Good, better, best: My top picks from 1956

In looking back over the 1956 bestseller list, I had two novels that competed for my vote for first place. The third place winner was simply far better than the other seven.

Here from good to best, are my picks for top novels of 1956.

Good: Don’t Go Near the Water

In William Brinkley’s novel,  Ensign Max Siegal is doing public relations work for the Fleet by promoting the Pacific island of Tulura to visiting congressmen.

Sailor using a sextant

Through Max, Brinkley pokes fun at incompetent officers, ignorant congressmen, and all the other traditional targets of draftees’ resentment, but he does it with a light touch.

Max is perceptive, witty and poker-faced; His jibes go unnoticed.

And Brinkley gives readers no reason to remember that elsewhere in the Pacific, other men are dying for their country.

Better: The Last Hurrah

Edwin O’Connor’s story about a lonely, aging politician also has a touch of humor.

Red, white and blue political button and text "Vote for Skeffington" above the line "It's The Last Hurrah"

Mayor Frank Skeffingham invites his nephew Adam along on campaign appearances as he runs for a fourth term.

Adam hears stories from his uncle and and others about how Frank has made it in politics.

There are plenty of laugh lines in the novel, but the reality of the crooked politician and the machinery that allows him to stay in power takes The Last Hurrah far beyond the realm of humor.

However charming Frank may be—and he’s definitely a charmer—he’s still a crook.

Adam and readers have to deal with that reality.

Best: The Tribe That Lost Its Head

Nicholas Monsarrat’s novel doesn’t contain much to laugh at.

all-text dust jacket of The Tribe that Lost Its Head

His story is about an Oxford-educated African chief returning home to assume the leadership of his country as it makes the transition from a British protectorate to an independent nation.

His remarks to a journalist as his plane lands are misunderstood.

The resulting flap sets up a violent clash between blacks and white. Leaders on both sides want peace, but they fail to seize opportunities to prevent war.

Monsarrat explains through his fictional characters the difficulties of leaders of emerging democracies and of struggling diplomats in states whose people are divided by religious and ethnic differences.

Thus The Tribe That Lost Its Head helps readers make sense of inexplicable events that stream daily across our news feed.

Coming next: the bestsellers of 1946 that I’ll be reviewing here.

Marooned on Boon Island, survivors eat ship’s carpenter

Kenneth Roberts needed no assistance in creating a compelling plot for his historical novel Boon Island.

The facts are horrific.

Boon Island by Kenneth Roberts

Doubleday, 1956. 274 pp. 1956 best-seller #10. My Grade: B-.

On December 11, 1710, the Nottingham, an English vessel headed for Portsmouth with a load of butter and cheese, struck Boon Island off the Maine coast in the middle of a nor’easter.

Lighthouse and three buildings on small rocky island
Tiny Boon Island seen in a 1911 postcard. The lighthouse was built in 1854-55.

Of the 14 on board when the ship sank, only 10 lived to be rescued January 4, 1711.

The marooned men included a boy of perhaps 8 or 10  and his partially disabled father, the captain’s epileptic brother, and seamen both stupid and cruel.

Without food, tools, or fire, the cold, hungry survivors ate seaweed, raw mussels, a seagull, and finally, the ship’s carpenter.

Had it not been for the courage and leadership of Captain John Dean, it’s unlikely that anyone would have survived.

Despite the riveting events, Boon Island is a dull novel.

The narrator is too remote, the characters too static, the descriptions too vague, the language too modern and sanitary to make readers feel they are at the scene.

However, the story itself is so incredible, if you pretend Boon Island is the printed description of a film and imagine the visuals, you’ll can make it a compelling read.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni


The Mandarins tread murk of post-war politics

The Mandarins is Simone de Beauvoir’s fictional account of the upper echelons of the political left in post-war Paris, a group that she knew personally.

Gen. Charles de Gaulle and his entourage marching down the Champs Elysees
DeGaulle leads march to thanksgiving service for liberation of Paris.

The book follows two middle-aged characters, writer Henri Perron and psychotherapist Anne Dubreuilh.

The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir

Leonard M. Friedman, trans. Regnery, Gateway, 1956. 610 pp. 1956 bestseller #9.  My grade B.

Henri and Anne’s husband, Robert, were active in the French resistance.

After the war, they work to create a socialist movement separate from the Communist Party and find the ambiguity of politics a greater moral challenge than fighting the Nazis.

Anne is more interested in people than politics, but finds working with war-scarred minds depressing.

On a tour to learn American psychoanalysis techniques, she meets a Chicago writer she thinks is the love of her life.

Their affair fizzles to friendship on his part, misery on hers.

Sooner or later, each of the characters faces a decision: Do I continue fighting, though I’m no longer sure I believe in what I’m fighting for?

The Mandarins should still be read, but it won’t find many takers.

Beauvoir’s novel is too intellectual, the narrative too dispassionate for today’s America.

Even its seamy elements, like the vigilante justice meted out to former Nazi sympathizers, would seem tame to Americans raised on high-definition crudity.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni


The Tribe That Lost Its Head gives faces to headlines

As The Tribe That Lost Its Head opens, Oxford-educated Dinamaula Maula, 22, is returning home to become chief of his people on the British protectorate of Pharamaul, 600 miles west of South Africa.

From that beginning, Nicholas Monsarrat weaves a complex plot about complex people trying to govern a country moving from colonialism to independence.

The Tribe That Lost Its Head by Nicholas Monsarrat

William Sloane, 1956.  598 pp. 1956 bestseller #8. My grade: A.

Front dust jacket of has white lettering on wood-grain backgroundThe Maula are, for the most part, simple people: herdsmen, fishermen, domestic servants.

The British officials in Paramaul are dedicated civil servants on good terms with the Maula population.

Neither group expects or wants sudden change.

Before the plane lands, Dinamaula’s remarks to a journalist unwittingly set the country up for savage, black-white confrontation.

Under the press of fatigue, self-pity, the goading of the gutter press, and the merciless African heat, leaders on both sides flub crucial opportunities to maintain peace.

Monsarrat’s characters come alive in a few precise words: “a human windsock,” “a professional sore thumb.”

The plot includes political intrigue, romance, social comedy, and military campaigns.

Underneath all that is an appreciation for the challenges of governing an African nation in the 20th century.

As news from Somalia, Nigeria, and the Central African Republic stream across our TVs and tablets, The Tribe That Lost Its Head is as pertinent as it was upon publication in 1956.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A Certain Smile superficial as lip gloss

Françoise Sagan published her first bestseller at 18, then repeated the feat at 20 with A Certain Smile.

The novel is presumed to show how young people view the world.

A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan

Trans. by Anne Green. E.P. Dutton, 1956. 128 pp. My grade: C-.

cover of paaerback that includes Francoise Sagan's first two published novelsI suspect it was the youthfulness of the author rather than the brilliance of the novel that was the selling point.

As the story opens, Dominique is involved with a fellow Sorbonne student, Bertrand, who she finds boring outside of bed.

Bertrand introduces her to his uncle and aunt.

The aunt, a warm, motherly figure, becomes her friend.

The uncle, Luc, becomes her lover.

They spend two weeks together at a Cannes hotel, returning to Paris to find Luc’s wife has learned of their affair.

Dominique knows Luc does not love her, that he merely uses her, but that doesn’t stop her from loving him — or at least from wanting him as her primary sexual partner.

Dominique’s real passion is Dominique.

She wants the world to revolve around her, but she is so shallow the world alternately uses her and pities her.

Folks older and wiser than Dominque will make a wide detour around this novel.

If Sagan speaks for youth, the world’s in deep do-do.

 © 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Eloise is a brat

Kay Thompson’s Eloise is a picture book.

The pictures by Hilary Knight are charming. Eloise is not.

Eloise: A Book for Precocious Grown Ups by Kay Thompson

Hilary Knight, illus.. Simon & Schuster, 1956. 1956 bestseller #5. My grade: C-.

Eloise writes her name in lipstick on a mirror Eloise is 6.

She lives at The Plaza Hotel where the manager says she is a nuisance.

That is an understatement.

What this scraggy-haired hellion in Mary Janes doesn’t get into is not to be found at the Plaza Hotel.

She visits the Persian Room, the Boiler Room, and the Men’s Room.

She “helps” the maid and the switchboard operators, the busboys and waiters.

She’s rude, insolent, and spoiled rotten.

At 20, Eloise will look like the bored, rich girls of Valley of the Dolls.

She’s already got a good start.

Eloise’s favorite phrases are “Oh my Lord” and “Charge it, please.”

Her mother leaves Eloise with a nanny while she’s off to Europe or on a jaunt to Virginia with her lawyer.

If Eloise has a father, he doesn’t come into the story.

Eloise dislikes school, so her mother has her tutored at home.

Eloise’s mother “knows everyone” from Coco Chanel to the Dean of Andover.

Let’s hope she also knows a good bailbondsman.

In a few years, Eloise will need one.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni


The Last Hurrah still reverberates

The Last Hurrah an engaging story of an engaging man.

A life-long, old-style Irish politician, Frank Skeffington is seeking his fourth term as mayor of the city he loves.

campaign poster  VOTE "Stick with Skeffington"

The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor

Little, Brown, 1956. 427 pages. 1956 bestseller #2. My grade: B.

Nobody can do personal, on-the-pavement campaigning like Frank.

He’s kind, generous, and corrupt.

With all his opponents united behind one political novice, Frank expects a tough campaign, but he expects to win.

Though surrounded by loyal henchmen, Skeffington is lonely. He asks his nephew, Adam, to come with him on various campaign appearances to see how big city politics is played by masters of the game.

Adam gets to see Skeffington at his best and to hear — often from his Uncle’s own lips — stories of him at his worst.

Best of all, he gets to hear Skeffington’s straight-faced double entendres that his uncle’s loyal but dull henchmen don’t understand.

Beneath the marvelous human story, Edwin O’Connor sneaks in some analysis of American politics.

From a critic who admits to finding Skeffington charming, readers learn why people like Skeffington flourished, and why they died out. O’Connor reveals the ugliness so naturally, the novel flows as effortlessly as Irish storytelling.

Easy reading, some laugh-out-loud lines, and historical insights make this novel one you’ll enjoy regardless of your politics.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni


WW2 Spoof Don’t Go Near the Water Still Funny

William Brinkley’s Don’t Go Near the Water has a trivial plot, absurd situations, ludicrous characters, and a general air of frivolity.

It’s also good-natured and rollickingly, timelessly funny. It will remind you of M*A*S*H* but without the bitterness, booze, and profanity of the later novel.
old Encyclopedia Britannica set

Don’t Go Near the Water by William Brinkley

Random House, 1956. 1956 bestseller #1. My grade: B.

Ensign Max Siegal has been transferred from a destroyer to the Fleet’s Public Relations section where he helps win World War II by assuming responsibility for promoting the Pacific island of Tulura to visiting congressmen.

Max is the ultimate comic hero. He’s brighter than his supposed superiors, witty, perceptive, and above all, human.

Max falls for Melora Alba, who teaches the local one-room school.

Max gets time with Melora by doing janitorial chores while she grades papers and by researching students’ questions at the Fleet library.

Finally Max wins Melora with a gift: The Encyclopedia Britannica.

The PR staff try to make themselves look good while doing as little as possible.

When they succeed, it’s usually because Max is pulling strings behind the scenes.

Max can needle a congressman without being caught or solve a crisis using only his knowledge of human nature.

In the ultimate act of compassion, Max teaches the inept “Marblehead” Nash to use a sextant.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

1956 bestsellers slated for review here

When you skim the list of the 1956 bestselling novels, you’ll see some titles that will be familiar if you’re a fan of classic movies: The top four were each converted for the big screen and turn up regularly on cable TV movie channels.

As I post my reviews, you’ll realize—as if you didn’t already know—that great cinema does not always come from a great novel.

Publishing dates for 1956 bestseller reviews

Here’s the list and publishing dates for my posts. Links to previously posted reviews are shown for the three 1956 bestsellers that were held over from 1955.

Don’t Go Near the Water by William Brinkley [Feb. 16, 2016]
The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor [Feb. 20, 2016]
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis
Eloise by Kay Thompson [Feb. 23, 2016]
Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor
A Certain Smile by Francoise Sagan [Feb. 27, 2016]
The Tribe That Lost Its Head by Nicholas Monsarrat [Mar. 8, 2016]
The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir [Mar. 12, 2016]
Boon Island by Kenneth Roberts [Mar. 15, 2016]

I’ll let you pick your favorites on Saturday, March 12, and give my top choices on Tuesday, March 15.

Happy reading.