Reader Recommendations: Good Books in Cheap Covers

A few readers have contacted me to recommend neglected books by women writers for me to consider as part of my theme for this year, and some of the most interesting suggestions have in common the fact that they were all issued as cheap popular paperbacks, and a few as originals. So let me dive into my favorite section in the bookstore, those shelves full of paperbacks from the days before anyone had dreamed up the concept of trade editions.

The Legend of Blackjack Sam, by Lee Hoffman (1966)
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Bruce Durocher II wrote to recommend this, a comic Western from Lee Hoffman, who was better known as a science fiction writer, but who cut her teeth in the 1960s with a series of Western novels, both silly and serious. Her 1967 novel, The Valdez Horses, won the Spur Award as Best Western Novel from the Western Writers of America. Blackjack Sam, however, was inspired by Ace Books editor Donald Wollheim, who provided the title and left the rest up to her. Well, she started by expanding the title out to, “Being an Absolutely Accurate Account (More or Less) of the Violent Events leading up to the Notorious Showdown at the O’Shea Corral, involving Red Injuns, Proddy Gunslingers, Gambling Gents, Purty Gals and Sundry Other Citizens, and including for the First Time a Genuine Eyewitness Account of said Outrage by a Petrified Participant Therein.” That already gets us to page 3.

Hoffman gets off to a great start, with Sam coming at us through a bedroom window: “When I went out that window, I lost both buttons off the back-flap and there was a bad draft.” It soon becomes clear that if Sam is legendary for anything, it’s bad timing. Had Yiddish been popular on the frontier, he would have been easily recognized as a schlmiel. The Legend of Blackjack Sam is a fast, funny romp, full of wimmen and bushwhackers and old coots. I’m sure it gave some lonely traveling businessmen a good laugh as they sat up reading in some motel somewhere between Omaha and Alamagordo. And paid the rent for Hoffman, who went on to write several others with titles like The Truth About the Cannonball Kid.

Vice Avenged: A Moral Tale, by Lolah Burford (1971)
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Mary Halloran wrote to recommend Lolah Burford’s “revisionist” bodice-rippers, particularly her first, Vice Avenged: A Moral Tale. Burford dedicated the novel to one of the giants of the romance novel, Georgette Heyer, but cautioned that “Here is an eighteenth-century fairy tale, frankly unserious, frankly unrealistic, for a realistic, serious Age.” Frankly unrealistic indeed! It’s basically about a rake — a Mohock, to use a contemporary term from eighteenth century England — who rapes a young woman of good family on a bet and then suffers the consequences. He writes to her father, admitting what he’s done, and in return, Father makes him marry the girl and then has her brothers kidnap and take the groom off to a private imprisonment in France. After various adventures, the rake returns, takes up the girl and their young son, and all ends well. It’s rather arch and intentionally artificial, as if Burford wanted us to know all along that her tongue was set firmly in cheek. At the time it was published, it was considered rather good, but to me, it was neither fish nor fowl: not original enough to be truly memorable, not conventional enough to satisfy most serious romance novel fans. Burford wrote a number of books after, and from the looks of them, each moved a little closer to the standard elements of mainstream bodice-rippers.

Miss Bannister’s Girls, by Louise Tanner (1963)
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After the release of Eric Meyer’s Uncle Mame, I thought I was pretty up to speed on the circle of satirical books about New York’s society dames and denizens penned by Edward Everett Tanner II under the pseudonyms of Patrick Dennis and Virginia Rowans, but I didn’t know that his wife — a bona-fide dame herself — had written her own. Miss Bannister’s Girls is the group portrait of the class of 1940 from Miss Bannister’s School (basely on “Miss Chapin’s School for Girls and Kindergarten for Boys and Girls,” which Mrs. Tanner attended and which still operates today as the Chapin School). In spirit and approach, it’s very much the sorority sister to Harvey Smith’s The Gang’s All Here, which I mentioned here back in 2009: mocking its subjects from an insider’s perspective but without going so far as to lose friends. The pokes are gentle, none so hard as to leave a bruise.

It would be hard not to also draw a parallel with another group portrait of a class of privileged East Coast society girls, Mary McCarthy’s huge best-seller The Group. Like McCarthy, Louise Tanner was a Vassar grad (’44 to McCarthy’s ’33), but there the resemblance between their works ends. McCarthy loved not just to stick the knife into her subjects, but usually couldn’t resist giving it one last twist. And her girls are so darned earnest and serious there’s barely a smile to be found in the whole book. To be honest, to me it now seems painfully dated. In contrast, Miss Bannister’s Girls is still a hoot. McCarthy was considered daring for featuring a lesbian among her classmates. Tanner’s token gay is out there and loving it, living in a Connecticut farmhouse full of pictures of “big, splashy Negro girls stripped to the waist” and recovering from an injury suffered while playing Falstaff on stage. One of the cover blurbs on the Macfadden Books paperback edition says the book is “Dipped in the same acid bath” as McCarthy’s. If there’s any acid here, it’s lactic. Miss Bannister’s Girls is comic, coy, and completely charming.

Claret, Sandwiches and Sin, by Madelaine Duke (1964)
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Len Finch recommended this odd work by Madelaine Duke, who originally published it under the pseudonym Maxim Donne. It’s a satirical science fiction-cum-secret agent story, set in the distant future of 1979, in a world dominated by white, mostly European, and exclusively male, capitalists. While the boys play nation- and world-running, Mrs. Connie Munster and her ladies quietly — even graciously — go about arranging the assassinations of those in danger of taking the game a little too seriously. A wealthy philanthropist who goes around funding hospitals and opening children’s schools, Mrs. Munster manages to collect a Nobel Peace Prize while discussing the next hit with her ladies over, yes, claret and sandwiches.

I found it an intriguing but not particularly well-written book. Naturally, any dystopia set thirty-some years ago always has a certain retro charm about it, but the characters and plotting were just too stiff to bring out the comedy. The farce was false. But Duke herself seems more interesting than her book. Born in Switzerland and trained as a chemist, she somehow got involved with the Allied effort to round up German scientists after the end of World War Two, an experience she wrote about in her first book, Top Secret Mission (1954). She went on to write books about other spies, including Slipstream (1955), about her brother, Anthony Duke, who worked as a “false” double agent, and No Passport: the Story of Jan Felix (1957), about the work of S.O.E. agent “Captain Hilton” (Hans Felix Jeschke). She then turned to fiction, with novels with titles like Ride the Brooding Wind (1961), before taking a couple turns at science fiction. A few years after she turned out This Business of Bomfog (Bomfog stands for “Brotherhood-of-Man-Fatherhood-of-God”), which also took shots at the notion that the world was somehow better off with men in charge. After these flopped, she turned out a series of mystery novels featuring physician-turned detective Dr. Norah North, in which, in the words of one encyclopedia of mystery fiction, “Duke overloaded on plots and then had difficulty coordinating their conclusions.”

The Blue Chair, by Joyce Thompson (1977)
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This was recommended by pseudonymous emailer “greadership,” who called it “a dystopian novel that ranks with the best of Ursula Le Guin.” The Blue Chair was, somewhat unusually for that time (I can say this because I was regularly scouring the shelves for new paperbacks back then) as an original Avon paperback, and it was Thompson’s first book.

The story in The Blue Chair would probably resonate with readers now much more than it did when first published. It’s set in a world in which America is run by white people waited on by people of color from the Third World. Medical science has advanced to the point where immortality is possible, but to keep its possible complications from spiraling out of control, it’s also made available only to a selected portion of the population. Poet Eve Harmon is not eligible, since she had two children instead of one, but her son Jason is high enough in the power structure to bend the rules for her and her husband John is a senior researcher working on new ways to extend life. But Eve is not interested in fighting for that option. Instead, she spends her hours sitting in her comfy blue chair as her cancer spreads, allowing herself to pass in and out of a mental fog that takes her back through her life and relationships. The ironic message of the book is that Eve gains the greater satisfaction and joy from accepting the end of her life than do John or Jason from knowing theirs can go on forever.

Thompson continues to write today, most recently publishing Sailing My Shoe to Timbuktu: A Woman’s Adventurous Search for Family, Spirit, and Love, an autobiographical account of her development and movement away from the conventional life as housewife and mother for which she was raised. It’s also worth reading as comparison with The Blue Chair in that it deals with her own mother’s death after a struggle with Alzheimer’s.

As always, my thanks go out to those offering these suggestions and my invitation stands to anyone who wants to recommend some long-forgotten or underappreciated book or author.

Neglected Titles from Tillie Olsen’s Women’s Studies Newsletter Reading Lists

silencesWhen it was first published in 1978, Tillie Olsen’s Silences sparked a revolution in the recognition of the importance of the work of women writers in the canon of Western literature and the curriculum of its studies. Olsen attacked the many sources of discrimination that led to women writers representing “one out of twelve” works of mainstream fiction being published in the U.S. during the first three-fourths of the 20th century.

Included as an appendix to book are a set of four reading lists that Olsen published between 1972 and 1974 in Women’s Studies Newsletter, a publication of the Feminist Press. As described in Silences, “The lists represented the fruit of Olsen’s extensive reading and research in public libraries, where she discovered writing by women and working-class authors often out of print and not included in the literature curricula of the day. Olsen’s lists proved influential for the development both of women’s studies and of women’s publishing.”

One measure of this influence is the number of titles on her lists that have subsequently been reissued, often with extensive introductions, commentaries or annotations. Here, for example, are the novels recommended on her first list:

Over half of these titles were out of print when the list was first published. Now, the only one still out of print is Ethel Voynich’s Put Off Thy Shoes (1945), a historical novel set in late 18th century England featuring a strong heroine.

Particularly impressive is the number of books likely always to be considered minor, even if with the label “minor classic” or “minor masterpiece” (an oxymoron?), that have been much more widely recognized since the publication of Silences and are now in print and easily available. Examples include Katharine Butler Hathaway’s memoir, The Little Locksmith; Lore Segal’s Other People’s Houses; Barbara Probst Solomon’s pioneering novel about abortion, The Beat of Life; Growing Pains, Emily Carr’s memoir of struggling to progress as an artist against the workload of daily life; and Jo Sinclair’s novel The Changelings, an early novel of adolescent girls fighting to overcome racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism.

Still, a few titles off Olsen’s lists remain out of print and under-appreciated:

From Man to Man, by Olive Schreiner (1926)

Schreiner considered this novel of two sisters raised on a remote African farm her finest work, though it was unfinished at the time of her death in 1924 and only published posthumously. It was reissued some years ago as a Virago Modern Classic but is out of print once again.

Through Dooms of Love, by Maxine Kumin (1965)

In this first novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, a radicalized college student fights with her father, a pawnbroker she calls the “Merchant of Venice.” The story follows the two through the subsequent weekend, culminating in their coming together again in the father’s hospital room.

Southbound, by Barbara Tunnell Anderson (1949)

A novel about the struggles of the child of a white man and black woman to find opportunities and support for her own growth as an individual and artist. In her review of the book for Saturday Review, Catherine Meredith Brown wrote, “With sensitivity, observation, and embracing understanding, Southbound serves the cause of man’s humanity, and serves it well.”

Under Gemini, by Isabel Bolton (1966)

Back in 2011, I wrote this post about this delicate and heart-breaking memoir by Isabel Bolton of her early childhood and the loss of her identical twin sister in a swimming accident.

Grandmother Brown’s Hundred Years, 1827-1927, by Harriet Connor Brown (1929)

Harriet Connor Brown won the Atlantic Monthly prize for this story of her mother-in-law, who, with her husband, established a homestead in Ft. Madison, Iowa, and raised a family of seven children. Her story is told with recollections, letters, newspaper items, and provides one of the most vivid and personal accounts of life during the settlement and domestication of the Midwest.

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The Hill is Level, by Lenore Marshall (1959)

One of the first women to hold a place of influence in an American publishing house, Lenore Marshall helped get Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury published, and was an active campaigner against racism and nuclear weapons. The Saturday Review review of Marshall’s first novel opened with the question, “What would happen if a woman like Anna Karenina decided to stay with her husband and children rather than run off with a lover?”

Nerves: A Novel, by Blanche Boyd (1973)

One of the first novels with an open lesbian romance to be published by a mainstream fiction house.

A New England Girlhood, Nancy Hale (1958)

Hale, whose 1942 novel, The Prodigal Women, was one of the most successful works of serious fiction by a woman to follow Gone with the Wind, was the daughter of two painters with a Bostonian pedigree tracing back to the original Colonists. This memoir is both a fond and skeptical view of growing up in a Brahmin family.

Hide and Seek, by Jessamyn West (1973)

Subtitled “A Continuing Journey,” Hide and Seek is a collection of memories and meditations that come to West as she spends a few weeks camped out beside the Colorado River in a trailer (“Alone, alone! For those who relish it, a word sweeter than muscatel to a wino”).

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Proposal for Scribner’s Library

In April 1922, age 25, already with one best-seller (This Side of Paradise) to his name, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his publisher, Charles Scribner II, with a proposal for a series drawn from the firm’s backlist:

I am consumed by an idea and I can’t resist asking you about it. It’s probably a chestnut, but it might not have occurred to you before in just this form.

No doubt you know of the success that Boni and Liveright have made of their “Modern Library.” Within the last month, Doubleday Page & Company have withdrawn the titles that were theirs from Boni’s Modern Library and gone in on their own hook with a “Lambskin Library.” For this they have chosen so far about 18 titles from their past publications–some of them books of merit (Frank Norris and Conrad, for instance) and some of them trashy, but all books that at one time or another have been sensational either as popular successes or as possible contributions to American literature….

Now my idea is this: the Scribner Company have many more distinguished years of publishing behind them than Doubleday Page. They could produce a list twice as long of distinguished and memorable fiction and use no more than one book by each author–and it need not be the book by that author most in demand.

Take for instance Predestined and The House of Mirth. I do not know, but I imagine that those books are kept upstairs in most bookstores, and only obtained when some one is told of the work of Edith Wharton and Stephen French Whitman. They are almost as forgotten as the books of Frank Norris and Stephen Crane were five years ago, before Boni’s library began its career.

To be specific, I can imagine that a Scribner library containing the following titles and selling for something under a dollar would be an enormous success.

  • The House of Mirth (or Ethan Frome), by Edith Wharton
  • Predestined, by Stephen French Whitman
  • This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, by John Fox, Jr.
  • In Ole Kentucky, by Thomas Nelson Page
  • Sentimental Tommy, by J. M. Barrie
  • Some Civil War book by George Barr Cable
  • Some novel by Henry Van Dyke
  • Some novel by Jackson Gregory
  • Saint’s Progress, by John Glasworthy
  • The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith
  • Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Turn of the Scree, by Henry James
  • The Stolen Story (or The Frederic Carrolls), by Jesse Lynch Williams
  • The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederick
  • Soldiers of Fortune, by Richard Harding Davis
  • Some book by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews
  • Simple Souls, by John Hastings Turner

Doubtless a glance at your old catalogues would suggest two dozen others. I have not even mentioned less popular writers such as Burt and Katherine Gerould. Nor have I gone into the possibilities of such non-fiction as a volume of Roosevelt, a volume or Huneker, or a volume of Shane Leslie….

One more thing and this interminably long letter is done. It may seem to you that in many cases I have chosen novels whose sale still nets a steady revenue at $1.75–and that it would be unprofitable to use such property in this way. But I have used such titles not only to indicate my idea–Gallegher (which I believe is not in your subscription set of Davis) could be substituted for Soldiers of Fortune, The Wrong Box for Treasure Island, and so on in the case of Fox, Page and Barrie. The main idea is that the known titles in the series should “carry” the little known or forgotten. That is: from the little known writer you use his best novel, such as Predestined–and from the well-known writer you use his more obscure, such as Gallegher.

I apologize for imposing so upon your time, Mr. Scribner. I am merely morning that so many good or lively books are dead so soon, or only imperfectly kept alive in the cheap and severe impermanency of the A. L. Burt editions.

I am, sir,
Most sincerely,
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald’s list illustrates the vagaries of critical and popular opinions. Of the 18 titles and authors, one-third are solidly established classics, recognized in the American canon, taught and discussed, and filmed at least once. Another third are forgotten titles from authors certainly less well-known or -regarded now (Galsworthy, Harold Frederic, Richard Harding Davis) but still of at least historical interest.

And then we have the well-forgotten or (now) poorly-regarded. From a critical angle, Predestined probably best stands the test of time (I’m in the middle of reading it now, in fact). It was reissued as part of Southern Illinois University Press’ fine Lost American Fiction back in the 1970s, though it fell back out of print until companies started mining Project Gutenberg and other digital archives for over-priced direct-to-print editions. The soft-focus Christianity and sentimentalism of John L. Fox and Henry Van Dyke lost its prime readership within a decade or so of Fitzgerald’s list and may forever forward seem archaic. The name of Jackson Gregory came back to me from my distant past, when I spent many a Saturday in downtown Seattle, scouring the high stacks of Shorey’s Bookstore, which had a whole room devoted to novels from the turn of the (20th) century. Gregory might once have vied with Zane Grey as American’s leading writer of Westerns, but Grey’s work has managed to hold on into its second century. Jesse Lynch Williams’ name will stay in the books as the first winner of a Pulitzer Prize for drama (“Why Marry?” (1918)), but The Married Life of the Frederick Carrolls doesn’t even rate an entry in Goodreads or LibraryThing. And last and least-known, we have John Hastings Turner. His Simple Souls sounds like a dull version of the cliche story of nobleman rescues poor beauty, but I’m intrigued by the opening lines of his 1920 novel, A Place in the World:

There is a kind of man who appears to be fashioned in circles. His body is a collection of curves topped by a round and shining head. His soul is as round and polished as his body, with no mad and jagged comers to scarify society’s epidermis. Even his life is a circle, for, as a rule, he will die, as his temperate habits deserve, at a ripe old age, on the very threshhold of infancy once more.

Jay Jennings recommends the works of Gilbert Rogin

Author and journalist Jay Jennings wrote the other day to pass along his recommendation of the works of Gilbert Rogin, whose stories and novels were among the most wildly acclaimed in the 1960s and 1970s:

For years, a few friends and I worked to get the two great novels of Gilbert Rogin, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? and PREPARATIONS FOR THE ASCENT, back into print, and we finally succeeded in 2010 when they were reissued by Verse Chorus Press in one volume (Verse and Chorus link; Amazon link)

As I explain in the introduction, the novels are constructed mainly of stories that appeared in the New Yorker, which published 33 of them between 1963 and 1980, a number that puts him up there with Updike, Munro and Trevor. He won an award for literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1972, along with Thomas McGuane and Paula Fox, and the novels counted Updike, Joyce Carol Oates and Larry McMurtry among their fans. Most of all, Rogin is hilarious, in the same vein as but predating the smart, hyperobservant New York world of Seinfeld and Larry David.

My introduction originally appeared as an essay in the Lowbrow Reader here.

I really hate it when an author’s obituary provokes a resurgence of interest, and she or he is not able to enjoy it. I’m happy to report that Rogin is still alive, and I hope that more people will rediscover this fantastically original and funny writer, before we’re reading about his passing in the New York Times.

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Rogin, who spent most of his working days in the Time-Life building, as a staff writer, editor, and managing editor of most of the corporation’s biggest rags (People, Life, Fortune, Money , Vibe , and (his longest stint) Sports Illustrated, began publishing stories in the early 1960s. His first book, a collection of these early stories, The Fencing Master and Other Stories, was published by Random House in 1965.

His first novel, What Happens Next? (1971), was reviewed not once but twice in the New York Times. Anatole Broyard latched onto a word used in the book to describe Rogin’s outlook:

‘Velleities’ is a Gilbert Rogin word: I believe he is the only writer I’ve ever read who has used it. The dictionary defines velleity as “volition in its weakest form; a mere wish, unaccompanied by an effort to obtain it.” The poetry and the meaning of life, Mr. Rogin seems to suggest, lie not in its grand or heroic moments, but in its velleities. He may be right.

L. E. Sissman’s enthusiasm for the book shines throughout his review:

I think Gilbert Rogin has written a great novel, the first new one I’ve run across in quite some time.

… Moving in dozens of short movie takes from confrontation to soliloquoy to fantasy to dream, it shapes the whole history and predicament of its protagonist out of a solid, six-year block of time.

… Every scrap, every line, every joke is in the service of this artfully lifelike portrait of ourselves. Julian’s isolation, his anxieties, his guilt, his comical losses, his failure to establish belief in himself, are at once existential, contemporary ailments and part of the human estate.

Nine years later, Rogin published his second novel and last book, Preparations for the Ascent (1980). Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review, praising its “dour wit, persistent intelligence, rhetorical panache.”

Soon after this, however, Rogin suffered a writer’s block that’s lasted now for over thirty years. New Yorker editor Roger Angell rejected one of his stories, writing that he felt Rogin was “repeating himself.” In a feature piece in the New York Observer magazine, he told his former SI colleague, Franz Lidz:

That motherfucker literally demoralized me. Repeating myself? I repeated myself in all my stories. My entire life is repetition.

I was shattered… Maybe I knew I was all used up. Maybe I knew I’d exhausted the fiction vein. The idea had always been in the back of my mind. For whatever reason, after Roger voiced that opinion, I literally couldn’t write fiction again. Not a single word.

At last report, Rogin is still alive and active. His fans would certainly hold more than a velleity that he will pick up a pen once again.

Romer Wilson, Mexican Interlude, The Game

Several readers contacted me recently with recommendations that range across fifty years, from 1920 to the early 1970s.

• Romer Wilson

David Odell wrote, “I wonder if you have considered the British author Romer Wilson 1891-1930 for your excellent pages”:

She’s a most unusual and interesting writer who has been almost entirely neglected since her death, although most of her work is available on-line at Hathi Trust or the Bodleian Library.

Her first novel Martin Schuler was published in 1918 and largely written a few years before. It’s a somewhat Dorian Gray-ish story of a young and successful German Composer who dies just before 1914. Apart from anything else it is extraordinary that there is not the least trace of jingoistic war-reference in it. It is chiefly about the creative imagination and its relationship with individual egoism and morality, art and life, in other words, set on a German stage.

Her third novel The Death Of Society was her most famous, winning the Hawthornden prize for 1921. There is a good review by Ludwig Lewisohn available at the unz archive website, and an introduction by Hugh Walpole in one of the online editions. The sticking point for many readers was that the central rather ecstatic love affair takes place between a man and a woman who have no common language.

Her other better known books are a sort of biography of Emily Bronte [Life and Private History of Emily Jane Bronte] and the editing of three books of fairy tales, Green Magic (1928), Silver Magic (1929) and Red Magic (1930), the latter of which is extremely rare, due perhaps to the Kai Neilsen illustrations .

Wilson’s third novel, The Grand Tour (1923), is available on the Internet Archive. It’s a loose collection of letters and journal entries by one Alphonse Marichaud, a sculptor who travels around Europe, encountering the rich and artistic, and offering his own ironic commentaries. The Spectator’s reviewer gushed about it:

The book is an extraordinarily good one. Miss Romer Wilson possesses what one of the persons in her novel declares himself to be without “that strange occasional genius which is independent of experience.” …

The Grand Tour is not a book for the indiscriminate devourer of fiction. It is strongly intellectual and cultured stuff, although (since it is truly imaginative) the intellectual content appears in the form of imagery and emotion. Miss Wilson possesses a superb style—exuberant, well-fed, humorous, full of imagery and colour. It gives the impression that she writes rapidly, torrentially, out of a full imagination—an impression reinforced by an amazing inaccuracy in spelling which extends over three languages—English, French and German—and, in the case of French, scatters the accents with the fine carelessness of a henwife feeding poultry.

The Grand Tour, we joyfully confess, has knocked us off our perch, which to the reviewer is the rarest of luxuries.

Mexican Interlude, by Joseph Henry Jackson

Peter Laurence wrote to recommend that the site devote more space to travel books:mexicaninterlude

My #1 suggestion: Mexican Interlude (1936) by Joseph Henry Jackson. When Jackson and his wife drove their Model A across the border, even Mexican food was rare in the United States. He starts with in-depth descriptions of tacos in Laredo and heads south from there. Poor roads and other challenges greet them as they head to Mexico City. They practice the language, learn about the culture and in seeing the art world, meet John and Carol Steinbeck. Cosmopolitan and cheap, Mexico City was to the 1930’s what Paris was to the 1920’s. Mexican Interlude is an exhilarating book.

Reviewing the book for The Saturday Review, Katherine Woods wrote of it,

And when Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Henry Jackson set out in their car they were neither standardizing their travels nor striving after originality: they were having a good time. They were far more eager to see what they themselves found interesting than to follow in the footsteps of other tourists. And they saw uncounted fascinating things, in consequence, that the average tourist never knows exist. The human thing, always. The different thing. The thing that is characteristic. Beauty here, and there only a sudden strangeness. Ancient things, cheek by jowl with
bewildering new upheavals. Nightmare of hybrid architecture, but Diego Rivera to talk with. Real adventure, sometimes, though they followed the new Pan-American Highway and found it good. And the whole journey seen with eyes not only generously open to new sights and oddities and beauty, but quick with laughter.

The Game, by Izzy Abrahamithegame(fr)

Gianni Ponti wrote to recommend Izzy Abrahami’s 1973 novel, The Game:

It’s the only novel that Abrahami–who’s been, at different times, an architect, game designer, graphic artist, journalist, movie maker, and (now) blogger (see antvprod.blogspot.com)–ever published. It’s sort of uncategorizable–SF but not SF, fantastic but not fantasy. Probably the closest thing to it is something by J. G. Ballard from the seventies, but imagine J. G. Ballard with a healthy dose of Balzac’s le Comedie Humaine.

It starts with a man in a tall residential apartment house looking out at the windows of the apartments across from him. It quickly develops into a game in which he begins to predict what will happen based on their behavior patterns,but the game spreads to his wife and then other neighbors and grows more complex, more insidious, and begins to consume them all. [The cover of the French edition (Le Jeu des Grands Ensembles) conveys the situation well.–ed.]

It was published with cover quotes by Anthony Burgess (“It is beautifully contrived, ingenious, economical, thoroughly convincing. It is also witty and civilized, and … must earn a kind of astonished applause.”) and Marshall McLuhan (“a parable of high-rise living. By pushing the voyeur to the extreme, the binocular game flips into the audible-tactible world of existence”).

Miles Gibson, Harold T. P. Hayes and other Reader Recommendations

Several fans of neglected books have contacted me in the last few weeks with recommendations, all of them new to me and well worth passing along.

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• Miles Gibson

Paul Connolly from the U. K. writes to recommend “avery neglected English author named Miles Gibson
who has written two fabulous novels which deserve to be celebrated:

The Sandman (1984)

“A black comedy about a genteel murderer called Mackerel Burton which manages to be warm and chilling at the same time. Written with flashes of wit and poetic touches, this is hilarious and unforgettable.”

The Sandman is technically in print, but the edition dates back to 1998 and Amazon.com reports just one copy left in stock. It is, however, available for Kindle.

Kingdom Swann

“Even better. Swannis an eccentric Victorian painter who in old age takes up photography with amazing results. A wonderful, wonderful book which I’ve read at least ten times and will read again.”

The same situation as The Sandman. Both books were reissued in the late 1990s by the Do Not Press, whose website reports they are no longer publishing.

Hold the phone!: It turns out that The Sandman, along with Kingdom Swann and Gibson’s 1985 novel, Dancing with Mermaids, are available as Faber Finds.

• Harold T. P. Hayes

Jack Schrift writes from Spain to recommend two books by Harold T. P. Hayes, who put Esquire in the forefront of magazine publishing and journalism in the 1960s (see the 2007 Vanity Fair piece, “The Esquire Decade”). After stepping down as editor, Hayes wrote two books that combined journalism with philosophical contemplation in an elegant and thoughtful way. Last Place on Earth (1977) recalls trips he made to Kenya and Tanzania in the company of naturalists, noting the impacts of encroaching civilization on the native wildlife. Three Levels of Time (1981) deals with three discrete stories “that Hayes manages to link in a deft but mind-opening manner”: the origin of the universe; the origin of life on Earth; and the ordeal of John Vihtelic, who was pinned inside a wrecked car for two weeks in a remote section of Mt. Rainer National Park before managing to free himself. (You can read the Readers Digest version of his story here and see him recount it years later on a local TV news segment on YouTube.) “Twenty years after first reading it, I picked it up again and was utterly blown away. Hayes helps the reader see the connection between the most initimate and the most cosmic dimensions.” Blogger David Friedman was similarly moved by the book, and posted a long piece on it on his Explorations site.

• Robert Wilson Lynd

Finally, Ivo Cosentino writes to say, “I would like to mention the forgotten and neglected Irish essayist and literary critic Robert Wilson Lynd (1879–1949), essayist. Born in Belfast and educated at QUB [Queen’s University Belfast–Ed.], he went to London and joined the Daily News in 1908. Rambles in Ireland (1912) was illustrated by Jack B. Yeats. Ireland a Nation (1919) is an essay in nationalist historiography. Dr. Johnson and Company“>Dr Johnson and his Company (1929) was a success.”

Ivo later wrote to recommend as well the poetry of L. Adda Nichols Bigelow and of the Rev. Hugh Francis Blunt.

A Round-up of Reader Recommendations: Arthur Rex, The Rack and Lindsay Gutteridge’s shrunken trilogy

Several readers contacted me within the last few weeks to recommend some neglected favorites.

rackMartine Sepion suggested A. E. Ellis’s The Rack. This 1958 novel about an Englishman’s stay in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the French Alps has been in and out of print numerous times, including at least once as a Penguin Modern Classic. A. E. Ellis was later revealed as the pseudonym of Derek Lindsay, but the novel remained his only publication. Graham Greene considered it not just a modern, but a timeless, classic: “There are certain books which we call great for want of a better term, that rise like monuments above the cemeteries of literature: Clarissa, Great Expectations, Ulysses. The Rack, to my mind, is one of this company” It continues to have its advocates: in 1983, the choreographer Kenneth Macmillan chose it as his desert island book for BBC’s “Desert Island Discs,” and in 2001, Dr. David Goldberg chose it as one of his top ten books in an article in the British Journal of Psychology. Goldberg wrote,

It was important to me because it was the first good description that I had read of the psychological consequences of physical disease, and the frantic activities of those who realise that conventional medicine has failed them and that they are dying. It seemed to me a greater book than The Magic Mountain; perhaps because it was expressed in an English idiom with which I could identify. The description of the death of the doctors in the sanatorium punctured my fantasies of medical invulnerability, and the image of the student whose body is found high in the mountain clutching a handful of gentians remained with me indelibly. In my first job as a house physician, I was pleased to work for a physician who allowed his severely ill patients to bring faith healers into the hospital.

This book also heightened my awareness of the problems of the dying, and of the complications of medical treatment. It was the first account that I read of hallucinations produced by therapy with morphine. After I qualified as a doctor I learned far more about psychological reactions to physical illness from my patients, and from the experience of being admitted to my own ward with a physical illness during my houseman year. I found, to my own amazement, that my identifications were with my fellow patients rather than with the medical staff, all of whom I knew very well. After four deaths in a single night, I could take it no more, and discharged myself so that I could recover some vestige of composure at home.

arthurrexAndrew Georgiou wrote from Australia to recommend Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel (1978). Although out of print in paper, it’s available in Kindle“>Kindle format, part of an extensive series of reissues from Berger’s large oeuvre from Open Road Media. A reworking of Malory’s saga with a dollop of broad comedy and a sprinkling of spicy language, Arthur Rex received a mix of reviews–some enthusiastic and some less so. The usually-skeptical Kirkus Reviews positively applauded: “In addition to providing a galloping Camelot of sheer fun, Arthur Rex turns out to be the first really astute reworking of the Arthurian story in decades, a gesture of great irreverence and homage to a realm in which all men ‘lived and died by legend (and without it the world hath become a mean place).'”

Finally, Greg Friel had three recommendations: Lindsay Gutteridge’s fantastic trilogy recounting the adventures of a raisin-sized spy in the wilderness of a normal-sized landscape: Cold War in a Country Garden (1971); Killer Pine (1973); and Fratricide is a Gas (1975). “It’s like “The Incredible Shrinking Man” meets James Bond!” Gutteridge’s hero, Matthew Dilke, is a British secret agent shrunk down to one-fourth of an inch high and sent to investigate the source of a poisonous gas threatening a much-overcrowded Earth. Killer Pine is more of a Cold War book than the first, as it pits Dilke and his sidekick/main squeeze, Hyacinthe, against a band of Russian micro-men concocting ecological trouble in the Canadian Rockies. One SF guide wrote of them, “They are all splendid adventure stories and powerfully engage the sense of wonder.” According to one Wikipedia poster, Bond movie producer Harry Salzman actually tried to make a spy thriller based on the novel sometime back in the 1970s.
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Recommendations from Matthew Neill Null: Andre Malraux, Mark Costello, and Henry C. Kittredge

Matthew Neill Null, novelist and O. Henry Prize winner, wrote recently to suggest neglected works by three writers: Andre Malraux, Mark Costello, and Henry C. Kittredge:

antimemoirs

• André Malraux: Anti-Memoirs (1968)

“This book has a wounded grandeur to it. One of those thick, Mailer-esque tomes that covers it all: lonely flights over the desert, lost cities and Khmer temples, the Spanish Civil War, a career as a left-wing minister to right-wring De Gaulle, life in the French Resistance, torture by the Nazis, de-colonialization up close and personal, and telling brushes with Nehru and Mao. A mandarin, swashbuckling life that, alas, we can no longer live. How accurate is this book? Well, it’s hard to tell, but that’s part of the ride. Sadly out of print. Yes, the dedication to ‘Mrs. John Fitzgerald Kennedy’ comes off as a bit precious, but one must overlook it. Bonus: The translation is by the estimable Terrence Kilmartin.”

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• Mark Costello: The Murphy Stories (1973) and Middle Murphy (1993)

“Two story collections, published obscurely by the University of Illinois Press. Against a gritty Midwestern backdrop of industrial slag and soybean fields, we follow the adventures of Murphy as he navigates two-bit academic jobs, alcoholism and adultery. Think of Bruno Schulz, if Bruno Schulz were the son of a Republican ward-heeler in Decatur, Illinois. Another wonderful, forgotten writer. His prose is endlessly digressive and self-mythologizing, with these wild boomerang sentences. A cult favorite, a writer’s writer, but his work is hard to track down. Best to begin with the first volume. I believe Costello’s still out there, up in years, and hope he graces us with a third volume.”

mooncussers

• Henry C. Kittredge: Mooncussers of Cape Cod (1937)

“I found it in the rare books section of a Cape Cod library. A colorful account of people who made a living by scavenging shipwrecks. The wreckers were thought to be unsavory by most, but Kittredge’s admiration bleeds though. Reminds me of Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Thrilling, forgotten history.”

Matthew also recommends two novels by Bruce Chatwin, who has gained a solid place for his travel books (although this is too narrow a term for them), but whose novels, particularly On the Black Hill (1982) and The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980), are also worth discovering.

New page added to Sources: Recommendations from Phillip Routh (not Roth)

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Phillip Routh, whose blog, How Jack London Changed My Life, chronicles his prolific and eclectic reading, contacted me recently with a couple of recommendations–Gontran de Poncin’s memoir, Father Sets the Pace (“a withering biography of a supremely selfish man”), and Valery Larbaud’s short 1911 novel, Fermina Márquez. Knowing the breadth of his taste, I invited him to provide a longer list of recommendations to be included among the Sources on this site.

A few days later, he posted a list of ten titles with his comments, along with additional recommendations for most of the writers. “I had difficulty in selecting ten books, because so many were jostling for inclusion,” he wrote. I’ve just uploaded it to the site: you can read it now: Recommendations from Phillip Routh.

Thanks for your contributions, Phillip!

Michele Slung recommends The Years That Were Fat: Peking 1933-1940, by George N. Kates

Michele Slung, a veteran book editor, wrote recently to recommend George N. Kates’ 1952 memoir, The Years That Were Fat: Peking 1933-1940:

I finished a few days ago George Kates’ THE YEARS THAT WERE FAT, about his life in Peking in the ’30s. He had no journals, seemingly, yet sat down to write of his seven-year stay over a decade later, publishing the book in ’52. It was lent to me by an Asian-specialist curator friend, who said she’d always loved it and thought I would, too. I’m now pressing her to consider mounting a show centered on Kates and his more than ever “lost” world.

Slung’s friend, Dr. Caron Smith, is curator of the Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas.
yearsthatwerefat1
It’s a little surprising that The Years That Were Fat: Peking 1933-1940 is out of print and forgotten today, as it’s been published no less than four times so far: by Harpers in 1952, then by the M. I. T. Press in 1967 and again in 1976, and finally by Oxford University Press U. S. in 1989.

Kates cames to Peking in 1933 after a short but profitable stay in Hollywood, and settled in a quarter not frequented by Westerners, just north of the Forbidden City. He immersed himself in Chinese life, learning the language and customs and studying their culture (his first book, published in 1948, was Chinese Household Furniture, still considered an essential reference work). Driven out of the city by the encroaching Japanese Army, Kates soon left China. It would be ten years later before he would write of his experiences–without access to notes or a journal, as Slung notes.

The book was well-received when it was first published. Kates’ perspective and voice were particularly noted. “He is excellent when he describes the moods of the city, the street-vendors’ cries, the histories of the palaces and the temples, the practice of calligraphy, the strange habits of ricksha boys, and the hazards of learning Chinese,” wrote Robert Payne in the Saturday Review. Reviewing it for the academic Journal of Asian Studies, Arthur Hummel wrote with un-scholarly enthusiasm:

It is a book that no one who wishes to recapture the spirit of traditional Chinese civilization should miss reading; for, despite its unattractive title, it is a work of unusual depth and charm.

… Much of the charm of this book is attributable to the disciplined prose in which it is written. One must look far to find in it a hackneyed phrase, an ungainly sentence, or a dull paragraph.

Though out of print, the book continues to be mentioned from time to time. Novelist Adam Williams mentioned it in a 2009 talk on literary Peking and Ian Johnson referred to it in a 2008 Wall Street Journal book review.

And, it turns out, digital versions of the 1952 edition are available for free online, thanks to the Internet Archive: http://archive.org/details/yearsthatwerefat008540mbp.

Around the World with Reader Recommendations

I’ve received a number of neglected book recommendations over the last month, with writers and subjects ranging from Alaska to turn-of-the-[20th] Century Chicago to Greece during World War Two to Australia, along with a long-out-of-print business book with a small but enthusiastic following.

Son of the Smoky Sea, by Simeon Oliver

A reader just going by the nickname Plesah offers suggestions from far corners of the Pacific. The first is the 1943 autobiography of a young Alaskan, half Aleut, half Norwegian, who was abandoned after his mother’s death and sent to a Methodist mission in Unalaska. He did well enough to be accepted into a pre-med program at Northwestern, but dropped that in favor of a music scholarship. That he dropped, too, and returned to Alaska as an assistant on an anthropological expedition. Disappointed in his lack of connections to the native people (he had forgotten what little Aleut he had known), he returned to the States, but hooked up with a ghost writer, Alden Hatch, and released (as “Nutchuk,” his Aleut name), Son of the Smoky Sea. The book clearly sold well, as there are plenty of used copies still available. Plesah mentions a sequel, Return to the Smoky Sea, but I suspect this is a mistake–the same one made by the Anchorage Daily News reporter in his 1976 interview with Oliver, as there is no record anywhere of this title. From the interview, however, you can tell that Oliver, who calls himself “a jackass of all trades’ was quite the storyteller, whether or not he was always telling the truth.

The Web of Life, by Robert Herrick

Lew Wheaton writes to propose this novel about his home, Chicago, around the time of the 1893 World’s Fair. “If you’re a lover of big, messy, noisy city novels, as you’ve said you are, then check this one out.” If Herrick is remembered at all these days, it’s as a regionalist, but he probably deserves a closer look. Erik Larson thought enough of the novel to include a number of quotes from it in his best-seller, The Devil in the White City. At the time of its first publication, the New York Time complained that, “He might have told his story with more buoyancy of manner and with more variety of tone. His humor, when it is in evidence at all, seems dry.” But it also noted that, “Quite the best feature of Mr. Herrick’s novel is its elaborate and varied study of Chicago in and out of doors, its commercial strife, its fashionable social routine, its sordidness and vulgarity, its enterprises, its youthful vitality.” Which does second Lew’s assessment that it’s worth a look by any fan of city novels–and Chicago certainly has been the subject of some of the best.
Herrick’s book is available from dozens of on-demand publishers, but don’t bother with them and get it direct from the Internet Archive.

Tycho Brahe’s Path to God, by Max Brod

Bengt Broström, who has provided some great recommendations before, suggests the works of Max Brod, who is far better remembered as Franz Kafka’s literary executor than as a writer himself:

He wrote 25 novels, essays and short stories. He is not much translated into English. His best known novel Tycho Brahes Weg zu Gott, 1916 was translated as Tycho Brahes path to God, 1928 and has been reissued 2007.

His best book is “Das grosse Wagnis”, 1919 a subtle dystopian novel.

His first novel “Schloss Nornepygge”, 1908 is one of the great novels of Decadence. It is not translated into English but new editions in German have appeared between 2009 and 2012.

As Broström notes, Tycho Brahe’s Path to God was reissued in 2007, by Northwestern University Press. This edition included an introduction by his contemporary, the ever-less-neglected Stefan Zweig. At the time the historical novel was first published, no less than Albert Einstein was moved to write of it, “I’ve read the book with great interest. It is without a doubt interestingly written by a man who knows the cliffs of the human soul.”

Unfortunately for Brod’s reputation in the U. S., neither of the other two titles mentioned have ever been translated and published here. Several of his more-forgettable novels were, however: The Master, a historical novel about the life of Jesus; and Unambo, which Kirkus Reviews summed up as, “An involved and wordy fable which tangles with the problem of man’s dual nature, symbolized in this case by the struggle of an Israeli intellectual to achieve a peaceful neutrality of soul through a diabolical time-space machine.”

When the Tree Sings, by Stratis Haviarias

Kris Kincaid writes, “Stratis Haviaras was (is?) [Was: viz.–Ed.] a curator at Harvard library and a poet who wrote two stunning novels – in English – around WWII Greece from a child’s-eye view that saw very good reviews and quickly disappeared. The first, When the Tree Sings, is set during the German occupation. It’s impressionistic and poetic and has less of a narrative, with descriptions of the daily horrors of the time written in a kind of dreamy, detached prose:

An old man began to dig with teeth and nails for roots, moaning weakly from hunger.
Then two kids were blown to pieces by a land mine as they tried to disarm it and use the dynamite cakes to kill fish in the bay. I saw their little arms in smoking sleeves hung from a fig tree, trembling – so simple.
And I saw a woman in black overcome by crows, and a younger woman crawl to the roadside, dragging her entrails over the dust.

“It got a number of glowing reviews (‘This first novel…is one of the most power, uncompromising, exquisitely written and imaginatively conceived of any that I have read.’ – Time Out, etc) in 1979, but is certainly neglected now. Same fate for its follow-up in 1986, Haviaras’ second and last novel, The Heroic Age, follows a band of orphan kids who’ve spent much of the war living in the mountains, as they’re rounded up and put in work camps after the war. This one has more of a narrative and is, I think, even better than Haviaras’ first novel, but you really can’t go wrong with either of these, both of which got paperback printings from major presses (Picador and Penguin) and so should be fairly easy to dig up.”

Both novels are out of print but available on Amazon for as little as one cent.

A Fortunate Life. by Albert Facey

This should be qualified as a regionally-neglected book, as it’s considered a classic in Australia, selling nearly a million copies, has its own Wikipedia entry, and has never been out of print there since first published in 1981. Facey, who enlisted in 1914, was seriously wounded at Gallipoli. Despite suffering from the effects of his injuries and facing hardships through most of his working life, Facey had a remarkable resilience of spirit that led him, in his mid-eighties, to collect his notes and diaries and assemble them into this book, which became an instant best-seller in Australia upon its publication. Sadly, Facey died less than a year later, but the book continues to inspire readers. Although out of print in the U. S. since its first publication, it’s collected over thirty five-star reviews on Amazon.

Moving Mountains (Or The Art of Letting Others See Things Your Way), by Henry Boettinger

“An out-of-print classic. definitely one for your site,” writes Geoffrey Morton-Haworth. First published in 1969 and reprinted several times since then, this might be the earliest guide to making presentations (something we all now are subjected to at least several times each week, thanks to the success of Microsoft Powerpoint). Boettinger was a senior executive at AT&T in the days when it was still home to Bell Labs, “The Idea Factory, ” Moving Mountains may no longer be technologically up to date (it recommends viewfoils as the best medium), but it’s still psychologically relevant. Its word-of-mouth reputation as one of the best texts ever written on the subject has managed to drive the price for used copies as high as $300–although you can easily find some for $16-25.

As always, your recommendations are most welcome–aside from their negative effects on my wallet and storage space!

Joseph Weiner recommends Mary Lee Settle’s “O Beulah Land” Quintet

Reader Joseph Weiner writes to recommend Mary Lee Settle’s five-novel series, “O Beulah Land,” which covered the roots, history, and lives of some families in West Virginia. “She’s long been a very under-appreciated writer,” he comments–which is certainly true.

Mary Lee Settle, 2003Settle had a pretty remarkable life before she took up writing: born and raised in West Virginia coal-mining country, she worked as a model and actress, and even auditioned for the role of Scarlett O’Hara. She married an Englishman, bore a child, and, when World War Two broke out, joined the Royal Women’s Auxiliary Air Force–in part as a way out of the marriage. It was an experience she later recounted in All the Brave Promises: Memories of Aircraft Woman 2nd Class 2146391. She was 36 before her first novel, The Love Eaters, was published.

Settle went on to write over twenty books in the course of a fifty year career; the last, Spanish Recognitions: The Road from the Past, a combination travelogue and memoir based on a trip she took to Spain when she was 82.

Cover of first U.S. edition of "O Beulah Land"Her best-known work is the “O Beulah Land” quintet–although I think it would be more accurate to call them five interconnected novels. The work had a structure that emerged slowly and somewhat haphazardly. The first book to be published–but the second book in terms of the overall story’s chronology–O Beulah Land (1955) was set in a fictional version of Charleston, West Virginia (then, of course, just part of the Virginia colony) during the American Revolution. The next year, she published Know Nothing, which eventually became the third installment of the story. Know Nothing shifted to the west of Charleston and forward in time to the 1850s, when divisions over slavery laid the roots for the decision to separate from the South and join the Union as the new state of West Virginia.

Then, in 1964, she published the last book in the trilogy: Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday.

I told you the structure emerged slowly and haphazardly.

Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday was Settle’s shortest novel, and she was never happy with editorial cuts she had to accept to please Viking, her publisher. But it’s also clear that she was still coming to understand the story she wanted to tell, for nine years later, she published Prisons, which takes the story a great leap backward in time and space: from western Virginia in American Revolution to England in the time of Cromwell and the Civil War. Prisons is now considered the first book in the quintet.

Seven years later, she published The Scapegoat, which is based on the “Paint Creek Mine War,” a 1912 strike that was organized by Mother Jones. Finally, in 1982, she published The Killing Ground, which returns to Canona–her fictional Charleston–in the 1960s and 1970s. The Killing Ground is, effectively, an “author’s cut” version of Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday–and, like director’s cuts in film, much longer than the first release.

And, oh by the way, between Prisons and The Scapegoat, she also published Blood Tie, a novel set among the expat community in Turkey (where Settle lived for some years), which won the 1978 National Book Award for fiction.

Settle’s work does not really meet my own standards for a neglected book. It’s critical reputation is solid, if still marginalized. One academic study has been published–Brian C. Rosenberg’s Mary Lee Settle’s Beulah Quintet: The Price of Freedom (1991), and the series, along with most of her major works, is available from the University of South Carolina Press as the Mary Lee Settle Collection. The USC Press has also released a critical overview of her work, Understanding Mary Lee Settle, written by a novelist himself often mentioned as a neglected master: George Garrett.

I would not be fully honest, though, if I didn’t admit that I’ve never managed to get past about page 40 of any of Settle’s books, aside from All the Brave Promises. I’m not sure she was always well served by her editors. If, as Settle felt, Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday was cut back too far, there are also a few of her books that cried out for a thick blue pencil. Of Prisons, Kirkus Reviews observed that, “The book is filled with endless religious conversations revolving around freedom of conscience, all in the Puritan idiom of the middle 17th century–not exactly the most enlivening discourse in the world”–although it acknowledged that this might be a “necessarily tedious effort” –not exactly the most enthusiastic endorsement of a book, either. Reviewing The Killing Ground in the New York Times back in 1982, Aaron Latham argued that Settle should “sift out the slag and reduce her ‘Beulah Quintet’ to a single long novel.”

However, with a sum total of zero books to my name, I feel most ungracious to an author with such a large and diverse oeuvre to end with such comments. Mary Lee Settle was driving around rural Spain by herself, packing a laptop, a rich understanding of history and culture, and a burning curiosity when she was 82 years old. I hope I’ll have the same kind of moxie if I make it that far. So I will close with a few lines from her foreword to The Killing Ground: “All I knew and always have known, is that once I have asked the question ‘why?’ of an image, I cannot let it go until it blesses me. It is the way all my work has been done, and will be. Even at the end, like the annoying child within, I will keep on asking why.”


“The Pearls of Publishing,” from the Saturday Review

Back in November 1949, a three-part series called, “The Pearls of Publishing” appeared in the Saturday Review. “In the hope of increasing and prolonging the public’s interest in deserving books,” the magazine’s editors asked American publishers “to think back over the books issued during the past year and select two titles–one issued by their own house, one by another firm–which, in their opinion, failed to get the response they deserved.” This did not have to mean the book was a flop: simply that it “failed to achieve the full impact” it should have.

Despite good sales and critical acclaim that eventually led to its selection as the 1949 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, several publishers still named James Gould Cozzens’ Guard of Honor, which was featured in the early days of this site. Elizabeth Charlotte Webster’s Ceremony of Innocence, a Candide-esque satire on religion and conventional mores that I stumbled across in the great Montana Valley Book Store last year, was nominated twice.

While a fair number of the books were too topical (Strategic Air Power for Dynamic Security) to expect anyone to remember them today, a fair number of intriguing titles pop up in the course of the three articles. Here is a sample:

Olivia, by Olivia

Kurt Wolff, a legendary figure in publishing and then working at Pantheon, nominated Olivia, an anonymous novel published by William Sloane Associates: “A very beautiful and subtly written account of adolescent experience, which has lost nothing of its intensity by maturing in the cellar of memory…. It combines fine writing with moving content, and is a thoroughly civilized book. The anonymous author was later identified as Dorothy Bussy, nee Strachey–one of Lytton Strachey’s sisters. The book was about a young schoolgirl’s crush on the headmistress of her boarding school and was based on her experiences at the school run by Marie Souvestre before she founded Allenwood, where Souvestre had a profound influence on the young Eleanor Roosevelt.

Mr. Preen’s Salon, by Robert Tallant

Theodore Purdy of Appleton-Century-Croft called this Doubleday novel, “A witty and delightful picture of New Orleans life … a good antidote to the innumerable lush and overheated books on that city which have been published in recent years.” Tallant was something of a scribe of New Orleans, with other titles such as Voodoo in New Orleans and The Pirate Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans to his credit.

The Golden Warrior, Hope Muntz

With four mentions, this historical novel about the Norman Conquest was the favorite among those polled. LeBaron Barker of Doubleday wrote of the book, “Miss Muntz’s success with the chronicle form, to my way of thinking, is going to have a decided effect on the whole historical-novel categoy,” and Edward Shenton of Macrae-Smith called it “a stark, somber story, written with great restraint but with a depth of feeling and power that set it apart from most books of its kind.”

The Willow Cabin, by Pamela Frankau

“One of the finest novels I have read in a long time. The writing itself should stand as an example for young novelists, and the characters come alive in a fashion that very few novelists have been able to achieve. There is little or no sensationalism, no extreme exaggeration or histrionics; yet the story and the people have stayed with me very clearly since I read it.”–W. E. Larned, Whittlesey House

The Witness, by Jean Bloch-Michel

Kurt Wolff recommended this French novel, which Pantheon published in translation, as did George Pellegrini. “Its central theme–the destructiveness of moral solitude–is of timely and universal interest. Though hailed by a majority of critics as an outstanding piece of sober, fine and compelling writing, sales have nor corresponded to our expectations.” Pellegrini called it, “The kind of book that people talk about once they’ve read it.”

Trials of a Translator, by Ronald Knox

Marigold Hunt, an editor of Sheed & Ward, a publisher specializing in Catholic books run by novelist Wilfrid Sheed’s father, recommended this account of Knox’ struggles in translating the Bible: “Msgr. Knox’s own explanations of the kind of translation he was aiming at, and his replies to his foremost critics would have had a much wider appeal than has so far been the case. It isn’t as if he was the stuffy kind of scholar, or as if, at this date, anyone was likely to suppose him to be: Trials of a Translator is not only instructive, but exceptionally good fun.”

Napoleon: For and Against, by Pieter Geyl

Conceived while a prisoner at Buchenwald, Napoleon: For and Against was one of the first works of meta-history–an assessment of how Napoleon was viewed by a series of French historian, and a fine illustration of Geyl’s view of history as an “argument without end.” Nominated both by its own house, the Yale University Press, and an editor from the rival Princeton University Press, who wrote, “The message–for all of us, not just for historians–is that we should search our souls pretty thoroughly before claiming that we have discovered objective truth.”

Last of the Conquerors, by William Gardner Smith

Robert Haas of Random House recommended this novel from Farrar, Straus: “A fine novel … about a Negro in our Army of Occupation in Germany … a disturbing commentary on the way democracy sometimes fails to work. Extremely well written and with something really important to say.”

Late Have I Loved Thee, by Ethel Mannin

Frank Bruce of Bruce Publishing compared this to Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain: “Conveying a message of deep significance for all, in the vein of ‘What profiteth a man if he gaineth the whole world, etc.’–a philosophy which many have completely ignored–Ethel Mannin’s book is a masterful work which could do an immense amount of good in its revelation of today’s basic problem.”

The Man Who Carved Woman from Wood, by Max White

John Fischer from Harper & Brothers picked this as his firm’s best under appreciated title: “Admittedly not a book for every reading taste but those of us here who like it for its odd and spirited blend of fancy and humor are convinced that there are fifteen or twenty thousand readers in the country who would enjoy it.”

The Saracen’s Head, or, The Reluctant Crusader, by Osbert Lancaster

“A ‘children’s book’ which should really be read for pleasure by ‘children from eight to eighty,'” wrote John Fischer of Harper & Brothers. This account of a knightly equivalent of Ferdinand the bull was the first of three, which chronicled the history of the the Littlehamptons of Drayneflete from prehistory to 1940. They were ultimately collected as The Littlehampton Saga. The other titles were
Drayneflete Revealed and The Littlehampton Bequest. Lancaster, who illustrated Nancy Mitford’s novels and created cartoons for Punch filled his drawings for these books with Easter eggs for those familiar with odd bits of English history and architecture.

