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 picks for 1959

Sometimes I have difficulty deciding which novel of a year’s bestsellers remains the best entertainment value, but not this week.

Robert Ruark’s Poor No More is head and shoulders above the rest of the 1959 bestsellers, with Hawaii by James A. Michener getting my vote for second place.

My assessment will upset People Who Love Literature. After all, the 1959 bestseller list included greats like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lolita.

D. H. Lawrence put some great writing into Lady Chatterley, but it is a dumb, boring story.

Lolita isn’t boring, but it treats pedophilia, which should be a serious subject, as a joke. There should be a wide gulf between writing that entertains and writing that trivializes; Nobokov leaps it.

On the other hand, Robert Ruark writes on serious matters so entertainingly that I was swept up in the story. A story about big business that holds you engrossed for 700 pages is a compelling read. And if it also helps you to understand both the news headlines and human behavior, it’s a winner.

At over 900 pages, Hawaii is also an achievement. James A. Michener had me convinced he was telling the absolute truth, which is a high achievement for historical fiction. Unfortunately, there is too broad a sweep in the novel. The twentieth century material seemed a bit pasted on.

For third place, I’d probably pick Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris. It’s not a great book by any means, but after all those heavy-as-fruitcake novels, Paul Gallico’s lightweight offering makes a pleasant change.

Coming up: the 1949 bestseller list.

Poor No More Engrossing Tale of Financial Fraud

If you wonder how Bernie Madoff and the guys at AIG could have such a cavalier attitude toward other people’s money, Robert Ruark’s 1959 novel Poor No More might supply some answers.

Craig Price grows up in the South in rural, depression-era  poverty. He’s  a loner living  in a fantasy world in which he is “Captain-Admiral of the Ocean Sea.”

Craig’s  dying grandfather makes him promise to fight to make something of himself.

He does.

Craig  marries a mill-owner’s daughter, using her fortune to as the foundation of a financial empire.  With bluff, guts, charm and other peoples’ money, he works his way to the ranks of multi-millionaires. He does every nasty thing  you’ve read about  Wall Street doing: short-selling, market manipulation, using unregulated financial instruments.

Craig’s emotional neediness draws women; his narcicism tramples them.

He deceives everyone, including himself, and winds up as poor as he started, only this time he has money.

Ruark reveals Craig so well that readers fall for him the way his victims did, admiring his acumen, pitying his roots. In the end, even the readers see the man for the scumbag he is and blush to admit they ever found anything likable about the guy.

Poor No More
Robert Ruark
Henry Holt, 1959
706 pages
#10 on the 1959 bestseller list
My grade: A-
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mrs. ‘Arris as Warming as a Nice, Hot Cuppa

The heroine of  Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris is a “char,” one of the army of self-employed London cleaning women.  Mrs. ‘Arris lives by her wits and her dust rags, making enough to cover her expenses and occasionally go to the pictures.

One day she sees a Dior gown in a client’s closet and decides she must have one. A lucky choice in the football pool starts her on her way. Scrimping and saving she gets the rest for the dress and  the trip to Paris.

The trip is a series of challenges.

By law, people can take only 10 English pounds out of  the country and Mrs. ‘Arris needs 450 £ just for the dress.

She’s unprepared for Dior’s invitation-only showing and waiting to have her selection made for her.

Then there’s the problem of getting the dress back through customs without getting pinched for smuggling.

Mrs. ‘Arris is a sweetheart. Her pluck, friendliness, and interest in people win her friends everywhere. Without doing more than being herself, she makes a match between Dior’s most important model and it’s chief auditor, gets a promotion for the husband of Dior’s manager, and improves foreign relations.

Paul Gallico’s slim, sentimental novel will warm you as comfortably as a  nice, hot cuppa.

Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris
By Paul Gallico
Drawings by  Gioia Fiammenghi
Doubleday, 1958
157 pages
1959 bestseller # 9
My Grade: B-
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Dear and Glorious Physician Is a Lukewarm Biography

Writing fictional biography is a hazardous occupation.

Authors are expected to stick to account plausiably for all the mistakes,  foibles, and inconsistencies that make the characters interesting, while sticking to historical facts.

Dear and Glorious Physician illustrates just how difficult the task is.

The physican is, of course, Luke, widely believed to have penned the gospel that bears his name and the book of Acts. Taylor Caldwell’s task is to show how a Greek doctor came to know all the history in those books.

Caldwell has Luke raised in the home of a Roman soldier, mentored by a Chaldean physician, taught by Greek philosopher, educated in Egypt. As Luke moves through the Mediterranean world, Caldwell makes each locale’s sights and sounds come alive.

Unfortunately, she is less successful at making Luke himself come alive.

In the picture Caldwell draws, Luke is a  loner who makes friends everywhere he goes. He’s afraid of dogs, but cuddles wild jackels. If that seems plausible to you, you’ll probably accept that is a world-class athlete (judo’s his speciality),   handsome as Apollo ,the confidant of Caesar, and that he can can raise the dead when his brilliant medical skills fail.

Dear and Glorious Physician
is worth reading for the setting and scenery.

Look elsewhere for  entertainment or for better understanding of people.

Dear and Glorious Physician
By Taylor Caldwell
Doubleday, 1959
572  pages
1959  bestseller # 7
My Grade: C+
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Ugly American Is Alive, Well, and Living Abroad

The Ugly American is less a novel than a series of related stories of Americans in Asia during the era of the Korean and Viet Nam conflicts.

William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick contrast the American foreign service staff in Asia with the Russian foreign service, basing their tale on actual people and events.  The novel’s goal isn’t entertainment, but persuasion.

America’s diplomatic core in Asia don’t speak the language, don’t know the customs, stick to themselves, never get outside the cities where their embassies are housed.

Worse, they reject advice from Americans whose language skills and willingness to interact with the locals give them expertise.

The Russians, by contrast, train their foreign service staff thoroughly before deploying them. As a result, the Russians win the hearts and minds of the people.  The Americans are despised.

The great — and horrific — thing  about The Ugly American is that it still feels real today. You have only to see newscasts of President George W. Bush shrugging off  the Iraqi shoe-thrower to see that Americans still have no appreciation of the cultures in which they have troops stationed. And post 9/11,we’ve seen how effective Mao’s embedded insurgents can be.

I hope you will read this novel— and that you won’t like what you read one bit.

The Ugly American
by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick
W. W. Norton, 1958
285 pages
My grade C+
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Lady Chatterley’s Lover Is Boring, Not Shocking

When it was first published, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned in America. I doubt if  most contemporary readers would plow through D. H. Lawrence’s ponderous paragraphs to get to the passages that offended censors.

Lawrence uses some barnyard terminology when he discusses barnyard activities, but his real offense appears to have been his lyric descriptions of sex. The eroticism of those scenes is heightened by contrast to the dull, tweedy prose of the rest of the novel.

Constance and Clifford Chatterley married in 1917 a month before he shipped out for France. He came home paralyzed from the waist down.

Clifford inherits his family’s country seat and takes up writing. Constance takes care of  him.

It’s all too dull for her.

Clifford says he wouldn’t mind if Constance bore another man’s child, providing he didn’t know who the father is. That’s all the encouragement Constance needs.

She takes up with the married-but-separated groundskeeper, Mellors. Both divorce their spouses to marry and raise their child. People are shocked, not by the affair, but by her having an affair outside her class.

Lawrence said he rewrote Lady Chatterley three times, but the book feels as if he never figured out what he wanted to say. The characters are dull, the story duller.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover
By D. H. Lawrence
Grove Press, 1959
368 pages
#5 on the 1959 bestseller list
My Grade: C-
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Advise and Consent: Politics, Patriotism, and Platitudes

When the President nominates Robert Leffingwell to be Secretary of State, the Senate has to decide whether the man who would rather “go to Moscow on his knees than be killed by a bomb” is fit for the job in the Sputnik era.

Allen Drury swaddles Advise and Consent in the flag and plays  “Dixie”  in the background as he  shows how the confirmation process affects four senators and the vice president.

Sen. Bob Munson, the majority leader, has reservations but backs the candidate because that’s his job.

Sen. Seabright Cooley has personal and patriotic objections to Leffingwell.

Sen. Brigham Anderson is withholding judgment until after his  subcommittee hearings on the nomination.

Sen. Orrin Knox wants to give Leffinwell a fair hearing, but his own presidential ambitions may hinder that.

VP Harley Hudson is a terrified by the prospect that he could be thrust into the presidency in a heartbeat.

A story with a cast of over 100 characters presents major problems to any storyteller. Drury doesn’t help himself by splitting the novel into five sections — especially since he has just one omniscient narrator.

Drury’s predictable plot and hackeneyed characters make this story forgettable. It’s only remaining interest is its glimpse into the tensions of  Cold War America.

Advise and Consent
By Allen Drury
Doubleday, 1959
616  pages
1959  bestseller # 4
My Grade: B
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Hawaii Makes Fiction Seem Like Biography

James A. Michener’s novel Hawaii earns the adjective epic just for its length. But the novel lives up to that accolade.

Michener takes readers from the volcanic eruption that birthed the islands up to statehood.  He weaves tales of four disparate peoples— Tahaitians, New Englanders, Chinese, Japanese —  into a seamless story that mimics the polyglot nature of the islands themselves.

As Michener tells it, the Tahaitans flee Bora Bora for religious and political freedom.

A thousand years later, American missionaries come to convert the Hawaiians by less bloody but equally repressive means. Descendants of the missionaries import  Chinese and Japanese laborers to work the fields and businesses their parents had established.

Each new wave of immigrants is regarded with suspicion and hostility by earlier ones.

World War II precipitates the breakdown of the barriers between the ethnic groups as grandchildren of immigrants declare themselves Americans.

The sea is both setting and symbol for Michener’s story. Only those who have the perseverance to defeat the sea have the character to shape the island’s destiny.

Michener makes his fiction read like biography, leaving readers convinced that the way he tells it was the way it was — which is the highest tribute that can be paid to any storyteller.

By James A. Michener
Random House, 1959
937 pages
1959  bestseller # 3
My Grade: A
© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Exodus: Flimsy Novel, Substantial History

Exodus is an unsatisfactory novel but an intriguing introduction to the history of present day Middle East conflicts.

The story is about an American nurse working among refugee children in the Middle East after World War II.

Kitty is attracted to Ari Ben Canaan, a handsome Jewish leader, but Ari seems cold and unfeeling, capable of no emotion but loyalty to his country. Is this man capable of love?

On that story line, more fragile than an Harlequin Romance, Leon Uris hangs a short history of Israel.

Although Uris outlines the story of Jewish persecutions around the world, his main emphasis is on the refusal of the international community to allow refugees from Nazi concentration camps to come to Israel in the ’40s and ’50s. He says the British were pro-Arab because they wanted Mideast oil. They thought the divided Arabs would be easier to control than united Jews.

Although the Arab-Israeli conflict is still headline news, despite the passage of 50 years,  today’s Americans have forgotten the events surrounding the birth of the state of Israel.

Although Exodus doesn’t have much to recommend it as a novel, it is an enjoyable introduction to Biblical and modern Israeli history.

In case you wondered, Kitty finds Ari is capable of love.

by Leon Uris
Doubleday, 1958
626 pages
1959 bestseller #1
My grade B
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni