Outrageous man makes The Store worth revisiting

This is another of my occasional reviews of notable vintage novels that did not make the bestseller lists when they were published.  The Store won novelist T. S. Stribling a Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1933. A two-page illustrated biography of the author in pdf format is available from the Tennessee Literary Project.

Cotton Plant
Natural Cotton

Before the Civil War, Colonel Miltiades Vaiden was comfortably well off. Then he lost a year’s income when J. Handback declared bankruptcy the day Vaiden assigned him his cotton crop.

Vaiden’s fortunes haven’t recovered yet in 1884 when he learns Handback keeps a mistress, a former Vaiden slave named Gracie. Vaiden uses that knowledge to blackmail Handback into giving him a job in his store.

When Handback puts Vaiden in charge of the cotton bales, Vaiden sells them and pockets the proceeds, which he insists Handback owes him.

Though forced to return part of the money, Vaiden has enough to start his own store, invest in property, and think of himself as a Southern planter again.

Vaiden doesn’t realize the South’s future lies with shopkeepers not planters.  And he certainly doesn’t see that children of former slaves like Gracie’s son, Touissant, are becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Although T. S. Stribling hangs his hangs together on a string of coincidences, they are plausible coincidences. Even Vaiden’s descent into crime is more happenstance than choice.

But interesting as the historical portrait is, it can’t compete with the fascination of Vaiden himself. He is, as his one-time fiancée says, “an outrageous man” who “stick[s] at nothing and regret[s] little.”

Miltiades Vaiden doesn’t just invent his own facts; he believes every word he fabricates.

Look for The Store.

You won’t begrudge the time you spend there.

The Store
by T[homas] S[igismund] Stribling
Original publication 1932 by Doubleday, Doran
Republished 1985 by The University of Alabama Press
with an introduction by Randy K. Cross
571 pages

Photo credit: Natural Cotton 22 by robertz65

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

One of Ours heart-tugging glimpse into WWI era

Cover of One of Ours by CatherIn One of Ours, Willa Cather brings exceptional literary skill and an unusual perspective to a story that many novelists wouldn’t find worth a paragraph.

The novel is about Claude Wheeler, a Nebraska farm boy in the years before World War I.

Claude doesn’t know what he wants from life. He’s irritated by his jocular father, his religious mother, his materialistic brothers, and the image he has of himself as inept, unattractive, and misunderstood.

Claude’s yearning for something that’s worth giving his life to leads to a marriage to a woman who knows very well what she wants. Their deplorable mismatch ends with Enid happily leaving Claude.

Without Enid, Claude has nothing to keep him in Nebraska.

Claude volunteers for service in France, the first boy from his town to put on the uniform of the American Expeditionary Forces.

Trench warfare in “the region of martyred trees” is glorious for Claude: It gives him purpose, companions who share his ideals, and a realization that he is a valuable member of his outfit.

Cather’s One of Ours didn’t make the bestseller list in 1923, but it should have. It’s every bit as entertaining as Black Oxen and The Dim Lantern and much better written than they. It well deserves the Pulitzer Prize in Letters it won in 1923.

One of Ours
By Willa Cather
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1922
Copyright renewed 1950
Vintage Books paperback, 391 pages

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Postman Still Delivers the Goods

Sign saying push me points to doorbell button
Push the button twice.

James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice is a sordid story of adultery and murder — and it is superb reading. Eighty years after publication, it is as fresh and contemporary as human nature itself.

Frank Chambers drifts into a California fuel-and-sandwich joint. Owner Nick Papdakis offers Frank a job pumping gas.

Work isn’t Frank’s line, but he takes the job after getting an eyeful of Nick’s sulky, raven-haired wife, Cora.

Before 24 hours pass, Frank has Cora in bed. Cora wants “to work and be something,” but she says she can’t do that without love. If Frank will love her, she’ll be a hellcat, just once.

Nick’s days are numbered.

Frank and Cora bump off the Greek on their second attempt, but their cover-up goes awry. Their lawyer gets them off, but also sets them up for blackmail.

The more they struggle to get free, the more they are entangled.

Eventually, fate steps with a last ironic twist to the plot.

Read The Postman Always Rings Twice instead of watching it on late night TV. You’ll be glad you did. None of the four film versions is nearly as good as the book.

The Postman Always Rings Twice
By James M. Cain
Grosset & Dunlap, 1934
188 pages
My grade B+

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Funny But Not Entirely Foolish Novels

Since today is April Fool’s Day, I thought it appropriate to inject a bit of humor into the week by recommending some humorous novels. I chose vintage bestsellers that are funny but not silly.

Statue of fool on building in  Ghent, Belgium
The Fool atop building in Gent, Belgium

One of my favorite light novels is Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley. Kitty is a dutiful Irish Catholic girl who has the misfortune to fall in love with a Main Line Pennsylvania boy who cares less for her than she does for him.

The story is an old one. Morley gives it sparkle by giving Kitty a quick brain, loyal heart, and sharp repartee. Life isn’t easy for Kitty, but she punches it full of wisecracks.

The Letters of a Self-Made Merchant to His Son by George Horace Lorimer is a series of letters supposedly written by a well-to-do owner of a commercial slaughterhouse operation to his son and heir from the time he goes off to Harvard until he announces his engagement.

John Grahman wouldn’t stoop to wisecracks, but he illustrates his advice with personal stories that reveal a sense of humor as keen as his powers of observation. Though droll stories, Mr. Grahman leaves no doubt what he expects of his expensively-educated offspring.

Mrs. ’Arris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico is the story of a London charwoman who makes up her mind to have a Dior evening gown like the one she saw in an employer’s closet.

The plucky woman saves the money for the trip and the gown only to be confronted with a new set of obstacles in Paris.

Mrs. ’Arris calls forth chuckles but she inspires admiration, too, not just for her determination, but also for her essential goodness.

Photo credit: The Fool uploaded by Ulrick at FreeImages.

Always More to Find in Lord of the Flies

Cover of 50th anniversary edition of Lord of the FliesWilliam Golding’s Lord of the Flies is such a familiar novel that many readers would be surprised to learn it was not a bestseller when it was  published in 1954. College students discovered the novel, and gave it the popularity that turned it into a classic.

The novel is about preteen English school boys who crash onto an uninhabited island while being airlifted out of a war zone. Without adult supervision, the boys form their own social groups for companionship. The group magnifies the power of the individual  and lets individuals rationalize their behavior as they’re doing what everyone is doing.

Before long, the boys fall into into the worst kind of adult behavior. Fighting. Torture. Murder.

Golding is a superb storyteller. Every detail has a purpose. The boys are vividly drawn, a realistic mix of memorable personalities — Ralph, Piggy, Jack — and walk-ons.

Golding makes clear that human nature, even that of innocent children, is sinful. Roger, initially just a face in the crowd, finds he has a talent for torture. And Ralph, the best of the boys, paves the way to murder by ignoring the request that he not reveal his new acquaintance’s nickname: Piggy.

Lest you think Golding was just an old crank with a sour view of the world, the same week I reread Lord of the Flies, newlyweds in Pennsylvania allegedly murdered a man because they wanted to do something together.

Golding would not have been surprised.

Lord of the Flies
By William Golding
Originally published in 1954 in Great Britian by Farber and Farber, Ltd.
50th anniversary ed. Perigee book published 2003 by Penguin Group
with introduction by E. M. Forster, biographical and critical note by E.K. Epstein,                                            
illustrations by Ben Gibson

[broken link removed 2016-03-09]

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Borrowers great fun for big and little human beans

The Borrowers is the first novel in Mary Norton’s series of children’s books about a race of little people who live by borrowing whatever they need from “human beans.”

Pod and Homily Clock and their 14-year-old daughter, Arrietty, live beneath the floor boards in a an English country house. Arrietty is a typical teenager, longing for friends, freedom, and excitement. She aims for nothing less than saving her race.

Since her father has no son, he begins teaching Arrietty to borrow. When Arrietty commits the worst mistake a Borrower can make—allowing herself to be seen by a human—the result is disasterous. As Pod says, “No good never really came to no one from any human bean.”

The Clocks have to flee for for their lives into a world full of what Pod and Homily regard as hazards and Arrietty regards as adventures.

Like all good children’s books, The Borrowers is a pleasure for adults to read to, with, or without children. The descriptions and humor are too subtle for kids, but if you give them a place where they can cuddle up and see the delightful illustrations as you read to them, you’ll both have a wonderful few hours.

The Borrowers
By Mary Norton
First published 1952
Published in 1953 with illustrations by Beth and Joe Krush

This is another in our reviews of novels that were not bestsellers when they were first published, but have lasting value and continue to remain steady sellers.

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni


Excellent Women celebrates the full life of quiet people

Tea pot, books & typewriter in Barbara Pym Society
Web site of the Barbara Pym Society

[This is one of our occasional reviews of notable novels that didn’t make the bestseller list .]

Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women is a quiet novel of keen observation and droll wit.

Narrator Mildred Lathbury, a nondescript, mousy, 30ish spinster, lives in post-war London very much as she lived in a rural rectory when her parents were alive.

Publicly, Mildred is regarded as able to dispense tea and platitudes at appropriate times. Privately, her observations are tinged with irony. Mildred sees herself exactly as readers will see her; she finds the sight both depressing and funny.

Crisis comes into Mildred’s life second hand. An unlikely couple move into the flat below her. Mrs. Napier is an anthropologist, her husband a former Navy officer. Mildred is drawn into the Napiers’ life and caught in their marital tensions.

About the same time, Mildred’s vicar and his sister rent part of the rectory to a war-widow, throwing the parish into a tizzy. Mildred enjoys the novelty of these intrigues at the edges of her life, but she also resents the way people presume on her good will and intrude on her solitude.

Nothing actually happens to Mildred in the novel, but she finds it possible to have “a full life” at the fringes of the lives of more interesting characters.

Excellent Women
By Barbara Pym
Cape, 1952

Excellent Women is readily available in hardback, paperback, new and used versions.

For information about the author, whose work is often likened to that of Jane Austen,  see the website of The Barbara Pym Society.

Daddy‘s Charm Is as Long as His Legs

If you liked Pollyanna and Anne Shirley, you’ll love Jerusha Abbott, heroine of Daddy Long-Legs.

A page from Daddy Long Legs with stick figure illustrationsThe oldest orphan at John Grier Home, Jerusha is awarded a college education by an anonymous trustee who thinks she may have a future as a writer. She’s to acknowledge her monthly stipend by letter addressed to “John Smith” and sent to the trustee’s secretary.

All Jerusha knows of the man personally is that he’s tall (she glimpsed his back as he left the home) and doesn’t like girls.

Jean Webster’s novel about what happens to Jerusha is told through the girl’s letters to her benefactor, whom she calls “Mr. Daddy-Long-Legs Smith.”

In her letters, which she illustrates with her own sketches, Jerusa reveals her joys and sorrows to the father-figure she invents for herself.

After first term failures in two subjects, Jerusha settles into her studies. She finds college work less difficult than “college play.” She has no experience of the normal experiences of family life or popular culture. However, her natural cheerfulness and adaptability soon make her part of the college community.

Through a roommate, she meets Jervis Pendleton, a wealthy, young, New York gentleman with whom she has much in common. If she didn’t feel obligated to pay Daddy Long-Legs for her education, Jerusha could easily fall for Jervis.

The heroine is believable as a person and as a fledgling writer. If the plot is a bit too pat, it’s nevertheless plausible for a girl with Jerusha’s orphanage upbringing.

Alhough it didn’t make the bestseller list (Dear Enemy, the sequel about the John Grier Home did)  Jean Webster’s 1912 epistolary novel is simply charming.

If you’re at a loss for a last minute Christmas gift for a stary-eyed adolescent or a senior citizen with a gentle sense of humor, Daddy Long-Legs might just fit the bill. The novel is readily available in both paperback and hardback. If your local independent bookstore doesn’t have it in stock, they can get it for you.

Daddy Long-Legs
by Jean Webster
Grosset & Dunlap, 1912
304 pages

Photo credit: page of first edition of Daddy Long-Legs, yellow with age, by Linda Aragoni

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My Friend Flicka is family-friendly reading

frontpiece from "My Friend Flicka"

Everyone who has heard—or perhaps wailed—“if only I had a horse (or kitten or dog) of my own” will recognize the premise of Mary O’Hara’s novel My Friend Flicka.

Ken McLaughlin, a dreamy kid, the despair of his ex-military father and exemplary older brother, has failed fifth grade.

Ken insists that he’d be different if he had a colt of his own to raise. His mother pleads Ken’s case and Rob McLaughlin relents. When Ken chooses a colt from a line of horses his father regards as untamable, he ignites conflict within the household.

Often thought of as a horse story or a children’s story, My Friend Flicka really is not either. Horses are the McLaughlin business and passion; they become the canvas on which the family’s portrait is painted. The real focus of the novel is the family. The novel is as suitable for adults as it is for underachieving middle-school kids or for horse-crazy teens.

To achieve the happy ending that 1940’s young adult novels required, O’Hara resorts to a hackneyed plot contrivance, but she’s masterful at creating vivid, believable personalities.

The novel beats any of the film versions of the story. Look for it at your library or buy a copy at your local bookstore to give as a Christmas gift.

My Friend Flicka
By Mary O’Hara
J. B. Lippincott, 1941
353 pages

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Bambi is children’s book for life’s end

Animals run as hunter comes

Felix Salten’s novel Bambi: A Life in the Woods a classic children’s story people know from the movie version. The book, however, is nothing like the Disney movie. It’s much richer, much more realistic, a parable about growing up and growing old.

The novel opens with the birth of a fawn in a thicket in the forest. Bambi is a precocious child, full of curiosity and delighted with every new discovery. He adores his mother, trusting her judgment even when he cannot understand her meaning.

Salten shows that Bambi is a child in his thinking. When his mother tells him he’ll see other deer soon, Bambi wonders what soon means.

“He came to the conclusion that ‘soon’ was certainly not ‘now.’ But he wasn’t sure at what time ‘soon’ stopped being ‘soon’ and began to be ‘a long while.’”

As winter approaches, Bambi learns through unhappy experience that the forest is not always a happy place. Something the animals call He comes to the forest. He is worse than cold and snow. He brings death.

Like all children, Bambi must grow up and learn not to cry for his mother.

The old stag advises, “Listen, smell and see for yourself. Find out for yourself.” Bambi determines to bear life’s difficulties and dangers.

When Bambi is grown up and mated, he again meets the stag whom he idolizes. He wishes to speak to the stag, but is afraid. The stag, too, wishes to converse, but is afraid of looking stupid or embarrassing the youthful deer. The incident ends as many such father-son meetings do, with the son bitterly resentful of the father’s aloofness, the father unhappily thinking, “some other time, perhaps.”

Although the novel was not a bestseller when it first appeared in 1928, it has continued to be read by succeeding generations. Copies of the novel are readily available in libraries, bookstores, and online.

The heart and theme of the novel is its eighth chapter, which doesn’t mention deer. In the chapter, two leaves discuss the approaching winter and wonder what happens to them after they fall. No leaves have ever come back to tell about the afterlife. The short passage is a perfectly set gem in a lovely, mellow book for adults.  The novel should, however, carry a warning: unsuitable for children without wise parents and a nightlight.

Bambi: A Life in the Woods
by Felix Salten
Translated by Whittaker Chambers
Illustrated by Barbara Cooney [Porter] ©1970
Text copyright © 1928, 1956
191 pages
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni