My top pics from the 1951 bestseller list

The 1951 bestseller list provides  slim pickings for anyone looking for enduring stories, let alone great writing.  A few months after having read the 1951 novels, I can recall little about any of them.

The best of the lot are The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk and Melville Goodwin, USA  by  John P. Marquand. Both these are stories that grew out of World War II, but neither is actually a war novel.

The Caine Mutiny is the story of a rebellion that grew out of  boredom and the “what would happen if” thinking of a writer in the crew.

Melville Goodwin, USA is novel about a general with too little to do when the war is over and his wife whose life has been devoted to furthering her husband’s career.

You might not recall much of the characters or plot six months after laying down either the Wouk or the Marquand books, but you won’t have to drag your way through the pages.

Unfortunately, the  threads that would make the novels universally memorable are buried in believable characters,  plausible plots, and precise prose.  You won’t come away from either book able to whistle its theme–which is a requirement of great fiction.

Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Wanderer Has Great Setting But Where’s the Story?

Michael Karvajalka  is a disillusioned Finn making a pilgrimage from Rome to the Holy Land in 1527.  Wimpy Michael and his muscle-bound half-brother, Andy, are born victims. Michael’s dog, Rael, is brighter than both of them together.

En route, Michael falls for Guila, a woman with one blue and one brown eye who tells fortunes. She says she’s an innocent virgin, and Michael believes everything he’s told.

When their ship is boarded by Turks,  Michael and Andy convert to Islam to save their necks.

Michael, Andy, and Guila end up as slaves in Algiers.

Michael, who is as honest as he is naive, becomes a yes-man the Grand Vizer Ibraheim of the Ottoman Empire. Andy capitalizes on his wrestling and artillery skills, while Guila, now Michael’s wife, schemes her way into the Seraglio.

All three are caught up in the European conflict that spilled over when the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope struggled for domination.

Mika Waltari muddles through which what could have been a Middle Eastern perspective on Renaissance history unaided by either a plausible plot or plausible characters. He seems to have just recycled his earlier bestseller The Egyptian by advancing the calendar a few centuries.

Don’t bother going after this wanderer.

The Wanderer
by Mika Waltari
Trans. Naomi Walford
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951
438 ages
My grade: C-

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Don’t Bother Taking The Founding Home

Francis Cardinal Spellman has a remarkable memory for plots: He’s woven every one he ever read into The Foundling.

Peter Taggart, a wounded World War I vet, finds a baby in a Catholic cathedral at Christmas.  Paul and his wife want to adopt Peter, but the church won’t allow the baby to go to a Protestant home.

Peter grows up in an orphanage where he learns to farm and play the organ. His music teacher leaves him her unfinished symphony to complete.

When a respected critic calls Peter’s composition “puerile,” Peter is crushed. Fortunately, war is starting in Europe again, which gives Peter something to do.

He comes home blind, but his girl is waiting for him and he’s ready to finish the fourth movement of the symphony.

That synopsis doesn’t do The Foundling justice. The plot is really far more silly  than it sounds.

I suspect the reason The Foundling became a bestseller was that the good cleric gave the book rights to the New York Foundling Hospital, a fact touted on the book jacket and frontpiece.

Charitable folks in 1951 may have bought the book to help poor little orphans. Today, however,  even poor, little orphans couldn’t find any value in The Foundling.

The Foundling
By Francis Cardinal Spellman
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951
304 pages
1951 bestseller # 9
My Grade: C-

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Return to Paradise Is a Bad Idea

James A. Michener was a World War II aviator.  In 1949, convinced that America’s future was linked with Asia’s, he decided to return to the South Pacific  “to write a kind of book that . . . had never been tried before.”

The result is Return to Paradise, a collection of essays about the island nations of the South Pacific interspersed with short stories set in those countries.

Today it’s obvious why this kind of book hadn’t been tried before:  it just does not work.

Michener could make a bus schedule interesting. His essays mix tidbits of trivia with a broad historical perspective. But much of his commentary needs footnotes today: Was $2200 a year big money in 1948 or chicken feed?

The short stories, however, are timeless. Beautifully written, they plunge deep into human relationships.

“Until They Sail,” explores what happens to women when all the able-bodied mean are gone to war.  Another stunner is “The Jungle,”  which explores what American women want from their men through the unlikely lens of a vacation to Guadalcanal aboard a tramp steamer.

A historian might make a great book today from juxtaposing Michener’s essays with contemporary views of the same islands. Until such a historian comes along, stick to reading Michener’s short stories: they don’t date.

Return to Paradise
by James A. Michener
Random House, 1951
437 pages
My grade C—
1951 bestseller #8

© Linda Gorton Aragoni

Melville Goodwin U.S.A. Struggles for Post-War Power

In Melville Goodwin, USA , John P. Marquand looks at what happens to a professional soldier when the war is over.

The story is told by Sid Skelton, a radio broadcaster. As an Army PR officer during the war,  he met and inadvertently pimped for General Mel Goodwin in Paris.

The Army asks Sid to shepherd the General through an interview with a noted journalist, fearing the general’s frankness might embarrass the military.

Sid and his wife find themselves confidants of the General and his wife, who has crocheted dish cloths and managed her husband’s career since his West Point days.

Meanwhile, Sid’s former girlfriend becomes the General’s mistress. He’s more innocent than lecherous:  she’s more ambitious than infatuated.

Wife and mistress fight to turn the Goodwin into their idea of a successful man.

Until becoming embroiled in the Goodwin’s affairs, Sid had little use for the Army. He gradually comes to respect the General. Sid is sufficiently impressed to borrow some of the General’s tactics to unseat his business rival.

Marquand lays his plot skillfully, then lets the characters run the show. His pen lays bare the thin cover of civility that covers the power struggles of army officers, of broadcasters, and of ambitious women.

Melville Goodwin, USA
by John P. Marquand
Little, Brown, 1951
596 pages
My grade A-
1951 bestseller # 7

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Cruel Sea Is Awash with History

In The Cruel Sea Nicholas Monsarrat takes readers along into World War II’s little remembered  naval war, the one the British Navy fought in the Atlantic to keep the Germans at bay and the Brits from starvation.

Monsarrat weaves the stories of 150 men over into a seamless narrative with a  grip as tight as history.

In 1939 George Ericson takes command of the new corvette, the H.M.S. Compass Rose, assigned to escort duty.  His crew are mainly a scratch lot, but Lockhart, a former journalist, turns into a first-rate seaman.

Before 1943 when the Compass Rose is torpedoed and 80 of  its 91 men die in the frigid North Atlantic, Ericson’s wise leadership has turned them into a fighting machine.

The next year, the Navy puts Ericson in command of a frigate, the newest type of escort, a huge vessel compared to the Compass Rose. Lockhart is his second in command, but the responsibility is Ericson’s.

After 68 monthstogether, when the war in the Atlantic ends Ericson tells Lockhart, “I’m damned tired.”

Monsarrat makes you feel the tedium and the terror of  five-and-a-half years at sea; the Atlantic takes on a personality as real as that of the seamen.

Storytelling doesn’t get much better than this.

The Cruel Sea
by Nicholas Monsarrat
Alfred A. Knopf, 1951
510 pages
1951 bestseller #6

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Moses Reveals Biblical Exodus Setting

In Moses, Sholem Asch presents the great Jewish leader as a human being without trivializing his spirituality.  However, the novel finest achievement is its depiction of the Jews that Moses led out of Egypt.

Asch shows the Jews as just one small segment of the huge slave population of Egypt. The Egyptians ran the slave operations through Jewish overseers, much as the Nazis were to do centuries later.  The “mixed multitude” that accompanied the Jews were from those slaves.

The story line follows the biblical narrative, adding details to explain some of the elements that often bewilder today’s readers. For example, since no slaves were allowed to worship any god, the request to go three day’s journey into the desert makes more sense. Moses leads the Jews out across the Reed Sea:  the Red Sea is miles away from the exodus route.

Asch makes readers understand how stressful the desert journey would have been to people raised in a land with abundant water and fertile soil and why they resented the Levites who seemed to get the choicest of everything.

All told, you’ll find Moses an accessible and entertaining overview of an important historical period.

By Sholem Asch
Trans. Maurice Samuel
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
1951 #3 bestseller
505 pages

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

1951 top novels on tap

The top novels of 1951 contain few titles that will strike a bell with readers, but they are products of some of the most active writers of their day. Here’s the list with the review dates.

  1. From Here to Eternity by James Jones, review on 5 March
  2. The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk, which was #2 in 1951 and again in 1952, review on 12 March
  3. Moses by Sholem Asch, review on 16 March
  4. The Cardinal by  Henry Morton Robinson, a 1950 bestseller as well
  5. A Woman Called Fancy by Frank Yerby, review on 19 March
  6. The Cruel Sea by  Nicholas Monsarrat, review on 26 March
  7. Melville Godwin, U.S.A. by John P. Marquand, review on 2 April
  8. Return to Paradise by  James A Michener, review on 9 April
  9. The Foundling by Cardinal Spellman, review on 16 April
  10. The Wanderer by Mika Waltari, review on 23 April

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni