Lose Yourself in Genre Classics over the Lost Holidays

darling anne taintor christmasI wonder, Is it too early for the holiday blues?

We thought we’d solved that problem when we inaugurated the tradition of choosing one book each to buy for Christmas, instead of exchanging expensive gifts with “exchange” written all over them.  

And so Christmas Present is smooth: it’s Christmas past that shatters you. Here are some examples:  the year someone said you looked fat in your thrift-shop black velvet skirt (you were thin but you cried), the year an aunt wrapped up leftovers for everybody except your mother (it was a sister-in-law war), and the year your uncle gave you arithmetic problems to solve at Christmas dinner because he’d mixed you up with a “mentally challenged” niece–AND THOUGHT THIS WOULD BE GOOD FOR HER.  (You protected her, at least, poor thing!)

And so let’s break out the non-alcoholic eggnog and stockpile genre books to lose ourselves in.  


four lost ladies palmerStuart Palmer’s Four Lost Ladies (1948).  The tenth in Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers series, this charming mystery is fast-paced, humorous, and suspenseful. When Hildegarde Withers, an amateur sleuth, retires from her job as an elementary school teacher, she has too much time on her hands. She pores over statistics about missing women and theorizes that most  of them were murder victims. Her policeman friend is cynical about the stats, but Hildegarde is worried when she does not receive a Christmas card from her spinster friend, Alice. Hildegarde’s investigation links the disappearance of Alice to an apparent suicide of a wealthy spinster at a fancy hotel, and the disappearance of three other women who stayed there.  Hildegarde goes undercover, and with the help of her new sidekick, Alice’s niece, solves the crimes.

alas, babylon pat frankPat Frank’s Alas, Babylon (1959).  This gripping, realistic novel about a nuclear holocaust in the U.S. is a neglected American classic—and one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read. If you were riveted by Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, you will find Alas fascinating, because it deals not with the knowledge of impending death but with nearly unsolvable problems of survival.  Randy Bragg, a lawyer in Fort Repose, Florida, receives a telegram from his brother Mark, who is a colonel, ending with the words Alas, Babylon.  This is code to alert Randy that a nuclear war is imminent, and that Mark’s wife and children are flying from Omaha to Florida, where they may be safer.  The bombing itself is horrifying, as the flashes and mushroom clouds explode in cities all over Florida and the rest of the U.S., and Randy’s niece is temporarily blinded.  Fort Repose is not hit, but the problems—which include the end of electricity, finding food after canned supplies run out, finding unpolluted water, a cholera outbreak in a hotel because guests keep using toilets that no longer flush, the death of diabetics because there is no refrigeration for the insulin, medical supplies running out, the prevalence of highwaymen and murderers, and the necessity to carry guns.  Randy and a small group of neighbors band together, but they don’t even know who won the war.  Russia or the U.S.?

These days we fear climate change, but we used to be terrified by nuclear war (I had recurring nightmares).  In the following succinct passage, Mark explains to Randy what we’d be up against.

“There isn’t any place that’ll be absolutely safe. With fallout and radiation, it’ll be luck—the size of configuration of the weapons, altitude of the fireball, direction of the wind. But I do know Helen and the children won’t have much chance in Omaha. SAC Headquarters has got to be the enemy’s number one target. I’ll bet they’ve programmed three five-megaton IC’s for Offutt, and since our house is eight miles from the base any kind of near-miss does it—” Mark snapped his fingers—“like that. Not that I think it’ll do the enemy any good—command automatically shifts to other combat control centers and anyway all our crews know their targets. But they’ll hit SAC Headquarters, hoping for temporary paralysis. A little delay is all they’d need. I’ll have to be there, at Offutt, in the Hole, but the least a man can do is give his children a chance to grow up, and I think they’d have a better chance in Fort Repose than Omaha. So if I see it’s coming, and there is time, I’ll send Helen and the kids down here. And I’ll try to give you a warning, so you can get set for it.”

I raced through this well-written, distinctly American dystopian novel, and highly recommend it.

Any recommendations of other brilliant genre books?

10 thoughts on “Lose Yourself in Genre Classics over the Lost Holidays”

  1. Kat, I’ve never run into anyone else who has read Pat Frank’s novel. Alas Babylon has become, for me, the yardstick by which to measure other books in this genre. It is burned into my memory.
    A different genre and a better-known author, but Scott Turow’s Personal Injuries is also a fine novel. A legal thriller that’s really a tragic love story. The sexual relationship between Robbie Feaver and his wife really ended before the story began, but the intimacy between the two is breathtaking. Human weakness, venal depravity, impervious ambition are woven throughout the plot. And FBI Agent Evon Miller, the outsider with naked insecurities, is drawn into the Feavers’ relationship before the shocking end.

    1. It is odd to me how seldom Alas, Babylon is mentioned. I discovered it because I like the cover of a recent reissue.

      After reading your comment, I feel like rushing out and finding a copy of Turow’s book and reading it right now. I will definitely find a copy before the Holiday!

  2. I recommend two novels by Connie Willis: The Domesday Book and Blackout. They are time-travel books. Historians from our near future time-travel to the past, the time of the Black Death is The Domesday Book and the time of the London Blitz in Blackout. The books put you in that past, fully experienced, but seen through the eyes of those who know how it all turned out.

    1. I love Connie Willis and do want to read more of her work. I may have a copy of The Domesday Book; I am sure I have one with the word “dog” in the title. Thanks for the recommendations!

      1. The one about the dog is light (and also has some cats if I remember correctly), but The Domesday Book is more serious. It really gave me the feeling of how it must be to live with a deadly plague all around and nothing you can do about it.

  3. I’ve been thinking of this topic off and on since yesterday and I have another recommendation: Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand, a brilliant time travel story. (Admission: time travel fiction, while not my least favorite genre, is well down my list.)

  4. I love Alas, Babylon! It may be time for a re-read, now the question is, where is my copy? I’ve moved a few times since the early 90s when I first read it. Also maybe its time to revisit Fear of Flying or Valley of the Dolls.

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