Sunday, February 10, 2008


This is part of my Big Fat Reading Project, where I am reading the top 10 bestsellers plus selected other books for each year beginning in 1940. It is a research project which at this point I plan to incorporate into a memoir I am writing.

In this post are my micro reviews of the first five bestsellers from 1952. To read about the books I read from the earlier years, click on the label at the bottom of this post: Big Fat Reading Project.

The Silver Chalice, Thomas B Costain, Doubleday & Company, 1952, 533 pp

At #1 on the 1952 bestseller list is historical fiction about the first years of the Holy Grail. Most of the story takes place in Antioch and centers around a gifted silversmith named Basil. Through a series of unfortuante events, Basil finds himself a slave, but he meets Luke, the Physician, author of one of the four gospels of the New Testament.

Eventually Luke and Basil travel to Jerusalem and the home of Joseph of Arimathea, who has in his possession the cup which Jesus used at the Last Supper. Basil is chosen to design a covering for the simple cup, thus creating a holy relic of exceptional beauty. During his adventures brought about by this task, he falls in love with and marries Joseph's daughter and becomes a Christian.

The novel covers a period of Christian history in the years just after Jesus Christ's life. Some of the story of St Paul and his struggles with the Jewish High Priest is included, as well as a segment in Rome when Basil creates busts for the Emperor Nero. It is an intriguing tale although it does not cover the disappearance of the Grail but ends when the work on the chalice is complete and the early leaders of the Christian Church take it into hiding.

The Caine Mutiny, Herman Wouk, Doubleday & Company, 1951, 494 pp

Wouk's famous WWII novel was also #2 in 1951. In 1952 it won the Pulitzer Prize as well. My review for this book can be found in the post entitled BOOKS READ FROM 1951 PART ONE.

East of Eden, John Steinbeck, Viking Press, 1952, 602 pp

I read this book back in 2001 and it is one of my all time favorite books. I don't know if I will ever reread it because the first read was so magical for me and I don't want that to change. On the other hand I did not want the book to end, so maybe someday. That it could be a #3 top bestseller gives me hope for the world.

It is based in Salinas, CA, where Steinbeck grew up and lived for many years. He says it is a Cain and Abel story. It follows two generations of brothers and deals with how sons try to please their fathers. This novel also features one of the most evil female villains in literature.

I think that Steinbeck put into East of Eden all of the wisdom that he had been able to garner by the time he was fifty. In the biography of this author that I am gradually reading, he called this "the big novel." There are many truths here and I hope that any serious reader takes the time to read it. Good writing, sometimes great, but simple and never pretentious.

My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier, Doubleday & Company, 1952, 348 pp

At #4 is this extremely readable novel. In fact I couldn't put it down and read it in one day. Daphne du Maurier has become one of my most admired authors since I've been reading these older books.

Philip is a young English man who was orphaned in infancy and raised by his older cousin Ambrose. They lived on a large country estate which Ambrose, being single, ran in a distinctly masculine manner. In middle age, Ambrose developed rheumatism and was ordered by his doctors to spend winters abroad. Alas and alack, he finally met a woman in Italy who ended his long state as a bachelor.

After his marriage, Ambrose never returned to England, leaving Philip to run the estate. Then he died in mysterious circumstances. One day, his widow, Cousin Rachel, shows up at the manor and puts her spell on Philip.

The story is told in first person by Philip so that you experience Philip's bewilderment about Rachel right along with him. Is she an amazing person or an influence of evil? You are not able to answer that question for sure until Philip does at the end. The underlying threat of doom is classic du Maurier and makes for a thrilling yet chilling read.

Steamboat Gothic, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Julian Messner Inc, 1952, 560 pp

At #5 on the bestseller list is another work of historical fiction, based in the New Orleans area from 1869-1930 with scenes in New York City and France. Clyde Batchelor had been a riverboat gambler on the Mississippi and a speculator during the Civil War. But he fell in love with a Southern Civil War Widow from Virginia, so he went straight, married her and bought a plantation home on the Mississippi.

Steamboat Gothic was the style of that home, built to look like one of the great floating pleasure palaces. There Clyde and his wife Lucy lived and loved, raised Lucy's daughter from her first marriage and overcame the difficulties of life.

Later on, Clyde's grandson Larry becomes the main character, lives through WWI and ultimately brings his French wife to the plantation. Many characters have secrets which causes a share of trouble in their lives. But through loss and tragedy, love and hard work win the day. What else would you expect from a historical romance?

This is good storytelling with richly portrayed characters and is Keyes' best book since The River Road in 1945.

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