With the end of anything comes reflection. We’ve been doing quite a bit of it here at Literary Hub, as you may have noticed, but even we haven’t read everything. And besides, publishing is a machine, and a business, and so is book media, and sometimes it seems that all we hear about are the same 30 books, the same 30 authors, recycled and rehyped over and over again. This is not to say that those ubiquitous books aren’t great—only that there’s more out there. So with that in mind, we asked some of our favorite writers to recommend an underappreciated book (or two), published in the last ten years, that they think more people should read. They came back with a list of short stories collections, novels, novellas, and memoirs from the tiniest presses to the largest ones, from authors you’ve heard of and authors you haven’t. If I do say so myself, this is a good list as any to take you into 2020.
Bennett Sims, White Dialogues
(Two Dollar Radio, 2017)
My selection is Bennett Sims’ White Dialogues (Two Dollar Radio) one of the most genuinely terrifying, brilliant short story collections of the past decade. These stories are so smart and so unsettling; every sentence will unnerve you. He’s kind of like if Alfred Hitchcock and Brian Evenson raised a baby with David Foster Wallace and Nicholson Baker. Sims should be a household name in horror, and it is one of my personal and professional goals to make that happen. (He also has a criminally underrated novel, A Questionable Shape.)
–Carmen Maria Machado, author of In the Dream House
D. Wystan Owen, Other People’s Love Affairs
(Algonquin Books, 2018)
Why didn’t more people recognize D. Wystan Owen’s Other People’s Love Affairs for what it was, the debut of a major writer, on par with the best new writers the decade delivered? Why didn’t more people recognize it as an extraordinary book in itself, full of some of the most exquisitely etched, psychologically complex, tender stories I’ve read? Owen’s work embodies the classic virtues, but he speaks to us from the future; we’ll need a decade or two to catch up. When Lit Hub surveys English-language literature from 2050, the work of D. Wystan Owen—and I hope he will have many, many books by then—will loom large.
–Garth Greenwell, author What Belongs to You and Cleanness (January 2020)
Jade Sharma, Problems
(Coffee House Press, 2016)
I really loved Jade Sharma’s Problems and while underappreciated feels like a fraught word—I know lots of people who read and loved this book too—I do think Problems, which is jagged and hilarious and challenging and smart as hell, deserves wider audience. I didn’t know Jade Sharma outside her work and was so sorry to hear of her death earlier this year; she left us all a great gift, with this book.
–Laura van den Berg, author of The Third Hotel and I Hold a Wolf By the Ears (June 2020)
Jarvis Masters, That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row
Jarvis Masters’s memoir That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row is a gripping, lyrical, heartbreaking account of how a black child full of hope and love, born into poverty and racism, was criminalized for running away from abuse, abused in juvenile prisons, set on the path to adult prison, and how once there he was framed for participation in a murder that has stranded him on death row for thirty years. And it’s also the story of how, there, he became a generous, compassionate, and creative person as well as a writer of great power.
–Rebecca Solnit, author of Recollections of My Nonexistence (March 2020)
Melissa Rivero, The Affairs of the Falcóns
I recommend The Affairs of the Falcóns, Melissa Rivero’s stunning debut novel about a young undocumented woman fighting to make a life for herself and her family in 1990s New York City. This book achieves the very best of what fiction can do: it invites you to sit inside someone else’s mind, builds connections between the story on its pages and the world in which you live, and leaves you, whoever you are, changed after reading.
–Julia Phillips, author of Disappearing Earth
Alexis Wright, Tracker
I do not know if it is “unsung,” but I do know that the book of which I wish to sing is Tracker (2017), by Alexis Wright, one of the most important writers at work today. Tracker is at once biography, oral history, the portrait of a community and the story of one man, the Indigenous activist Tracker Tilmouth who was at the forefront of Aboriginal rights campaigns in Australia for decades. Wright is as indefinable and experimental as her book and subject; she is also the author of Carpentaria, one of the most important modern Australian novels, a lands-right activist, an essayist and, here, an oral historian and memoirist gathering and braiding a chorus of voices. Read it, and sing of it.
