54-40 or Fight has lost its power to excite

You can not tell how large a trouble may be started by a small politician.

Emerson Hough’s 54-40 or Fight takes a great story and renders it dull as dishwater.

The story is told by Nicholas Trist, confidential aide to John C. Calhoun. It opens as Calhoun becomes Secretary of State in President Tyler’s cabinet.


54-40 or Fight by Emerson Hough

Arthur I. Keller, illus.  A. L. Burt Co. 1909 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg EBook #14355. My grade: C+.


Calhoun believes it is in America’s interests to annex Texas, which has declared its independence of Mexico. Calhoun would also like to get the entire Oregon Territory for the US, including land above the 49th parallel—if it can be done without fighting Britain.

Britain would like to get access to Texas’s cotton and silver if it can do so. And Britain wants to hold on to Oregon for its valuable fur trade.

Mexico wants to hang on to Texas.

Texas President Sam Houston would like to make Texas a nation to rival the US.

And Americans on each side of the Mason-Dixon line fear what could happen if a slave-holding Texas becomes a state.

The historical facts need no glamorous double-agent to make them exciting.

They do, however, need better context to be intelligible to today’s reader.

The real life Nicholas Trist studied law under Thomas Jefferson and married Jefferson’s granddaughter.

In defiance of orders from the President, Trist negotiated the treaty which ended the Mexican-American War and added Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of three other states to the U.S.

Trist reflects:

Now our flag floats on the Columbia and on the Rio Grande. I am older now, but when I think of that scene, I wish that flag might float yet freer; and though the price were war itself, that it might float over a cleaner and a nobler people, over cleaner and nobler rulers, more sensible of the splendor of that heritage of principle which should be ours.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My top pick for 1955: Something of Value

I had no difficulty picking my favorite of the 1955 bestsellers. Something of Value by Robert Ruark is head and shoulders above the rest.

Marjorie Morningstar would be my number two choice of the best of 1955 bestsellers. Herman Wouk’s exploration of a start-struck girl’s growing up won’t ever go out of date, but it’s too personal to have the impact that Ruark’s broad canvas achieves.

Photo of Robert RuarkNot only is Something of Value well-plotted and peopled with believable fictional characters, but it is written with a reporters eye for telling detail.

With Africa’s rise as a center of influence, the background Ruark presents in an accessible fashion presents a timely introduction to one of its most rapidly developing nations: Kenya.

In the foreword written in 1954, Ruark says

This is considerably more than a book about the Mau Mau terror which has claimed constant attention on the front pages of the world for the last two years. A great deal has been written about the Mau Mau. A great deal of foolishness has been committed in the failure of the British to recognize that what they saw happening to themselves in Kenya was not, as they first thought, a local brush fire but a symptomatic ulcer of the evil and unrest which currently afflict the world.

…..

This might be possibly a true story of Kenya and of the events over the last fifty years which lead to the present tragedy of the Mau Mau uprising, with all its sadistic murder and counter-murder. The book is completely true in reporting that its early skeletal structure rests on stony fact, which may be found in reference as fact. Some of these facts have been altered and condensed to comply with novel form, a it always customary But they remain facts. The characters in this book are entirely fictitious.

There is much blood in the book. There is much killing. But the life of Africa was washed earlier by blood, and its ground was, and skill is fertilized by the blood of its people and its animals. This is not a pretty book….And it certainly is not a political book.

A North Carolina native, Ruark served in the navy during World War II.  Afterward, he became a newspaperman. achieving national prominenance as a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain.

Ruark’s love of hunting, fishing, and the outdoors in general led him to Africa. That in turn inspired him to abandon the security of New York and a regular paycheck for the uncertainty of freelance writing.

Ruark said , “Without the African experience, there would have been no topics for the scores of articles and stories and the two books which have combined to make me financially secure…”

He had published five nonfiction books and 500 magazine articles before Something of Value. In all, Ruark published 12 novels, including the 1959 bestseller Poor No More. A list of his novels are on the Robert Ruark Society website.

On his death in 1965 at age 49, Ruark left all his letters (including one containing the quote above), manuscripts, and published work to the The University of North Carolina.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Which are your 1955 favorites?

It’s time for you, dear readers, to tell which of the 1955 bestsellers you think are still tops today. You can vote for three. They are in randomized order.

If you want to share why you like a novel or why you think it think deserves rereading today, please use the comments section.

Ten North Frederick houses marital misery

In Ten North Frederick, John O’Hara presents a fictional history of the upper echelons of society in a small Pennsylvania city in the first half of the twentieth century.

When the novel opens, it’s 1945 and Joseph B. Chapin has died.


Ten North Frederick  by John O’Hara

Random House, 1955. 408 pages. 955 bestseller #5. My grade: B-.


Dust jacket of Ten North Frederick shows imposing closed door.Chapins have lived at 10 N. Frederick since 1881. The family is at the top of the local social ladder by virtue of old money and old virtues.

Joe had the personality to succeed in Philadelphia or New York, but he felt—wisely, it turns out—his talents were only Gibbsville-sized.

Joe married a local girl who saw Joe’s limitations as an asset: She could own him.

By Gibbsville standards, Joe and Edith had a happy marriage.

Nobody on the outside saw how miserable they were.

O’Hara’s revelations of the secrets of “the best families” wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in most circles today. Even by 1950’s standards, O’Hara was not a pornographer.

At the end of the novel, Joe Chapin is buried, and people are wondering what his widow will do now.

Readers are no wiser.

They know a lot about Edith Chapin that she wouldn’t wish known, but they don’t know Edith Chapin.

For all his skill in plotting and dialogue, O’Hara never is able to make Edith more than a character in a history book.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Tontine tests readers’ endurance

Always prolix, Thomas B. Costain outdoes himself in The Tontine.

It is a dreary novel on an epic scale.


The Tontine  by Thomas B. Costain

Doubleday ©1955.  2 v. Illus Herbert Ryman. 1955 bestseller #9. My grade: C-.


London businessman Samuel Carboy smells a scam in the 1815 Waterlook Tontine. He intervenes to save investors’ money—and milk the scheme in a more civilized manner. Dust jacket of The Tontine shows four characters in 19th century dress against backdrop of an hourglass.

Carboy, his partner, and Carboy’s carriage driver each buy shares in the tontine for their children.

The story follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the three families as they mess about on every continent until the tontine survivors dwindle to three: Isabelle Carboy, Julian Grace, and Helen Groody.

Interest in the tontine reaches fever pitch.

So much money is bet on the outcome that the British government fears attempt on the lives of the remaining trio.

Costain has so many plots and sub-plots, he can’t remember them all.

Sam Carboy’s milking of the tontine disappears without a trace.

Carboy’s son conveniently dies in America.

His grandson bankrupts his company—” hard times” is the reason Costain gives—and goes off to Africa to be heard of no more.

Julian Grace’s son disappears, too.

Too bad more characters didn’t disappear before they appeared in print: The Tontine is an awful novel.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Something of Value: Timely and timeless novel of Africa

Robert Ruark’s Something of Value is a gory and compassionate novel about Kenya that will fascinate readers and leave them with plenty to think about as well.


Something of Value by Robert Ruark

Doubleday, 1955, 566 pages. 1955 bestseller #6. My grade: A+.


Spine of "Something of Value" shows tangle of long grassPeter McKenzie and Kimani, his Kikuyu pal, were raised together in Kenya.

When Kimani’s father lands in jail for failing to prevent midwives from killing a baby in accordance with native customs, Kimani blames himself: He brought a curse on his family by allowing  Peter’s brother-in-law to slap him.

Kimani has to kill the white man to remove the curse.

Thinking he has murdered a white man, Kimani flees and stumbles into a band of renegade blacks.

The outlaws become a guerrilla army, the Mau Mau, poised to throw off white rule.

Kimani is one of their leaders.

Peter, meanwhile, has become a great hunter. When an overeager Mau Mau band slaughters his sister’s family, Peter finds himself hunting his boyhood pal.

Travel, adventure, history, romance, politics—all are within these pages.

Without being preachy, Ruark makes the point that whites deprived black Africans of their religion and gave them in sham Christianity in its place, leaving them with no moral compass.

Renewed interest in Africa—particularly by communist China—make this novel timely.

Compelling writing makes it timeless.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit: Bitter or just truthful?

Before he going off to war, Thomas R. Rath, had married, hoping he’d survive to come home to live happily with his wife.

Tom survived, but as the story opens, he hasn’t found happiness.

Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit resonated with readers in 1995 who, like Tom, were finding post-war life a let down.


The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson

Simon & Schuster, 1955. 304 pages. 1955 bestseller #5. My grade: B.


suited businessman with briefcaseFinding it hard to raise three children on his salary, Tom applies for a rumored opening in the PR department of a broadcasting company.

He’s hired and becomes a flunkey to the head of the company, a man whose folksy charm hides a driving ambition.

Tom’s unease in the job becomes acute when the elevator operator recognizes him from their paratrooper days.

Tom realizes that he’s become another “man in a gray flannel suit,” rushing around filling time, “pursuing neither ideals nor happiness.”

He’s forced to confront his past and his present.

Wilson’s novel is as good today as it was in 1955, but it won’t draw raves in our suitless society.

Today every is rushing about, looking busy with text messaging and phone apps and tablets.

Hardly anyone today stops to ask, “What am I doing this for?”

But they should.

As Tom learns, what sounds bitter and ironic may be simple truth.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Graphic credit: Business Shadow by ilco

Bonjour Tristesse. Bonjour boredom.

I finished reading Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse around 4 p.m. By 9 that evening, I couldn’t recall the plot.

And that was my second reading of this 95-page novel.


 Bonjour Tristesse: A Novel by Françoise Sagan

Initial publication by Éditions Rene Julliard, 1954. This edition:  Bonjour Tristesse  and A Certain Smile, Intro. by Rachel Cusk; Trans by Irene Ash.   Penguin Books Modern Classics, 2007. 95 pages.  1955 bestseller #4.  My grade C+.


 

cover of papaerback that includes Frncoise Sagan's first two published novelsSeventeen-year-old Cécile, her widowed father, and Elsa, his mistress of the moment, are vacationing at a Mediterranean villa.

Cécile “fears boredom and tranquility more than anything.”

Raymond invites Anne Larsen, a friend of his late wife, to visit, to share his bed, and to marry him.

Elsa leaves and takes up with another man.

Cécile is sure Anne would turn her and her father into “two civilized, well-behaved and happy people.” Rather than have that happen, Cécile has sex with the boy next door and then gets him and to pretend to be having an affair with Elsa.

That makes Raymond jealous; he tries to reclaim Elsa.

Anne thinks she’s been ousted.

She drives her car off a cliff.

Everyone lives happily ever after except Anne, who is dead.

Sagan was 18 when she published Bonjour Tristesse. The young woman had talent.

Even in translation the sentences are poetic.  But the characters are flat, the plot adolescent.

You’ve got better things to do in the next 90 minutes than read Bonjour Tristesse.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

In Andersonville depressing facts become depressing fiction

MacKinlay Kantor’s story of  the Confederacy’s infamous prisoner of war camp  opens the day Ira Chaffey learns of plans for a POW camp on land adjoining his.

In the tent city that was Andersonville Prison Camp, captured Union soldiers wait out the war
Historic photographs shows life in the Andersonville prison camp

It ends with Ira walking through the empty Andersonville camp site after the Confederacy’s defeat.

Between the two events, Ira and his daughter Lucy are forced to helplessly endure the stench of the camp.


 Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor

T.Y. Crowell, 1955. 767 pages. 1955 bestseller #3. My grade: B+.


Most of book is biographical sketches about individual soldiers, some real, some fictional.

Some were decent people before the war, others were villains.

In Andersonville, each is placed in conditions that bring out the worst in everyone.

Prisoners didn’t even have shelter from the elements, let alone adequate food, water, clothing, medical care.

Kantor’s work is well-researched, but not academic. Some of the individual vignettes are superb.

As a novel, however, the work is a failure.

For one thing, there are simply too many characters to keep track of.

And Kantor doesn’t use quotation marks, so it’s hard to keep track of who is speaking in a given scene even if you recognize the character.

Worst of all, Kantor’s graphic depiction of the extent of human depravity is overwhelming.

While novels don’t require happy endings, they should leave open the possibility that different choices would have lead to different outcomes.

Andersonville doesn’t do that.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Auntie Mame is outlandish and outdated

Auntie Mame and her nephewPatrick Dennis  subtitled Auntie Mame “an irreverent escapade.” It’s actually a series of escapades rather than a true novel.

The escapades are loosely tied together by comparing Mame to the stereotypical Reader’s Digest “My Most Unforgettable Character.”


Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade By Patrick Dennis [Edward Everett Tanner III]

This edition: Broadway Books,  2001, Intro. by Paul Rudnick, Afterward by Michael Tanner. 299 pages. 1955 bestseller #2, 1956 bestseller #4. My Grade: C-.


At his father’s death, motherless Patrick Dennis, 10, becomes the ward of his father’s sister, Mame.

Mame and Patrick hit it off immediately: They are approximately the same mental age.

Auntie Mame is a hold-over from the Jazz Age complete with cigarette holder, well-stocked liquor cabinet, and tastes for anything that would shock folks in Des Moines.

Mame has no sense, but her heart is in the right place.

She stands up against anti-Jewish practices and gives a home to six Cockney refugees more terrifying than the Blitz.

Mame might well have been the narrator’s most unforgettable character—she was his relative after all—but she’s someone most folks would rather not remember and certainly wouldn’t wish to admit was related to them.

Auntie Mame might have been as wildly funny in 1955 as the reviewers said, but it’s a sad bit of nonsense now, destined to be landfilled with all those thousands of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books that nobody has been able to give away since 1997.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo: Detail from cover of  Auntie Mame, Broadway Books edition, 2001.