Booking Through Thursday: Most unusual book

What was the most unusual (for you) book you ever read? Either because the book itself was completely from out in left field somewhere, or was a genre you never read, or was the only book available on a long flight… whatever? What (not counting school textbooks, though literature read for classes counts) was furthest outside your usual comfort zone/familiar territory?

And, did you like it? Did it stretch your boundaries? Did you shut it with a shudder the instant you were done? Did it make you think? Have nightmares? Kick off a new obsession?

Two relatively recent books quickly come to mind — Robert Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

Bolaño makes the list because his book is a collection of biographical sketches of fictional fascist writers in North, Central and South America and their literary styles. I certainly didn’t shut the book with horror but, as I said in my review, I guess “I just don’t get it.” I know his massive 2666, set for release in November, is highly anticipated but my experience with Nazi Literature and the nearly 1,000 pages in 2666 will likely keep me away.

Cloud Atlas makes the list for the opposite reason. As I said in my review, it is “a novel perhaps unlike any other I’ve read.” It contains six separate but loosely related stories in different genres whose settings range in time from the 1850s to a post-apocalyptic world. What makes it so unusual is that narrative is like nested Russian dolls. With the exception of the last story, each story stops abruptly and we go to the first half of the next story. The pattern is then reversed so that each story is picked up where it left off and the story that opens the first chapter concludes in the last chapter. Yet this device (which some consider a gimmick) simply adds to what would otherwise be an excellent book as Mitchell does a wonderful job handling a variety of genres.

From the standpoint of a genre never (or rarely) read, I have to mention two books that helped create a new obsession. In June 2007 I happened to read The SFWA European Hall of Fame: Sixteen Contemporary Masterpieces of Science Fiction from the Continent and Literature from the “Axis of Evil”: Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Other Enemy Nations in succession. The two collections of works originally written in a language other than English truly brought home just what great writing is out there that I was missing. Since then, I have had and continue to thoroughly enjoy a passion for foreign literature, having read 20 this year alone.

People are obscenities.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

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