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Charles Morgan’s Sparkenbroke is about art and the artist’s relationship to the world.

The plot is only of marginal interest.


Sparkenbroke by Charles Morgan

MacMillan, 1936. 553 p. 1936 bestseller #3. My grade: B.


The novel is set in an English country town at the edge of the Sparkenbroke estate. Lord Sparkenbroke, a renowned poet and novelist, flits back from Italy occasionally, spending most of his time writing in a cottage on the estate.

Sparkenbroke’s wealthy wife runs the estate which she is restoring to profitability for their children to inherit.

Mary Leward comes to Chelmouth to visit her former teacher, Helen Hardy.

When Mary’s father practically disowns her for breaking her engagement to a wealthy man, Helen’s brother, George Hardy, steps in with a proposal of marriage.

Mary meets Lord Sparkenbroke, whom she knows through his poetry.

Mary thinks she can be Sparkenbroke’s muse and George’s wife, too.

Morgan explores Sparkenbroke’s vision of death as the ultimate transcendent experience. All most readers will see, however, is a picture of a working writer.

The seemingly inevitable affair is never consummated.

All the characters love, or at least are fond of, the others.

And Sparkenbroke’s one true love his is writing.

In the end, the solid, reliable George appears as the book’s hero.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Last Puritan: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel—the only novel written by philosopher George Santayana*—is a better novel than you’d expect a philosopher to write.

Unfortunately, there’s too much of it.


The Last Puritan by George Santayana

Charles Scribner’s, 1936. 602 p. 1936 bestseller #2 My grade: B-.


The last puritan is Oliver Alden, son and heir of a wealthy New England couple who should never have married.

Oliver’s father abandons Oliver to be brought up by his mother.

Oliver’s mother abandons him to be brought up by a governess.

At 17, Oliver joins his father for a cruise.

Oliver is bewildered by his father’s unconventional ideas and appalled by his drug use. Oliver is, however, is drawn to Jim Darnley, the yacht’s skipper, despite Jim’s womanizing and gambling.

Oliver does his duty, whether that’s being civil to mother, studying philosophy, playing football for his school, or proposing to Jim’s impoverished sister.

People who enjoy life, like his European cousin Mario, are incomprehensible to Oliver.

When America enters the war, Oliver does his duty and enlists.

He’s killed in a road accident after the armistice.

Santayana rattles on about the opposing philosophies with which Oliver struggles.

Underneath the torrent of words, there’s a sad story about a pathetic little kid who got big without getting hugged or growing up.

*Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Can you believe we’re already at the 1936 bestseller list?

Time sure does fly when you’re reading vintage novels.

A man, a woman holding a baby, and a second woman cling to branches in a tree as hurricane roars.

       Detail from the cover of The Hurricane by Nordoff and Hall

I’ll be reviewing eight of the 1936 top 10 sellers.  I  reviewed Gone with the Wind and Drums Along the Mohawk years ago.

Here’s the list. Dates my reviews will be posted are in square brackets.

  1. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  2. The Last Puritan by George Santayana [April 30]
  3. Sparkenbroke by Charles Morgan [May 3]
  4. Drums Along the Mohawk by Walter D. Edmonds
  5. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis [May 7]
  6. White Banners by Lloyd C. Douglas [May 10]
  7. The Hurricane by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall [May 14]
  8. The Thinking Reed by Rebecca West [May 17]
  9. The Doctor by Mary Roberts Rinehart [May 21]
  10. Eyeless in Gaza by Aldous Huxley [May 24]

Spoiler alert: If you have time to read only one of these, read the one that’s in the headlines again in 2016:  It Can’t Happen Here.

I’ll post the poll for you to tick your favorites of the 1936 bestseller list on May 28. You can make your choices over the Memorial Day weekend.

I’ll post my choices for best of the bestsellers of 1936 the last day of May.

Happy reading.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My choices for the three bestselling novels of 1946 for today’s readers have little in common except that somebody in them is miserable. My top picks are Arch of Triumph, This Side of Innocence, and The Snake Pit.

Arch of Triumph

Quote: "To their native country [refugees]they are traitors. And abroad they are still citizens of their native country " against a background of a stone wall.

Arch of Triumph the third of Erich Maria Remarque’s novels to make the bestseller list in America. Each is about some aspect of the the German people’s experiences in World Wars I and II.

The most famous, of course is All Quiet on the Western Front, which tells about the disillusionment of schoolboys who believed Germany’s might would make a quick end to the Great War and that dying for one’s country was glorious.

Remarque’s second bestseller, The Road Back, examined what happened to such soldiers when, their innocence drowned in the blood of WWI, they returned home to a defeated, demoralized, bankrupt Germany.

Set on the cusp of the Second World War, The Arch of Triumph tells of a Jewish surgeon who, unable to practice medicine legally in Germany, has fled to Paris.

He’s not safe there, either.

Dr. Ravic is a dark character, keeping to physical and emotional shadows. There’s something heroic about his refusal to bend to tyranny, but his doom is so certain that it dims even heroism.

All three of Remarque’s novels remain important books. Read in sequence, they  provide insights about 20th century history.

Arch of Triumph will also help us understand aspects of our own day, such why Angela Merkle has been so determined that Germany welcome migrants.

This Side of Innocence

Photograph of bustle on woman's dress, symbolizing historical setting of This Side of Innocence

Taylor Caldwell’s novel This Side of Innocence exposes a family whose members are  as unpleasant a clutch of characters as readers would want to find in- or outside of  a book cover.

As fascinating as they are revolting, the characters make their own lives so miserable that they can make others miserable effortlessly.

Caldwell reveals, occasionally comments, but neither judges nor preaches.

She doesn’t need to: Their ends are predictable from their beginnings.

The Snake Pit

Barred window in stone wall of building suggests setting of The Snake Pit.

Mary Jane Ward’s novel The Snake Pit is a study of a different type of misery, the misery of mental illness.

Ward herself had a mental breakdown at age 34, which she drew on to create the fictional experiences of another young writer, Virginia Cunningham.

The treatment Virginia receives in the novel, was standard practice in the ’40s: medication, shock treatments, body-temperature baths.

Ward’s description, and the film version of her novel, created a movement for legislative reform of the institutional care of the mentally ill.

The fictional Virginia, who drifted into mental illness, is institutionalized and recovers.

The uncertainty in the novel about what caused Virginia’s breakdown and which—if any—of her treatments was responsible for her recovery suggests the same misery could happen to anyone, even to the novelist’s readers.

Perhaps I’m too sensitive, but I find that possibility more frightening than anything invented by Stephen King.

That’s the best of the best for 1946. If you haven’t read one of these, please give one of them a try.

Next week we’ll move on to the bestsellers of 1936.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Well, this is embarrassing. I forgot to post the poll Tuesday.

Since you’ve had extra long to think about which of the 1946 bestsellers you think are best, I’ll expect really good work here.

As always, you can pick up to three novels, and you can add comments in the comments section.

The poll will remain open for a week. (There are always a few slackers who leave everything to the last minute.)

I’ll post my choices for the best of the bestselling novels for 1946 tomorrow, so we get back on schedule.

We’ll start looking at the 1936 bestseller list next week.

@2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Mary Jane Ward’s The Snake Pit is a powerful story about mental illness, as terrifying in a quiet way as anything by Stephen King.

The novel takes readers inside the mind of one mentally ill person, Virginia Cunningham.


The Snake Pit by Mary Jane Ward

Random House, 1946. 278 p. 1946 bestseller #10. My grade: A.


Virginia was living in New York and working on a novel when she began having trouble sleeping.

She recalls saying to her husband “Robert, I think here is something the matter with my head.”

As the novel opens, Virginia doesn’t even know where she is. She thinks she must be in prison doing research for a book, but she isn’t sure.

She wonders if blurred vision is causing her fuzzy thinking, so she asks a nurse for glasses.

“If I’m without them much longer I’ll go crazy,” she says.

When she says crazy out loud, she realizes she has been refusing to acknowledge she is in a mental hospital.

That realization is the beginning of her road back to mental health.

Virginia’s recovery isn’t smooth.

She is given medication, shock treatments, confined in body-temperature baths, moved from ward to ward.

Virginia never knows what caused her problems or why they recede.

She only rarely realizes she is seeing a doctor.

The Snake Pit is a classic. Don’t miss it.

I suspect the reason B.F.’s Daughter made the bestseller list in 1946 had more to do with post-war malaise than with John P. Marquand’s writing, good as it is.

Though its story seems out-of-date, the novel is still good reading.


 

B.F.’s Daughter by John P. Marquand

Little, Brown, 1946. 439 p. 1946 bestseller #9. My grade: B.


After her wealthy industrialist father dies, Polly Brett goes to Washington where her husband is churning out war propaganda.

She and Tom quarrel.

He goes off, ostensibly to take refuge in his work.

Polly has no trouble meeting men who are also alone in Washington. Although Polly sees a certain attraction in an affair, she backs away.

Then Polly runs into a long-time acquaintance who tells her “nothing matters that happened before the war.”

When Polly learns Tom has a mistress, she begins to feel perhaps her pre-war marriage doesn’t matter.

The characters in this novel are well-drawn, complex people. Contemporary readers may find them old-fashioned—imagine not having sex just out of a sense of personal integrity!—but they are none the less believable individuals.

Today the idea that one simply walks away from an unhappy marriage is taken as a truism rather than an epiphany.

That’s not a criticism of B.F.’s Daughter, but of our culture.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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