My top picks of novels reviewed in 2016

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 I chose it mainly because in English translation Remarque’s novel feels ponderous and outdated.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

My top picks of 1908 bestselling novels

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

My picks of the 1918 bestsellers

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

My picks of 1906’s bestselling novels

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.

My picks of the 1916 bestselling novels

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

My picks of the 1926 bestselling novels

Undoubtedly the best of the 1926 bestselling novels two are definitely “English” works, The Silver Spoon by John Galsworthy and The Hounds of Spring by Sylvia Thompson.

Both novels are written from the vantage point of  England in 1924.

My pick #1: The Hounds of Spring

lines from poem "The Hounds of Spring" on background of dog prints in snow
Lines from a poem by Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne.

Thompson’s novel is about events of 1914-1924. She writes from the perspective of having lived through most of that decade as a teenager, as does the younger Renner daughter in Thompson’s novel.

The Renners lose a son over France.

The Renner’s also lose money in the war; 1924 finds them living in a London flat, their country estate with its stables, tennis courts, and gardens sold to pay debts.

More significant than those visible losses are their emotional losses as each family member realizes no one else feels their grief as keenly as they do.

Thompson takes her readers into the Renners’ lives to feel how they experienced the war and its aftermath.

Like a phone call about the accidental death of a loved one, The Hounds of Spring simply stuns readers as its events stunned the Renners.

My pick #2: The Silver Spoon

By contast, The Silver Spoon is definitely a post-war story.

title The Silver Spoon with P replaced by silver spoon

The bright young things of London society had their illusions thoroughly shattered by the guns and the gas, but in 1924 the Great War is history.

The Jazz Age young don’t want to remember the past.  They’re holding on with both hands to their privileged status: rich, pampered, and most of all, alive.

Against this background, Galsworthy looks at a husband’s love for his wife and a father’s love for his daughter.

Both husband and father are bewildered by how different their loved one’s view of the world is from their own. Parents and spouses will be able to identify with those feelings.

Thompson and Galsworthy make readers feel they know each novelist’s characters so well, they’d recognize them in the grocery line.

My pick #3: Blue Window/Sorrell and Son

For the third spot, it’s a toss-up between Temple Bailey’s The Blue Window
Quote from The Blue Window superimposed on blue semicircular window shutter
and Warwick Deeping’s Sorrell and Son. Man looking at job postings at employment agency

Both of these novels are fathoms below Thompson’s and Galsworthy’s work, but they are above the level of ordinary entertainment.


That wraps up our dip into the bestselling novels of 1926. On July 19, we’ll step back a decade to see more bestselling novels.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

My picks of 1936’s bestselling novels

The best reading from 1936 for today’s readers are both about people caught in tempestuous political and cultural shifts: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.

Southerners who put on gray uniforms for the old South were fighting to retain a way of life that was familiar and comfortable—was facing extinction.

That life was already nearly gone when the men in gray mounted up.

Rhett says to Scarlett before he leaves her:

I want the outer semblance of the things I used to know, the utter boredom of respectability—other people’s respectability, my pet, not my own—the calm dignity life can have when it’s lived by gentle folks, the genial grace of days that are gone. When I lived those days I didn’t realize the slow charm of them.

And Scarlett runs home to Tara to Mammy, “the last link with the old days.”

It Can’t Happen Here  is not nearly as good a novel as Gone With the Wind, but it has some uncomfortable similarities.

Although Lewis starts out satirically skewering hot-air politicians, he soon gets seriously interested in his topic and begins wondering what would happen if a charismatic, Hitler-like leader began to rally the discontents in America.

After the Rotary Club meeting in Fort Beulah, Vermont in 1936, men are already wishing for someone who can bring things back the way they used to be.

Fort Beulah’s leading businessman gripes: “These are serious times—maybe twenty-eight million on relief, and beginning to get ugly—thinking they’ve got a vested right now to be supported.”

Local newspaper editor Doremus Jessup responds:

Yes, I agree it’s a serious time. With all the discontent there is in the country to wash him into office, Senator Windrip has got an excellent chance to be elected President, next November, and if he is, probably his gang of buzzards will get us into some war, just to grease their insane vanity and show the world that we’re the huskiest nation going. And then I, the Liberal, and you, the Plutocrat, the bogus Tory, will be led out and shot at 3 A.M. Serious? Huh!

That November Sen. Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip is elected president.

Soon Windrip’s “Minute Men” become his private army.

Civil rights are suspended, and dissidents rounded up and taken to concentration camps.

There’s no Tara for Doremus Jessup to flee to.

Unfortunately, the novel’s uneven tone lessens its literary value and makes Lewis’s story less credible.

But what Lewis got right—the unpredictable, totally unthinkable election of a totally unqualified egomaniac as president of the United States—seems real enough in 2016.

Over the summer, read one or both of these classic novels, and think about the “genial grace of days that are gone” in America and what might be ahead.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Misery keeps three 1946 bestsellers on top

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

Good, better, best: My top picks from 1956

In looking back over the 1956 bestseller list, I had two novels that competed for my vote for first place. The third place winner was simply far better than the other seven.

Here from good to best, are my picks for top novels of 1956.

Good: Don’t Go Near the Water

In William Brinkley’s novel,  Ensign Max Siegal is doing public relations work for the Fleet by promoting the Pacific island of Tulura to visiting congressmen.

Sailor using a sextant

Through Max, Brinkley pokes fun at incompetent officers, ignorant congressmen, and all the other traditional targets of draftees’ resentment, but he does it with a light touch.

Max is perceptive, witty and poker-faced; His jibes go unnoticed.

And Brinkley gives readers no reason to remember that elsewhere in the Pacific, other men are dying for their country.

Better: The Last Hurrah

Edwin O’Connor’s story about a lonely, aging politician also has a touch of humor.

Red, white and blue political button and text "Vote for Skeffington" above the line "It's The Last Hurrah"

Mayor Frank Skeffingham invites his nephew Adam along on campaign appearances as he runs for a fourth term.

Adam hears stories from his uncle and and others about how Frank has made it in politics.

There are plenty of laugh lines in the novel, but the reality of the crooked politician and the machinery that allows him to stay in power takes The Last Hurrah far beyond the realm of humor.

However charming Frank may be—and he’s definitely a charmer—he’s still a crook.

Adam and readers have to deal with that reality.

Best: The Tribe That Lost Its Head

Nicholas Monsarrat’s novel doesn’t contain much to laugh at.

all-text dust jacket of The Tribe that Lost Its Head

His story is about an Oxford-educated African chief returning home to assume the leadership of his country as it makes the transition from a British protectorate to an independent nation.

His remarks to a journalist as his plane lands are misunderstood.

The resulting flap sets up a violent clash between blacks and white. Leaders on both sides want peace, but they fail to seize opportunities to prevent war.

Monsarrat explains through his fictional characters the difficulties of leaders of emerging democracies and of struggling diplomats in states whose people are divided by religious and ethnic differences.

Thus The Tribe That Lost Its Head helps readers make sense of inexplicable events that stream daily across our news feed.


Coming next: the bestsellers of 1946 that I’ll be reviewing here.

Culture, faith, and conspiracy theory: My picks of ’66

In picking my top choices from a year’s bestseller list, I look not only for good writing, plausible plots, and believable characters, but also stories whose topics have enduring relevance.

My choices for 1966 top novels

collage of elements from dustjackets of The Fixer and Tell No Man

When I considered the 1966 bestsellers, enduring relevance tipped the scales in favor of The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud, and Tell No Man, by Adela Rogers St. Johns.
The two novels look at what happens when a society confuses cultural heritage with religious faith.

The Fixer

Malamud takes readers inside the mind of a victim of religious persecution, Yakov Bok, a Jew in Tsarist Russia.

1966-06_fixerEarly in the novel, a boy is found murdered.

Tsarist Russia was a state sponsor of conspiracy theories. Whenever anything bad happened, the Tsarist government assumed one of “those people” must be behind it.

Although there’s no credible evidence pointing to Bok, he’s a Jew, so he must be involved in some secret Jewish plot against innocent Russian Orthodox Christians, such as the murdered boy.

Bok’s experience of torture, starvation and months of solitary confinement is raised to tragedy by the fact that he doesn’t believe in the Jewish religion: Bok has merely been brought up in a community of Jews and grown up behaving outwardly as others in the community believe.

The Russians mistake Bok’s Jewish cultural heritage for Jewish religious faith.

Tell No Man 

Adela Rogers St. Johns examines another society that mistakes cultural heritage for religious faith, that of mid-twentieth century America.1966-07_tellnoman

The central character of the book is Hank Garvin, a white, Yale-educated, former soldier and rising Chicago stockbroker.

Hank knows some of the more familiar Bible stories, but aside from a religion class at Yale, never considered Christianity had any relevance to his daily life.

Then his best friend commits suicide.

Hank has nothing to fall back on until he experiences a religious conversion.

He shucks his job, takes a quick course in how to be a a clergyman, and in a matter of months finds himself pastor of a church in an about-to-boom California city.

Unlike Malamud’s central character, Hank’s faith is personal, not cultural.

Hank takes literally Jesus’s promise that His disciples would do greater works than He did. Hank preaches that everyone who claims to be Christian also take that promise literally.

Hank arouses opposition from the church, the city, friends, family, and wife—most of whom consider themselves Christian because they lived in culture whose heritage was predominately Christian.

Culture, faith, and conspiracy theories today

Throughout the world today, groups of people are being given preferential treatment because of what their society assumes they believe to the point of practicing that belief.

And in those same societies others are being singled for harassment (frequently by those getting preferential treatment) because of what society assumes is their faith.

The Fixer and Tell No Man remind us that culture and faith are not identical. Confusing the two can be hazardous to a society or an individual.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni