Our Favorite Writers Pick Their Favorite Obscure Books

Ah, summer! The time to kick back in the sun, sucking up both gin and tonics and intellectual stimulation. But why be the hundredth person on the beach getting sand in Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth or smudging Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion with SPF 45? Put some idiosyncrasy into your life, folks! To help guide you through the waters of the literary unknown, we asked a number of authors to name their favorite obscure book. Below, their replies, which we pass along as suggestions for your arcane summer reading.

Jennifer Egan
You Can't Live Forever, by Harold Q. Masur

In recommending the mystery novels of Harold Q. Masur—all, sadly, out of print—I can do no better than quote the first two paragraphs of You Can't Live Forever:

Wave hello to some curious lit picks.
Photograph of Angie Pontani and the World Famous Pontani Sisters at Union Hall by Amy Pierce. Styling by Daniel Opdahl.
Wave hello to some curious lit picks.

"It started with a summons, a brunette, and a Turk.

"The summons was in my pocket, the brunette was in trouble, and the Turk was dead."

In his savvy, stylish novels of the '40s and '50s, Masur manages to wink continuously at the detective genre even as he revels in it.
Egan is the author of The Keep.

John Banville
Some People, by Harold Nicolson

Nicolson was a diplomat, a politician, and a professional writer, married to Vita Sackville-West. Some People, first published in 1927, is a slyly oblique autobiography cast in the form of a series of apparently effortless, semi-fictional sketches of nine characters encountered by Nicolson at various points throughout his peripatetic and fascinating life. Nabokov told Nicolson's son, Nigel, that the prose style of Some People had been "like a drug" to him, and indeed, Some People is the very model for Speak, Memory. Nicolson's captivating little work, a masterpiece of color, keen observation, and laconic wit, deserves a new life.
Banville is author of The Sea.

Donna Tartt
Blood in the Parlor, by Dorothy Dunbar

My mother has had this book since I was a little girl, but no one else I know has ever heard of it, and it's almost impossible to find. Each of the 12 stories is an account of a 19th-century murder told with a light, macabre sense of humor. I'd love to see it back in print with illustrations by Edward Gorey.
Tartt is the author of The Secret History.

Rick Moody
Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, by Ben Watson

I really like books in which interpretation seems to be fused with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and this massive, 600-page analysis of the work of one of popular music's true iconoclasts certainly exhibits the full spectrum of symptoms. It manages to include Freudian, Marxian, even Derridean perspectives, while taking on both the well-known Zappa works as well as the tricky, somewhat indefensible later efforts.
Moody is the author of The Diviners.

Jonathan Ames
The Lunatic at Large, by J. Storer Clouston

It's wonderfully hilarious and the originator, I believe, of the word bonkers. I had someone write to the OED advancing my theory, but I'm not sure what's come of it.
Ames is the author of Wake Up, Sir!

Nathan Englander
Gob's Grief, by Chris Adrian

It's a Civil War novel. And a Walt Whitman novel. And a feminist novel. It's a dead-brother novel and a fantasy novel and a thousand other things. It's also deeply sincere. You can still hunt down copies online, and I highly recommend that you do.
Englander is the author of The Ministry of Special Cases.

Tom Bissell
Invasion of the Space Invaders, by Martin Amis

This is Amis's startling aria to stand-up console video games: Space Invaders, Missile Command, etc. He published it early in his career and has never allowed it back into print. This might be expected, given that in the book he blames the machines for his inability to find any girlfriends.
Bissell is the author of The Father of All Things.

Colum McCann
Fup, by Jim Dodge

The less said about it, the better.
McCann is the author of Dancer.

George Pelecanos
Hard Rain Falling, by Don Carpenter

Carpenter's masterpiece, long out of print, is the definitive juvenile-delinquency novel and a damning indictment of our justice system that is still relevant today.
Pelecanos is the author of The Night Gardener.

Susan Choi
The Wars, by Timothy Findley

To say it's one of the greatest books about the Great War ever written unfairly limits the scope of its greatness. It's a magnificent book. The fact that it's not in print in this country is simply bizarre.
Choi is the author of A Person of Interest.

Porochista Khakpour
Royal Stable Words, by Will Oldham

A beautiful blue-canvas-bound book—printed on an old treadle-driven letterpress—of select lyrics from Oldham and his many alter egos. To someone who doesn't even know the music, it's still an exquisite book of beautifully jagged free verse.
Khakpour is the author of Sons and OtherFlammable Objects.

Ned Vizzini
The Assistant, by Robert Walser

A hundred years ahead of its time in the drollness category—to ward off a debt collector, the main character tells him that he is "absolutely unavailable to speak with any person desiring to collect money." I think Walser will get canonized like Robert Bolaño soon.
Vizzini is the author of It's Kind of a Funny Story.

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