Recent Reader Recommendations

September 4th, 2011

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

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

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

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 The book easily escaped being outdated by new technologies because technology isn’t very relevant: this is book about characters, human nature, right and wrong, and ideas.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

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

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

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

Salt of the Earth, by Jozef Wittlin

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

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

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

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

In This Sign, by Joanne Greenberg

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

Equal Distance, by Brad Leithauser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweepings, by Lester Cohen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion and the Decline of Magic, by Keith Thomas

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

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

4 Responses to “Recent Reader Recommendations”

  1. Robert Nedelkoff Says:

    Brad Leithauser, as it happens, was probably the pivotal figure in the process that turned Halldor Laxness from yet another forgotten or unfamiliar Nobelist into this country to one of the most widely read authors here to have won the prize. He visited Laxness and wrote about that; persuaded Vintage Books to reprint Independent People (or at least I think he was the one that talked Marty Asher at that imprint into doing that). Leithauser is probably as widely read now as he’s ever been but he never has sold enough to persuade companies to keep his whole backlist in print.

    Joanne Greenberg dropped her pseudonym, and I believe had subsequent editions of Rose Garden published under her own name, to avoid confusion with the late Hannah Green, remembered for Little Saint and especially The Dead Of The House. Where other somewhat neglected novels are concerned: Ms Greenberg wrote Rose Garden in part as a reply to J.R. Salamanca’s Lilith (later made into a film starring Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg); she was the main model for its title character and she thought that the book’s portrayal of her was misleading.

  2. Roger Says:

    Religion and the Decline of Magic is a very fine book and well worth reading, but I don’t think it or any other book by Sir KeithThomas can be called “neglected” in the UK at least. They’re all in print there.

  3. AJ Says:

    The Devil’s Lieutenant was a TV movie in the early 1980s. IMBD entry is here. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085836/combined

  4. lisa_emily Says:

    I just finished Dance of the Assassins by M. Fagyas which I enjoyed quite a bit. I do look forward to reading more of her books. I am surprised to find so little info about her, so it is heartening to see her other book referred here. It makes me wonder how many other writers of her ilk are languishing in estate sales, and why such writers get overlooked.

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