A REVIEWER finds it rather exciting to watch the battle of books that takes place each autumn. The campaign begins early in September, when first novels and promising books by little-known writers go over the top. In October a regiment of new books by established authors is sent into action and quickly catches up with the first wave. Then in November there is a final barrage of the big shots. (Two such Big Berthas this year are Crowded Hours, by Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and Within This Present, by Margaret Ayer Barnes — both books for women.) The public, of course, is the target, and half the reviewer’s fun is in watching its reception of the attack; the other half is in following the fortunes of those authors he has picked to survive.
A valiant, aggressive book which we seem temporarily to have lost sight of is Cry Havoc! by Beverley Nichols (Doubleday, Doran, $2.50). In England the volume created a little war of its own, and certainly it has it in its power to disturb conscientious readers anywhere. It is a fierce expostulation against armament and the approach of war. Nichols was too young to fight in the last war, but he has since seen enough of the aftermath to reckon — far more acutely than most — the disaster that awaits the next. His denunciation of the great armament firms, his exposure of their propaganda and political influence, his interviews with European leaders, his attempts to rouse the League — all is written with eloquence, anger, and, as he says, ‘at the top of his voice.’
Each holiday season New York recruits a special division of its own books. A number of these come from the ranks of the New Yorker and carry on the quiddities which that sheet encourages. There is, for instance, Ogden Nash’s new collection of lampoon verse, Happy Days (Simon & Schuster, $2.00), with considerably more meaning, wiser humor, and fewer tricks than its predecessors. Again, Dorothy Parker’s short stories, After Such Pleasures (Viking, $2.25), which her friends speak of with such superlatives. Funniest of all is My Life and Hard Times, by James Thurber (Harpers, $1.75). Most telling, The Night Club Era, by Stanley Walker (Stokes, $3.00), which takes the lid off the speak-easy era.
Of all the big shots the one that caught me fairly and squarely was The Birt of Dawning, by John Masefield (Macmillan, $2.50). It is so long since I have read his prose of the sea that I had almost forgotten how exceptionally well he does it. This is a story of the China Tea Race and of the fleet of clippers that made the run from Foochow to London seventy years ago. It is a story of shipwreck and of the most amazing recovery; a story of a never-sink crew and its misery in an open boat; a story which begins in the nervous irritability of the Great Race and which ends in prose of fine tension and exhilaration as the three leading clippers come tearing up the Channel. Masefield, the New York press took delight in reporting, was sick on his last crossing to America. Maybe. But, seasick or hale, he is certainly in his element when he writes of ships and the masculine character which makes them go. I think he’s the best sailor in English literature to-day.