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What to read in April: A critic’s pick of books that aren’t on the bestseller list

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Flowering, sap-quickening April is the cruelest month for readers with yards and lawns. All that weeding and planting, mulching and mowing leaves one too exhausted for any but the most enthralling books — such as those in this springtime posy of favorite recent titles.

“The Madman’s Library,” by Edward Brooke-Hitching, tracks — to quote its subtitle — “the strangest books, manuscripts and other literary curiosities from history.” Strikingly illustrated, this beguiling volume from Chronicle Books ranges through time from an ancient Chinese oracle bone, carved between 1600 and 1050 B.C., to a Koran written in Saddam Hussein’s own blood, a truly bizarre project for which the Iraqi dictator allegedly donated 50 or more pints over the course of two years. The resulting manuscript, declares Brooke-Hitching, is “exquisitely beautiful.”

Still other sections of “The Madman’s Library” cover secret writing, books bound in human skin, occult grimoires, literary spoofs and the tantalizingly enigmatic Voynich Manuscript, written in an unknown tongue thought by some to be the language of angels or aliens.

Cheer yourself up with light comedies from another era

At first, the protagonist of Andrew Komarnyckyj’s “Ezra Slef: The Next Nobel Laureate in Literature” (Tartarus Press) might seem to be an actual madman. In fact, Humbert Botekin, Regius professor of postmodern literature at Balliol College at Oxford, is simply a ruthlessly ambitious, self-centered academic operator who bribes one senior professor with Joyce rarities, callously destroys the literary career of a former student, steals an unpublished manuscript from the great Russian writer Ezra Slef and swindles a former classmate out of nearly a million pounds. Botekin, we learn, regularly takes advice about his career and love life from a rather louche “man of the world” who calls himself Rensip De Narsckof. Squint a little at that peculiar name and, lo, the Prince of Darkness rises from the shadows.

Besides being a deliciously sardonic tale of reversals and comeuppance, “Ezra Slef” pays deft homage to Nabokov, Borges, Flann O’Brien and numerous other tricksy writers. It’s a joyful book, packed with surprises.

That last sentence could also describe “The Best of R.A. Lafferty,” edited by Jonathan Strahan (Tor Essentials), and “The Man Who Never Was,” the sixth volume of John Pelan’s Centipede Press edition of Lafferty’s complete short fiction. Otherwise unalike in their contents, both books reprint “Slow Tuesday Night,” a loopy tour-de-force that imagines human life conducted at light speed, and each opens with an affectionate, and different, introduction by Neil Gaiman, who reveres Lafferty’s gonzo genius. The “Best of” paperback also contains appreciations by, among others comparably eminent, Samuel R. Delany, Robert Silverberg, Connie Willis and Jeff VanderMeer.

One of fantastika’s most energetic and versatile talents, Darrell Schweitzer, has finally received the kind of sumptuous career retrospective that most writers can only dream about. In two princely volumes — “The Mysteries of the Faceless King” and “The Last Heretic,” introduced by Michael Swanwick and Paul Di Filippo, respectively — PS Publishing has assembled over 40 of Schweitzer’s favorite short stories, from the dark and Lovecraftian to the touching and oddball.

In the exuberant “Tom O’Bedlam’s Night Out,” poor Tom escapes from a medieval insane asylum, joins the King of the Fairies in his midnight revels and defeats Satan’s Nazgul-like champion in feudal combat. In “The Adventure of the Hanoverian Vampires,” Sherlock Holmes battles the Undead, assisted by a small cat. As the well-read Schweitzer unobtrusively acknowledges, he borrowed Sherlock’s alternate 19th-century Britain from Joan Aiken’s rumbustious Dido Twite novels.

When I find fiction too draining, I turn to books about books. They can be as thrilling as a whodunit.

While small publishers often produce beautiful books, few can match those from Swan River Press. Katharine Tynan’s “The Death Spancel and Others” is characteristically elegant, as well as an important work of literary recovery. Opening with a substantial, critically astute introduction by Peter Bell, the volume collects for the first time Tynan’s scattered tales of revenants, curses and ancient mysteries. In “The First Wife,” a widower’s second bride listens, night after night, for the swish-swish of an invisible silk dress; in the title story, a housemaid uses a demonic strip of skin from a corpse to render a young nobleman her slave. Above all, whatever her theme, Tynan’s lovely, musical sentences carry a hint of Irish mist and melancholy.

The Analog Sea Review” is a biannual arts-and-letters journal, concentrating on short essays and interviews. A hardback, print-only publication, it strongly opposes Internet culture and operates entirely offline, so that one must either find it and related publications in a real bookshop or write for the company’s stock list in Austin. Doing so is worth the trouble. In the Review’s recent third number, you can sample Leonard Bernstein’s memories of Glenn Gould, followed by the Canadian pianist’s own idiosyncratic reflections on the idea of North. And those are just two out of more than 60 pieces. If I had an actual guest room, “The Analog Sea Review” would be on its nightstand.

So would “Dog-Eared” (Basic Books), a revelatory treasury of “poems about humanity’s best friend,” compiled by Duncan Wu, a professor of literature at Georgetown University. Fidelity, cheerfulness, heart, unquestioned love — these canine virtues have been admired by poets from Homer onward, though Alexander Pope is typically cutting in his epigrammatic inscription for a royal pet’s collar: “I am his Highness’s dog at Kew;/ Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?” Profits from the sale of “Dog-Eared” will be shared between the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the American Fox Terrier Rescue.

To close, let me recommend a new series for the 8- to 12-year-old set: “The Cookie Chronicles” (Knopf), written by Matthew Swanson and abundantly illustrated by Robbi Behr. In the first book, “Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Doom,” our young hero decides to follow the advice of a fortune cookie: “Live each day as if it were your last.” Mishaps and hilarity ensue, as one might expect from the gifted couple who, early in their careers, gave us that immortal classic, “The Baby Is Disappointing.”

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

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