Holocene, though The English Teacher is a close second.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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