Middling 1963 novels are best entertainers

The best novels from 1963’s bestseller list are not the most memorable.

The Battle of Villa Fiorita  and Elizabeth Appleton are extraordinarily detailed pictures of rather ordinary people by fine writers. Rumer Godden and John O’Hara, respectively, make the ordinary characters of those novels assume importance for the duration of their novels.

Once the covers are closed and the book jackets are straightened, however, the fascination dissipates. The casts of Villa Fiorita and Elizabeth Appleton are just too ordinary to be memorable.

By contrast, John Rechy’s City of Night is memorable because its protagonist and its subject are far from mainstream. The fact that Rechy states his theme repeatedly helps, too. Rechy’s novel isn’t entertaining at all.

Between those two extremes are three good, but aging, novels with something to say and a decent story to carry the message: The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris L. West, Caravans by James A. Michener, and The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna. The relevance of each of these novels has diminished with age, but they still provide good entertainment.

Sometimes, good is better than best.

Readers are only winners at Battle of the Villa Fiorita

Dustjacked of the Battle of the Villa FioritaRumer Godden’s The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is one of the few novels with a surprise ending that  feels right.

Away at boarding school, the Clavering children know nothing of their parents’ divorce until it’s settled. By then, their mother has gone to Italy with her lover.

Hugh and Carrie, devastated by their mother’s desertion, set out to bring her home from the Lake Garda villa where she and Rob are honeymooning while waiting to marry.

Glad as she is to see the children, Fanny is not about to go back to London.

Rob, who isn’t glad to see the children, summons his  own daughter to join them at the villa.

The only thing the three children have in common is dislike of the “other parent.”

As the children fight to restore their normal families, Rob and Fanny fight over how much parents owe to their children. Should the children always come first?

The point of view shifts frequently in the early chapters, reflecting the distress of the characters. As they become more sure of themselves, Godden steadies her perspective and picks up the pace. The story is streaking along when it slams to a close.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is a fight you won’t soon forget.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita
By Rumer Godden
Viking Press, 1963
312 pages
1963 bestseller #10
© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Sand Pebbles shows gunboat diplomacy’s murky underside

sailing on Yangtzee River
Yangtzee River

In 1925, Jack Holman becomes a Sand Pebble, one of the U. S. Navy seamen assigned to the San Pablo, an aging gunboat that patrols the Yangtze River. Jack’s a loner whose passion is engines.

He quickly learns the San Pablo is “a home and a feeder,” where coolies do the work and living conditions are easy.

Jack’s eagerness to make the engine room run perfectly raises the ire of those content to leave all the work to the coolies. And when he teaches one of the ordinary coolies how engines work, he makes the head of the coolie engine crew lose face.

Jack resents the battleship drill imposed by the impeccably Navy skipper, Lt. Collins, but he makes an effort to fit in, make friends. He even meets a girl he likes and could even love.

Shirley Eckert has come to teach at the China Light Mission run by belligerent missionary convinced the presence of the gunboats cause resentment among the Chinese and cause more problems than they solve.

One of Shirley’s brightest Chinese students becomes involved in the revolution. Shirley and the other China Light missionaries feel safe knowing Cho-jen’s political genius will protect them from even the resentment against Americans that the Navy’s river patrols arouse.

The Sand Pebbles have nothing to protect them from the Chinese resentment or from Lt. Collins’s patriotic fervor.

Richard McKenna plots his story with military precision. The characters are cleanly drawn, utterly believable, bewilderingly human.

And, if that were not enough, from his own service on a Yangtze River gunboat, McKenna has insights into the Chinese landscape and culture that help contemporary readers understand events in the Far East today.

The Sand Pebbles
by Richard McKenna
Harper & Row, 1962
597 pages
1963 bestseller # 9
My grade: A

Photo credit: Three Gorges by GoldDuck

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Glass-Blowers Fails to Scare

Daphne du Maruier

Daphne du Maurier’s The Glass-Blowers gives much to applaud but also much to mourn.

Despite her father’s warning, “If you marry into glass, you will say good-bye to everything familiar, and enter a closed world,” Magdaleine Labbé marries Mathurin Busson.

Refusing to be just wife and mother, she carves out role in business and as community social worker among the isolated community of glass blowers.

The eldest of her children, Robert, though a skilled glass worker, prefers to live by wits and charm in the orbit around Royalty. His brothers and sisters are more interested in keeping warm and fed.

Dense forest
Glass blowers lived deep in the French forest

When the monarchy falls, the family is divided as well. And they are sucked into the Civil War that followed hard on the heels of crop failure and the French Revolution.

After setting readers up for a tale more creepy than Rebecca, du Maurier fails to follow through. Magdaline’s adjustment to life deep in the forest is sketched in a few sentences.

Much of the story’s events arise from the fallout of national politics on rural France, a topic that rarely appears in most historical fiction.

Yet even French history from revolution to Napoleon back to monarchy again is subjugated to the story of the opportunistic Robert. That story could have been set in any era.

The Glass-Blowers
By Daphne du Maurier
Doubleday, 1963
348 pages
1963 bestseller #8

Photo credits:  du Maurier photo from dust jacket of The Glass Blowers, above left; Abres 3 by CalCent, above right.

 © 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

City of Night is too dark for comfort

City of Night is a novel about the lonely lives of the segment of the gay community that don’t make headlines for filing for same-sex marriage licenses.

In this novel as dark as its title, John Rechy brought the world of gay, purchased sex into mainstream literature much as Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita did with pedophilia.

Sexually abused by his father, the unnamed narrator withdraws into books and movies. A loner, he goes from high school to the army, and from there to New York “looking for… perhaps some substitute for salvation.”

In one city after another, he hurls himself into the homosexual scene, wanting to be desired without having to reciprocate. He begins by using sex as a way to make money, but eventually admits he’s counting his conquests.

The narrator gets drawn into increasingly kinky situations which first repel, then attract him.

Finally offered a long-term gay relationship, the narrator turns it down. He would rather be miserably lonely than have a relationship in which he had to consider anyone other than himself.

Rechy is too good a writer for this story. He does such a good job showing the futility and waste of the pay-for-sex scene that readers are likely to lay down this novel for one that offers even a firefly-sized glimmer of hope.

City of Night
By John Rechy
Grove Press, 1963
Paperback edition, 308 pages
1963 bestseller #7
My grade C+
© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Grandmother and the Priests: Bedtime stories for adults

Taylor Caldwell’s Grandmother and the Priests is not really a novel, but a a collection of short stories.

The stories are supposedly told by Roman Catholic priests who dined at the Leeds home of Rose Mary O’Driscoll Cullen.

Though an old woman and without morals, Rose Mary respected priests, made them welcome at fine dinners where, after wine and whiskey, they told stories.

Medieval church door
Medieval church door

Most of the stories are about poor priests in remote villages of the British Isles where roofs leak, fires are never warm enough, and hunger is a familiar occurrence.

Often the story is of a priest in his first parish, growing up fast as he struggles against loneliness, hardship, ignorance, and occasionally against domineering sisters who know how a parish ought to be run.

Grandmother and the Priests is a good book to put on the bedside table. Some of the stories will make you smile, others will make you tear up. All the stories are just long enough to combat insomnia, and just heartwarming enough to make you feel cozy until you feel drowsy.

Grandmother and the Priests
By Taylor Caldwell
Doubleday, 1963
469 pages
1963 bestseller #6
My grade B-

Photo Credit: medieval wooden door by Ayla87

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Elizabeth Appleton a treat for active readers

John O’Hara can transform a drab plot about unremarkable characters into an unexpected and unsettling exploration of human behavior. In Elizabeth Appleton, O’Hara is in peak form.

Elizabeth Appleton is an attractive woman who passes for intelligent, but she has no intellectual interests or aspirations. She’s married to a college professor who likes being a college professor. Elizabeth would like him to be a college president.

John and Elizabeth have been getting along fine for nine years, but she’s beginning to feel their sex life is boring. The celebrities that she’d like to meet don’t show up on the lecture circuit in their small Pennsylvania college town.

From an unlikely cast of academics and small-town businesspeople, O’Hara creates a world in which sexual stereotypes twist like reflections in a carnival mirror. Yet O’Hara does it with a respect for his characters that keeps the story from being sordid or smutty.

O’Hara’s writing is smooth, deceptively easy to read. But he demands readers work with him, imagining the scenes, deciphering how the characters speak their lines.

Those who aren’t willing to put in the effort O’Hara demands may wonder why Elizabeth Appleton was a bestseller. Active readers will know.

Elizabeth Appleton
by John O’Hara
Random House, 1963
310 pages
1963 bestseller # 5
My grade A-
©2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Caravans return to Afghan war’s origins

As Americans wait for the end to the Afghan war, James A. Michener’s 1963 bestseller Caravans is a timely once more.

The novel is set in 1946. As World War II ends, the American embassy in Kabul is ordered to investigate the disappearance of  Ellen Jaspar Nazrulllah, a Pennsylvania woman recently married to an Afghan engineer.

The task is given to Mark Miller, a young Jew who loves ancient history and Afghan food. He’s accompanied by an Afghan who works for the American embassy as well as for the Afghanistan government.

His search for Ellen  takes Miller across Afghanistan on routes that were trod by Alexander the Great and Ghengis Khan. Miller finds the missing woman, but in finding her uncovers more mysteries.

Michener is noted for his ability to weave history and fiction against a backdrop of vividly presented scenery. In Caravans, he not only does all that superbly, but also rachets up the suspense to thriller-level.

Once you start this novel, you won’t want to put it down. Later however, you’ll realize the weakness of the story:  Miller cannot figure out what really motivates the missing woman, and Michener appears not to have decided either. What readers should sense as ambiguity feels uncomfortably like lack of control.

By James A. Michener
Random House, 1963
336 pages + notes
1963 bestseller # 4
My grade:  B
 ©2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Shoes of the Fisherman has lots of wear left

When Morris L. West published The Shoes of the Fisherman in 1963, the idea of a pope who could be both spiritual leader and international activist created a sensation. Since the book was first published, fiction has become fact.

As the novel opens, a pope has just died. The cardinals choose Kiril Lakota, a Slav who spent 17 years in Siberian prisons and labor camps after World War II. He owes his release to the Communist leader of Russia.

As Pope Kiril settles into his new role, Catholics in Rome go on with their lives. Jewish convert Ruth Lewin is working among pro-communist Sephardic Jews to compensate for having survived the holocaust. Newspaper correspondent George Fisher is waiting for the church to annul his mistress’ marriage to a homosexual government official. Vatican newspaper editor Campeggio is stewing over his son’s relationship with that same official. Eventually all these people’s paths cross that of Pope Kiril. whose elevation to the Triple Tiara hasn’t changed his essential values.

Although The Shoes of the Fisherman may sound more like historical fiction today than it does like invention, it remains a fine novel. The plot moves surely, characters are well-drawn, descriptions are precise and lively, and West’s theme transcends historical boundaries.

If a man is centered upon himself, the smallest risk is too great for him, because both success and failure can destroy him. If he is centered upon God, then no risk is too great, because success is already guaranteed—the successful union of Creator and creature, besides which everything else is meaningless.

The Shoes of the Fisherman
by Morris L. West
William Morrow, 1963
374 pages
1963 bestseller # 1
My grade: B+
© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

1963 bestselling novels slated for 2013 review

The new year will begin a new cycle of reviews of vintage novels that were bestsellers 50 or more years ago. First up are the bestsellers of 1963. They are listed below in order of their rank on the 1963  bestseller list. The date when you can look for the GreatPenformances review is in square brackets.

  1. The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris L. West [Wednesday, Jan. 2]
  2. The Group  by Mary McCarthy [Sunday, Jan. 6]
  3. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters  by J. D. Salinger [Wednesday, Jan. 9]
  4. Caravans by James A. Michener [Sunday, Jan. 13]
  5. Elizabeth Appleton by John O’Hara [Wednesday, Jan. 16]
  6. Grandmother and the Priests by Taylor Caldwell [Sunday, Jan. 20]
  7. City of Night by John Rechy [Wednesday, Jan. 23]
  8. The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier [Sunday, Jan. 27]
  9. The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna [Wednesday, Jan. 30]
  10. The Battle of Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden [Sunday, Feb. 3]

After the 1963 novels, I’ll be reviewing those of 1953, 1943, 1933, 1923, 1913 and 1903. You can peek at the lists for those years by choosing the bestsellers list tab at the top of the page.