Eloise at Christmastime Gives Holiday Depression

Eloise at Christmastime is another in Kay Thompson’s highly successful books “for precocious adults” illustrated by Hilary Knight.

There’s no real plot here. Eloise at Christmastime is more merchandise than storybook: the literary equivalent of Disney-character drinking glasses sold for 99¢ with a McDonald’s cheeseburger. It it weren’t for Knight’s drawings, there would be no book.

Thompson captures the self-absorption of a six-year-old to perfection, letting Eloise narrate her own story. Talking about herself is what Eloise does best.

Her usual brattiness accentuated by holiday excitement, Eloise runs wild through the Plaza Hotel where she lives on the top floor with Nanny. Poor Nanny does her best to provide some structure and stability for Eloise, but her orthopedic oxfords can’t keep up with Eloise’s Mary Janes.

Mother, as usual, is off traveling. She sends Eloise a cartwheel hat and calls her long distance from the Mediterranean on Christmas Eve.

I didn’t find previous Eloise books amusing, but this one struck me as downright depressing. There’s something about see a six-year-old exchanging gifts with a dog and a turtle while Mother works on her tan in the Mediterranean that makes me want to howl.

Sadly, there are too many Eloises in the world today—and too few Nannies.

Eloise at Christmastime
by Kay Thompson
Drawings by Hilary Knight
Random House, 1958
1958 Bestseller #6
My Grade: D
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni
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From the Terrace Is Downhill All the Way

John O’Hara is a fine writer, but he wrote some boring books. From the Terrace is one of them.

The novel is about Alfred Eaton, second son of a small Pennsylvania industrialist. Alfred makes his mark as an investment banker, then serves as an undersecretary of the Navy during World War II. Along the way he has two wives, three children, and numerous affairs.

At 50, after nearly hemorrhaging to death, Alfred retires to a terrace in California to consider his options. He could work for someone else or start his own business.

He does neither. Instead, he lives off his investments and does favors for people who know he has time on his hands.

O’Hara implies Alfred’s post-terrace life is wasted. Wasted compared to what? His earlier life of womanizing and money-grubbing? What’s valuable and noble about that?

O’Hara blames Alfred’s wasted retirement on his never having made any real friends. Alfred doesn’t seem to notice whether he has friends or not. Perhaps sleeping with his friends’ wives cured him of expecting to have friends.

Be that as it may, I couldn’t help feeling O’Hara would have done me a favor by retiring Alfred about 500 pages earlier.

From the Terrace

By John O’Hara
Random House, 1958
897 pages
1958 Bestseller #5
My Grade: D+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Around the World with Auntie Mame Is a Bad Trip

Patrick Dennis won instant celebrity in 1955 with his first novel Auntie Mame. Three years laster, he cashed in on his success with its prequel: Around the World with Auntie Mame.

In this novel, Patrick recalls his 1937 trip with his flamboyant aunt. Patrick tells his wife a sanitized version of the trip. Readers learn what really happened.

In 1937, Mame was filthy rich, knew everyone, and was ready to do anything that was not boring, especially if it involved sexy men and stiff drinks. Patrick was 18 and mature for his age—but then, almost anyone of any age seems mature compared to Mame.

Patrick and Mame met cons and kooks from Paris to Singapore. Between them, they defeated scam artists, punctured pretenders, and deflated windbags.

The novel is broad farce, sprinkled with sophomoric humor. Example: The Austrian castle when Nazis train is Schloss Stinkenbach.

Many of the allusions are dated. Dennis’ attempts to reproduce accents becomes irritation very quickly, too.

As to characterization, the roles of Mame and Patrick could be played by Miss Piggy and Kermit.

The highlight of the novel for me was the name of the woman Mame hires to get her introduced at court in England: Lady Gravell-Pitt. Now that’s funny.

Around the World with Auntie Mame
by Patrick Dennis (pen name of Edward Everett Tanner III)
Harcourt, Brace, 1958
286 pages
1958 Bestseller #4
My Grade: D+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Lolita Is Neither Smutty Nor Serious

Lolita is not the novel the movie poster leads you to expect.

Humbert, a middle-aged, wacko French writer narrates the story. Humbert takes a room in the New England home of a widow, Charlotte Haze. Smitten with her pre-adolescent daughter, Delores, whom he calls Lolita, Humbert marries Charlotte.

After finding a diary in which Humbert confides his lust for her daughter, Charlotte runs from the house and is conveniently run over and killed. Humbert runs off with Delores/Lolita.

Forget the heart-shaped sunglasses. This is not a book about a seductress. Humbert has to bribe and bully Loilta into sex. Afterward, she cries.

After a couple years of being both Humbert’s “daughter” and mistress, Lolita disappears. Humbert finds her married and pregnant and finds out why she left him. Humbert hunts up the pervert who stole her away and kills him. Humbert dies of a heart attack before his trial.

There’s no smutty language in the novel, no graphic description of sex acts. Vladimir Nobokov doesn’t glorify Humbert’s perversion.

But Nobokov has too much fun writing this novel for me to take him seriously. He revels in word play and makes Humbert’s difficulties in dealing with his teenage mistress howlingly funny.

The topic deserves more serious treatment.

Lolita
by Vladimir Nobokov
Putnam’s Sons, 1958
319 pages
1958 Bestseller #3
My Grade: C+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Anatomy of a Murder Is a Keeper

Robert Traver’s Anatomy of a Murder is courtroom drama at its best.

Lieutenant Frederic Manion shot Barney Quill to death in front of a room full of witnesses in Quill’s hotel bar before turning himself in. Manion says Quill had raped his wife.

Paul “Polly” Biegler dislikes Manion on sight, but since he lost his bid for re-election as county prosecutor, he needs income, and Manion needs a lawyer. Polly gets his secretary and an aging, alcoholic lawyer to help him defend Manion.

The only legal defense open to Manion is insanity.

At the trial, the novice prosecuting attorney is “assisted” by a savvy lawyer from the Attorney General’s office. It’s a fight to the finish—with the real excitement coming after the verdict.

Polly is an unlikely hero. Gentle, middle-aged, and funny, he pursues wily trout instead of luscious babes and remembers (sometimes) to water his mother’s plants while she’s away.

Anatomy of a Murder has mystery, courtroom drama, humor, a sprinkle of romance, and a generous helping of memorable personalities. Despite the passage of a half century, the story still rings true except for one thing: it’s impossible to imagine a murder case going to trial today in less than three months.

Anatomy of a Murder
by Robert Traver
St. Martin’s 1958
437 pages
Bestseller #2 for 1958
My grade: B+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Dr. Zhivago Died with Cold War

Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago hit bookshelves in 1958 when American fear of Communists could be measured in home bomb shelters and elementary school air raid drills. The novel became a bestseller and inspired a movie whose title song dominated the air waves.

I vaguely recall the movie as a long series of photographs of snow and people in fur hats. The novel isn’t quite that interesting.

A rogue lawyer sexually exploits a young girl. She later becomes a nurse and has an affair with Dr. Zhivago, who lost his parents and family fortune thanks to the same lawyer. The lovers become separated from their families and also from each other.

As the Communists take over the country, Zhivago dies, Laura disappears, but Russia goes on.

Pasternak holds his characters at arm’s length and describes them in generalizations: this one is beautiful, that one is intelligent. None of the characters emerges as a real person. They’re all just people in fur hats. The Russian way of naming people compounds the difficulty of recognizing individuals. In a single paragraph, Zhivago may be referred to as Zhivago, Yura, Yurochka, and Yurri Andreievich.

Watch the film instead of reading the book. Neither is particularly entertaining, but the film is shorter.

Dr. Zhivago
by Boris Pasternak
Trans. Max Hayward and Manya Harari
Pantheon, 1958
519+ pages
#1 bestseller for 1958
My grade: C-
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

1958 Bestseller List

In a few hours it will be 2008. All through the year, I’ll be looking backward to novels that were top sellers 50 or more years ago.

The first bestseller list I’ll review is the hit novels of 1958. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak topped the list. Today the title is more familiar from the movies than from the bookshelves. Find out whether the print version has stood the test of time in my first review of 2008.

Other novels coming up in the next 10 weeks are:

2. Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver
3. Loita by Valdmir Nobokov
4. Around the World with Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis
5. From the Terrace by John O’Hara
6. Eloise at Christmastime by Kay Thompson
7. Ice Palace by Edna Ferber
8. The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton
9. The Enemy Camp by Jerone Weldman
10. Victorine by Frances Parkinson Keyes

Some of these were—and are—fine novels. A few are so dull I can’t recall what they were about without looking at my notes.

I hope to be able to serve up reviews of the top books of and 1948, 1938 and 1928 before 2008 is over. I’ve got four or five novels from those years that I haven’t found yet, but I’ll keep looking.

Happy New Year—and Happy Reading!

Linda