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Bookbag

Under-Appreciated Novels

Giving ink to books that deserved better.

Before you are deluged with the press release parroting of what I hope are well-meaning literary journalists rushing to present you with the lists of forthcoming books for the fall season (as if you have come close to reading much of the last season's list), let me offer a list of my own creation. Though it must be said--and I will say it--that book lists seem to me to only be useful for course or seminar preparation. Don't you think?

A familiar aria amongst us reader/writer types is the anguished hand-wringing that accompanies intoning the cruelty and myopia of the rest of the barbarous world in failing to recognize the brilliance of that which we (meaning I) deem to be genius. I am not immune to such pedestrian foibles--and so, here's my list of wonders. The only thing that they have in common (besides me) is that they were all read in this century.

The Clearing by Tim Gautreaux: Louisiana native Gautreaux throws all of best things (you know what they are) into this period piece set in a timber/lumber mill camp circa the mid '20s--naturally, in west Louisiana.

One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash: South Carolinian poet Rash gives a taste of America around the Korean War with characters who are much more than mannequins to accessorize what is ostensibly a murder mystery. Or is it?

Night Talk by Elizabeth Cox: Two childhood friends of different races set in 1950s Georgia is a rich hook upon which to hang a narrative; if Cox had balanced the changes taking place in the world at large (i.e., the Civil Rights movement), this story would be close to perfect. As it is, it's pretty good.

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow: This is a grand, sweeping, narco-political novel that is jam-packed with everything you could want in a so-called thriller: intrigue, violence, Machiavellian plotting, admirable and not so characters--sketching out very plausible (scarily so) connections between drug cartels, governments, terrorists, the Church (including the Vatican), and various drug law enforcement agencies. This should be made into a HBO miniseries, stat.

Night of the Jaguar, Tropic of Night, and Valley of Bones by Michael Gruber: Gruber's trilogy of novels about Jimmy Paz, a Cuban-American homicide detective in Miami, is so compelling that I overcame my series resistance in order to read the first two, and even found the third of interest. Gruber is smart and funny and imbues Paz with rich depth--you'll want to keep your eye on him, looking out for his next move.

A Philosophical Investigation by Philip Kerr: Kerr was celebrated early in his career as one of those Granta-anointed young writers, and has written a broad horizon of novels including his well-known Berlin Noir Trilogy. This 1993 novel is set in near-future London and has Chief Inspector Isadora "Jake" Jakowicz investigating a serial murderer (code-named Wittgenstein) and the computer designation of certain people as criminally dangerous.

God's Country by Percival Everett: Everett has written 17 novels and nary a clinker in the lot--if he has a well-known book, it is probably Erasure, his send-up of America's endless racial foibles, set in book publishing and academia. I prefer his earlier work, which joins McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Little Big Man and, most recently, Deadwood, as a entertaining demythologizing of the Old West.

The Wild Girl by Jim Fergus: It is 1999 and nearly destitute photographer Ned Giles, 84 years old, sells his only copy of La NiƱa Bronca for the handsome amount of 30 grand. It's a photo he took in 1932 of a Apache girl--the same girl after which this book is entitled. The book flashes back to that year and Giles's account of the Great Apache Expedition, mounted in the badlands of the Sierre Madres to retrieve the son of a Mexican rancher kidnapped by the Apaches.

The Outlander by Gil Adamson: To recap--set in 1903, the book follows young Mary Bolton as she flees her dead husband's sadistic twin brothers, who are seeking to avenge the murder of their sibling. Bolton's flight takes her into the snowbound Canadian Rockies of Alberta, where she recounts the details that led her to her homicidal act.

The Criminalist by Eugene Izzi: Chicago crime story writer Izzi was found hanging outside his office window in 1996, having written 13 books (two published as Nick Gaitano). As Raymond Chandler and Michael Connelly are to Southern California, George Pelecanos to D.C. and George V. Higgins to Boston, Izzi was the dark laureate of Chi-town. All his novels, as the sports guys intone, "get it done," but I am partial to this one.

What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt: Hustvedt's story of the friendship of two men over 25 years is abruptly and shockingly transformed by a "sudden and incapacitating tragedy." It's a stunning narrative in more ways than one.

Redemption Falls by Joseph O'Connor: This is a rip-roaring tale set in Civil War-era Montana Territory, and O'Connor uses all manner of texts--ballads, letters, songs, memoirs, and reports from spies--to shape a full-bodied narrative.

City of Refuge by Tom Piazza: Piazza looks at New Orleans during the Katrina deluge and after through the lens of a white Midwestern transplant family and a black lifelong resident. It's a moving and evocative story of an unresolved black mark on America's heritage, not to mention a Tournament of Books finalist.

Bullet Heart by Michael Doane: Doane, who published a number of decent novels in the late '80s and '90s, seems to have slipped off the face of the Earth. In this one he uses a true event, the construction of a golf course on Lakota burial grounds in South Dakota, and the dispossession of the bones of Sioux Indian girl to form a taut and dark thriller.

The Darkest Jungle: The True Story of the Darien Expedition and America's Ill-Fated Race to Connect the Seas by Todd Balf: Earlier this year, David Grann's The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon deservedly occupied the (narrowing) vision of the book-reviewing community--which reminded me that the best exploration adventure story I have read to date is Balf's account of an 1854 U.S. Naval expedition commanded by 33-year-old Isaac Strain (a truly fascinating character in his own right). What was supposed to be a ten-day jaunt across the Isthmus of Panama turned into a deadly disaster in the treacherous terrain that is known as the Darien Gap.

I Should Be Extremely Happy to Be in Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark by Brian Hall: It's an unwieldy title, but Brian Hall's account of the two legendary explorers (and their Indian guide Sacagawea) has all the verisimilitude and plausibility of a historical account of the greatest exploration of the American continent.

Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Inness-Brown: Inness-Brown's first (and so far only) novel is set on a sparse, beautiful New England island, and focuses on the relationship between James Jack, orphaned at an early age, and the 94-year-old title character, Marguerite Anne Bernadette-Marie Deo, who took him in. The story bounces to New Orleans to give us Marguerite's back story. In 200 pages or so, it is a big story, well presented.
biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum

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