–Robert Macfarlane, author of Underland
Arif Gamal, Morning in Serra Matu
This epic poem, its interrelated stories and gorgeous evocation of eighteen thousand years of Nubian history, is unlike any other book I’ve read in the last decade. Arif Gamal was born in Sudan to a Nubian family whose history along the Nile dates back nearly two millennia. That ancient Nubian culture is the clay of Gamal’s poems, over which he sees “Islam is like a glaze.” Gamal told the lines in this unprecedented book to E.G. Dubovsky, who the title page says “recorded it in verse.” The book doesn’t explain how closely the two of them worked to edit the poems once they were on paper, but however this sequence came into being, it is an astonishing book, at once intimate and epic.
Gamal brings masterful lyric restraint to the book’s central tragedy: the displacement of the Nubians again and again for the creation of dams along the Nile. A passionate environmentalist, Gamal brings to the book an extensive knowledge of the Aswan Dam and its destruction of Nubia but he keeps the focus fixed on the emotional journey of those displaced. Of the mass exodus the dam produced, he doesn’t speak of where the migrants go or how many they were, only that “the train cars were packed with people/ all weeping where they sat.” At the end of this powerful epic, when Gamal evokes the “high unhindered Nubian stars,” I felt that physical ache that only happens with the books that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
–Idra Novey, author of Those Who Knew
Sara Majka, Cities I’ve Never Lived In
Sara Majka should be much wider known. Her stories remind me of Lydia Davis’s longer pieces. Intensely felt, ghostly, beautifully strange snapshots of love and loss and desperation—but so different from what you’ve read. Many of her stories are about lonely women on the edge of whatever you may call normal; they’re introverted, broken down, dark, and often isolated. So much of the drama happens in the cold liminal spaces in a long life, like characters from a Hopper painting. They have this intense, unflinching vulnerability that made me squirm and scratched at my heart.
–Dina Nayeri, author of The Ungrateful Refugee
Samanta Schweblin, tr. Megan McDowell, Fever Dream
This was the first book to truly frighten me as an adult. For that reason alone, I recommend it constantly. Schweblin creates a mood of unease and disorientation that is both startling and brilliant. Reading translations also opens up new possibilities in literature; there’s so much we can learn about form and style across linguistic difference.
–Crystal Hana Kim, author of If You Leave Me
Viola Di Grado, tr. Antony Shugaar, Hollow Heart
I came across this novel while I was reading stacks and stacks of books as a judge for the PEN Translation prize. This story cut through the fray, pulling my attention away from the hundreds of other worthy nominees right from its first line: “In 2011, the world ended: I killed myself.” The novel follows Dorotea Giglio’s posthumous “life” as well as her bodily decomposition in minute detail. I was taken by the specifics of the mundane, everyday life of a dead person, and am awed by the way translator Antony Shugaar crafted a complex and darkly funny voice for Dorotea in English, too.
–Sara Nović, author of Girl at War
Danzy Senna, New People
This wickedly hilarious novel about the contradictions of race and belonging has the heartbeat of a thriller, and conjures the best of Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson while offering a razor-sharp critique of both the notion of a post-racial society and the pursuit of an authentic, uncompromised identity politics. Senna is a keen observer of racial dynamics, recording both those moments that clearly resonate with trauma and inequity and those that lie outside the realm of intelligibility—racial authenticity as riddle, a puzzle that may never be solved. This book was lauded when it came out, but its twisty, prickly lens on American belonging deserves an even wider audience today.
–Alexandra Kleeman, author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
Aoko Matsuda, tr. Angus Turvill, The Girl Who Is Getting Married
(Strangers Press, 2017)
One nice thing this decade was discovering the funny, surreal, slyly ingenuous, sometimes eerily incantatory fiction of Aoko Matsuda. In this short novella, Matsuda’s longest work to be translated so far, the narrator travels up five flights of stairs to see the titular girl who is getting married, while reflecting on their relationship—now intimate, now distant, now ontologically suspect. The girl who is getting married is referred to only as “the girl who is getting married,” which lets Matsuda write sentences like: “The girl who is getting married announced that she was now a girl who is getting married. The girl who is getting married is getting married!” It’s a delightfully strange story strange right down to its syntax.
–Adam Ehrlich Sachs, author of The Organs of Sense
David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks
(Random House, 2014)
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell remains one of the most incredible contemporary fiction reading experiences I’ve ever had. Not only is it a genre bending feat of imagination that spans decades and voices, but Mitchell’s storytelling style is just irresistible. His uncanny ability to fully inhabit the voices of his characters and bring them to such crackling, dimensional life not only makes for some of the most gripping fiction but also the most moving. The equally brilliant Slade House, which takes place in the same imagined universe as BC, is a close second favorite. A tale of wonder and horror that will always stay with me.
–Mona Awad, author of Bunny
Emma Reyes, tr. Daniel Alarcón, The Book of Emma Reyes
(Penguin Classics, 2017)
This strange and wildly engrossing book recounts the phantasmagoric early years of the author’s life in a series of letters to a friend written in middle-age. She and her sister were raised in horrific poverty in Bogota, Colombia, abandoned by their mother as children, and raised, for the most part, in an especially grim convent. Reyes went on to become a renowned (if underappreciated) painter, befriended by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; her letters were admired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (though his praise of them, after they were shown to him without her permission, led to her ceasing her correspondence for decades.) Reyes captures the distortions and agonies of childhood with a desperate immediacy that has rarely been matched in contemporary literature, and with a disarmingly chatty insouciance to boot. “If you think it’s enough to have ideas,” she writes as an aside, ”I’d say if one doesn’t know how to express them so they’re comprehensible, it’s the same as not having them at all.” I wish more people would read this book so I could have more conversations about it.
–Andrew Martin, author of Early Work and Cool for America (July 2020)
Alexis Coe, Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis
(Zest Books, 2014)
Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis (2014), a historical tale by Alexis Coe, is being made into a film by the woman who brought us The Babadook, and will no doubt find a new audience at that time. Until then, I hope that I can bring attention to this heartbreaking, nail-biting story of lesbianism, obsessive teenaged love, and murder in the 1890s South, painstakingly researched by Coe and written with compassion and skill.
–Esmé Weijun Wang, author of The Collected Schizophrenias
Chris Bachelder, Abbott Awaits
(Louisiana State University Press, 2011)
This is the best book I know of about being the father to a young child, on what remains a relatively short shelf. (There are a lot more laughs than Knausgaard!) Bachelder has been justifiably celebrated for his depiction of desperate masculinity in The Throwback Special, and his earlier novels, Bear v Shark and U.S.! are exuberant, bristling vivisections of contemporary culture and of the novel form itself. Abbott Awaits contains all of these aspects of his work: it’s warm and humane, but also stylistically adventurous. The book is divided into the months—June, July, and August—leading up to the birth of the narrator and his wife’s second child, and each month is divided into short vignettes, many just two or three pages long, that correspond to the number of days in each month. The events recounted are mundane—“Abbott Adds a Key to the Ring” is the title for July 17—but never tedious. It’s early Lydia Davis meets early Nicholson Baker, plus an excellent dog. Track it down.
–Andrew Martin, author of Early Work and Cool for America (July 2020)
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, The Fact of a Body: a Murder and a Memoir
I don’t believe this book could be “underappreciated” by anyone who’s been lucky enough to spend time with it, but I do wish this book would be read and revered more carefully. Yes, the story will shock and unmoor you, but this book is so much more than its stories, its headlines. Marzano-Lesnevich is a genius who skillfully dismantles our ideas of good and evil, power and the powerless; they ask, instead: who gets to claim the histories of our bodies? Our lives? This is the most exciting, shattering, exquisitely crafted (and researched) book of the decade for me.
–T Kira Madden, author of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls
Nescio, tr. Damion Searls, Amsterdam Stories
No book published in the last ten years has had a bigger impact on me, one of those books that speaks directly to your gut, a revelation. Nescio—in Latin it means “I don’t know”—and there’s something unclassifiable about the way Nescio goes about his stories, as if every sentence is a surprise even to the writer, a spontaneous irruption. At the same time, there’s nobody less pretentious and more down-to-earth. A classic in Holland, but virtually unknown here.
–Peter Orner, author of Maggie Brown & Others
Donald Antrim, The Emerald Light in the Air
It’s funny to think that someone I first encountered when he was an up-and-coming young writer could now be considered a modern classic, but that’s exactly what Donald Antrim is. The Emerald Light in the Air is his only collection of stories, and it includes “Another Manhattan,” which might be the best story written in this century so far.
