5 Underrated Books

Gabe Habash -- August 22nd, 2013

We’re already over the 1.5 million mark for total books published this year, which means it’s more difficult than ever to sift through all the options and find the right book. So, here’s a more manageable number: five. As in five great books with sales that don’t represent their worth. They all deserve more readers.

For variety’s sake, they are: a memoir, a graphic novel, a story collection, and two very different novels–all published within the last three years.

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The Guardians by Sarah Manguso

The Guardians, an exceptional memoir, is Manguso’s struggle with her friend’s suicide. It takes the form of fragments, sometimes discursive, sometimes disjointed, but always true. Over its 130 pages, the messy progression of Manguso’s tribute charts the evolution of her grief, anger, and memory. The result is an unforgettable, moving book.

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The Call by Yannick Murphy

Selected as one of the best books of 2011 by PW, The Call follows the daily life of a rural veterinarian, rendered structure-wise by a book-length series of calls and responses separated by a colon. Like this:

CALL: Sick sheep.

ACTION: Visited sheep. Noticed they’d eaten all the thistle.

RESULT: Talked to owner, who is a composer, about classical music. Admired his tall barn beams. Advised owner to fence off thistle so sheep couldn’t eat it. Sheep become sick from thistle.

THOUGHTS ON DRIVE HOME: Is time travel possible? Maybe time is not a thing. Because light takes a while to travel, what we’re seeing is always the past.

WHAT THE WIFE COOKED FOR DINNER: Breakfast.

And so on. The more mundane events of the first half are expertly contrasted by the extraordinary happenings in the latter half. What may first appear as a structural gimmick elevates the novel, making it something you’ve never really seen before.

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Satantango by László Krasznahorkai

If you want a heart-stopping book, this is it. Krasznahorkai has been called “the Hungarian master of the apocalypse” by Susan Sontag, while James Wood said reading him is “one of the most profoundly unsettling experiences I have had as a reader.” Here, all you need to know is that a few unhinged people are waiting around an isolated hamlet for the arrival of a supposed prophet. Notoriously an enemy of paragraph breaks and periods (Krasznahorkai has built a cult following in part because he says things like: “Only God needs the period—and at the end He will use one, I am sure.”), reading Satantango is an exercise both claustrophobic and mesmerizing. There’s a moment where the narrative actually breaks down, right there on the page. When I read it, I stood up and started pacing around I was so excited.

Bonus points if you watch all of Béla Tarr’s 7 hour adaptation of the book.

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Julio’s Day by Gilbert Hernandez

Originally serialized in Love and Rockets Vol. II but never completed until this book, Julio’s Day has a tidy conceit: page 1 begins with a baby’s scream in 1900; page 100, the last page, ends in the year 2000 with an old man’s last gasp. The scope of a 100-page graphic novel may seem inherently diminutive, but not in Hernandez’s hands, as his story touches on most major historical events on the 20th century, though these only occur in the background of Julio’s life, something that becomes extraordinary simply through the vividness of its unspooling.

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You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard

The first thing anyone mentions about Jim Shepard is how versatile (and how deeply researched) his stories are (see here and here). This is true: he can actually write about anything, whether it’s the guy who made Godzilla, mountaineers, astronauts, soldiers, government agents, etc. etc. There’s a rare thrill every time you start a Shepard story–you never know what to expect, something that can’t be said about most story collections, which tend to blur together. But really, what makes Shepard so special is writing like this:

They say whatever your worst memory is, you see it again most often right before sleep. I climb because once I go back down, the world while I recover is easier for me. Agnieszka’s eyes and mouth become again my garden and our entangled sleep my chair in the sun.

7 thoughts on “5 Underrated Books

  1. Waimea Williams

    Bravo for mentioning Jim Shepard. He’s a master of tight writing and thinking with no frills or authorial preening. If such a thing as a masculine artist exists, he’s that in the best sense of the word.

  2. Jack M

    Satantango is a wonderful, forbidding experience. I read some of it, but had to put it down because it was so overwhelming. I plan to try it again later. It’s beyond brilliant.

    1. Gabe Habash Post author

      I felt the same way–I think it’s best to push through on first read and then go slower on a future, second reading.

  3. Alex Crowley

    the breakdown in Satantango is indeed marvelous. however, not the best book for the train/subway, per the lack of places to take a breather.

    what I’ve read of his latest, Seibo There Below similarly striking and twisted.

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