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Archive for the ‘My top choices’ Category

The 1917 bestseller list contains three novels that are definitely read-again novels for 2017:  The Red Planet by William J. Locke, His Family by Ernest Poole, and In the Wilderness by Robert Hichens.

The only thing that common thread among my choices is that each is decidedly uncommon.

A domestic novel: His Family

Image of stick figure family group surprinted with His Family by Ernest Poole

I’ll start with Poole’s novel, which is in many ways the least unusual of the trio.

His Family is about a self-made man around the turn of the century.

When his wife died after 20 years of marriage, Roger Gale froze emotionally.

For the next 20 years, Roger kept his business going and saw to it that his three daughters were fed, clothed, and educated; he had no strength left to care for their emotional needs.

The novel explores Roger’s often ham-fisted attempts to connect with the adult children who he’d let grow up parent-less.

In one way, His Family is not a memorable book. The events are very much the sorts of things that happen in every family.

However, the ordinariness of the events the Gales experience makes His Family a novel one can come back to repeatedly to see how an ordinary family handles — or mishandles — life’s problems.

A cozy mystery: The Red Planet

Photo of Mars suprinted with text  The Red Planet by William J. Locke

Although the World War I provides the backdrop to much of the action of His Family, the war in Europe didn’t touch their lives significantly.

By contrast, the Great War permeates the pages of The Red Planet.

The Red Planet is a cozy mystery, presented as a memoir of a Boer War veteran living in a small English village when WWI broke out.

Duncan Meredyth, a paraplegic, is cared for by his ex-sergeant who was disfigured in the same shell blast that took Duncan’s legs.

When Duncan’s neighbors learn their son has been killed in France, Duncan remembers the Fenimore’s daughter, Althea, who was drowned less than a year earlier.

Duncan wonders what Althea had been was doing on the tow-path beside the canal at midnight.

His wondering leads to his listening, observing, and putting the clues together.

Readers of The Red Planet get far more than a good mystery.

They also get a peek into the great changes Britain experienced in 1914-18. Locke writes:

Thus over the sequestered vale of Wellingsford, far away from the sound of shells, even off the track of marauding Zeppelins, rode the fiery planet. Mars. There is not a homestead in Great Britain that in one form or another has not caught a reflection of its blood-red ray. No matter how we may seek distraction in work or amusement, the angry glow is ever before our eyes, colouring our vision, colouring our thoughts, colouring our emotions for good or for ill. We cannot escape it. Our personal destinies are inextricably interwoven with the fate directing the death grapple of the thousand miles or so of battle line, and arbitrating on the doom of colossal battleships.

A spiritual biography: In the Wilderness

Wilderness scene with surprinted text In the Wilderness a novel by The Garden of Allah author Ribert Hichens

In the Wilderness is a pre-war novel about a young man, Dion Leith, who was passionately in love with a woman who had turned him down numerous times.

Rosamund relinquished her plans and agreed to marry Dion after hearing a sermon urging “sharing a path” as a way to combat egoism.

Both Dion and Rosamund are intense and basically self-centered individuals, although their selfishness takes on very different expressions.

Dion thinks Rosamund’s religious faith stands between them, when the truth is that neither of them has real faith: Both have only emotion.

There’s nothing preachy about Hichens’ novel. His characters’ faith, or lack thereof, interests him as a facet of their personalities.

To the extent that Dion and Rosamund grow up, they outgrow the self-centeredness that marked their youthful religious beliefs.

Each of these three 1917 bestsellers is worth reading in 2017. Each is available to read for free at Project Gutenberg.

Project Gutenberg

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I’m afraid 1907 wasn’t a great year for bestselling novels. They were lightweights, one and all.

The Lady of the Decoration

The best of the lot is Frances Little’s The Lady of the Decoration, a sunny epistolary novel purporting to be written by Southern widow working as a nursery school teacher at a mission school in Japan.

Her husband’s untimely death had left her practically penniless. The teaching job offered not only a salary, but also an escape from reminders of of her unhappy marriage.

The Lady finds she has a natural aptitude for organizing and a gift for teaching. She adores and is adored by her students.  Before long, the adults of Hiroshima are enthralled by her as well.

Although the lady is often lonely and unhappy far from home, her natural good humor and her fascination with Japan and its people keep her from giving in to unhappiness.

The story is gentle and sweet and funny, just serious enough to avoid sentimentalism but not so serious as to sound preachy. It’s not a great book, but it’s a good one.

The Daughter of Anderson Crow

The only other 1907 novel that still is likely to attract a twenty-first century reader is The Daughter of Anderson Crow by George Barr McCutcheon.

It’s the story of a baby left on the doorstep.

The doorstep belongs to Anderson Crow, the Tinkletown marshal and holder of various other town offices which Anderson Crow and most of the town residents think only Anderson Crow has the mental capacity to fill.

In fact, Anderson Crow’s brainpower falls far short of brilliance and a stone’s throw short of common sense: He’s a pompous rube among groveling rubes.

McCutcheon’s plot is tangled and implausible. He can’t seem to make up his mind what his authorial perspective on his characters should be.

However, McCutcheon’s humor glosses over the novel’s flaws and makes the novel’s silliness seem a virtue.

The Younger Set

My third choice is The Younger Set by Robert W. Chambers, which by comparison to Lady and Anderson Crow feels like an academic treatise.

Chambers focuses on Capt. Philip Selwyn who had been planning on an army career until his wife ran off with another man. Selwyn “did the decent thing” and  allowed himself to be branded the guilty party to the divorce, which ruined her career.

It does not, however, stop him loving his wife or feeling unable to consider marriage to another woman while his wife lives.

The Younger Set is remembered today—if it is remembered at all—as the source of the quotation, “He shaves the dead line like a safety razor, but he’s never yet cut through it.”

Chambers’ contemporaries noted the book for another passage, which Vera Brittian refers to in her nonfiction memoir Testament of Youth:

I should like to know…something about everything. That being out of the question, I should like to know everything about something. That also being out of the question, for third choice I should like to know something about something. I am not too ambitious, am I?

Neither of my two top picks is a great novel or a particularly memorable novel, but each one will provide entertainment without over-exerting a reader’s mental faculties.

The Younger Set is a better novel than the other two, but most of today’s readers will be baffled or amused by Selwin’s reaction to his unfaithful wife. They’ll probably be content with no more than the few lines I quoted.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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A large chunk of my year 2016 went into reading and reviewing bestselling novels.

In preparation for my annual choices of the best novels whose reviews I posted that year,  I looked back through the bestseller lists for 1966, 1956, 1946, 1936, 1936, 1916, 1906, 1918 and 1908.

I saw many titles whose stories I couldn’t remember.

Other novels I remembered because they were creatively awful.

Only a few stuck with me as stories that I remember for the right reasons: good storytelling, credible characterization, lucid prose, stimulating ideas. From those, I chose one novel for each of the nine years.

The best of the bestsellers

None of these nine novels will disappoint readers:

The Fixer by Bernard Malamud, 1966
The Tribe that Lost Its Head by Nicholas Monserrat 1956
Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque, 1946
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell 1936
The Hounds of Spring by Sylvia Thompson, 1926
The Real Adventure by Henry Kitchell Webster, 1916
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, 1906
A Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton-Porter, 1918
The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg by Louis Bromfield, 1908

(Normally I would have ignored The House of Mirth because my review was posted in 2015, the anniversary year for the first time the novel hit the bestseller list, and it was one of my top choices for that year. The other bestsellers of 1906, however, were so weak that there wasn’t even a runner-up to choose this year.)

My favorites of the best bestsellers

My favorites of the bestsellers are not the best novels on the list: They are merely the ones that, for one reason or another, have most appeal for me personally.

The Fixer by Malamud

I dithered between choosing between two dark novels about resistance to oppression: The Fixer or the Arch of Triumph.  Both created shiveringly clear images of their ineffectual, almost pathetic, leading character’s suffering under political oppression.

My choice is The Fixer. I chose it mainly because in English translation Remarque’s novel feels ponderous and outdated. Since Malamud wrote in English, it seems more immediate.

The Real Adventure by Webster

I can’t deny part of the charm of The Real Adventure for me is the illustrations by R. M. Crosby. They made Rose Stanton come alive in all her scatterbrained young charm and maturing womanhood.

Webster’s story of the suffragette’s daughter raised with no ability to do anything but lead the sort of decorative, trophy wife life suffragettes said they despised stuck me as being psychologically spot-on.

So, too, did Rose’s ridiculous attempts to develop interests in subjects that interested her husband and his failure to recognize the motivation that underpinned them.

And Rose’s older sister, Portia, who resents having to pay the bills for her mothers’ and sister’s upkeep is so real you would recognize her on the street.

For 1916, Adventure was a real departure in fictional discussions of what marriage ought to be.

It’s still a real departure from what most marriages become.

I’ll remember The Real Adventure long after I’ve forgotten many better novels.

A Daughter of the Land by Stratton-Porter

A Daughter of the Land is a indefensible choice for a top novel.

It simply appeals to me.

Kate Bates is a country girl. She’d have been happy to marry before she was out of her teens if should could have had advantages equal to those her father gave her seven brothers: a house, a 200-acres of land, and farm stock

She knows she’ll get nothing, so at 16, Kate packs up and leaves home.

Kate makes many mistakes, but she learns from them, picks herself up, and goes on.

Life makes her more resilient but not harder.

Daughter is not as good a novel as The Real Adventure but it’s equally unusual for its day in its attitude toward women’s rights and marriage.

And Kate isn’t as appealing as Rose, but she’s someone you’d be glad to have as a neighbor and friend.


That finishes up 2016.

I hope you’ll be back in 2017 as I finish up my self-appointed task of re-reviewing all the bestselling novels published between 1900 and 1969.

Happy New Year.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The bestselling novels of 1908 provide some good entertainment and a couple contains some historical insights, but none really stand out as novels you can’t afford to miss.

Of the lot, The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg by the prolific and versatile Louis Bromfield and The Shuttle by the equally prolific but less versatile Frances Hodgson Burnett are the best: They are certainly the most unusual.

The plots of both novels are set in motion by some really despicable characters.

For something lighter, appropriate perhaps to kicking back after the presents are opened, the Christmas dinner dishes washed and put away, I suggest The Man from Brodney’s by George Barr McCutcheon, another prolific author. Its light humor won’t upset your digestion.

The Shuttle

The Shuttle is touched off by a titled and nearly penniless Englishman’s attempt to restore his fortunes by marrying the the daughter of a rich American businessman.

Any heiress will do: Sir Nigel Anstruthers isn’t fussy as long as the girl is rich and easily cowed.

Rosalie Vanderpoel seems to fit the bill. She’s young, pretty, malleable, and next to brainless.

Sir Nigel doesn’t realize that Reuben Vanderpoel made his money the hard way, and he’s not about to throw it away in supporting a son-in-law he rightly suspects is a leech as well as a loser.

Unable to live in New York City on his father-in-law’s money, Sir Nigel takes Rosalie home to England where he gets her to sign over all her property to him. He leaves her and their son, Ughtred, at Anstruther’s crumbling county estate, while he enjoys Rosalie’s money in London.

Rosalie is so pathetic a doormat that readers will want to smack her up the side of the head and tell her to brighten up.

Rosalie’s younger sister, Betty, grows up under her father’s influence and with his financial acumen. At age 20, Betty comes to England to save Rosalie from her husband and herself.

What keeps The Shuttle interesting today is the historical setting. The titled Englishman who went to America for a rich bride to restore the family fortunes was a familiar tale from the late 1800’s to the World War I. Not all of the cross-Atlantic matches were as successful as the one in Downton Abbey.

The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg

The villain in Annie Spragg was her father.

Or perhaps it was her brother.

Or perhaps there were several villains.

Annie Spragg was an old woman when she turned up in an out-of-the-way village in Italy, not quite right in the head but seemingly harmless.

When she died, the women who laid her out found what they said were stigmata on her body.

An investigation by an amateur writer turned up some background on Annie, but he was unable to find out how she got the odd marks.

He learned Annie grew up in the days when America’s heartland was mostly empty acres. Travelers were few. Those who came were accepted with few questions about their background.

Annie’s father was a cult religious leader who moved his wife and 13 legitimate children around in a covered wagon, setting up wherever he could rally a small following, and staying until he wore out his welcome.

Eventually “Reverend” Spragg set himself up as a prophet, keeping to a tent from which he gave orders to his congregation. The only people allowed to see him were young virgins who attended to his needs.

Eventually Spragg was murdered by a jealous lover of one of the virgins who served him.

After their parents’ deaths, Annie and her preacher-brother lived together. When Uriah was found murdered, suspicion fell on Annie.

There was a heavy whip in the cabin and handcuffs that Uriah used to chain her in her bed at night.

When she was she was stripped and examined, investigators found she had unusual scars. They let her go without probing too deeply.

Neither The Shuttle or The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg is cheerful holiday reading. You might want to save them for a February evening when the wind is howling outside.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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I had no difficulty selecting my two two choices of the 1918 bestselling novels: Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton-Porter and The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Both novels have an anti-establishment and feminist edge. I suspect had they been written by newcomers to publishing instead of by highly successful authors noted for quite different sorts of  bestsellers—Rinehart is best known for her mysteries and Stratton-Porter for light romances—they might not have attracted a publisher at all.

For a third recommendation, I’ll add The Pawns Count, a mystery-thriller by E. Phillips Oppenheim.

Daughter of the Land

I admit I’m not a fan of Stratton-Porter.  She tends toward romances in which the leading character are too good to be true and the plots too contrived to be believable.  But she was popular: Michael O’Halloran, The Keeper of the Bees, Laddie, The Harvester, and Her Father’s Daughter each were bestsellers.

In Daughter of the Land Stratton-Porter breaks from her usual pattern.

Kate Bates, the daughter, is not breathtakingly beautiful nor is in thrall to a male figure. She’s smart, shrewd, hardworking, and she knows exactly what she wants: Kate wants to be given the same opportunities as her brothers. Each of them got a house, stock, and 200 acres when they turned 21.

The best Kate could hope for was what her nine sisters got on their marriages: “a bolt of muslin and a fairly decent dress.”

Unwilling to settle for anything less than 200 acres to farm, Kate strikes out on her own to seek her fortune from her only marketable assets: her brain and her kindness.

Stratton-Porter has Kate make a lot of mistakes and learn from each one of them. Some of her mistakes are deliberate acts of will. Many, however, are thoughtless choices she makes under physical and emotional stress—an unheroic type of mistake rarely made by leading characters in novels.

Not everyone likes Kate, but people respect her. They know she won’t lie to them; she won’t take advantage of them. Even her brothers accept that Kate’s method of settling their parents’ estate is fair to everyone.

Daughter of the Land is not great literature, but it’s a great story from which teenage girls and their parents today could learn a great deal—and enjoy the experience.

The Amazing Interlude

Like Stratton-Porter,  Rinehart was a prolific writer and for four decades a  popular one. A mystery, The Man in Lower Ten (1909), was Rinehart’s first bestseller. It’s probably still her most popular novel.

Rinehart followed that the next year with two more bestselling mysteries, The Window at the White Cat and When a Man Marries, which mingles comedy with mystery. By the time she published  K in 1915  her name had become firmly associated mysteries.

The Amazing Interlude was Rinehart’s first bestselling novel outside the mystery genre.

As she does in most of her books, Rinehart sets Interlude in settings that her readers would have recognized: small town America and the Western Front. The story is about a seemingly very ordinary young woman engaged to be married to a man she’s known all her life.  Sara recognizes that Harvey is dull and boring, but he’s the sort of man girls in her town marry.

When a letter describing the horrible conditions behind the front lines in Belgium is passed around town, Sara’s sympathy and imagination are stirred. She goes off to France to run a soup kitchen for soldiers.

Sara knows no French, has no foreign contacts, has no credentials, and she has no financial support other than from women of her church. Sara rises above her limitations, doing all sorts of things she would never have dreamed anyone could do, let alone herself.

While Sara scrubs floors and scrounges for food while shells explode around her, Harvey fumes because he thinks she’s playing instead of doing the accepted thing: staying at home tending to his wants.

Harvey gets the church women who funded Sara’s soup kitchen to quit sending her money to feed French soldiers. Without funds, Sara has to come home.

Rinehart makes readers understand that Interlude‘s Americans are not deliberately cruel or mean. They aren’t lacking in charity—as long as charity can be delivered by check from profits made doing activities one enjoys. It’s only when the enjoyment lags and the profits dwindle, or if the situation demands boring, dirty work, that compassion fatigue sets in.

Getting outside the security of her home, family, and town leads Sara to believe that being American means befriending people outside one’s home, family, and town; people who speak foreign languages, wear different clothes, have different religions; people who are dirty, smelly, lousy, contagious.

Sara comes home a changed person. Her idea of the world and America’s role in the world has changed forever.

The Amazing Interlude may find few enthusiasts in America’s current build-a-wall culture, but it’s all the more important reading for that.

The Pawns Count

E. Phillips Oppenheim was another popular and prolific author:  He turned out more than 100 novels. Oppenheim is best known for his thrillers, such as The Pawns Count.

Unlike my other two picks, Pawns’ is genre fiction whose continuing interest today beyond its entertainment value—it’s a good World War I-era thriller—is the insights it provides into how the war to end all wars laid the groundwork for World War II.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The best of the 1906 bestselling novels for most twenty-first century readers are books that clothe social or political criticism in a strong story: Coniston by Winston Churchill, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and The Spoilers by Rex Beach.

Each of the novelists had some first-hand, emotional connection with his subject, which makes their stories especially powerful. The characters may have been invented, but the situations are true.

The Spoilers

Photograph of novelist Rex Beach wearing a Stetson hat

        Rex Beach

The Spoilers is probably the most accessible of the three for today’s readers. Rex Beach’s novel is a thriller with the requisite amount of romance.

Two film versions of the novel were made. Gary Cooper played the male lead in one and John Wayne was leading man in the second, which tells you all you need to know about Beach’s characterization.

The protagonists of The Spoilers confront a scheme cooked up by politicians to legally rob Alaska miners of their gold. The scheme, promoted as a plan to protect the miners, has the blessing of the federal government and its courts.

The intrepid heroes not only have to figure out what’s going on but also defeat the men in suits back in the lower 48 with little more than their wits and shovels.

The Spoilers is based on true events that Beach observed while in Alaska. He had trained for the law in Chicago, but the gold fields had more allure than the law courts.

During the Klondike Gold Rush, Beach spent five years unsuccessfully prospecting for gold.

The Jungle

Photograph of writer Upton Beall Sinclair, Jr.

  Upton Sinclair

In The Jungle, Upton Sinclair follows a fictional Lithuanian immigrant family who have come to America early in the 1900s seeking new opportunities.

They find only the same old oppressions.

They arrived with little and, despite their hard work, that little is gradually taken from them.

Sinclair uses the family to expose the working and living conditions experienced by immigrants who found jobs in Chicago’s stockyards, slaughterhouses, and meat packing plants.

The lead character in the novel turns toward socialism which offers some hope of a better future.

Sinclair himself was a socialist and a muckraker (the Progressive Era term for an investigative reporter). He went undercover, working in the Chicago meatpacking plants to get a first hand look at conditions.

The Jungle was first published as a serial in the Socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason for which Sinclair worked.

Besides writing on political topics important to socialists, Sinclair became a socialist politician. He ran as a Socialist Party candidate for Congress, and in 1934 ran for governor of California as a Democrat.

He was unsuccessful both times.

Coniston

Photograph of American novelist and New Hampshire politician Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

Coniston focuses on the figure of Jethro Bass, a cloddish country lad from the lower socioeconomic class, which in the middle half of the 19th century was usually called “the wrong side of the tracks.”

Jethro becomes a a deal maker, a behind-the-scenes string-puller. Smoke-filled rooms are his natural habitat.

Jethro exploits the vulnerabilities of the New Hampshire political system to amass great power.

Coniston‘s author Winston Churchill knew a thing or two about New Hampshire politics. He was twice elected to the New Hampshire state legislature.

The same year that Coniston was topping the bestseller list, Churchill lost a bid to become the Republican nominee for governor. Six years later he ran for governor again, this time as a Progressive, and was again defeated.

In summation

The Spoilers, The Jungle, and Coniston are novels whose subjects readers will remember but whose stories will slip the mind.

The value of such books is that they can be picked up and read again without ruining the story or lessening the value of the writing.

Their downside is that they aren’t memorable enough for readers to seek them out for a second reading.

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Picking the most enduring bestselling novels from 1916 presented a bit of a problem. Of the four that I found were best-written on worthwhile topics, I could remember only the barest information about three of them by the time I needed to pick my favorites.

The good novel I remember (I remember quite a bit about the novels I thought were awful) is The Real Adventure by Henry Kitchell Webster.

It, and two other good but forgettable novels, explore marriage in the twentieth century.

The Real Adventure

Director questions well-dressed Rose about her qualifications.

Rose asks for a job in the chorus.

Webster focuses on a bright young woman whose suffragette mother and University of Chicago education didn’t prepare her to do anything except be a society hostess.

After Rose Stanton becomes Mrs. Rodney Aldrich, however, she wants to be more than social hostess and mother to Roddy’s children.

She wants to be worthy of the same level of mutual professional respect Roddy accords his male friends.

That means Rose needs to find something she can actually do.

Adinner guest’s remark that the chorus line was the only good-paying line of work open to good-looking, unskilled young women with moral principles sticks in her mind.

After her twins are born, Rose packs a suitcase and leaves home.

She gets a room a few physical blocks but hundreds of Chicago socio-economic miles away.

As she hoped, Rose gets a job in a chorus line.

She has no talent for dance, but she’s good-looking, works hard, and gets along with everybody.

When new costumes are needed quickly, Rose volunteers to design and sew what’s needed.

Rose has found her niche.

She still has to develop a professional career on a par with that of her lawyer husband.

Webster makes the differences of Rose’s and Roddy’s response to settling into marriage seem perfectly plausible.

And Webster doesn’t take sides.

He makes the making of the Aldrich marriage a real adventure.

Life and Gabriella

Gabriella sports fashionable bobbed hair as she sits sewing

Frontispiece by C. Allan Gilbert for “Life and Gabriella.”

I suspect that Life and Gabriella: The Story of a Woman’s Courage is a better-written novel than Webster’s work, but Ellen Glasgow chose a more ordinary life for her heroine, one that had been used repeatedly in other novels.

Good, reliable Gabriella Carr sacrifices herself to take care of her irresponsible family and later her even more irresponsible husband.

I enjoyed Glasgow’s writing while I was reading it—her workmanship is delightful—but Gabriella herself made little impression.

She’s just one more self-sacrificing heroine in a long string of indistinguishable, self-sacrificing heroines in novels.

The Heart of Rachael

The Heart of Rachael is another kettle of fish entirely. Nobody would call Rachael Fairfax self-sacrificing or principled.

Rachael always chooses the path of least resistance.

She married a divorced man whom she did not love because that looked like an easy way out of spinsterhood.

Later she divorces him and marries another man when that looked easier than coping with an alcoholic husband and rebellious stepdaughter.

Kathleen Norris makes Rachael believable, but she can’t make her likeable: Rachael has too little core for readers to care about.

Norris focuses her attention on the topic of divorce. Even there her attention to detail is admirable, but not memorable.


© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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