What are your top five favorite hidden gem books?
August 3, 2010 8:02 PM   Subscribe

What are your top five favorite hidden gem books?

I've hardly read in the past three years and direly want to read something. The problem is that I don't know what the hell to read.

All I mainly used to read was speculative fiction; speculative fiction is what I know best. However, I want to start reading "real" literature in addition to speculative fiction, but instead of reading the clichés that always appear on top 50 lists (To Kill A Mockingbird, 1984, etc.), I want to check out hidden, or semi-hidden gems. Don't get me wrong: I think classics like To Kill A Mockingbird or 1984 may be good reads (I haven't read them yet), but I honestly would rather check out lesser-known works that "deserve" more attention. I have always preferred to focus my attention on the hardly-known than on the extremely well-known.

I'll look through your posts and compile a list of books to pick out at the library and (possibly) buy from Amazon or Ebay.

posted by GlassHeart to Writing & Language (46 answers total) 86 users marked this as a favorite
I'll look through your posts and compile a list of books to pick out at the library and (possibly) buy from Amazon or Ebay.

Folks have already done it for you.
posted by carsonb at 8:12 PM on August 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Just one. The Towers of Trebizond by (Dame) Rose Macaulay. An unreliable-narrator novel carried off as astonishingly as As I Lay Dying, but in no other respect is it anything like Faulkner. It is an English Novel, and all that that implies. First sentence: "'Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. If you look up online reviews you may become convinced that it's a comedy or a travel book or something like that. It it none of these things; it is an hallucinatory experience.
posted by jfuller at 8:23 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll name you some authors/titles that I feel (as a bookseller) tend to get overlooked:

Set This House In Order by Matt Ruff (everything he's written is great, but that one is my favorite)

Anything by Geraldine Brooks

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. Her writing is like a punch in the gut. I *adore* her.

My boyfriend's favorite author is James Morrow. His favorite book is Towing Jehovah.

and not fiction, but reads like it: The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman.
posted by bibliogrrl at 8:30 PM on August 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

5 of my old friends. None are really forgotten, but they are (it seems to me) sometimes overlooked.

My, Antonia; Willa Cather
The short stories of Earnest Hemingway (yeah, all of them. They go from good to the best one ever written in English)
East of Eden; John Steinbeck
One Hundred Years of Solitude; Gabriel García Márquez
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler...; Italo Calvino
posted by Some1 at 8:41 PM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
The Complete Stories of Dorothy Parker
Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion
posted by Houyhnhnm at 8:49 PM on August 3, 2010

First one I thought of is Burr by Gore Vidal. A vivid, funny, terrific historical novel that nobody I know seems to have read.

More obscure, and more difficult: Kenneth Patchen's The Journal of Albion Moonlight and Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer. The first is a fevered novel that is pretty tough to get through if you're concerned about things like narrative coherence, but read as a poet's response to the World War II era, it is a pretty astonishing book. Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer is also a weird book but a bit easier, and so beautiful.
posted by cirripede at 8:52 PM on August 3, 2010

It's hard to know what will actually grab you, so you should just try picking up lots of different things. Some books that have swept me away:

Hunger, by Knut Hamsun, in the Robert Bly translation
The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (though it helps if you've read his Continental Op short stories first)
Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, the first one being Justine. This took me a little while to get into, but then it was very fun.

Though it isn't obscure, Anna Karenina in the Volokhonsky and Pevear translation is beyond superb, and I thoroughly second East of Eden.

And remember your local bookstores, if you have any. They need your support more than Amazon.
posted by sumiami at 8:55 PM on August 3, 2010

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov.

Neither are particularly obscure, but they're both pretty amazing.
posted by Sebmojo at 8:59 PM on August 3, 2010

For me, the best ever was "The West Point Atlas of American Wars", 1959 edition, which I scored 35 years ago in the used book stacks at Powell's Book Store. Best $100 I ever spent!

But I doubt it's what you're trying to find.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:00 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

A Confederacy of Dunces. I don't know why nobody sat me down and forced me to read it, but I'm glad I read it of my own accord.
posted by little light-giver at 9:18 PM on August 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Gonna cosign:

1. Master and Margarita - hilarious and generally wonderful.

2. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down - don't be turned off by the title. It's coming from an anthropological angle, not a New Age angle.

Gonna disagree with:

1. Invisible Cities - there's just not much there as far as I could tell.
posted by kensington314 at 9:48 PM on August 3, 2010

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
Under the Glacier by Halldór Laxness
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

All classics, all in the shadow of other works by the authors, all fairly short.
posted by Kattullus at 9:52 PM on August 3, 2010

kensington314: 1. Invisible Cities - there's just not much there as far as I could tell.

Try leaving it near the toilet for a while. It's great to dip into and you'll find all kinds of newness in the city descriptions every time you do. It is the best ever bathroom reader.
posted by Kattullus at 9:54 PM on August 3, 2010

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
Blindness by José Saramago
posted by datarose at 10:00 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Wandering Unicorn by Manuel Mujica Lainez. It's out of print and vastly unknown, but I still remember whole passages of it and wish I could read the untranslated version... One of my top five books, without question.

People have their criticisms about it, but then again, it's a translation (Lainez was Argentinean).

Maybe I'm a fool, but I'll happily overlook some common gripes with the storyline itself in exchange for having filled my mind with such gorgeously written passages.

Like Murakami and Jonathan Carroll, I found myself hurtling through parts of it aimlessly, then getting trapped by a sentence or paragraph that left me breathless. Sometimes you have to pause to savor the writing itself, the mouthfeel when you quietly read it aloud, alone; seeing and knowing and also HEARING that sound in your head that the words make.

This book is somewhat of a departure from his other writing and it's a bit fantasy for some readers, but if you enjoy historical literature, it's got that appeal, too. This is no book you'll find adapted into a film or on any must-read lists or in the classics section, so "hidden gem" is exactly right.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:21 PM on August 3, 2010

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates
posted by elsietheeel at 10:30 PM on August 3, 2010

Salvation (novel) and Normal (short story collection), both by Lucia Nevai.
posted by creepygirl at 10:35 PM on August 3, 2010

The Gates of Ivory, by Margaret Drabble. It is the story of a British playwright, Stephen Cox, who travels to Asia in order to learn about the atrocities that were committed in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. The novel opens back in Britain as Stephen's friend Liz receives a strange package containing drawings of Cambodian ruins, fragments of Stephen's writing, and a couple of human finger bones.

It can be read on its own or as the final installment of a trilogy--the first two novels are The Radiant Way and A Natural Curiosity. I actually recommend all three (and definitely read in order), but if you decide to choose only one, I suggest The Gates of Ivory. It is mysterious, complex, rich, and beautifully written.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:08 PM on August 3, 2010

These are the only really obscure narrative things I've read and liked. I mean there's some other stuff I can think of that most people haven't read, but they've at least heard of them.

Djinn by Alain Robbe Grillet - originally put together as a French grammar textbook, but it works (even in translation) as this weird David Lynch style thing.

HA! A Self-Murder Mystery by Gordon Shepperd
(review) - presented as the script and research notes towards a documentary about the death of Hubert Aquin. Not fiction, but reads like it.
posted by juv3nal at 11:29 PM on August 3, 2010

The Leopard, Giuseppe Lempedusa.

Well-regarded in the UK but largely ignored in the US: Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess (yeah, the Clockwork Orange guy...but this is not like that.)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:30 PM on August 3, 2010

Every now and then I go back to Kathryn Davis' The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf. Usually once every couple of years I pick it up and revisit it. Quirky, but a great story.
posted by Tchad at 12:27 AM on August 4, 2010

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. Hundred-year-old comedy that could have been written yesterday. Very light. Little plot. Mostly wry commentary and extremely enjoyable.
posted by wjm at 2:44 AM on August 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Transition into reading again with an Alice Munro short story a night. Any of her collections will do.
posted by Elsie at 5:24 AM on August 4, 2010

Anything by Paul Auster, but especially New York Trilogy.
Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith
How to Buy a Love of Reading by Tanya Egan Gibson
Oryx & Crake, Blind Assassin, and Alias Grace - all by Margaret Atwood
posted by litnerd at 5:27 AM on August 4, 2010

James Gould Cozzens - Guard of Honor
Sarah Orne Jewett - The Country of Pointed Firs
Edward Dahlberg - Because I Was Flesh
Stephen Vizinczey - In Praise of Older Women
Kenneth Rexroth - An Autobiographical Novel
posted by Joe Beese at 5:40 AM on August 4, 2010

William Trevor - The Children of Dynmouth
Gordon Legge - The Shoe
Janice Galloway - The Trick is to Keep Breathing

all three have been read and re-read many, many times. and if you like The Shoe, try Alan Warner.
posted by mippy at 6:05 AM on August 4, 2010

The Good Soldier - Ford Madox Ford
Hunger - Knut Hamsun
History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters - Julian Barnes
The Magus - John Fowles
Love in the Ruins - Walker Percy
posted by brand-gnu at 6:35 AM on August 4, 2010

These are not particularly obscure, but I had never heard of them until I started getting recommendations from writers (as opposed to teachers and top 100 lists):

Marilynne Robinson - Housekeeping
Lorrie Moore - Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? and Self Help
Amy Hempel - Collected Stories
Junot Diaz - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Murakami is a favorite around here but I think his best novel is one that doesn't get mentioned often: Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Very much like Borges.
posted by telegraph at 6:46 AM on August 4, 2010

Leonora Carrington's The Hearing Trumpet.
(Messy, charming surrealism/mysticism)

J.G. Eccarius' The Last Days of Christ the Vampire
(sort of the book equivalent of a noisy punk rock cassette from 1986)

René Daumal's Mount Analogue
(heavy stoner mysticism, written lightly and lovingly)

Italo Calvino's The Baron In The Trees
(unlike much Calvino, this is pure folk-tale-ish fiction, and beautiful)
posted by Erroneous at 8:08 AM on August 4, 2010

I had to change mine because people already mentioned the first that spring to mind--Master and Margarita, The Towers of Trebizond (yes!), Hunger, Calvino, etc.

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner, if you like Difficulty theory period literature, and feminism before you thought it could exist

The Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

The Pyramid by Ismail Kadare

It gets lost in the shadow of Blindness' fame, but Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is wonderful in every way--gorgeous prose and imagery, awesome meta and pomo-y intertexed elements--by the way, if you aren't familiar with Pessoa and his many heteronyms before you read it, there's a good start too.

This is going to sound weird but: modern and contemporary Greek poetry. Elytis (they did a lovely collection a while back), Cavafy, Seferis, that stuff. Gorgeous in this way I feel like no other poetry ever is. But maybe that's just me.

Colette! My Mother's House and Sido have moments that are luscious on the level of Proust if you ask me, and her more typical stuff (stage ladies' love affairs-type things like The Vagabond and its sequel) is still entertaining while still being mentally intriguing at points.

There are a ton of recent female short story masters that always seem criminally underexposed to me. Gina Berriault (Women in Their Beds), Amy Hempel (At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom or the newly collected volume, she is very much like Rick Moody or Raymond Carver), Fleur Jaeggy (Last Vanities), Diane Williams, Lydia Davis (not my thing but very similar), Aimee Bender (The Girl with the Flammable Skirt, An Invisible Sign of My Own), Ines Arrendondo (Underground River), Emily Prager (A Visit from the Footbinder), Mary Gaitskill if you somehow missed her (!!), a bunch of ladies Dalkey has been so kind as to rerelease. Not short form, but there's also Deborah Levy, June Akers Seese, Aurelie Sheehan, Penelope Fitzgerald, Marguerite Young, Janet Frame, Olive Moore, Violette Leduc, etc. And to go way back, I still think Sarah Orne Jewett is criminally underrated.

And Fantagraphics' lovingly restored collections of George Herriman's Krazy Kat, if you don't already know how awesome it is. It will change your mind about comics, if you still have any notions they can't be art/literary-quality enough. And Don Marquis' Archy and Mehitabel.
posted by ifjuly at 9:00 AM on August 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

D'oh, I thought of another--Yuri Olesha's Envy. Great.
posted by ifjuly at 9:00 AM on August 4, 2010

Grrr and another--people always talk about other Vonnegut first, but Jailbird is great, and if you can find it, there's this weird telescript thing that meant to compile and celebrate the best of his pithy quotes from books into one weird space story. It's wildly entertaining and has a ton of brilliant lines. It's called Between Time and Timbuktu.

And this may not be on the DL enough, but The Tin Drum is amazing.
posted by ifjuly at 9:02 AM on August 4, 2010

Fictionalized essays but I would highly recommend George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London.
posted by mfoight at 10:05 AM on August 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Everybody loves William Gibson, but for some reason no one ever says to read Pattern Recognition. I also thought that Philip K. Dick's The Man Who Japed is vastly superior to his other, more popular works, and is greatly overlooked. And The Scarlet Pimpernel is a name that gets flung around a lot, but I'm the only person I know who's actually read it, and it's hilarious. GK Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday should be taught as a mind-fuck to every freshmen literature class, and, finally, the book that I always answer book-related AskMe-s with, Dorothy Dunnett's The Game of Kings, which is the best and most obscure historical fiction of all time.
posted by WidgetAlley at 10:52 AM on August 4, 2010

Pilgrim by Timothy Findley
The Volcano Lover, by Susan Sontag
The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead
Little Follies, by Eric Kraft
So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell

Don't want to be preachy, but please remember your local flesh-and-blood booksellers.
posted by Paris Elk at 11:08 AM on August 4, 2010

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Independent People by Halldor Laxness
Sunday of Life by Raymond Queaneu
Pinocchio in Venice by Robert Coover
The Blood Oranges by John Hawkes
nthing The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov
Locos: a Comedy of Gestures by Felipe Alfau

These aren't all so very obscure, but you may not know about them.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 1:25 PM on August 4, 2010

Run with the Horsemen by Ferrol Sams. I have never found anyone who has read it, nor any legitimate literary crit about it, but it's a fantastic book with the same presence and impact as a classic.

Also, Margaret Atwood's earlier writing is much less popular, but still very fulfilling to read. Whether or not you're familiar with her well-known works, her earlier books are something else. I'm thinking of The Edible Woman and Surfacing, mostly.
posted by ckk88 at 5:18 PM on August 4, 2010

Keep thinking of more--Andrea Barrett rules.
posted by ifjuly at 11:03 PM on August 4, 2010

* Any short story by James Tiptree Jr. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is a good start. Technically, most of these stories are science fiction, but they are also some of the best stories I have ever read in any genre.

* Seconding Matt Ruff. Bad Monkeys is also fun.

* Winters Tale by Mark Helprin. An astoundingly beautiful book, Helprin is a genius and I can't believe no one told me to read this sooner than I did. I'm not sure if I entirely like the way that Helprin ends the book, but getting there is such an adventure that it doesn't matter.

* Seconding Pattern Recognition, probably my favorite book of his.
posted by pwicks at 11:28 PM on August 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

My five favorite hidden gem books:

Robert Sheckley's Omnibus

Possession by A.S. Byatt

The Flashman books

L’Opoponax by Monique Wittig

A MeFite friend strongly recommends 2666, though I haven't read it yet
posted by nickyskye at 4:26 PM on August 9, 2010

I wouldn't start with 2666. It's heavy going and you have to trust the author. I'd start with his short stories, Last Evenings on Earth or his recent collection (which I haven't read) The Return (I also put together a post a few years ago which linked to several of his stories. From there I'd go to By Night in Chile or The Savage Detectives. Then I'd read 2666. I don't think I would've appreciated 2666 as much as I did if I hadn't gone that route. On the other hand, I did give my dad 2666 for Christmas the year it came out and he loved it and he hadn't read any Bolaño beforehand.
posted by Kattullus at 8:06 PM on August 9, 2010

If we're talking Bolano I recommend Nazi Literature in the Americas; it truly is a hidden gem. If you like Borges you'll probably get what he's doing.
posted by ifjuly at 8:18 PM on August 9, 2010

Oh yeah, Nazi Literature in the Americas is wonderful. It's a fake encyclopedia of far-right authors in South and North America. It's quite striking. In my post there are links to two of the chapters (stories, really) in Nazi Literature in the Americas, which give a good flavor of the whole.
posted by Kattullus at 8:47 PM on August 9, 2010

Thought of some more! Kenzaburo Oe's A Personal Matter--as a Japanese writer, Oe's doing something pretty unique and great with the language. It's hard to explain, maybe this will allude to it enough. He's very...un-Japanese in a way, deliberately so, and working specifically to struggle against his language in a sort of poetic sense. He is pretty much the antidote to Murakami, if you feel like I do.

Not nearly as uniquely interesting, but there's Kobo Abe too (bonus: then you can watch the great Teshigahara movie adaptations). And if you like Mishima and the teenager-y infatuated with death and self-loathing tactic, Osamu Dazai.
posted by ifjuly at 7:13 AM on August 16, 2010

Dammit, that interview isn't the one I thought it was. There's one somewhere--I could've sworn it was The Paris Review, but maybe Granta?--where he talks frankly about the emperor system and things about Japan's history and language that rub him the wrong way. Grr, can't find it.
posted by ifjuly at 7:18 AM on August 16, 2010

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (not related to the Tom Cruise movie!)

Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

Nights at the Circus
by Angela Carter

Anything by Robertson Davies, especially the Deptford Trilogy

The Brothers K by David James Duncan

and I second Set This House in Order, Oscar Wao, Housekeeping, and Winter's Tale.
posted by exceptinsects at 3:40 AM on August 30, 2010

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