O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
People occasionally ask me, “So have you been on any trips?” or “When are you doing another road trip column?” This is very flattering, especially since I really enjoy writing them.
But we just haven’t been on a bookscouting trip in quite a while. The reason is simple; we couldn’t afford it, in terms of either time or money. Julie has been out of work for months, so I took on a lot of extra commitments to get us through… and when she finally did get a decent job that’s actually in her field, it ended up as a night-shift gig, so our hours don’t match up.
So the only time we really have at the moment when we’re both off work and awake is Sunday afternoon. Despite not being able to take a real trip, though, we still get itchy feet. Last Sunday we decided that we should go for a drive… somewhere. Anywhere.
We ended up heading south on route 162. Mostly it’s farm country, not terribly interesting, but it’s a pretty drive.
We meandered south through Kent and Auburn, with the idea that we’d eventually end up in Orting at the cafe we’d liked so much the last time we were through there. A couple of hours’ worth of driving, dinner, and then home.
Unless you live here, there’s really no way to adequately describe the general eccentricity of the Pacific Northwest small-town vibe. There’s a sort of culture-clash atmosphere that’s really hard to get across in words– most everyone works hard at something, and politically the needle moves way to the right once you’re out of Seattle, but there’s also a lot of aging hippies and counterculture types who discovered decades ago that they can live perfectly well on an income that’s maybe a quarter of what it costs to live in the city. So in the years since the sixties, there’s been a kind of blending.
I think this was summed up by the woman we saw leaving the St. Vincent thrift store just as we arrived– silver hair in a brush cut, skin tanned to the consistency of leather, with a denim jacket that had an Iron Cross embroidered on the back… in rhinestones.
Heavy metal– but bejazzled. For the look that says, I’m hardcore and badass– but also interested in crafts. I didn’t take a picture because I didn’t want her to beat me up, but she was very much emblematic of the population.
As for the actual bookscouting? The St. Vincent’s in Kent always has good stuff and I cleaned up.
Right out of the gate I saw a lovely new hardcover edition of the Alfred Bester classic, The Stars My Destination. Technically, it wasn’t THAT new– it came out in 1996– but it was a really nice book with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, and for three bucks it was well worth trading up from my battered old Signet paperback.
The book was packaged by the late Byron Preiss, who also put together an amazing graphic novel version of Bester’s novel with Howard Chaykin, long ago.
Which someone really should bring back into print because it’s GORGEOUS. Well worth owning.
These were two of a series that Preiss was doing in the 1990s; there’s also The Ultimate Werewolf, the Ultimate Alien, The Ultimate Dragon, and eventually he partnered with Marvel to do The Ultimate Spider-Man, The Ultimate Super-Villain, The Ultimate X-Men, The Ultimate Hulk, and The Ultimate Silver Surfer. In turn, the first couple of those were successful enough that Preiss was able to launch the Marvel Novels series that started with Diane Duane’s The Venom Factor and ran throughout the 1990s.
…sorry, went off a side trail there for a moment. The point is just that I was surprised and pleased to see them in hardcover since I was not aware that there had ever been hardcover editions. So I scooped those up.
I also came across a couple of interesting rarities and oddballs. There was the original hardcover of Mark Rascovich’s naval suspense epic, The Bedford Incident.
I just picked this up because I thought it looked cool, but it’s apparently a very highly-regarded book and was even made into a movie in 1965 with Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier.
The movie is apparently the third in what film buffs refer to as “the nuclear disaster” trilogy of 1965, with the others being Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe.
All this was news to me, but part of the fun of this is coming home and doing the research. (Yes, I said ‘fun.’ I’m a big nerd, okay?)
Another one that jumped off the shelf at me was this one, Beach Red by Peter Bowman.
This was originally published in 1945, and it was the 1945 Book Club edition I had run across. The book is based on Bowman’s own war experiences in the Pacific islands, and purports to tell the story of one hour in the life of an infantryman in a unit mounting an island invasion. It’s very grim and scary and not at all the kind of rah-rah story you’d expect from a World War II novel published in 1945… it may be one of the earliest books to try and document the trauma that soldiers on the ground go through. The book is billed as a novel but it’s really more of a prose poem.
To my amazement, this one was made into a movie too, in 1967.
Those were both cool books to come across, and it’s the second time I’ve bowled out vintage war and naval adventure hardcovers from that particular store.
Then there was one of those bookscouting finds that are fun because they’re just so unexpected. It was a first edition of John Dunning’s The Bookman’s Wake — signed.
Now, as it happens, I already own The Bookman’s Wake in a first edition hardcover, and that one’s signed by Mr. Dunning specifically to me.
Three days later. Same tour. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do with the extra signed edition– I think it’s going to be a birthday present for a friend that’s got one coming up. But it was cool just to find it.
Traded up to a nice first edition hardcover on Michael Hardwick’s Prisoner of the Devil, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche in which Holmes tries to free Alfred Dreyfus.
(Paperback on the left, hardcover on the right.)
But probably my favorite find of the day was The Black Stiletto, by Raymond Benson.
Now, Mr. Benson was on my radar because of his James Bond books; he ranks pretty high with me among those who’ve tried to carry on after Ian Fleming, certainly much higher than John Gardner.
But I had no idea he’d moved on to doing…. well, what amounts to a pulp-superhero kind of book. The Black Stiletto opens with Martin Talbot dutifully visiting his mother in her assisted-care home, and discovering that though today she is just a sweet elderly lady with Alzheimer’s, in the late fifties she was actually the notorious masked vigilante– the Black Stiletto. Going through her diaries, Martin is shocked to realize that his mother had a whole other secret life, one he never knew about. What’s worse is that one of the Mafia thugs his mother put away as the Stiletto is finally out. The aging hitman’s had thirty years to figure out who that masked woman was and he’s determined to get revenge…
It’s a great book and damned near impossible to put down. The bulk of the story is the flashback to 1958, the diary excerpts detailing why and how young Judy Cooper adopted the identity of the Black Stiletto and took on the mob. But the framing story with Martin and the recently-paroled thug is great too.
I was delighted to discover there are two more and made it a point to seek them out.
Those arrived this week and I’m very much looking forward to them. Mr. Benson says there are going to be five in all. I’m flabbergasted that I didn’t hear about these sooner– between my interest in James Bond, pulp fiction, and superhero stories, you’d think I’d have run across them before now– but I’m delighted to be able to catch up, and for not a whole lot of money, either. Everyone grouching about how there aren’t any good female adventure heroes, well, these are for you. (Kelly Thompson, especially… you should be ALL OVER these.)
So that was the haul from St. Vincent’s, and quite a haul it was, too.
We hit the road again and found a couple of nice places in Auburn we’d never seen before. A promising thrift shop, and also Comstock Books, an actual rare-book house that also does bookbinding and repair.
Comstock Books, especially, looked to be completely our kind of place. Unfortunately, the downside of it being Sunday afternoon is that by the time we got down there, everything was closed. But it certainly seemed like a place worth visiting, and we’ll be back.
And that was pretty much it for the bookscouting. Our diner in Orting, the Around The Corner Cafe, was exactly where we’d left it, and still doing the best milkshake in western Washington.
Probably that’s going to be it for the trips, too, at least until Julie puts in enough time at the new gig to be able to transfer to a more normal shift. Although we are hoping to sneak down to Portland for a couple of days in August to see Trek in the Park, and maybe we’ll get over to Cameron’s or Powell’s for an hour or so before hitting the road for home.
But a Sunday afternoon drive is better than nothing. Clearly, though, we just have to get an earlier start.
See you next week.
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