Eight Recommendations from Sonesh Chainani

October 3rd, 2009

I’m always interested in getting suggestions from other readers, and when I do, it’s usually just a title or two. Sonesh Chainani, a closet English major in Miami, took a break from his busy schedule to provide a whopping eight-pack of his favorite neglected books. He gets an A+ in my book, because he came up with three titles that are wholly new to me. And I give myself a D- for letting my own busy schedule keep this post on hold for over a week.

Sonesh writes,

I now realize that the roots with obsession with neglected books goes back at least to college, where I wrote my thesis on Julio Cortazar’s 62: A Model Kit, which is mentioned on your site. (New Directions re-released it 2 months after I finished my thesis, but I had to buy an expensive copy from a used bookshop in England in order to read it and I was so fascinated and confused by it that I decided I should write my undergraduate thesis on it.) I remember my advisor telling me that Cortazar was well-respected but nobody read 62: A Model Kit, and I remember the feeling of excitement of opening the book and being hooked by the first paragraph and thinking I may have been one of only a very small group of English-speaking readers who had read this book, which was written, published, and then quietly disappeared.

So, without further ado, let’s leap into Sonesh’s list:

All Heads Turn When the Hunt GoesBy, by John Farris, which was published by Playboy Press in 1977.

I would describe it as a “Southern gothic voodoo sexual horror novel” and though pacing of the book lags in places, the writing creeps up on you. The book opens with a brilliant over-the-top setpiece at a posh formal military wedding at a Southern estate where the groom goes absolutely unhinged with his sabre and darkest Africa takes its revenge on the antebellum south. There is a crumbling church, virginal decapitations, incestuous hysteria — I don’t know what else to say about the opening to the book except that it stuck with me for a while. The rest of the book doesn’t quite live up to the opening but it’s pretty damn good.

Farris is a prolific but very underrated and neglected writer — he wrote the novel The Fury which I haven’t read, but which is the basis of a minor but still enjoyable Brian DePalma movie starring Kirk Douglas, Amy Irving and John Cassavetes. The movie (and I imagine the book) is a funny mixture of the clinical and the lunatic.

In Praise of Older Women, by Stephen Vizinczey

A beautiful book that only a European could have written. Despite the salacious title and deliberately misleading jacket copy, the book is actually both a beautifully constructed engaging first-person novel and an argument for the induction by young men of older (not old but older) women and against the championing of mutual virginity and teenage cluelessness and prudery when it comes to sex. A google search reveals that this book was also made into a movie but I know nothing abou it.

Truth and Lies in Literature: Essays and Reviews, by Stephen Vizinczey

Truth and Lies, which I couldn’t stop reading, although a bit dated as literary criticism, is written in crystalline clear prose. Vizinczey’s prose is beautiful and limpid in both the novel above and this book and his reading of Melville’s “Billy Budd” as disturbing, fraudulent, politically indefensible literature is interesting. (I never liked “Billy Budd” myself but for different reasons.) He champions slightly more neglected or rather unfashionable French classic authors (e.g. Stendhal, Balzac) over the Russians it seems, which is not a very contemporary view, although he is clearly fond of some of the Russians as well. He also has definite and controversial views on various authors (he thoroughly whips on Malraux in one essay and in another praises Mailer for The Armies of the Night).

In both books that I read Vizinczey has a gift for not being mean, condescending or glib, even when his subject matter is difficult — love (for women, for literature) infuses everything he writes and it’s refreshing and enlightening to read him.

Nine Hundred Grandmothers, by R.A. Lafferty

This is a strange and compelling short story collection. Comparisons have been made between Lafferty and Heinlein and Phillip Dick, but these “sci-fi” (I use that term loosely) short stories are really in a world of their own. They are very damn funny and strange — a bizarre combinations of jokes without punchlines and very disciplined writing. The quality of the stories varies but they are all worth reading. Neil Gaiman is a big fan of Lafferty and has said that he has been influenced by Lafferty, although I don’t think Gaiman’s writing is nearly as entertaining.

Dance of the Dwarfs, by Geoffrey Household

I got this book from a friend who knew how much I liked another neglected book with a title involving those who are vertically challenged — Walter de la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget — and although I had low expectations, the book turned out to be fantastic. The main character is a courageous, stoic agricultural expert working out in remote Columbia near the jungles. Although the beginning of the book only hints at mystery, it quickly becomes a strange and captivating suspense novel that was actually quite terrifying (despite the hilarity of the title ). The book’s a slow burn and the view of remote South America through the perspective of a cerebral white man becoming slowly ensnared in its mysteries is a nice antidote to much of the mediocre Latin American fiction that passes for “magical realism” these days. Also, just for the record, I am 6 foot 2.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, by Nikolai Leskov

This was a great little novella — truly deranged — despite the title, the main character is more Medea than Lady Macbeth. I’d like to read more of this Russian writer who I suspect is little read in the West.

A Melon for Ecstasy, by John Fortune and John Wells

Hilarious though inconsistent humorous epistolary novel about a quiet, repressed man who not only has a very serious physical hankering for trees but acts on it. This book was one-of-a-kind and I found myself laughing a lot out loud. The authors’ vocabularies are prodigious and well-used. I don’t really know what else to write about this book, except to note that the book opens with the following fictional Turkish proverb.

A woman for duty,
A boy for pleasure,
But a melon for ecstasy.
– Old Turkish proverb

A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family, by Peter Dimock

A lean, stylized novel in the form of a single letter from Jarlath Lanham to his nephew and the son of his father’s ex-lover. The narrator’s focus on the rules of ancient rhetoric actually ties in quite well to the subject of the book: the Vietnam war and what allowed it to happen and to continue happening. This is a strange and intense novel, well worth reading although it is not an easy read.

The Winners

I believe this was one of the first books put out by NYRB Classics. It’s a hilarious, disturbing novel that is part Kafka and part Groucho Marx, about a group of state lottery winners in Argentina who win passage on a mystery cruise ship for an unknown destination. What starts out with aimless gossip, intrigues and annoyance by the bored, confused passengers develops into something more sinister. Cortazar’s female characters are rich and well-developed, and although this is not my favorite book by him (that would have to go to his stories and 62), it is an exciting and brilliant first novel. This is a useful link to Cortazar’s bibliography and publishing history: www.subir.com/cortazar/.

7 Responses to “Eight Recommendations from Sonesh Chainani”

  1. Lisa Says:

    It’s nice to see Leskov on this list — it’s a good reminder that I, too, have been meaning to look for more Leskov! I also enjoyed “Lady Macbeth” when I read it some years ago.

  2. Guy Savage Says:

    I read A Melon For Ecstasy a few weeks ago, and it was quite marvellous. One of the funniest books I’ve ever read.
    Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a bit depressing in contrast.

  3. Leslie Says:

    The title story from 900 Grandmothers was actually anthologized in one of my middle-school readers (!!!!!), but that was the 70s so no other explanation is required, I guess.

    In Praise of Older Women was indeed a movie, as much about the political sorrows of Eastern Europe under Soviet rule as it was anything else. The late Susan Strasberg, of the Strasberg family of actors, was in the film, as was Tom Berener.

  4. Leslie Says:

    Tom BERENGER. Sorry (thanks to http://www.imdb.com).

  5. JRSM Says:

    ‘In Praise of Older Women’ by Stephen Vizinczey is being republished in the UK by Penguin Classics next year. It’s not up in their catalogue yet, but it’s scheduled for March 2010, with ISBN 9780141192062.

    And I’d like to add my voice to the Leskov fans.

  6. Brooks Peters Says:

    In case Sonesh is unaware of it, Shostakovich composed a brilliant opera based on Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. A true classic.

  7. Sonesh Says:

    Thanks, Brooks, I was not aware of it. Will have to check it out.

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