Unfamiliar titles of 1944 best reading today

For contemporary readers, the best reading from the 1944 bestsellers are two titles that have by two novelists who are largely unremembered. Each zooms in on behaviors that were outside the norms.

Strange Fruit is Lilian Smith’s  story of an interracial couple in the South long before civil rights. The story is not just about race. It focuses on how the personalities of the individuals influence and are influenced by the racial prejudices in their societies.

Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams is a variation on the murder mystery pattern. Readers see all the events leading up to the discovery of a woman’s body. They know the deceased was pathologically jealous and vindictive. What they don’t know until the very end is whether she was murdered or whether she committed suicide.  Both possibilities are equally plausible.

Less exciting than either of those titles, but still good reading, is A Bell for Adano by the better-known novelist John Hersey. Although Hersey’s novel is set in occupied territory during World War II, its tone is sweet by comparison to the bestsellers by Smith and by Williams.  Its protagonist, Major Joppolo, is not as exciting as the maladjusted characters Smith and Williams describe, but his  character, conviction, and common sense make him a more admirable one.

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Successful Novels Reviewed in 2013 Define Success

In a 1985 introduction to a novel I’m to review here in 2014, John W. Aldridge had this to say about American novels:

Until fairly recently in this country it was possible for novels to be both serious and popular without being in any way cheap, titillating, escapist, or, for that matter, depressing. They could often be of high literary quality and at the same time offer not only entertainment, but something instructive about the nature of  American society—the look and feel of the land, the manners and morals of the people. There was a time, in short, when certain novels written for the general reading audience neither pandered to the worst tastes of that audience nor showed discomfort in speaking intelligently  to it.

Among the bestsellers of yesteryear that I reviewed for Great Penformances in 2013, 10 stand out in my mind as fitting Aldridge’s criteria. Each has something to say about the definition of success and the means of achieving it.

In  Unleavened Bread, Robert Grant paints a vivid portrait of Selma White who believes she deserves to be a success at everything because she is “by instinct, by heritage, and without education”  superior to every one else. Selma and her equally self-deluded third husband prove that whatever success may be, it’s not something to which people are naturally entitled.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim is the lightest of my 10 top picks of the year’s reading. In it, four very different English women, previously strangers, rent a medieval Italian castle together for a month of sunshine and wisteria. In addition to the respite they knew they needed, they find self-knowledge, friendship, and love —  elements of a successful life.

Cover, Wanderer of the Wasteland The Wanderer of the Wasteland by Zane Grey has little in common with The Enchanted April except that in both novels the setting plays a pivotal role.    In The Wanderer, the Death Valley setting is the adversary; success is as simple — and as complicated — as surviving another day.

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada is a story of human endurance in a different setting: Germany after World War I.  In Fallada’s story, a very poor, touchingly young couple try to create a home for themselves and their child in a society crippled by war and the economic sanctions imposed by the victorious allies. As in Zane Grey’s novel, simply surviving another day is a success.

So Little Time by John P. Marquand is a novel about enduring a situation more familiar to most readers than survival in Death Valley or a conquered city.  Middle aged Jeff Wilson realizes he’s not achieved the success he’d hope for as a dramatist and has few years left in which to write Broadway’s greatest hit.   Should he attempt it or admit great drama is beyond his ability? Could he live with himself if he tried and failed? Could he live with himself if he never tried?

James Hilton’s Time and Time Again is another novel about a middle aged man who realizes he’ll never rise to the top of his profession. Having missed the years his son changed from boy to young man in the safety of America during World War II, Charles “Stuffy” Anderson hopes to re-establish a relationship with his son on an adult level. Hilton uses the story of their reunion to explore the meaning of a life well lived.

Betty Smith offers a different perspective achieving success in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. In Smith’s novel, a city family living on love and what the mother earns scrubbing floors pushes its children to achieve something better with their lives through the traditional American methods of schooling and hard work.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is gritty and realistic at the same time it’s uplifting and hopeful.

Another novel that merges realism with zest for living is Louis Bromfield’s Mrs. Parkington. Mrs. Parkington is a  feisty widow who finds herself having to bail out her adult children from the situations into which their stupidity and self-centeredness land them. Mrs. Parkington is a model of how to grow old exuberantly, in spite of one’s offspring.

 The Sand Pebbles book jacket by Richard McKennaIn The Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Gooden the offspring are definitely in control. When their mother runs off to Italy with her lover, the Clavering children follow to bring her home. They manage to drive a wedge between the couple. Readers can explore the ramifications of the question, “How much do parents owe to their children?” through observing what happens at the Villa Fiorita.

The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna is a novel in which no one has control. The novel follows a Navy seaman with a passion for engines who is serving on an aging gunboat. The boat is patrolling the Yangtze River when China erupts into violence, bringing the Communists to power. The crew and their on-shore friends and acquaintances give McKenna ample opportunity to look at multiple ways of defining success.

There you have the 10 novels I reviewed this year that I’m most likely to go back to reread at least once more — which surely is sign of a successful novel.

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My top picks of 1960 bestsellers

Ourselves to Know is my top choice of the 1960 bestsellers. John O’Hara navigates the slender path between trashy pulp and literary dullness with n’er a slip. As the characters come to know themselves, readers experience some personal revelations as well.

Far less complex, but satisfying in their own way, are The Constant Image by Marcia Davenport and The Lovely Ambition by Mary Ellen Chase.

The Constant Image explores the role of cultural views of sex in marriage through the lens of an affair between an American woman and Italian man.

The Lovely Ambition is a warm, homey story of a English clergyman and his family who settle in Maine and open their home to residents of the state asylum.

Equally heartwarming is the more male-oriented Trustee from the Toolroom by Nevile Shute in which a warmhearted mechanic travels around the world to recover diamonds intended for his orphaned niece’s care.

If you haven’t read some of these novels, please see if your local library has one or more of them. There are still a few chilly late winter days ahead when you’ll be glad to stay in with a good book.

Coming soon:  bestsellers from 1950.

Linda Gorton Aragoni

My 5 top picks of 1939’s top 10 novels

Of the top ten bestselling novels for 1939, five are still super reading today.

Two of the five are inside looks at the lives of the working poor.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings The Yearling tops my list of the 1939 bestsellers with the most value for today’s readers. Although the main character is a young boy, The Yearling is not just a kid’s book. If you’ve ever had to tell your son or daughter, “we can’t afford that,” you will see the Baxter’s situation through adult eyes.

John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath has to be on my list. Like The Yearling, it looks at the lives of the working poor. Unlike the Baxters to stay on land nobody wants, the Joads are kicked off their farm and become migrant workers. Steinbeck uses his novel as a soapbox,

Two other books from 1939 that have held up well are thrillers: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Ethel Vance’s EscapeRebecca totters on the brink of being a chick-lit novel. There’s nothing feminine about Escape.  Mark Ritter’s attempt to smuggle his mother out of a prison camp is in the best tradition of war novels.

My final top pic, Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley, is a romance as seen through the eyes of a woman who cannot afford to endulge in romance.  Kitty wisecracks her way through the loss of both parents, an unwanted pregnancy, the depression. She’s one tough cookie with a tender heart.

Whatever your mood, one of these novels should provide suitable entertainment.

Few 1949 top novels worth rereading

1949 was not a particularly good year for novels.

The best of the lot is a holdover from the 1948 bestseller list, Dinner at Antoine’s by Frances Parkinson Keyes.

The book, like all Keyes’ work, has a clever but plausible plot developed through memorable characters. And she writes well enough that her novels can be reread with pleasure.

Point of No Return by John P. Marquand is a better novel than Dinner at Antoine’s, but the elements that make it better from a literary standpoint make it less entertaining.

Marquand’s lead character, Charles Gray, is a solid, respectable, reliable banker, as dull as his name. Marquand tells how Charles almost stepped out of character once in his life.

That almost does Marquand in. A few months later, all I remembered was that the writing was wonderful. I couldn’t remember the character or plot at all.

The other books from the 1949 bestseller list are not worth picking up. Fortunately, there is some great reading on the 1939 bestseller list. I’ll begin looking at those novels this coming week.

~Linda

My picks for 1959

Sometimes I have difficulty deciding which novel of a year’s bestsellers remains the best entertainment value, but not this week.

Robert Ruark’s Poor No More is head and shoulders above the rest of the 1959 bestsellers, with Hawaii by James A. Michener getting my vote for second place.

My assessment will upset People Who Love Literature. After all, the 1959 bestseller list included greats like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lolita.

D. H. Lawrence put some great writing into Lady Chatterley, but it is a dumb, boring story.

Lolita isn’t boring, but it treats pedophilia, which should be a serious subject, as a joke. There should be a wide gulf between writing that entertains and writing that trivializes; Nobokov leaps it.

On the other hand, Robert Ruark writes on serious matters so entertainingly that I was swept up in the story. A story about big business that holds you engrossed for 700 pages is a compelling read. And if it also helps you to understand both the news headlines and human behavior, it’s a winner.

At over 900 pages, Hawaii is also an achievement. James A. Michener had me convinced he was telling the absolute truth, which is a high achievement for historical fiction. Unfortunately, there is too broad a sweep in the novel. The twentieth century material seemed a bit pasted on.

For third place, I’d probably pick Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris. It’s not a great book by any means, but after all those heavy-as-fruitcake novels, Paul Gallico’s lightweight offering makes a pleasant change.

Coming up: the 1949 bestseller list.

My pics for the best bestsellers of 1928

Literature with a capital L topped the 1928 bestseller list in the form of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. That novel’s entertainment value has plummeted as badly as the bridge. Forget that turkey.

Fortunately some non-literary novels from 1928 provide great reading.

The Strange Case of Miss Annie Sprague is my top pick. Louis Bromfield weaves together threads as disparate as stigmata and the American frontier into a complex novel that raises more questions than it answers. Bromfield’s “I’m just reporting this” narrative style leaves readers wondering there’s really a sordid story beneath the surface of the novel or if the dirt is all in their minds.

Second place on my list is a tie between Clarie Ambler by Booth Tarkington  and All Kneeling by Anne Parish. Both books are about self-centered women who spend their lives deliberately constructing a public image. Claire has an occasional moment when she realizes the immorality of using other people. Such insight never occurs to Christable Craine.

Third place goes to Vina Delmar’s Bad Girl, an inside view of a teenage marriage doomed by poverty. Delmar deserves better than third place, but her subject is just too depressing. I cannot forget Bad Girl, but I wish I could.

Swan Song is great reading if you’ve read the rest of John Galsworthy’s Forsyte saga. If not, pass it up.

One final note. I haven’t yet been able to find a copy of Old Pybus by Warwick Deeping, which was number 7 on the 1928 bestseller list.