Harper Lee named National Medal of Arts winner

Harper Lee, whose 1961 bestseller To Kill a Mockingbird was one of my top picks for the year, is to be awarded the National Medal of Arts in a White House ceremony tomorrow.

Lee  won’t be attending the White House ceremony.  You can see a photo of her at a 2005 appearance.

Other writers getting awards Wednesday are:

  • Robert Brustein for  contributions to the American theatre
  • Donald Hall for contributions to American poetry.
  • Bernard Bailyn, author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning works, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and Voyagers to the West
  • Jacques Barzun, author of dozens of books of cultural history
  • Wendell E. Berry, poet and  novelist
  • Joyce Carol Oates, novelist, poet, short story and nonfiction writer
  • Arnold Rampersad, biographer and literary critic
  • Philip Roth, author of 24 novels
  • Gordon Wood, author and editor of 18 books dealing with the founding of America
  • Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, literary critic, and author of Myth and Archive: A Theory of Latin American Narrative

A complete list of winners of the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal is here.

My top picks from 1961 bestselling novels

Three novels from the 1961 bestseller list get my nod for top of the top. They are:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor

The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

Each of these books gives a sense of being about real people in real situations. Even though the situations are invented, they feel as if they could have happened to your nighbor’s cousin. Moreover, each is a novel that you can read repeatedly and enjoy every time.  For me these three are books to buy in hardback.

©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni



The Winter of Our Discontent is a joy

As The Winter of Our Discontent opens, Ethan Allen Hawley is clerking for an Italian immigrant who bought Hawley’s grocery after Ethan’s father went broke and lost it. Ethan has a wife and two kids to support; some extra cash wouldn’t come amiss.

Sweet and funny, educated and articulate, Ethan escapes from the routine of his life in words. Ethan orates to the canned goods, engages in one-sided conversations with the banker’s red setter, and declaims to his children on patriotic ideals.

Joey Morphy inadvertently shows Ethan how to rob the bank next door to the grocery, and Ethan’s fertile imagination takes over from there.

Others in New Baytown are also looking for an easy buck. Some of the town leaders are trying to get hold of the only local site suitable for an airport. A grocery supplier offers Ethan kickbacks to secure orders. Ethan’s son is hoping to win an essay contest.

The Winter of Our Discontent holds pleasing and plausible surprises on every page. John Steinbeck merges a clever plot with characters that are more believable than most people I know. Beneath the novel’s superficial froth lie truths as durable as the sea that licks the New England coast.

The Winter of Our Discontent
By John Steinbeck
Viking, 1961
309 pages
1961 bestseller # 10
My Grade: A

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Edge of Sadness cuts through sentiment

In the The Edge of Sadness, Edwin O’Connor explores the murky territory of late middle age through the experience of a Catholic priest.

When he returns East after four years in a facility for alcoholic priests,  Father Hugh Kennedy is posted to St. Paul’s. He  is content in the undemanding, shabby parish whose immigrant parishioners can spare little time from scratching a living to come to church.

An unexpected phone call from Charlie Carmody brings Father Kennedy back to his pre-bottle associations and face-to-face with the unpleasant truth that alcohol was not his only form of escapism.

Charlie wants something from Father Kennedy—Charlie always wants something—and he gets it: Charlie always gets his way. But afterward, he dies. Death comes to everyone in the end.

O’Connor’s intricate plot unfolds as a natural consequence of the personalities of his characters. From nasty, manipulative Charlie Carmody to the trusting, boyish Father Donowski, O’Connor’s characters are fully drawn human beings with distinctive absurdities.

In O’Connor’s skilled pen, Father Kennedy emerges as a figure with whom readers over 50 will immediately identify. When he is forced to confront his home truths, readers are forced to confront theirs.

The Edge of Sadness
By Edwin O’Connor
Little, Brown 1961
460 pages
1961 bestseller # 9
My Grade: A-

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Daughter of Silence is not golden

Daughter of Silence opens with Anna Albertini shooting the mayor of San Stefano to death at noon before turning herself in to police.

There’s no doubt Anna is guilty of murder. The only question is whether mitigating circumstances should be considered in her sentencing.

In a plot reminiscent of Robert L. Traver’s Anatomy of a Murder, Morris L. West follows Anna’s defense team as they probe for soft spots in the law.

Carlo Rienzi is the handsome defense attorney hoping to make his name with the case, Peter Landon the equally handsome forensic psychiatrist hoping to boost his career with the case.

The courtroom drama is offset by bedroom drama in the small San Stefano community. Carlo is jealous of his unfaithful wife. Both Carlo and Valeria resent her father, in whose law firm Carlo works. Ascolini is a great man to his law students, a nasty piece of work to his family.

Landon, meanwhile, has fallen for artist Ninette Lachaise who once had an affair with Valeria’s current lover.

The novel’s ending is predictable. The characters, while fascinating, are people you’d just as soon forget.

The real mystery in Daughter of Silence is why somebody didn’t murder all the characters: it wasn’t for lack of motive.

Daughter of Silence
By Morris L. West
William Morrow, 1961
275 pages
1961 bestseller # 8
My Grade: B-

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Bear of very little brain translated into Latin

Winnie Ille Pu is Alexander Lenard’s Latin translation of A.A. Milne’s children’s book about a fictional bear with the English name of Winnie-the-Pooh.

Winnie Ille Pu soared to #7 on the bestseller list for 1961, garnering the distinction of being the only work written in Latin to ever make The New York Times bestseller list.

Lenard was a refugee, Hungarian-born doctor who spent seven years working on the translation. Unable to find a publisher, he paid to have the first copies printed himself.  Edwin McDowell did a retrospective on Lenard’s work for The New York Times in 1984.

Lenard’s translation has disappeared from public library shelves, but a paperback edition can be found online. It may also be available for some e-readers.

I won’t attempt to review Lenard’s work.  I don’t do reviews of non-English books; my linguistic skills are barely enough to get me through the quoted foreign passages in a 1930s novel.

My own copies of the Milne children’s classics are in English. I dig them out about once a year and read them through again just for the fun of it. It you know only the Walt Disney version, you are missing out  on a great read.


© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Shock value gone from Tropic of Cancer

The Tropic of Cancer is the first of Henry Miller’s banned books of the 1930s to make landfall legally in the US, where its notoriety propelled it to number 5 on the 1961 bestseller list.

The book is presented as a memoir of an unnamed American ex-patriot  in Paris in the years between the wars. He’s does some writing, some proofreading, and some teaching, but mostly he panhandles, boozes, and whores.

Millers’ narrator says the book is a “prolonged insult” to traditional values, but it won’t insult readers today. The “dirty words” that got the novel canned are simply part of Miller’s  reportage. Today you’d hear the same language used with more enthusiasm in a middle school cafeteria, though Miller uses the terms with more precision than preteens.

The Tropic of Cancer has about as much story line as a grocery list. It is equally short on characterization.

There’s no denying Miller can write. The problem is that he nothing to say to today’s readers. Little shocks readers today, and too many other writers have shown the decay in our society in more interesting stories.

Bypass the Tropic of Cancer for pleasanter climes.

The Tropic of Cancer
by Henry Miller
Grove Press, 1961
1961 #6
321 pages
My grade: C

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Carpetbaggers is implausible but irresistable

All his life Jonas Cord Jr. had wanted his father’s love and approval. More recently he wanted Rina Marlowe, who married his father instead.

The day after Jonas wins an airplane in a poker game in 1925, his father drops dead, leaving Jonas to run the family business. With ruthless ambition, keen business acumen, and loyal employees,  by the end  of World War II Jonas builds Cord Explosives into a business empire including aviation, finance, and movies.

In his wake, he leaves a trail of broken enemies and broken hearts: Jonas is irresistable to women.

The Carpetbaggers includes plenty of sex and some violence, but Harold Robbins doesn’t wallow in dirt. He’s a writer who knows how to tell a story, and that’s what he does.

Robbins sketches his characters quickly and puts them right into action. Any time the story threatens to lag, Robbins picks up the story from the perspective of a different character.

The story is so action-packed, readers never have time to notice that neither the characters  nor the plot is plausible.

Not that plausibility matters.

The Carpetbaggers plunges on for the sake of the experience and concludes with the most improbable of endings: a triumph of conventional morality.

The Carpetbaggers
by Harold Robbins
1961 bestseller #5
My grade: B

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mila 18 commemorates Warsaw ghetto uprising

Mila 18 is a fictional account of the Jewish uprising against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.

Leon Uris weaves together the stories of Jews inside the Ghetto with stories both of their friends and their enemies outside.

The Jews are deeply divided over how to respond to the Nazi threat. Many hope it will go away if ignored. Some want to appease. Some want to fight.

As the Nazis systematically depopulate the Ghetto, a core of those ready to fight forms in secret basement rooms beneath Mila 18.

Led by Andrei Androfski, Jews fight unexpectedly and valiantly. Only a few escape, getting out through the sewers, but among them is a gentile journalist who knows where the Jews buried documents detailing their ghetto experience.

If the plot of Mila 18 sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because John Hersey used the same historical outline for his 1950 bestseller The Wall.

Uris’s addition of non-Jewish characters like the Nazi Horst von Epp and Polish collaborator Franz Koenig adds to readers’ understanding of events, particularly the ethnic rivalries that gave the Nazis a foothold, but weakens the novel’s focus.

If you can read only one novel about the Warsaw uprising, choose The Wall instead.

Mila 18
By Leon Uris
Doubleday, 1961
442 pages
1961 bestseller # 4
My Grade: B +

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni