My Picks of 2014 Anniversary Year Bestsellers

Ask me about my favorite book and I’m likely to name the book I’m currently reading.
Reviewer Linda Aragoni pulls her hair as the story gets complicated. Reviewer Linda Aragoni is surprised by an unexpected plot development hold_on_to_your_hair
When I have to choose from books I’ve finished reading, I have trouble. So I expected that trying to pick the best of the roughly 80 novels I read for review here this year would present a real challenge.

Fortunately (or sadly, depending on your point of view)  a year was long enough for me to completely forget what many of them were about.

Of the remainder, some were novels I remember for the wrong reasons, such as ridiculous plots.

In short order, I’d narrowed my list to 11 titles, one of which—A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—I eliminated because it was on my 2013 best-of-the-year list.  With almost no effort, I was left with a list of the 10 best bestsellers from 1904, 1914, 1924, 1934, 1944, and 1964 that I think have the most value for today’s readers.

The ease with which the list came together is a bit ironic since the one characteristic that the central figures in each of these novels have in common is grit: They stay the course when other folks have given up and moved on to softer scenes.

The woodsmen raise their rifles toward each other simultaneously.
The woodsmen, with a simultaneous movement, raised their rifles

Note, please, that none of the 1954 novels made my list this year.  Here in publication order, are my 10 choices.

  • The Silent Places, a thriller by Stewart Edward White, set in the North American wilderness in the 1600s is simply unforgettable. (1904 #10)
  • The Devil’s Garden by W. B. Maxwell is a murder mystery in which readers know who done it but not how and why. (1914 #09)
  • So Big, a Pulitzer-prize winning novel by Edna Ferber, is a gentle study of a mother whose reaction against her own childhood unhappiness keeps her beloved son from happiness. (1924 #01)
  • The Midlander by Booth Tarkington explores the impact left by an aimless kid who becomes obsessed with property development in his town. (1924 # 07)
  • The Home-Maker by By Dorothy Canfield Fisher is a fascinating jazz age study of a household in which mom goes to work and dad stays home with the kids. (1924 #10)
  • Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller looks at the resilience and faith of the women of a small Georgia-Florida frontier community in the Civil War era. (1934 #02)
  • So Red the Rose by Stark Young follows the folks who stayed home and refused to complain while their kin fought for the Confederacy. (1934 #03)
  • Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith explores an inter-racial romance between a couple whose differences in personality and mental ability are even more pronounced than their racial characteristics. (1944 #01)
  • A Bell for Adano, a John Hersey story about about an American army of occupation in Italy during World War II, shows situations we see today in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. (1944 #09)
  • Armageddon by Leon Uris, a novel about the Berlin airlift, is one of the few bestselling novels about the American military to portray both top brass and grunts in a positive light.   (1964 #04)

That wraps up 2014 for me.

What would you have chosen instead of my picks?

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My picks of 1924: So Big, So Driven, So French, So Misplaced

Of the 10 novels that were bestsellers in 1924, four stand out for providing far more than just an entertaining story: So Big by Edna Ferber, The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield [Fisher], The Little French Girl by Anne Douglas Sedgwick, and The Midlander  by Booth Tarkington.

Cover of So Big by Edna FerberAlthough the stories are very different, each explores obstacles that make understanding another person’s perspective difficult.

In Edna Ferber’s So Big, Selina Peake rejects her father’s philosophy that life is “just so much velvet” worth experiencing regardless of how good or bad it appears at the time.

Late in life Selina comes to regret teaching her son the only things worth having in life are earned through hard work. Dirk reaches mid-life without having enjoyed living.

In The Midlander (which became National Avenue when Booth Tarkington put it in his single-volume trilogy Growth in 1927), Dan Oliphant never varies from the real estate career he chose almost at random in his early twenties.

Dan is so sure that his housing development will be a success, he lets every personal relationship shrivel while he puts all his effort into the Ornaby Addition.
Spine of Anne Douglas Sedgwick novel The Little French Girl
Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s The Little French Girl is the only one of my quarter of favorites not set in America. Alix Vervier’s mother has decided her 15-year-old daughter will marry within the family of an English war-time acquaintance. Mme Vervier ships Alex across the cultural solar system from France to England.

Alix must mature enough to regard her mother with sufficient dispassion that she can determine what of her mother’s behavior is motivated by love and what is motivated by self-interest.

In The Home-Maker, Dorothy Canfield [Fisher] shows Eva and Lester Knapp trapped in roles they both hate. By accident, Lester becomes the stay-at-home mom and Eva becomes the wage earner.

There’s no doubt everyone in the household is financially and emotionally better off as a result of the switch. It is also clear, however, that those gains come at a significant moral cost that the family may regret in the future.

Cover of The Home-MakerEach of these insightful novels is worth reading. So Big and The Home-Maker are written in very accessible styles. The Midlander requires a bit more mental work, but it’s not difficult reading.

To understand what’s happening in The Little French Girl demands full concentration and either a French dictionary or a reading knowledge of French. Readers who give it a chance will find it worth the effort.

1924 bestseller review list July–August

Very few of the novels from the 1924 bestseller list are read often today, but several of them should be.

Finding print copies to read can be a challenge. Some of the titles are still under copyright, which means readers must rely on used booksellers.  I linked to the free Project Gutenberg downloadable ebook if a digital copy of the novel is available.

Cover of So Big by Edna Ferber

If you have time to read only one novel from the list, I suggest you try Edna Ferber’s So Big. It’s a good novel—it won a Pulitzer and was adapted for  film three times— and is readily available from booksellers. If you are interested in knowing Ferber herself, the Appleton Wisconsin Public Library collection includes information and photos of Ferber who lived in Appleton.

Here’s the list with the dates I’ll be posting my reviews:

  1. So Big by Edna Ferber [July 5]
  2. The Plastic Age by Percy Marks, ebook #16532 July 8]
  3. The Little French Girl by Anne Douglas Sedgwick [July 12]
  4. The Heirs Apparent by Phillip Gibbs [July 15]
  5. A Gentleman of Courage by James Oliver Curwood [July 19]
  6. The Call of the Canyon by Zane Grey, ebook #1881  [July 22]
  7. The Midlander by Booth Tarkington [July 26]
  8. The Coast of Folly by Coningsby Dawson [July 29]
  9. Mistress Wilding by Rafael Sabatini, e-book #1457 [Aug. 2]
  10. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher [Aug. 5]

Project Gutenberg