In praise of the old, fragile and crumbly (and their lost publishers…)


Those of you who follow me on social media might have seen me haul a rather interesting book from the local Oxfam a couple of weeks back. The item in question is entitled “The Existentialist Imagination: From de Sade to Sartre”, and it was lurking in the Philosophy section, costing the grand sum of £1.99… I’ve been drawn to that particular section a lot recently (part of me wants to bring most of it home), but this one is a little unusual in that it’s a collection of fiction writing which apparently expresses the existentialist outlook. It certainly is old, fragile and crumbly (as are many paperbacks of its age – it was published in 1973) but a casual glance at the blurb sent me off digging in my shelves and then pondering…

“Existential…” is edited by Frederick R. Karl and Leo Hamalian, and the blurb mentioned that they also edited a collection called “The Naked i”, also published by Picador, back in 1971. I knew I had owned this collection, picking it up in the late 1970s because it had a story by Sylvia Plath, and I was a bit vexed by the fact that I might have discarded it over the years in one of my periodic clear outs. A frantic rummage in the Plath shelves revealed the book in question, which brought a huge sigh of relief. I like the fact of having both of these companion collections, despite the fact that they have ageing brown pages and fragile spines – because the contents look inspiring, and reminded me of the vagaries of publishers and publishing, how authors can disappear by the wayside, and how mainstream publishing is perhaps less attuned to the individual and curious nowadays.

The Picador Brautigans from the late 1970s

When I look back to the late 1970s, which was the time I first had disposable income, so could buy books, it seems to me a time characterised by the spirit of adventure and exploration. I lived in a cold-water flat in Cheltenham for a while, and the local bookshop I hung about in most often was called Paperback Parade – and of course sold only paperbacks! They operated what was in effect a mini-Foyles system, and their stock was shelved according to publisher. I was often drawn to Picador Books, as their titles seemed exotic and a bit left-field – and in fact my first Richard Brautigan books were Picador editions from Paperback Parade’s shelves. Alas, however, if I look back to those days many of the small imprints seems to have disappeared, been swallowed up by larger operations or rather lost their individuality.

Yes – I have finally found the missing original “Dreaming of Babylon” which I had mislaid for the #1977Club…!

There was a sense back then (or at least so it seems to me) that publishers perceived their readers as having an intelligence and a wish to be stretched or provoked; smaller imprints appeared to have a genuine independence and a wish to push boundaries. Both of these collections are thought-provoking and wide-ranging, taking in authors from Tolstoy, de Sade, Dostoevsky, Borges and Kafka, up to Plath, Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Leonard Michaels and Ken Kesey. That heady and eclectic mix is maybe unusual and also a snapshot of the authors considered relevant at the time.

Authors do, of course, slip in and out of fashion; one that springs to mind is Alberto Moravia who’s been championed by Grant recently. And any number of women authors have disappeared under the radar; popular names during the last century, they’re now dismissed as perhaps not relevant, and it takes publishers like Virago, and more increasingly imprints like Persephone and Handheld, to bring them back into print. Those current small presses (and there are any number of them on my sidebar, and which I love), have rescued some real treasures and saved some amazing works from obscurity. Nevertheless, not everything is going to make it back into print; and I suppose what I’m actually saying is that it’s a good thing to hold onto the old, fragile and crumbly. Certainly, many books on my shelves are no longer available or harder to track down; so I think I’m going to have to check very carefully when I have any clear-outs and make sure I *really* want to get rid of a book, just in case I change my mind and find a replacement hard to source. There’s a lot to be said for hanging onto your own personal library! 😀

#1977Club – a final post!


Phew! So we reached the end of the #1977club in one piece and having read, discussed and discovered some very interesting titles! In the end, as always, I ran out of time and didn’t read all I wanted to – but these are the ones I *did* read:

Four books in total, only one of which was a fail (the Carter). Rediscovering favourite authors like Brautigan and Plath was a joy, and exploring Margaret Atwood’s early stories just served to reinforce what an excellent writer she really is. Despite my issues with the Carter, I *will* try other titles by her – if for no other reason than to prove I haven’t turned into a soppy old wuss!!

Alas, I didn’t get to the Barthes; but that will remain on the TBR and hopefully be read at some time in the future. If you’re still reading from 1977, please do leave links on the 1977 page – it’s been wonderful seeing what everyone else has been reading and watching the discussions. Here’s to the next club, whichever year that may be…. 😉

#1977club – Brautigan’s Babylonian Dreams


Dreaming of Babylon by Richard Brautigan

As our clubs have got slightly more up to date in their decades, I’ve tried to slip in re-reads of favourite authors; so I was very happy to be able to find a Richard Brautigan book from 1977. Brautigan is one of my long-time loves; I first read his work back in my late teens, as part of my exploration of the Beats, and I’ve written about him before on the Ramblings. My early copies of his books were bought from a shop called Paperback Parade, while I was living in flatland in Cheltenham. The shop (which I think was a chain at the time) only sold paperbacks, of course, and they were organised by publisher on bare white shelves. My Brautigans were from the Picador section, and their editions usually featured a photograph of the author with his current girlfriend on the cover. I confess to being initially drawn to the books because Brautigan kind of reminded me of a guy I had a major crush on at the time (and I later found out there was a weird kind of synchronicity to that – which is another story…); but once I began reading him, I was utterly hooked on RB. His writing is like nobody else’s and I love his weird, warped, deceptively simple and completely unique narratives.

If my dreadful memory serves me correctly, “Dreaming of Babylon” would have been one of his books I bought as soon as it came out in paperback – or at least fairly soon after. It’s late Brautigan – only one further novel was published in his lifetime, plus one more very much posthumously – and it’s not usually listed amongst the titles he’s best known for. But I tend to love all Brautigan, so I was happy to revisit it. In fact, I went through a big re-read of his whole canon a few years pre-blog, and I’d probably be happy to do so again. Nevertheless, it’s “Dreaming of Babylon” from 1977 that I’m meant to be talking about here, so I’d better get on with it.

The novel is subtitled “A Private Eye Novel 1942” and is indeed set in the San Francisco of that year. The narrator is one C. Card, the titular private eye; though unfortunately not a very succesful one. Completely broke, owing everyone money, harassed by an overbearing landlady (and also an overbearing, though mostly absent, mother), Card thinks his luck has changed as he’s at last found a client. Over the space of one day, we follow Card’s efforts to find a gun, hustle a little cash from a cop friend, hustle a little more from a friendly morgue attendant, negotiate with a cool blonde who can drink a hell of a lot of beer, escape from some crazy gangsters with razors – oh, and there’s the matter of some missing dead bodies…

….I was on my way over to the refrigerator.

That was a big mistake.

I looked inside and then hurriedly closed the door when the jungle foliage inside tried to escape. I don’t know how people can live the way I do. My apartment is so dirty that recently I replaced all the seventy-five-watt bulbs with twenty-five-watters, so I wouldn’t have to see it. It was a luxury but I had to do it. Fortunately, the apartment didn’t have any windows or I might have really been in trouble.

Card is hampered in all his attempts by Babylon; after being hit on the head by a baseball when young, he spends half of his time dipping out of reality into labyrinthine fantasies of the place. In the complex and detailed stories he makes up in his head, he’s the star: a top baseball player or a successful private eye, in a plot out of a Saturday morning serial, with his beautiful sidekick always in attendance. These fantasies, which seem to take over at will, have interfered in everything he’s tried to do: he could have been a cop like his friend Rink, except he flunked the test by dreaming of Babylon; he can’t even be relied on to get off the bus at the right stop if a fantasy takes over. Quite how he’s going to manage to deal with the strangeness of the next 24 hours is anyone’s guess.

“Dreaming of Babylon” ends up being a riotous tale involving a number of corpses, fortunes that rise and fall, some extremely hilarious and completely un-PC inappropriate humour, an unfortunate murder victim who is the subject of necrophiliac longings, plus plenty of sly debunking of the tropes of hard-boiled detective fiction. Instead of being one step ahead like the gumshoes in those stories, C. Card is constantly one step behind what’s happening; and every time you think he’s going to succeed, something manages to get in the way. Frankly, it’s probably a good thing that his pal Rink became the policeman and not him.

The world sure is a strange place. No wonder I spend so much time dreaming of Babylon. It’s safer.

Underlying the humour I did sense darker subtexts. Card’s relationship with his mother is not a happy one, and when dealing with her he turns into a whining little boy. As for the fate of his father, let’s not go there… Brautigan’s own family background was complex and troubled, so it’s not entirely surprising that his hero would also have an unpleasant home life. Additionally, Brautigan’s attitude to women is always problematic, and this was also reflected in his real personal life. The women in the “Dreaming…” are stereotypes; but then the story is dealing with literary clichés so perhaps that’s not unexpected. And certainly the glamorous blonde who drinks beer like a man but never needs to pee is great fun!

So I loved “Dreaming of Babylon” very much on what must be at least my third re-read. Yes, there are plenty of non-PC elements, but the comedy is very, very black and very, very funny; I always adore Brautigan’s wry, dry narrative voice and his idiosyncratic outlook on the world; and he’s an author I can return to again and again, always with enjoyment. My first book for the #1977 was a joy, and let’s hope the rest of this week’s reading ends up being so good.

Incidentally, I feel the need to confess: the edition in the picture, and which I read, is *not* my original 1970s Picador. I had a crisis while trying to find the latter – which isn’t on the small shelf space dedicated to Brautigan, but SHOULD BE! I guess it’s in the house somewhere and will turn up when I’m not looking for it; so I had to buy a pretty new copy from Canongate which is very nice. But I’d still like to find my original edition…

#1977club – here we go! :)


Yes, time for another week of reading, discovering and discussing books from a particular year – and this one is 1977. We reach a more modern decade than we’ve been covering up until now, and one which certainly takes us away from Simon’s comfort zone of the 1920s! :)) However, I was initially unsure of what I would read from the year until I began to dig, and I actually came up with a bit of a pile of books that I already own:

Yes, I really *do* own three copies of “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams”. No, I don’t know why…

I also own two other books from 1977 that piqued my interest, but alas I cannot at the moment lay hands on them – “The Women’s Room” by Marilyn French is a feminist classic and I have a battered old Virago copy, but it’s currently lurking on a shelf in Middle Child’s flat as I have loaned it out – so I won’t be reading that one… I also own Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts” but several trawls through the shelves have failed to find it (although I *did* find some other books I was looking for). So I may well choose from the above – some are re-reads, some unread, and I’d like to go for a mix if I can.

And then there’s this, lurking electronically:

I really want to read Barthes but frankly, I’m a Bit Scared. I’m *not* an academic and I fear I will fail miserably to understand this and then feel stupid. Oh well. Nothing ventured, nothing gained….

So do join Simon at Stuck in a Book and myself in the #1977club – it’s great fun, great reading and always fascinating to see what books people come up with! Here goes…!

Time for some 1970s clubbing…


… by which I’m not suggesting that we all get dressed up in flares and platforms heels and go out discoing to glam rock…

Instead, I thought I would mention that the results are in! Simon has been feverishly counting the votes for the next reading Club year, and the winner is:

So there you have it! Our next reading week will be the #1977club. Time to start digging in the stacks and online lists to see what titles we can come up with. I know that there is at least a Richard Brautigan I have from that year (somewhere…), and as I failed to squeeze him into 1968 I shall do my very best to make sure I read at least this one!

Simon has come up with another eye-catching logo (he’s so good at these!) and as you’ll see from the dates, you have five months or so to get preparing, researching and reading – and we’re looking forward to seeing what you come up with! 🙂 I had a preliminary dig in the stacks and found that I have at least three other books from 1977 without even looking very hard:

Some commenters have wondered why we aren’t going on into the 1980s or back before the 1920s with the clubs, and to be honest that’s because of our personal tastes! Simon is particularly happy in the 1920s I know, and I don’t think either of us always feel drawn to modern writing. Personally, I’m inordinately fond of 20th century literature in the decades we feature, and as Simon pointed out to me, the dawn of cheaper printing from the 1920s onwards gives us more books choose from.

OK – maybe some things about 1977 weren’t so good…..

So – here’s to the #1977club, and we hope as many of you as possible will join in with this next year –  happy reading! 🙂

#1968Club – the ones that got away…


Well, that was fun! What an amazing array of books 1968 turned out to produce – truly a bumper year for publishing it seems. In the end I had terrible trouble deciding which books to choose (compounded by the fact that I was away the week before, and also spent much of October reading “Crime and Punishment” so couldn’t really prepare). Inevitably, there were some that got away, and these are the most significant:

There were many, many more I could have chosen to read, but I was trying to draw mainly from books I already owned, and there were a surprising amount from 1968 which I hadn’t actually got to yet. I think I actually bought two for the week – the Helen MacInnes and the new copy of the Kerouac – and typically they weren’t ones I read…

Which ones do I regret missing out on? These two, really:

The Brautigan is one I really wanted to return to; I love his work dearly, first coming across it in my late teens, and I’ve gone back to his books many times over the years. In fact, I had a complete chronological re-read pre-blog and it was marvellous. I’m sure I’ll read him again, though probably not for one of our reading years unless I’m lucky.

And I bought a nice new copy of “Vanity of Duluoz” to revisit as my ancient Quartet copy from back in the 1970s is getting very brown and crumbly. I probably have a more complex reaction to Kerouac’s work nowadays, but I still wanted to revisit this one. We shall see…

So – how was 1968 for you? Any books you wish you’d got to, any that didn’t turn out as planned?  Don’t forget to leave any links to your reading on the 1968 page. And just because the week is over, doesn’t mean we should stop reading books from what really was a stellar year! 🙂

A Birthday Mention


As it’s the birthday of one of my favourite ever writers, Richard Brautigan, I thought it would be worth linking to the posts I’ve done on him – and there are a couple, as I never tire of his wonderful prose!

A previous birthday post

Some thoughts on Richard Brautigan

Richard Brautigan 1084

And here is one of his poems:

All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

Happy birthday Richard!

Birthdays, birthdays, birthdays – The Wonderful Richard Brautigan



I’ve been known to ramble on about the amazing Richard Brautigan – notably here.

Let’s just say he’s one of my favourite writers, for prose like this if nothing else:

I will be very careful the next time I fall in love, she told herself. Also, she had made a promise to herself that she intended on keeping. She was never going to go out with another writer: no matter how charming, sensitive, inventive or fun they could be. They weren’t worth it in the long run. They were emotionally too expensive and the upkeep was complicated. They were like having a vacuum cleaner around the house that broke all the time and only Einstein could fix it. She wanted her next lover to be a broom.”

Brautigan’s most famous novel is probably “Trout Fishing in America”, but my favourite may be “Sombrero Fallout”, from which the above quote is taken from. Richard Brautigan was a one-off and they don’t make them like him any more.


“all of us have a place in history. mine is clouds.”

Many happy returns, Richard – wherever you are in the clouds…


The Beats of Summer: Some Thoughts on Richard Brautigan



To tie in with Roof Beam Reader’s “Beats of Summer” reading event, I though I would share a few thoughts about one of my favourite writers, Richard Brautigan.

Although Brautigan is usually bracketed with the beat writers, he doesn’t to my mind have a lot in common with them. Born in 1935, he was quite a few years younger than Kerouac and co, and it wasn’t till the 1960s that he really came to the fore – therefore, I’ve always bracketed him more with hippie culture than the beats, though some would argue that one led on from the other.


I first stumbled across Brautigan’s work when I was living in Cheltenham in the late 1970s. There was a wonderful bookshop called, if I remember correctly, Paperback Parade. As you might guess, it sold only paperbacks; it was part of a chain, I think, because I came across at least one other branch, and the books were very charmingly presented on sloping shelves by publisher. I was fond of Picador books at the time, and so Brautigan’s works caught my eye when browsing. The first novel of his I read was “The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966” and I was drawn to it for a couple of reasons: firstly, I was going through a bit of a hippie phase myself so was attracted by the 1966 in the title; and secondly the picture of Brautigan on the cover reminded me of someone I had a huge crush on at the time! So I picked up the book and instantly fell in love with Brautigan’s unique, almost childlike style, and so promptly invested in as many of his works as Paperback Parade could provide – which was most of his novels (this is how they are listed on Wikipedia):

A Confederate General From Big Sur (1964)
Trout Fishing in America (1967)
In Watermelon Sugar (1968)
The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (1971)
Revenge of the Lawn – short stories (October 1, 1971,
The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western (1974)
Willard and His Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery (1975)
Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel (1976)
Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel 1942 (1977)
The Tokyo-Montana Express (1980)
So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away (1982)
An Unfortunate Woman: A Journey (1982)

Brautigan was born in Tacoma, Washington and seems to have had a kind of rackety early life – his parents separated before he was born and his mother went through further marriages producing half-siblings for Richard. The family was extremely poor and after moving around for several years finally settled in Eugene, Oregon where Brautigan finished school. However, his behaviour became erratic, he was sent to an institution and received ECT. In 1956 he was released and after staying with his family for a short while he moved to San Francisco where he would spend much of his life.


Brautigan had been writing since he was 12 – mainly poetry but also longer works. He tried to establish himself as a writer once he reached San Francisco, and took part in poetry readings and the like. The city was, of course, a vibrant centre for modern writing and he managed to get some poems published. In the 1960s he became involved in the Californian counterculture and his first novel was published in 1964, though wasn’t much of a success. However, “Trout Fishing In American” made his name and caused him to be bracketed with the hippie movement. He continued to write novels, experimenting with different genres, and also more poems and short stories. However, his work fell out of favour in the 1970s and early 1980s; and as he suffered from depression and alcoholism he ended up alienating many of his friends and loved ones. Tragically in 1984 he shot himself whilst living alone in Bolinas, California, by this time so isolated that it may have been several weeks before his body was discovered.

That’s just a sketch – there are biographies and websites out there if you want to read up on RB. As for his work, when I discovered him in the 1970s I devoured everything that was available at the time – which looking at the list above must have been up to Willard and his Bowling Trophies. I remember being desperately excited waiting for the next Brautigan book to come out – so many of the writers I loved at the time were no longer with us, so there was extra joy when Sombrero Fallout came out in Picador in 1980. It turned out to be one of my favourite Brautigans – a mixture of humour, fantasy and sadness, telling the story of a sombrero that falls out of the sky and causes a war to take place inside it, alongside a lost love and the hair of a Japanese woman. It sounds weird I know, but it had me laughing and crying at the same time. The next new Brautigan was The Tokyo Montana Express, a book made up of short sequences featuring the two places Brautigan seemed to love most at the time. Then came “So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away”, which an American friend got for me in hardback when it came out – a slightly different kind of work, a fictionalised memory of a childhood time which hinted at Brautigan’s past; a past that at that time was not so well known.


Then nothing – Brautigan slipped off my radar until I heard the news of his death, which really shook me. I’d been reading his books intently for 6 or 7 years, carrying them around with me as I moved homes, and the death was unexpected because RB was something of a shadowy figure – in those pre-Internet days it was often hard to find out about obscure writers!

Last summer – or was it the summer before? – I re-read all Brautigan’s works in sequence. I did wonder what I would make of them after all these years, but I was bowled over a second time round. Brautigan’s fantasy-filled, surreal, magical early works still held me in their spell. His later, sadder, stranger works still hypnotised and made me laugh and cry. And there were bonuses to be found online – an unpublished novel “An Unfortunate Woman: A Journey” which had only come out fairly recently; a collection of early lost works; and a beautiful, touching memoir by his daughter, Ianthe Brautigan. I had forgotten just how individual RB’s work was, covering all sorts of genres from early ecology, gothic cowboy horror, hardboiled detectives, a library that accepts manuscripts not books. And he always seemed to feature in the cover photo with the girlfriend of the time, which was pretty kooky!

To my mind, Brautigan is a one-off – they definitely broke the mould when they made him, and I guess he is very much going to be an acquired taste. I think you will either love him or hate him! I love him and would highly recommend his writings to anyone looking for anything quirky, moving, funny and thought-provoking. I loved my re-reads of Richard Brautigan, and my old, slightly battered Picadors will still continue to travel with me wherever I go.


For anyone who wants to explore Brautigan further, I would recommend this wonderful website devoted to his work – it’s a mine of information about his work, legacy, his recordings of poetry etc – do pay a visit!

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