–Benjamin Moser, author of Sontag: Her Life and Work
Aminatta Forna, The Hired Man
(Atlantic Monthly, 2013)
In this ingeniously crafted and exquisitely written novel, a British woman buys a summer home in Gost, a small village in Croatia. A local handyman, still haunted by events that took place twenty years earlier during the civil war, helps her with needed repairs to the house. Forna explores the connections between past and present, the difference between ignorance and innocence, and the deeply human desire to survive.
–Laila Lalami, author of The Other Americans
Marisa Silver, Little Nothing
(Blue Rider Press, 2016)
A wild, dark, exhilarating tale that leaps from surprise to astonishment to the lurking realities of ignorance, intolerance, war and love. A girl is a dwarf, then she is a wolf. Fantasy, magical realism, fairy tale, adventure story, parable, Dickensian novel? Whatever you choose to call Little Nothing, it is deeply odd and oddly moving. “Like a rat or icy wind,” Silver writes, “love creeps in.”
–Cathleen Schine, author of The Grammarians
Jess Arndt, Large Animals
Sentence by sentence, these stories are alert, nervy, funny, alive, lonesome, queer, and just plain weird—no dead zones in sight. And Arndt knows how to make a landscape resonate with the power of a dream, whether it’s the Atlantic City Boardwalk or the Southern California desert. Fans of Joy Williams, take heed.
–Paul Lisicky, author of Later: My Life at the Edge of the World
Bernice L. McFadden, The Book of Harlan
Bernice L. McFadden took me on a melodious literary journey through time and place in her masterpiece, The Book of Harlan. It’s complex, real, and raw. Harlan, McFadden’s main protagonist, is a solidifying fixture in her novel spanning almost 60 years from his pre-conception in Macon, GA slightly before 1917, to his migration with his parents to Harlem as a child, to his stint in Paris, to his enslavement by the Nazis in Buchenwald, and eventually back to his once joyous roots where he struggles to overcome the soul wounds that consume him. One thing that stood out in this book was the compelling way in which McFadden writes about the horrors of the Holocaust through the lens of an African American. McFadden intricately and purposefully weaves history as a backdrop in her fiction. The Book of Harlan brilliantly explores questions about agency, purpose, freedom, and survival.
–Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of Patsy
Mira T. Lee, Everything Here is Beautiful
(Pamela Dorman/Viking, 2017)
Mira T. Lee’s Everything Here is Beautiful is a deeply moving story about mental illness, family loyalty, immigration, and cultural displacement. It made me laugh out loud, cry out in frustration, and marvel at the gorgeous, lyrical prose. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
–Angie Kim, author of Miracle Creek
Susan Stinson, Spider in a Tree
(Small Beer Press, 2013)
Susan Stinson is one of my favorite living writers and all of her books deserve to be widely read. Her 2013 novel, Spider in a Tree, is, plainly, a beautiful novel, dark and also full of light. It’s about the world and family of Jonathan Edwards, an 18th century theologian, but because it’s by Stinson it talks about faith with the same precision it talks about bodies; it brilliantly explores the interiors of every character, including, quite often, spiders; it is concerned with both the holy and the homely, cold water crusts and home remedies involving spider webs, spiritual and bodily hungers. Spider in a Tree is both immaculately researched and up-to-the-minute, concerning as it does the dangers of moral certitude. Sentence to sentence, it will knock you out: “He thought he could eat sheets of paper with nothing to wash them down but his own copious spit, and then speak books. His mouth was full of desires.” (It’s published by the excellent and daring Small Beer Press.)
–Elizabeth McCracken, author of Bowlaway
Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End
(Random House, 2019)
When my daughter was six months old, often while she was nursing, I read Yiyun Li’s astonishing novel Where Reasons End, an imagined conversation between a mother and her teenage son who has recently committed suicide. To call it bleak would do a disservice to the ferocity of its love—to the feral, striated, quality of a mother’s awe at her son’s mind, and her insistent desire to conjure him back into conversation. To say it wrecked me to think of a child dying, while my child lay in my arms, would be true, but it wouldn’t quite hold everything else that novel did for me: the way it made me think about language, about dialogue, about the partial, glorious, aching ways we know—or fail to know—one another.
–Leslie Jamison, author of Make it Scream, Make it Burn