Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Top Ten Tuesdays for Aug. 9

This blog post is for Top 10 Tuesdays at this site.

The topic this week is "Top 10 Underrated Books" This one is particularly hard, because most books find at least a few fans, given the diffusion of the reading audience. It's easier to come up with a list of underrated films or television shows, because the general movie-going public frequently ignores good films. But there's no general reading audience -- two books can top the best-seller lists and find no readers in common. (On the other hand, I could easily come up with a list of 10 overrated books.) So here is my list of books that I think are obscure:

1. "Into Hot Air" by Chris Elliott: Elliott, the comic actor who burst upon the seen on "Late Night With David Letterman" and has produced a lot of underrated work -- "Get a Life," Dogbert on the "Dilbert" TV cartoon -- has written two satiric novels -- "The Shroud of the Thwacker" and "Into Hot Air." Neither seems to have hit the big time, and I read one tepid review of "Hot Air." Nevertheless, I love his work, because he uses the vehicle of satire to create a metafiction (the main character is always him, as with Mark Leyner) that both spoofs Mount Everest books and popular culture. I love the Martin Sheen caricature, who goes through the whole novel with tape over his mouth.

2. "Love Me": Garrison Keillor's radio personality and Lake Wobegon novels unjustly overshadow this yarn about the life of a writer who abandons Minnesota in pursuit of the Great American Novel in New York. Keillor hilariously turns famed New Yorker editor William Shawn into an outgoing adventurist. The novel is a fun spoof of the literary life and incorporates an advice column Keillor used to write ("Mr. Blue"), in which he doles out help to a beleaguered, over-matched chief executive.

3. "Memoir From Antproof Case" by Mark Helprin: I think Helprin's conservative politics runs interference with critical receptions of his work. This novel incorporates a man's journey from a childhood marred by the violent death of his parents to adventures in World War II to his ultimate defeat of a monstrous bank and his retreat to South America. Helprin's writing is at times difficult (he deals with a great many technical details of flying a World War II plane), and the structure of the novel is more satiric than the beautiful (and better-received, I think) "A Soldier of the Great War." But the diatribes against coffee are well worth the trip. He's one of the writers I wish would produce more novels.

4. "Strong Motion": Jonathan Franzen's second novel didn't receive supportive reviews like his debut novel ("The Twenty-Seventh City") and didn't get the raucous response of "The Corrections" or "Freedom." It's basically a second novel with a particularly annoying protagonist, a near-hermit radio worker who uncovers a plot to conceal earthquake-causing pollution. What people remember most is a chapter devoted to a raccoon who lives in the urban landscape north of Boston. Yes, Franzen piles on this history a little too much (one whole chapter is devoted to the accumulation of wealth in New England), but the novel has tremendous atmosphere -- it feels like the Boston I knew from the 1970s and '80s.

5. "Sunnyside": Another second novel, this one by Glen David Gold, seems to have slipped by people's notice after his first, extremely exciting historical novel "Carter Beats the Devil" made a splash in 2001. I just finished reading "Sunnyside," and although it doesn't have the bang-up plot twists of "Carter," it does give an easily readable, panoramic sweep of the World War I era and contains a hilarious and traumatic trip to Russia, where U.S. and allied soldiers fought the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution. The three main characters -- a lighthouse keeper who ends up in the Army; an engineer who ends up in Russia; and Charlie Chaplin -- never really meet, but their stories form the groundwork of an entertaining contemplation of the meaning of time, history, the movies and American progress.

6. "Villette" -- Everybody reads "Jane Eyre," but "Villette," Charlotte Bronte's last novel, offers its own rewards. A woman who suffers a series of tragedies (so bad that she can't even mention them) moves to Belgium, where she finds employment teaching English and goes through a series of existential crises, a strange courtship by a fellow teacher, and a ghost. I read this as part of a summer blog challenge, and I very much enjoyed it. (And I don't read a whole lot of 19th century novels.) The end is extremely moving and certainly ambiguous.

7.  "Brazil": John Updike explores the history and sociology of Brazil, hanging it on the Tristan and Isolde story. Critics get annoyed with Updike when he ventures beyond eastern Pennsylvania or New England, but I really enjoyed this extremely sensual riff on magical realism. The young lovers who form the core of the novel are compelling. And, of course, you get Updike's self-consciously luminous prose.

8. "The Keep": Jennifer Egan's puzzle set in a European castle and an American prison (who is the prisoner? What is the crime?) didn't get the acclaim her Pulitzer-winning "A Visit From the Goon Squad" did, but really, who's counting? The castle itself was a character, and as the people rebuilding it descend into its spooky depths, secrets pop out all over the place. Even the part set in the United States was intriguing.

9. "Theatre": Somerset Maugham's literary reputation has waxed and waned, and this novel isn't one of his best-known titles. But I love theater novels, and this one abounds in backstage romance. The main character, an aging, self-absorbed actress, is so compelling, and the world she lives in is so intoxicating, that I wished the novel wouldn't end. It was made into a so-so movie called "Being Julia" with Annette Bening.

10. "Speak Now": Kaylie Jones has written several novels and a memoir. For some reason, this novel doesn't seem to have gained any traction at all (and I remember one negative review) despite the fact that the book has a strong plot and compelling characters. It's about obsessions -- getting rid of an obsession with booze and an all-time-bad boyfriend, or being obsessed with a woman so much that you commit crimes for her. Sure it has a melodramatic ending, but so does "Anna Karenina."   


Trish said...

I'm glad to hear that about Villette. It's been on my radar ever since I read Jane Eyre but I have yet to pick it up. I think perhaps I'll move it closer to the top of my TBR pile.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Great list of books. I see many possiblities here. Thank you!

Here's my Top Ten post for this week: Top Ten Underappreciated Books
And don't forget to stop in and sign up to win in the Readerbuzz August Giveaway!

LBC said...

Great list. I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't know Franzen wrote anything before The Corrections. Thanks for the great descriptions of the books as well.

Check out mine at The Scarlet Letter.