Out of Print
August 29, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
Looking at this pretty slideshow of circa-1900 book covers, one is struck by a couple of things. First, the beauty and elegance of the design. And, second, the fact that the titles are all unfamiliar. Of course, beautiful, striking covers are produced every day: talented art departments work hard to accommodate an ever-changing market and far more cooks (so to speak) than designers of old ever had to please. One imagines in the old days, the author would take his Art-Nouveau swags and like it; agents rarely figured in the picture, and if you’d envisioned, say, a pine rather than a stylized laurel tree on your novel—well, forget it.
It’s also a change in tastes, or of standards; like so many old buildings, whose standard-issue marble work and penny tiling now seem like models of beauty and lost workmanship, these ornate covers were the rule, not the exception. If comedy equals tragedy plus time, well, that sort of works for beauty, too. Maybe not the tragedy part. As to the titles’ relative obscurity? That's also modern hindsight. And who knows what hopes the publishers had for The Story of Ab: A Tale of the Time of the Cave Man? One thing’s for sure: these were not disposable objects.
February 19, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
I throw myself on your mercy, readers.
For some years now, I have been searching fruitlessly for a long-lost book, and I’m hoping someone out there can help me remember the title. The problem is, I have very little to go on: I know it is a paperback career romance from the late fifties or early sixties. I believe it follows the career of an event planner, or maybe an interior decorator. But it is not—I repeat, not—1964’s Weddings by Gwen, in which wedding planner Gwen Wright gets in over her head with a rich family, a dud boyfriend named Steve, and a cockamamie blackmail plot; nor is it One Perfect Rose, from the same year, in which Prill Sage redecorates a Victorian mansion. (Out of scholarly obligation, I reread both, just to make sure.)
Part of the difficulty is that there is a certain, well, formula to the bulk of these career-romance titles. The Julian Messner series—Nancy Runs the Bookmobile; Lady Lawyer; Lee Devins: Copywriter—are sober, conscientious, and informative. Young woman moves to the city, learns about career in mind-numbing detail, has a dull beau, finds satisfaction in work. In the case of the more entertaining but less educational Valentine and Avalon titles—think Dreams to Shatter (pottery) or A Measure of Love (department-store modeling)—the careers are mere backdrops to lurid and implausible romances, skeletons in closets, and Nancy Drew–style investigations. Read More »
February 17, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
My dad is a man who likes to make time. Forget roadside attractions, lingering meals, and charming scenic routes: when we traveled as a family, speed was our goal. He especially liked to break previous records; I remember trying to see how many exits we could pass on the Long Island Expressway before the end of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” (To this day, hearing the opening chords of “Here Comes the Sun” stress me out.)
The one exception to this rule was presidential homes. And in the late nineties, my father was going through a major Warren G. Harding phase. So, when my parents drove me out to Chicago to start college, there was no question but that we would detour off the I-90 to Marion, Ohio, to visit the Harding house.
With all due respect to Monticello and Lincoln’s cabin, there is a particular charm to what I hesitate to call “minor” presidential homes. Lindenwald, the Martin Van Buren house in Kinderhook; Springfield, the Louisville boyhood home of Zachary Taylor; Lancaster, PA’s Wheatland, where Buchanan lived out his final years. These places are important to their communities. Taken together, they make up a bigger proportion of the country’s history than Hyde Park or the Hermitage, and they are sustained purely on the strength of the enthusiasm of volunteers.
Said volunteers are rarely prepared for my dad. His knowledge is vast, his ardor unwavering, his memory for presidential trivia intimidating. I have seen guides delighted by such an attentive visitor. Others recoil in fear and uncertainty. I was concerned as we approached 380 Mt. Vernon Avenue in the charming town of Marion, because I knew full well that in this instance, he had an agenda. Read More »
February 5, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
There are a lot of things I should be reading right now: great books, worthy books, new books, books that, quite frankly, I need to finish for work. But I cannot. Ever since I ran across The Secret Sex Lives of Famous People on my grandparents’ bookshelf, I have been unable to crack anything else.
As the title indicates, this is the best book ever written, and possibly the only book one need own. The table of contents lists such categories as “Late Virginity Losers,” “Outsize Organs,” “Minute Members,” “Orgiasts,” “Interfered with When Young,” “Overrated or Disappointing Lovers,” “Clean and Unclean,” and “Peeping Toms.” As of this writing, I am only as far as August Strindberg (cross-listed as “Mother-Fixated,” “Prodigious Progenitors,” “Sex with Partners Twenty Years (or More) Younger”). But I have every intention of dispatching Zola (“Bigamists,” “Sex Trials and Famous Scandals,” “Erotica”) before the sun sets.
Despite the subject matter, and the red-and-purple 1981-issue cover, the tone of the book is not lurid. It is objective, almost academic. Or at least, the authors make all their declarations with absolute authority. Each entry begins with a biographical sketch; these, in themselves, are worthy of much close attention. Of Somerset Maugham, the authors assert, “In his 92nd year, partially demented, often angry, sometimes euphoric, he died of lung congestion.”
Of course, the sex stuff is still the best. To wit:
Hemingway had several unusual theories about sex. He believed that each man was allotted a certain number of orgasms in his life, and that these had to be carefully spaced out. Another theory was that, if you had sex often enough, you could eat all the strawberries you wanted without contracting hives, even if you were allergic to the fruit.
Rousseau had numerous sexual eccentricities. He had the odd habit of going into raptures over inanimate objects. When living with Madame de Warens, he would wander through her house, kissing the armchair, the bedcurtains, even the floor.
James Joyce, meanwhile, “was a true underwear fetishist, and even carried a pair of doll’s panties in his pocket.”
Lately, my inbox has been flooded with desperate advertisements for inappropriate Valentine’s Day gifts. And if tubs of popcorn and sofa cushions qualify as tokens of love, I feel I may as well throw my hat into the ring and nominate The Secret Sex Lives of Famous People as the sum total of my 2014 gift guide. In this I follow family tradition: last year, my father gave my mother At Your Service, the unspeakably lurid memoir by the cheerful gent who, by his own account, acted as procurer and trick for everyone in Old Hollywood. (My mother talked so often, and so darkly and cryptically, about Charles Loughton’s fetishes that in the end I had to read it myself.) But really, who wouldn’t love it? Paper is ephemeral, flowers fade, diamonds are forever but pricey. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t prefer four whole pages on Mary Baker Eddy’s obsession with “Malicious Animal Magnetism.”
(Well, I suppose a real Joycean might prefer a pair of dolly panties.)
June 20, 2013 | by Mark Asch
At Bókin, the used bookstore in 101 Reykjavik where Bobby Fischer spent his endgame, the clutter goes all the way up to the ceiling, from which hang collages of magazine clippings picturing Halldor Laxness and the great beauties of the world (an eighties-era Miss Iceland poses with the collected works of her favorite author, William Shakespeare). Christmas-tree lights adorn a waist-high pyramid of hardcovers next to the register. The English-language section, right by the door when you come in, is half blocked off by unsorted boxes and piles of new acquisitions with pages already curling, glue already dissolving.
In Iceland, it’s traditional to open presents on Christmas Eve: a new article of clothing, so the Yule Cat doesn’t get you, and a new book to curl up with. So it was that last December I angled my way into the English stacks, scanned the green spines of Fay Weldon novels and Van Der Valk mysteries sold on by British backpackers, and found Slim John.
Published in 1969, with a cover betraying the influence of Penguin under the swinging, Saul Bass-esque art direction of Germano Facetti, Slim John is in fact the companion volume to a serial of the same name produced by the BBC for overseas broadcast as part of their English by Television initiative. The book is part textbook with exercise sheets, and part shooting script with accompanying stills. Slim John, building on the previous English by Television program, Walter and Connie, is a course for “near-beginners” in English; this means, explains English by Radio and Television head Christopher Dilke in his foreward, “that a coherent and life-like situation can be created from the start.” Though under the supervision of a linguist, the episodes were penned by four veterans of TV thrillers, including Brian Hayles, who wrote thirty episodes of Doctor Who during the tenures of Doctors One through Three. The serial format, which “tends to make the viewer come back for the next lesson just because he wants to know what happens,” per Dilke of the BBC, was undertaken because “fashions change in teaching as well as in dress.” In order to integrate narrative sophistication with regular language pedagogy within Slim John, Dilke explains, “a situation has been invented which makes it necessary for robots planning a take-over of the world to learn English.” Read More »
December 27, 2012 | by Kim Beeman
We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
George Leonard Herter ran a sporting-goods store in Waseca, Minnesota, by day and self-published bizarre cookbooks, travel guides, and hunting books by night. I fell into Herteriana six years ago, after reading about him in an article on out-of-print cookbooks. I was promised “the origins of women’s panties, the best time of year for eating robins and meadowlarks, the effects of menstruation on mayonnaise-making and the unheralded kitchen pioneering of Genghis Khan, the Virgin Mary and Stonewall Jackson,” though this barely scratches the surface of the strange world of George Leonard Herter. I immediately started collecting his books. Happily for me, Herter was prolific. I am now the proud owner of the three-volume Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices (volumes two is delightfuly subtitled Plus Famous Restaurants and Night Clubs of the World ), How to Make the Finest Wines at Home in Old Glass or Plastic and Jugs for as Little as 10¢ a Gallon, The Truth about Hunting in Today’s Africa and How to Go on Safari for $690.00, and several others. I picked up George the Housewife, one of my favorites, at Bonnie Slotnick’s cookbook store in New York a few years ago.