The Galaxy opens with the birth May 10, 1862, of Laura Alicia Deverell, Harry and Rosa Deverell’s first child, and ends with her death on a December evening in 1928.
Harry Deverell is a Pharisaical tyrant to his wife and their children.
The two elder children reject their parents’ religious and moral values. For his rebellion, James is turned out of his home.
Laura sees marriage as the only way a girl can get away from home; she marries sexy Horace Leighton, an armaments manufacturer 19 years her senior.
Five years, two children, and one mistress later, Laura realizes her mistake.
Laura meets a German writer she wants to marry.
Horace refuses to give her a divorce, and Laura refuses to become Arthur’s mistress until her son and daughter are grown.
Laura and Arthur have just moved in together when World War I begins. Arthur sits out the war in a concentration camp.
They have a few years together after the war.
Between the first and last pages of The Galaxy, Susan Ertz records four generations and distills monumental social changes. The incredibly complex characters direct attention to the world around them, allowing readers to reflect on age-old questions of time and eternity.
The Galaxy (published in the UK under the name The Milky Way)
By Susan Ertz
D. Appleton, 1929
1929 bestseller #8
My grade: A-
Graphic credit: Galaxy by gilderm created in Photoshop®
Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales is a collection of stories too long to be short stories, too short to be novellas, and too depressing for anything. Andre Govia captures the mood in this photo.
Set primarily in 19th century Europe, they are part fairy tale, part philosophical treatise. The tales are usually told late on a dark night when a storm is threatening.
Several are set as stories within stories. In “The Dreamer,” there are actually four different stories, three of which are told at second- or third-hand — the literary equivalent of a story my cousin got from somebody at work.
My favorite story — the last! — is about a gentleman who loves the arts. The gentleman mentors a young poet. Thinking that a woman’s influence would be good for a poet, the gentleman proposes to a lovely young widow.
The poet and fiancée fall in love.
The poet shoots his mentor.
Dying, the mentor crawls to his fiancée’s feet. She picks up a stone and smashes him on the head with it while screaming, “You poet!”
After laboring through this book, I understand the impulse to murder someone for being a writer.
Isak Dinesen would be my first victim.
Seven Gothic Tales
By Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)
Modern Library edition
1934 bestseller #10
My Grade: D
The Mettle of the Pasture by James Lane Allen combines two of life’s most essential themes— love and ethical behavior — into an incredibly forgettable novel.
The plot pivots on the question of whether it is ethically necessary for a couple about to marry to reveal their moral lapses to their intended partner.
When he proposes to Isabel Conyers, Rowan Meredith decides that he must reveal his dark secret.
She would rather not have known.
Knowing, Isabel sees no option open to her but to uphold her virtue by refusing to marry. For Rowan’s sake, Isabel attempts to conceal the reason for the break-up.
Her grandmother, an accomplished scandalmonger, makes a shrewd guess.
Allen clearly wants readers to admire Rowan and Isabel for their “mettle.” Readers might admire Rowan if his honesty were accompanied by a realistic appraisal of the situation.
Rowan, however, doesn’t see having sex outside marriage as in any way immoral. He expects Isabel to regard it as unfortunate at worst — which shows how little he knows Isabel.
Rowan comes out looking like a fool.
Isabel is not much better.
Her high moral standards generally take back seat to her high regard for her own social standing. She (and Allen) may wish to believe her acquaintances respect her, but from what Allen shows, I believe that, like her grandmother, her acquaintances fear Isabel’s tongue.
J. D. Salinger’s 1963 bestselling fiction book is not a novel but two long stories that had appeared earlier in The New Yorker.
Like Salinger’s 1961 novel Fanny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introductionare told by Buddy Glass. Buddy is second of the seven children of Les and Bessie Glass all of whose college educations were paid for by their “guest appearances” on a children’s radio quiz program, “It’s a Wise Child.”
In the first of the stories, the eldest Glass child, Seymour, is getting married. None of the other family members can attend, so Buddy is ordered to pull himself out of his bed in the post hospital at Fort Benning and go to the wedding in New York City. He arrives in time to find that Seymour has left the bride waiting at the altar. Buddy piles into a car with bizarre people he has never met for a ride to what was to have been the reception.
In the other story, a few years later, Seymour has committed suicide while vacationing with his family in Florida. (He and the bride-to-be of the first story eloped from the site of the wedding reception.)
Buddy writes about his beloved older brother as a tribute, but also, apparently, as therapy. It doesn’t appear to be particularly effective therapy. All Buddy’s wisecracks and word plays cannot hide his misery.
Buddy will wring sympathy from readers, but I fear sorrow will be combined with an intense wish that he’d go blubber somewhere else.
Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpentersand Seymour: An Introduction
by J. D. Salinger
1963 bestseller #3
My grade C-
In January 1915, a small group of English naval officers are imprisoned in a Dutch castle. Lewis Alison is greedy for the isolation. He wants to write a book about the contemplative life.
Living on a nearby estate is Julie Narwitz, daughter of a client of Alison’s London publishing firm, whom he remembers as a lovely child. She married a German, who sent her to her mother, who is the second wife of Baron Van Leyden.
The Dutch let the officers out on parole for the duration. The Baron invites Alison to use the castle library, which has a seldom-used connection to Julie’s bedroom.
When Narwitz is invalided out of Germany, their mutual interest in contemplation leads Alison and Narwitz to a deep friendship. When Narwitz finally figures out that Alison and Julie had been having an affair, the knowledge destroys his will to live.
After Narwitz’s death, the two must decide whether their love can survive marriage.
Charles Morgan has all the ingredients for a first-rate novel, but The Fountain reads like a screenplay. Readers have to mentally cast it and stage it. In the end, they come away wondering if they caught the author’s intention or wrote their own script.
Alfred A. Knopf, 1932
1932 bestseller #2
My grade: B-
Kings Row is the county seat of a mid-west town. At the turn of the 20th century, it was the sort of place that people found a good to raise their children. Author Henry Bellamann takes us behind the lace curtains for a different view.
Parris Mitchell’s parents are dead. His twice-widowed grandmother brings him up with old-world values. Older people dote on Parris. His peers respect Parris but find him odd.
The boy’s only real friends are Renee, a dull-witted girl whose father works for his grandmother, and Drake McHugh, whose deceased parents were among the town’s elite.
Parris is so innocent, it seems inevitable that he will be victimized.
Before her death, his grandmother pulls Parris out of public school and has him tutored privately to get him ready for medical school in Vienna. Before Parris sails for Vienna, his tutor kills his daughter and himself.
When he returns five years later, Parris has learned names for the Kings Row behaviors he only intuited before: homosexuality, incest, sadism.
Bellamann, a musician by training, orchestrates his novel. The story flows with the inevitability of a great symphony, enveloping readers into the story.
When you read Kings Row, you don’t just imagine it happening: You stand beside Parris and experience it.
Simon and Schuster, 1940
1942 Bestseller #9
My grade: A+
For years, Howard Spring was intrigued by the idea of writing a novel about why the peaceful world promised by the Crystal Palace in 1851 was never realized. Spring takes his answer from a line in a music hall song “You could see the Crystal Palace if it wasn’t for the houses in between.”
Sarah Rainborough Undridge, born in 1848, was three when her parents took her to the opening of the Crystal Palace. Before long, Sarah’s parents were divorced, her mother remarried to Baron Burnage, whose first wife has gone off with another man.
Sarah spends most of her childhood and youth in the company of a governess, Maggie Whales, who becomes a successful novelist (published by Charles Dickens) but remains a sensible and loving friend to Sarah for decades.
Sarah is not beautiful, brilliant, or talented. Through Maggie’s influence she becomes perceptive, thoughtful and reflective. As she grows older, Sarah begins writing the story of her life. The Houses In Between, including its title, is presented as her fictional memoir, finished shortly before her death on New Year’s Day 1948.
Spring is a fine writer. He conveys personalities and atmosphere so vividly they appear in the mind’s eye in streaming video. Yet the book, for all its richness of character and history, feels flat, which is Spring’s point: Virtue is lovely and fragile; reality is ugly and durable.
The Houses in Between
1952 Bestseller #10
My grade: A-
It’s impossible to say anything really bad about Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 literary classic The Old Man and the Sea.
In the first place, it’s awfully short—I read it standing up at the local laundromat while my clothes sloshed and tumbled. A book that short doesn’t really give you much to not like.
If short isn’t enough, it’s also simple.
The characters are simple: an old man and a fish.
The plot is simple: man catches fish, man loses fish.
The dialog is simple, too: the old man has all the lines.
Even the vocabulary is simple, if you ignore phosphorescence, which Hemingway likes to throw into the story every so often, just to show he knows some big words.
Probably the worst thing you can say about The Old Man and the Sea is that it’s Literature, with a capital L. That means there is deep significance to the story. The old man isn’t just an old man, he’s All Men; and the fish isn’t just a fish, it’s human aspiration; and sharks aren’t sharks, but adversity with fins.
If you aren’t into Literature with a capital L, just watch the laundry tumble: it’s more interesting than this novel.
Adam Trask and his brother, never on good terms, part after Adam marries Cathy Ames, whose depravity is hidden by golden beauty. Cathy bears twin boys, leaves Adam, and worms her way into the ownership of a brothel. Sam Hamilton intervenes to see that the twins are taken care of. He helps select their names after he, Adam and Adam’s Chinese servant, Lee, discuss the account of Cain and Abel.
The twins, Aron and Caleb, grow to manhood. Aron is everyone’s favorite, Caleb the overlooked boy yearning for his father’s love. The story of Cain and Abel is repeated again in their lives, but with a happier ending. Lee has studied the Biblical account and learned that people can turn from sin if they choose.
East of Eden starts slowly, but gathers momentum as Steinbeck begins to weave the lives of Adam, Sam and Cathy together. When the book was published, readers might have found Cathy’s sordid story unsettling. Today’s readers, I fear, have read far worse in the daily paper. They are more likely to be upset by Steinbeck’s treatment of the Bible as a true account worthy of study.
East of Eden
The Viking Press, 1952
1952 Bestseller #2
My Grade: B+
Anne Morrow Lindbergh described Dearly Beloved as reflections in a fictional frame. The frame is a June wedding in a private New England home attended by family and close friends. The occasion triggers the circle around the bride and groom to ponder the meaning of marriage in modern society.
Dearly Beloved is short enough to read in an evening, but best read a chapter or two at a time. The characters’ interior monologues are designed to trigger similar monologues by readers.
Lindbergh suggests that two people going through very similar circumstances can react very differently because of the attitude and experiences they bring to it.
The bridesmaid and best man look forward to marriage, but with quite different ideas of what a happy marriage would be.
The maiden aunt wonders considers whether she missed anything by not marrying.
The married men and women wonder if their marriages could be happier. One woman chooses divorce, another chooses to remain married. One man ministers to a dying wife because of love, another has affairs to escape the routine of life with a woman who bores him.
After letting readers stand in the shoes of her characters, Lindbergh leaves them to decide for themselves whether marriage still matters.
Dearly Beloved: A Theme and Variations
by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962
My grade: B+