Saturday, November 29, 2008

BOOKS READ FROM 1954, PART FIVE

The Magicians, J B Priestly, Harper & Brothers, 1954, 246 pp

I had never heard of this author until I found The Magicians in a list of important novels from 1954. I learned that he wrote many novels, beginning in the 1920s and continuing into the 1970s. He was English, concerned with peace, the nature of time and memory and was of a spiritual, though not Christian, bent. Sounded good to me.

There are magicians in this book, three of them, but they are actually a sort of philosopher/god type. In fact, they reminded me of some characters in Neil Gaiman's American Gods. They meet every so often to see what they can do about helping mankind and the world. They have certain powers which they use to affect men's minds.

Charles Ravenstreet is an unhappy middle-aged man who married the boss's daughter and made a career in a big electrical company but has now become obsolete. His wife died, they had no children and he is alone and at loose ends. He has been approached by an unscrupulous businessman who wants to manufacture and sell a drug that will keep the masses happy with their lot.

OK, this could be good. But it didn't really work for me as a novel. Ravenstreet and the magicians meet, his past bad decisions get straightened out, the bad guys get what's coming and Charles ends up happy. There is some good stuff about how all time exists at once, though Priestly is a bit vague about the future, but the events are just too unlikely and Priestly is asking to be at best mocked and at worst ignored.

Luckily the book was short and happily there are other authors and books that take these ideas and write much better and more exciting stories. I think of The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham.


The Invisible Writing, Arthur Koestler, The Macmillan Company, 1954, 431 pp

This is the second volume of Koestler's autobiography which starts with Arrow in the Blue, 1952). I almost skipped it and I'm so glad I didn't. I loved it.

This volume begins in 1931 when he joined the Communist party. He travels to the Soviet Union and goes on missions into Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Then he leaves the CP, is imprisoned in France in 1940 (from which came the novel Scum of the Earth) for being an immigrant, and finally makes his home in England. He covers in depth his gradual disillusionment with Communism, a story I've now heard from Upton Sinclair and Richard Wright. Koestler's story however is the most fascinating because of his brutally honest analysis of his own motives and his admission of being a "true believer" type.

I got to learn about the writing of all his novels; ones I've already read. While in prison in Spain he had a huge realization, a spiritual experience, about what life is all about. Like all such experiences, it was hard to put into words but having had a couple such occurrences myself, I so got it.

I am sad that my Arthur Koestler reading has come to an end. (He wrote more books but no more novels.) I truly treasure having known this man through his writings. To me, he is the best kind of intellectual because of his deep involvement with the world.


Revolt in 2100, Robert A Heinlein, Shasta Publishers, 1954, 192 pp

In 2100 AD, the United States is ruled by The Prophet under a strict fundamentalist type of Christian religion. Religion, mass communications and psychology are used to maintain the status quo, not to mention The Prophet's army. There are one novella and two stories in this volume.

In the novella "If This Goes On--", an underground group which has infiltrated The Prophet's government stages a coup and takes over. This is called The Second Revolution, and they try to reinstate religious freedom. Heinlein portrays The Prophet as a complete hoax, with his "virgins" and staged miracles. I also liked the way his hero has to shake off the religious and military training of a lifetime in order to become a revolutionary.

In "Coventry", the new order still uses psychology to control the population, but social offenders of the country's moral code are given a choice: undergo psychological "correction" or go to Coventry, an area of the country set in the western states, which is a lawless anarchy made up of all the misfits.

"Misfit", the final story, is about sending the youth of America into space to build space stations, providing extreme training in a sort of Marines type of setting, though it is more scientific than military. The hero is a math wizard who doesn't know how smart he is, but saves the day.

All very entertaining. I thought that the theocracy story was far superior to Vidal's Messiah, though the two books together were timely, sobering and gave me lots to ponder concerning mankind's tendency to go into fanaticism.


Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov, Doubleday & Company, 1954, 224 pp

In the front of one of Robert Heinlein' books is a chart of future history which served him as a plan for his upcoming novels. Isaac Asimov must have had a similar chart, if only in his mind, because his books keep moving into the future.

In Caves of Steel, the population of Earth had grown to over 8 billion, necessitating a level of efficiency in living space that has put most humans into cities built inside of steel coverings: the caves of steel. Only a few live in the open air, running the production of food, most of which is artificially made from a yeast base. Also robots do most of the open air work because they are not affected by pollution.

There are 50 Outer World planets colonized by humans. The Outer World inhabitants (called Spacers) work with robots, but on Earth robots are hated by most men who see them as a very real threat to their jobs. An uneasy relationship between Spacers and Earthmen is unsettled when a Spacer is killed by an Earthman.

