UNDERAPPRECIATED IN 2002*

BRAVE BOOKS THAT MIGHT HAVE ESCAPED YOUR NOTICE

*Some were released and lost at the end of 2001

Erasure
by Percival Everett
(Hyperion)
A savage attack on literary politics, book awards, book reviewing, American taste, and racisms both reverse and full-speed-ahead. One warning: the finale is, probably appropriately, almost unreadably bitter. An “experimental” novelist, Everett makes fun of himself, as he would just about have to, and has been in the shadows too long. This was supposed to be his breakout novel, one gathers. Alack…

Lightning Field
by Dana Spiotta
(Scribner)
Spiotta’s novel should be subtitled Sticky Tar Pits of Ambivalence, LA-Style. Her characters grapple with idea of self-perception, as it’s been altered by media saturation and the possibility of being “other than” with the help of plastic surgery, lifestyle stylists and internalized movie moments. Everyone’s running old celluloid prints in their head, and the result is a spooky, spreading anonymity.

Crow’s Eye View: The Infamy of Lee Sang, Korean Poet
Translated by Myong-hee Kim
(The Word Works)
Those who think Myung Mi Kim and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha are the last word in Korean-born textual innovation—and deep down, admit it: most of us do—should seek out this selection of circa 1930s head-scratchers. The most puzzling of the batch: “Poem No. 4” (“Symptom of the Patient’s Malady”), consisting almost entirely of an 11 by 11 grid, numbers moving from 1 to 0 (i.e., 10)—reversed as if seen in a mirror, and with an interlarding bullet describing a diagonal from upper left to lower right. Lee’s verse is chocked with neologisms, occasionally impenetrable, always fascinating.

Emporium
by Adam Johnson
(Viking)
An heir to the George Saunders Mantel of Apocalyptic Consumerism, Johnson writes stories with titles like “Teen Sniper” and “The Death Dealing Cassini Satellite.” He never lets his imagination squash his human side, admirably refusing to sacrifice emotionality for cleverness.

Tell Me: 30 Stories
by Mary Robison
(Counterpoint)
Comprised mostly of stories from her long-unavailable collections, Tell Me exhibits Robison’s sharp humor, her poetic sentences and the seeds of later novels. “The Help” introduces the same characters we later hear more about in Oh!; “Your Errant Mom,” reads like the mother of Robison’s breathtaking recent novel, Why Did I Ever. Two stories stand out as classics: “Pretty Ice” and “An Amateur’s Guide to the Night.”

The Contrarians
by Gary Sernovitz
(Henry Holt and Company)
In one of the best books written about business in years, a young Wall Street analyst goes on the record with a journalist; when the article appears, it puts his job, personal life and firm in peril (its Wall Street “source” is clearly and hilariously identifiable). The book’s portrait of late-1990s NYC is grotesquely dead-on; how The Contrarians failed to attract much notice in the Enron ’00s is inconceivable.

Jab
by Mark Halliday
(University of Chicago/Phoenix Poets series)
Adept at the standards (memory, Mallarmé, laundry), Halliday can shape observant riffs as addictive as pop songs—“Strawberry Milkshake” might be his cover of Jonathan Richman’s “Double Chocolate Malted.” Writing about writing can be a snooze, but Halliday does so with elegant wit—from a deft poke at the flip-flop capability of everyone’s personal opinion-making machine (“Say, / is he friends with Audrey Rosedorf / who writes those arrogant reviews in Muskmelon Quarterly?”) to a ludic look at a never-written poem.

The Impossibly
by Laird Hunt
(Coffee House)
Hunt is an intellect and a great spinner of claustrophobic noir plots, and his erudite gumshoe yarn owes as much to Georges Perec and Gertrude Stein as it does to Paul Auster.

Selected Stories
by Robert Walser
(New York Review Books)
People may already have heard that in the very temple of Delight, Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine, but melancholy and delight have never looked so nearly identical until one encounters these tales, long out of print.

Instant Karma
by Mark Swartz
(City Lights)
Protagonist David Felsenstein strives to produce a masterpiece. He browses the stacks of the Chicago Public Library, gathering quotes and ideas, obsessively footnoting his research on various topics, including anarchy. We read his journal, tracing his labyrinthine path through books and philosophies as he prepares to blow up the library that he loves. A contemporary and even tender Diary of a Madman.

The Balloonists
by Eula Biss
(Hanging Loose)
In the morally dubious, aesthetically risky, kind of great prelude, Biss crosscuts black-box transcripts with soundbites from family members, concerning her mother’s own thwarted artistic ambitions. The brief, intimate impressions that follow read like carefully selected diary entries; something like Renata Adler cool-neon fragments, as melancholy as they are wry.

Wavemaker II
by Mary Beth Hughes
(Atlantic Monthly)
Real-life homophobic gay lawyer and McCarthy crony Ray Cohn is the wobbly nucleus around which a New Jersey family’s future swirls. Will, the father, is jailed for refusing to testify against Cohn in a criminal case; his son has cancer; a daughter comes of age. In short: a family drama, a la Franzen, vulnerable to the whims of a self-interested, high-rolling attorney, who proves himself to be less monstrous, fictionally speaking, than the history books might lead you to believe.

The Cyclist
by Viken Berberian
(Simon and Schuster)
A smart, lyrical, and sensual story about a would-be terrorist with a passion for food and, by extension, life. Berberian is a risk-taker who allows his imagination free rein. Takes you inside the mind of an unusual and memorable character. It will also make you hungry.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl
by Phoebe Gloeckner
(Frog, Ltd.)
A very raw and affecting book, half-novel, half-comic book, about the adolescence of Minnie Goetze, a San Francisco teenager who has to learn about weak men, being used, and being strong. Familiar territory, but very different, and always fearless.

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