Continuing the micro-reviews of books I read that were published in 1940. This group is also from the top 10 bestsellers of 1940:
The Nazarene, Sholem Asch, GP Putnam's Sons, 1939, 698 pp
Oh my, it took me so long to read this book. (It was #5 on the list of bestsellers for 1940.) It is a story of Jesus with a twist. A strange, reclusive Jewish scholar in the present is researching the story of Jesus and trying to decide if he was indeed the Messiah. I did some research on Sholem Asch and learned that he was the darling of the Jews, writing in Yiddish, until this book, when he went into a phase of trying to reconcile Judaism and Christianity. Other factoids are that Sholem Asch was the father of Moses Asch who founded Folkways Records and that Bob Dylan was a reader of Sholem Asch. (I always feel especially cool when I find out I am doing something that Dylan did.)
Anyway, in The Nazarene, you really get a sense of the Jews at the time when Jesus was on earth; their various divisions (the rich who are priests and merchants and the poor who are the rabbis and the common people), their endless arguing and interpreting of the law (the Torah) and their undying hope for a redeemer. The drama is high as the lines get drawn as to whether Jesus of Nazareth is the true Messiah or not and this drama continues even after he is crucified and the apostles start Christianity.
As far as the writing goes, it is way overwritten even for the times, because being wordy is a style in the 1940s. Despite that, it does have emotional impact and for a girl who went to Sunday School every week of her life until she left home, I have to say that if they could have made the story of Jesus this dramatic, I might not have been so bored.
Stars on the Sea, F Van Wyck Mason, Grosset & Dunlap, 1940, 720 pp
At #6 on the bestseller list of 1940, this is a story of the beginnings of the United States Navy. It takes place in 1775 and 1776 as the Revolutionary War is being fought. Since it is well-written, fast-paced and filled with great characters, it was an enjoyable read despite its length. The characters' lives intertwine and a couple of my favorite characters don't live until the end of the book. There is some religion but mostly the main idea is that independence is worth fighting for. The successful businessmen are conservative and try to play both sides, which I have since learned is true in any war. The young people are rebellious and idealistic. But it is from the viewpoint of the patriots as opposed to the Loyalists.
Warning: I had to look up about a hundred words, mostly about ships. But who knew that our Navy started with two ships that could barely float?
Oliver Wiswell, Kenneth Roberts, Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc, 1940, 836 pp
This equally long book came in at #7 for the bestsellers of 1940. Oliver Wiswell is a colonist during the Revolutionary War but he is what was called a Loyalist: one who was still loyal to England and wanted to resolve the conflicts without war and without throwing off English rule. So it was interesting to me, because this point of view was never taught in any American History course I ever took.
It is basically a man's book with lots of battle scenes, political analysis and intelligence issues. Think of a Tom Clancy bestseller written in the 40s. Oliver is an upstanding, courageous individual, has incredible luck and a sidekick named Buell. Buell possesses great humor, dubious morals and a high level of inventiveness, which means he does all of Oliver's dirtywork and allows the great man to keep his hands clean. The women are loyal, smart, feisty and resourceful though mostly secondary to the men. But again it was a good read.
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, The Viking Press, 1939, 619 pp
I know I read this at some earlier point in my life, but did not remember much about it except that it was about the Dust Bowl. So since it was #8 on the list for 1940, I decided to read it again. Naturally I got more out of it this time. Steinbeck is apparently not eveyone's cup of tea and I agree that there might be a tad more melodrama than is absolutely necessary in this book, but I am a Steinbeck fan, so I forgive him.
He is trying to get across a message here that man is a species and if he would live as one instead of as a collection of individuals in opposition, life would be better for all. For me, reading the book again reinforced my knowledge that without the intelligence to adapt to change, a person will fall to the bottom of the heap when change occurs.
I do NOT recommend the movie version of this novel even though it won an Oscar for Best Director in 1941 and that director was John Ford. The book is much better.