Risqué books from lazy summers past – Baltimore Sun

Tuesday is officially the first day of summer. For those of us who do not like cold weather and like it hot, it does not come a minute too soon. In recent years, summer months are as busy as the rest of the year. Gone are the lazy southern Carroll County summers of yesteryear.

Growing up in Carroll in the 1950s and ’60s, summer meant school was out, family cookouts were in and there was a steady supply of trips to the beach, vacations, pickup baseball games, and for me, sitting around in the house all day reading books.

Recreation was available in the neighborhood or at the Davis Library in Westminster on Main Street next to the playground. In the 1960s, in the “tree street development” just east of Westminster, we played sports on a large field located on a series of undeveloped lots between our house on Locust Avenue and the home of the Causey family on Poplar Avenue. Usually our run-ins with police officers amounted to someone like Maryland State Trooper Jerry Gooding stopping at the field on Locust Avenue to give us baseball tips.

Much more research is needed to fully understand the history of the “tree street” development just east of Route 97 — Malcolm Drive: Oak, Sycamore, Maple, Spruce, Willow, Locust, and Poplar avenues. This is the neighborhood referred to as “Buckingham View” that is sandwiched between the Algonquin Native American trail referred to as “Baltimore Road,” and the Old Baltimore Boulevard — Reisterstown Turnpike built around 1804. In the 1960s many of the streets in the neighborhood and a portion of the Baltimore Road were still dirt roads. No one can remember why its name is Buckingham View.

Lazy summer days also were an opportunity to sit around and read. I don’t recall many of the titles of books except for the books that got me in trouble. I read “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote shortly after it came out in the mid-1960s. The book detailed the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. The major theme of the graphic nonfiction novel was about fate, that everything happens for a reason. The fact that I was glued to the book was a topic of concern among adults at church.

My childhood library of controversial books continued in the late 1960s with reading Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” a few years after the Supreme Court declared the book to not be obscene in 1964. The book was banned in the United States for 27 years after it was released in Paris in 1934. I always found it interesting that essayist and diarist Anais Nin helped Miller edit the book. In 1934, she wrote a preface for the book that read, “Here is a book which, if such a thing were possible, might restore our appetite for the fundamental realities. The predominant note will seem one of bitterness, and bitterness there is, to the full…”

“Tropic of Cancer” was followed by “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall. One of my high school teachers, Daisey Harris, who gave me extra writing assignments, was a bit perplexed by this choice and advised me to hide it if I decided I must read it. My English teacher, Mike Eaton, was curious about my choice and intervened with a certain curiosity. I did hide the book from Barbara Peck, the Westminster High School librarian, when I read it in the library. Of the many books I have read that involved World War I in the plot – “The Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman, comes to mind – it is fascinating that the author of “The Well of Loneliness” presents the war as an opportunity to bring out the best of people.

Two of the more memorable books were the “Valley of the Dolls” and “Portnoy’s Complaint.” I began reading both in school but had to finish them during the summer. Allow me to explain.

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“Valley of the Dolls” was written by Jacqueline Susann and published in 1966. I got into hot water reading it at Westminster Junior High School. The book was a huge bestseller, and I recall not understanding at the time why my world came crashing around me for reading it. To refresh your memory, let’s just say the book was about the friendship, trials and tribulations of three women after World War II. The book was taken away from me. When the school confronted my mother about the book, she asked that the book be returned to me. She explained that the book gave her an opportunity to talk with me about difficult subjects.

My childhood trauma over “Portnoy’s Complaint” occurred at Westminster High School. The book was written by Philip Roth and released in 1969. His style of writing was somewhat new to me. It was a stream of consciousness narrative of Alexander Portnoy talking with his psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel. After Jack Kerouac died in 1969, I tried to read “On the Road” and could not get through it. I agreed with Truman Capote that it was not writing; it was typing. I could not, however, put down “Portnoy’s Complaint.”

I got into trouble reading the book in Mrs. Miller’s social studies class. I had it hidden behind my textbook burst out laughing when I read the part when the narrator recounts his embarrassment from a school incident in which he was worried that the word “spatula” was Yiddish, and he could not think of the English word for it .

I had to go to the principal’s office. I don’t remember that going well at all. I’m still traumatized by the word spatula.

Both “Valley of the Dolls” and “Portnoy’s Complaint” are now considered dated period pieces. Literary critic Irving Howe once attacked Roth by describing “Portnoy’s Complaint” as “literary narcissism” and saying the cruelest thing anyone can do with “Portnoy’s Complaint” is reading it twice.

I still can’t say the word “spatula.”

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. His Time Flies column appears every Sunday. Email him at

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