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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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.


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”).


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.

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–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.


• 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 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.

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:


• 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.”


• 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.”


• 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)


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.
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:

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 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”

    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:

    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:

    Bruce Allen recommends the work of François Mauriac

    Cover of 'A Mauriac Reader'Bruce Allen wrote recently to recommend the novels of François Mauriac:

    I wonder how many readers remember François Mauriac (1885-1970), whose best novels (e.g., Thérèse Desqueyroux, Vipers’ Tangle, Woman of the Pharisees, A Kiss for the Leper, and at least a half dozen others) began appearing in English translations during the 1960os.

    An un-apologetic Catholic apologist, Mauriac has always been marginalized as a writer of narrow sympathes and range. But at his best he’s an eloquent composer of stark tragedies of ancestral and faith-driven conflicts framed as allegories of sin, redemption, and retribution – often complicated by the unruly realities of sex and greed. No novelist ever understood, and engaged the seven deadly sins (and all the other un-numbered ones) as well as Mauriac. He ought to be revived every generation or so, and readers who’ve never sampled the brimstone pungency of his best work have missed out on one of the great 20th century bodies of work.

    François MauriacFortunately for would-be readers, a good deal of Mauriac’s work is in print and easily available for purchase online. All of the above books are in print, as are several less-known works: The Frontenacs, The Mask of Innocence, and Young Man in Chains. Actually, A Kiss for the Leper is in print by virtue of its inclusion in A Mauriac Reader, which collects it and four other novels under one cover, with an introduction by Wallace Fowlie. Farrar, Straus and Giroux have heroically kept it in print for over forty years now.

    Mauriac is often compared with Graham Greene: both Catholics, both dedicated to writing about modern and his struggle with sin. “I have tried to make the Catholic universe of evil palpable, tangible, odorous. If theologians provided an abstract idea of the sinner, I gave him flesh and blood,” Mauriac once remarked. Asked about the comparison, however, Greene drew a fine distinction between their works: “Mauriac’s sinners sin against God wheareas mine, however hard they try, can never quite manage to.” Mauriac also won, in 1952, the Nobel Prize for Literature, an honor that eluded Greene.

    The Late Great Creature, by Brock Brower

    R. W. Rasband writes with a strong recommendation for Brock Brower’s 1971 novel, The Late Great Creature: “In a time when both Stephen King and satirical comedy are so popular, I don’t understand why this novel isn’t more well known.”

    In his review on, Rasband wrote of the novel:

    The movie documentary “Stone Reader” is about great books that have been lost to public memory or somehow never gotten the attention they deserve. My nomination for a “great lost book” is Brock Brower’s The Late Great Creature, an amazing 1971 novel that needs to be resurrected for a certain-to-be large, appreciative audience. The title character is Simon Moro, the greatest horror Cover of first U.S. paperback edition of 'The Late Great Creature'movie star of the 1920’s and ’30’s (he’s like Lon Chaney Sr. to the nth degree.) We learn of his fall from fame, and his attempted comeback in the phantasmagorical year of 1968. In his prime he made “Ghoulgantua”, the most terrifying film ever made (about a combination Frankenstein’s monster/vampire.) He created the famous monster “Gila Man” (a sort of werewolf lizard) during the war. Later he was blacklisted for political reasons, went to Germany to make a legendary, unreleased horror movie about the Nazi concentration camps that was supressed by both West and East Germany, and gradually sank into obscurity. Then low-budget Hollywood came calling with an offer to make a cheap Roger Corman-style Edgar Allen Poe rip-off titled “Raven!”

    The novel has an amazing storytelling virtuosity that suggests, as one critic put it, a younger Nabokov raised on creepy old horror movies. There are three narrators: Warner Williams, a terminally-slick magazine writer who provides the basic back story of Moro’s amazing career. There’s also Terry Cowan, the amoral, cynical director of “Raven!” And there’s Moro himself, who drops some pretty big surprises in his narration that make you question all that has gone before. Like Bela Lugosi, Moro struggled with demons (including drugs and poverty) but Moro developed some real heroism and hard-won insight. As he says, “Where there is no spine, there is no tingle.” He looks out at the corrupt America of the 1960’s and decides to shock it back to its moral senses by scaring the country to death during the publicity tour for his new movie. He does this in grotesque, hilarious ways that you have to read for yourself.

    The book is wonderfully satrical about celebrity culture and is also a loving tribute to the horror genre. It’s stunningly verbally agile. There are lines that will stick in your head forever. It’s also got a thrillingly intricate plot, that as you unravel it through the three narrators, will amaze and delight you. In a way it reminds me of Michael Chabon’s “Wonder Boys” in its compassionate yet blisteringly funny and painstakingly accurate portrait of artistic losers run amok. I read this in high school and it remains one of my very favorite books. You should get hold of a copy immediately, any way you can.

    Time magazine’s reviewer was equally enthusiastic when the book first came out:

    If this were all Brower had done, The Late Great Creature would be only one of the funniest tours de force of the past few years. But he has done more. With few illusions of ever returning to the great days of Saturday matinee catharsis, he illustrates the salutary nature of terror—its ability to exorcise fears of evil and death. He also toys gracefully with the paradox that fiction is capable of more truth than journalism. The truth about Brock Brower, an experienced freelance journalist, is that he must now be reckoned with as an extraordinarily capable novelist.

    As recounted in an article in Publisher’s Weekly back in 2005, however, such positive reviews and even a National Book Award nomination couldn’t get Brower the time of day or a publisher. It was nearly 30 years before he attempted fiction again. The result, Blue Dog, Green River, a somewhat mystical tale of Blue Dog, a one-time chicken thief, was published by the admirable David R. Godine Press and is still in print.

    Some Recommendations from Maura Kelly

    Maura Kelly, a prolific writer for journals ranging from The New York Times to The Daily Beast and Marie Claire, wrote the other day to give this site a thumbs up. Prodded for a few of her own neglected favorites, she offered the works of James Salter, including Light Years, A Sport and a Pastime, and his memoir, Burning the Days. After decades of genuine neglect–books long out of print, periodic mentions by admiring fellow writers–Salter’s star has finally risen and one might fairly call him America’s best-known neglected writer. All of his books are back in print; he’s been a featured writer in the New York Times, and clocks in with over 300,000 hits on Google. None of which helped pay the rent forty years ago, of course.

    She also mentioned John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction, which sparked a fair amount of controversy when it first appeared back in 1978. In th John Gardner in 1978book, Gardner attempts to hold the high ground against contemporaries such as Bellow, Mailer, and the fearsome nouveau romans of Robbe-Grillet and others. He argues that,true art “clarifies life, establishes models of human action, casts nets toward the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns.” Whether his criticism was valid or not, it certainly helped make the book perhaps the best-selling work of literary criticism of its time. In a thoughtful piece for the Atlantic, published back in 2005, the novelist Mary Gordon argues–convincingly, I think–that Gardner was pretty much dead wrong. King Lear, for example, is certainly a work of true art, but one could hardly say that he’s a model of human action. A striking example of human action, yes. A model to be emulated, though? I side with Gordon’s much more straight-forward approach: that it’s the raising of “intriguing and unanswerable questions” that marks great fiction.

    Gardner’s own novels, particularly Nickel Mountain and October Light, had a certain cult classic status among college students back in the 1970s, although I suspect the sales had as much to do with the fine cover art by Paul Bacon, which was a distinctive blend of the Gothic and the psychedelic that promised something much different from the grim tales of life in upstate New York one found inside the covers. I suspect that, in the long run, Gardner’s Grendel, a fierce retelling of the Beowulf tale from the perspective of the monster–a somewhat experimental piece more like shudder Barth’s Chimera than Middlemarch, that will maintain his artistic reputation.

    Brooks Peters recommends The Gilded Hearse, by Charles Gorham

    Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Gilded Hearse'Brooks Peters, who writes one of the most consistently interesting blogs around (, passed along a plug for Charles Gorham’s novel, The Gilded Hearse, which sounds like a terrific guilty pleasure:

    It’s not exactly unknown but seems to have been overlooked lately. Perhaps “forgotten” is a better word since I can’t imagine too many people putting it on their top ten lists. It’s a rather scathing look at the publishing business just before the early beginnings of World War Two. Set in Manhattan in 1938 (but published in 1948), it details a traumatic day in the life of a book exec named Richard Eliot who battles his own demons while depicting his circle of friends and business associates in a very unflattering light. The day is set against the backdrop of the Munich compromise which is not too subtly broadcast throughout the text whenever someone happens to turn on a radio.

    The firm, Hutchinson’s, could be several well-known publishing houses of the era, complete with the white-shoe editors, the burly, brusque, hard-drinking salesmen and the neurotic, ambitious “suits” who handle the brash marketing side. None too subtle (the writing style is sort of a cross between Grace Metalious and A. J. Cronin) , it is nonetheless very revealing of past attitudes and mores, as well as a fascinating relic of a time when the publishing world was just beginning to turn corporate.

    Gorham nails the ambiance of New York in the late 30s, the jazz bars, the sleazy saloons, the drunken book-signings in overly perfumed department stores, the overt anti-Semitism within polite society (in contrast to the genocide on the horizon in Germany), the sad, listless Village bohemians, and throws in a few hilariously drawn “fags” and “fairies” and one appalling lesbian stereotype to give the story some typical pulp grit and edge. One effeminate book editor named Graham Fatt, who swishes amid his Oriental art, keeps “a large jar of KY” in his purple-hued bathroom.

    There’s also plenty of sex between heterosexuals, abortions, lecherous cads, adulterous wives fornicating on trains. One character admits she went “to bed” with a colleague, then corrects herself by saying “to berth.”

    Cover of 'Make Me an Offer'The Gilded Hearse was also published several times as Make Me an Offer. Time magazine’s reviewer took a great big haughty sniff when the book first came out:

    As an indictment of the book business, The Gilded Hearse is neither good burlesque nor significant exposure. Few readers will be surprised to learn that book salesmen often haven’t read the books they sell, that salesgirls in bookstores are often dumb, that book publishers are increasingly less concerned with literature than with bestsellers. Those with the kind of taste that Gorham deplores will be quickest to see that The Gilded Hearse is just superficial enough, spiced with just enough bedroom business, to make it a likely Hutchinson book.

    Brooks sums up just why what Time dismissed as trash seems like a bit of tarnished gold today:

    … I thought I’d share the title with you in case any of your readers are eager to take a trip back in time to an era when the book business was a relatively insular world, dominated by a lost generation of self-hating alcoholics and men on the make. All in all, a fun, if purely nostalgic, read.

    “He Lived for Money, Women, and Power” trumpets the cover of one paperback reissue of The Gilded Hearse. Toss in drinking, classism, and bigotry to boot–ah, the good ol’ days.

    Brooks also recommends another Gorham novel and promises a future post on his own site about Gorham’s life and works.

    Gorham also wrote the early gay-themed novel McCaffery, about a lusty male hustler, which is equally graphic. I’m a big fan of his lurid style. It’s pulp fiction with a trenchant eye for detail and nuance, and an insider’s perspective. Gorham’s life story itself reads like one of his novels. I’ve been in touch with Gorham’s daughter Deborah, a noted scholar, about doing a piece on him for my blog, but have been wrapped up in too many things recently to give it my full attention. I hope to get it done soon.

    The Changing Face of New England, by Betty Flanders Thomson

    Jack Ayer, professor of law emeritus at the University of California Davis and author of the Underbelly blog, writes to recommend Betty Flanders Thomson’s 1958 book, The Changing Face of New England. In a recent post on cellarholes–the remnants of long-abandoned New England farmhouses–he includes a long quote from Thomson’s book. An even longer excerpt can be found in the online archives of American Heritage magazine.

    Nearly twenty years after her New England book, Thomson published a study of the landscapes of the Midwest, Shaping of America’s Heartland. Both titles are now long out of print, unfortunately, as they are highly regarded for their quality of writing and science. Indeed, Connecticut College still remembers Thomson with an annual award for its best student in botany.

    Robert Chandler recommends the works of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

    Robert Chandler, translator of Andrey Platonov’s Happy Moscow, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate write to recommend “[A]nother great, and still more recently discovered, writer from the 1920s and 30s: Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky”:

    I included one of his stories, ‘Quadraturin’, in my Penguin Classics anthology Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (Penguin Classics). There is also a small anthology of his work published by GLAS: Seven Stories.

    And NYRB Classics are bringing out another volume [Memories of the Future] in the next few months.

    His work is translated by Joanne Turnbull, and her translations are very, very good indeed. [Turnbull won the 2007 Rossica Translation Prize for Seven Stories.–Ed.]

    There is a bit about him at the Complete Review.

    You can read his short story, “Quadraturin” online at the Glas website ( and another, “Yellow Coal”, at You can also read about Krzhizhanovsky on Wikipedia and Ellis Sharp’s blog.

    D. G. Myers recommends Perry Miller’s “The Raven and the Whale”

    Regular visitor Texas A&M professor D. G. Myers recently posted a thoughtful and appreciative review of Perry Miller’s 1956 book, The Raven and the Whale: Poe, Melville, and the New York Literary Scene. He compares it to Louis Menand’s Puliter Prize-winning 2002 book on James, Holmes, and Pierce, The Metaphysical Club, writing that, “The result is a human comedy, a collection of lively anecdote and a war-memorial to men who cared passionately about raising up from scratch what Miller calls “an independent, a completely native and unique, literature” in America.”

    Myers also rightly notes that not all neglected books are ones that fade from the spotlight, like Yates’ Revolutionary Road. Some are, in his words, “books that are even more likely to be neglected, because they were not widely bought and read to begin with.” Such books have certainly become more and more my focus as this site matures.

    Two Recommendations from Kevin Michael Derby

    Kevin Michael Derby, about the only person, it seems to have noticed my post about the works of historian Kenneth S. Davis, wrote with two recommendations for books worthy of rediscovery:

    • The Age of the French Revolution, by Claude Manceron, consisting of the following five volumes:

            • Volume 1: Twilight of the Old Order, 1774-1778

            • Volume 2: The Wind from America, 1778-1781

            • Volume 3: Their Gracious Pleasure, 1782-1785

            • Volume 4: Toward the Brink, 1785-1787

            • Volume 5: Blood of the Bastille, 1787-1789

    “Manceron was a unique historian who decided to chart the French Revolution through a hundred lives of key individuals. This leads to a vivid and often over the top narrative which offers little in the way of analysis and often proved incoherent in the way of descriptions. Manceron is all over the place and his narrative reminds me of Eliot’s “heap of shattered images.” Now he takes us to Rome for a papal election. Next stop is outside Philadelphia where General Washington retreats from Howe’s redcoats. Now to Versailles where Marie Antoinette is dancing. Meanwhile in the country, Robespierre studies law. Manceron makes no secret of his biases. He is a fan of the revolution and even dedicates volumes to modern day leftists like Allende and Mitterrand. Manceron also felt the need to jump out from behind the curtains and interrupt his narration with odd asides and comments, often shaking his fist at the leaders of the Church and other reactionaries. Still other times, he smugly asserts that the lead players of the Revolution were more heroic and had more dynamic adventurers than nomads and explorers. Manceron promised there would be at least ten volumes. He died after writing five, just as the Bastille was captured. While I can not claim to know more about why the Revolution occurred, I know the lead characters and their various motivations better having read the five volumes. These books really deserved better than to be forgotten despite the flaws. They make the French Revolution accessible.”

    Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne: Misadventures of an English General in the Revolution, by Francis J. Huddleston.

    “Perhaps the strangest biography that I have ever read. While attempting to offer a life of the losing commander of the battle of Saratoga and a celebrated playwright of his times, Huddleston makes a number of asides including all of the following: there are too many scholars attempting to prove Shakespeare did not write his plays; whether or not actresses should take to the stage in skimpy night attire; what happened to French soldiers after the Great War; why they should not sell snacks on trains despite the declining quality of full meals served on trains; how horses from Spain are overrated by gamblers and equestrians alike; why the Prince of Wales both then and now-both George IV and the future Duke of Windsor-needed to find better mentors; why the British needed to adapt khaki uniforms sometime in the 1870s or 1880s; thoughts on what an Irish military museum should include; speculations on the exact nature of the Gulf stream; advice that if you are going to recite a limerick at the table with old friends and the first line is sexually suggestive, make sure the second line is too otherwise it will be a severe letdown for your companions; yelling “Are we downhearted?” is not a good way to convince your boss that your team does not have low morale; and many more comments, all of which have nothing to do with the life of General Burgoyne.”

    Thanks for the recommendations, Kevin–I’ve already sent off for the first of Manceron’s volumes and am looking forward to reading it.

    As always, readers are encouraged to provide their own recommendations–especially when they’re as interesting as these.

    Jane White

    Cover of UK paperback edition of 'Quarry'Brooks Peters wrote with a recommendation of Quarry, a 1967 novel by Jane White. As Brooks describes Quarry,

    It’s a British novel from 1960s about three adolescent boys who kidnap a boy and keep him in a cave in a quarry. It’s been compared to Lord of the Flies. It got great reviews when it came out. I’ve just finished it and thought it was extremely well done. But a real enigma. I can’t figure out what it is really about except perhaps the breakdown of society.

    Richard Freeman, in the Saturday Review, wrote that Quarry,

    … is an allegory with a variety of more or less cosmic overtones. The action takes place not in a normal, pastoral English summer, but in an arid wasteland during a fierce heat wave. Images of darkness and light are strewn about and the cave is philosophically associated with the one in Plato’s Republic. The victim, especially, is given much symbolic weight to bear as a universal scapegoat…. [U]ltimately, the book is about the complex symbiosis between prosecutor and prey. If Quarry is less richly imagined than Lord of the Flies and lacks its verbal distinction, it is nevertheless an extraordinarily assured first novel, and is even superior to Golding’s in its control of allegory, the bare bones of which are less frequently allowed to obtrude.

    Other reviewers compared White favorably with Iris Murdoch. Her second novel, Proxy, received mostly positive reviews in the U.K. but was uniformly panned in the U.S.. From what I can determine, White went on to publish four more novels:

    She also published a memoir, Norfolk Child, in 1973. Despite the fact that reviewers of her later works offered such praise as “Miss Young writes well of marriages and the forces that mold them”; “a haunting, macabre quality reminiscent of Iris Murdoch”; and “an abundant mixture of lyrical and symbolic”, White seems to have disappeared from the publishing scene entirely after 1976. I haven’t had a chance to sample White’s work, but on the surface at least, she appears to be a worthy candidate for reconsideration.

    Added 22 November 2009

    Jane White, autho of QuarryBrooks Peters added the following biographical information, along with a photo of Jane White, from the dust jacket of Quarry:

    “Jane White was born in Cambridge in 1934, and her family moved soon afterwards to a remote farmhouse in Norfolk. Her father is an historian and University Lecturer at Downing College, Cambridge. Jane White was educated at home by a governess until the age of nine, then at a Convent boarding school. At eighteen she won a State Scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge. She read for an honours Degree in English and graduated with an upper second Degree. She worked as an assistant in a large public library for nine months prior to Cambridge and took various vacation jobs as a waitress — also as general help in a Maternity Hospital.

    She was employed for five years with the B.B.C. World Service as a News Clerk in the News Information Department. In 1961 she married a lecturer in German at Birkbeck College, London University. She has one small son, and lives at Godalming Surrey.

    Jane White has written plays, poetry, verse dramas for as long as she can remember. Her first novel was completed at the age of nine. She is much interested in acting, and took part in various amateur productions at Cambridge, once venturing as far as the Edinburgh ‘Fringe’.

    Her interests include theatre-going, films, both good and bad, music of all kinds, and reading.”

    Thanks, Brooks!

    The Horrors of Love, by Jean Dutuord

    Rabbi David Wolpe writes to recommend a favorite title that’s now long out of print and largely forgotten: Jean Dutourd’s 1963 novel, Les Horreurs de l’amour, released in English in 1967 as The Horrors of Love. This description of the book and its plot comes from Time magazine’s original review:

    Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Horrors of Love'The Horrors of Love is an often ridiculous, sometimes funny tale of a middle-aged member of the French Chamber of Deputies who becomes tragically involved with his young mistress. At first glance, the story seems to be as obviously and simply French as a pair of lovers sneaking off to a bedsitter in the Square St.-Lambert. Yet it is not only the Gallic spirit that intrigues Dutourd, but the human spirit as well.

    The rambling story unfolds in a dialogue between Dutourd and a friend. As they stroll in Paris, they discuss the unhappy case of Edouard Roberti, the 52-year-old Deputy who has been sent to prison for killing his mistress’ brother. It is apparent that Roberti, a respectable, loving father and husband, was all too ordinary—not so much evil as weak, not so much stupid as pitifully vain. By way of examining how it was that such a commonplace, decent man could become trapped in a senseless and sordid mess, Dutourd’s dialogue ranges through all sorts of philosophical detours. Courage and cowardice, honor and honesty, art, letters, manners, politics and morals become way stations as the two friends chat and argue.

    This is not the first mention of The Horrors of Love in these pages. In the Los Angeles Times’ 1999 feature, Forgotten Treasures: A Symposium, John Lukacs called it a “stunning exception” to the overall decline of the novel. Lukacs wrote,

    One oddity about it is that it is written in the second-person singular; it is a long dialogue between two super-intelligent Frenchmen (both sides of Dutourd’s own character) walking through Paris, ambling in and out restaurants, reconstructing the pride and fall of a Parisian politician who gradually falls in love with his younger mistress and ends up in jail. It is a delicious and profound work of art, from beginning to end. Andre Maurois likened it to Proust; but in some ways it is better than Proust, sprightlier and more imaginative. The language itself is superb.

    And in nosing around the Net, I found a third strong thumbs-up from the fine novelist, Diane Johnson, in an issue of Archipelago from a few years back:

    My first choice would be Jean Dutourd’s The Horrors of Love, which is translated into English and was published in the sixties. It is an incredible tour de force — a dialogue running to more than 600 pages, between two men who are walking through Paris, talking about the fate of a politician friend of theirs who was brought down by an erotic entanglement. Urbane, wise, humane, funny, even suspenseful — this is a worthy successor, as someone said, to Proust. Dutourd is the greatest living French novelist, and the only witty one since Proust; and before that? Voltaire? Laclos?

    Jean DutourdPraise such as this makes me want to hang my head in shame for not having read it yet, even after skipping past used copies in bookstore stacks perhaps a hundred times over the year (I think it was a Literary Guild selection, so there are plenty of cheap used copies out there in the U.S.).

    Dutuord, who’s managed to put out nearly a book a year since 1946, is still living and, I assume, writing. His 1950 satirical fantasy, A Dog’s Head, was reissued by the University of Chicago Press as part of its Phoenix Fiction series in 1998 and is still in print. His other novel of that year, Au bon beurre, scenes de la vie sous lâ Occupation, translated as The Best Butter has been called the best French novel to come out of World War Two.

    Looking for reader recommendations: Great city novels

    I am in the process of watching the fifth and last season of the remarkable HBO series, The Wire. For me, it’s one of the best things ever done in the medium, and knowing there are no more to follow leaves me looking for a great big messy jaded city novel to sink myself into. Others have already made this comparison, but The Wire was really like a novel in David Simon’s willingness to take time to let the story unfold through detours into minor and major characters, to move up and down the social strata, to delve into intrigues high and low.

    But what can one novels compare to The Wire? I can think of a few: Bleak House, at least in its span of social class and its unforgettable opening description of London; some of Zola’s Paris novels, such as Money. Mark Smith’s loose baggy monster Chicago novel, The Death of the Detective. I recently devoured a pretty good novel, William L. White’s What People Said, with a similar range but in the far tamer setting of several Kansas towns of the early 20th century.

    But I’m putting out a call to other readers: can you offer some other suggestions? There must be a few more juicy word-packed book that can compete with the likes of The Wire.

    Small World, by Carol Deschere

    The fact that Carol Deschere Berendt, mother of John Berendt, author of the best-selling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The City of Falling Angels, once published a novel, Small World, under her maiden name, would not in itself qualify the book for mention here.

    But, as Syracure Post-Standard writer Laura T. Ryan noted two years ago in her blog, Karen DeCrow, a pioneering feminist and one-time president of the National Organization for Women, was passed along a copy back in the late 1970s. DeCrow was so moved by the book that, “… she typed up a 5-page letter and sent it to everyone she knew in the publishing world, hoping to get it re-released.” Ryan quotes from the letter:

    Twelve years before publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963), Carol Deschere wrote a novel which could have spurred the feminist revolution, had enough women read it. In Small World, a simply written and simply plotted novel, Deschere tells us the story of a bright, educated, and cultured woman who leads the life of a middle-class housewife. Her husband is kind and generous, her children are intelligent and obedient, her home is stylish and comfortable.

    Her world, however, is so small that it revolves totally around food, clothing, furniture, and an occasional outreach of interest to music, art, and literature. The novel takes place during one of the critical periods in American history: World War II had just ended, the alliances of nations in the world were dramatically shifting, capitalism as an economic system was being seriously questioned for the first time in a century, and the seeds of the Cold War period were being developed in the United States. Yet Kay Hiller, the hero of the novel, does not deal with these issues, despite the fact that she is both bright and intellectual….

    … For women who dream of art, music, literature, and affairs of state there are few alternatives — lovers, suicide, or worst of all, resignation. With the broadening of the small world for women, hopefully novels about Emma (Bovary), about Kay, will become historical documents.

    As Berendt himself describes the book in an interview on Barnes & Noble’s website,

    The story concerns a family of four living in upstate New York. It’s charming and beautifully written. Carol Deschere, the author, happens to be my mother, and the family depicted in her novel closely resembles our own. The book sold about 2,000 copies and, although my mother never wrote another book, Small World was a life-changing experience for me, because in addition to making me enormously proud of her, it showed me for the first time how real life could be transformed into words and stories and published in a book for all to read. It also planted the first seed in my mind that I might become a writer one day.

    Deschere died last year at the age of 92. Small World remains out of print–in fact, a quick search of located a grand total of three copies, at $48, $200, and almost $1,000, respectively. Two reviewers on Amazon remembered it fondly enough to post 5-star reviews of the book, so Karen DeCrow is not alone in hoping that this book may someday find its way to republication.

    An Appreciation of “The Fortunes of Richard Mahony,” by Henry Handel Richardson

    Tony Spors writes in with a personal appreciation of the Australian novelist Henry Handel Richardson (nom de plume of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson)

    “How I do hate the ordinary sleek biography. I’d have every wart and every pimple emphasized, every murky trait or petty meanness brought out. The great writers are great enough to bear it.” These are the words of Henry Handel Richardson, a woman writer from Australia who lived from 1870 to 1946. Yes, woman writer, for like George Eliot, she wrote under a male pseudonym.

    Mrs. Richardson applied this principle of exact unrelenting truth she stated above to her own fiction. Her masterpiece, completed in 1929, is The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, a trilogy of novels, which tells the story of a family living in the gold fields of frontier Australia, immigrated from Ireland, having to cope with the devastating effects of the young doctor father’s severe mental and physical deterioration from syphilis. I’ve read It is based quite closely on Mrs. Richardson’s own childhood.

    I read this trilogy of novels about at the same time in my life as I was reading the great Russian novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. The trilogy, being over 900 pages, is related to these Russian novels in size. But more importantly The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, is similar to these Russian novels in its penetrating psychological realism Not often will you find a novel written almost eighty years ago that deals this honestly with no sugar coating or sentimentality with the severe mental illness of a young doctor head of a family. You can feel for the young mother and her children having to face the growing ostracism by her neighbors caused by her husband’s bizarre behavior. Of course, the doctor’s patients drop away after several of his episodes, and the family is reduced to poverty.

    But not only is this family’s story courageous. Henry Handel Richardson is a writer of the very top rank. Although here in the United States she is little known beyond the movie of her novel The Getting of Wisdom which was made by Bruce Beresford in 1978, in Australia Henry Handel Richardson is considered a classic novelist. Sentence for sentence, the writing holds your interest as only the best novels do. Here is a writer in English we can read without the filter of translation.

    Later in my reading life, I discovered Patrick White, another writer from Australia, whom I consider probably the greatest novelist ever to write. I can’t help but think he must have read Henry Handel Richardson in his youth. If you like one of these writers, you will probably like the other.

    Since The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney is divided into three separate novels, I would recommend a reader start with the first volume, Australia Felix, and see if you are not hooked as I was into reading the other two volumes, The Way Home and Ultima Thule.

    If you’re happy to deal with raw text instead of a physical book, you can find Australia Felix, The Getting of Wisdom, and her first novel, Maurice Guest on Project Gutenberg. Or you could wait for the release of Monash University’s authoritative publication of her complete works. And if you’re really patient, you can wait until film director Bruce Beresford finds backers for his mini-series based on Richard Mahony. — Ed.

    Doug Anderson Recommends Some Neglected Titles

    Doug Anderson of the Blue Guitar Press writes to offer a few suggestions for books well worth rediscovering:

    · The Junior Bachelor Society by John A. Williams

    Williams has a tendency to go overboard racially (in my opinion); that is Black = oppressed and Good vs White = oppressor and Bad, but sometimes he overcomes this tendency and knocks it out of the park. A couple more titles come to mind: Mothersill and the Foxes and Captain Blackman. Thudermouth Press, recognizing a neglected writer, brought out a few of his novels in the 80s, including his one critical success, The Man Who Cried I Am. He still didn’t catch any kind of popular or critical wave. With !Click Song a racial bitterness sets in though not more so than many another Post War African American writer.

    · William Hickling Prescott’s History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella and History of the Reign of Philip the Second

    I would like to see a university press or some adventurous small press reprint William Hickling Prescott’s History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella and History of the Reign of Philip the Second published in the mid 19th century by Lippencott & Co – three volumes under each title. These are general histories and yes, written by the quintessential white male of old. Even so, anyone looking for perspective on a world-dominant America can’t go wrong reading about Europe’s first powerful empire after the fall of Rome. Prescott is always readable, informative and, blush blush, that horrible word: entertaining.

    · The Tinieblas Trilogy”by R.M. Koster

    Koster wrote these wild wonderful novels (The Prince, The Dissertation, Mandragon) about his fictional Central America in the 1970s and then reality gobbled them up and turned them into non-fiction in the 1980s. Even so they are great books. Full of life and expert writing they enthrall and delight. They might not be forgotten but they are way, way under appreciated.

    · An unclassifiable novel: What the Maid Saw: Eight Psychic Tales, by Yasutaka Tsutsui, translated by Adam Kabat, published by Kodansha Intl in 1990

    Say I could only use the word “riveting” once, for one book that I have read in my life until now; I would use it for this novel: riveting. [Tsutsui has several other books available in English translation, including the memorably-titled Salmonella Men from Planet Porno. — Ed.]

    Doug adds a last recommendation taken from one of this site’s Sources:

    I note that you site Anthony Burgess as a source for overlooked novels. How about Burgess himself? Does anyone read his M/F at all? I found it larky and generous and full of mischief – but – seemingly, very unread.

    I assumed that Burgess is now solidly fixed in the ranks of writers critically recognized and perennially in print, but a quick search on a few of my own favorites among his many novels — the Enderby tetralogy, Napoleon Symphony, and ABBA ABBA — reveals that most are, in fact, available only as second-hand copies.

    Twenty Suggestions from Will Schofield

    In his email tipping me off to Paul Dry Books, Will Schofield mentioned that Mr. Dry asked him to do three things to prove he was qualified for an internship with Dry’s publishing house. One of these was to prepare a list of twenty out-of-print books. Well, Will not only got the job but has now worked there for over seven years. I asked him if he’d be willing to share his list, and he kindly forwarded it, along with updates on each book’s status today.

    As Will writes,

    When you read these paragraphs, remember that they are the enthusiasms of a nervous and dorky 23-year-old college drop-out who was frittering his life away: living in the cultural wasteland of Northeast Philadelphia, catering, selling tambourines, drinking, and going into massive debt buying rare books and records. I still stand by the list. Most of the works mentioned remain (and probably will remain) neglected.

    Perhaps this post will help gently nudge one or two titles back into the limelight.

    Products of the Perfected Civilization by Chamfort, translated & introduced by W. S. Merwin.

    Published by North Point Press in 1984. French aphorist and philosopher with no works currently available in English.

    [2007 update: the Merwin book seems to still be out of print, but Douglas Parmee’s selection and translation is available from Short Books: Chamfort: Relections on Life, Love and Society Together with Anecdotes and Little Philosophical Dialogues.]


    Locus Solus by Raymond Roussel (1877-1933, France).

    Eccentric genius millionaire who composed the majority of his works using a strict system of word associations and puns (as detailed in How I Wrote Certain of My Books). This particular book is incredibly scarce, the few copies that occasionally surface going for at least $50. It’s considered his best book (and the translation is very respected). Published by John Calder and University of California in the seventies. Roussel’s admirers include John Ashbery, Foucault (who wrote his first book on Roussel, titled Death and the Labyrinth, now out of print), Duchamp, Apollinaire, Blanchot, Calvino, Gide, Proust, Cortazar, and Queneau.

    [2007 update: Still out of print.]

    Difficult Death by Rene Crevel (1900-1935, France).

    A beautiful autobiographical novel by one of the original surrealists, Rene Crevel (he was gay and they were generally a homophobic bunch), written in 1926. Ezra Pound has said of Crevel: “He will be read more and more as the wind carries away the ashes of the ‘great names’ that preceded him.” I’m inclined to agree. It was last published by North Point Press in 1986. I’ve come across only one copy on all out of print book searches in the past six months!

    [2007 update: this is still out of print, but you can now easily find the book on The excellent press Archipelago Books recently published Crevel’s My Body & I.]

    Mood Indigo (Grove 1968, tran. John Sturrock) or Froth on the Daydream (Quartet, trans. by Stanley Chapman) by Boris Vian (died in 1959).

    Vian is a cult figure in France and should be in America. Also out of print is his collection of jazz writings, Round About Close to Midnight. Never in paperback, the excellent Blues for a Black Cat: The Selected writings of Boris Vian was published in the early 90s by University of Nebraska. He is an amazing, idiosyncratic writer. Raymond Queneau even called Mood Indigo, “The greatest love novel of our time.”

    [2007 update: Tam Tam Books is bringing out translations of Vian’s books. They published Brian Harper’s new translation of L’ecume des Jours as Foam of the Daze (great title), as well as translations of I Spit on Your Graves, Autumn in Peking, and The Dead All Have the Same Skin (forthcoming). Dalkey Archive reprinted Heartsnatcher recently. Nebraska did publish a paperback version of Blues for a Black Cat.]


    Killachter Meadow — six stories by Aidan Higgins (Grove Press 1960).

    I just came across this very scarce book by Irish writer Higgins. It seems that many of his books are out of print. From the back cover: “In the title story, he tells of a macabre family of sisters living a desolate life on a ruined estate in South Africa, spilling their melancholy and venom on one another, until the eldest slips matter-of-factly into the river to die.” Sounds good to me.

    [2007 update: Still out of print]


    Journals by Denton Welch (published by Allison and Busby in the 1980s).

    An incredible British writer. Exact Change books has recently reprinted his first novel . Welch was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident at the age of 18. He started writing after the accident and didn’t stop until his death at 31. He was apparently an amazing and prolific poet as well, but the poems have only been published in an out of print volume called Dumb Instrument (Enitharmon Press, edition of 1000) which was a mere 58 pages long.

    [2007 update: still out of print.]


    Film as a Subversive Art by Amos Vogel.

    The absolute bible for followers of international avant-garde/interesting cinema. Should be used in every college film course, but remains inexplicably scarce. My copy seems to be inscribed to Martin Scorcese.

    [2007 update: D.A.P./C.T. Editions brought this back into print in 2005]


    Gathering Evidence by Thomas Bernhard.

    The Austrian writer’s autobiography is currently unavailable, I have no idea why. Also, it seems that his very first novel, Frost, has never been translated into English. A huge gap therefore exists between the very early work On the Mountain (published only much later when Bernhard was famous, I think) and his Gargoyles. Bernhard also wrote a couple of novellas around this time (1965-70) for which he was awarded numerous prizes. It looks like University of Chicago will be publishing these soon.

    [2007 update: Random House seems to keep this sporadically in print with their “value publishing” imprint. It deserves better. Knopf brought out Frost in a translation by Michael Hoffman. Chicago did indeed release Bernhard’s Three Novellas, but not until 2003, and it seems to have not made it into paperback.]


    The Ship by Hans Henny Jahnn (1894-1959).

    Considered by many scholars to be one of the greatest German writers of the century, Jahnn has been completely overlooked by America and Britain. His novel, Das Holzschiff, was translated by Catherine Hutter as The Ship and published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1961. It is the first, and only translated, part of a trilogy. The book is bleak, beautiful, and incredibly strange. More people should at least know it exists. There is one other volume in English called Thirteen Uncanny Stories, from about 1984, which might still be available. This book contains extracts from his longer works. I shall spend my life trying to raise the profile of this forgotten writer.

    [2007 update: I haven’t done a very good job raising his profile. At least there is now one critical work available in English, Thomas Freeman’s The Case of Hans Henny Jahnn: Criticism and the Literary Outsider. The French have rediscovered him already. I should also mention that Jahnn was gay; that fact, coupled with his violent imagery, seems to have scared the hell out of critics for years.]


    Juan de Mairena by Antonio Machado (trans. Ben Belitt, Univ. of California 1963).

    The book is subtitled “Epigrams, Maxims, Memoranda and Memoirs of an Apocryphal Professor. With an Appendix of Poems from the Apocryphal Songbooks.” All of the prose works by Machado, “Spain’s finest modern poet,” are long gone or untranslated.

    [2007 update: still Out of print]


    • Villy Sorenson

    Considered one of Denmark’s greatest contemporary writers. He writes short stories exclusively. The few I’ve read are fragmented, disturbing, and often hilarious. His first collection of stories — translated as Strange Stories and also as Tiger in the Kitchen — has been out of print since 1957. His other collections in English, Harmless Tales (Norvik Press Series, 1991) and Tutelary Tales (Nebraska 1988), are out of print also.

    [2007 update: still nothing in print]


    Building Poe Biography by John Carl Miller.

    From a book review by Marguerite Young, 1977: “John Henry Ingram, a clerk in the savings bank department of the London General Post Office, spent a lifetime saving Poe from the slanders of Griswold (Reverend, shabby poet and author of a malicious Poe biography). Working in his after hours when the bank was closed, Ingram authored biographies of this long-neglected genius as well as literary biographies of Oliver Madox Brown, Elizabeth Browning, Robert Burns, Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Chatterton. Each of these biographies was magnetized, almost without exception (as John Carl Miller points out), by an author who had associated with Poe or had been a child-prodigy poet or had died at an early age or had left a reputation that needed redemption from slander. Miller did his work at the University of Virginia in the Ingram’s Poe Collection, which contains enough material for two additional volumes. The present fascinating work of literary detection contains letters that, along with Miller’s analytical comments, are here published for the first time. They bring into sharper focus many of the mysteries surrounding the poet’s life and death.” I have not tracked down a copy of this yet. I don’t know if these letters have been published again elsewhere, or to what extent the author comments on them.

    [2007 update: I still don’t know if these letters are published elsewhere. Young wrote about this book and the Feikema book below in her collection Inviting the Muses, published by Dalkey Archive.]


    A Night of Serious Drinking by René Daumal.

    Ex-surrealist, Sanskrit scholar, poet, philosopher, and a pupil of Gurdjieff, Daumal is best known to English-speaking readers as the author of the short novel Mount Analogue, which has been reprinted many times. Roger Shattuck has called the book “… a rare and mysterious account, superbly translated, of what today would be called a ‘trip.’ Daumal mixes satire, fantasy, and allegory (plus a subject index!) into a fiction that runs a mere 130 pages instead of the 700 a contemporary American novelist would need.” Someone named Gerard Joulie wrote: “Basing its inspiration on the Rabelesian metamorphosis of drink, A Night of Serious Drinking has no other project than to engage its readers in conversation… Daumal presents an oasis, an instrument for distinguishing the essential quality of research, a manual on how to think…”

    [2007 update: back in print from Tusk Overlook. They have also reprinted his Mount Analogue (reportedly a big inspiration for Jodorowsky’s movie “Holy Mountain”) and Le Contre Ciel. Nebraska Press brought out his You’ve Always Been Wrong (Exact Change cancelled a planned paperback edition due to a low number of preorders). It looks like his City Lights collection, The Powers of the Word, may be out-of-print at the moment, hopefully not for long.]


    The Death of Lysanda by Yitzhak Orpaz (trans. from the Hebrew by Richard Flint (Cape Editions, 1970).

    “Naphtali Noi, publishers’ proofreader, scholar and recluse, lives in a rooftop room absorbed in his stuffed animals and his vision of the calm and beautiful Lysanda. With the appearance of Batia, the corpulent motherly figure who infiltrates his monastic seclusion, Noi’s image is banished, his peace destroyed. Written in taut and vivid prose, this story contains within its compact framework a volume of ideas, images and implications.” Haven’t read this one either, but this is from the first page: “Underneath this advertisement was a news item about a man who killed his wife and told his interrogators: ‘I had a headache and couldn’t sleep all night. I got up in the morning and wandered around the yard. I saw a big rock. I picked it up and dropped it on my wife’s head.’ The wife’s name was Eve. I was taken by the clear, restrained, almost classical style of the paragraph.”

    [2007 update: Still out of print.]


    A Dark Stranger (and others) by Julien Gracq (New Directions, 1951).

    Great French writer, whose four novels were all translated at some point. Two are still available from Columbia University Press. His first novel, The Castle of Argol, was last printed in a huge hardcover edition by Lapis Press (now defunct). This novel is stunning and unavailable at the moment. I have never seen a copy of A Dark Stranger (and others), and there is only one listed on Addall.

    [2007 update: still out of print, but Turtle Point is bringing out translations of his non-fiction works, and Pushkin Press brought out a beautiful compact edition of Chateau D’Argol. A Dark Stranger is still very hard to find. See my post at for a scan of the amazing cover image.]


    O the Chimneys by Nelly Sachs (1967, FSG).

    A good friend of Paul Celan (their correspondence was recently published) and an incredible poet herself. She won the Nobel Peace Prize. Her poetry has remained unavailable for too long. I think FSG did two volumes.

    [2007 update: Green Integer is finally restoring her to print (Collected Poems I and Collected Poems II in November 2007.]


    The Golden Bowl by Feike Feikema (aka Frederick Manfred).

    Published by Grosset Dunlap/St. Paul Webb in 1944. It may be the only edition. Marguerite Young wrote: “another lyric performance, a dexterous biography of the elemental forces which threaten a various pioneering population, among them, an albino. Much of the novel reads like a folk ballad, the meditative passages being underscored like the refrains of a song.” A description by an online bookseller: “Set in the dust bowl in the dark years of the 30s. Story of Maury Grant, wanderer, hobo, pilgrim in search of a faith, and of his contempt for a land which brought him to bitterness and confusion.” I’ve never seen or read the book.

    [2007, nothing in print. I think Larry McMurtry has written about Manfred.][Editor’s note: as Frederick Manfred, he wrote a number of novels about life on the Plains before and after contact with white men. Of these “Buckskin Man Tales”, Conquering Horse is in print from the University of Nebraska Press.]


    The Quest by Elisabeth Langgasser (1899-1950, Germany).

    I recently found out about this book and tracked down a copy. This women’s literary career was cut short by the Nazis, who banned the publication of her work for 10 years, from 1936 to 1946 (she was half Jewish). From 1946 until her death five years later, she published seven books of prose and poetry, most of them considered her major works. The Quest, her last novel, is the only one translated into English (Knopf, 1953). The jacket says it delves into the spiritual devastation of the Germans after the war.

    [2007 update: nothing in print]


    The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by Joao Guimaraes Rosa (1956, 1963 Knopf).

    Jorge Amado says in his preface, “The English-reading public will make the acquaintance of one of the greatest books our literature has produced, brutal, tender, cordial, savage, vast as Brazil itself.” This books goes for $100 to $200 these days and, again, for inexplicable reasons, has never been reprinted. The same goes for Rosa’s other books. I’ve heard it towers over Marquez from at least one person.

    [2007 update: There must be serious rights issues with this book, because it has a cult following, and now sells for $300 online, but has never been reprinted.]


    A Life Full of Holes by Driss ben Hamad Charhadi (1964, Grove).

    This book was dictated to and translated by Paul Bowles. Charhadi, aka Larbi Layachi, could not read or write, but possesses an extraordinary gift for telling stories. This cycle of stories tells of the author’s teenage years, spent living on the streets of Morocco, working crappy jobs, trying to sell pot, and sometimes stealing to survive. An intense and wonderful book which has been out of print for years.

    [2007, still no reprint. Rain Taxi wrote about it back in 2001 as a great lost book. Again, there must be serious rights issues, because the book is way too good to have stayed out of print for so many years. Thank you to Ian Nagoski for handing the book to me at the exact right moment, when my own life was obviously full of holes.]

    This Slavery, by Ethel Carnie Holdsworth

    Chris Lynch writes to recommend the 1925 novel This Slavery by the British writer Ethel Carnie Holdsworth.

    In Pierre Bourdieu and Cultural Theory, Bridget Fowler writes of This Slavery:

    It centres on women workers in a Lancashire textile mill. Their experience is conveyed through the story of two sisters: Hester, who enters a loveless marriage to a mill master, and Rachel, who becomes a strike leader. At the climax, as the workers starve in a bitter strike, Hester unexpectedly retails news gained confidentially from another employer; thus, despite her own death, she helps the strike succeed. In this novel, it is a woman, Rachel, who criticises the economistic narrowness of many trade unionists, and Rachel who reads Capital and dreams. Less lyrical but more compelling than her dreams are the novel’s small realist details, of women’s tiredness, for example, or of hunger: “We seem to do nothing but talk and think about grub…. Our bodies get in the way. We’re a set of pigs kept grovelling in the ground.” Or again, in ironical reflections on workers’ endurance: “To starve quietly, unobtrusively and without demonstration, is perhaps the greatest art civilisation has forced on the masses.”

    Chris adds, “I have been collecting her books for a couple of years now (a very difficult task as they are almost impossible to find). I plan to contact publishers to see if any of them would be interested in reprinting this remarkable book.” A quick check through the obvious sources (,, and produced a sum total of two books by Carnie-Holdsworth, neither of them This Slavery.

    Chris has written an article on Ethel Carnie Holdsworth on Wikipedia. Two others articles on her life and work, one by Dr. Kathleen Bell and one by Nicola Wilson can be found on, a site about the history of the cotton milling industry in Blackburn, England, once known as the weaving capitol of the world.

    He also mentions that Trent Editions will republish her last novel, All on Her Own (1929) in 2007.

    Three Recommendations from Chris Kearin

    Chris Kearin writes to suggest a few neglected books he’s discovered:

    · Flying to Nowhere, by John Fuller

    Photo of John FullerA very short novel that got lost in the shuffle when first published because it had the misfortune to appear at roughly the same time as Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a much longer, louder, and easier to read book with which it has some superficial things in common (monks, murder, Middle Ages). Fuller is the British poet, not to be confused with the American writer of the same name. The book begins with an amazingly vivid description of an unsuccessful attempt to land a horse on a rocky island from a small boat, and the writing remains at the same level throughout, even as the story gets stranger and stranger.

    · The useful plants of the island of Guam, or, to give its full title, Contributions from the United States National Herbarium Vol. IX: The Useful Plants of the Island of Guam; with an Introductory Account of the Physical Features and Natural History of the Island, of the Character and History of its People, and of their Agriculture, by William Edwin Safford

    Kearin writes about this book on his “Dreamers Rise” blog. There, he quotes the botanist Edgar Anderson, who wrote of Useful Plants:

    Under this modest title is hidden one of the world’s most fascinating volumes. The author, who apparently came as close to knowing everything about everything as is possible in modern times, was professionally both a botanist in the United States Department of Agriculture and a lieutenant in the United States Navy. In this latter capacity he served for a year as assistant governor of Guam. In somewhat over four hundred pages he not only takes up all the native and crop plants of any importance, but also touches on such subjects as the history of pirates in the Pacific, how floating seeds led to the discovery of ocean currents, the grammar of the native language, the actual anatomical means by which stinging plants attain their devilish ends, and the aspect of the various kinds of tropical vegetation on the island, each of these digressions being developed with finicky regard for accuracy and appropriately embellished with authoritative footnotes.

    Oliver Sacks also discovered this odd classic, and wrote of it in his The Island of the Colorblind:

    I had thought, from the title, that it was going to be a narrow, rather technical book on rice and yams, though I hoped it would have some interesting drawings of cycads as well. But its title was deceptively modest, for it seemed to contain, in its four hundred densely packed pages, a detailed account not only of the plants, the animals, the geology of Guam, but a deeply sympathetic account of Chamorro life and culture, from their foods, their crafts, their
    boats, their houses, to their language, their myths and rituals, their philosophical and religious belief.

    All in all, it sounds like one of the few things the Government Printing Office has published you’d care to take to a desert island. Most of Safford’s other publications were articles for scientific journals. Among them is the intriguingly titled, “The Potato of Romance and Reality,” from the Journal of Heredity, which can be downloaded for Oxford Journals’ outrageous single-article price of $23.

    · Los autonautas de la cosmopista (o, Un viaje atemporal París-Marsella), by Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlap

    A travel journal, done in mock-heroic style, of a six-week journey along the autoroute from Paris to Marseilles. Unfortunately it’s never been translated, but I did post a sample here.

    The World of the Thibaults, by Roger Martin du Gard

    Cover from first U.S. edition of 'The Thibaults'Reader Chris Leggette recommends Roger Martin du Gard’s family saga, Les Thibault, a series of seven novels published in the U.S. in two volumes: The Thibaults and Summer 1914, and then in a two-volume set, The World of the Thibaults. Clifton Fadiman included it in his compilation, Reading I’ve Liked, but as you can see from his New Yorker review below, the work held second candle in his eyes to Jules Romains’ Men of Good Will. Contemporary reviewers such as Mary McCarthy and Malcolm Cowley also had mixed feelings about The World of the Thibaults — ironically, feelings not dissimilar to those expressed by other reviewers by the time Romains reached the end of his own saga.

    A few years ago, Timothy Crouse, best known for his comic account of the press coverage of Nixon’s second presidential campaign, The Boys on the Bus, helped translate and revive Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort, a massive novel Martin deu Gard left unfinished at his death. Its release in 2000 led John Weightman to write in The New York Review of Books,

    The 1930s now seem so far away that many members of the younger generation outside France, and even in France, may never have come across the works of Roger Martin du Gard. Yet, in his day, he was famous enough to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but even that international accolade is no guarantee of survival. Witness the case of René-François Sully-Prudhomme, the very first winner in 1901, who is now no more than a name in the reference books. But Iremember how eagerly we read Martin du Gard’s novels before the war. Now, having looked at them again, together with this unfinished, posthumous volume, which has taken so long to appear in English, I feel that they have a permanent quality. They may seem rather staid and old-fashioned compared to the overpowering intellectual and emotional fluency of Proust, but they have the merit of defining a certain kind of average Frenchness — that is, bourgeois anti-bourgeoisism — which existed strongly at the time, although it may have evaporated to some extent since then, just as Englishness is no longer what it was in those days.

    Other Views on The World of the Thibaults

    · Andre Gide, letter to Roger Martin du Gard, 17 March 1936

    I do not want … the weekly mail to leave tomorrow without telling you of the immense joy, the profound satisfaction I felt after the first reading [of Summer 1914, the seventh volume of Les Thibault]. It was a difficult contest; you have won….

    Dear friend, I believe that this book is destined to create a stir, to have a considerable success. Everything is said in it that needed to be said, with a perfect honesty in its presentation–so that even the most stubborn reader’s deepest convictions will be shaken…. Yes, I believe that this book has a considerable power of persuasion aside from its literary merits. But it is as a man of letters that I want to speak to you, and I can find nothing to say but praise. Some chapters are tours de force of skill and precision. You have written nothing better.

    · Mary McCarthy, The New Republic, 26 April 1939

    The machinery of the plot works with extreme awkwardness. It is, an a sense, a novel about time, yet the author’s only notion of conveying time’s passage is, after each gap of several years, to have two characters tell each other the events of the interim….

    But The World of the Thibaults is not simply the study of a French family. Martin du Gard has taken Tolstoy for a model and, with this family for a center, has attempted to show a society as a whole. Thus the work contains, besides the usual elements of a novel, generous trial samples of modern science, modern literature, modern art, practical politics, religion, war, socialism and pacifism. The difficulty is, however, that these topics have not really been woven into the novel, but merely added to it. The result is not so much a novel of history as a historical grab-bag.

    For all its encyclopedic qualities, The World of the Thibaults is not an important book. It is, however, a genuine literary curiosty. Industry and seriousness have been called in to substitute for talent, and the result is a work whose learned obtuseness is, so far as I know, unequaled in fiction.

    · Malcolm Cowley, The New Republic, 10 March 1941

    With glazed eyes and swollen lids, I have just finished The World of the Thibaults in the complete English translation — both volumes and all the 1,900 pages. It isn’t fair to blame Roger Martin du Gard, a kindly man and a conscientious writer, for the dull headache that comes from reading too much. Yet I wonder whether this business of writing oversize novels hasn’t been carried much too far, since Marcel Proust first set the fashion. Is there any human subject that can’t be treated in a hundred or at most two hundred tliousand words, instead of spinning the story out to nearly a million? Is there any reason for believing that a novel published in eleven books — as this one was in France — is eleven times or even twice as good as a novel in one reasonably large volume with a beginning, a middle and an end, and not too many extraneous incidents?

    Isn’t it possible that giantism in fiction is quite as unhealthy a symptom as giantism in business or architecture or armies? The least one can say is that the author who writes an inordinately long novel is like the orator who delivers an inordinately long speech; he is disregarding the capacity for attention of his audience. Either the book must be leisurely sampled over a period of .weeks, in which case the reader is likely to have forgotten the beginning before reaching the end; or else it must be read as a reviewer’s chore, hour after hour and day after day, in which case it leaves one with aching eyes and perhaps a blurred picture of the author’s intentions. And the author, too, is running a risk. Any man who sets out to write a 2,000-page novel is betting against fate and human experience that he can remain unchanged until the book is finished….

    Summer 1914 is the work for which Martin du Gard will be remembered and for which he deserved to receive the Nobel Prize. In the easy-running translation by Stuart Gilbert, it can be enjoyed almost as much as in the author’s pedestrian French. Yet it would have been better, I think, if it had been written quite independently, without regard to the family affairs of the Thibaults and the Fontanins. Standing alone, without seven other books as an introduction and without an epilogue, it would be even more impressive. It could then be read for itself, and with clearer eyes.

    · Clifton Fadiman, The New Yorker, 1941

    In 1939 there was published in this country The World of the Thibaults a book containing rather less than half of his Thibault series. Now, bearing the title, Summer 1914, the remainder is available in another book. The entire series, under the general heading, “The World of the Thibaults,” thus appears in two thick volumes, equivalent to eleven in the original French. Those who have not read “The Thibaults” may find “Summer 1914” somewhat puzzling. It is advisable to tackle the whole job or not tackle it at all. That means a total of 1,879 pages, but they are 1,879 pages that offer you a solid, almost tangible experience. They are pages for grown-ups….

    In “The Thibaults” the emphasis was all on individuals and their relation to society; in Summer 1914 society itself almost ursurps the canvas. For me, there is a certain loss of power and originality….

    But when du Gard concentrates he approaches magnificence: in his study of the Fontanin family, in his agonizingly perceptive account of the love between Anne and Antoine, in his heartbreaking record of the slow decay of the mind and body of Antoine. As a whole, The World of the Thibaults is unquestionably an impressive work. That world is now dead, its final hours having lasted from 1918 to 1939…. Someone had to write its epitaph, and for that epitaph to be clear it was necessary to go back to the roots of the Thibault world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was du Gard’s task, to which he has now devoted two decades of his life. The task, one presenting almost insuperable difficulties, has been presented with honor…. You may not read him with absorption; you will read him with respect.

    · Time magazine, 24 February 1941

    In 1937 when Martin du Gard’s award was announced, the question arose why — if the Nobel committee wanted to pick a long, social French novel — it did not crown Jules Romains’ longer, as yet unfinished Men of Good Will. The question is still valid. Both works cover the same period, both are fraught with the desire of idealists to stop the war, both are written with objectivity approaching self-effacement. The general impression left by Men of Good Will is rich, vascular, forthright; of Les Thibault nervous, sinewy, tangled. Men of Good Will chronicles a whole society, Les Thibault a family and its immediate connections. Romains cut into French life at scores of levels, pulled out hundreds of characters. They are alive, but they are polished as flawlessly as marble. Some are almost too pat to his purpose.

    Martin du Gard’s people have the puzzling surfaces of real people whom he has studied closely but not entirely understood. At times their motivations stretch thin to the vanishing point, and their behavior seems perverse and arbitrary. But in some ways they are even more alive than Romains’ people. Doubtless Romains’ book is a greater work of art; but Les Thibault may be the better novel.

    · Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays

    Perhaps, in Martin du Gard’s eyes, the only guilty person is the one who refuses life or condemns people. The key words, the final secrets, are not in man’s possession. But man nevertheless keeps the power to judge and to absolve. Here lies the profound secret of art, which always makes it useless as propaganda or hatred…. Like any authentic creator, Martin du Gard forgives all his characters. The true artist, although his life may consist mostly of struggles, has no enemy.

    · David Tylden-Wright, The Image of France: Studies in Contemporary French Literature, 1957

    When in 1937 Roger Martin du Gard was awarded the Nobel Prize for Summer 1914, the seventh part of The Thibaults, it seemed a fitting reward to mark not only the completion of a mammoth and magnificent achievement but also a life or remarkably disinterested devotion to literature…. He has never attempted or wished to be an exceptional writer in the sense of shunning the duller, more ordinary side of life. Rather the reverse. his aim, it has always seemed, has been to reflect life itself, with its tedium, its limitations and its complexity, not raised on the pedestal of a particular point of view but life in the round, in the rough, as it appears to, and affects, ordinary people such as, for example, the Thibaults.

    · Masterplots, Revised Second Edition

    The eight-part novel cycle The World of the Thibaults was inspired by the author’s desire to emulate for his own time the accomplishment of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In fact, the work’s style and pessimism is closer to Roger Martin du Gard’s countryman Gustave Flaubert than to the Russian author. Although the historical background of the action in the novel is of interest, it is the powerful depiction of human relationships that constitutes the book’s chief merit.

    In many respects, the most influential character in the vast novel is old Monsieur Thibault, the patriarch of the Thibault family. A complete hypocrite, he announces to the world that his conscience is clear, yet he is concerned only with his own convenience and peace. Cloaking his craving for power and authority under a guise of fervent religiosity and philanthropy, he actually has no sense of either religion or generosity. He possesses no love for his sons, demanding only that they be completely docile. Any contradiction or sign of individuality throws him into a rage. For all of his big gestures, he is a petty man. Everyone automatically hides feelings from him, for one never can tell what his reaction might be. He forces his family into hypocrisy. By avoiding all introspection, Monsieur Thibault unknowingly condemns himself to a life of petty pride and cruelty, a life so alone that he must find his only consolation in public honors and the “knowledge” that he is a “good man.” As he grows older, however, the fact of approaching death terrifies him increasingly, and he desperately seeks some kind of immortality, as if he subconsciously realizes how futile his busy life actually has been.

    The volumes of the series are crowded with fascinating, well-drawn secondary characters. These include Monsieur Chasle, the middle-aged secretary of Monsieur Thibault, who is suddenly revealed to have his own life, his own preoccupations, fears, and miseries. The reader becomes aware of many other lives lurking in the background, and beyond them still others. In the volume entitled The Springtime of Life, the adult Daniel and Jacques experience the bohemian life of Paris, encountering characters such as Mother JuJu, the retired prostitute, and many colorful girls of the streets, as well as the rich Jew Ludwigson, who sells Daniel’s pictures. Earlier, in a powerful scene at young Jenny’s sickbed, the Rasputin-like pastor Gregory chants and prays and condemns with equal fury and somehow saves the girl’s life….

    The graphic realism of the sickbed and death scenes, and, in the seventh volume, Summer 1914, the dramatic buildup of the war, as the European nations are swept relentlessly to destruction, are impressive achievements. Even more impressive, however, is the fact that as the focus of the novel expands, the author never loses sight of the individuals who make up the world. For this vast, panoramic survey of society and the meaning of life, as well as for his earlier novel of the Dreyfus affair and atheism, Jean Barois (1913), Martin du Gard was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1937.

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    John Baker recommends The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

    Cover of early UK edition of 'The Hole in the Wall'

    Novelist John Baker puts in a plug for this site in his own blog.

    He also recommends a neglected book not yet listed here: Arthur Morrison’s The Hole in the Wall. Morrison, a novelist and short-story writer, is most often remembered for a series featuring the detective Martin Hewitt, but before that, he wrote several grim and violent books about life in the London slums. Tales of Mean Streets and A Child of the Jago are still in print, and you can find one of his Martin Hewitt collections at Project Gutenberg.



    JFK’s Favorite Books

    From Mrs. Kennedy, by Barbara Leaming:

    Jackie, starved for conversation about books and ideas, was captivated when, early on, Jack gave her two of his favorite books as a way of explaining to her who he really was. None of the young men touted by her mother had ever done anything like that. One of these books was John Buchan’s Pilgrim’s Way (Memory Hold the Door in the U.K.), from which Jack had derived the credo that public life is “the worthiest ambition,” politics “the greatest and the most honorable adventure.” The other was Lord David Cecil’s The Young Melbourne, set in a world of complex and fascinating political men, the Whig aristocrats of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, who moved constantly and determinedly between episodes of high political seriousness and those of intense pleasure.

    Three Recommendations from Patrick Kurp

    In his blog, Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp gives a nice plug for this site and offers three recommendations of his own:

    The Pleasure of Ruins, by Rose Macaulay

    A wide-ranging travel book, in which Macaulay considers ruins from Tintern Abbey in England to Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

    Normandy Revisited, by A.J. Liebling

    Liebling’s war reporting on DDay through the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944, a day he called “the happiest in my life.”

    The Old Forest, by Peter Taylor

    A 1986 PEN/Faulkner Award winner, this collection of stories by an author thought by some to be the finest American short story writer of the 20th century, tells of life in the South in the 1920s and 1930s.

    Nicaragua: Its People, Scenery, Monuments, Resources, Condition and Proposed Canal, by E. G. Squier

    From The New York Times, 19 April 1998:

    Traveling Companions

    … One of my favorites is a forgotten classic called Nicaragua: Its People, Scenery, Monuments, Resources, Condition and Proposed Canal, by E. G. Squier, who served as the American charge d’affaires in Central America during the 1850’s. The years have not diminished its value as a guide.

    I watched the collapse of Nicaragua’s 40-year Somoza dictatorship, and was amazed to read Squier’s account of a terrible bandit who roamed the countryside in his time, “a lawless, reckless fellow under proscription for murder, named Somoza.” One of my favorite pastimes there was climbing to the steaming crater of the Masaya volcano; Squier had also done it, and proclaimed the experience “singularly novel and beautiful.”

    In the town of Granada, I visited a neglected museum where two dozen giant stone idols found on an island in Lake Nicaragua were on display. No one there knew much about them, but they had so impressed Squier that he shipped several home to the Smithsonian. He surmised that before Jesuit missionaries cut off their genitals, they had been worshiped as gods of a fertility cult.

    “They are plain, simple and severe, and although not elaborately finished, are cut with considerable freedom and skill,” he wrote. One of them, he said, “seemed like some gray monster just emerging from the depths of the earth, at the bidding of a wizard-priest of some unholy religion.” Another, Squier wrote, “was a study for Samson under the gates of Gaza, or an Atlas supporting the world.”

    According to, there are copies available for sale, but the prices start at $150 and go up into the high hundreds.

    A Contract with God, by Will Eisner

    Greg Hill, director of Fairbanks, Alaska North Star Borough libraries, gives this site a plug in the Fairbanks News-Miner and add his own recommendation:

    As with all lists, there are bones to pick there, too. How’d they leave out Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, the first graphic novel and the one that paved the way for that new literary form? Reading a graphic novel is a different experience from reading pure text, but the same parts of the brain are exercised, unlike watching videos, which utilizes fewer. And graphic novels re-engage reluctant readers and hone their reading and comprehension skills.