  • My Place to Stand, by Bentz Plagemann
    John Farrar of Farrar, Straus nominated this from his own catalog: “One of the finest accounts of the overcoming of a physical handicap ever written. It has tenderness, honesty, and spiritual overtones, and a personal narrative. It has taste. It has made more friends and will make more, but it is difficult to understand why they have not been quicker to discover one of the books of the year that has wisdom and hope in it.”

    Cream Hill

    This account of life on a Connecticut farm, written by editor and weekend countryman Lewis Gannett, led a usually-sober Kirkus Review to gush, “This opened a new door & me — a peek into the past of our countryside, a realization that it is not only in manmade things that we are the melting pot of the world. For here–along our roadsides–are flowers and grasses, shrubs and trees, immigrants from all parts of the world… It is a potpourri of Connecticut’s countryside natural history, the flowers and trees and shrubs, the vegetables, the wild plants he grew–and the ones he couldn’t grow. There’s nature lore, too,–the tomato has a wholly new personality for me. The thrill of his fern garden is contagious. And the seasonal round of week-end country living was alluring for its likes and its unlikes to our own, not very many miles away.”
  • Recent Reader Recommendations

    I’ve received a bumper crop of recommendations in the last month, including a few titles that are new to me (an increasingly rare treat). So I want to offer a consolidated list with some commentary from the submitters and others, in hopes that others will seek out this forgotten gems.

    The Trees of Zharka, by Nancy MackenrothCover of 'The Trees of Zharka'

    Allison Kassig wrote to recommend two books well off the SF mainstream that she came across in an odd lot of paperbacks she’d bought. I’ll quote from her own Amazon.com review, which appears to be one of the very few–professional or amateur–that this intriguing book has ever received:

    I intended to try to locate the author, Nancy Mackenroth, after I finished reading her book for the first time. I thought she’d like to know that her book was still being read, and if I found more books by her I’d put them on my “To Read” list. Unfortunately she died of ALS less than a year ago. But her work lives on, and is worth reading. The Trees of Zharka is a fast read: that alone is a relief from the bloated over-long books so often published today. I don’t read much sci-fi, especially novels, but decided to start working my way through a box lot I bought years ago. (The second one I’ve read from there was also well worth reading). The book easily escaped being outdated by new technologies because technology isn’t very relevant: this is book about characters, human nature, right and wrong, and ideas. Two mysteries compelled me. One is the mystery the main character is driven to solve, although that knowledge is both forgotten and forbidden. The other was what would have put this idea in the author’s mind. Why would she think to write about a Puritanical society ruled by priests who maintain a grove of sacred trees? In the end I knew the answer: Mackenroth may have started with the ending. The people of Zharka are the descendants of emigrants from Earth. What happened seemed dated at first, but we’re not that much advanced from the world of 1975. I could easily imagine this story as a Twilight Zone episode (hour long). I started to say that The Trees of Zharka deserves not only to be remembered, but to be read. But I don’t really look at it that way. I’m glad I had the opportunity to read a provocative story about redemption.

    The Eskimo Invasion, by Hayden HowardCover of 'The Eskimo Invasion'

    From what I can gather about this book, which like Mackenroth’s, appears to have been the author’s only published novel, it’s a tongue-in-cheek satire of conspiracy theorists and the kind of “they’re after us” paranoia that inspired the Red Scare, McCarthy’s witchhunts, Nixon’s enemies lists, and George W. Bush’s world view. Allison’s Amazon review provides a good overview:

    Despite its almost 400 pages this 44-year-old sci fi novel is a fascinating page-turner. I’ve forgotten more books than most people ever read, but this one has two (at least) unforgettable scenes. I’ll leave one for you to discover for yourself, but you shouldn’t miss an incredible description of the history of the world as read in the fossil record–from the bottom up. Start digging more than a half-mile down in the Earth, and take the trip upward from the dinosaurs on. Very well written, full of provocative ideas, and answers a question no one else ever asked: Are the Esks Eskimos, or are they not even human at all? This is a good-humored read with scenes of terror. If that seems contradictory, it’s because Howard takes us on a wild trip (it’s 1967, remember?) from Canada to Berkeley to China, from the CIA to the latest in penology, from cryogenics to mind control, with a poignant look at the law of unintended consequences. True to the era, bureaucracy is skewered, and political correctness takes a prescient beating. This one sat in a box lot of old sci fi paperbacks in my garage for years, until I had the good sense to give it a try. And found I couldn’t put it down. How many other great books are out there to be discovered? If you want to join me in finding out, you won’t go wrong with trying this one.

    Salt of the Earth, by Jozef Wittlin

    Writing from Sweden, Bengt Broström recommed the anti-war novel “Sol ziemi” (1936), which was published in English as Salt of the Earth in 1939, by the
    Polish author Jozef Wittlin (1896-1976): “With its mixture of irony, sarcasm, parody and the grotesque it is simple brilliant, It is not in print but used copies are can be bought online.” At the time of the book’s first publication in English, Charles Neider wrote of it in the Virginia Quarterly Review,

    Peter Neviadomski is a wonderful person, someone never to be forgotten. A railway porter in a little Galician town, the most he wants of life is an official railway cap (to permit him to salute people), a cottage with a mouse-trap and cheese and a bride with a dowry.

    Wittlin’s irony is Biblical as compared with Thomas Mann’s, for example, which is musical. His irony and quiet fury are those of the idealistic ascetic steeped in the Old Testament and the Odyssey. His compassion for the ignorant and lowly of the earth, breathed into his work, imparts to it a glowing poetic quality and a sublimity of soul that may well be treasured in these troubled times. This first volume takes Peter Neviadomski through the ordeals of mobilization and preparation for the front. It is a volume to be read again and again. It has the satisfying quality of good music.

    Salt of the Earth was to have been the first of a series of novels to be known as “The Saga of the Patient Footsoldier,” but Wittlin abandoned the effort during World War Two and never published another work of fiction.

    In This Sign, by Joanne Greenberg

    Poet Greg Baysans wrote in to recommend a book that’s in print but that’s been mentioned more than a few times as a life-long favorite by others who’ve contacted me. As Greg puts it, “Written by Joanne Greenberg (whose “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden” I had read previously, perhaps as an 8th or 9th grader, and which is more well-known; she also has published under the nom de plume Hannah Green), the book is In This Sign. The story of two deaf parents and their children, it takes place just before, during and after the Great Depression. I am impressed again by Greenberg’s ability to take the reader into these character’s world and get a real sense of what it must be like to have to learn language without the sense of hearing. While not particularly deep or philosophical, it is very well written and compelling, not saccharine at all. I’m anxious to finish it again, all these years later.”

    Equal Distance, by Brad Leithauser

    Andrew Kozelka wrote to suggest Brad Leithauser’s first novel, Equal Distance, which amazingly has been out of print for over twenty years. As Andrew write, Leithauser’s “still alive and has written a half-dozen novels since; this is the only one I’ve read so far. I have to say it’s the best novel I’ve found in the sub-genre of ‘westerners in Japan’—as someone who has lived there I can attest that he gets everything right—but it’s also just a great read and a very fine novel. The reviews at the time were enthusiastic. I really feel it is more than worthy to be brought back into print. Unfortunately, these days publishers won’t do that unless a later novel becomes a top seller or, perhaps, there’s reader demand.”

    The Devil’s Lieutenant, by M. FagyasCover of 'The Devil's Lieutenant'

    Writing from Los Angeles, Karen forwarded some information on “a book I have admired for years”: The Devil’s Lieutenant, by M. Fagyas. “This lurid cover is misleading because the book is not pulp fiction.I bought it at a library sale and since bought all books by this author (unfortunately, there weren’t many). You may be interested in its (few) Amazon reviews which are all 5 stars.”

    At the time of its first publication, The Devil’s Lieutenant received not one but two separate and enthusiastic reviews in the New York Times. W.G. Rogers wrote that Fagyas had “packed her novel with strain, tension, suspense–and, to boot, a wealth of political and historical relevance.” Thomas Lask called it, “a top-drawer psychological thriller that unrolls like a whodunit, so artfully constructed, so smoothly readable that you will find yourself devouring it at a single sitting.”

    M. Fagyas was the pen name of Marika Bush-Fekete, who came to the U.S. with her husband, Ladislasz Bush-Fekete, a Jewish Hungarian playwright who’d collaborated with Franz Werfel and had success with his own plays in Budapest and Vienna. She began writing in the earlier 1960s to try to earn a living. Her first novel, The Fifth Woman, published in 1963, earned an Edgar Award, although it was–as were all of hers–a mix of historical fiction and mystery. In the case of the The Devil’s Lieutenant, the mystery is why ten members of an elite Austro-Hungarian Army unit had died from swallowing cyanide capsules. To quote another reader’s Amazon review,

    The “detective” in the novel is Captain Kunze, a judge advocate, who investigates the case.

    You get a fine view of Austria and especially Vienna in 1909. War is in the air, and there is an appetite for the army to invade the Balkans. What is particularly interesting is the portrayal of social life in the Kaiserlich und Koniglich officer corps, and that the case is handled by the military rather than the civilian police. Emperor Franz Josef is not anti-semetic and does not want war: his son, Archduke Ferdinand is the opposite. Both want the case handled so it doesn’t reflect bady on the army. Kunze finds a suspect, who was 18th in the class and thus not promoted and given a position in the General Staff. But in military cases, circumstantial evidence is not sufficient for a death sentence, unlike a civilian case. Better evidence or a confession is needed, or, preferably, the suspect is put in a room with a loaded revolver with the suggestion about doing the honorable thing.

    In another Fagyas novel, The Widowmaker, veterans of the First World War returning to their home village come to bad ends as their wives try to preserve the independence and social status they attained during the long years of the husbands’ absences at the front. Reading through a variety of reviews of all of Fagyas’ six novels while preparing this post, I ended up adding at least three of her titles to my Wish List.

    Sweepings, by Lester Cohen

    Eric Stott wrote in with great enthusiasm for Lester Cohen’s first Sweepings, a book he’s stumbled across and was still reading at the time of his note:

    This 1926 book was a huge critical and popular success. It was made into an excellent film in the 1930’s–a King Lear-like story of a man who builds up a department store only to find his children have no interest: they sell off their shares and the faithful (but long suffering) store manager secretly buys them and saves the store from ruin. Sounds simple and heartwarming–right?

    Well, the book is another thing. It’s a sprawling example of the realist novel as spawned by Dreiser with a lot of psychological touches that Hollywood wouldn’t have been able to deal with at the period. There’s a woman who’s had repeated abortions until her doctor refuses to perform another. When she does get pregnant her mind seems to unhinge. She idly cuts herself and dabs spots of blood on her face and clothing. The eldest son is a Good Old Boy type who idles through life, cheating on his wife with a series of prostitutes- one of whom wants him to hit her hard before sex. He does fall in love (after a fashion) with one girl (who he likens to a whipped cream confection) and when confronted by his father declares “She’s as good a woman as my wife!” (“she probably is” thinks the father, who doesn’t like his daughter in law much). When the son breaks off the relationship the girl fires a shot at him which goes wild and kills his best friend. He escapes recognition but develops an eating disorder in an effort to block out the memories.

    But he never could forget. The thing would come back and come back. Violet, the whipped cream woman; his smashing her; the fury that drove her to shoot; the form of his friend that had fallen like a punctured balloon. These things would force themselves to his lips Like one who downs a specter rising out of a grave by throwing another shovelful of sod over it, he ate another steak. For hours he would feel gorged and drowsy. Then those fancies would fight their way back through the fog of food. He would feel his lips atremble. Then controlling himself he would trundle into the nearest restaurant.

    The book as a whole seems a bit overwritten (it was the author’s first novel and feels like one) but at times it comes vividly to life like a vignette of Christmas sales at the store:

    Above the stamping and surging of the bargain hunting mobs sounded the groans of the sales machine. There was a frantic clamoring for “Cashgirl! Cashgirl!” Clerks at counters in the same departments were appealing, threatening, shouting for shoppers to buy. Each clerk had a quota that night. If the quota were not met–… Each clerk shuddered at the thought, pulled at the arm of a bargain hunter, cried “Buy it here! Here ya are! A doll for the baby. Was ninety-nine cents. Take her home for a dime!”

    This may not be a neglected classic, but so far it’s worth reading.

    Religion and the Decline of Magic, by Keith Thomas

    Last but not least is one that comes not from a reader’s email but from a recent listing in The Week magazine’s regular feature in which noted authors are asked to name a half-dozen or so favorite books. A few weeks ago, English novelist Penelope Lively named, among her other titles, which are usually fairly well known and widely available in print, . Of it, she said, “I read a lot of history, and this 40-year-old work is the kind I’d been waiting for without knowing it—history that examines how people behaved in the past and why. Focused on England, it brought the 16th and 17th centuries alive for me.”

    Religion and the Decline of Magic is a massive tome, nearly 900 pages, devoted to the efforts of the Church of England to stamp out all aspects of folk myths and rituals in the 16th and 17th centuries. Commenting on the book ten years after its first publication in 1971, Paul Slack wrote “History Today”: “Few historians have that ability to surprise and convince with unfailing regularity, to say something absolutely original and make it seem self-evident. That is why Religion and the Decline of Magic remains a commanding work, one of the three or four outstanding pieces of historical writing to have appeared in the last thirty years.”

    Recent Recommendations

    I’ve received more than the usual number of emails from other fans of neglected books in the last few weeks, which is a bit embarrassing as I’ve had almost no time to devote to the site recently. Among these were some recommendations worth passing along.

    Cover of NY Review Books' reissue of Judges of the Secret CourtJohn Crowley, whose 1981 novel, Little, Big, has itself been called a “neglected masterpiece,” wrote to mention that New York Review Classics just published David Stacton’s The Judges of the Secret Court. Judges is considered by some to be the best of Stacton’s trim, elegantly-written historical novels. It recounts the story of John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Crowley’s introduction is unfortunately not available online, but you can find a short post and a lengthy series of comments about the book on Crowley’s LiveJournal site. When Stacton’s novel was first published, Robert Kirsch, reviewing it for the Los Angeles Times, called it “a superior historical fiction, accurate in detail, moving and compelling narrative and character. But it is something more than this as well, an exploration by a brilliant and thoughtful writer of the labyrinthine ways of good and evil.” I wrote about Stacton’s 1962 novel about Wendell Wilkie, Tom Fool, about four years ago, but put it in the “Justly Neglected?” category, comparing it to, “a cocktail party hosted by a brilliant but overbearing host — who drives his guests to the bar for another martini to tune out their host’s insufferable banter.”
    Cover of Virago Modern Classics edition of Cullum
    From Sweden, Bengt Broström wrote to recommend E. Arnot Robertson’s first novel, Cullum: “It caused a sensation with its sexual frankness.” was reissued as part of the Virago Modern Classics series back in 1990 but is out of print once again. At the time Cullum was first published, it received mixed reviews. The Saturday Review (UK, not US) said, “… it not only fails, it almost goes to pieces by the end.” Another reviewer found it showed “quiet dignity and well-restrained emotion,” while the Nation and Athenaeum found, “The whole love episode between Esther and Cullum is psychologically convincing.” Eighty-some years later, readers seem to find much to relate to in the story of the literature-mad Esther, who falls completely when she meets Cullum, her first real live writer.

    Cover of Crest paperback edition of The Notion of SinFinally, Herschel Roth, catching up with my article on Mignon McLaughlin’s wonderful collection of original aphorisms, The Complete Neurotic’s Notebook, wrote to bring my attention to the work of her husband, Robert E. McLaughlin: “A minor Cheever, perhaps, but I’m surprised no one has brought back his novel, The Notion of Sin, to capitalize on the Mad Men craze.” Indeed, the Crest paperback edition of the novel makes the connection plain as day: “Madison Avenue, Sex & Success!” The book, which tells about a young Mad man torn between a sexy, sophisticated–and married–woman and his farm-fresh hometown girl–who turns out more comfortable with amorality than he–did get pretty positive reviews back in 1959. Time magazine gave it a feature notice, writing in a passage that can’t help but bring some of Mad Men’s characters to mind:

    “His characters are the kind whose gay yet joyless lives make for gossip over countless canapes, but they have rarely been described with such quiet precision or understanding. Some of them are merely foolish, some merely mistake manners for morals, and some merely hurt themselves by being themselves. But the most interesting of them come close to having no self to hurt; they are hollow at heart, capable of sensation but not of feeling.”

    A Collection of Reader Recommendations

    A number of readers have written in the last months to offer their own recommendations of neglected books and authors, so I will take this chance to gather them up into a single post.

    These Lovers Fled Away, by Howard Spring

    Allen Johnson, Jr. wrote, “I commend to you the pastoral novels of Howard Spring (These Lovers Fled Away is probably the best). Set in Cornwall England in the early 1900s and usually written in the first person, Spring’s novels convey with great clarity the beauties of Southwest England and the hearts and minds of those who watched those beauties being eroded by machines and war.”

    He added, “My own novel, My Brother’s Story, was published by a small press that immediately went out of business. It came out as a young adult novel but is enjoyed by all ages. It is available as a free download author-read audio book at www.allenjohnsonjr.com.”

    Howard Spring was one of the most successful middlebrow English novelists of the mid-20th century. A number of his stories have been adapted as successful television mini-series, most notably My Son, My Son and Fame is the Spur. Earlier this year, novelist Tim Stretton compared with A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book in his Acquired Taste blog and gave Spring a slight edge. A few minutes spent Googling Spring’s name soon turns up more than a few readers still enthusiastic for Spring’s gift for characterisation and story-telling.

    In Praise of Shadows, by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

    Painter Benjamin Varney, who also writes the Bonelab blog, recommended this slim volume by Tanizaki, best known for the novel The Makioka Sisters: “my understanding of the book is that it is the product of a life times’ work. that tanizaki is giving the world his poetic vision of japan distilled: finding vision of its own within a (vernacular) history of japanese spirit and values. to call it asthetics does not do it justice & it is resistent to most categories, it works best as an explication of a complex philosophy, as flawed and as personal as any. it’s a short book read it.”

    In the book, Tanizaki meditates upon the blend of aesthetics and spirituality known as Wabi Sabi, an untranslatable term that treats the things of this world as “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.” Zen gardens are perhaps the best known examples of this sensibility, but it pervades much of traditional Japanese culture, from the design of temples to the rituals of the tea ceremony. Tanizaki believed it was a culture that found “beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing another creates.”

    Cover of 'The Vienna Girl'

    Vienna Girl and The Water Castle, by Ingeborg Lauterstein

    Kathy wrote to recommend these two novels by Lauterstein: “It occurs to me that you might be interested in taking a look at ‘The Water Castle’ and ‘Vienna Girl’ two novels which follow a young Austrian girl through WWII–they have a strange magical realist cast and I found them absorbing and quite outside the normal type of stories of this period.”

    Lauterstein, who was born in Austria and studied art with Oscar Kokoschka, emigrated to the U.S. and attended the legendary Black Mountain College. There, influenced by the poet Charles Olson and the novelist Caroline Gordon, she switched from art to fiction and began work on the two books. Marriage and family interrupted her work, and the books were not published until nearly thirty years later–The Water Castle in 1981 and Vienna Girl in 1986. Although both were praised in reviews–the New York Times’ reviewer called Vienna Girl “an engrossing story of people in radical transition” and wrote that Lauterstein “transcends pedestrian historical fiction and eschews simplification about the holocaust”–they quickly slipped out of print.

    Lauterstein recently republished the books under her own imprint, along with a third novel, Shoreland, so all three are now easily available online.

    Winter in the Hills, by John Wain

    From Texas, Mary Jo Powell wrote to describe her rediscovery of the works of John Wain: “I can’t remember what awoke my interest in John Wain but I have now read five of his books and am looking for others on the usual sites. As best I can tell his work is only available on used book sites these days. He is not an experimental writer but is concerned with how an individual opposes the forces of standardization in regular life. Hurry On Down–usually called the first Angry Young Man book– and his biography of Samuel Johnson are the books you are most likely to be able to find (in used book stores and sites) these days. I haven’t read the biography and I found HOD all right but much prefer the books in his Oxford trilogy [Where the Rivers Meet (1988); Comedies (1990); and Hungry Generations (1994)] and one set in Wales: Winter in the Hills. His protagonist is always randy and also looking for a way to eke out a living without giving up his soul. If you Google his name, you will be asked if you aren’t looking for John Wayne, although you will be offered some sites to the author.”

    Wain, who died in 1995, has certainly fared less well than his contemporaries, Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. Professor Krishna Kumar has turned his thesis on Wain’s novels into a website, and earlier this decade, an independent publishing house named after one of Wain’s novels, Smaller Sky, brought several of his books briefly back into print. Winter in the Hills, considered his best novel, is about an English linguist who travels to a remote Welsh village to study the language and gradually finds his way into a very tightly-knit community.


    Finnley Wren, by Philip Wylie

    Joe Kenney asked, “Have you read anything by Philip Wylie? I’m halfway through his 1934 Finnley Wren, and I like it a lot. It’s very modern, sort of a Tristram Shandy/Swift/Ulysses sort of thing. Also, it has a definite Vonnegut feel.”

    Wren is a rambling dialogue between a novelist named Philip Wylie and a character named Finnley Wren over the course of two nights in a Manhattan bar. Wylie called it “a novel in a few manner,” but had it been published forty years later, it would have been called “experimental fiction.” At the time of its publication, it did receive a fair amount of notice and acclaim, particularly for its innovations. Mary McCarthy wrote that “you will find coined words, technical words, archaic words heaped upon each other with fine prodigality.” An older reviewer, William Rose Benet, was less enthusiastic: “”Mr. Wylie can write. There is no doubt about that. After he gets through his sophomore year in letters, he may quite possibly do a novel ‘as is’ a novel.” It’s said that Wylie was so unhappy with the book’s reception that he abandoned experimentation in favor of more conventional novels and short stories.

    As always, your suggestions are welcome and will be passed along for the consideration of other lovers of the worthy but little-known.

    David Nix recommends B. H. Friedman’s “Yarborough”


    David Nix wrote with an enthusiastic recommendation for B. H. Friedman’s 1964, Yarborough:

    I first read, re-read, and re-re-read this book when I was in college, over 40 years ago. The story of a World War II era bridge prodigy spoke to me in a way that no other book ever has. The descriptions of drug experiences (marijuana and LSD) are vivid and accurate. A few years later I tracked down a copy through a book locator (remember them?), and have re-etc.-read it every couple of years ever since. For me, at least, it has never ceased to be fresh.

    Friedman is a wonderful writer who never found popular acclaim. I guess his best-know novel was The Polygamist, which was a NYT Notable Book in its publication year. He was also an art writer in the abstract expressionist era — wrote the first full-length biography of Jackson Pollock [Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible–reissued by Da Capo Press in 1995.–Ed.], and a terrific novel about the museum world [Museum, one of the first three works published in 1974 by the Fiction Collective.–Ed.]

    He is still around — must be in his mid-80s by now. I noticed a letter from him in the NYT Book Review a couple of months back, and Amazon tells me he published a new book last year.

    Yarborough takes its title from the game of bridge. A “yarborough” is a “nothing hand” without face cards or value. Yarborough follows the life of Arthur Skelton, a bridge prodigy, who searches in vain for a system to give his life meaning. He experiments with many of the temptations available in the first half of the 20th century, finding none and dying suddenly in a car crash while still in his twenties. It was well-received by some of the more prominent papers, such as the New York Times, but most critics and readers outside Manhattan found it too esoteric. It continues to win and keep a small number of fervent supporters such as Mr. Nix.

    Much the same fate was suffered by Friedman’s first novel, Circles, published in 1963. It also received positive reviews on the East Coast, but led one Midwestern critic to grouse, “If you deleted the martinis, the sex, the pot (marijuana), the sex, the cocktail parties, and the sex, there would be little left in this novel.” (Which reminds me of a famous line from “Blazing Saddles”).

    Friedman continues to write and publish in the new century. His 2006 book, Tripping: A Memoir of Timothy Leary & Co., was probably his most commercially successful since The Polygamist. His most recent novel, My Case Rests, was published just last year.

    Brad Walker recommends two political comedies

    Reader Brad Walker wrote to recommend two neglected novels, both political comedies: “Both are hilarious and utterly cynical,” he writes. “If you can enjoy Perdita Get Lost, you should have no trouble with these.”

    The Smoke-filled Boudoir, by Lawrence Williams, 1965.

    “I really enjoyed this in junior high. Reread a few years ago and was struck by how slight it seemed. Well, there may not be much meat on them bones, but what’s there is cherce! (Too bad we’ve lost Ted Knight – he would’ve been perfect as the candidate.)” The Owosso-Argus Press called it “a hilarious novel of high jinks and low politics.” Lawrence Williams is probably best remembered for his 1972 novel, I, James McNeill Whistler, in which he carried on from a fragment left by Whistler and filled in the rest with a fictional autobiography.

    Let George Do It! by John Foster, 1957.

    “More of a period piece than Boudoir, it hinges on campaign practices long superseded, but the mindset is eternal. (I saw the hero played by Sly Stallone with George done by his ‘Lords of Flatbush’ co-star Henry Winkler. Shows my age.)” Let George Do It! turns out to have impeccable street cred: “John Foster” was one of several noms de plume used by Foster Furcolo, two-term governor of Massachussetts. Furcolo later adapted the book for the stage as the comedy, “Ballots Up!,” using another alias, “Larry Sands.” “That’s what I was called when I did a little amateur boxing some years ago,” he told Time magazine when the play debuted at a Michigan summer stock theatre.

    Thanks for the recommendations, Brad! They’ve got my vote (gnyuck, gnyuck, gnyuck)!

    Meg Rosoff recommends Sylvester Stein’s “Second-Class Taxi”

    Meg Rosoff, award-winning author of such novels as How I Live Now, What I Was, and The Bride’s Farewell, wrote to recommend Sylvester Stein’s novel of life in South Africa under apartheid, Second Class Taxi:
    Cover

    Published by Faber in 1958, it was banned in South Africa for twenty years. The audacity of a white man writing in the character of a dispossessed black South African only works because the voice is so hilarious and tragic and true; as editor of Drum Magazine, an important figure in the early days of the anti-apartheid movement and a supporting member of the ANC, Stein had a unique perspective on the absurd world he describes. It’s a wonderful book.

    Banned in South Africa, out of print for most of the last fifty years, Second Class Taxi is now available “in a brilliant new staple-bound A4 format” from the one-title Nononsense Press. It tells the story of Staffnurse Phofolo, a “non-person” who lives in a drain-pipe, hangs out in illegal bars (shebeens), participates in protests, and generally lives outside officially-sanctioned society. While savaging the practices of the South African government, Stein maintained a sly, gently-mocking tone akin to Hasek’s in The Good Soldier Svejk. Stein left South Africa in the late 1950s when state censorship made editing the integrated magazine a near-suicidal endeavor, taking with him the manuscript of this novel.

    Stein’s most recent book, Who Killed Mr. Drum? (2003), is still in print from Corvo Books.

    Eight Recommendations from Sonesh Chainani

    I’m always interested in getting suggestions from other readers, and when I do, it’s usually just a title or two. Sonesh Chainani, a closet English major in Miami, took a break from his busy schedule to provide a whopping eight-pack of his favorite neglected books. He gets an A+ in my book, because he came up with three titles that are wholly new to me. And I give myself a D- for letting my own busy schedule keep this post on hold for over a week.

    Sonesh writes,

    I now realize that the roots with obsession with neglected books goes back at least to college, where I wrote my thesis on Julio Cortazar’s 62: A Model Kit, which is mentioned on your site. (New Directions re-released it 2 months after I finished my thesis, but I had to buy an expensive copy from a used bookshop in England in order to read it and I was so fascinated and confused by it that I decided I should write my undergraduate thesis on it.) I remember my advisor telling me that Cortazar was well-respected but nobody read 62: A Model Kit, and I remember the feeling of excitement of opening the book and being hooked by the first paragraph and thinking I may have been one of only a very small group of English-speaking readers who had read this book, which was written, published, and then quietly disappeared.

    So, without further ado, let’s leap into Sonesh’s list:

    All Heads Turn When the Hunt GoesBy, by John Farris, which was published by Playboy Press in 1977.

    I would describe it as a “Southern gothic voodoo sexual horror novel” and though pacing of the book lags in places, the writing creeps up on you. The book opens with a brilliant over-the-top setpiece at a posh formal military wedding at a Southern estate where the groom goes absolutely unhinged with his sabre and darkest Africa takes its revenge on the antebellum south. There is a crumbling church, virginal decapitations, incestuous hysteria — I don’t know what else to say about the opening to the book except that it stuck with me for a while. The rest of the book doesn’t quite live up to the opening but it’s pretty damn good.

    Farris is a prolific but very underrated and neglected writer — he wrote the novel The Fury which I haven’t read, but which is the basis of a minor but still enjoyable Brian DePalma movie starring Kirk Douglas, Amy Irving and John Cassavetes. The movie (and I imagine the book) is a funny mixture of the clinical and the lunatic.

    In Praise of Older Women, by Stephen Vizinczey

    A beautiful book that only a European could have written. Despite the salacious title and deliberately misleading jacket copy, the book is actually both a beautifully constructed engaging first-person novel and an argument for the induction by young men of older (not old but older) women and against the championing of mutual virginity and teenage cluelessness and prudery when it comes to sex. A google search reveals that this book was also made into a movie but I know nothing abou it.

    Truth and Lies in Literature: Essays and Reviews, by Stephen Vizinczey

    Truth and Lies, which I couldn’t stop reading, although a bit dated as literary criticism, is written in crystalline clear prose. Vizinczey’s prose is beautiful and limpid in both the novel above and this book and his reading of Melville’s “Billy Budd” as disturbing, fraudulent, politically indefensible literature is interesting. (I never liked “Billy Budd” myself but for different reasons.) He champions slightly more neglected or rather unfashionable French classic authors (e.g. Stendhal, Balzac) over the Russians it seems, which is not a very contemporary view, although he is clearly fond of some of the Russians as well. He also has definite and controversial views on various authors (he thoroughly whips on Malraux in one essay and in another praises Mailer for The Armies of the Night).

    In both books that I read Vizinczey has a gift for not being mean, condescending or glib, even when his subject matter is difficult — love (for women, for literature) infuses everything he writes and it’s refreshing and enlightening to read him.

    Nine Hundred Grandmothers, by R.A. Lafferty

    This is a strange and compelling short story collection. Comparisons have been made between Lafferty and Heinlein and Phillip Dick, but these “sci-fi” (I use that term loosely) short stories are really in a world of their own. They are very damn funny and strange — a bizarre combinations of jokes without punchlines and very disciplined writing. The quality of the stories varies but they are all worth reading. Neil Gaiman is a big fan of Lafferty and has said that he has been influenced by Lafferty, although I don’t think Gaiman’s writing is nearly as entertaining.

    Dance of the Dwarfs, by Geoffrey Household

    I got this book from a friend who knew how much I liked another neglected book with a title involving those who are vertically challenged — Walter de la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget — and although I had low expectations, the book turned out to be fantastic. The main character is a courageous, stoic agricultural expert working out in remote Columbia near the jungles. Although the beginning of the book only hints at mystery, it quickly becomes a strange and captivating suspense novel that was actually quite terrifying (despite the hilarity of the title ). The book’s a slow burn and the view of remote South America through the perspective of a cerebral white man becoming slowly ensnared in its mysteries is a nice antidote to much of the mediocre Latin American fiction that passes for “magical realism” these days. Also, just for the record, I am 6 foot 2.

    Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, by Nikolai Leskov

    This was a great little novella — truly deranged — despite the title, the main character is more Medea than Lady Macbeth. I’d like to read more of this Russian writer who I suspect is little read in the West.

    A Melon for Ecstasy, by John Fortune and John Wells

    Hilarious though inconsistent humorous epistolary novel about a quiet, repressed man who not only has a very serious physical hankering for trees but acts on it. This book was one-of-a-kind and I found myself laughing a lot out loud. The authors’ vocabularies are prodigious and well-used. I don’t really know what else to write about this book, except to note that the book opens with the following fictional Turkish proverb.

    A woman for duty,
    A boy for pleasure,
    But a melon for ecstasy.
    – Old Turkish proverb

    A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family, by Peter Dimock

    A lean, stylized novel in the form of a single letter from Jarlath Lanham to his nephew and the son of his father’s ex-lover. The narrator’s focus on the rules of ancient rhetoric actually ties in quite well to the subject of the book: the Vietnam war and what allowed it to happen and to continue happening. This is a strange and intense novel, well worth reading although it is not an easy read.

    The Winners

    I believe this was one of the first books put out by NYRB Classics. It’s a hilarious, disturbing novel that is part Kafka and part Groucho Marx, about a group of state lottery winners in Argentina who win passage on a mystery cruise ship for an unknown destination. What starts out with aimless gossip, intrigues and annoyance by the bored, confused passengers develops into something more sinister. Cortazar’s female characters are rich and well-developed, and although this is not my favorite book by him (that would have to go to his stories and 62), it is an exciting and brilliant first novel. This is a useful link to Cortazar’s bibliography and publishing history: www.subir.com/cortazar/.