by Hugh Gilmore
AN INVITATION: You are invited to suggest books for our annual roundup of reader recommendations of the books you “most enjoyed” this year. Your “enjoyed” books can be, but do not have to be, published recently. In fact the older and more “rediscovered” the better. This not a “Best of” competition. It is an opportunity to share rediscoveries with fellow lovers of the printed word. Email me by Dec.21 . HG.
Last week we were trying to put in a kind word for books that have had their chance to become classics, never quite achieved that status, but are still worth reading.
Typically, they are removed from public library shelves after a while to make room for constantly incoming tides of “new arrivals.” Once that happens, one’s last, best hope for “rediscovering” these books is through either a used book store or the Internet. More on both of those later.
I personally am in the enviable position, as a dealer in old and rare books, to see a constant stream of non-fashionable books float past my nose. On impulse, or from curiosity, I’ll read a bunch of them. And because of that, I often go months at a time reading only books no longer touted by reviewers, advertised by the book chains or discussed by people I know over coffee or dinner. Today, just for fun, I’ll mention some of these rediscoveries.
Among my favorites was “Forbush and the Penguins” (1986) by the New Zealand writer Graham Billings. In a frighteningly lonely outpost in Antarctica, a biological researcher spends a long season observing the behavior of penguins. His observations, both scientific and personal, are fascinating, especially since penguin life is much more brutal and stark than popular movies and cartoons would have you think.
The narrator, Mr. Forbush, has plenty of lonely, soul-searching time to reflect on the stupidity (mostly his own) he left behind in the civilized world. Please do not confuse this book with other similarly named titles. And certainly avoid, if you can, a film attempt that stars John Hurt and Hayley Mills.
The screenplay for that movie is by Anthony Shaffer, the execrable playwright who created that stupid pseudo-Freudian play/movie called “Equus” (1973). This book by Graham Billings is a hidden gem if you don’t need bikini babes and motor boat chases coming across McMurdro Sound. It is NOT available through the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP from here on), but widely available on the Internet.
The short story writer Thom Jones is certainly not someone I recommend to most book club readers. His stories are raw, tough, honest and gritty in their subject matter and attitude. If characters get in a fight, the story they appear in is probably more concerned with humiliation than it is with “the joy of victory.” Jones’ father was a boxer who committed suicide, the subject of some of his stories.
He wrote for years without being well known but got “discovered” by the New Yorker in the early 1990s, especially for stories that became his first book, “The Pugilist at Rest.” The collection became a National Book Award Finalist in 1993. It was followed by “Cold Snap” in 1995, and “Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine” in 1999.
An early Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad (1973), his work has slowed since 1999, some say, because he has temporal lobe epilepsy and diabetes. The only time in my life I’ve done this, I couldn’t stop reading him once I started and read all three story collections in a row. They are available through the FLP.
No review of this kind would be complete without a mention of “Dwarf’s Blood” by Edith Olivier (1931). I found the title irresistible, so I read it. Handsome young Australian millionaire returns to gloomy England, assumes Baronetcy, inherits big estate, marries beautiful woman. All is well, till she – horrors! – gives birth to a dwarf baby. A beautiful boy, but a dwarf. Rich father goes bonkers. Hides the shame. Blames his wife’s “blood” (i.e., genes) as tainted.
Part 2: His mother comes to visit and live with them. Oh oh. You guessed it. HIS mother is a dwarf, and a mean one too! Baby dwarf, meanwhile, is raised by his mother in isolation from outside world so he’ll never know he’s “different” or detested as an evil omen in the eyes of the world. The castle walls reverberate with lots of oaths and shouting for years. Then, bingo: a surprisingly happy ending. Very strange book. Like watching a bucket of worms for an hour. NOT available through FLP, though it is available through Amazon.com for as little as $1.01, plus shipping.
Of the three authors mentioned today: Thom Jones I thought the best writer, Graham Billings the most hauntingly memorable, and Edith Olivier the most good-hearted, but strange. More another time.
Hugh Gilmore’s “Scenes from a Bookshop” has become his bestselling book this year. His noir crime novel “Malcolm’s Wine” was touted by one woman reader as so exciting she kept reading even while she took her evening bath. Both available in paperback and e-book formats through Amazon.com and wherever good books are sold.