*gasp!* Mom, stop seducing my boyfriends! Or at least wait until I get to have them.
Ann Lawrence's Jezebel's Daughter, which Uni Books put out in 1952, was formerly published in 1934 as Mother and Daughter, which is useful to know if you decide to read this, because it explains the social attitudes on display. If the prose is presumed to be accurately reflective of the social mores of the 1930s, then the lesson is that women had little control over their own bodies. The protagonist Constance Hastings is physically manhandled often, prevented from leaving places when she wants, pushed, pulled, and dragged wherever men want her, kissed against her will, stalked as a matter of course, and grabbed by the shoulders and shaken hard twice just for expressing dissent. In addition, she's seventeen, which strikes us as a young target for men in their thirties.
That's all interesting background, but this is still fiction, so what's most important is the story, and even once you accept the social differences, this one isn't successful. Basically, Constance has a stepmom, Marguerite, whose love of sex makes her constantly cheat on Constance's mostly out-of-town dad. Constance seeks to understand why, and in so doing gets sucked into her stepmom's soap opera of a life. Will she turn into her stepmom? We wish she would have. The book would have been a lot more fun. Luckily, we got it as part of a lot, and every other book in the stack was good or excellent, but we recommend giving this one a pass. The cover art here is generally thought to be by Bernard Safran, a conclusion with which we agree.
Hi, sorry to interrupt. Can I borrow your life preserver?
Originally published in hardback in 1949 as Body a la Mode, this Uni Books edition of Wright Williams' River Barge Virgin has a cover that misleads. First, the male figure seems more interested in the life preserver on the wall than the blonde in the foreground, but maybe that's just a flaw in the printing process. Uni promoted this as a stalkerish type of tale, but, “he took one look and vowed to possess her,” is way off. He took one look, thought she was real cute, and decided to meet her, is more like it. The he involved would be Carl, living for free in his rich uncle's Manhattan penthouse, and the her would be Diana, living on a house barge on the East River directly below that penthouse. As neighbors, they were destined to meet, and once they do, Williams constructs several obstacles preventing their joining, including a reporter determined to prove Diana is an escaped killer, a former girlfriend of Carl's determined to keep him for herself, a job beckoning Carl to southern climes, etc. But with these Uni potboilers it's not if, but how the couple will get together. Williams pulls a few surprises, but the ending is pre-ordained. Middling effort, but not a waste of time. The book has no copyright date inside, but online sources say this edition is 1952.
*sigh* Sure, wild body. Always wild. Dance, dance, dance. You know how this body feels right now? Hung over.
This cover for the 1953 novel Wild Body introduced a new artist to us—Howard Purcell, who produced an illustration better than Manning Clay's novel deserves. Wild Body is the story of a woman named Valerie Browning who's too attractive. That's Clay's formulation, not ours. Valerie's dilemma is summed up by this line about a hundred pages in: The cruelty of nature had endowed her with an exotic body but had forgotten to provide a heart and a soul. So she's kind of like the Tin Man, but stacked. She has starry ambitions, but can only manage to reach the burlesque circuit. As a dancer she quickly becomes jaded and depressed, and in addition to problems with men has a roommate named Lucyanne who gets one gander of Val's goods and decides same-sex action is where it's at. That could make for a good tale, but with low levels of action, eroticism, and drama, Wild Body lacks body and isn't all that wild. We'll keep our eyes open from more art from Purcell, though. This subtly phallic cover is excellent.
Put me down, silly. The expression means I want to spend more time outside the cabin.
According to medical folklore you're actually supposed to starve a fever, but that doesn't work with this cover at all, so feed it is. Orrie Hitt's Cabin Fever was published in 1954. We've read five of his books, and while we don't want to claim that once you've read that many you've read them all, it sure seems like he hits on the same ideas every time. So we aren't going to acquire this one, but that doesn't mean we won't revisit him later. One thing about Orrie—he's a quick read. Harry Schaare art on this.
I know you had plans today, but I got bad news. Our ox done come up lame. So let's get the plow strapped on you and get to tilling that back forty.
We recently bought a stack of digest paperbacks. These books generally came in the early 1950s and were often sexually charged dramas with women as the main characters. Dirt Farm falls into that basic category, though the lead is male, a war vet named Bern Winter who takes a fieldhand job hoping to exorcise his personal demons with hard work. Unfortunately, he's had the misfortune to walk right into a family out of Erskine Caldwell. There's the developmentally disabled man-child who's also a potentially dangerous physical brute. There's the amoral sex maniac who has lascivious designs on a sibling. There's the paragon of perfect femininity onto whom everyone attaches their hopes and dreams. There's the subservient domestic staffer bestowed with the wisdom of the ages. There's the emotionally crippled accident victim who wanders around in a daze playing a fiddle. And there are secrets. Secrets galore that bespeak the decadence of the South and its moneyed class. The straight shooting manly-man protagonist could ignore all this lunacy or disrupt it, and of course he dives in head first. These digest books are usually pretty good. Far better than you'd suspect if you haven't read any. But Dirt Farm feels like a rushed attempt to take advantage of the burgeoning southern noir sub-genre, and is shoddily constructed and ultimately pointless. Onward and upward.
Seems naive now, but when I heard it was a recreational drug I thought it would make me spend more time outside.
Amazingly, if you go shopping for a copy of N. R. de Mexico's, aka Robert Campbell Bragg's 1951 novel Marijuana Girl, some vendors will try to charge you $200 or more. That's quite an ask for a flimsy old digest novel, but people must pay it, we guess. It certainly isn't the cover art of a hapless model that makes the book valuable. Is it the prose? Well, the book was good, in fact far better than we expected. It sets up as a drug scare novel. The main character, Joyce, goes through the full progression—i.e. youthful smalltown rebelliousness leads to a permissive lifestyle leads to the big city leads to drugs leads to harder drugs leads to prostitution and so forth. We didn't give anything away there—the rear cover provides all that information and more. We're even told Joyce hangs with jazz musicians (which you understand to mean non-whites) and trades “her very soul” for drugs, so you know where this all goes before you even reach the title page.
But Marijuana Girl also defies conventions of drug scare books. For example, it portrays nearly all the drug users as regular folks well in control of their intake. In fact, the two characters responsible for introducing Joyce to drugs are the same two who work hardest to get her off them. Other easy plot choices are avoided as well, which is rarely the case in 1950s novels with numerous non-white characters. But here's really why the book is unique—it goes into amazing detail about the process of consuming drugs. De Mexico zooms close during those moments, sharing the proper technique for smoking joints, clinically explaining how to use a needle, and how to pull blood back into the syringe to rinse out every last molecule of heroin. It's all there. This had to be shocking for 1951 readers, which we suppose is what boosts the book's value for modern collectors. Still, $200? We don't think Marijuana Girl, or any paperback, is worth that much, but it's definitely worth reading.
Low expectations can be a reader's best friend.
It must be offensively awful. A sleaze novel about slavery? With a focus on the harrowing middle passage that killed millions? But surprise—H.B. Drake's Slave Ship isn't sleaze. Though the uncredited front cover art suggests it, and the rear cover blurb says, “She used all the darkest arts of Africa to win the white sailor,” what you actually get here is an attempt at real literature in a Conradian vein, well written, even if the only true concern on display is for said white sailor. Slave Ship was originally written in 1936, which strikes us as a bit late for a tale with such a narrow emotional focus, but good prose counts for something.
Despite the book's inadequate helping of empathy for the enslaved, descriptions of the trade will send shivers through your body. Particularly vivid is the bit describing slaves kept below decks in heat and filth for days at a time, chained together on their left sides, with knees drawn up to accommodate the knees of the man behind, three hundred of them, lamenting their terrible fortune at white devils having targeted their coast. But of course Drake is more concerned with his hero, as bad luck befalls the endeavor and everything that can go wrong does, including incompetence, disease, British anti-slavers, and more.
What is Drake's point with this book? He seems to be saying that slavery is destructive for everyone involved. Hmm... well, eventually, maybe, but as of today, if you tally the fortunes made by southern slavers and northern banks, and consider the later generations that gained from this murder money, the universal suffering seems to be extremely late in coming—let alone the universal recognition of the slave trade as one of Amerca's two unforgivable foundational crimes. In any case, if your stomach is strong enough to endure violence and cruelty you might actually find Slave Ship worth a read.
First let me show you these, then I'll explain about your mean-ass cat, and that shovel in the yard.
We would often see Arthur Abram's 1952 thriller Badge of Shame online and for years wondered what the story was with the cover art. We learned it was painted by Walter Popp, but what exactly was he depicting with this bleeding woman exposing her injury? Well, we bought a copy and the mystery is revealed early. It has nothing to do with a mean cat. The woman here was deliberately cut by a sadistic thief during the theft of her $10,000 brooch. She hires the protagonist, tough guy Shep Duncan, to retrieve her jewelry, and on the cover she's showing him how she was disfigured by the robber. So plotwise, bad boy steals from nice girl, nice girl finds badder boy to get her property back. Simple, right? Well, not so much.
The story doesn't develop quite as expected. For the majority of the book Duncan wanders through New York City, hunted by both cops and criminals, running, hiding, climbing a bridge, riding a subway to Coney Island, all while looking over his shoulder for unseen pursuers and trying to puzzle out a mystery for which he has no clues. Leaving the lead completely in the dark is deliberate on the part of the author, but it still feels like a misstep. Adding to the book's issues are numerous typos and errors, including a character's name printed in reverse. When the entire hallucinatory adventure ends with the villain explaining the master plot to the tied up hero, it's just a letdown. Badge of Shame has a few thrills but it isn't a book we can recommend.
Whoops, wrong room. Unless you're the one who wanted the kilo of blow.
Sometimes when you're a cop crime comes right to you, such as on this cover for Lady Cop by J. T. Pritchard. This was a fast read. Basically, when her father's death is ruled a suicide, a woman comes to believe it was murder and joins the police force with the ultimate goal of finding the killer or killers. Pritchard has zero inclination to make a true mystery of this, so he takes the easy route of having the killer come to the heroine. Then, having put her in hot water, he again takes the easy route by having someone else save her ass. The provocative cover by Eddie Chan doesn't actually reflect a scene in the narrative. Lady cop is smart enough to lock her door. Conversely, girl wrestlers are not—the art came from 1952's Loves of a Girl Wrestler, below. See another cover for that at this link. Copyright on Lady Cop is 1955.
Leisurely gentle lovemaking? Oh, and I suppose all those cows I need to inseminate today can just wait, huh?
Many authors took on the challenge of writing about mental disability during the mid-century period. John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road, and numerous other books touched upon it to lesser or greater degrees. Add H.M. Appel to the list. His character Lonnie, generally referred to in Brutal Kisses as “the half-wit,” finds himself the prime suspect in a murder mystery. Someone in town has taken an axe to sexually precocious Mazie Callahan, and several people had motives.
We'll say this much for the book—it's probably better than it has any right to be, considering its numerous unoriginal elements. Hard working old pa? Check. Virginal good girl? Check. Loutish local boy? Yup. Mandatory Saturday night dance? A cow that's like a member of the family? Check and check. Brutal kisses? Let's just say men are a rough sex to deal with. Though some, in this book as well as in real life, work hard to be better. The story finally culminates in an Agatha Christie style gathering of suspects, with the killer unmasked on the final page. But you'll know who it is long before then.
This was originally published in 1936 as The Farmer's Daughter, with this Uni Books abridged edition coming later (there's no copyright date inside). The uncredited cover art was retasked from an earlier book, and if you look below, you'll see it was altered as well as recycled. The original had a horse in the background, while the Uni edition has a— Well, we don't know what it is. A scene from the Saturday dance maybe. It's hard to tell because the cyan plate was printed askew, and the whole thing has a psychedelic look as a result.
In any case, Brutal Kisses is a reasonably entertaining expenditure of all-too-precious reading hours. Appel's take on mental disability would be considered offensive today, but you know offense is lurking before you go in, right? The best defense is to note it then put it aside, or else you can't read any of these old books. Appel's so-called half-wit Lonnie isn't going to win any prizes for realism or generate much from readers in the way of understanding or compassion, but he isn't nearly the worst written character of this type to be found in vintage literature. Not a ringing endorsement, we know, but it's all we can offer.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1966—LSD Declared Illegal in U.S.
LSD, which was originally synthesized by a Swiss doctor and was later secretly used by the CIA on military personnel, prostitutes, the mentally ill, and members of the general public in a project code named MKULTRA, is designated a controlled substance in the United States.
1945—Hollywood Black Friday
A six month strike by Hollywood set decorators becomes a riot at the gates of Warner Brothers Studios when strikers and replacement workers clash. The event helps bring about the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which, among other things, prohibits unions from contributing to political campaigns and requires union leaders to affirm they are not supporters of the Communist Party.
1957—Sputnik Circles Earth
The Soviet Union launches the satellite Sputnik I, which becomes the first artificial object to orbit the Earth. It orbits for two months and provides valuable information about the density of the upper atmosphere. It also panics the United States into a space race that eventually culminates in the U.S. moon landing.
1970—Janis Joplin Overdoses
American blues singer Janis Joplin is found dead on the floor of her motel room in Los Angeles. The cause of death is determined to be an overdose of heroin, possibly combined with the effects of alcohol.
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