Lige Baley, a New York City policeman, is assigned a robot partner. The story is essentially a murder mystery set into this futuristic tale of the fate of Earth. As always, there is Asimov's excellent plotting, his vast conception of society, government and economics, not to mention his strong scientific base. Also his skill at creating characters, both human and robotic, has taken a leap forward.

Caves of Steel is the first in Asimov's Robot Trilogy. Great! I get to look forward to two more.


The Horse and His Boy, C S Lewis, HarperCollins Inc, 1954, 224 pp

The fifth book in the original order of the Chronicles of Narnia is one I never read when I was a kid. It takes place during the time when Peter and Susan were High King and Queen during their first long visit to Narnia. The horse is a talking horse from Narnia who was captured and made into a war horse in a land far to the south.

The boy is an orphan who was raised practically as a slave to a poor fisherman in the same foreign land. The horse and the boy meet, have many adventures and finally make it back to their respective native lands and true identities.

It was an entertaining story but clearly a minor tale in the series. I could see about halfway through how it was all going to end and even Aslan only had a small part.

Friday, November 28, 2008

BOOKS READ FROM 1954, PART FOUR

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.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

BOOKS READ FROM 1954, PART THREE

This and the following three posts cover books published in 1954, though they were not necessarily bestsellers. I chose to read these books because they are by authors who interest me or who contributed to the culture in some significant way.


The Ponder Heart, Eudora Welty, Harcourt Brace & World Inc, 1954, 156 pp

Eudora Welty is the antidote to William Faulkner. Each delves into the mind and soul of the South but Welty usually comes up happy and while a Yankee like me might still feel out of place in one of her stories, I wouldn't feel afraid or even baffled.

Uncle Daniel Ponder is perhaps not quite right in the head, perhaps a tinge simple minded, but ultimately lovable. His family was wealthy and Daniel likes to spread that wealth. He is so fond of giving away things and money that he is protected by his loving niece, who claims to be the only one who really understands him. He is also kept in check by the family banker who keeps him on a small allowance.

In a light-hearted comedy of errors, Uncle Daniel outsmarts them all when he marries a 17 year old airhead, who has no trouble spending his money but somehow ends up dead. There is a hilarious trial scene with Uncle Daniel as the accused killer which results in his acquittal but life is never the same again. So in fact the happiness does not last, I suppose it never can in good fiction, but Welty lets you down easy.


A Proper Marriage, Doris Lessing, Simon and Schuster Inc, 1954, 344 pp

A Proper Marriage is the sequel to Martha Quest (1952.) In fact it is the second volume of a series of novels called The Children of Violence. At the end of Martha Quest, she had just married Douggie, a young man from the middle class of English people living in South Africa. As A Proper Marriage opens, Martha and Douggie have just returned from their honeymoon, settled in an apartment, and Martha is learning to be a wife at home while Douggie goes to work.

Soon enough she learns that she is pregnant and while she does not feel ready for a baby and even considers an abortion (it is around 1939!), she is too far along. So she goes thru pregnancy, birth, trying to breastfeed on a schedule with a baby who constantly cries, switches to bottles and watches her daughter grow. It was all so much like what I went through in my first pregnancy and my son's early years. Bored, stuck at home, battles of will, worry about schedules, feeding, naps. God. I thought I was the only one who felt those wild swings from loving my baby completely to feeling I would lose my mind if I had to spend another minute with him.

Then comes the war, Douggie goes off, Martha figures out a bit more about how to balance out her life. Mother, mother-in-law, even girlfriends are no help and Lessing shows that all these women are trying to appear happy and competent while they suffer inside about their identity, wondering what happened to their dreams.

After Douggie returns, things go more and more wrong as Martha decides not to have another baby and gets involved with left-wing activities. Of course, no one approves and when she decides to leave Doug, he descends into all manner of childish and jealous ploys to try to keep her, just like my ex-husband did!

Reading this novel was exhilarating and devastating. I relived my early married life and remembered how tough I had to become even in the late 70s to withstand the censure I got, to figure out how to survive and to suppress how lonely I felt. No other book I've read has so accurately given voice to what I experienced. Doris Lessing is a goddess to me, a beacon of truth and a trail blazer for Western women.


Under the Net, Iris Murdoch, The Viking Press, 1954, 279 pp

This is Iris Murdoch's first novel and the first I have read by her. I was highly anticipating getting started on Murdoch and I was not disappointed. I may be somewhat ignorant of any influences she had as a writer, so to me this novel had a uniqueness about it, though I would say that perhaps Muriel Spark, Zoe Heller and Kate Atkinson were influenced by Iris Murdoch.

Jake is a sort of writer/philosopher who makes his living doing translations. In first person, Jake details his life, which is unstable; his friends, who are all quirky characters; his finances, shaky but never somehow depleted; and his escapades, which are desperate and hilarious at the same time.

Jake is a somewhat worried guy who is fussy about his living arrangements. He relies on the kindness of women but is so self-centered that he can't really love any of them. Throughout the story, he is constantly on the move partly because he has lost his most recent dwelling place and mostly because he is a hyper sort despite his depressive's outlook on life. Wherever he goes, havoc mostly ensues. He attempts several crazy plans and almost always pulls them off which seems to be because he is oblivious of "normal" behavior.

I liked the book and it made me feel free somehow. I marveled at Murdoch's ability to get inside the heads of all the male characters. In fact, the females were rather flat and stereotypical. There is a brilliance in this short novel and I am looking forward to more.


Messiah, Gore Vidal, E P Dutton & Co Inc, 1954, 250 pp

Gore Vidal writes a completely different book every time. Messiah is a sort of literary sci fi. A nondescript guy from Washington State, while working as a mortician's assistant, had a revelation that death is not bad. When he tells people about this, his hypnotic eyes win them over and he gets followers.

He is not a leadership type though, so between an intellectual historian, a PR man, an odd woman who claims to be 2200 years old and knows millionaires plus another female devotee, a major world religion is built.

The intellectual historian tells the story from Luxor, Egypt, where he is in hiding at the end of his life. He had a falling out with the "church" after lots of bad stuff happened and had to get away fast. This is satire of a high order and pretty well done. 1954 saw the rise of Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham as well as television. Vidal just took all that to the limits of "what if" while exploring the tendency to religious fanaticism in our culture.

What is amazing is that Messiah was shocking and titillating in 1954 and now seems rather mild. The other night I saw Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center". As bad as 9/11 was, it was made so much worse by television. Could we lose our religious freedom by succumbing to a wave of religious hysteria? You bet.


Black Power, Richard Wright, Harper Brothers, 1954, 351 pp

In a non-fiction account of his visit to the Gold Coast, Africa (now Ghana), Wright covers the history of the slave trade and the current state (circa 1954) of this country. I suppose the book takes its place in the body of literature about Africa which began in the 1940s with Cry the Beloved Country. I am getting a picture from these books of the scene there in the years leading up to the liberation of African countries from their colonial masters.

Wright is quite the intellectual and has come full circle since his autobiographical Native Son, 1940 and his autobiography, Black Boy, 1943. He is a better writer, though Native Son was one powerful novel. In Black Power, he analyzes the effects of the breakup of native tribal culture and the difficulties of making the transition to 20th century Western industrial culture.

I was impressed and intrigued throughout. Wright's descriptions of the jungle, the weather, the tribal rites and the poverty were devastatingly rendered. I was left wondering if mankind was not better off in ancient times when though primitive and superstitious, people lived a more wholistic life somehow. Nature, spirituality, family, community were more aligned it seems, but that may be wishful thinking when looking back from these stressful and spiritually bleak times.


The Greek Passion, Nikos Kazantzakis, Simon & Schuster Inc, 1954, 432 pp

In a small Greek village in the early 1920s, a tradition among the inhabitants is to choose certain residents once every four years to re-enact the Passion of Christ at Easter. These persons are selected a year early so that they may get into character during a year of preparation. Kazantzakis uses this device to show how a corrupt priest, the resident Turkish lord, and other town notables deny the true teachings of Christ while the persons chosen find themselves dramatizing the Passion story in their very lives.

The book starts slowly and I thought it would be a complete slog but the story drew me in. It is much more a political polemic than a religious tale, though the author's Christian views are clearly an influence. The main characters are rich and complex though the writing (at least in translation) is a bit lumpish. The lightheartedness of Zorba the Greek is nowhere in evidence.

I would have to say that while Kazantzakis had a good idea for a story, he didn't quite pull it off.



Sunday, November 23, 2008

BOOKS READ FROM 1954, PART TWO

Today's post covers the second half of the top 10 bestsellers from 1954.


No Time for Sergeants, Mac Hyman, Random House, 1954, 214 pp

This hilarious story was #6 on the list for 1954. It is the best spoof on the military that I have read so far, mostly because it is succinct and contains no bitterness. Will Stockdale is a backwoods Southern boy who gets drafted and tells his tale from his laconic and fairly clueless viewpoint.

He is forever trying to be helpful and to act like a good soldier, though he doesn't take shit from anyone and has a poor concept of rank. Of course, this throws an entire monkey wrench into any military operation in which he takes part. His superiors simply don't know what to make of him. He always speaks his mind and has no awe of officers or superiors, all of which should get him into a world of trouble, but this is the military, so he ends up a hero.

An excellent light-hearted read.


Sweet Thursday, John Steinbeck, The Viking Press, 1954, 273 pp

Ah, Steinbeck. How I love this author. Sweet Thursday, at #7, is a sequel to Cannery Row and takes place in the same town with many of the same characters. It is post WWII now and Doc is in a bad frame of mind. In fact, he has three minds going at once: upper, middle and lower, and while he feels he should be making something of his life, his lower mind knows that he is lonely and it is getting him down.

So his friends over at the Palace Flophouse go to work hoping to help him out. There is a new girl in town trying to work at The Bear House, but she is not really cut out to be a whore. In this hilarious tale of matchmaking, Steinbeck puts all he has into play: his deep understanding of people, friendship, love and loyalty.

I did not want the book to end. As much as I love East of Eden, I love the Cannery Row books even more. I don't know of too many authors who can embed their philosophy of life so unobtrusively into a novel.


The View from Pompey's Head, Hamilton Basso, Doubleday & Company, 1954, 409 pp

The intriguing title of this 1954 bestseller (#8) was a big letdown when I found out its meaning, as was the book when I finally read it. I'd had this book on my shelves for many years. I picked it up in some since forgotten used bookstore, buying it only because I was attracted by the title. Then it turned up on the 1954 bestseller list, which explains what it was doing on the shelves of used books.

Pompey's Head turned out to be a small town on the Georgia coast. The story is about a man who grew up there, fled in his early 20s to become a lawyer in New York and finds himself back in Pompey's Head in his mid 30s on an assignment from his firm. So there is a present time story going on which sounds promising because it is about a reclusive author, but which takes forever to be told because the back story and memories of the lawyer turn out to be the real story.

Both stories have disappointing non-endings and I figured out the mystery surrounding the reclusive author character about halfway through the book. Hamilton Basso was one of those New York City editors of mags like "The New Yorker." He aspires to write like that crowd but doesn't measure up. If I want a story about the insane social practices of Southern towns, I would much rather read William Styron or Eudora Welty.

Oh well. I still like the title but it is another way not to judge a book.


Never Victorious, Never Defeated, Taylor Caldwell, McGraw-Hill Book Company Inc, 1954, 549 pp

I've read several books by Taylor Caldwell over the years and there is just something a little skewed about her. This one was the #9 bestseller of 1954. It is a saga about a fictional family near Philadelphia whose patriarch started a railroad in the days of the Robber Barons.

The main characters are Cornelia de Witt, the ruthless, practically immortal granddaughter of the patriarch and Allan Marshall, son of a poor Irish railroad worker who invents an automatic coupler, becomes wealthy and marries Cornelia. These two are surrounded by a vast cast of family members, businessmen, financiers and politicians. Allan Marshall, a lapsed Catholic, has a brother who becomes a priest, thus bringing in the religious angle which so often features in Caldwell's books.

Cornelia is another strong heroine, which seems to be a theme in 1954, but is practically soulless. Allan suffers great anguish of soul. Most of the other characters just want money. There is an extremely odd political view being put forth in this novel which centers around evil men who are in a conspiracy to destroy freedom in the world for their own greedy and power-hungry reasons. Though a common view in many books today, especially science fiction and thrillers, this is the first time I've come across it in bestselling fiction, unless I take into account the Lanny Budd series by Upton Sinclair. But while Sinclair was an avowed socialist, Caldwell has some kind of Libertarian, Jeffersonian, Constitutionalist thing going and lumps communism, socialism and fascism together as the enemy. She seems to have no problem with monopolies that create wealth out of the sweat of workers, as long as free enterprise is kept sacrosanct.

I must say that Caldwell's writing is better than usual here. She still goes overboard on descriptions of nature and the hysterical element in certain characters, but though long, the book was a good read.


Benton's Row, Frank Yerby, The Dial Press, 1954, 280 pp

Then I came to the end of Frank Yerby Top 10 bestsellers. Eight of his formulaic stories have now passed under my eyes, and he actually got better in the last two. Benton's Row is set in the south, covering four generations of two families beginning in 1842 and ending after WWI.

In this novel, Yerby has taken on a more literary voice. In fact, he sounds positively Faulknerian at times. His characters are deeper and more complex and the drama is less predictable. Historically there is not much I have not read in other novels of this period.

Though he went on publishing novels up to 1985, none of them are on the top 10 lists, so I am done with Frank Yerby at last.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

BOOKS READ FROM 1954, PART ONE

In this post are my reviews of the top 5 bestsellers of 1954


Not As A Stranger, Morton Thompson, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1954, 696 pp

The #1 bestseller of 1954 is a huge, dense but rich story of the making of a doctor. Lucas Marsh was born in the early 1900s to a father who dealt in leather goods for horses and carriages and a mother who studied phrenology and other esoteric spiritual texts. The marriage was highly strained financially and sexually, causing Lucas much anguish and confusion, but from the age of seven he had found his calling: medicine. Between his hours at school and home, he secretly followed the small town's three doctors on their rounds, trying to learn what he could.

Despite his parents' protests and a dire lack of funds, Lucas made it through college and medical school. In a moment of desperation, as he is about to be expelled from med school for lack of money, he marries a nurse. He doesn't love her, she is an awkward, unpopular young woman of Swedish descent, but she is also the very competent head nurse of the hospital to which the medical school is attached. She is devoted to Lucas and pays for all the rest of his schooling.

Lucas is something of a genius and his single-minded intensity and sense of mission makes him a highly unsociable and inflexible character. As he move into his first practice as assistant to an aging doctor in a small town, he runs into "real life" for the first time and must come to terms with dishonesty, malpractice, politics, society and women.

I found this a fascinating book. There is no sense of any Roaring Twenties though those are the years of the story. The financial crash of 1929 plays a part but what was most interesting was the detailed account of the state of medicine in that decade. Quite an unexpected read for 1954.


Mary Anne, Daphne Du Maurier, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1954, 351 pp

Another bestseller by Du Maurier hit #2 in 1954. It is historical fiction based on the life of the author's great great grandmother, who lived in England from 1776 to 1852. Mary Anne was born poor, made a disastrous marriage, but used her beauty and intelligence to become the mistress of the Duke of York, the man responsible for England's army in the days of Napoleon. After she falls out of favor with the Duke, she achieves fame and notoriety by publishing books about the nefarious activities (in which she and the Duke participated) involved in getting military placements for certain men in exchange for money.

In plain terms, Mary Anne was a high-class prostitute. I've read about such a character in many novels and did not find much new to the genre here. As long as women are considered by men (and sometimes themselves) to be the second sex, there will be women who use their bodies and their intelligence to gain protection and wealth from men. Alas and sigh.

Du Maurier is a master craftswoman when it comes to fiction, so Mary Anne was a good read. Mary Anne herself underwent a share of suffering but her prime philosophy in life was that girls just want to have fun and mostly she did. To her credit, she fought like a mother lion for the rights and safety of her children.


Love is Eternal, Irving Stone

I have discovered that I missed this book, thinking I had already read it because I confused it with Immortal Wife, Stone's 1944 historical novel about John Fremont. So I will have to read it and report later. Love is Eternal is the story of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln and was the #3 bestseller in 1954.


The Royal Box, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Julian Messner Inc, 1954, 303 pp

Another book by this author who has become the Danielle Steele of the 40s and 50s in my mind. This one was the #4 bestseller in 1954. Fortunately, I only have one more of her books to get through in this reading project.

The Royal Box is written as a mystery, in the format of an Agatha Christie. It is even set in London for the murder with the back story and finale in New York and Texas. The characters include an actress, an American businessman, an impoverished upper class English woman and her daughter, as well as an American journalist. The royal box is an actual theatre box in London, originally built for the Kings and Queens of England, should they choose to attend the theatre.

The whole thing is fairly predictable. The murderer is found, the women in the story all have happy endings and while I remember who was murdered, I already forget whodunit.


The Egyptian, Mika Waltari, G P Putnam's Sons, 1949, 503 pp

The Egyptian was the #1 bestseller in 1949, the first year it was translated from Finnish and released in the US. In another of the examples of the synergy between publishing and movie making which began in the 1940s, this book made the bestseller list again, coming in at #5 in 1954, due to the release of the movie in this year and its nomination for an Oscar. According to Wikipedia, The Egyptian was the most sold foreign novel from 1949 until the mid 1980s when The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco gained that distinction.

The Egyptian is excellent historical fiction set in the time of Egypt's history when the Pharaoh Akhnaton attempted to change the country's central god from Ammon to Aton, whom he believed to be the one true god. This almost brought about the downfall of Egypt. The time is 1300 BC.

The protagonist is Sinuhe, an adopted orphan and a doctor. He is telling his life story which was bound up in the Pharaoh's and led to his exile from Egypt. He is a healer, a pacifist and feels unable to cope with the violence and dishonesty of his world. Waltari wrote the novel to express his disillusionment with the world after WW II, which I saw in the novel as I was reading it. The book is long, it took a while to read but was good and entertaining throughout.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

MY BIG FAT READING PROJECT (AGAIN)

Below is an edited reprint of a post from July 2005. Its purpose is to explain the posts that will follow in the next several days and to describe my research method for the memoir I am writing.

My Big Fat Reading Project

I am a maker of lists. I like to organize the things I do into plans and
programs. So when I found myself reading more than ever a few years back, I
felt I needed a way to approach the vast body of fiction that I was
attempting to devour.

At first, I used what I call the Alphabet System. I stole this from Francie,
the main character in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. (One of my
all time favorite books, because it is the story of a girl in Brooklyn who
rises out of poverty through reading.) Her habit was to go to the public
library every day, take out a book and read it. She just started at the
letter A and went on. This was a pretty good method for me because I
discovered many authors I liked (such as Richard Adams, Edward Abbey and
Joan Aiken) as well as a few I didn't like (Kobo Abe and Alice Adams, to
name two.) I didn't know it at the time, but I was developing taste.

Then I started researching the whole American Literature scene and also
learning about current literary writers who had deeper things to say and
were thus not appearing on the bestseller lists. OK, I will admit, Oprah had
an effect on me. I also read a few biographies of writers and learned that
many of the best learned how to write by reading, not by going to college.

Finally, a few years ago, my sister sent me a book called Legacy, A
Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Personal History by Linda Spence, 1997, Ohio
University Press. She thought I should write my story and the story of our
family, at least to hand down to our children and grandchildren. I had
another book I was using to get up to speed on modern fiction writers, The
Reading List, Contemporary Fiction by David Rubel, 1998, Henry Holt and
Company, and was working my way through the complete books of Toni Morrison,
Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood and others.

One day I was surfing the web on all things about books and came across a
curriculum posted by a professor at some Southern college. It involved
reading the top ten bestsellers from each year, decade by decade and writing
papers on how books and literature were both a sort of report on culture and
an influence on its direction.

Suddenly it all came together. MY BIG FAT READING PROJECT. I would read the
top bestsellers of each year of my life and relate these books to what went
on in those years and how I was influenced by it all as I moved thru my
life. So I printed out the bestseller lists which this professor had so
kindly put together and off I went. I was born in 1947, but I decided to
start my reading in 1940 to get a feel for the world I was born into. I also
added about 10 other literary books to each year.

I began this project in July 2002. I am now just about finished with the books for 1955. That means it has taken me over six years to read sixteen years worth of books. It is a looooong project which could last me the rest of my life.

That is fine because I have discovered something about being a
middle-aged woman. My kids are grown, my music career flopped, my marriage
is 38 years old (it is good and he is my grand passion but I am really used
to him) and I need a project that gets me excited everyday and will go on
for years; that has new and unknown factors to look forward to each day;
that is creative.

I have learned so much from this reading: more than I ever knew I didn't
know about World War II; how earnest and wholesome people were in the 1940s;
that family was the true glue that held society together; that Christianity
made for bestsellers back then; that the war and the Industrial Revolution
and Communism/Socialism were all beginning to erode all those values and to
create chaos. It is a fascinating study made through fiction.

I read other things as well, which I also write about in this blog. Sometimes
I just can't stand to read another book from over 50 years ago and go off my
plan to read the hot books of today. But I wanted to explain why I will be
writing about all these old books I am reading.

Monday, November 10, 2008

THE SHADOW CATCHER

The Shadow Catcher, Marianne Wiggins, Simon & Schuster Inc, 2007, 318 pp


This is one of the best books I have read this year. Though this woman is my age, she writes with the energy of a woman in her 30s, but with the skill and beauty of long experience. Oddest fact of all: she was married to Salman Rushdie from 1988-1993.

The shadow catcher in the story is Edward S Curtis, a controversial photographer born in 1868, who became well known for his photos of Native Americans. In the novel, Marianne Wiggins is a woman who lives in Los Angeles and wrote a book about Edward Curtis. The novel moves back and forth in time, with sections about Curtis, his wife Clara and his career. The other sections are about Marianne and the mysterious way that the legacy of Curtis enters into her life in the present day.

The whole thing was just astonishing to me. Wiggins is tough, humorous, wise and brilliant as a writer. I knew from the first few pages that I was in the best of hands as a reader. Like any good storyteller, she includes a mystery within the history, the love stories and the scenery. If you live in LA and have traveled in the Western United States, as I have, it makes it all the more realistic.

I am not going to say more because one of the best things about this book is the discoveries you make as you read.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

READING FOR MY LIFE: 1953

LOOKING EAST


In 1953, my family moved to Princeton, NJ, the town where I would live until I went away to college. It was a good move for the whole family. My parents were able to put a fair amount of distance between them and my father’s parents and found intellectual stimulation in both the town and at their church. My sisters and I got to grow up in a college town, go to excellent public schools and live in a fairly hip town. Of course, none of us, except possibly my dad, knew about all this when we made the move.

This year was the beginning of the Eisenhower era, as our 34th President was inaugurated, after a landslide victory over Adlai Stevenson. The campaign at the end of 1952 was the first to utilize television as well as public relations and advertising firms, techniques with which we are now nauseatingly familiar. Though fighting in Korea had reached a lull, it took six months of negotiations to finally arrive at a truce with North Korea on July 27. The death of Stalin, the threats of Eisenhower to use atomic weapons against China and the weariness of war in both the US and China finally brought the war to an end. Aside from demonstrating a commitment by the US to fight the expansion of communism in the Asia, after years of fighting nothing much changed politically in Korea.

Meanwhile the Marshall Plan to revitalize and rearm Europe was making headway. England got a new queen crowned, Elizabeth II, but carried on with Churchill as Prime Minister. Both western and eastern European countries were still trying to recover from WWII and undergoing various political shifts, but it seems that in America people felt that war was behind them, prosperity ahead of them and life could now be orderly and secure. It may well be that the Eisenhower campaign did much to advance this viewpoint because in reality the Cold War was escalating with the USSR and the USA being the main opponents. As far as I can tell by studying a bit of the history of the time, it was extremely tense. In 1953 the USSR exploded their first hydrogen bomb, following ours of the year before and despite the rhetoric in the United Nations and elsewhere, any efforts to regulate the proliferation and use of atomic weapons came to nothing.

What I am trying to get at here is a certain mood of false happiness and security with an underlying theme of danger and fear that characterized the lives of children growing up in the 50s. Of course, at the age of five going on six, I couldn't say that I had any knowledge of all this. I do remember seeing pictures on the front page of the New York Times of soldiers coming home wounded from the Korean War and asking my father about it. Those pictures gave me a feeling of doom.

Pop culture as usual for the 50s kept it light. “The Greatest Show on Earth” won the Academy Award for Best Picture, featuring romance in the circus. Best Director went to John Ford for “The Quiet Man”, in which John Wayne plays a retired boxer gone back to his native Ireland to woo Maureen O’Hara. Gary Cooper won Best Actor for “High Noon”, a classic western. For a taste of the dark side, Shirley Booth took Best Actress in “Come Back Little Sheba”, a drama about a woman married to a recovering alcoholic.

“Doggie in the Window” was a big pop song and I knew all the words. The very romantic “Ebb Tide” was a hit for Vic Damone. In 1953 you could still have a hit song from a musical, so “Stranger in Paradise” from “Kismet” was recorded by Tony Bennet.

Literature in 1953 was a mixture of just about everything. Out of the top ten bestsellers, the top two were about Christianity, though The Robe, by Lloyd C Douglas was revived from 1942 by the release of a movie based on the book. The majority of bestsellers were historical fiction ranging from the 18th century to post Civil War. The High and the Mighty by Ernest K Gann was one of three with a contemporary setting: a commercial airplane flight from Hawaii to San Francisco which almost went down in the Pacific Ocean because there was no radar on commercial flights in those days. This was surely a first in fiction!

Among the other books were two about the Korean War: The Bridges at Toko-Ri, by James Michener and very patriotic contrasted by The Long March by William Styron, though in both a main issue was soldiers from World War II brought back into the military just as they were getting well settled in civilian life. Most of these books dealt with postwar life in America and had themes about the generation gap, small town versus city life, anti-communism and racism. I read several books on women, feminism and female roles in modern life, though two were by South African writers (Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer) and one (The Second Sex) by that feisty French woman, Simone de Beauvoir.

The overall theme of these books is gaps; between war and postwar, communism and democracy, men and women, patriotism and dissent, black and white, young and old, city and countryside. Once again, the issues that would become huge in the 60s were showing up as hairline cracks in the smooth fa├žade of the Eisenhower years.

My family was creating our own gaps. By the beginning of 1953, my dad was working at the New York headquarters of US Steel, but the rest of us were still living in the suburban Pittsburgh house. Daddy would commute to New York for the week and come home on weekends. He was also finding us a place to live. It turned out that he had an old friend from high school who lived in Princeton, NJ. Visiting the home of Princeton University with its lovely residential neighborhoods, colonial history and big leafy trees, he felt it was the town for us. Many men commuted daily on the train to the city for work, a trip that took about an hour including the subway from Pennsylvania Station down to the financial district. He found the Lutheran Church and called the pastor who hooked him up with a realtor.

The house in Pittsburgh had not sold, but my mother was eight months pregnant and had to get settled. So in March, the house in Princeton was rented, the movers (paid for by US Steel) took our stuff away and we got on an airplane headed for Philadelphia. I have no memory of my first airplane ride, but my mom remembers that Philadelphia was fogged in, so we had to circle and she got worried. When we finally got to our new house, rain had leaked in the windows and it was way below my mom’s standards of cleanliness. Luckily she was at the nesting instinct portion of her pregnancy and had us unpacked and organized in time for the new baby’s arrival. Grandma Engle, my mom’s mother, said the baby would be born with big hands because of all the cleaning Mom did.

Patricia Lo Succop was born, with normal size hands, on April 28, 1953. Grandma Engle came for a week followed by Grandma Succop for another week. I loved this new little sister from the first moment I saw her and I always have from that day on. I loved our split level house which seemed cool and cozy to me. Linda and I slept on the third floor, probably a converted attic with a slanted ceiling and small windows right above our beds. The house was close to the quiet street with the neighboring houses right there on either side. A side door off the kitchen led to a small yard and around to a fine backyard.

What I remember is playing all summer with kids from the other houses on our street, riding my tricycle, racing in to the kitchen for snacks, sleeping and sweating in our hot attic room and feeling even more free from my family than ever before. The boy next door, whom my mother could not stand, lived with his grandmother and was often in trouble. He could catch flies and pull their wings off, he ran fast, talked tough and I was at once scared of him and entranced. Since we moved in March, I never went back to kindergarten and after my ears popped in the airplane, I had no more earaches. The doctor in Princeton said I could keep my tonsils, which I still have.

In August, I turned six so when fall came and it was time for me to go back to school, I was a much tougher girl than I had been the year before. I started first grade at Valley Road School and I had to take a school bus. The first day, I remember standing in a long hallway-like room with what seemed like a thousand other kids. I felt alone and afraid but I was determined to be brave. Somehow we all got sorted out and into the right classrooms. Mine was in the basement with metal grilled windows looking our right onto a concrete surface. I had my own desk; the kind with an attached chair, an inkwell hole and a lid that lifted.

School was exciting to me but also had its hardships. Miss Large, our teacher, was small and nervous with her first class since graduating from college. I was a bit afraid of her but I think she was terrified of us. It seemed to me that she was very strict and serious and yelled too much. Recess was on a big blacktop playground with swings, merry-go-round, jungle gym, rubber balls and mean pushy girls. Either they knew each other from kindergarten or were friends from the same neighborhood, but there was a group of girls led by Margery who somehow sensed that I was new and would chase me around, grab me and not let go and laugh in my face. If I tried to get on a swing they would push me off. Even then I didn’t like to tattle plus I heard the teachers tell other kids to work out their conflicts on their own. The teachers seemed to like to huddle by the doorway and talk to each other.

Finally, I was rescued by Toni Marshall (one of the few black kids in the class) who gave those mean girls a mouthful and became my protector. I also got my first boyfriend that fall. I do not remember his name but he gave me a ring that turned my finger green. My mom refused to let me wear it when she saw that, but I would take it to school in a pocket and put it on there. One day when I was in the lavatory, it slipped off my finger and went down the toilet. I was heart broken and too embarrassed to tell the boy what happened, except that I had lost it.

Meanwhile, my parents had found a house for sale just up the street and bought it when the old Pittsburgh house finally sold. I am told that we moved in November though I remember that not at all. My first airplane journey, two new houses, and a new school must have been just a bit too much change. Overall it was a time of happiness for me. My parents seemed more relaxed, our family was complete and we had the house we would live in until all of us sisters grew up. Daddy went off to work everyday, Mommy was basically in charge, on weekends they took care of the yard and on Sundays we went to church. Except that we had no pets, it was just like that Golden Book that I loved the best: The Happy Family.

HOW TO READ MY MEMOIR

Directly following this post is the latest chapter of my memoir, Reading For My Life. If you are new to my blog and would like to read the earlier chapters, go to the end of the current chapter and click on the "reading for my life" label at the bottom. This will take you to all of the chapters in reverse chronological order. Scroll down to the end of all that and you will find the first chapter, then read forward.

To find the reviews of the books I read for the current chapter, which covers 1953, use the archives on the left to find posts from May 24, 2008 through June 10, 2008.

The overall method for the memoir so far is that I read the Top Ten Bestsellers and a selection of other books from the year I am writing about. Then I relate the literature, history, movies, music and other cultural topics to what was happening to me and my family in that year. This is a work in progress and because of all the reading I am doing, I predict that it will take me at least a decade to complete. At that point or perhaps sooner, I may change the way I am putting this altogether. In fact, that is surely what I will do. These chapters are a way for me to keep track of my research and memories as I move through the project. For now I am posting the chapters on the blog since I have family and friends who are interested readers.

Comments are always welcome.!