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One hit wonders

May 14, 2011

My last book post listed the writers I find perfect–those who never wrote a bad sentence. Egregiously, I forgot to mention E. B. White, who never even wrote a fair-to-middling sentence, in my opinion. And then I started thinking about writers who wrote one perfect (or thrilling, or fabulously entertaining) book, and then flopped. (Perhaps flopped is a bit too harsh. After all, you don’t see me writing novel after novel after novel. Or even novel, for that matter. Still, I want the writers I love to keep on writing things I love, not to veer off in unexpected, unsatisfying directions.)

Every writer has his or her high points, of course. I’d put Anna Karenina above War and Peace, Absalom, Absalom! above everything Faulkner wrote, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter above The Member of the Wedding, and Lolita above all of Nabokov if I were being stretched on the rack and forced to choose. (Oh, god, even Pnin? Even Ada? Really? Oh, all right.) I could spend all day ranking other peoples’ books. It’s certainly more diverting than attempting to write one’s own.

I’m putting Amazon links to the titles at the end of the post–if you click through and buy (either the books or something else entirely) a few pennies land in my buy-more-books-per-your-suggestions fund. But, given the choice, I’d much rather have your suggestions than Amazon’s money, so whether you click or not, please leave comments telling me your favorite books within this category. I’ll hustle right down to the library, pay my fines, make sure they take down the WANTED poster with my face on it, then check them out and read them one after another while collapsed in a happy pile on my beautiful, beautiful porch. It’s finally warm enough to sit out here, and to assuage my guilt at not listing the house (everything in town seems to be selling) I plan to spend the spring and summer in voluptuous, decadent orgies of porch reading. Won’t you please enable my torpor?

So, here are the books I love whose writers never wrote anything nearly as good, in no particular order.

Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger deservedly won the Booker Prize in 1992, and he has written at least a dozen other books, several of which I bought in giddy anticipation. None was nearly as good as Sacred Hunger, which was one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life. Loosely speaking, it’s about the slave trade, and I’ve had friends rail at it for different reasons (Sentimentality! Brutishness! A stupid ending! A brilliant ending–too brilliant!) Pay no attention and read it immediately. Unsworth has even written books about ancient Greece, which you would think would be right up my alley, but no. Sacred Hunger is the only book of his worth fooling with.

Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders is a book one gulps down the way one used to gulp books down when one was little. The first paragraphs describe a lovely autumn tableau in a remote village in northern England—the golden hay, the sweet smelling stacks of firewood, the harvest safely stored away for winter. Unfortunately, the village itself has been completely decimated: over half its inhabitants have died of bubonic plague in the previous year. That year is 1666, and Brooks’ imaginary village is based upon the real town of Eyam, which, once the plague struck, chose to quarantine itself completely in an effort to contain the infection. Be forewarned: this is not a book you want to pick up if you’ve got a houseful of kids down with the croup. Brooks won a Pulitzer Prize for her second novel, March, which–in my opinion–can’t hold a candle to her first. Then she wrote a book about an ancient manuscript that I was sure would be right up my alley. It wasn’t. Now she’s got a new one–I read about it in this weekend’s NY Times Book Review. I’ll read it–hope springs eternal–but I’m dubious.

Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Is this even fair? Shouldn’t we consider this Lowry’s only book, since it’s practically all he’s known for? Well, technically, no, since he published one other novel (Ultramarine, which I’ve started several times) during his lifetime, and several volumes of poetry and prose and whatnot after his death. He died very young, which won’t surprise you in the least if you read the book. Everyone is always saying how this is one of the greatest books of the twentieth century, which is enough to turn anyone off, and in fact was almost enough to turn me off. But I was stuck with only my parents’ bookshelf one summer, and resorted to their battered paperback Under the Volcano which I read, open-mouthed, straight through, and then stole, and read again and again till the cover came off and half the pages fell out. Lock the liquor cabinet, throw away the key, and plunge in. This book is that rare item–a masterpiece that lives up to the hype.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History earned Tartt, a brat-pack young writer who counted Bret Easton Ellis among her college chums, what was then the biggest advance ever paid for a first novel. I’d have paid her myself if I had the funds: the book is dark, dangerous, enthralling, gloriously suspenseful, well-written, deliciously pretentious, and absolutely mesmerizing from start to finish. Even more incredibly, it makes classics majors, the geekiest of all humanities students, seem glamorous and intriguing! How on earth did Tartt manage? (And why, may I ask, has no one made a movie? Don’t get me wrong–I’m delighted no hack director has fucked with my cherished, well-thumbed notion of what these alluring private school sickos looked and sounded and acted like. But Christ, was there ever a novel so poised for its closeup?)

Tartt made us wait ten goddamned years for her second book, which was (by comparison) terrible. I bought it in hardcover, figuring I couldn’t go wrong, and I want my money back.

The Ginger Tree, by Oswald Wynd, was apparently made into a BBC series, which is, I’m guessing, the reason it was re-released. My mother-in-law had the book lying around in her house, and I picked it up one day on a whim. I’ve since reread it about six times and pressed it on everyone I know. I suppose it isn’t fair of me to say that he’s a one-hit wonder, because I’ve never read (or even seen) any of his other books, and apparently there are several (look here, who knew?) I’m not even going to tell you what it’s about, because half the fun is coming to this unknown book, by this unknown author, pure of heart and blank of slate. Get it. Meanwhile I’m going to go read all his other books–what if they’re wonderful, too? I’ll let you know.

When I was a senior in college, Michael Ondaatje came for a semester as a visiting professor. This was pre-English Patient, so he was still relatively obscure, but a good friend of mine who went to McGill and took a bunch of Canadian Lit classes had been raving about him for years, and I’d read all his poetry and everything else by him I could get my hands on. I was dying to take his class. Unfortunately, I had put off many of the courses I needed to graduate until my final semester, and I was writing an honors thesis, and though I petitioned the registrar to let me take an illegal number of credits, they refused. So I went to Ondaatje and begged him to let me audit the class–I told him I’d do all the work, but I wasn’t allowed to enroll–and he very kindly said he was not permitting anyone to audit. Still, he shook my hand, and let me have the syllabus, so I bought all the books he was teaching and read them back to back.

Two of the books stand out, both because I’d never heard of the writers or the books, and because they were so unbelievably good. Precious Bane, by Mary Webb, is an undeservedly-forgotten novel set in Shropshire–it was first published in the twenties, and it’s simply amazing. The Lost Salt Gift of Blood is a collection of stories by Alistair MacLeod, a Nova Scotian. He’s written other stories, and a novel, which I’ve read, and maybe it was just the stunning first impression made by his first collection, or maybe I was starstruck by Ondaatje, but I do think his first collection is his best. As for Precious Bane, I confess I have not read Webb’s other novel, Gone to Earth. Webb died young, and when I discovered her (in those pre-Wikipedia days) it was harder to track down forgotten authors than it is now. So maybe she, too, has an entire body of work to look forward to. But for now, trust me–read Precious Bane. There’s no other book like it.

Yesterday I asked whether you would kindly post a comment if you would read me on another site, and I’m so grateful to you for obliging–if you haven’t yet, would you mind clicking on the last post and leaving your mark in the comment section, if you’re so inclined?

And here are the links:

Sacred Hunger

Year of Wonders

Under the Volcano

The Secret History

The Ginger Tree

Precious Bane

Lost Salt Gift of Blood, The

25 Comments leave one →
  1. Celeste permalink
    May 14, 2011 7:54 pm

    “Like Water For Chocolate”, Laura Esquivel.

    “How To Make An American Quilt”, Whitney Otto.

    “Snow Falling on Cedars”, David Guterson. To be fair, I enjoyed his non-fiction book on homeschooling, but none of his fiction has worked for me since.

    “The Deep End”, Joyce Maynard. I like her non-fiction articles in magazines, though.

    Very intriguing that Donna Tartt’s first book was good; I received her second book as a gift (in hardcover as well) and what a dog it is.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 14, 2011 9:39 pm

      Oh god her first book is SO good. Promise.

  2. jen permalink
    May 14, 2011 11:06 pm

    What a fun category. offhand, I think maybe Julia Glass — I really liked her first novel (Three Junes) and the ones since have just not been as satisfying. But not terrible. The Secret History completely stands up, I agree.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 15, 2011 12:39 am

      I totally agree about Julia Glass–Three Junes was outstanding, and the ones since were just okay. Perfect example!

  3. May 15, 2011 6:51 pm

    Oh, but try Julia Glass’s most recent novel, “The Widower’s Tale”–I think it is even better than The Three Junes.

    Other ideas in this category: Rachel Cusk’s “The Country Life”–her many novels that follow this just aren’t quite as good. Amitav Ghosh’s “The Shadow Lines”. Maybe David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas”, although I think he will write other books as wonderful eventually.

    And then there are those authors who wrote one excellent book and nothing since–like Arundhati Roy’s “God of Small Things”….

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 16, 2011 11:21 am

      Widower’s Tale–check. (I haven’t read that one.) I read something by Rachel Cusk and hated it, so never went to her other books–will also try The Country Life, because I’ve always felt vaguely that I SHOULD like Rachel Cusk…And yes, to both The Shadow Lines and God of Small Things…I’m sad I’ve already read them, I wish I had them still to look forward to….

      I need to read Cloud Atlas again.

    • Hawk permalink
      May 17, 2011 8:32 am

      Oooh, I’ve had Cloud Atlas on my GoodReads account forever marked to-read. I really need to upgrade the priority level on this one.

  4. Leigh permalink
    May 16, 2011 1:52 pm

    “Light Years” James Salter

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 16, 2011 3:50 pm

      That’s the good one? I’ve actually never read it, but have liked other Salter…oh dear.

  5. jana permalink
    May 16, 2011 10:10 pm

    “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson; I know she won the Pulizter for “Housekeeping”, but that one left me cold. Loved “Gilead” though. Just me?

    • almostclouds permalink
      May 19, 2011 12:10 pm

      My brother and I both loved Gilead. I read Housekeeping but I can’t remember it right now!

  6. May 16, 2011 11:16 pm

    I’ve always been fond of “Catch 22” and never liked any other Joseph Heller.

    And because you mentioned E.B. White I feel like sharing this quote of his I recently read that I like very much:

    “A library is a good place to go when you feel unhappy, for there, in a book, you may find encouragement and comfort. A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your question answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people—people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book,”- E.B. White, writing to the children of Troy, Michigan, congratulating them on their new library in 1971.

  7. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    May 17, 2011 1:22 pm

    What a great quote. I feel the same way about Catch 22, also….definitely a one-hit wonder.

  8. Erin permalink
    May 17, 2011 5:12 pm

    The Secret History: yes. Yes. A thousand times, yes.

    I feel as though Memoirs of a Geisha was a one hit wonder. I enjoyed it, and I don’t think the author ever wrote anything else.

    All The King’s Men. Did Robert Penn Warren write something else that good which I missed? I wanted to audit Wallace Fowlie’s All The Kings Men course in college (for reasons similar to yours) and was politely denied. I read the book anyway, along with the lecture notes my friend took and loved loved loved it.

    Beloved. (ducks)

    • almostclouds permalink
      May 19, 2011 12:07 pm

      I never finished Memoirs of a Geisha. It still sits on our shelves though. Will try again.

  9. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    May 17, 2011 8:45 pm

    I read and liked Memoirs of a Geisha, then I felt sullied afterwards. You know books like that? That you hate yourself for liking? I feel like there should be a whole list of THOSE.

    Penn Warren was mostly a poet. In fact he was the poet laureate when he wrote All The King’s Men…apparently he holed up in the little office in Washington and worked on prose during his tenure. I love that book beyond measure, but I feel like no one reads it any more.

    (I don’t really like Toni Morrison. Hiding under bed, covering head, abjectly apologizing. Though I somehow have not managed to read or be forced to read Beloved at all, and everyone says it’s her best.)

  10. almostclouds permalink
    May 19, 2011 10:29 am

    Maybe it’s because I am from the South, but I loved The Secret Life of Bees unreservedly when it first came out, and I would be hard pressed not to spit on anything else SMK ever wrote. Ever. The novels, the “essays,” all of it. Total crap. But not that one.

    Mary Dorial Russel’s The Sparrow was glorious, the rest were “eh.”

    I’m sure I have lots more, but I’ll have to return when my head aches less.

    • almostclouds permalink
      May 19, 2011 6:02 pm

      I just realized what a horrible thing I typed out thoughtlessly. Please forgive the rude and ungracious comment about the books of hers I dislike. That was an awful thing to say.

  11. almostclouds permalink
    May 19, 2011 10:31 am

    Aside: I do think it is completely charming that so many on your list of “one hit wonders” are authors you admit to having only read ONE of.

  12. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    May 19, 2011 10:52 am

    Only The Ginger Tree and Precious Bane! Though I did think of that and perhaps it’s not fair to include them. Maybe they are just the tip of an excellent iceberg of books. But I think with everyone else I ran the gamut from trying every other book (Unsworth) to at least trying ONE (Lowry).

    • almostclouds permalink
      May 19, 2011 12:00 pm

      True, true. It’s a great list. I can’t wait to pick them up.

      (Husband and I promised each other we would only buy 6 more books for the rest of the year… collectively. To save money. So I have to find my checkbook for the library too.)

  13. Cathy permalink
    May 20, 2011 9:25 pm

    Reading this reminded me of a related and wonderful documentary I saw five or ten years ago — it’s about the phenomenon of the one-book-wonder, writers who blow your mind and then just vanish. Here’s the official site — — perhaps it’s on netflix, too. I loved the movie but, funnily, the book at its center — something called “The Stones of Summer,” which ended up getting back in print thanks to the movie — left me cold. Anyway, it’s a great film about readerly passion.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 21, 2011 8:23 pm

      Oh, I remember this movie from when it came out! And I, like you, loved the movie but was disappointed in the book. Which then made me disappointed in the movie in kind of a circular way–like, Couldn’t you find a BETTER forgotten book? Thank you for reminding me….

  14. May 23, 2011 10:13 pm

    ada? i know and love pnin but ada?

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 24, 2011 1:44 pm

      I do love Ada, indeed. It’s a doorstopper, of course, and a bit pretentious at times, but Nabokov, of all people, has earned the right to be a bit pretentious, I think. But that’s just my very humble opinion.

      It’s funny, so much of what one loves (or dislikes) in a book has to do with the circumstances–I read Ada when I was blissfully happy, and I think some of that happiness rubbed off on its pages….

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