My top pics from books reviewed this year

I’ve come to the end of the novels I’ve reviewed here this year from the bestsellers of  1959, 1949, 1939, 1929, 1919, and 1909. It’s time to reflect on what’s the best reading today from the bestseller lists of those years.

From 1959, I choose Robert Ruark’s Poor No More as the best of list of some very good books. Ruark’s tale of a financial shyster (think: Bernie Madoff, only handsome) is not only riveting reading, but personally revealing about the reader.

From 1939, I’ll pick  Escape by Ethel Vance. Since I’m not a fan of thrillers, one that can keep me up past my bedtime has to be good. I could almost as easily have picked as my top choice John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’  The Yearling or Christopher Morley’s Kitty Foyle. All are strong stories with continuing appeal.

For 1929, my choice is All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. It isn’t a pleasant story, but it is a powerful one. And as long as countries send young people from classrooms to front lines, it will continue to be timely.

I haven’t located enough novels from 1919 or 1909 to be able to pick a top novel for those years.

You’ll see I’ve not mentioned 1949.  None of the bestselling list of  ’49 fits my definition of great reading for today.

While I was looking through my lists for 1948 and 1949, I discovered I had never published my review of  Dinner at Antoine’s by Frances Parkinson Keyes. I dug it out and posted it earlier today.

For the rest of November and December 2009, I’ll give you novel-related reading that doesn’t fit any any of my established categories.

~ Linda 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.

Doctors Lock Horns in Disputed Passage

“Tubby” Forrester is a brilliant anatomist and neurosurgeon with a tongue as sharp as his scapel.   Jack Beaven feels that tongue his first day in medical school.

As much as he dislikes Tubby personally, Jack respects the man’s genius and vows to be a top scientist like Tubby. Jack succeeds so well he becomes Tubby’s assistant.

Later Tubby recommends him for the medical school faculty. They work together, but without any personal relationship. Yet Jack becomes more and more like Tubby.

Tubby has Jack see a case referred by one of his college chums, Bill Cummingham, a GP noted for taking a personal interest in patients — a daft idea to scientists like Tubby and Jack.

Jack falls for the boy’s aunt, an American girl raised in China by Chinese foster parents.

Jack’s romantic interest softens him to Bill’s view of treating patients as people instead of cases and leads, indirectly, to cracks in Tubby’s crust as well.

No one would mistake Disputed Passage for literature, but the plot and characters are far above the pot boiler level. 

And, despite Lloyd C. Douglas’ annoying vague religiosity, the novel kept my interest to the end, something a Douglas novel rarely does.

Disputed Passage
By Lloyd C. Douglas
Houghton Mifflin, 1939
432 pages
1939 bestseller # 6
My Grade: B
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Kitty Foyle Is Smart, Sassy Realist

Despite the cheap, yellowing WWII paper on which it was printed, Christopher Morley’s 1939 nostalgic bestseller Kitty Foyle has a remarkably up-to-the-minute feel.

The plot is a mundane and timeless tale of two young lovers, a smart, ambitious girl from Frankford and an old-money Philadelphia guy.

Kitty foregoes a college education to care for her ailing father; that’s what is expected of the only daughter of an half-Irish night foreman’s family.

At her father’s death, Kitty leaves Philly and works her way up as an ad copywriter in an exclusive cosmetics firm. Supporting herself is what is expected of an unmarried daughter.

Wyn fades into the upper crust woodwork; that’s what is expected of the son of one of one of Philadelphia’s best families.

There is no fairy godmother, no happy ever after. In the early 1900s, fairy godmothers were in short supply in America’s cities.

Kitty narrates in staccato. If  Twitter had been around in 1939, Morley might have serialized Kitty Foyle in tweets. Her pithy comments are brutally honest, without illusions. She wishes things had been different,  but she has no self pity: Things happen; people move on.

You’ll like Kitty Foyle, laugh at her wry, self-protective wisecracks,  and wish her love.

Kitty Foyle
By Christopher Morley
Grosset & Dunlap, 1939
340 pages
1939 bestseller #10
My grade: B+
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Nazarene Is Bizarre

As you can tell from the title, Sholem Asch’s The Nazarene is a retelling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth.

If you have read any of the novels dealing with the religious history of the period, you will expect to find the story told by a fictional unbeliever who is an eye-witness to the events related in the gospels.

Asch is true to type there.

What he does that’s totally unexpected — and thoroughly bizarre — is to have the story told by two narrators. Both are first century characters whose souls are transmigrated to 1930s Warsaw.

The one narrator, Pan Viadomsky, is a Catholic nutcase who has been mixed up in all kinds of religious frauds. Pan believes he is the Roman Centurian who supervised the crucifixion.

The other narrator, a devout Jew who helps Pan Viadomsky translate a Hebrew manuscript, comes to realize he was a pupil of Rabbi Nicodemus in a previous life.

The plot reads like the creation of inmates at an insane asylum.

Asch’s  prose plods with elephantine grace. The paragraphs are sometimes a page long. The novel goes on, and on, and on.

I suggest you go on without it.

The Nazarene
By Sholem Asch
Trans. Maurice Samuel
G. P. Putnam’s 1939
697 pages
1940 # 5
My Grade: C-
© 2009  Linda Gorton Aragoni

Tree of Liberty Moves Slower than Congress

In  The Tree of Liberty, Elizabeth Page uses the family of Matthew Howard as a lens through which to view American history from 1754 through 1806.

The Howards had kin and connections throughout the colonies and among the political elite of the Revolutionary era. Page doesn’t have to invent situations to show the political turmoil of those days.

Page follows Matt as he grows up hearing tales of the frontier, adoring Colonel Washington and going to school with Tom Jefferson.

Matt marries a Tidewater aristocrat, Jane Peyton, who instinctively distrusts “the common people” as much as Matt champions them. Their political differences carry on through two more generations.

The novel really isn’t about the Howards, though.  The main character is really the American political system, the “tree of liberty.”

Page’s novel moves almost as slowly as the actual events she describes.

I felt as if I should care, that reading the novel was good for me, but that didn’t make me enjoy it.

The novel might have a salutary effect on Americans fretting over the slowness of the Iraqi government to achieve democracy, but, quite honestly, reading about the growth of the tree of liberty is about as exciting as watching paint dry.

The Tree of Liberty
By Elizabeth Page
Farrar & Rinehart 1939
973 pages
1939 bestseller # 8
My Grade: C +
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Second year for The Yearling

In seventh place on the 1939 bestseller list was  The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, which had occupied first place honors the previous year.

You will find my review of The Yearling listed among the 1938 bestsellers. I won’t repeat it here.

Instead tomorrow, I’ll review the #8 novel on the 1939 list, Elizabeth Page’s The Tree of Liberty.

Escape Is Impossible to Put Down

In the opening scene of Escape, a doctor tells actress Emmy Ritter she’ll be able to walk in a week.

“Just in time for my execution,” she replies.

Ethel Vance  hooked me with that line, and she didn’t let go until I’d read the rest of her novel that evening.

Authorities refuse to allow Emmy’s son, Mark, to see her.

However, the sympathetic doctor fakes Emmy’s death, falsifies the death certificate, and releases the body to Mark and the Ritter’s faithful servant, Fritz, telling them Emmy must be kept warm or she will die.

Keeping her warm in an unheated truck in winter is a problem. Mark pushes the problem on his only other local acquaintance, a Countess reduced to running an upscale girls’ boarding school.

Mark doesn’t know the Countess’ lover is the man responsible for catching escaped prisoners, so he doesn’t worry about the girls’ chatter. Readers, like me, will bite their nails.

Vance is masterful at sustaining suspense. But it’s not just the wonderful storytelling that kept my attention.

Vance also explores various facets of love, from sexual passion to filial love, to a longstanding employer-employee relationship. Under her careful scrutiny, no relationship is quite as simple as it appears on the surface.

By Ethel Vance
Little, Brown
428 pages
1939 bestseller # 5
My Grade: A-
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Wickford Point Punctures Literary Windbags

Jim Calder is a writer. He knows his craft and he knows he’s only a craftsman. Art is not for him, nor are pretensions.

Jim’s Wickford Point cousins, with whom he makes his home, regard his work-for-food attitude with disdain.

Descended from John Brill, “The Sage of Wickford,” the cousins are willing to live off the family’s past literary greatness (minor as it was) with cheerful disregard for details like paying the grocer’s bill.  Jim is a convenient source of cash, the reliable guy the family counts on to put gas in the car.

An acquaintance of Jim’s from Harvard, Allen Southby, wants to write a book about Wickford Point. Southby is a talentless, literary stuffed shirt. He fits right in with the Brill mélange.

Jim thinks it’s time for him to leave Wickford Point, but when his girl friend suggests marriage, he hesitates.

John P. Marquand’s characters really are characters: eccentrics one and all. Marquand ridicules the ridiculous in them, but treads softly on their human frailties.

Wickford Point is marvelously funny — something between Cold Comfort Farm and The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs. But it’s also sweetly sad.

Blood is thicker than water, Marquand reminds readers.

Be it ever so absurd, there’s no place like home.

Wickford Point
By John P. Marquand
Little, Brown 1939
458 pages
1939 bestseller # 4
My Grade: B+

© 2009  Linda Gorton Aragoni

Grapes of Wrath Lays Sentiment on Thick

The Grapes of Wrath is a novel told from a soapbox.

Unable to keep up payments on their miserable Oklahoma farm, the Joads are forced to leave the land. Lured by handbills promising jobs, they pack 12 family members, an ex-preacher and a dog into a Hudson and set out for California.

Only eight of the Joad clan make it.

California turns out not to be the promised land. As thousands compete for harvesting jobs, wages drop. Men see their children starving. The Joads are in a bad way, but not so poor that they won’t share what little they have.

Substitute Hispanics for Oakies and much of The Grapes of Wrath will sound contemporary. The story remains gripping today because the search for a better life is timeless.

John Steinbeck alternates a chapter about the Joads with a chapter of his own take on history. He does it seamlessly, but sentimentally. The final scene of Rosasharn giving her milk to the starving man is Hollywood at its worst.

But by making the Joads the poster family for the working poor, Steinbeck trivializes the very conditions he’s trying to condemn. The working poor—and we poor readers—deserve more respect.

The Grapes of Wrath
By John Steinbeck
Viking, 1939
619  pages
1939 #1, 1940 #8
My grade: A-

© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni