The Book You Love that No One Else Has Heard of

I’m honestly not sure why the book Moscow to the End of the Line warrants blank stares when I mention it’s one of my favorite reads.

Perhaps it’s because, like many novels penned during political upheavals, it was censored for some time. It was passed around the Soviet Union only through grassroots reprinting until 1987, despite its being written in 1969 by Venedikt Erofeev.

But it was largely hailed as a masterpiece in other parts of Europe where it was printed earlier. Although today it’s garnered serious acclaim and is fairly accessible, it seems to have missed the book reading lexicon, which in my opinion, is a big shame.

The book is a Russian masterpiece. It’s a semi-autobiographical look into Russian society through a postmodern lens, one that is rife with irreverent (and alcohol-soaked) humor. I’ve seen it listed as a prose poem, a novella and a novel, and whichever it might actually be, the takeaway here is that unlike the grandiose prototype of a Russian classic, this one is pretty short.

Moscow to the End of the Line begins with the protagonist detailing his recent firing after he accidentally sends out handmade graphs that outline colleagues’ productivity contrasted with the amount of alcohol they’ve consumed. It is at once quirky, dark, and hilarious.

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The rest of the novel follows his thoughts and interactions with fellow Russians as he takes a train ride to Petushki, and the reader is taken on a journey back and forth from his immediate settings to the enormity of his social and political imaginings.

Like all good absurdity, it touches the nerve of something very real. And like all good period pieces, it touches on the larger, relatable scale of human nature and society. Through deeply moving and tragic meanderings of the mind, we see a portrait of a man reflecting on the culture at large and the human forces all men must grapple with.

It’s like taking a Russian Hunter S. Thompson, mixing him with Jonathan Franzen, and tossing in a pinch of Chekhov and Kafka just for good measure.

Dreamlike, drunken, hilarious, moving, my adjective list could go on and on. It’s not necessarily written in a mainstream style, but everyone I’ve forced this book upon has come back to me loving it. And since I gave it to both a diehard Harry Potter fan and an exclusive romance reader – and it earned praise from both – I have to take that as a sign that this book really is something rare.

Do you have a favorite book that no one else has heard of? C’mon, we know you do! Tell us in a comment! We’ll build a terrific list of little-known great reads.

About Kira Walton

Kira Walton

KIRA WALTON has been stalking books all her life as a college English teacher, bookseller, book club consultant, author, and editor.

  • Even though it won a Pulitzer, The Known World by Edward P. Jones is a book I rarely hear about from anyone. It was absolutely fantastic, and I just don’t know why it doesn’t get more exposure.

    And, of course, now I need to read this one.

    • Now I need to read THE KNOWN WORLD, too….

    • Candie

      I loved The Known World! Just told someone about it last week and got the blank stare- they’d never heard of it.

      • Yea! Isn’t it just the loveliest, most heartbreaking? I read it over three years ago, but I still think about it regularly.

      • Rachel Goldberg

        Oh gosh, my reading list is just growing and growing! I just looked it up and it seems incredible. How have I missed it?

    • Jenn and Candie, how cool that you’ve both read it!

  • booknaround

    Not entirely unknown because I have forced every book club I’ve ever been a part of to read it (and since we move a lot, that’s a fair few number of book clubs and their members) but I loved Silk by Alessandro Baricco.

  • Silver’s Reviews

    Owning Treasure by Joe and Laura Wilbur.

  • Marguerite B

    A Private Disgrace by Victoria Lincoln – an old book about Lizzie Borden. If you are from Fall River MA you know it; if not it is not very popular.

    • Rachel Goldberg

      I definitely remember seeing a History channel feature on her. I bet that’s a scary but fascinating read!

  • Carol Z

    Almost anything by Sinclair Lewis is unread now. I loved “Ann Vickers,” and no one I know has ever read it, or even heard of it.

  • valkyrie911

    The Duncton Wood series by William Horwood. Some people have equated it to Lord of the Rings, but with moles. Seriously, little blind rodents. It is the cult of Bracken and Rebecca.

  • Keddy Ann Outlaw

    I stumbled upon a copy of On Sarpy Creek, by Ira Stephens Nelson, at the library’s used book sale. It was in my pile of paperbacks saved for travel. And I was so glad to have it on hand last week when I flew to NY. Originally published by Little, Brown and Co. in 1938, it was republished by Riverbend Publishing and Book Editions in 2003. This is a true gem, similar in appeal to the literary offerings of Willa Cather, Conrad Richter and O. E. Rolvaag. Frontier land, pioneers, hardships, farming: I’m in.

    Meeting Case and Sareeny Gyler camped out under a cluster of cottonwoods, forty miles up Sarpy Creek in south-central Montana, I (like the character of Case) was “powerful worried.” His wife Sareeny was just about to give birth. At first I thought the time frame was in the 1800s but as I read on, it became clear the time was post-World War I. The couple had tried farming some hundred miles from their birthplace near Sarpy Creek, but had watched their crops “wither back to upturned soil.” In despair, they are moving back home. Their baby, a girl, lives, delivered by her daddy. Sareeny is glad to get back home to her mother, for they have a “silent bond of sympathy and understanding”. The drought the Gylers are fleeing from follows them home. The Great Depression settles in. We step into the lives of a small band of neighbors and kinfolk along Sarpy Creek, a tributary of Yellowstone River. Families are large, and troubles plenty. In plainspoken prose, their hard times are authentically told.

    There are some missing pieces as far as the life of the author goes. Ira Stephens Nelson may have slipped away into obscurity but for the efforts of publishers Scott Mainwaring and Bill Borneman at Riverbend. They found references to the novel in an old teacher’s journal, located a copy at the Montana Historical Society, read it, loved it, and reprinted it. In an afterword to their reprint, they offer the few facts known about the author. Nelson was born in Hominy, Oklahoma in 1909, educated in the country schools of Montana and at the Polytechnic Institute in Billings. He was a wanderer and had many different jobs: night nurse an insane asylum, typist, truck driver, living all over the West, Canada and Mexico. On Sarpy Creek is his only novel, published when he was 29 or so. To me it reads like the novel of an older, more experienced writer. Said to have been working on an autobiography when he died in 1994 at a veteran’s hospital in Georgia, no literary works of any kind were found in his wake. So for the time being and perhaps forevermore, Ira Stephens Nelson was a one book wonder. How I wish there were more titles. I will be guarding my copy whole-heartedly, lending it only to those who have proved trustworthy in the past.

    If there be a book of life it is the human soul, and every long day of living is recorded there, building up and tearing down, putting and taking away, silently and ever so softly forming toward a final reckoning. – Chapter 11, p. 100, Ira Stephens Nelson, On Sarpy Creek.

    from my 1-13-09 blog post:

    • Montanareader

      I just stumbled on your blog about “On Sarpy Creek” by Ira Stephens Nelson. There are many of us in Montana who would agree with you that it is a lost gem. I first read it about 10 years ago after reading about it in a newspaper article by our state museum’s local historian. I’ve read it again since then, even more convinced it’s one of the best. Interestingly enough, there is a highway exit sign about 90 miles east of Billings that says Sarpy Creek. There is no town there and local people don’t really remember one being there. I think of the book every time we go by there.

  • Barbara

    The Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon. Loved it as a kid and when I got older and went to a library sale (where they cull out old books) I found the exact book I had read then and bought it. Made my heart happy. Love this book.

  • Angela Dudek

    Theophilus North, by Thornton Wilder. I’ve never met anyone else who has read it.

    • Em Maxwell

      I have! Years ago, as a teenager. I enjoyed it a lot!

  • Jodi

    One of my definite go-to books while I am in between reads or have a lot of time on my hands is The Autobiography of Henry VIII: with notes from his fool, Will Somers – The Novel by Maragret George. I have never known anyone else to have read it.

    • s.l. bookpusher

      I’m reading it. It’s sitting on my desk next to my bed at this very moment. (Admittedly, I’ve been reading it on and off for a long time, because I only read it when it’s _just_ what I want.) 🙂

  • techedtor

    Darn, I thougt I already responded to this.
    I love two books that I never hear about. One is TOBY’S ROOM by Pat Barker, and the other is ONE MORE RIVER by Mary Glickman.

  • wrybroad

    Farewell, Dorothy Parker where a writer channels Dorothy Parker. Hilarious!

  • God, Moscow to the End of the Line is a wondrous work, visceral enough to give its reader a secondhand drunk. Thanks for reminding me of it.

    Also: Jim Krusoe’s Iceland, Yuri Olesha’s Envy, and Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead.

  • Sandy Steckler

    I truly love the Ruth Chernock series by Kim Scott. I have read the first two and have the other ones but which I am going to read in September. The ebooks are 99 cents each now or you can get the set for a reduced price so the books are a real bargain! They are historical fiction and I get excited talking about them to people, they think I have lost my mind. So twisted with family matters, hearsay, drama, and conflict that I didn’t even think something like this transpired back in those days. I guess I have put off reading the rest of the series as I did not want it to end but the author tells me it just keeps getting better so I guess I better read them as the anticipation is driving me crazy. If you like historical fiction, drama, check out the reviews….it just might be something you’d enjoy.

  • Raquel

    The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a book I truely love but despite rave reviews, when I mention it, I get blank stares. This is a magical book that will captivate you. Read Amazon reader reviews to see how people who have discovered it reacted.

    • Shannon

      The Shadow of the Wind is one of my all-time favorites. Always with the blank stares. I feel I’ve recommended it countless times, all for naught. Sigh.

  • Bob Porter

    Roger’s Version by John Updike

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