An Experimental or Unusual Book: Picks for the TPL Reading Challenge 2020

November 20, 2020 | M. Elwood

Comments (2)


For me this category is both intimidating and exhilarating. There are so many possibilities and I'm scared of most of them. I worry that I'm not smart enough to understand them. Like most readers I have specific likes and dislikes. I like stories; I hate stream of consciousness. Quirky books are good as long as the unconventional elements don't overwhelm the plot. 

Besides, what exactly is an experimental or unusual book? A quick look online reveals that there is no universally accepted definition. Northwood is a short novel that combines prose and poetry. Its author Maryse Meijer says she describes her book as experimental so that readers will not expect a traditional narrative. She defines experimental writing as "part of a long-standing, well-established tradition of literature that pushes boundaries of genre and form". Although Meijer was referring to fiction, the definition can also be applied to non-fiction books. 

Looking for books that "push boundaries of genre and form" provides a lot of options for this category. 

My choice is:

Cover image of The subsidiary

The Subsidiary by Matías Celedón

This one ticks a lot of my boxes. I love workplace fiction especially the ones told through work documents, emails and memos. The Subsidiary is narrated by an employee whose job is to rubber stamp documents in the subsidiary of a large corporation. One day the office building loses power, doors lock, computers and phones stop working. Employees are told to remain at their desks while conditions deteriorate. The narrator uses his rubber stamps to document the experience. There are some pretty dark elements in this book and it may not appeal to everyone. 


Staff Recommendations

These books were picked by our staff for the experimental or unusual book category.

Cover image of Blindness

Blindness by José Saramago

Along with the story of a plague of blindness, be prepared an interesting format. The paragraphs are long. The sentences are long. Some pages are filled with completely text and little white space. There are commas and periods, but nothing else, there aren't even any quotation marks to show dialogue. Don't get me wrong, this book is great. One review I read about this book says the author experiments with rhythm, pace and timbre and believes punctuation only gets in the way of his experiment.

– Nalini, Senior Branch Head

Cover image of The call me Ishmael phone book : an interactive guide to life-changing books

The Call Me Ishmael Phone Book: An Interactive Guide to Life-Changing Books by Stephanie Kent and Logan Smalley

This quirky, replica phone book originally started as an online project by Logan Smalley and Steph Kent. The idea was that people could call a toll-free number to leave a voicemail about their favourite book and the impact it had on their life. Many, many people called and shared their reading experiences – and you can, too! This one is definitely for book lovers. To tie everything together nicely, be sure to dial extension 2829.

– Jennifer, Librarian

Cover image of A complicated kindness

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

Grammar goes out the window with this one. Told from the perspective of teen Naomi living in a Mennonite community who admits she is bad at writing and, in particular, she’s got a problem with endings. I find it sad and beautiful and that the lack of grammar makes for some really poetic passages. It’s one of my favorite reads, but I’ve also got a friend (a librarian) who can’t stand it because of the run-on sentences and lack of punctuation.

– Halina, Public Service Assistant

Cover image of Eunoia

Eunoia by Christian Bök

Here's a blurb from Wikipedia: "Eunoia is an anthology of univocalics. Each chapter is written using words limited to a single vowel, producing sentences like: "Hassan can, at a handclap, call a vassal at hand and ask that all staff plan a bacchanal". The author believes "his book proves that each vowel has its own personality, and demonstrates the flexibility of the English language." Winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize. 

– Alyson, Senior Branch Head

Cover image of Here

Here by Richard McGuire

Here was one of the most intriguing graphic books I'd read in a while. Its unstructured narrative, sparse dialogue and non-chronological sequence of stationary tableaux might be a push or pull factor for you. One moment you're in the living room of a house, then in the next, you're transported either backward or forward in time, sometimes by thousands of years! So, the site where this house stands has a life that extends far across the geological and historical timeline. The story appears to be a visual treatise on the transience of life, the randomness of events, and both the impermanence and harmful effects of the Anthropocene. The cartoonist Richard McGuire had originally created a shorter version of Here as a strip for the magazine RAW. He also was the bassist in the NYC No-wave band, Liquid Liquid.

– Cameron, Digital Design Technician

Cover image of In the dream house : a memoir

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Is it a memoir? A long poem? A work of criticism? An essay collection? Something else? Yes. Machado deconstructs an abusive relationship through a different lens, in a different style, in every chapter. In so doing, she creates the framework for understanding queer domestic abuse that she lacked while living through it.

– Wendy, Digital Content Lead

Cover image of Just one damned thing after another

Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor. The St. Mary's Chronicles, Book 1

Welcome to St Mary's Institute of Historical research where history is investigated in contemporary time (don't call it time travel) and the most dangerous thing in the universe is a historian. This book defies being placed in a genre as its simultaneously historical, adventure, science fiction, humor, satire and several others categories. One thing I think is very well done with the series (this is book one) is that this history books record of events is never truly accurate. The true history is often far more nuanced than the history books say and of course the disaster magnets who works for St Mary's often find that out the hard way.

– Jenny, Librarian

Cover image of Lincoln in the bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

It’s set in the early days of the Civil War, in a cemetery in Georgetown, where Willie Lincoln, President Lincoln’s eleven-year old son, has recently been interred. Grief stricken, Lincoln visits the crypt to hold his son’s body. This sounds grim and sad, and it is, but while Lincoln is grieving over his son’s corpse the reader enters "the bardo", a kind of purgatory populated by a troop of bizarre ghosts. It can’t get much worse than being dead, right? Wrong! Some of the ghosts are scary. You’ll be worried about dead Willie Lincoln because of the company this innocent spirit is forced to keep! Weird, funny, surreal, inventive – I loved it. I highly recommend the audio book version, winner of the 2018 Audie Award for Audiobook of the year. A motley cast of 166 actors, musicians, authors (including David Sedaris, Nick Offerman, Ben Stiller, Don Cheadle, Lena Dunham) bring the story to life.

– Maureen, Librarian

Cover image of The luminaries

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Although the premise seems normal enough, the 1866 gold rush in New Zealand, this 848 page beast is filled with unsolved crimes, a hermit, astrology, hidden gold, (I know, keep going) a seance, a retired prostitute, opium, revenge killings and a love story. Did I mention it won the Man Booker in 2013 making Catton the youngest person to receive the award? Sit down, dig in and prepare to be... *shrugs shoulders*

– Reagan, Librarian

Cover image of The mezzanine

The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker

It's the story of a guy who rides an escalator from the bottom to the top, and it includes every memory and sensation that occurs to him on the way up. (If there are any philosophy of mind nerds here, it's like Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, only wayyyy funnier.)

– Wendy, Digital Content Lead

Cover image of Naked lunch

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

Talk about non-linear! You need a strong stomach and a hand firmly on your hat for this one. I listened to the audiobook, although I later found out that Burroughs didn't necessarily intend it to be read in traditional front-to-back fashion, which is probably better experienced in print.

– Kate, Librarian

Cover image of The parade

The Parade by Dave Eggers

Character development is well done in this book. The characters and the environment are very well portrayed. The action in the plot rises and rises again and basically reaches the climax on the last page. One example of how it is unusual is that the main characters don't have names, only numbers.

– Suzanne, Librarian

Cover image of Pride of Baghdad

Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan

It's a self-contained story about a pride of lions who are displaced after a zoo in Baghdad is bombed in 2003 by the US. I often describe this book to people as a "dark Lion King." It's a story about survival and provides interesting social commentary, using animals as metaphor, about the true meaning of liberation. As noted in the book description, the story asks: "Is it truly better to die free than to live life in captivity?" The story is stunningly illustrated by Nico Henrichon; be warned, there are haunting images in this book.

– Ab., Manager, Innovation

Cover image of Split tooth

Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq

I was absorbed by this one! The debut novel by Inuk composer and Polaris Prize-winning musician Taqaq tells the story of a young girl growing up in Nunavut in the 1970s. The book's structure is experimental: moving from from prose to poetry to traditional stories, including one poem in Inuinnaqtun – a dialect of the Inuit language Inuvialuktun – and illustrations by comics artist Jaime Hernandez. Taqaq's writing is fierce, beautiful and darkly funny at times, but make no mistake: she is calling out the violence at the heart of issues affecting Indigenous communities, from environmental degradation to economic disparity, abuse and rape.

– Sarah, Library Service Manager

Cover image of Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal : not exactly a memoir

Textbook by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

This unconventional memoir is arranged into school subjects like Math and Social Studies and includes a fun, interactive texting component. This imaginative, heartfelt book has become all the more meaningful following Rosenthal's death in 2017.

– Jennifer, Librarian

Cover image of These ghosts are family

These Ghosts are Family by Maisy Card

It's a short story collection that tells the story of a single family at different generations. The book starts with the man Abel Paisley and how he steals his friend's identity when emigrating from Jamaica to the USA. The story mostly examines the inter generational trauma that both led to the decision and influenced his family afterwards. It isn't in chronological order and deals with the concept of spirits, descendants and Jamaican folklore.

– Des'Ree, Public Service Assistant

Cover image of This woman's work

This Woman's Work by Julie Delporte

This Woman's Work by Julie Delporte. This book is categorized as a graphic novel, but doesn't follow traditional conventions of the form (not a panel border in sight.) Delporte combines memoir with visual allusions to art and pop culture.

– Myrna, Librarian


Recommendations from the Facebook Group

These are just some of the recommendations from our Facebook TPL Reading Challenge 2020 discussion group.



We'll be having our final virtual Reading Challenge discussion for 2020 on Wednesday, December 16 at 4 pm. We'll be talking about the best books of the year. Everyone is welcome!

And if you've already completed the TPL Reading Challenge and Advanced Challenge 2020, please fill out our feedback survey. You can also enter our draw by submitting the titles you've read for a chance to win a prize!

What did you read for the experimental or unusual book category? Do you have other recommendations? Share in the comments below!