Crime, Politics, and Poetry | Classic Returns

The goal of this newly revived column will be to highlight recent and forthcoming reprints and rediscoveries, with the aim of helping busy librarians replenish their stock of not merely treasured classics but also notable recoveries from the past, to populate the shelves with exciting, unexpected finds for readers and patrons for years to come.

“I ransack public libraries and find them full of sunk treasure.” Plucked from Virginia Woolf’s diary of August 1921, this popular quote has always epitomized to me the pleasures and fascinations of a well- and variously stocked library. Yet as every good librarian (and dragon) knows, even treasure hoards must be carefully curated and refreshed. The goal of this newly revived column will be to highlight recent and forthcoming reprints and rediscoveries, with the aim of helping busy librarians replenish their stock of not merely treasured classics but also notable recoveries from the past, to populate the shelves with exciting, unexpected finds for readers and patrons for years to come.

The year so far has been great for classic returns, which include new Library of America editions of Octavia Butler, Ray Bradbury, Jean Stafford, Joan Didion, Donald Barthelme, John Williams, and—dear to many librarians—an omnibus edition of Virginia Hamilton’s novels for young readers. Harper has reissued attractive new editions of Laurie Colwin’s droll, compassionate oeuvre (essential titles for even the smallest public library), and Penguin Classics’ spiffy new hardcover editions have included equally indispensable reissues of Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, James Welch’s Winter in the Blood, and Younghill Kang’s East Goes West, to name just a few. Pushkin Press has produced economical collections of Stefan Zweig’s stories and novellas, while New York Review Books Classics continues to set forth an international smorgasbord of translations and reprints as varied as Thomas Mann, Molly Keane, Leonora Carrington, André Gide, and George R. Stewart.

The presses are all going full bore at Hard Case Crime, Poisoned Pen’s British Library Crime Classics, and Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics; fans of classic mystery have never been better served.

The options for librarians looking to create more timeless and interesting collections have never been richer or more perplexing. Now that the rusted gears of copyright expiration have screeched back to life, each year brings a new flood of cheaply produced works from the public domain to compete for our strained attentions and budgets. One goal of this column will be to shed light on some of the most interesting and worthwhile of these classic returns, from presses large and small.


Carter, Charlotte. Rhode Island Red. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. (Nanette Hayes Mystery, Bk. 1). Jul. 2021. 192p. ISBN 9780593314104. pap. $15.99. M

Nanette Hayes, the bohemian busker whose jazz-inflected cadences drive Carter’s 1997 mystery debut, is an irresistible bundle of contradictions: worldly and naïve, cerebral and impulsive, soulful and sexy, gutsy and self-deprecating. As she puts it, “If only I played the sax half as well as I play the fool.” The murder of a fellow street musician who stashes $60K in her tenor saxophone lures Nan far from her middle-class roots into the colorful environs of a Manhattan that is far from cozy but wears its grittiness lightly. Nanette might not be a musical virtuoso, but she sure can improvise, kicking off a swift MacGuffin-fueled narrative that’s short on probability and long on quirky spontaneity. VERDICT Centered on the perils and amours of a strong and sophisticated Black woman, this stylish, melodic mystery and its two newly reissued sequels, Coq au Vin and Drumsticks, will be broadly appealing additions to any mystery collection.

Smith, William Gardner. The Stone Face. NYRB Classics. Jul. 2021. 240p. ISBN 9781681375168. pap. $14.95. F

This forthright, morally engaging 1963 novel by a neglected Black expat author applies a distinctly international perspective to questions of race and class. Fleeing the viscerally recounted racist brutalities of his native Philadelphia, Simeon Brown feels a giddy sense of liberation upon arriving in Paris. Sensitized to the cold stone face of the white gaze, he swiftly becomes disillusioned when he observes that, far from discovering some post-racial paradise, he has merely traded up into a more elevated caste, and that in mid-century France, Algerians occupy the lowest rung. Worse, Simeon is complicit in their oppression, as are his fellow Black American exiles and his Jewish lover Maria, a survivor of the Nazi death camps. This dissonance sets him on a dire course that will culminate in the massacre of Algerian protesters by Parisian police in October of 1961, of which this novel offers a rare depiction. VERDICT Far more than his contemporaries Richard Wright, Chester Himes, and James Baldwin, Smith (1927–74) parlayed his experiences in Paris into universal explorations of race, caste, and colonialism, earning him a place alongside them on library shelves.

Sui Sin Far. Mrs. Spring Fragrance. Modern Library. (Modern Library Torchbearers). May 2021. 192p. ISBN 9780593241202. pap. $16. F

Originally published in 1912, these deceptively charming stories reveal the forces of racism, gender inequality, and assimilation at play in the bubbling multicultural stew of Seattle’s and San Francisco’s Chinatowns, over a century ago. Sui Sin Far was the Cantonese pen name adopted by Cheshire-born Edith Maude Eaton (1865–1914), whose mother was Chinese and whose father was a white Briton. In a brief, insightful introduction to this volume, novelist C Pam Zhang observes that Sui Sin Far’s prose has the cadence and elevated perspective of fable, resulting in stories that feel like a curious mix of social realism and fairy tale. Written at the height of the virulent anti-Asian “Yellow Peril,” when Sui Sin Far lived in the States, these diverting family dramas of romance, sacrifice, and cultural conflict and confusion sought to portray nuanced Chinese American characters and to reconcile people of all races. Sui Sin Far poignantly expresses this motive in her memoir/essay “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian,” also in this volume. VERDICT Combining quaintness with flashes of subversion, this collection is both a vital historical snapshot and a depressingly timely reminder of fundamental human dignity across race and culture.

Taylor, Kathrine Kressmann. Address Unknown. Ecco: HarperCollins. Jun. 2021. 96p. ISBN 9780063068490. pap. $16.99. F

A sensation when it first appeared in 1938, Taylor’s powerful story alerted a complacent, isolationist United States to the rising Nazi menace (alas, too late), all in the guise of a grimly satisfying thriller, easily digested over a lunch hour. Through a sequence of letters starting in 1932 between Max Eisenstein, a Jewish art dealer in San Francisco, and his business partner Martin Schulse, newly repatriated to his native Munich, we witness with alarming immediacy the insidious progress of fascist ideology. Reluctant at first (“Is he quite sane?”), Martin soon falls under the resistless, dehumanizing sway of Germany’s “Glorious Leader,” opening a perilous chasm between the friends. With masterful economy, Taylor (1903–96) uses the silences between letters to disturbing and ultimately devastating effect. VERDICT At perhaps no time since its initial publication has this stunning evocation of extremism and intolerance felt more chilling. As the foreword to the 1938 edition suggested, this story deserves a permanent place on the country’s bookshelf.

Tsiang, H. T. The Hanging on Union Square. Penguin Classics. May 2019. 240p. ed. by Floyd Cheung. ISBN 9780143134022. pap. $18. F

Self-published in 1935 by Chinese émigré and literary trickster Tsiang, whose wildly original novels withered in the shadow of Pearl Buck’s more commercially palatable Orientalism, this raucous proletarian satire is delightfully disarming. Thumbing his nose at the earnest social realism fashionable among leftist authors of the day, Tsiang (1899–1971) relates the progress of his bourgeois everyman Mr. Nut toward class-consciousness in a bracing, declarative style with an antic irreverence all its own. Questioning his allegiance to Mr. System’s pitiless capitalism, the down-at-heels Nut mulls the gangsterism of Mr. Wiseguy and the revolutionary zeal of Miss Stubborn, before conceiving the bold piece of suicidal agitprop referenced in the title. VERDICT Redolent of the creative and political ferment of Depression-era New York, this transgressive mashup of Karl and Groucho Marx resurrects a marginalized Asian American provocateur far fresher and more entertaining than most of his contemporaries. A revelation.



Oyama, Sumita. The Life and Zen Haiku Poetry of Santoka Taneda. Tuttle. May 2021. 352p. tr. from Japanese by William Scott Wilson. ISBN 9784805316559. $19.95. POETRY

Most Western students of haiku are versed in the form’s “Four Pillars” (Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki), but few are familiar with the work of Santoka Taneda (1882–1940), an itinerant Zen priest, poet, and drunkard whose eccentric life and radically artless free-verse haiku have made him one of Japan’s most beloved literary figures. Accomplished translator Wilson rectifies this lapse with his deft and moving translation of Oyama’s 1984 biography of his onetime friend. Oyama (1899–1994) recounts Santoka’s years of begging, writing, and drinking too much sake, which he painstakingly juxtaposes with over 300 of Santoka’s haiku. In addition to the sympathetic portrait by Oyama (author of many untranslated works on haiku and literature), this volume includes a translation of Santoka’s own “Diary of the One-Grass Hut,” in which the saintly wastrel chronicled a season in one of the ramshackle hermitages scattered along his wayward path. Wilson’s eloquent introduction and afterword and helpful footnotes provide valuable context, and Gary Miller Haskins’s ink-brush drawings in the whimsical haiga style lighten the account of Santoka’s squalid existence, more Bukowski than Basho. VERDICT One can hardly imagine a more accessible or authentic introduction to a remarkable seeker whose life and art were indistinguishable, nor a more essential addition to any collection of world literature.

David Wright is a reader services librarian working at the downtown Seattle Public Library since the turn of the century, where he also reads and podcasts his popular story time for grown-ups ( Publishers engaged in resurrecting lost or neglected classics are invited to submit forthcoming titles for consideration to; please include “Classic Returns” in the subject line.

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