Collectibles by Lawrence Block. 318 pages, 6 by 9 inches. Published by Subterranean Press, Burton, Michigan, 2021. Signed First Edition. ISBN: 978-1-64524-045-7. Available from SubterraneanPress.com ($50) and Amazon.com.
The facts about collecting and collectors can be stranger than fiction. Sometimes, much stranger. But not this time. Collectibles, a book of short stories edited by Lawrence Block, is indeed, much stranger than fact. Good thing, too.
Consumed by philatelic research, as is my wont, I do not read much fiction. But anything written by Block, fact or fiction, or anything edited by him, does get my attention. Collectibles got my attention, and I was not disappointed. This is a superior collection of short fiction. My review is of the Subterranean Press’s signed first edition, which is a beautifully assembled volume.
If you are an afficionado of philatelic fiction, you may recall Block as being the author of the Keller series of books about an assassin for hire who also is a stamp collector. Block, a former stamp collector himself, is also the author of Generally Speaking, a compilation of articles he wrote for Linn’s, that I reviewed in the January 2021 issue of The AP (pages 91-92).
But this is a very different work. Block is editor, not author. He is a man of many literary contacts and reached out to many of his author friends to contribute to this superior collection of short fiction. Fifteen writers, plus Block himself, appear, including such literary luminaries as Joyce Carol Oates, Junior Burke, S.A. Cosby, and Dennis Lehane. There is not a clunker among these short stories.
Clunker or not, there are some exciting, enlightening, and heart-warming stories to be found. And a few heart-stopping tales as well. Not merely something for everyone, this collection is more like almost everything for everyone! Block selected well his authors and then gave them full rein to create works about the non-typical things that some folks collect, and the often extreme ways that they collect them. So, this is fiction about the collecting psyche not philately.
Editors often position the stories in an anthology based on some thread or theme that develops as the book progresses. And book reviewers seek to gain insight into editors’ minds – and the book’s development – by studying the positioning. However, Block has assembled such a diverse group of stories that there really isn’t a thread beyond the book’s title, Collectibles. Leave it to Block to come up with an innovative approach; he’s positioned the stories in alphabetical order by author. With one exception: his story is last.
The challenge in reviewing this book is to share the gist of each story without giving away spoilers. Each tale, as it unfolds, draws the reader deeper into the mind of the “collector.” Often, it is not clear until well into the story exactly what is being collected or how the putative object is indeed a collectible.
Author and musician Burke opens with “The Evan Price Signature Model,” a story about a rare (and very collectible) guitar of mysterious origin that shows up in narrator Andy’s instrument shop. His research leads to the discovery that this is a one-of-a-kind instrument, built for the eponymic musician. Price himself is long dead, and the guitar could be worth a small fortune. Andy has no intention of selling this collectible but does take it to a local open-mike venue. There, a stranger borrows the guitar and plays a passionate set that brings the house down. The audience is unbelieving and stunned. Burke’s tale centers on the mysterious musician and the fate of that guitar. This is one of the (few) heart-warming pieces in the anthology. It is worth buying the book for this story alone.
The other stories, however, carry their own weight. A particularly magical banjo appears in “Resonator,” by Kasey Lansdale. This instrument can serve for good or evil, and not always at the volition of the musician. But it becomes a lifesaver when called upon. Clearly, this is a collectible that many would desire, at least at first thought.
Cosby’s “Blue Book Value” introduces us to a collectible car that is encountered in the woods. Extracting that car proves all too problematic for the dysfunctional would-be collector. Something about that car is just not right and perhaps it would have been best to simply walk away. But no serious collector could simply leave it be … and leave well enough alone.
Have you ever been to a restaurant or bar and seen a piece of original art scrawled on a wall by some unknown who then became famous? That’s one way that an object becomes collectible but, as a permanent affixture, unattainable. Which does not mean that some might not seek to attain it, nevertheless. Rob Hart’s “Bar Wall Panda” introduces us to yet another dysfunctional collector and other miscreants aiming to remove that panda from the bar wall. The “process” of collection is both riotously funny and very dark. The ultimate recipient of that panda is not whom you would expect, but every stamp collector will recognize how a collectible’s provenance becomes established.
