My top picks of novels reviewed in 2016

A large chunk of my year 2016 went into reading and reviewing bestselling novels.

In preparation for my annual choices of the best novels whose reviews I posted that year,  I looked back through the bestseller lists for 1966, 1956, 1946, 1936, 1936, 1916, 1906, 1918 and 1908.

I saw many titles whose stories I couldn’t remember.

Other novels I remembered because they were creatively awful.

Only a few stuck with me as stories that I remember for the right reasons: good storytelling, credible characterization, lucid prose, stimulating ideas. From those, I chose one novel for each of the nine years.

The best of the bestsellers

None of these nine novels will disappoint readers:

The Fixer by Bernard Malamud, 1966
The Tribe that Lost Its Head by Nicholas Monserrat 1956
Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque, 1946
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell 1936
The Hounds of Spring by Sylvia Thompson, 1926
The Real Adventure by Henry Kitchell Webster, 1916
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, 1906
A Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton-Porter, 1918
The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg by Louis Bromfield, 1908

(Normally I would have ignored The House of Mirth because my review was posted in 2015, the anniversary year for the first time the novel hit the bestseller list, and it was one of my top choices for that year. The other bestsellers of 1906, however, were so weak that there wasn’t even a runner-up to choose this year.)

My favorites of the best bestsellers

My favorites of the bestsellers are not the best novels on the list: They are merely the ones that, for one reason or another, have most appeal for me personally.

The Fixer by Malamud

I dithered between choosing between two dark novels about resistance to oppression: The Fixer or the Arch of Triumph.  Both created shiveringly clear images of their ineffectual, almost pathetic, leading character’s suffering under political oppression.

My choice is The Fixer. I chose it mainly because in English translation Remarque’s novel feels ponderous and outdated. Since Malamud wrote in English, it seems more immediate.

The Real Adventure by Webster

I can’t deny part of the charm of The Real Adventure for me is the illustrations by R. M. Crosby. They made Rose Stanton come alive in all her scatterbrained young charm and maturing womanhood.

Webster’s story of the suffragette’s daughter raised with no ability to do anything but lead the sort of decorative, trophy wife life suffragettes said they despised stuck me as being psychologically spot-on.

So, too, did Rose’s ridiculous attempts to develop interests in subjects that interested her husband and his failure to recognize the motivation that underpinned them.

And Rose’s older sister, Portia, who resents having to pay the bills for her mothers’ and sister’s upkeep is so real you would recognize her on the street.

For 1916, Adventure was a real departure in fictional discussions of what marriage ought to be.

It’s still a real departure from what most marriages become.

I’ll remember The Real Adventure long after I’ve forgotten many better novels.

A Daughter of the Land by Stratton-Porter

A Daughter of the Land is a indefensible choice for a top novel.

It simply appeals to me.

Kate Bates is a country girl. She’d have been happy to marry before she was out of her teens if should could have had advantages equal to those her father gave her seven brothers: a house, a 200-acres of land, and farm stock

She knows she’ll get nothing, so at 16, Kate packs up and leaves home.

Kate makes many mistakes, but she learns from them, picks herself up, and goes on.

Life makes her more resilient but not harder.

Daughter is not as good a novel as The Real Adventure but it’s equally unusual for its day in its attitude toward women’s rights and marriage.

And Kate isn’t as appealing as Rose, but she’s someone you’d be glad to have as a neighbor and friend.

That finishes up 2016.

I hope you’ll be back in 2017 as I finish up my self-appointed task of re-reviewing all the bestselling novels published between 1900 and 1969.

Happy New Year.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Culture, faith, and conspiracy theory: My picks of ’66

In picking my top choices from a year’s bestseller list, I look not only for good writing, plausible plots, and believable characters, but also stories whose topics have enduring relevance.

My choices for 1966 top novels

collage of elements from dustjackets of The Fixer and Tell No Man

When I considered the 1966 bestsellers, enduring relevance tipped the scales in favor of The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud, and Tell No Man, by Adela Rogers St. Johns.
The two novels look at what happens when a society confuses cultural heritage with religious faith.

The Fixer

Malamud takes readers inside the mind of a victim of religious persecution, Yakov Bok, a Jew in Tsarist Russia.

1966-06_fixerEarly in the novel, a boy is found murdered.

Tsarist Russia was a state sponsor of conspiracy theories. Whenever anything bad happened, the Tsarist government assumed one of “those people” must be behind it.

Although there’s no credible evidence pointing to Bok, he’s a Jew, so he must be involved in some secret Jewish plot against innocent Russian Orthodox Christians, such as the murdered boy.

Bok’s experience of torture, starvation and months of solitary confinement is raised to tragedy by the fact that he doesn’t believe in the Jewish religion: Bok has merely been brought up in a community of Jews and grown up behaving outwardly as others in the community believe.

The Russians mistake Bok’s Jewish cultural heritage for Jewish religious faith.

Tell No Man 

Adela Rogers St. Johns examines another society that mistakes cultural heritage for religious faith, that of mid-twentieth century America.1966-07_tellnoman

The central character of the book is Hank Garvin, a white, Yale-educated, former soldier and rising Chicago stockbroker.

Hank knows some of the more familiar Bible stories, but aside from a religion class at Yale, never considered Christianity had any relevance to his daily life.

Then his best friend commits suicide.

Hank has nothing to fall back on until he experiences a religious conversion.

He shucks his job, takes a quick course in how to be a a clergyman, and in a matter of months finds himself pastor of a church in an about-to-boom California city.

Unlike Malamud’s central character, Hank’s faith is personal, not cultural.

Hank takes literally Jesus’s promise that His disciples would do greater works than He did. Hank preaches that everyone who claims to be Christian also take that promise literally.

Hank arouses opposition from the church, the city, friends, family, and wife—most of whom consider themselves Christian because they lived in culture whose heritage was predominately Christian.

Culture, faith, and conspiracy theories today

Throughout the world today, groups of people are being given preferential treatment because of what their society assumes they believe to the point of practicing that belief.

And in those same societies others are being singled for harassment (frequently by those getting preferential treatment) because of what society assumes is their faith.

The Fixer and Tell No Man remind us that culture and faith are not identical. Confusing the two can be hazardous to a society or an individual.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Fixer refuses to let hatred break him

Some novels are hard to read because they are badly written; a few are hard to read because they are very well written.

The Fixer is one of those few.

The Fixer: a novel by Bernard Malamud

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966. 335 pp. 1966 bestseller #6. My grade: A.

The front dust jacket looks like cell door; the title and author information are placed so they appear to be behind bars.Yakov Bok, a handyman recently come to Kiev, sees people running in the early morning and thinks “something bad has happened.”

Bok is one of those people who seem to be natural victims. He never causes trouble: It finds him.

A Russian boy, 12, has been found murdered.

Tzarist Russia, viciously anti-Semitic, sees not a murder but a Jewish ritual slaying to provide blood to use in making Passover matzos.

Though Bok is only “a Jew by birth and nationality,” he finds himself arrested and charged with a murder he didn’t commit.

Bernard Malamud puts readers into Bok’s mind as his misery pushes him to the edge of insanity.

For nearly his entire two-and-a-half-year pre-trial imprisonment, Bok is kept in solitary confinement, denied reading material or exercise, watched by a silent “eye in the hole” of his cell door.

Bok’s refusal to confess embarrasses the government.

It also makes Bok a public figure.

Readers never learn what happens to the fixer when he finally goes to trial, but they will never forget having met him.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni