When I am out and about looking for dusty old copies of novels that most people don’t want, I come across other old dusty novels that I’m not really sure I want, but which have covers that say, “Hey, what about me? I think I may be up your alley.” And sometimes when those books speak to you, they really know what they are talking about. Two fairly recent examples include when I stumbled on Prairie Avenue by Arthur Meeker and Victoria 4:30 by Cecil Roberts. Two old books I took chances on only to be rewarded more than I ever could have imagined.
So in early December right before I had a tonsillectomy I combed my TBR shelves to see what I might want to read while I recovered from surgery. The doctor told me it would be seven to ten days of pain and no work. As I tried to figure out which way to go, I got a hankering to tackle at least a few of those old dusties that I had picked up over the years but hadn’t gotten around to reading.
Happily, the first two days post surgery were really not too bad so I got a lot of reading done. But as the doctor warned me, on day three things started to get really painful, and even worse, on day four the narcotic pain meds had me ejecting what little food I had in my stomach. So, days five through ten found me trying to manage the pain with ibuprofen and ice packs. Still, I did manage to finish three of the dusties in the ten days I was laid up.
Oddly, the three books that I got into and really enjoyed were all set in New York City. As I have mentioned before I love books that take place in the past, but I don’t quite trust historical fiction. What I prefer is fiction that is old. That way when they describe a scene, I don’t spend all my time second guessing whether the author was accurate. This is especially true in these three books, I would have constantly been asking myself, would this character have done that in the ’50s or ’60s? The answer is, apparently, yes.
The oldest of the three, but the second one I read, was New York 22 by Ilka Chase. Published in 1951, the book is set on the Upper East Side, and eventually Paris, in the years immediately following the Second World War. A well-written compelling love triangle and a fabulous look at the publishing/magazine/society in New York and Paris just after the war. I loved getting this snapshot into that milieu during that time period. It was like literary archaeology. Each description providing a marker for social scientists to study the time and place.
I think it was a much more interesting, or at least much more enjoyable, look at France in the immediate post-war period than William Maxwell’s The Chateau.
Published in 1959, Just Off Fifth by Edith Begner was the last one I read, but the middle of the three chronologically. It’s a fun look at the lives of tenants in an apartment building, not surprisingly, just off Fifth Avenue. Like the other two books, I relished all the period details and loved the story of the still famous, but severely blocked, novelist who moves into the building with her husband. She ends up being the fulcrum around which much unpleasantness takes place. This was full of great characters and a totally enjoyable read, but not as well done as the other two novels.
The first of the three I read but third in the line-up chronologically was Michael Rubin’s A Trip Into Town which was published in 1961.
Away from the confines of Westchester and Long Island, away from indulgent parents and prosperous homes, come Suki, Esther, and Steven–to savor freedom and explore the city, and incidentally, to attend the university.
This was a pretty fascinating look into college life at the time, and particularly what it was like for women whose families weren’t necessarily expecting them to get a degree. Written by a man, and dated in some ways, I was still surprised at how relevant it seemed. Of course I was on oxycodone at the time, but I think it would hold up. Suki reminded me of Jessa from HBO’s Girls.
And just to prove how much of a dusty this one is, I am the only, I repeat, the only person on Goodreads who has read, or at least rated, this book. There was a different edition already cataloged there, but no one has actually rated it. Until now. And given Rubin’s rather common name, it was hard to find anything about him. This, it turns out, was exacerbated by the fact that he died in 1989 before digital footprints existed. Thankfully one of his classmates at Bard, writer Eve Caram, advocated for his inclusion in Bardians of the 1950s exhibition, or I wouldn’t know anything about him.
I bought each of these mainly because their covers got my attention. What a lucky thing that was.
Even more fun seeing the covers of this accidental New York Trilogy lined up is seeing the author’s lined up.