This Above All is a patriotic potboiler

In This Above All, Eric Knight explores the meaning of patriotism through the experiences of the English between the Dunkirk evacuations and the London blitz.

Private Clive Briggs is on leave when he meets Prudence Cathaway. They have a roll in the hay, then spend a week together at sea coast hotel.

Clive has had his fill of war. He has no intention of going back. He spends most of the book telling Prue about how the war treats poor slum kids like him as disposable units. Prue counters with platitudes drawn from her experience growing up as the daughter of a well-to-do brain surgeon.

Some of Knight’s verbal snap shots of the war in France and Clive’s youthful work experiences are superb. On the whole, however, This Above All is disjointed and disappointing.

Knight resists the temptation to produce a happy ending, but grabs nearly every other lure for the unwary novelist. He holds Prue and Clive up like marionettes and fills their mouths with speeches. Periodically, he abandons them entirely and pops in on Prue’s relatives who have nothing to do with the main plot.

In the end, the novel is as platitudinous the speech from which the title is taken.

This Above All
By Eric Knight
Grosset & Dunlap, 1941
473 pages
1941 #3
My grade: C-
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Random Harvest is unforgettable for all the wrong reasons

James Hilton’s bestseller Random Harvest is memorable only for its total absurdity.

Charles Ranier loses his memory and his dog tags in an explosion in the trenches of World War I.  Repatriated to England, in the excitement of Armistice Day,  Charles walks away from a hospital. A comedienne with an acting troupe befriends him. They marry, becoming  “the Smiths,” since Charles can’t yet remember who he is.

In Liverpool for a job interview, Charles  slips, hits his head, and loses his memory of everything between the battlefield and waking up in Liverpool.

Charles picks up his pre-war life. He runs the family businesses, takes a seat in Parliament, and makes a marriage of convenience with one of his firm’s secretaries — her idea, not his.

As the Germans invade Belgium 18 years later, he remembers the woman he loved before the Liverpool accident. Heedless of present wife and present responsibilities, he  and rushes back to the spot where they first declared their love.

The characters are as absurd as the plot. There’s no reason a crank like Charles Ranier would inspire the devotion Hilton alleges.

If you like this book, you need a knock on the head.

Random Harvest
by James Hilton
Little, Brown
327 pages
1941 #2
My Grade: C-

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Keys of the Kingdom Uplifting Tale of Misfit Priest

A. J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom is the story of a man who never fit in.

The suicide of the woman he loves drives Francis Chisholm into the priesthood. He’s more interested in practical faith than in proclamations of piety. Francis ticks off one priest by organizing a community center. He offends another by discovering a miracle was a girl’s overactive imagination.

The church sends Francis off to China. His “flourishing missionary compound” turns out to be a shambles, his parishioners “rice Christians.”

Refusing to buy converts, Francis opens a free medical clinic, takes in orphan girls, and establishes a school. He also establishes a relationship with a Catholic community in a remote mountain village and a friendship with a Methodist missionary couple.

Mostly, however, Francis wins respect rather than friends. The church retires him to Scotland, leaving his mission to priests with better PR sense.

Readers would probably not care for Francis in the flesh, but in the novel he’s a sympathetic character, both noble and flawed. And Cronin’s China scenes are reminiscent of Pearl S. Buck.

Though hardly great literature, The Keys of the Kingdom is a good read with a spiritually uplifting tone that’s free of any offensive doctrinal foundation.

The Keys of the Kingdom
By A. J. Cronin
Little, Brown
344 pages
1941 bestseller #1
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

1941 bestselling novels list

Of the novels that topped the 1941 bestseller list, the two that are probably best remembered today are James Hilton’s Random Harvest and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. At the risk of ruining the suspense, I’ll state now that For Whom the Bell Tolls was, and remains, superior to Random Harvest.

The top 10 list contains a couple of gems beside the Hemingway novel.  Get out your library card and see if you can’t uncover them.  Dates you can expect to see my reviews are in parens.

The Keys of the Kingdom by A. J. Cronin (30-Apr-2011)
Random Harvest by James Hilton (7-May-2011)
This Above All by Eric Knight (14-May-2011)
The Sun Is My Undoing by Marguerite Steen (21-May-2011)
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (28-May-2011)
Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts (4-Jun-2011)
H. M. Pulham, Esquire by John P. Marquand (11-Jun-2011)
Mr. and Mrs. Cugat: The Record of a Happy Marriage by Isabel Scott Rorick (18-Jun-2011)
Saratoga Trunk by Edna Ferber (25-Jun-2011)
Windswept by Mary Ellen Chase (2-Jul-2011)

Vintage novel reviews slate for 2011

This year, I will be reviewing bestselling novels at least  five decades old on their anniversary year.  I’ll  begin with novels from the 1961 bestseller list this month and work  backward to the bestsellers of 1901 in December.

I’ve located all but two of the 70 novels on those top ten lists.  If I find the two I’m missing, I’ll slip them into the list.

Thanks to Project Gutenberg,  many public domain novels that have disappeared from libraries are now available free online. If you got an e-book reader for Christmas (iPad, Kindle, Sony Reader, iPhone, Android), get some books for it from Project Gutenberg. Or read download novels to read on your laptop, as I do.

Below is a preview of the year’s reading, with the anticipated posting date for my reviews. Books I haven’t found yet are listed without a review date.

Bestselling novels of 1961

  1. The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone, 8-Jan-2011
  2. Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger, 12-Jan-2011
  3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, 15-Jan-2011
  4. Mila 18 by Leon Uris, 22-Jan-2011
  5. The Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins, 29-Jan-2011
  6. The Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, 5-Feb-2011
  7. Winnie Ille Pu a Latin translation by Alexander Lenard of A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh 10-Feb-2011
  8. The Daughter of Silence by Morris West,  12-Feb-2011
  9. The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor, 19-Feb-2011
  10. The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck, 26-Feb-2011

Bestselling novels of 1951

  1. From Here to Eternity by James Jones,  5-Mar- 2011
  2. The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk,  12-Mar-2011
  3. Moses by Sholem Asch, 19-Mar-2011
  4. The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson (a holdover from 1950 bestseller list)
  5. A Woman Called Fancy by Frank Yergy, 23-Mar-2011
  6. The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat,  26-Mar-2011
  7. Melville Goodwin, U. S. A. by John P. Marquand,  2-Apr-2011
  8. Return to Paradise by James A. Michener,  9-Apr-2011
  9. The Foundling by Cardinal Spellman,  16-Apr-2011
  10. The Wanderer by Mika Waltari,  23-Apr-2011

Bestselling novels of 1941

  1. The Keys of the Kingdom by A. J. Cronin,  30-Apr-2011
  2. Random Harvest by James Hilton, 7-May-2011
  3. This Above All by Eric Knight,  14-May-2011
  4. The Sun is My Undoing by Marguerite Steen, 21-May-2011
  5. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, 28-May-2011
  6. Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts, (a top seller for 1940 as well)
  7. H. M. Pulham, Esquire by John P. Marquand 4-Jun-2011
  8. Mr. and Mrs. Cugat by Isabel Scott Rorick, 11-Jun-2011
  9. Saratoga Trunk by Edna Ferber, 18-Jun-2011
  10. Windswept by Mary Ellen Chase,  25-Jun-2016

Bestselling novels of 1931

  1. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, 2-Jul-2011
  2. Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather, 6-Jul-2011
  3. A White Bird Flying by Bess Streeter Aldrich, 9-Jul-2011
  4. Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum
  5. Years of Grace by Margaret Ayers Barnes
  6. The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque, 16-Jul-2011
  7. The Bridge of Desire, 20-Jul-2011
  8. Back Street by Fannie Hurst, 23-Jul-2011
  9. Finch’s Fortune by Mazo de la Roche, 27-Jul-2011
  10. Maid in Waiting by John Galsworthy, 30-Jul-2011

Project Gutenberg

Bestselling novels of 1921

All of these 1921 top novels are available to download free from Project Gutenberg. I’ve linked to a complete etext version. In some cases, texts are available in sections and in audio format.

  1. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis,  6-Aug-2011
  2. The Brimming Cup by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, 13-Aug-2011
  3. The Mysterious Rider by Zane Grey, 17-Aug-2011
  4. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, 20-Aug-2011
  5. The Valley of Silent Men by James Oliver Curwood, 24-Aug-2011
  6. The Sheik by Edith M. Hull, 27-Aug-2011
  7. A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart, 31-Aug-2011
  8. Her Father’s Daughter by Gene Stratton Porter, 3-Sep-2011
  9. The Sisters-in-Law by Gertrude Atherton, 7-Sep-2011
  10. The Kingdom Round the Corner by Coningsby Dawson, 10-Sep-2011

Bestselling novels of 1911

These 10 books are available to download free from Project Gutenberg. I’ve linked to a complete etext version. In some cases, texts are available in sections and in audio format.

  1. The Broad Highway by Jeffrey Farnol, 17-Sep-2011
  2. The Prodigal Judge by Vaughan Kester, 24-Sep-2011
  3. The Winning of Barbara Worth by Harold Bell Wright, 28-Sep-2011
  4. Queed by Henry Syndor Harrison,  1-Oct-2011
  5. The Harvester by Gene Stratton Porter, 5-Oct-2011
  6. The Iron Woman by Margaret Deland, 8-Oct-2011
  7. The Long Roll by Mary Johnston12-Oct-2011
  8. Molly Make-Believe by Eleanor Abbot, 15-Oct-2011
  9. The Rosary by Florence Barclay, 22-Oct-2011
  10. The Common Law by Robert W. Chambers 29-Oct-2011

Bestselling novels of 1901

Each of these 10 books is available to download free from Project Gutenberg. I’ve linked to a complete etext version. In some cases, texts are available in sections and in audio format.

  1. The Crisis by Winston Churchill, 5-Nov-2011
  2. Alice of Old Vincennes by Maurice Thompson 12-Nov-2011
  3. The Helmet of Navarre by Berta Runkle,16-Nov-2011
  4. The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker,19-Nov-2011
  5. Eben Holden by Irving Bacheller, 26-Nov-2011
  6. The Visits of Elizabeth by Elinor Glyn, 3-Dec-2011
  7. The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath,10-Dec-2011
  8. The Life and Death of Richard Yea-and-Nay by Maurice Hewlett, 17-Dec-2011
  9. Graustark by George Barr McCutcheon, 24-Dec-2011
  10. D’ri and I by Irving Bacheller, 31-Dec-2011

In those bestseller lists are some real gems. Come back for the reviews to find what they are. Or click the Subscribe tab at the top of the page to have the reviews delivered to your inbox.

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© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

For Whom the Bell Tolls Goes Inside an Insurgency

Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is a gripping and thought-provoking look at war from the perspective of guerrilla fighters worn down by years of sniping.

The novel is about Robert Jordan, an American fighting  with the Communist International Brigades against fascists in Spain in the 1930s.  The freedom fighters are a handful of men and two women who have lost homes and families in the civil war.

Jordan is ordered to rally local freedom fighters to blow up a mountain bridge, timing the blast to cut off reinforcements when the communist attack elsewhere.  Jordan blows the bridge, but his superiors bundle the operation.

The novel’s plot feels familiar. You can easily imagine Tom Hanks playing Jordan. What isn’t familiar is the perspective.

The guerrillas aren’t sainted freedom fighters. Some who believed in The Cause are disillusioned. Some enjoy killing. Some seek power. Some have nothing else to do.

Hemingway’s prose is straightforward but not sparse. He shows the swiftness of death, the malingering  memories of killing and violence. His characters relive what they cannot forget, looking for absolution.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is worth rereading in a day when a half-dozen civil wars fester an almost every continent.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Ernest Hemingway
Scribner, 1940
#4 on the 1940 bestseller list
#5 on the 1941 bestseller list
My grade: A

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni