Monday 17 February 2020

75 Excellent But Neglected Books

On Twitter I did a big thread of 75 unjustly forgotten or neglected books, so I thought I'd put the whole thing here to make it more easily accessible. Sorry the images are a bit mental: the idea of resizing 100 pictures makes me feel very tired.

1. LULU IN HOLLYWOOD: Louise Brooks - an actual worthwhile wonderfully written celebrity memoir in essays about being eaten alive by one famous role and the worlds of Jazz Age Hollywood and German Expressionism
2. YOU PLAY THE BLACK AND THE RED COMES UP: Richard Hallas - I would not have expected the creator of Lassie and two novels about a Yorkshireman who can fly to write this absolute blinder of a noir crime novel, but this is the world we live in. James M Cain via Thomas Pynchon.
3. A BOOK I VALUE: Samuel Taylor Coleridge - STC was the sort of disgusting savage who not only wrote in his books, he wrote in the books he'd borrowed from other people; fortunately he was a stone-cold genius with a mind that approached everything at interesting and odd angles

4. WOMAN'S WORLD: Graham Rawle - 1962-set story about gender and femininity, told entirely in words cut from 1950s women's magazines; very clever, funny and sad
5. HENRIETTA: Henrietta Moraes - fascinating memoirs of the incredibly involved life of artists' model (Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon) and inept cat-burglar; perfect portrait of dissipated mid-20th-Century London
6. 99 WAYS TO TELL A STORY: Matt Madden - takes Queneau's 'Exercises in Style' and extends it to comics, telling the same pointless anecdote in 99 different ways and visual styles
7. ORDINARY FAMILIES: E Arnot Robertson - the best of this decidedly variable writer's novels, a pretty much perfect 1930s girl-coming-of-age/eccentric-family/observations-of-nature book. Also, I believe it's the first English novel to acknowledge that women get periods.

8. SCAMP: Roland Camberton - decaying literary life in 1940s London, centred on a flailing "little magazine" and its unwise and doomed Jewish founder and editor. See also 'Rain on the Pavements', Camberton's only other novel, also excellent.

9. LION IN THE CELLAR: Pamela Branch - bleak, black comedy of murderers, excess corpses, run-down pubs and eccentrics in seedy bombed-out London. Sample page shown to give you a taste. Wonderful.
10. SATURNIN: Zdeněk Jirotka - what if a Czech version of Jeeves and Wooster, complete with overbearing aunt, except that Jeeves is a violent anarchist?
11. THE WALKING MAN - Jiro Taniguchi: the only manga I've ever unreservedly loved. A Japanese salaryman wanders the suburbs, sometimes with his wife, sometimes with his dog, and thinks thoughts. Beautifully rendered and observed.

12. THE COMMANDANT - Jessica Anderson: excellent comedy of manners and unease in colonial Brisbane. Imagine Jane Austen but everyone is nervous because all the servants are murderers, thieves and whores on good behaviour bonds.
13. ENGLISH AS SHE IS SPOKE: Pedro Carolino - a classic of linguistic abuse, a well-intentioned but incompetent 1850s Portuguese-English phrasebook hindered by the author's complete inability to speak English; samples⬇️

14. GENTS: Warwick Collins - surprisingly sweet short novel about 3 Jamaican immigrants to the UK who works as cleaners/attendants in a public toilet threatened with closure due to its high rates of cottaging (NB: contains unpleasant but common Jamaican views on homosexuality)

15. SPRING ESSENCE: Hồ Xuân Hương - brilliant collection of witty, perceptive and sometimes spectacularly rude work by 18/19th-Century Vietnamese poet; ignore the weirdly boobtastic cover presumably inspired by the fact she was, for a while, a concubine
I was told by someone that some of her poems, written in Nôm in a grid (see below) were written to be read laterally or longitudinally, giving entirely different meanings. THIS IS TOO COOL NOT TO BE TRUE!

16. THE LAST WINDOW-GIRAFFE: A PICTURE DICTIONARY FOR THE OVER FIVES: Péter Zilahy - wonderfully playful sort-of memoir about growing up in Hungary and being in Serbia during the collapse of Yugoslavia, all in the form of an illustrated children's encyclopedia
17. A MONKEY AMONG CROCODILES: Brian Thomson - hilarious and sad biography of a deeply weird woman, a disastrously unlucky and odd Victorian bisexual compulsive litigant, memoirist and monkey-owner

18. A FOOLSIH VIRGIN: Ida Simons - piano-mad Jewish girl coming-of-age novel set in Jazz Age The Hague; unfussily stylish, beautifully perceptive

19. SCENES OF CHILDHOOD: Sylvia Townsend Warner - one of the greats, my love for STW knows no bounds. This collections of childhood memoirs is funny and beautifully perceptive and for any child who wore a sailor suit with the name of a ship-turned-Navy-venereal-disease-hospital.
20. BREWER'S ROGUES, VILLAINS & ECCENTRICS: William Donaldson - I've ranted about this book before, probably the only encyclopedia I've read from cover to cover. See this thread for why you need this book...

21. YOU CANNOT LIVE AS I HAVE LIVED AND NOT END UP LIKE THIS: Terence Blacker - tragicomic biography of a brilliant man (author of book 20, above) who thoroughly and hilariously pissed away his talents in an impressive number of creative and startling ways; also, best title ever?
22. MEDALLIONS: Zofia Nałkowska - tiny, utterly bleak masterpiece by Polish modernist; a collection of horrifying vignettes and anecdotes drawn from her work as a member of the commission investigating what had happened in Auschwitz

23. LOVE AND GYMNASTICS: Edmondo de Amicis - charming and comic late 19th-Century Italian novella about a middle-aged man who falls in love with a young female gymnast, and fails to get anywhere with her due to her being obsessed with gymnastics, and also probably gay.

24. MY WAR: István Szegedi Szüts - wordless "novel" in expressionistic pen/ink sketches, based on the author-artist's experiences in the Austro-Hungarian army in WW1.
25. CRIME NOVEL: Petri Tamminen - systematic, accomplished undermining of Scandi-noir, featuring a Finnish cop who thinks of police work as a kind of folk poetry, and his hunt for the Hämeenlinna humiliator, who subjects victims to unbearable embarrassment (Only pub'd as ebook)

26. A WRINKLE IN THE SKIN: John Christopher - classic British catastrophe novel in the Wyndham mode; global tectonic disaster reshapes the earth, with a lone survivor trekking across the suddenly drained seabed of the English Channel from Guernsey to the mainland.
27. ON THE SIDE OF THE ANGELS: Betty Miller - are you like me, with no Elizabeth Taylor left to read? Then this WW2 novel about a woman evacuated with her children will help fill that gaping wound. Unless, like me, you've read this too, in which case: despair.
28. STORM: George R Stewart - a novel in which the humans are just incidental characters: the "hero" is a massive storm sweeping across California, in all its different aspects. Unusual and beautifully done.
29. THE ANT HEAP: Margit Kaffka - imagine an earlier, less chilly, Hungarian forerunner of Fleur Jaeggy's autobiographical fictions; episodic novel set in the hothouse of a pre-WW1 Convent school
30. THE DAUGHTERS OF MULBERRY: Roger Longrigg - dark, spiky comedy about the modest, doomed financial hopes of an alcoholic old man and the misadventures they lead him into
31. THE EQUESTRIENNE: Uršuľa Kovalyk - brief, rich, bitter semi-comedy about girlhood, horse-obsession, smoking and trick riding in the 1980s Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.
32. WINGS: Mikhail Kuzmin - brilliant proto-modernist Russian novel from 1907, set in the gay bathhouses of St Petersburg and the Volga countryside. How Kuzmin, an openly gay man in both Tsarist and Communist Russia, lived until 1936 is a miracle.
33. THE GIRLHOOD OF SHAKESPEARE'S HEROINES: John Crowley - novella from a deeply underrated writer; summer camp, the 1950s, 'Henry V', youth, love, sex, no wasted words. Available as hideously expensive hardback, ugly ebook or in the excellent magazine Conjunctions #39.

34. OUTNUMBERING THE DEAD: Frederik Pohl - late-career flourishing from long-standing SF writer, about the last mortal facing his death in a future when everybody else will live forever. The novella the word "elegiac" was invented for.
35. SOFIA PETROVNA: Lydia Chukovskaya - how's your will to live? good? then read this excellent and utterly bleak 1930s-Soviet-era novel about a woman with happy faith in the state having all her illusions and hope stripped away after the arrest of her son
36. LIGHTNING ON THE SUN: Robert Bingham - Bingham wrote an excellent story collection and this amazing and dark, dark novel about drug smuggling from Cambodia to America, then died of an overdose before it was published. Abandon all hope before reading.
37. KEYNOTES & DISCORDS: George Egerton - splendid 'New Woman'/Fin de siècle short stories by Oscar Wilde/Aubrey Beardsley-affiliated Australian writer: I wrote more about her here:
38. TALES FROM HOLLYWOOD: Christopher Hampton - brilliant bittersweet play imagining a counterfactual life for Austro-Hungarian writer Ödön von Horváth (who died in 1938) among the numerous great European writers who fled to Hollywood from the Fascists

39. THE ISLAND IN THE MIND: Rodney Hall - Australia is weird in that the concept of it as a place (Terra Australis) existed in the minds of Europeans long before they ever "discovered" the place; this brilliant trilogy of historical novellas riffs cleverly on this weirdness
40: AFTER MAN: Dougal Dixon - strange, marvellous work of speculative biology; a naturalist's notebook from the Earth 50 million years after the extinction of humanity, looking at what might evolve from what we've done to the biosphere (hint: rodents do well)
41: BLACK WATER and WHITE FIRE: Alberto Manguel (Editor) - genuinely fantastic, in both senses, 2-volume, 2000p anthology of short stories, much of it translated, and much of that for the first time; nary a dud in there--see the contents pages below
42. THE WORLD IS ROUND: Louise Mack - little 1896 gem of a novella about a young Sydney woman determined to be a writer, despite being in the backward colonies--a proto-'My Brilliant Career'; like its heroine, Mack showed much early promise then faded from view
43. THE PALM-WINE DRINKARD AND HIS DEAD PALM-WINE TAPSTER IN THE DEADS' TOWN: Amos Tutuola - one of the most astonishing novels ever written, a perfect fusion of Nigerian folklore and "normal" life, where death is just a minor change in the main character's life's direction
44. WILD HARBOUR: Ian Macpherson - more heartbreaking stuff; 1936 novel about a young couple on the run in the Scottish hills from a global war of chemical and biological weaponry; I went on about it at more length here:
45. QUEER PEOPLE: Carroll & Garrett Graham - cheerfully amoral 1930 Hollywood novel, an energetically vulgar and offensive take on the world of the studio system, full of extraordinarily thinly disguised versions of the real figures of the time; Anita Loos without the restraint
46. A TILER'S AFTERNOON: Lars Gustafsson - exactly what it says; a tiler turns up to do a few hours of work on a half-renovated house, thinks thoughts, daydreams, and makes a big cock-up. Quietly, unobtrusively excellent.
47. ENCOUNTERS WITH LISE: Leonid Dobychin - pretty much the complete stories of a splendid Latvian/Russian writer who (probably) killed himself in 1936. If the idea of a sort of Soviet 'Dubliners' appeals to you, AND IT SHOULD, then you should read this book.

48. THE TOWER OF LONDON: Natsume Sōseki - would you like to read the travel writings of a miserable Japanese genius in London circa 1900? If not, I don't know that we can be friends any more.

49. THE ABSOLUTE AT LARGE: Karel Čapek - so if the Animists are right and everything is alive with spirits, what happens when you split the atom? Good-humoured and absurdist 1922 Czech piss-take on industrialisation, commerce, science and society in general.

50. OBELISK: Neil Pearson - the most entertaining lit history/bibliography ever published, about the bizarre story of Jack Kahane, whose Paris-based Obelisk Press published both groundbreaking modernist high literature and scuzzy porn

51. THE BEAUTIFUL MRS SEIDENMAN: Andrzej Szczypiorski -- brilliant cross-section of intersecting lives set into chaos by the arrest of an Aryan-looking Jewish woman by the Gestapo in Warsaw, telescoping backwards & forwards in time. Just read the bit⬇️ about the death of a Nazi:
52. RONDO: Kazimierz Brandys -- more Polish wonderfulness with this rambling, beautiful novel in the form of the extensive self-justification of a Resistance fighter whose only ended up in the Resistance as part of a dementedly elaborate plan to impress a girl
53. THE TATTERED CLOAK: Nina Berberova -- Russian emigre writer based in Paris, author of tragicomic stories of both pre-Revolutionary Russian society and exiles on the make in France. This collection of 6 of her novellas will start your addiction.
54. THE KING AMAZ'D: Gonzalo Torrente Ballester -- the Spanish king wants to see his wife naked; a giant serpent is lose in the land, witches fly through the night sky, and Satan has entertaining chats with a priest. Odd, but pure enjoyment.
55. COMEDY IN A MINOR KEY: Hans Keilson -- a Dutch couple resist the Nazis by hiding a Jewish man in their home, but then he dies, and they have to dispose of his body without giving themselves away. Brilliant and dark novella by active member of the Dutch Resistance.
(I'm aware I just keep saying everything's wonderful, but YOU try raving eruditely with hardly any characters when these buggers all have long names or book titles.) 

56. AKHENATEN: Dorothy Porter -- late Australian poet Porter wrote a number of fine verse novels, but this is the least known; a vividly peculiar portrait of the vividly peculiar heretical Pharaoh who tried to reshape Egyptian faith in his own vividly peculiar image.
57. CLASS PORN: genuinely funny feminist take on the usually blokey academic novel, where a betrayed woman takes literary revenge through pornography
58. HARPOLE & FOXBERROW GENERAL PUBLISHERS: J. L. Carr -- Carr's last novel, the semi-autobiographical tale of an underfunded small-town independent press pushed to breaking point by the demands of copyright libraries. You may need to be a publishing nerd to enjoy this. I am one.
59. THREE FINGERS: Rich Koslowski -- graphic novel in the form of a "where are they now?" documentary about the faded stars of animation's Golden Age, and the horrible truth behind why the all only have three fingers and have to wear white gloves...

60. FREEZING DOWN: Anders Bodelsen -- appropriately chilly Danish sociological science-fiction, about a man medically frozen in the 1970s and his increasingly difficult attempts to make sense of the futures he thaws out in, futures changed by the technology which saved his life.

61. DAMASCUS: Richard Beard -- fine underappreciated book by underappreciated author, timeslippy novel of a lengthy love affair, but every day of it just happens to take place on 1 Nov 1993; Oulipian use of nouns all taken from that day's edition of The Times.

62. LUCIE: Amelie Skram -- Norwegian feminist fin de siècle writer's anti-Pygmalion; wealthy lawyer tries to reform his actress mistress into a "suitable" wife.

63. PATRICK HAMILTON: Sean French -- French was once told by Faber & Faber that his biography of the great, deeply fucked up Hamilton had the worst sales of any book they could remember publishing; that's no reflection on the book itself, which is perceptive, wise and funny.

64. YELLOW STREET: Veza Canetti -- connected short stories of 1930s working-class Vienna, ironic in tone and capturing a lost world just before it fell into chaos and death; deserves to be as well known as her husband, Elias Canetti
65. THE BUSH SOLDIERS: John Hooker -- resolutely downbeat alternative history novel of a bunch of soldiers roaming the outback of an Australia overtaken by the Japanese in WW2; a kick in the teeth for a bunch of this country's stupid myths about itself

66. LOVE SONGS FROM THE MAN'YŌSHŪ: Illustrated by Masayuki Miyata -- excellent collection of 1250-year-old romantic/erotic poetry, improved even further by the intricate kiri-e scalpel-cut layered paper illustrations of Masayuki
67. OUR OWN SET: Ossip Schubin (Aloisia Kirschner) -- has a 19th-Century Austrian version of Edith Wharton been missing from your life so far? Be unfilfilled no longer!
(available free from

68. MESSALINA OF THE SUBURBS: EM Delafield -- justly famous for the 'Provincial Lady' books, Delafield wrote a lot of other great stuff, including this neglected, oddly comic take on the Thompson/Bywaters murder.
(also available free from


69. YOU CAN'T DO THAT TO SVOBODA: John Pen (Székely János) -- Hungarian black comedy of a Czech holy fool in a town overrun by Nazis who goes on a one-man war against the Reich for confiscating some of his money
(available free to some countries at…)
70. LET ME TELL YOU: Paul Griffiths -- affecting, cunning and stylistically unique novel from the point of view of Ophelia from 'Hamlet', using ONLY the vocabulary made up of the words spoken by her in the text of the play

71. SENS: Marc-Antoine Mathieu -- beautifully rendered, dizzyingly clever monochrome wordless graphic novel of a man in a trenchcoat navigating a mutable, weird and arrow-covered space. There's nothing else quite like it.
72. LAMENT IN THE NIGHT: Shōson Nagahara -- two absolutely excellent dark noirish novellas by Jazz Age Japanese writer living in California, only recently published in English for the first time. Splendid.
73. THE AMOUNT TO CARRY: Carter Scholz -- a rare case of a writer who doesn't write nearly enough, Scholz works a strange seam of SF/literary prose that I can't praise highly enough. This collects MOST of his short fiction. Also seek out the heartbreaking SF novella 'Gypsy'.
74. CASANOVA'S RETURN TO VENICE: Arthur Schnitzler -- maybe my favourite novella? Homesick exiled polymath pants-man Casanova fights a duel. One of the best books by one of the best writers ever.
75. HISTORY OF MY LIFE: Giacomo Casanova -- and speaking of which, how about the most interesting autobiography ever written, all 12 volumes of it. Casanova did everything and went everywhere and got in trouble with everyone and the man could also write. What else do you want?
We might finish there. 75 books is probably enough to be going on with for now.