Our friend Larry Harnisch has leapt into the Zombie Summer Reading Program with the kind of masochistic glee that is usually reserved for blue-lipped children at the community swimming pool on Memorial Day weekend. Check out these treasures(?) he rescued from the scrap heap.
A disclaimer: I haunted thrift shops for many years, so although I haven't necessarily read lots of obscure authors, I've at least handled their books long enough to know they're not coming home with me.
Through the years, I refined the multi-part Larry Harnisch unreadability test. I mention this because I turned myself loose on the "last chance shelves" at the South Pasadena Public Library and came home with a $2 armload of books.
In picking my eight books, I awarded bonus points for inscriptions such as "Xmas 1944" and threw back any Book of the Month Club printings.
Here's my harvest, in chronological order:
"Riding Down," by Harris Patton, 1932, pulpy printing by the Goldsmith Publishing Co. of Chicago. This already has "stinker" written all over it, but what's this? It's part of the Young Eagles Series. Time for the crucial Opening Paragraph Test:
"Dick Davis, one of the ace pilots of the mountain division of the Red Arrow transcontinental air mail and passenger line, had a premonition of trouble when he stepped into the hangar at Sheldon that bitter January night. For the life of him he couldn't tell just what it was but he was restless, anxious to be in the air and climbing toward the snow-crested top of the Continental divide."
I don't need to read another word to know what this baby is going to be like.
Next is "American Saga," 1939, Marjorie Barstow Greenbie, Whittlesey House, McGraw-Hill. Uh-oh. It's subtitled: "The history and literature of the American dream of a better life."
Perhaps I'm being too hasty. The hinges are loose as if someone actually read this book. On the other hand, "American Saga" appears to have pretensions of grandeur that are thankfully absent in "Riding Down."
Time for the Opening Paragraph Test:
"These states were settled by people with ideals. From the first gentlemen loafing on the shores of Virginia to the latest immigrant seeing the Goddess of Liberty emerge from the mists, the persons who have come here have been seeking a better life."
I may be too hasty here, but I'll wager this is the work of a Yankee writer. Virginians do not loaf; they are the aristocracy of the South. Note that the author says nothing about blacks or Native Americans.
The remaining six are clustered between 1944 and 1949.
"Pleasant Valley," Louis Bromfield, 1943, Harper and Bros. I chose this one because a valentine was being used as a bookmark--on Page 18.
As for the First Paragraph Test:
"This book is a personal testament written out of a lifetime by a man who believes that agriculture is the keystone of our economic structure and that wealth, welfare, prosperity and even the future freedom of this nation are based upon the soil."
"As the car came down out of the hills and turned off the Pinhook Road the whole of the valley, covered in snow, lay spread out before us with the ice-blue creek wandering through it between the two high sandstone ridges where the trees, black and bare, rose against the winter sky. And suddenly I knew where I was. I had come home!"
Next, "The Building of Jalna," Mazo de la Roche, 1944, Little, Brown and Co.
"Adeline thought that never, never in her life had she seen anything so beautiful as "The Bohemian Girl." The romance of it transfigured her mind, as moonlight a stained-glass window. And the music! Words and tune possessed her, making her feel like one in a dream. As she hung on Philip's arm on the way out of Drury Lane the ground seemed unsubstantial beneath her feet, the crowd about her to be floating like herself."
Now "Jalna" has real stinker potential. The author is not only clumsy in setting a scene. The author is just plain clumsy.
Time for the Last Page Test:
"Then Philip exclaimed--'See the pigeons, Adeline! They are going south! Gad, what a horde of them!' With her head on Philip's shoulder, Adeline slept."
I'm supposed to slog through this just to read about some stupid pigeons? Stinker!
"Winter Wheat," by Mildred Walker, 1944, Harcourt Brace and Co. This bore (ahem) the name of Capt. Ben Klauman, M.C." and appears to be unread. However, some spilled coffee or other foodstuff indicates a reader to got to Page 230:
"The light bulb in the barn was mirrored in the cows' big dark eyes. I'm out of practice but I like milking. May turned her big head and looked at me and I could see myself perfectly reflected in her eyes. She was easy to milk. The milk poured down evenly into the pail. I gave May a pat on the flank and set the pail on the shelf where it was safe and moved to Belle. The cows' names were May and Belle and Dunya. Dad had named the first cow they had on the ranch Dunya after a girl they knew in Russia to tease Mom and we had had one by that name ever since."
OK, time for the Last Paragraph Test:
"I honked the horn. It grated noisily on the bright spring day.
'Come on!' I yelled. 'It won't grow while you watch it!'
'Hold your horses!' Dad yelled back. They came up the field together.
I had not always been glad that I was their child, but today I had a kind of pride in being born to them.
Into the slush pile.
"The World, the Flesh and Father Smith," by Bruce Marshall, 1945, Riverside Press, Cambridge.
I grabbed this one because it had a book plate: Leona L. Wise.
First Paragraph Test:
"As he freewheeled down the long hill, Father Smith remembered with irritation that, as a member of the League of Saint Columbia, he had promised to say a Pater, an Ave, and a Gloria daily for the conversion of Scotland. There was no dispensation either on Sundays, not even for priests who had to bicycle twenty miles on an empty stomach to say two Masses and preach two sermons in separated parishes, who had their office to recite as well and another sermon and benediction to give in the evening. 'Our Father, who art in heaven,' he began but gave it up before he had proceeded more than one or two clauses, because the rain was dripping down the back of his neck and because he felt.....
I can't even get through the first paragraph. Fired!
"Lovely Is the Lee," by Robert Gibbings, 1945, E.P. Dutton. I bought this one because there was a note being used as a bookmark indicating that the recipient got to Page 54:
Maybe you or your folks would enjoy this book about County Galway, Ireland,
Obviously neither Sue nor her folks gave a rip about this little jewel.
"Beyond the sand pit there's a corner where 'many a man gets a weakness. 'Tis there they'd put down the coffin for a rest when they'd be carrying it to the churchyard.'"
The hinges are a bit loose. Maybe somebody read it. Perhaps it was "Laurie W. OstsXXX? of 4210 SW 4th St.," who wrote her name in the front.
And finally "Prairie Avenue," Alfred Meeker, 1949, Alfred A. Knopf. This one also has a bookplate (Juliet Voorhees) and the spine is faded, indicating it spent many years on a shelf somewhere in the sun.
First Paragraph Test:
"Then it's decided," said Mrs. Ramsay. "Ned is to spend the winter with Hiram and Lydia in Prairie Avenue."
Last Paragraph Test:
"Drawing his coat collar higher to ward off the bitter cold, Ned thrust his hands deep in his pockets and strode on in the gathering dusk."
All pretty dismal.