If there’s any justice in the world, someday these books will have the recognition they deserve. To be fair, some are already hugely popular in certain parts of the world, so maybe this post should be called “Books I’m surprised the Whole World isn’t talking about”.
Would love to know if you’ve ever hear of/read any of them.
1. A Short History of a Small Place by T. R. Pearson (USA)
At the yearly Book Fair here in Brussels I always buy a couple of mavericks. A Short History of a Small Place was my 2007 blind date but it quickly became one of the best of the year. I may have been easy to please because of my soft spot for Southern Literature, but this novel seemed to have all the elements needed to win me over: a small town, eccentric characters, smart jokes and the bittersweet feeling of coming-of-age. Still, I’ve never met (online or in person) anyone who’s ever heard of A Short History of a Small Place.
The story is set in the mid-60s, in the fictional town of Nelly, NC. Our young narrator, Louis Benfield, recounts the tragic last days of old Miss Myra Angelique Pettigrew, a former town belle and eccentric wealthy sister of the late mayor. After years of total seclusion, Miss Pettigrew returns flamboyantly to public view to sing her swan song.
Although events are told by Louis, in a way we see them from the perspective of the entire town. They are those stories told over and over at the kitchen table, in the supermarket line, in the beauty salon and after Sunday service. So often that they become the stuff of legend.
2. Baltasar and Blimunda (Memorial do Convento) by José Saramago (Portugal)
I think I’m not exaggerating when I say that Baltasar and Blimunda is the most popular book by Saramago in his home country, so when he jumped borders it surprised me how rarely it’s mentioned. I’ve discussed this phenomenon with some friends and the only reason we can come up with is that, unlike Blindness, The Double or All the Names, Baltasar and Blimunda is very… Portuguese. Its political and religious message, although not unique, can better be appreciated if you know something of Portuguese history and psyche.
It’s the 18th century, and the Inquisition strengthens its grip on Portugal as gold and diamonds pour in from Brasil and other colonies. The book starts when King John V dutifully visits his Queen to try for an heir. He promises God that if he succeeds he’ll build a magnificent Monastery, and that’s the start of what will become the Mafra National Palace. Baltasar and Blimunda is the story of the construction of the Palace and Saramago takes us on an intimate journey through the Nobility and Clergy who funded it, the engineers who design it, and the lower classes who actual build it.
It’s an historical novel with the social and religious criticism Saramago is famous for, but he still managed to create what’s still one of my favorite love stories of all time.
3. Captains of the Sands (Capitães da Areia) by Jorge Amado (Brazil)
A classic of Brazilian literature which doesn’t seem very popular outside the Portuguese-speaking world and Latin America. I remember it for its emotional punch and my first encounter with a world that is not all black and white. I probably read it a bit too early in life and I clearly remember how it heart-broken I was.
“Captains of the Sands” is a gang of abandoned children living in the streets of Bahia in the 30s. They’re between seven to fifteen years old and survive by stealing and coning. Think Lord of the Flies meets City of God meets Peter Pan. It’s a book that surprised me by the amount of topics it approaches: poverty, social injustice, parenthood, sexuality, gender equality, African culture in Brazil. Read it and fall in love with Pedro Bala, the leader, Professor, the book-lover and artist, and Dora, the Wendy-like figure of the gang. There’s also a movie adaptation. Here’s the trailer.
4. Cities of the Fantastic (Les Cités Obscures) by François Schuiten (art) and Benoît Peeters (story) (Belgium)
These are a series of books started in the 80s that have reached cult status, at least in the Franco-Belgian graphic novels world. Schuiten in particular is so well liked here in Belgium that he got to design his own Steampunk metro station.
The Cities of the Fantastic are an imaginary world where humans live in independent (sometimes isolated) city-states, each with a distinct civilization and architectural style.
There are passages between our world and the Cities (the Obscure Passages), sometimes crossed by people on both sides. Jules Verne, for instance, is a frequent visitor. Most Passages are found in buildings and constructions similar or identical in both words, such as Art Nouveau master-piece Maison Autrique. You can even read reports (complete with photos) of crossings in websites like the Office to the Obscure Passages or The Web of the Obscure Cities.
The series and its spin-offs offer beautiful art with a solid world-building. Pure, unadulterated escapism.
5. Citizen Dog by Mark O’Hare (USA)
It ran between 1995 and 2001 and it’s about the life of Mel and his dog Fergus. Call me a biased dog-person, but I love that in Citizen Dog cats are (for once!) not portrayed as the sharpest knives in the drawer. Maybe that’s the source of discrimination? 😉
I always get a good laugh out of Citizen Dog books, no matter how often I read them. The lines between master and dog are usually blured and often switched, but somehow Fergus is more lovable than other rebels, like Garfield. Anyone out there also a fan?
6. The King Amaz’d (Crónica del rey pasmado) by Gonzalo Torrente Ballester (Spain)
Very short, but oh-so-delightful.
After sleeping with his best courtesan, young King Philip IV becomes obsessed with an idea. A simple idea, but one which will rock the Court, the Inquisition and the Kingdom: Philip wishes to see the Queen, his wife, naked.
This is the epitome of a hidden gem, a funny, clever and insightful satire about conformity and personal freedom.