My top picks of 1960 bestsellers

Ourselves to Know is my top choice of the 1960 bestsellers. John O’Hara navigates the slender path between trashy pulp and literary dullness with n’er a slip. As the characters come to know themselves, readers experience some personal revelations as well.

Far less complex, but satisfying in their own way, are The Constant Image by Marcia Davenport and The Lovely Ambition by Mary Ellen Chase.

The Constant Image explores the role of cultural views of sex in marriage through the lens of an affair between an American woman and Italian man.

The Lovely Ambition is a warm, homey story of a English clergyman and his family who settle in Maine and open their home to residents of the state asylum.

Equally heartwarming is the more male-oriented Trustee from the Toolroom by Nevile Shute in which a warmhearted mechanic travels around the world to recover diamonds intended for his orphaned niece’s care.

If you haven’t read some of these novels, please see if your local library has one or more of them. There are still a few chilly late winter days ahead when you’ll be glad to stay in with a good book.

Coming soon:  bestsellers from 1950.

Linda Gorton Aragoni

Three Forgettable Novellas in Sermons and Soda Water

Sermons and Soda Water is a three-volume set of  novellas that John O’Hara wrote while working on a big novel.

Each story is told by a writer from Gibbsville, Pa. (O’Hara’s hometown) who has gone on to bigger places, bigger things.  In middle age, each of the writers looks back with a combination of nostalgia and remorse to his youth in the years between Prohibition and Pearl Harbor.

The first novella, The Girl on the Baggage Truck, explores the difference between the kinds of things that matter to people and the facts that appear in their obituaries.

The second, Imagine Kissing Pete, is about a girl who marries on the rebound and discovers the wimp has a totally unexpected savage sexuality.

The third, We’re Friends Again, is a tale about a two loveless marriages, one of which is accompanied by a enduring affair.

O’Hara’s characters live for  booze, sex, gossip, and what generally passes in their set as a good time. The writer-narrators blame the shallowness of their group on Prohibition, as if the individuals bear no responsibility for their actions.

O’Hara’s keen observation and ear for dialogue make the characters live, but nothing can make them attractive.

Fortunately, you won’t remember any of them long.

Sermons and Soda Water
by John O’Hara
Random House, 1960
Vol 1. The Girl on the Baggage Truck
Vol 2 Imagine Kissling Pete
Vol 3 We’re Friends Again
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Trustee from the Toolroom Totes Traditional Values

Nevil Shute is unrivaled in his ability to reveal the extraordinary qualities of very ordinary people. In Trustee from the Toolroom, Shute is in peak form.

Keith Stewart makes workable model machines in his basement workshop and writes about them in Miniature Mechanic for a devoted, worldwide audience.  Between their two jobs, he and his wife make ends meet.

When Keith’s sister and brother-in-law’s ship goes down in a hurricane near Tahiti, Keith finds himself trustee for his 10-year-old niece. The diamonds that were to have been Janice’s legacy were in the ship.

Although he’s never been outside England, Keith sets out to recover the diamonds. He carries a working, hand-made generator in his pocket and a news clip about the accident in his wallet.

Keith gets to Honolulu by plane. From there, he works his passage to Tahiti on a vessel built and piloted by an illiterate sailor whose lack of modern safety equipment horrifies naval officers.

On every leg of the journey, Keith meets miniature modelers who join forces to get him to the wreck site and home again safely.

Over the years, I’ve read this novel a couple times, each time with pleasure. Trustee from the Toolroom will warm your heart without upsetting your stomach with cloying sweetness.

Trustee from the Toolroom
by Nevil Shute [Norway]
William Morrow, 1960
311 pages
1960 bestseller #9
My grade B+
Copyright 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Listener: Bedtime Stories for Adults

Over a half century, Taylor Caldwell published novels that explored the human psyche, ethics, and religion and were entertaining reading to boot. Many of them became bestsellers.

Unfortunately The Listener is not representative of her work.  It is not even a novel in the conventional sense of the word.  It is a collection of short stories set in a single place and exploring a single theme.

Old John Godfrey built a lovely garden in his home city. The centerpiece of the sanctuary is a classical, two-room building with the words “The Man Who Listens” chiseled over the portal.   Visitors can talk as long as they wish and be sure of being heard. All leave at peace, but none ever reveals what happened within.

I won’t reveal what happened within either. Moderately alert readers will figure out the secret by the time the second “soul” enters the listening chamber.

Readers of Caldwell’s real novels will be familiar with the themes running through the tales. And anyone who is alive has experienced at least some of its crises first hand.

The Listener is best reserved for reading in bed, to soothe away the stresses of the day and encourage a peaceful night.

The Listener
by Taylor Caldwell
Doubleday, 1960
332 pages
My Grade: C-
Copyright 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Lovely Ambition Is a Lovely Novel

At the turn of the century, Wesleyan pastor John Tillyard, his wife and their  three children emigrate from their rural England home to Pepperell, Maine.  They bring little with them but their love, good sense,  and John’s copy of Walden.

John’s faith is primarily in the goodness of people, his religion not overly concerned with liturgy and theology. The Tillyards are just good people.

Thanks to the housekeeper who comes with the Methodist parsonage, the family settles into with relative ease. When John is given five dollars for a Memorial Day speech, Hilda insists her husband use it to visit Walden Pond.

On the trip, he meets the administrator of the state asylum and is invited to become its chaplain. John becomes convinced some of the residents are lonely rather than insane. He invites them to stay in the family home. Mrs. Gowan becomes a family and community favorite.

Mary Ellen Chase lets the family’s younger daughter narrate the story, which gives the novel the intimacy of memoir. The move from Old England to New England makes description of the two settings natural and vivid.

The result is a warm, homey novel as comfortable as overstuffed armchairs and flowered chintz.

The Lovely Ambition
By Mary Ellen Chase
W.W. Norton, 1960
288 pages
My grade A-
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Culture Conquors All in The Constant Image

Young, well-heeled American divorcee Harriet Piers accepts the winter loan of a Milan apartment while she decides what to do with the rest of her life.

Harriet studies Italian and mingles with the Milanese.  She sees their flirtations and affairs in no way affect the family structure that dominates Italian society.

Harriet tries to take a Milanese view of Carlo Dalverio’s attentions, but before long the pair find themselves head-over-heels in love. Their affair threatens Carlo’s relationship with his wife and family as none of his previous affairs have.

Within a few weeks, Harriet and Carlo have to decide: does love conquer all or is it just one factor among many?

Marcia Davenport makes Harriet a sympathetic, almost heroic, character. You’ll like her, root for her, want her happy for more than one winter.

Although the relationship between Harriet and Carlo is based on sex,  Davenport focuses on what happens outside the bedroom. Her characters are intelligent and sensitive enough to realize that they cannot live apart from society.  Carlo could divorce his wife, but he couldn’t divorce his family or his heritage.

In the last analysis, the one constant in The Constant Image is not the loved one, but the loved one’s culture.

The Constant Image
By Marcia Davenport
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960
253 pages
1960 #6
My grade: B+
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Ourselves to Know Is Full of Surprises

Novelists usually use technique of a narrator who got the story from somebody else when the veracity of the story is in doubt. In Ourselves to Know, John O’Hara turns turns that conceit inside out.

As a child growing up in Lyons, Pa., Gerald Higgins knows Robert Millhouser by sight. He ferrets out the story that Millhouser shot and killed his wife in 1908. Gerald doesn’t understand why his grandfather and parents respect Millhouser despite the murder.

When Gerald is grown, Millhouser him to write the story, with the stipulation that Gerald not publish it for 20 years.

Within this complicated framework, O’Hara presents a riveting story of complex people in a deceptively innocent-appearing era.

Although sex in all its permutations is part of that complexity—in fact, is behind the murder—O’Hara’s focus is on personal change.

No one in this novel is static. People make choices. Choices change people.

In the hands of a lesser writer, Ourselves to Know could have become either a trashy novel or a boring, literary one. O’Hara manages to present a novel worth reading and makes the reading enjoyable.

What’s more,  despite the fact that the identity of the murder is known almost from the beginning, O’Hara pulls off a surprise ending.

Ourselves to Know
by John O’Hara
Random House, 1960
408 pages
1960 bestseller # 5
My grade: A-
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Chapman Report Is Not Worth a Yawn

The 1960’s saw a profusion of headline-grabbing reports by sex investigators. Public reaction to the reports was a bewildered, “What kind of people study that stuff?”

Irving Wallace set his imagination to answering that question. The result is The Chapman Report. The novel leaped  number 4 on the 1960 bestseller list before falling into well-deserved obscurity.

George G. Chapman’s research team is in California wrapping up interviews for its forthcoming sexual history of the married female. A local women’s club has committed to getting all its members to volunteer as subjects.

Investigator Paul Radford falls for one of the club members, Kathleen Ballard. Her late husband had been brutal but she doesn’t dare tell anyone until she meets Paul.

Love blooms.

Paul’s fellow investigator Horace meets his ex, a dipsomanic lush.

Love rekindles.

A third investigator, fatally asaults one of the women subjects before driving off a cliff.
The suicide reveals to Paul that Dr. Chapman is no saint.

Respect dies.

With The Chapman Report,   Wallace caught the tide of public interest in sex studies at just the right moment. Today his disjointed, cliché ridden plot and sterotyped characters would not win him a yawn, let alone a perch on the bestseller list.

The Chapman Report
By Irving Wallace
A Signet Book, 1960
383 pages
My grade: C-
© 2010 Linda Gorton  Aragoni

The Leopard Makes a History Lesson Painless

The Leopard, Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s only novel, traces the deline of traditional Sicilian culture as the Italian state rises.

Don Fabrizio, the head of the family whose crest is the leopard, is an old-world aristocrat. He owns thousands of acres and is no stranger to audiences with the Bourbon King Ferdinand. Politics, however, has little interest for him. He has his wife and family, his estates, his mistresses, and his astronomy.

Don Fabrizio’s nephew Tancredi has the political acuity to foresee the consequences of Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily. Seeing the uncouth Mayor of Salina,  Don Sedara, buying property from financially pinched aristrocrats, Tancredi hitches his wagon to the Sedara star by marrying Sedara’s gorgeous daughter.

By the time of Fabrizio’s death, there’s nothing left of the family fortunes but the name.

Di Lampedusa develops his novel as a series of snapshots of the Fabrizio family between 1860 and 1910.  Readers don’t get close to any characters, but they do get a sense of the causes of the sweeping social changes in Europe the last half of the 19th century.

Though The Leopard is not a particularly entertaining novel, it beats a history book as an introduction to the rise of the modern European state.

The Leopard
By Guiseppe di Lampedusa
Trans by Archibald Colquhoun
Pantheon Books,  1960
320 pages
My grade: B
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni.

Top 10 Novels of 1960

We’re on the brink of another year and another decade, which means it’s time for a new list of bestsellers.

I’ll begin 2010 with reviews of novels on the bestseller list 50 years before. I find it disconcerting, if not actually frightening, to realize novels that were new in 1960 when I was a teenager are now vintage novels.

The top two slots in 1960 are held by two novels from the 1959 bestseller list, Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent and James A Michener’s Hawaii. The other books on the list are not widely known today. In the next eight weeks, we’ll see which are worth digging for and which aren’t worth the effort. Here’s the entire list:

  1. Advise and Consent by Allen  Drury
  2. Hawaii by James A. Michener
  3. The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
  4. The Chapman Report by Irving Wallace
  5. Ourselves to Know by John O’Hara
  6. The Constant Image by Marcia Davenport
  7. The Lovely Ambition by Mary Ellen Chase
  8. The Listener by Taylor Daldwell
  9. Trustee from the Toolroom by Nevil Shute
  10. Sermons and Soda-Water by John O’Hara

Since I reviewed Advise and Consent and Hawaii here already, on January 6, 2010 ‘ll post a review of The Leopard.