July 31, 2011
Early this summer, a friend gave me a framed poster she found at a garage sale. It’s an uncut sheet featuring six rows of 36 vintage paperback covers from a box set of cards. At first, the books seemed to be random pulp fiction titles but then, it dawned on me, they were all about drugs: Marijuana Girl by N.R. de Mexico, The Pusher by Ed McBain, Black Opium by Claude Farrere and Acid Party by Anthony Yewker, to name a few.
I got it in my head to try to find these vintage books, realizing some might be beyond my budget because I recognized #17 on the poster, Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict by William Lee. Lee is a pseudonym for William Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch and famous Beat Generation drug addict. The first edition price of this 1953 confessional paperback tends to head north of $1,000. It’s Burroughs’ first book.
Undaunted and unknowing of what I might be getting into with this decision to acquire the books, I headed to Pulpfest 2011 in Columbus to see what I could find among the 36. As is typical of most book shows, dealers are in a large room with their books spread over tables and in display cases. For the first-timer to any show, it can be overwhelming. All I could see upon entering the room was a sea of paperbacks on and under tables and in boxes. Also, I realized, to ferret out my books, I would have to ask, “Does someone here deal with books on drugs?” It sounded comical and naïve.
I approached the booth for Hooked On Books where the owners Wayne, a retired reference librarian, and Deb, a retired CPA, took a look at my list and began educating me about which ones were hard to find (expensive) and easy to find (less expensive) and also, which ones were pornography (ok, good to know). Then I talked with Scott Edwards of Dearly Departed Books in Alliance, Ohio, because displayed on his table was a beautiful copy of #16 on my poster, Marihuana by William Irish. Scott explained why the book was the narrative size of a short story — it was sold in 1941, along with other similar-sized books, in vending machines for 10 cents. William Irish, I learned, is a pseudonym for noir crime novelist Cornell Woolrich. The Alfred Hitchcock movie “Rear Window” is based on Woolrich’s short story “It Had to Be Murder.”
The vending machines explained the stories I found by such classic authors as William Somerset Maugham in those small-sized, 10-cent books. As written on the back of Maugham’s 64-page paperback The Beachcomber: “Now for the first time you get famous stories by famous authors that first appeared in higher-priced books or publications, attractively produced in a pocket-sized book at a price of 10 cents each.”
Authors listed thereafter on this Dell paperback under current and forthcoming titles include Wallace Stegner, Pearl S. Buck, Edna Ferber, John O’Hara and Fannie Hurst. BTW, the original title of Maugham’s 1931 short story is “The Vessel of Wrath.” It became a movie under “The Beachcomber” title.
I came away from Pulpfest much wiser and with an affordable purchase for my poster collection — I Made My Bed published in 1958, written by Celia Hye. It happens to be the first book of the 36 on my poster and has all the dramatic blurbs written on it that you could want of this vintage literary art form: “A blazing novel of delinquency — intimately … frankly … shockingly revealed by a teenage addict.” To balance the tawdriness, I’ll add that I also came away with not only the classic Maugham (above left) but also a 1965 first printing Ballantine paperback of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, which, on the back, has a blurb by the aforementioned William Burroughs.
July 18, 2011
I was leaving my Pilates class with a friend the other day when she asked if I’d recommend the book I was carrying. I said, “Listen to this,” and began reading to her. That’s not usually how I’d respond to that question, but the seductive narrative voice in Ben Loory’s amazing story collection is so bewitching it calls to be spoken. And so there we were, both captivated by “The Swimming Pool,” drawn in by that voice, waiting to see where it would take us.
The 40 stories in Loory’s debut detour delightfully from traditional character development and dramatic narrative. Averaging a mere five to six pages, they’re written in paragraph chunks that tell odd yet stunning, fable-like tales. In “The Swimming Pool,” for example, a man believes he sees a shark in a public swimming pool. No one else sees it, and he’s not even sure it’s there. He returns at night and sees not just a shark, but an ominous monster covering the entire bottom of the pool, staring at him with black, unblinking eyes. Frenzied with terror, the man legally gets the pool closed for good, but he feels no triumph the day the water is drained, realizing he gave power to his fear and set the monster free.
The stories begin with mundane situations stated in the first two or three lines, and then Loory flips reality on its head with a fantastic element, like a shark in a public swimming pool. In other stories, a man walks through the woods and sees Bigfoot; a dishwasher finds an invisible crown in his rinse water; and a family is having dinner when a statue of a pig on its haunches materializes in the middle of the table. Some of the stories feature talking animals (my favorite is when a duck falls in love with a rock) and all of them feature the peculiar (a stalking hat, a TV with a mind of its own).
While the fantastic elements and twists of logic make these stories delectable cupcakes for the intellect, they aren’t all rosy hued. Indeed, they may be fun, but Loory menacingly parades before us our obsessions and vulnerabilities, exploring such topics as the fear of death, the price of fame, the follies of romance and the influence of violence, among others. But no matter the topic, they all enthrall and surprise — some more so than others – and cause many pauses for thought. You can’t read one or two stories and then put the book down. Oh just one more became my habit, reading this unique, new book.
July 12, 2011
I’ve been mulling over these novels via paper scraps that are scattered on my desk, torn from review publications and other sources. I haven’t read them, but share these intriguing books as ones I’ve got my eye on.
The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson; translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal
Winner of The Best Translated Book Award 2011, this novel is set in a frosty Scandinavian winter, which just might take the edge off the summer heat now blasting us. It tells the story of two very different women in a fishing village who end up living together: one (Katri) an outcast devoted to her simple-minded brother and attached to her unnamed dog; the other (Anna), a respected children’s book illustrator, who consumes herself in her work. Anna opens her life to the forthright but deceptive Katri, unaware of Katri’s true purpose focused on her brother and the elderly woman’s money. Originally published in 1982, this edition is the first appearance of The True Deceiver in an English translation. Prose is described as spare and direct. From the publisher’s website: “Deception—the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we tell others—is the subject of this, Tove Jansson’s most unnerving and unpredictable novel.”
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
A new novel by a first-timer due to be published in another week or so about a 25-year-old Wall Street secretary and a chance encounter that changes her life, giving her access to high society. The era is pre-World War II Manhattan (1938) and, as declared on the publisher’s website, “turns a Jamesian eye on how spur of the moment decisions define life for decades to come. A love letter to a great American city at the end of the Depression … Towles evokes the ghosts of Fitzgerald, Capote, and McCarthy.” Forecasts I’ve read indicate the writing is exquisite, dialogue is quotable and the atmosphere so well created you feel like you’re there.
A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley
A classic young adult fantasy first published in 1939. Protagonist Penelope Taberner Cameron is described in the book’s summary as ”a solitary and sickly girl, a reader and a dreamer.” When she’s sent from her London home to spend time with relatives on a Derbyshire farm, Penelope finds herself going back and forth between the present and Elizabethan times — between the present-day farm family and the one that owned the Derbyshire farm during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Because the Elizabethan family is plotting to free Mary, Queen of Scots, from prison, Penelope’s got herself in a tricky situation. From the publisher’s website:
“To travel in time, Penelope discovers, is to be very much alone. And yet the slow recurrent rhythms of the natural world, beautifully captured by Alison Uttley, also speak of a greater ongoing life that transcends the passage of years.”
Listed for ages 8 to 14; however, it sounds like too good of a fantasy for just the young. Note: The Private Diaries of Alison Uttley edited by Denis Judd reveal Uttley (the author) to be, according to The Guardian, “a controlling, difficult woman who despised many people.” Might want to avoid that one. Could spoil the fantasy.