Some responses to a common question in this section of the Times:
By the Book
Writers on literature and the literary life.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
Southern California: An Island on the Land,” by Carey McWilliams. A history of how Los Angeles was marketed to the unsuspecting in the Midwest, and the various scandals and horrors the local scalawags visited upon them when they arrived, as well as crimes against minorities and the land. Published in 1946.
Harry Mathews’s “Cigarettes.” The only American-born member of the experimental confederacy Oulipo, Mathews often wrote about shattering conventions, and thus his work can be somewhat uneven. But in “Cigarettes” he gives us a sly, inventive and entertaining novel which is a racy investigation of midcentury New York society.
“Kings Row,” by Henry Bellamann. It’s so terribly sad to me that Bellamann’s novels have been all but forgotten today. I regard this as a lost American classic. It was a great success upon its release and made into a film that featured a young Ronald Reagan. I discovered it after stumbling across the film, and then I rushed out to obtain a copy of the novel. It’s such a rich exploration of how we survive in a world full of ugliness, loneliness and suffering. As soon as I finished it, I went right to Amazon and posted a five-star review.
“Earthly Days,” by Jose Revueltas (1949), an amazing, modernist, brutally honest novel about the Communist Party’s attempt to radicalize peasants in Mexico. A cult classic in Mexico, but just recently issued here in Matthew Gleeson’s fine translation by Archive 48.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
“The Land at the End of the World,” by António Lobo Antunes, beautifully translated by Margaret Jull Costa. This novel about an old man reflecting on his experiences as a young medic in Portugal’s colonial war in Angola was my touchstone while I wrote “The Sympathizer.”
Simon Gray’s four-volume “The Complete Smoking Diaries,” which consists of “The Smoking Diaries,” “The Year of the Jouncer,” “The Last Cigarette” and “Coda” (the last being one of the most virtuosic and heartbreaking books ever written). The tetralogy is much admired in England but virtually unknown in America.