My Picks of 2014 Anniversary Year Bestsellers

Ask me about my favorite book and I’m likely to name the book I’m currently reading.
Reviewer Linda Aragoni pulls her hair as the story gets complicated. Reviewer Linda Aragoni is surprised by an unexpected plot development hold_on_to_your_hair
When I have to choose from books I’ve finished reading, I have trouble. So I expected that trying to pick the best of the roughly 80 novels I read for review here this year would present a real challenge.

Fortunately (or sadly, depending on your point of view)  a year was long enough for me to completely forget what many of them were about.

Of the remainder, some were novels I remember for the wrong reasons, such as ridiculous plots.

In short order, I’d narrowed my list to 11 titles, one of which—A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—I eliminated because it was on my 2013 best-of-the-year list.  With almost no effort, I was left with a list of the 10 best bestsellers from 1904, 1914, 1924, 1934, 1944, and 1964 that I think have the most value for today’s readers.

The ease with which the list came together is a bit ironic since the one characteristic that the central figures in each of these novels have in common is grit: They stay the course when other folks have given up and moved on to softer scenes.

The woodsmen raise their rifles toward each other simultaneously.
The woodsmen, with a simultaneous movement, raised their rifles

Note, please, that none of the 1954 novels made my list this year.  Here in publication order, are my 10 choices.

  • The Silent Places, a thriller by Stewart Edward White, set in the North American wilderness in the 1600s is simply unforgettable. (1904 #10)
  • The Devil’s Garden by W. B. Maxwell is a murder mystery in which readers know who done it but not how and why. (1914 #09)
  • So Big, a Pulitzer-prize winning novel by Edna Ferber, is a gentle study of a mother whose reaction against her own childhood unhappiness keeps her beloved son from happiness. (1924 #01)
  • The Midlander by Booth Tarkington explores the impact left by an aimless kid who becomes obsessed with property development in his town. (1924 # 07)
  • The Home-Maker by By Dorothy Canfield Fisher is a fascinating jazz age study of a household in which mom goes to work and dad stays home with the kids. (1924 #10)
  • Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller looks at the resilience and faith of the women of a small Georgia-Florida frontier community in the Civil War era. (1934 #02)
  • So Red the Rose by Stark Young follows the folks who stayed home and refused to complain while their kin fought for the Confederacy. (1934 #03)
  • Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith explores an inter-racial romance between a couple whose differences in personality and mental ability are even more pronounced than their racial characteristics. (1944 #01)
  • A Bell for Adano, a John Hersey story about about an American army of occupation in Italy during World War II, shows situations we see today in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. (1944 #09)
  • Armageddon by Leon Uris, a novel about the Berlin airlift, is one of the few bestselling novels about the American military to portray both top brass and grunts in a positive light.   (1964 #04)

That wraps up 2014 for me.

What would you have chosen instead of my picks?

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Unfamiliar titles of 1944 best reading today

For contemporary readers, the best reading from the 1944 bestsellers are two titles that have by two novelists who are largely unremembered. Each zooms in on behaviors that were outside the norms.

Strange Fruit is Lilian Smith’s  story of an interracial couple in the South long before civil rights. The story is not just about race. It focuses on how the personalities of the individuals influence and are influenced by the racial prejudices in their societies.

Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams is a variation on the murder mystery pattern. Readers see all the events leading up to the discovery of a woman’s body. They know the deceased was pathologically jealous and vindictive. What they don’t know until the very end is whether she was murdered or whether she committed suicide.  Both possibilities are equally plausible.

Less exciting than either of those titles, but still good reading, is A Bell for Adano by the better-known novelist John Hersey. Although Hersey’s novel is set in occupied territory during World War II, its tone is sweet by comparison to the bestsellers by Smith and by Williams.  Its protagonist, Major Joppolo, is not as exciting as the maladjusted characters Smith and Williams describe, but his  character, conviction, and common sense make him a more admirable one.

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni