Last week, when I posted the list of 400 books I’ve read since I started writing Enduring Patagonia in early 2000, I promised to fish out some of the more obscure but worthwhile titles. I’m intentionally not including what I consider known classics written by the Hemingways, Bellows, Steinbecks, and Woolf’s of the world–people shouldn’t have trouble finding them on their own.
But how about Look Down in Mercy, by Walter Baxter? It doesn’t have much of a profile, but it’s possibly a great novel. It’s certainly a very good and groundbreaking one. A brutal and blunt look at 1942 ground combat in Burma and a British infantry officer’s homosexual relationship with his batman. Published in 1951, its homosexual themes probably condemned it to the neglect it has suffered ever since. (I have a signed copy, since my mother worked at Baxter’s successful London restaurant The Chanterelle in the middle 1950s and Baxter became something of a mentor and big brother to her. He was one of her most treasured friends until he passed away in 1994. Scroll down this page and find Time’s 1952 review.) It’s superbly well-written. The extreme eroticism of Baxter’s second book, The Image and the Search (which I haven’t read), about a woman’s quest to replace the love her life, killed in World War II, got him tried under England’s Obscene Publications Act of 1857. Baxter never wrote another book.
No Hurry to Get Home, by Emily “Mickey” Hahn. She’s FABULOUS. I count myself as the latest in a long line of men to have fallen at least a little bit in love with Mickey Hahn. I’ve posted about her in a few other places. She’s the inciter of China’s Wings hardest cut.
The Fever Trail by Mark Honigsbaum, a fascinating book about malaria–one of great scourges of mankind–and the epic quests of three British explorers to find and domesticate the elusive cinchona tree, the only source of quinine.
Andrew Lindblade’s Expeditions, a top-shelf climbing book about Lindblade’s climbing adventures with the late Athol Whimp. Good luck getting a copy, however–the cheapest used copy on amazon costs $465.
13 Rue Therese by Elena Mauli Shapiro. A wildly erotic book that ties love in the 21st century with a Great War love affair through a box of objects handed to an American academic in Paris. Elena keeps a good blog, too, currently titled Sophmore Novel Angst.
For high-quality, semi-obscure war stories, I suggest James Salter’s The Hunters, about pilots over Korea, Richard McKenna’s The Sand Pebbles, about a sailor in the U.S. Navy’s old Yangtze River Patrol, Sebastian Barry’s World War I classic A Long Long Way, and Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, a hugely successful in the UK Great War story that lacks the American readership it deserves.
Also neglected in America, but not in the UK, is George MacDonald Fraser’s Quartered Safe Out Here. (And yes, that’s the same man who authored the classic Flashman series.) Quartered Safe is Fraser’s memoir of campaigning in Burma with the British 14th Army, and in my estimation it ranks alongside E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed as one of the two greatest memoirs of the Second World War.
Also, anything by Alan Furst, who does espionage thrillers set in 1930s and ’40s Europe.