Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Part Three will include the final two books on the 1940 Bestseller list as well as the first two of my own list, so here I will explain how my list gets created. I look for more literary novels, for novels by writers I am interested in or just happen to like and I include any prize winners such as the Pulitzer Prize, the Newbery Award (a young adult category), the Caldecott (children's picture books), etc. Prizes like the National Book Award, the Booker and such did not get started until later. Sometimes but interestingly not always, the Pulitzer Prize book is not a bestseller. There is quite a bit of debate about whether these prizes mean anything but I figure the book had to at least be well written to win. Many NBA winners go on to have long writing careers, such as Saul Bellow. So here is today's list:

Night in Bombay, Louis Bromfield, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1940, 351pp

Here we have the #9 bestseller of 1940 and the author had been acclaimed and winning prizes since the 1920s. Night in Bombay is about Bill, a young rich playboy type who has decided to grow up and settle down. It takes place in Bombay, India, but most of the characters are European and decadent ones at that.

Actually it is a love story with a beautiful blonde about to hit the skids and a missionary type sick with malaria. It has a happy ending and Bill does grow up and becomes a useful person. I suppose every bestseller list needs at least one romance, but it is really not much of a book.

The Family, Nina Fedorova, Little, Brown & Company, 1940, 346pp

Finally at #10 is this story of a family of White Russians, a mother, her son, daughter, nephew and mother (granny), who are exiles in China after the Russian Revolution. Japan is invading and trying to take over China and times are hard. The family runs a boarding house full of odd characters with troubles of their own, who can't quite pay their room and board.

Money is always in short supply but kindness and tea are unfailingly provided. Good things finally happen for each of the children, Granny dies and the mother comes into Granny's wisdom. It is a sentimental book, a woman's book, and yet there is quite a bit of philosophy and politics woven into an unassuming writing style along with a big dose of religion. The message is that faith and kindness are what really count. I have to admit that she had me crying at the end.

The Pulitzer Prize in 1940 went to Grapes of Wrath, which was a bestseller.
The Newbery Medal was created in 1922. It always awards a book which was published in the previous year, so I just skipped ahead and read the 1941 winner because it was published in 1940. It went to Call It Courage, Armstrong Sperry, The Macmillan Company, 95 pp. It is about a Polynesian boy who overcomes his fear of the sea (bad thing to be afraid of in Polynesia) by going off by himself in a boat and having an adventure. Good story, good writing. I was struck by how American children today have very little chance for adventures.

The Caldecott Medal is an illustrator's award so the pictures are the thing. It was created in 1938 and in 1940 went to They Were Strong and Good, written and illustrated by Robert Lawson, The Viking Press, 64 pp. It is a genealogy of the author's family written for children. The moral is that these people were strong and good and helped build this country. The illustrations brought back childhood memories of being read to by my mom. The tone is so goody-goody that it would be laughed out of existence in today's world.

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