a little bird told me (albatross books)

i finished “whistling for the elephants” (sandi toksvig) this past weekend and it is now on my list of favorite books, which, in no particular order also includes “orlando” (virginia woolf) and “oranges are not the only fruit” (jeannette winterson) and “ufo in her eyes” (xiaolu guo) and lemony snicket’s “series of unfortunate events.”  yes, it was that good.

there is always a sort of anxiety when i get toward the end of a book – if it’s a good book i want to stay in it, i don’t want it to change and move toward a conclusion that will expel me from its paper cosmos, because – well – you cannot read the same book twice. you can, but you can’t. it’s not the same. anyway. so usually by the time i get to the last pages i already have a rough idea of what book to start next. this time, it was a paperback with matte yellow and white cardboard covers and black print that i fished out of my grandpa’s library when we were emptying the house. i picked that book up and took it home simply because of the design and feel of it. it had the charm of an early penguin*, though different, starker, more edgy.


the book is “dusty answer” by rosamond lehmann, number 26 in the albatross paperback series. it is a third impression, printed in leipzig, and copyright 1937. (can you tell i believe in reading ALL the pages of a book?!) i had never heard of albatross, or lehmann.
the book itself… is a bit of a tedious read, quite a change in pace after “whistling for the elephants”, but i have decided to keep going. i am on page 97 now. just so you know what i mean by “tedious”, here is a typical passage:

[Roddy] flung [the caricature] hurriedly into her lap as Julian came up; and as she stuffed it into her pocket with studied carelessness, his lips suddenly relinquished the last of his obstinacy, and he flashed her a look suffused with laughter and the sense of shared guilt. Surely he had never looked at anyone before with such irresistible intimacy and appeal. The less assured face of the child Roddy peered for a moment in that look; but the dark and laughing fascination was new and belonged to the young man; and she melted inwardly at the remembrance of it.

and another bit, just for the fun of it. this is where it goes weird. the young man roddy, who so far has shown close to no interest in judith, who of course is particularly fascinated by him, suddenly is into hair. the boys have just unexpectedly shown up around tea time, while she is drying her hair in the garden. needless to say, she is more than happy for them to stay for tea.

‘Will you wait here while I go and put my hair right?’

‘It’s not dry yet,’ said Roddy. ‘Let me brush it at the back for you.’

She stood still in embarrassed pleasure while he brushed and combed her hair.

‘You do it so beautifully. You don’t pull a bit.’

‘I’m a good hairdresser. I brush my mother’s when her maid’s out.’

‘Has she got lovely hair?’

‘Goodish. Very long. Not such lumps of it as this though.’ He took up a handful and weighed it. ‘Extraordinary stuff.’

a veritable hair-conoisseur, that roddy, by the sounds of it. no, really, while i was reading this bit (and all this is taken from pages 85 and 86) i was sure judith, the central character, must be dreaming things up again, which she does all the time. she’s terribly introspective and (at least in her mind) almost emotionally omniscient – whatever those around her do or do not do, say or do not say, how they move or breathe or stand, everything speaks to her and she feels sure she knows what they are thinking. she’s a chronic thinker, or, more correctly, a chronic worrier, self-conscious, mortified by the possibility of rejection and social blunders.
in that respect she is very much the same oddball kid she was when the boys and their sister lived next door originally, years and years ago. but time has changed not only them but also her – judith the little girl would never have gone skinny dipping in the river by their two houses in the middle of the night.
i am not sure in how far this book is going to get any more entertaining, but it is interesting and i still have every intention of reading it cover to cover.
the final page, before the ads, is beautiful as well:
(too bad blogger does not let me put this in garamond… but, you get the idea. details mattered.)
now what i find much more interesting about this paperback is the history of the albatross books. wikipedia, my old friend, has an interesting if short article about them here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albatross_Books
basically, i wasn’t far off when i immediately took to the book for its penguin-flavor. it’s just that it’s the other way around – albatross came first. penguin is the same idea of cheap mass produced paperbacks, but this time taken up in britain. truth is, albatross started three years earlier than penguin. it was founded in 1932 in leipzig, germany, to print english language paperbacks for the continental market (which explains the subtle “NOT TO BE INTRODUCED INTO THE BRITISH EMPIRE OR THE U.S.A.” on the cover…)
early penguin book cover
design by jan tschichold
in 1935, penguin was founded and did in britain what albatross had tried in continental europe: cater to a market for “serious” literature that had been hitherto widely ignored. and somehow it all worked out.
the albatross, like the penguin, is a beautiful thing. a beautiful idea. making literature and biography, science and art, available to “the masses” – gotta love that. those two are probably my favorite birds in all the world… (though the european starlings who visited me this winter were pretty cool too!)___________________
*the link here is http://www.flickr.com/photos/davekellam/308608465/ – a cool photo of early penguin cover designs by jan tschichold, as shown in an exhibit in reading, england. 

About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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