Around the World with Reader Recommendations

November 18th, 2012

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!

4 Responses to “Around the World with Reader Recommendations”

  1. Catherine Says:

    I think that the sequel you were looking for is Back to the Smoky Sea / by Nutchuk, with Alden Hatch. It was published in 1946.

  2. ezra abrams Says:

    re moving mountains, in the related field of graphs (dominated by Tufte, but you are better off with the book by N Robbins) many of the old neglected classics, such as tukey books, are neglected because technology has really made them outdated.
    i wonder if the moving mountains is really still applicable

  3. editor Says:

    The Robbins book is Creating Effective Graphs by Naomi Robbins. Published in 2004 but already out of print, it’s going for $70 and up on Amazon.

  4. editor Says:

    Yes, indeed! It’s Back to the Smoky Sea, published in 1946, also co-authored (i.e., told to) Alden Hatch.

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