If You’d Rather Watch ’57 Bestsellers

On the Beach     compulsion.jpg      Peyton Place

I mentioned in an earlier post that Of Love Possessed, the top novel in ’57, was made into a movie. Other top novels of 1957 that got the Hollywood treatment were Peyton Place; Compulsion; Rally Round the Flag, Boys;  and On the Beach. (Look at that. All I have to do is think about Of Love Possessed and I break out in semicolons.) You’ll have no difficulty finding any of them in DVD.

Adapted for the big screen 1957, the Peyton Place film version was almost a flop. It was saved by publicity surrounding the murder trial of the daughter of star Lana Turner for the murder of her mother’s mobster boyfriend. The film is available in VHS and DVD formats. The novel also spawned the  the first prime time TV soap opera. That’s out on DVD, too.

There are two versions of On the Beach. Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner starred in the first film adapation in 1959. It’s available in VHS and DVD formats. A 2000 remake starring Armand Assante was on TV a week or so ago. It is available on DVD. Amazon.com sells the two versions on DVD as a set, for people who want to be really depressed.

A movie version of Compulsion was released in 1959. (It’s available on DVD.) Nathan Leopold (the character on whom Judd Steiner is based) was offended by the film. From prison, he sued author Levin and the film’s producer Richard Zanuck for invasion of privacy. The case dragged on for years. Leopold finally lost: he was declared a public figure not entitled to privacy protection.

Rally Round the Flag, Boys! is available on DVD. It stars Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

My Picks for 1957

Looking back at the 1957 bestsellers from 60 years later, I rank Compulsion by Meyer Levin and On the Beach by Nevil Shute as the best reading of that year’s top ten.Both these novels are top-notch entertainment on topics that remain timely. Compulsion deals with why smart people commit crimes. On the Beach deals with the consequences of poor political choices.I’d give Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged the next slot on my favorites list. I don’t consider it good entertainment; far from it. The book is too long and Rand tells far more than she shows. But Rand’s political and philosophical views are still worth a read today because her ideas are still in the air.

Nothing else on the 1957 list is more than ho-hum reading.

Peyton Place deserves a mention though. The title has become almost synonymous with illicit sex through the novel is tame by today’s standards.

Want to know a little about how I reach my opinions? Check the  “about the reviewer” and “how I grade” pages listed across the top of this page.


Shrug off Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged is Ayn Rand’s philosophy poorly disguised as a novel. Readers who get through the 1000+ page novel deserve a prize—perhaps a “lifetime achievement award”—as compensation for getting so little pleasure.

The story centers on Dagny Taggert, granddaughter of the founder of Taggert Transportation and the brains behind its 20th century operation. Dagny is determined to keep her trains running profitably despite socialistic policies seemingly designed to stamp out every successful business.

As one industrialist after another is taxed out of existence and disappears, Dagny hangs on—and Rand drones on.

Rand makes the shortcomings of socialism real, but she fails to make a case that profit motive produces morality. In her desire to show the triumph of rationality, she fails to account for the presence of the irrational, despoiling, misery-making element in society. In her eagerness to prove justice superior to love, she degrades love to either sex or pity.

Characters’ facial features, physical settings, even Dagny’s evening gowns come out of a trunk Rand keeps for dressing her characters: I remember them from The Fountainhead.

In the hands of a Taylor Caldwell or Nevil Shute, this novel could be spell-binding.

Rand makes it numbing.

Atlas Shrugged
By Ayn Rand
Random House, 1957
1168 pages
#10 bestseller of 1957
My Grade: D+
©2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Too many stories in Below the Salt

Below the Salt is a story within a story within a story—which is two stories too many even for an accomplished historical yarn-spinner like Thomas B. Costain.

The outside story is about a would-be novelist, John Foraday. Senator Richard O’Rawn, a man who jilted John’s grandmother years before, takes John on a jaunt to Ireland and England. John falls for the last of the O’Rawn family, a descendant of the Plantagenet kings. John also ghostwrites the Senator’s tale about an earlier Richard O’Rawn who was involved in the events that resulted in King John signing the Magna Charta and limiting his own powers.

Within that story is another story about an earlier Charta signed an earlier king and hidden by the O’Rawns for safekeeping.

Below the Salt gives a fascinating glimpse of medieval history, but as a novel, it’s a dud. Except for the historical figures, none of the novel’s characters is plausible.

The Senator says he wants his story to be a warning to modern Americans, but it’s never clear what the warning is.

As for the idea that the Senator is the reincarnation of a 12th century squire, well, even the Senator gives up on that before the book ends.

Below the Salt
By Thomas B. Costain
Doubleday, 1957
480 pages
#9 bestseller of 1957
My grade: C-
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

On The Beach is so good, it’s terrifying

On the Beach is a gripping novel of suspense and horror by a master storyteller.

I burst into tears after I finished it.

Nevil Shute (a pen name; his real name is Norway) writes quietly, warmly about people who seem familiar. There’s no blood and gore in this novel:  just the raw horror of seeing the personal effects of world events.

The book opens Dec. 27 in Australia in the aftermath of a nuclear war that wiped out life in the northern hemisphere.

Radioactive particles in the atmosphere are slowly making their way south. Scientists predict they will have reached Australia by September.

Australian naval officer Peter Holmes, assigned as liaison officer on an American nuclear submarine—one of two remaining American vessels in the world—invites American Captain Dwight Towers home for the weekend.

Peter’s wife gives a party, inviting Moria Davidson to amuse the captain. Moria falls hard for the captain; he likes her, too, but he loves his wife and kids back home in Connecticut.

Besides, he has a job to do.

Radio signals have been coming intermittently from Puget Sound. Mostly the signals have been gibberish, but there have been occasional decipherable words. Captain Towers is sent to investigate.

What happens after that will terrify anyone who keeps up with world news.

On the Beach
by Nevil Shute
William Morrow,  1957.  320 pages.
#8 on the 1957 bestseller list.
My grade: A+
©2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Scapegoat suspenseful tale of exchanged identities

Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat is a novel of suspense in the romantic tradition that the Dame’s mid-2oth century readers expected. There’s the requisite isolated setting, suspicious deaths, and a confusion of locals who know more than they are willing to tell.

The story begins when a depressed London professor of French history bumps into a Frenchman in Le Mans who could be his twin. The Frenchman slips his look-alike a sedative and takes off with the Londoner’s possessions, abandoning his own personal effects and his identity as Compte de Gue.

For reasons unknown even to himself, the professor takes up the role of the Count. As John takes responsibiity for the ne’er-do-well count’s family and business, he finds temporary relief from his own misery and isolation. Before long, however, the charade comes to and end, and the hero comes to himself.

Du Maurier is a clever writer, if not a brilliant one. Readers who can accept the implausible premise of the plot will find the novel keeps them interested to the end, despite its wooden characters and preposterous action.

All told, The Scapegoat is a good novel for a rainy night when there’s nothing good on TV.

The Scapegoat
By Daphne du Maurier
Doubleday, 1957
348 pages
#7 on the 1957 bestseller list
My grade: C-
copyright 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Eloise is a brat on any continent

Kay Thompson hit the 1956 top ten with—of all things—a picture book about a child who lives at the Plaza Hotel. It’s sequel, Eloise in Paris, opens with the Eloise, enfant terrible, getting a cablegram: She’s going to Paris.

At six, Eloise can’t travel by herself, so Nanny accompanies her. Hilary Knight’s très agreable drawings show what happens on the trip.

Actuellement, what happens in Paris is that Eloise makes a nuisance of herself, pretty much as she does at home. In Paris, however, she gets to parler francais to show how clever she is.

Eloise is beaucoup de hyperactive, beaucoup de undisciplined, beaucoup de uncontrollable. Would you want such an enfant terrible in your maison? Mais non!

Normally, j’aime children’s books, but I don’t aime Eloise.

The best thing about Eloise in Paris (besides the illustrations) is that it’s short. For that I say, “Merci beaucoup!” Je ne sais pas how anyone could find Eloise amusing. I have an absolument desire to throttle the little brat.

Eloise in Paris is fun for adults, but I don’t recommend it for children. They might see Eloise as a role model, which would be rawther a disaster.

Eloise in Paris
By Kay Thompson
Drawings by Hilary Knight
Simon & Schuster, 1957
#6 on the 1957 bestseller list
My grade: D+

  © 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Blue Camellia makes impossible seem plausible

Blue Camellia is a typical Frances Parkinson Keyes novel of the post-Civil War South.

Well-plotted, founded on historical fact and peopled by believable characters, it neither ignores nor dwells on the seamier side of life.

In 1886, Brent and Mary Winslow and their daughter, Lavinia, sell their Illinois farm and head for Crowley, Louisiana, where enterprising developers plan a county seat on the prairie.

The town is a depressing few frame buildings in a mud sea when Winslows arrive. Brent buys farmland outside town, promising Mary that their fortunes will turn. Together, they will achieve the impossible. They’ll have a “blue camellia.” 

Ignoring snakes, Mary dons rubber boots and works in the rice fields with Brett. Hard work and shrewd investing makes the Winslows wealthy. Meanwhile, Lavinia has had her heart broken by the black sheep of the nearest Cajun neighbors’ family.

For a while, Lavinia’s problems absorb everyone except her father: He’s absorbed in trying to create a better strain of rice. Eventually even Brett realizes something has to be done about Lavinia. Somehow, she has to achieve her own blue camellia. 

Although there’s no long-term value to this novel, Blue Camellia will keep you entertained.

Sometimes that’s enough.

Blue Camellia
By Frances Parkinson Keyes
Julian Messner, 1957
430 pages
#5 bestseller of 1957
My grade: B-
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Rally Round the Flag for Cold War comedy

Rally Round the Flag, Boys is a tale of the Cold War era written by Max Shulman, the man who gave the world Dobie Gillis. As you might expect, it’s stupid stuff, but funny.

Second Lieutenant Guido di Maggio has been ordered to Fairbanks, Alaska. He doesn’t want to go. He has a girlfriend back home in Putnam’s Landing, Connecticut, and he doesn’t want to leave her.

When Guido hears a Nike missile facility is being built in Putnam’s Landing, he gets himself appointed PR man for the project, much to the dismay of Captain Walter Hoxie, assigned to head the base. Hoxie hates civilians and anybody who likes civilians.

Determined to keep out of Alaska, Guido maps his strategy and makes a strong start. People rally around the project.

A few teenage boys are unhappy that their girlfriends are throwing them over for soldiers, but Guido doesn’t notice until it’s way too late.

All the book’s characters are drawn with sit-com strokes. There’s not enough substance to any of them to make a good novel, but Shulman makes them credible for as long as it takes to tell the story.

You’ll enjoy Rally Round the Flag, Boys the day after you have 24-hour flu.

Rally Round the Flag, Boys
By Max Shulman
Doubleday, 1957
278 pages
#4 on the 1957 bestseller list
My Grade: D+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Compulsion is can’t-put-down reading

Compulsion covers much of the same ground as Crime and Punishment, but with a far more American tone and faster pace.

Novelist Meyer Levin was a young reporter in Chicago in the 1920s when two brilliant college students from wealthy homes kidnapped and killed a younger boy. Thirty years later, Levin set out to explore through fiction the question that was never answered at the time of the murder and the subsequent trial: why did they do it?

Why indeed?

Was it a genetic flaw? Or did their environments make them murderers?

Maybe Judd really believe he was a superman, above the law, as he sometimes said.

Or maybe Artie was demon-possessed.

Perhaps the sexual abuse inflicted by his nursemaid unhinged Judd.

Or perhaps, as the reporters said, they were just perverts.

Levin writes with the precision of an accomplished journalist. He puts nothing unnecessary down, omits no needed detail. Even the discussions of philosophy are so deft that Nietzsche becomes a plausible influence on the murderers. And, despite the horrific subject matter, Levin never stoops to any language unsuitable for a family newspaper.

Compulsion grabbed me with its first page and didn’t let go.

See if it won’t do the same for you.

By Meyer Levin
Simon & Schuster, 1956
495 pages
# 3 on the ’57 bestseller list
My grade: A

© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni