Last night I had the pleasure of sipping one of the finest Cabernet Sauvignons I’ve ever tried. It wasn’t terribly expensive (less than $10 a bottle), yet its qualities surpass many which sell for far more. A person doesn’t often stumble upon a treasure like this, so needless to say, I’m going back to the store where I purchased the wine and stocking up on few more bottles. After all, it’s these sorts of unexpected surprises that help make life interesting.
The same could be said of certain books I’ve encountered over the years. While it’s never a waste to familiarize yourself with “the classics” or other novels that are regarded as important or noteworthy, some of the best books I’ve read (and ones that I often go back to and reread simply for the pleasure of experiencing the stories once again) would be considered by many readers to be rather obscure. Here a few of my favorites:
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. Garner is a superb fantasy writer who remains somewhat unknown and underrated in the United States. In many ways, this novel foreshadows the blend of fantasy and reality that J.K. Rowling made famous in the Harry Potter series. I picked up The Weirdstone… on a whim back in high school (I had just read The Lord of the Rings and thought the picture of the wizard on the cover was cool), and since then, I’ve read every Garner book I could find, including the sequel, The Moon of Gomrath. Elidor is another great Garner novel, as is The Owl Service.
The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic. Here’s a novel I read for a college class on American Realism. If I ever go back and work on a PhD., I will do my dissertation on Frederic. Read this book and you’ll realize that, although times have changed, clergymen never do; truly, there are no new temptations under the sun. Frederic’s writing has all the gritty realism of a Stephen Crane with a touch of Mark Twain-esque humor thrown in to keep the story lively. Fans of classic American literature will enjoy this one.
The Good Men: A Novel of Heresy by Charmaine Craig. Based on an actual court case in medieval France involving a religious sect who claimed that human desires are innately evil, here’s a novel which transports the reader into a world marked by superstitions and inquisitions. Period details and religious questioning bring characters to life who are profoundly (and disturbingly) human. It’s a must read for lovers of historical fiction.
Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike. Ever wonder what prompted Claudius to murder his older brother and thus acquire both his former sister-in-law and the throne of Demark? Updike imagines a prequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet which brings new life and insight into some of the Bard’s most famous tragic characters.
Black Robe by Brian Moore. While many novels immerse readers in different times and places, this one does it superbly. A seventeenth century Jesuit missionary is sent to the New World to convert the natives to Christianity. In the end, it is the priest who is transformed. The 1991 film version of the book is worth a look, too, as is Moore’s novella, Catholics (one of David Foster Wallace’s favorite books).
These are but a handful of my favorite—albeit obscure—literary treasures. What are yours?