Friday, November 28, 2008


The books reviewed in this post were all published in 1954 and were read as part of My Big Fat Reading Project.

The Dollmaker, Harriette Arnow, Macmillan, 1954, 549 pp

This is one of my favorite books of all time. I have read it at least twice over the years. It is the story of a rural country woman and her family. They leave the south during WW II so that the father can work in Detroit making war materials. Gertie, the woman, is strong and fiercely protective of her family but the poverty, grimness and industrial setting finally overwhelm her.

It is a story of incredible losses of all types but mostly of Gertie's loss of the ability to control her own life. There are many tales of the effects of industrialization and war on families and the human spirit. This one just happens to be written supremely well, so well that certain scenes come immediately to mind whenever I hear the name of the book. There is a movie but I could not bear to watch it for fear of it not measuring up to the book.

The Bird's Nest, Shirley Jackson, Farrar Straus and Young, 1954, 276 pp

Elizabeth Richmond is a 23 year old with multiple personalities who is in deep psychological conflict. Her parents are dead, she lives with her Aunt Morgan and at 25, will inherit a fortune. As the story opens her severe headaches and backaches and insomnia burst into full-blown insanity, so Aunt Morgan agrees with the family doctor that Elizabeth should be treated by old Dr Wright, a hypnotist.

The rest of the novel covers her treatment and recovery. Eventually four personalities are at various times in evidence and literally fighting it out for dominance. The events behind all this are slowly revealed, most of which center around Elizabeth's fairly psychotic mother whose death four years earlier precipitated Elizabeth's descent into madness.

Dr Wright is pretty rough as mental practitioners go and Aunt Morgan is a bit mad herself. It is a wonder that it comes out right in the end. Because the author is Shirley Jackson, there is a good amount of humor mixed with the horror.

I don't know if I liked this book or not. It is extremely weird and I did not like that Dr Wright. It may be that Elizabeth got well in spite of him but perhaps that is true of most forms of healing.

Sayonara, James A Michener, Random House Inc, 1954, 208 pp

This is a love story in a military setting. Air Force pilot Gruver is shooting down MiGs in Korea but gets sent to Japan for some R&R. There he falls in love with a Japanese dancer, even though his commanding officer and his father, also a general, have plans to marry him to the CO's daughter.

Having recently read Battle Cry by Leon Uris, I felt in familiar territory. The military is such a subculture. Michener really is a good writer and in Sayonara, includes lots of Japanese culture as well as the remaining racism and distrust toward the Japanese due to WWII. The book even gets downright sexy in parts.

So I liked it even though the tragic ending was not fully convincing.

Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1954, 251 pp

Kingsley Amis' first novel is a hilarious account of a young man trying to make it in his first year of teaching at an English university.

Lucky Jim is supposed to be one of the first of a sub-genre called the "campus novel". For sure there have been plenty since. The bumbling absent-minded professor, the neurotic female fellow teacher and other characters as caricatures are all perfectly done. Hapless Jim, with his worries, his boredom over doing what is expected, his blunders, is a type who I think will be showing up often in the 50s and 60s. It is a middle finger up to authority and hidebound tradition and old boy networks. This is the new hero of the 20th century. After WWII, life is rather absurd because the "values" of the Western white man's world have been used too many times to promote lies.

Question is: Is the world getting better from a more realistic look or just drowning in cynicism?

Lord of the Flies, William Golding, Faber & Faber, 1954, 202 pp

I was made to read this book in school. All I remember is that it upset me a great deal and I felt that I was put through something against my will. This time, I did not find it as gruesome, being older and wiser I suppose. I was drawn in to the story and, since I had no recall of the ending, I was eager to find out what happened. I did not like the way it ended, but it was his first novel so I gave him a break.

What I somehow didn't know is that Golding got the Nobel Prize for literature in 1983 and also won a Booker in 1980. Now I must decide if I want to read his other novels. Oh yes, the theme? Brute force and meat eating win the day over intelligence and planning.

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