Reader Recommendations: Good Books in Cheap Covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 thoughts on “Reader Recommendations: Good Books in Cheap Covers

  1. Just found this, to my delight.
    With nine published books on my Library of Congress card and two kids to support by myself, I went to work in high tech in 1994. Only two books published in the intervening years–but three new novels in the queue now. Thanks so much for remembering good work done long ago!!!!

  2. The Blue Chair was, for me, a haunting work I cannot forget. All the big questions are there, along with all the huge dilemmas we face as mortals living out our infinitely precious, infinitely fragile, beguilingly brief life.

    It’s interesting…I never thought of Eve’s time in her blue chair, as time spent in a mental fog. It seemed to me as though she saw more clearly there, if differently. If ritual distills meaning, then Eve’s blue chair ritual could have involved crafting meaning for a different reality, as much as remembrance of the past or perhaps escape from the present.

    After all, becoming ‘unhinged’ from consensual reality doesn’t preclude the possibility of becoming connected to a different one.

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