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Recommendations from Phillip Routh

I invited Phillip Routh, a prodigious and eclectic reader and author of the blog, How Jack London Changed My Life, to put together his own list of favorite neglected books for inclusion here. Phillip responded with a list of ten titles, writing:

My main criteria in the selection of these ten novels was excellence, but I’ve also tried to offer up a variety of types and have considered length and difficulty — all are well under 300 pages and none will tax your patience. Sample a few, and if you like them you’ll find many others worthy of your attention at How Jack London Changed My Life.

Phillip also included one or more additional titles by each author worth checking out.


The Revelations of Dr Modesto, by Alan Harrington

In the first chapter (entitled “The Failure”) a young salesman is flipping through the back pages of a magazine when he notices an ad: “STOP! WHY ARE YOU UNHAPPY?” He winds up sending in $7 for a pamphlet on Centralism. The revelations he receives from Dr. Modesto lead him on a path that will change his life — but for good or ill? Individualism is pitted against conformity in this roller coaster of a novel. What propels it along are ideas; the outlandish characters and situations reflect different choices in how to find fulfilment (if that’s possible).

[The Revelations of Dr Modesto has been reissued at least a half-dozen times and frequently pops up in discussions of unique and underappreciated books. It’s effectively the Candide of its time and deserves a permanent place on bookstore shelves.–Ed.]

Other Harrington recommendation: Life in the Crystal Palace, featured here in April 2009.

The Blood of the Lamb, by Peter De Vries

So much care went into this novel, and so much emotion is conveyed, that I wasn’t surprised to learn that De Vries lost his daughter to leukemia. He realized that he couldn’t address this personal tragedy head-on; instead he created Don Wanderhope and had this hopeful wanderer tell the story of a life filled with misfortune — until, with the birth of his child, he finds meaning and an enduring purpose to his existence. Oddly enough, given the subject matter, what De Vries has accomplished stands as a tribute to his daughter and an offering to us all.

Other De Vries recommendation: The Cat’s Pajamas & Witch’s Milk: Two Novels

The Asphalt Jungle, by W. R. Burnett

This novel about a high-stakes heist is quite successful as realistic crime fiction, but what raises it above that genre is the way in which Burnett develops his characters. Dix and Emmerich — the strong-arm man and the crooked lawyer — are initially shown in a harsh light, but they take on layers of complexity; each man has a history, both have redeeming qualities. They’re not granted absolution — their actions condemn them too fully — but the drama that unfolds is made all the more gripping because the people involved are more than just criminals.

Other Burnett recommendation: Little Caesar

School for Love, by Olivia Manning

An orphaned boy is sent to Jerusalem to live with a relative he’s never seen. Miss Bohun rents rooms to the flotsam washed up from the tides of WWII; this spiteful spinster provides one lesson in love: how the lack of it can twist a person. Felix observes (and sometimes plays a role in) the adult dramas swirling around him. But he’s learning about life from strangers consumed by their problems, and much is incomprehensible to him. It’s significant that his only enduring attachment is with a cat; Faro’s love, though selfish, is uncomplicated and without deceit.

Other Manning recommendation: The Great Fortune, the first volume of Manning’s Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy

A Cool Million, by Nathanael West

Mimicking Horatio Alger’s naive prose style, West takes an upstanding young man and follows him not as he makes his way up in the world but as he goes down — down to depths that only West’s surrealistic imagination could take him. Alger’s novels promoted an American Dream in which virtue is rewarded; West presents us with an American nightmare. His dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin is grotesque, appalling and horribly funny. West found a format in which he could express his cynicism about man and society without the limits imposed by reality.

Other West recommendation: The Day Of The Locust

The Unbearable Bassington, by Saki (H. H. Munro)

A form-master says of Comus, “There are just a few, and Bassington is one of them, who are nature’s highly-finished products when they are in the school stage, and we, who are supposed to be moulding raw material, are quite helpless when we come in contact with them.” Comus’s mother is also unable to deal with him, and so is a world that Comus expects to bend to his wishes and his will. This is the only serious, carefully-executed work that Saki produced; and though it sparkles, and is witty, it is a tragedy.

Wisteria Cottage, by Robert Coates

Coates enters the mind of a warped and dangerous individual. To do this convincingly is an achievement, but what makes this novel so disturbing is that an intimacy is established between the reader and Richard. We follow the young man’s thinking as he distorts reality; we anticipate his shifts in mood; we feel his irresistibly rising anger. It all culminates in a horrible act of violence, but this is not a horror story. Because we gain insight into someone who is a despairing victim of his own emotions, Coates has written a novel of compassion.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor

An elderly widow moves into the Claremont, joining a handful of others who have the money to live out their last days at this genteel but somewhat shabby residential hotel. Before you dismiss this subject, consider what a treasure trove it is. Old age is a stage of life when courage and coping are needed to get through each day. And not all is bleak; pride and hope have a way of persisting. Taylor is the ideal guide to take you into the Claremont, and into the heart and mind of Mrs. Palfrey.

Other Taylor recommendation: Angel

The Man Who Fell to Earth, by Walter Tevis

Unlike most science fiction writers, Tevis doesn’t rely on oddities or menace to fascinate. With intelligence and precision he makes it entirely logical why an Anthean (who’s just able to pass as a human) has come to Earth, what his goal is, and how he goes about trying to achieve it. But the truest measure of Tevis’s success is how he creates empathy for T. J. Newton. We share the burden of his undertaking, we respect his abilities, we admire his resolve and courage. And by the end we come to feel the enormity of his loneliness.

Other Tevis recommendation: The Queen’s Gambit

Lady Into Fox, by David Garnett

The only fantastical event occurs at the novel’s outset: while walking in the countryside with her husband, Mrs. Tebrick is instantaneously transformed into a fox. The loving couple endeavor to live together as before, which is what Mrs. Tebrick wants, for she retains her human thoughts and feelings. But gradually, inexorably, her feral nature asserts itself; finally Mr. Tebrick gives her what she must have: her freedom. Though that’s not the end of their relationship, nor the end of their love. A small gem made all the more valuable because it could have been shattered by one misstep.

Other Garnett recommendation: A Man in the Zoo, often published together with Lady Into Fox

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