Good, better, best: My top picks from 1956

In looking back over the 1956 bestseller list, I had two novels that competed for my vote for first place. The third place winner was simply far better than the other seven.

Here from good to best, are my picks for top novels of 1956.

Good: Don’t Go Near the Water

In William Brinkley’s novel,  Ensign Max Siegal is doing public relations work for the Fleet by promoting the Pacific island of Tulura to visiting congressmen.

Sailor using a sextant

Through Max, Brinkley pokes fun at incompetent officers, ignorant congressmen, and all the other traditional targets of draftees’ resentment, but he does it with a light touch.

Max is perceptive, witty and poker-faced; His jibes go unnoticed.

And Brinkley gives readers no reason to remember that elsewhere in the Pacific, other men are dying for their country.

Better: The Last Hurrah

Edwin O’Connor’s story about a lonely, aging politician also has a touch of humor.

Red, white and blue political button and text "Vote for Skeffington" above the line "It's The Last Hurrah"

Mayor Frank Skeffingham invites his nephew Adam along on campaign appearances as he runs for a fourth term.

Adam hears stories from his uncle and and others about how Frank has made it in politics.

There are plenty of laugh lines in the novel, but the reality of the crooked politician and the machinery that allows him to stay in power takes The Last Hurrah far beyond the realm of humor.

However charming Frank may be—and he’s definitely a charmer—he’s still a crook.

Adam and readers have to deal with that reality.

Best: The Tribe That Lost Its Head

Nicholas Monsarrat’s novel doesn’t contain much to laugh at.

all-text dust jacket of The Tribe that Lost Its Head

His story is about an Oxford-educated African chief returning home to assume the leadership of his country as it makes the transition from a British protectorate to an independent nation.

His remarks to a journalist as his plane lands are misunderstood.

The resulting flap sets up a violent clash between blacks and white. Leaders on both sides want peace, but they fail to seize opportunities to prevent war.

Monsarrat explains through his fictional characters the difficulties of leaders of emerging democracies and of struggling diplomats in states whose people are divided by religious and ethnic differences.

Thus The Tribe That Lost Its Head helps readers make sense of inexplicable events that stream daily across our news feed.

Coming next: the bestsellers of 1946 that I’ll be reviewing here.

The Last Hurrah still reverberates

The Last Hurrah an engaging story of an engaging man.

A life-long, old-style Irish politician, Frank Skeffington is seeking his fourth term as mayor of the city he loves.

campaign poster  VOTE "Stick with Skeffington"

The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor

Little, Brown, 1956. 427 pages. 1956 bestseller #2. My grade: B.

Nobody can do personal, on-the-pavement campaigning like Frank.

He’s kind, generous, and corrupt.

With all his opponents united behind one political novice, Frank expects a tough campaign, but he expects to win.

Though surrounded by loyal henchmen, Skeffington is lonely. He asks his nephew, Adam, to come with him on various campaign appearances to see how big city politics is played by masters of the game.

Adam gets to see Skeffington at his best and to hear — often from his Uncle’s own lips — stories of him at his worst.

Best of all, he gets to hear Skeffington’s straight-faced double entendres that his uncle’s loyal but dull henchmen don’t understand.

Beneath the marvelous human story, Edwin O’Connor sneaks in some analysis of American politics.

From a critic who admits to finding Skeffington charming, readers learn why people like Skeffington flourished, and why they died out. O’Connor reveals the ugliness so naturally, the novel flows as effortlessly as Irish storytelling.

Easy reading, some laugh-out-loud lines, and historical insights make this novel one you’ll enjoy regardless of your politics.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni


Politics damages All in the Family

Although Jack Kinsella’s Uncle Jimmy was a little man, when he threw his weight around, he got what he wanted.

Except for one time when his plan backfired.

All In the Family by Edwin O’Connor

Little, Brown, 1966. 434 pages. 1966 bestseller #10. My grade: B+.

Red type, black dingbats are only art on cover of All in the FamilyBy the time his three sons are grown, Jimmy decides one of them will have to go into politics to “give back.”

Since the eldest son has chosen the priesthood, the task falls to the youngest son, Charles.

The middle son, Phil, is his campaign manger.

Jimmy supplies money, influence, and drive, all of which has in abundance.

The family try to get cousin Jack involved, but as much as Jack loves his cousins, he is his father’s son: His father refused to bow to Jimmy’s will.

Besides, Jack is too focused on his reconciliation with his wife to have much time for politics.

Edwin O’Connor is a fine writer. The opening chapter is a pearl, worth reading all by itself.

Although O’Connor leaves a glimmer of hope in the final chapter, the novel is permeated with a sense of melancholy.

Jimmy’s ambition destroys his most cherished asset: his family.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The writing of the green: bestsellers about the Irish

Irish writers are as famous as Irish whiskey: What reader hasn’t heard the names Bram Stoker, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift,  Oscar Wilde,  C.S. Lewis?

Yet best-selling novels featuring Irish characters are a fairly recent development.

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, here are three recommended vintage novels featuring Irish characters that will entertain you and perhaps give some insight into the history of the Irish at home and abroad.

Kitty Foyle

1939-10-Kitty_FoyleKitty Foylethe heroine of Christopher Morley’s 1939 novel of that name, is a Philadelphia working-class girl from Irish immigrant stock.

She’s smart enough to be considered college material and dumb enough to fall for a Main Line guy whose family would never have accepted an Irish working-class daughter-in-law.

Kitty provides a glimpse into the second-generation Irish immigrant each-foot-in-a-different-world experience of the 1930s.

Joy Street

joy-street_200Joy Street by Frances Parkinson Keyes, 1950, gives a glimpse into the Irish absorption into America’s professional class.

The story is about Emily Field whose lawyer-husband’s firm, reaching out the the Boston immigrant community, hires a Jewish lawyer, an Italian lawyer, and an Irish lawyer.

Roger both likes and respects his colleagues, but Emily’s family is less than enthusiastic about immigrants who didn’t arrive on the Mayflower. Even Emily isn’t sure she’s keen on Irishmen, but she comes around.

The Edge of Sadness

1961-09-fc_edgesadnessIn his 1961 novel, The Edge of Sadness, Edwin O’Connor explores stereotypical Irish characters, who by 1960 have become a political and economic force in Boston.

The leading character is an over-50 priest, Father Kennedy, who after four years in a western facility for alcoholics , has been brought back East to lead a down-at-the-heels parish. The parishioners are primarily immigrants from post-war Europe and South America, too busy trying to make ends meet to come to church.

Have a good day reading of the green.

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 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