Nearly any object can become a collectible and often there are groups of people who lust after obscure or bizarre artifacts. And the competition is something familiar to any philatelist who has attended a stamp auction and witnessed the riotous competitive bidding. Collectors frequently engage auction agents to procure desirable stamps in hotly contested sales. There is not any question what is being collected in Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Skull Collector.” (Joe is author Kasey’s father.) However, the agents who compete to secure one particular skull offer a glimpse into “extreme collecting” that extends beyond what most philatelists would attempt. Most philatelists.
But why stop as skulls? How about ashes? Lee Goldberg’s “Lost Shows” takes us into the world of collecting obscure television kinescope recordings before they degenerate into ashes. The collector in the alternatingly dark and bright tale salvages both the recordings and the lives of the personalities who created them. But what kind of ashes is he really collecting?
The Oates piece, “Miss Golden Dreams 1949,” is a disturbing story told from the standpoint of Marilyn Monroe, or at least an animatronic incarnation of her. Oates exposes the extreme objectification of the real Marilyn through the thoughts of this “versatile” android. Many lust to claim her; none should wish to succeed. This is perhaps the most disturbing story in the collection, primarily because it is a fictionalization of a real, famous celebrity.
Many of the entries in this anthology of collectibles are disturbing. Sociopaths are among the very dedicated collectors here. It may be either the collectors or the collectibles that are unsettling, and sometimes both. But all of these pieces are well written. All are thought provoking. All pose questions about the artifacts we seek and how we seek them. Readers will draw analogies to their own pursuits.
As I said: I was not disappointed. And you will not be, either.
Interiors for Collectors by John Phifer Marrs. 240 pages, 9½ by 11¼ inches. Published by Gibbs Smith, Kaysville, Utah, 2021. ISBN: 978-1423656869. Available from Amazon.com ($36).
Perhaps you still have your first stamp album, but most likely your collection is now stored in one of the many comprehensive albums produced by international publishers. Or much of your collection may be housed in stockbooks. Your covers may be filed in glassine protectors. Your exhibits? Residing in file boxes and other types of storage containers. And your philatelic library likely sits on bookshelves in your “stamp room.”
Stamp collections are not generally “on display” in one’s home, awaiting visitors to ooh and ahh over your trophy pieces. But other collectors do, indeed, proudly display their artifacts. Paintings, Victorian silver, Lladro porcelains, and no end of tchotchkes lend themselves to being housed visibly to entertain both the collector and visitors. Many such collectors create dedicated rooms for their displays. Some design entire homes to house their collections.
John Phifer Marrs is an interior designer who has built these custom displays and custom homes for collectors (clearly, wealthy collectors from the look of things). Marrs’ new book, Interiors for Collectors, shows us many of the more impressive approaches he has created for collectors. He invites us into the homes of his clients to show us how it is done.
Marrs introduces us to the special approaches that lend themselves to collectibles such as Parian ware, Chinese mudmen (figurines), photography, handbags, art glass and others. This was my first encounter with “orange Fitzhugh,” a lovely pattern of Chinese export porcelain. Now, I know how to display it to its most alluring advantage.
While much of this book might come across as “lifestyles of the rich and famous,” there is a lot of substance here. The chapter “The Art and How-To of Displaying a Collection” has interesting discussions about revealing a collection, installing the collection, approaches to arrangement and lighting. While this might not seem applicable to a stamp collection, I found the analytic approaches and style considerations are relevant to at least one aspect of our hobby. For those of us who exhibit or create our own custom album pages, Marrs’ treatment offers paradigms for improving the impact (and organization) of our collectibles.
Orange Fitzhugh on display, Interiors for Collectors.
Interiors for Collectors is a book about housing three-dimensional collectibles. Most artifacts in our stamp collections are confined to two dimensions. But there is much for the philatelist in this fine book. And perhaps someday Marrs will write an article for APS members about how he would display a stamp collection.