Monday, February 11, 2008


The books in this post are # 6-10 of the bestseller list from 1952,

Giant, Edna Ferber, Doubleday & Company, 1952, 351 pp

This was not one of Ferber's strongest books, though it made #6 on the list. Leslie, a woman gently raised in Virginia, falls for a big strong Texas rancher and goes to be his wife. She is not a likable character. She feels out of place; she is troubled by ranch life and Texas customs. When she tries to go against her husband, who is actually not a bad guy though definitely stuck in his ways, she only succeeds in creating unhappiness all around.

I was interested to learn about this period of Texas history from the 1920s to the 1940s but I couldn't get over the awkward ways of Leslie. I mean she couldn't even learn to like barbecue.

The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway, Scribner, 1952, 93 pp

Number 7 on the bestseller list for 1952 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1953, this is the heroic tale of an old fisherman from Havana and the big fish he caught. It is the shortest Pulitzer Prize winner I've read yet. The ones from previous years have all been dense, weighty tomes.

I was expecting to be amazed and blown away because this book is revered by critics, literature professors and many serious readers. I thought it was fine but not amazing. The story extols virtues like stoicism, patience, strength through suffering, understanding nature, etc. It has a philosophical undertone with the truth that once you obtain your heart's desire you will spend all your time defending it.

So, OK, good Ernest. Life is tough but the fun is in the hunting. Right?

The Gown of Glory, Agnes Sligh Turnbull, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1952, 403 pp

At #8 on the bestseller list for 1952, comes this old fashioned story of a minister and his family in a small Pennsylvania town. David Lyall is well-educated, literate and a lover of poetry. He has dreams of a large church in an important town but he is also a truly good person who loves and cares about people. His humility and gentle nature do not give him the competitive edge needed to advance, even in religion.

As I read I was mocking the sappiness of the story but by the end, because the writing was quite decent, I was won over. Despite the horrors and disillusion of our times, there are actually plenty of good people around. Why not write a book about honesty and integrity making a difference in people's lives?

The Saracen Blade, Frank Yerby, Dial Press, 1952, 310 pp

Another bestseller by Frank Yerby at #9. He has moved on from the New Orleans area and back in history.

Pietro Donati was born in 1194 to peasants in a small Sicilian town. On that same day was born Frederick II, destined to become Holy Roman Emperor. The two meet 14 years later, Pietro now an orphan raised by a cultured wealthy Jew and Frederick fighting for his birthright. From that point on their lives are joined.

Through wars, loves, travel, the Crusades and political intrigue, we follow these two men all over the inhabited world of the early 13th century. It is a well researched tale of adventure and affairs of the heart. Yerby is a better writer now though The Adventurer by Waltari (#9 in 1950) set in the same era is the standout between the two.

The Houses in Between, Howard Spring, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1951, 550 pp

Finally at #10 is an English story about a woman who lived for 99+ years. She had been born in 1849 and at the age of three, attended the opening of the Crystal Palace. This edifice was the idea of Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria, who envisioned the Crystal Palace as a monument to world peace. The theme of The Houses in Between is that nothing but war and trouble followed from Prince Albert's dream.

The title of the book comes from an old music hall song which contained the words "You could see the Crystal Palace if it wasn't for the houses in between." It is apt because while the Crystal Palace is a motif throughout, the story actually revolves around Sarah, the woman who almost lived to be 100, and her very extended family. There is nothing new in this tale of the generations and certainly nothing exciting.

People get married, fortunes are made and inherited, men go off to war and never return and hearts are broken. Sarah experiences much loss and sadness in her life but achieves a kind of contented resignation so that finally I felt I was reading something by Maeve Binchey.

Oh well, I got a fairly interesting look at 100 years of British society. How the book became a bestseller is a mystery to me.

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