Tuesday, December 26, 2006


Christmas is finally over and I can get back to something like normal life. I had hoped to write two more chapters of Reading For My Life by the end of the year. Alas, it will not be. But at least I can get 1950 done. Here then are the first of the bestsellers I read for 1950.

The Cardinal, Henry Morton Robinson, Simon and Schuster, 1950, 565 pp
At #1 is the story of a priest working his way up to Cardinal in the Catholic Church. Stephen Fermoyle, son of an Irish family in Boston, is a young priest returning from seminary in Rome to take up his first parish assignment at the opening of the story. Father Stephen is a Lanny Budd sort of character who comes through each challenge with his integrity intact. He has a deep call to the ministry, a quick intelligence, a love of people and a way with diplomacy. You are meant to admire him, though his struggles are a bit hard to believe because he is so flawless.

Since the story ranges from pre-WWI to WWII, the issues of the times are brought in and the views of the Catholic Church are promulgated: industrially created poverty, immigrants, the Depression, birth control, fascism, Communism are all addressed. While I don't hold with the patriarchal nature of the Catholic Church or with their views on women, I could see how a strong religious belief and practice are a stabilizing factor in a rapidly changing and unstable world.

It was interesting to learn how a pope is elected, how bishops run their areas and how the Catholic Church interfaces with secular concerns. I am quite sure the novel presents an extremely whitewashed version. Stephen, the Pope and the worldwide Church all come across as basically infallible.

The writing was typical for the bestsellers of the time and the storytelling kept me interested, but the style was what I became used to in the 1940s bestsellers. In any case, I was launched into a new decade of fiction.

Joy Street, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Julian Messner Inc, 1950, 461 pp
This was #2 on the 1950 bestseller list. Keyes's earlier books were all set in New Orleans, but Joy Street takes place in Boston during a similar time period to The Cardinal. Emily is from a rich, high society family and marries Roger, who has a good social standing but no money. He is just starting out at a law firm which is stodgy but has also recently hired a Jew, an Irishman and an Italian. It is Emily's and Roger's dream to be catalysts for all these conflicting elements and social levels.

Naturally it doesn't work out as planned. Emily's grandmother is the matriarch of the family and tries to control everyone, though she actually likes and helps Emily. Though there is no real sex in the book, there is plenty of sexual tension, affairs that almost happen and finally a happy and passionate ending for Emily.

Keyes has written a fairly good story though is a bit too wordy. The 1940s writing style again, but she is trying to be up-to-date in the details concerning the old ways giving over to the new post-war world.

Across the River and into the Trees, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950, 308 pp
Making #3 on the list is a writer who never did write in the style of his day, though I did not find this novel to be one of his best. Richard, also called the Colonel, who had been a General and got demoted, who had fought in WWII and become disillusioned, is taking a leave to spend some time in Venice. He is there to see his lover, to go on a duck hunt and, you begin to realize, to die.

Richard is 50 years old, he is a cynical old bastard and he has a bad heart. His lover is an eighteen year old Venetian princess from some ancient family. The ducks are mostly mallards. Granted that Hemingway paints a good portrait of the Colonel and conjures both Venice and love as well as a bunch of unique characters, but it was way too much a man's book for me and very repetitive. I found nothing near the power of For Whom the Bell Tolls.

The Wall,
John Hersey, Alfred A Knopf, 1950, 632 pp
The Wall was the #4 bestseller in 1950 and I had heard so much about this book that I was excited to read it. I never really knew what it was about (the Berlin Wall maybe? the Wall of China?), but it would be mentioned in reverent tones so I assumed it was important. It is.

"The Wall" was built by Jews under Nazi orders in Warsaw, Poland beginning in 1939. In other words, after Hitler conquered Poland he got the Jews to enclose themselves in a ghetto. Eventually all the Jews in Warsaw and surrounding areas were forcibly ordered inside the wall, the entrances were guarded by German SS and finally the Nazis began to "relocate" these people, mostly to Treblinka, where the majority of them perished.

Though The Wall is fiction, it is written as the journal entries of a Jewish man named Noach Levinson, who recorded everything he could until 1943, when it finally became clear that the ghetto would be destroyed and he escaped along with a few others of the resistance.

The book is long, not very entertaining and it took me over three weeks to read it. I read other books in between, rarely reading as much as 100 pages at a time of The Wall. I started it when I had a stomach flu and finished it while I had bronchitis, so you see it was tough going. I had thoughts about life on planet earth being like living in a ghetto. I had other thoughts about how very difficult it is for human beings to get along, even in the same religion and about how it is the suppression certain humans perpetrate over others that makes that difficulty. I think it is important that Hersey wrote this story and was glad that I read it but it was very hard even for me who can read almost anything.

Star Money, Kathleen Winsor, Appleton-Century-Crofts Inc, 1950, 442 pp
One thing about the top 10 bestsellers in 1950 is the variety. Star Money was nothing like any of the four other books on the list so far. Winsor's second novel is half the length of Forever Amber, her 1944 bestseller, a blessing because the writing is quite bad. I suspected the story of being auto-biographical and learned that indeed it was. Forever Amber sold 3 million copies by 1949. It was banned in Boston for a while and is now considered the first bodice-ripper and a precedent for Peyton Place, not to mention other "racy" bestsellers about strong, immoral female heroines. Winsor divorced and remarried several times and was even married to Artie Shaw for a time.

In Star Money, Shireen Delaney is a bestselling author during WWII. While her husband is overseas fighting the war, she moves to NYC, sells her first novel, makes a pile of money, buys and decorates her own apartment and has several lovers. Shireen is ambitious, ruthless, self-centered, emotionally childlike and uses up men like disposable tissues. It is the emotional ridiculousness of the character that is so annoying as Winsor details Shireen's every vacillating thought. Now, I've read that sort of thing in Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, so it isn't the vacillating so much as the lame prose of Kathleen Winsor.

On the other hand, the talent, hard work and strength of Shireen are similar to Amber's. Women, including me, will always love reading about plucky heroines and the more ethically ambiguous the better. While reading Star Money, I was disgusted and fascinated at the same time.

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