Wednesday, October 31, 2007


The Traveler, John Twelve Hawks, Doubleday, 2005, 480 pp

This book caused a huge stir when it was released because the author has never been seen in real life by his agent, his editor, his publisher or his reading public. He communicates by satellite phone and lives "off the grid." His website is full of computer games which are way beyond me.

The Traveler is set in the future when the world is under full surveillance. A certain type of scientific/big business conglomerate, called The Vast Machine, has taken over with the intention of managing all of mankind for their own good.

Travelers are special beings who can exist in different realms and who challenge these world controllers. They are protected by super able fighters called Harlequins who are raised by their families for the sole purpose of protecting Travelers. Several of the main characters are Harlequins who, for various reasons, are resisting their role in life until a man who is possibly a Traveler gets captured by the bad guys. Actually there are two brothers whose father was a Traveler and left them and their mother years ago. One brother turns out to be the good guy, the other is bad.

Very exciting futuristic cyber-thriller stuff, which made me very aware of how much of our personal lives are watched and monitored every day. I believe Twelve Hawks coined the phrase "living off the grid." I also realized how hard it would be to do that, though we used to try back when we were hippies. My sons didn't even have birth certificates or social security numbers until I finally broke down and put them in public school.

This volume is call Book One of the Fourth Realm. OK, I am ready for Book Two.

Friday, October 26, 2007


All Over But the Shouting, Rick Bragg, Random House Inc, 1997, 328 pp

Last Christmas, two of my reading groups had book exchanges, where you take a book off your shelf, wrap it up and exchange it at the holiday party. I got this book that way. It is a memoir and I was completely absorbed while reading it. I finished it in one day.

Rick Bragg was born a poor white child in Alabama to a strong mother and an alcoholic father who deserted his family. Bragg grew up to become a reporter for various newspapers, finally working for The New York Times and winning a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. According to him, he did it all for his Momma, to pay her back for her devotion and sacrifices to her children.

He entirely evokes the life of the poor Southerner and his writing is first class. Highly recommended if you like memoirs and stories about strong mothers.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Astrid & Veronika, Linda Olsson, Penguin Books, 2005, 246 pp

This is a sad and quiet book which I read in my beautiful hotel room in Paris. Linda Olsson is Swedish, wrote the book in Swedish and so the translation has a bit of the lilt that is Swedish. Very nice.

It all takes place in a small Swedish village where Veronika, a writer, has rented a house in which to recover from a loss and write a book. Eventually she meets her neighbor Astrid, an old woman alone who has had an awful life and now keeps to herself.

These two women open up to each other and reveal their stories slowly over a year's time. This could have been a sappy novel but instead I was left with a feeling of wonder at the power of friendship and acceptance and communication.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Red River, Lalita Tademy, Warner Books, 2007, 414 pp

I read and enjoyed Tademy's first book, Cane River, a story of the women from whom she is descended. Red River is told from the men's side of the family. After the Civil War and for about 10 years, Negroes who had been slaves were free and could vote. Lalita Tademy's great-grandfather was one of a few hundred black men in Colfax, Louisiana, who tried to put the Republicans they had voted into office in their town, into office in actuality. They took possession of the courthouse and held off the southern white men who opposed them for many days, as they waited for federal troops to come to their aid. The troops never arrived and over 200 black men were massacred.

The incident came to be known as the "Colfax riot", a justification by whites for why the blacks had to be killed. Sam Tademy, who survived, went on to found the first colored school in Colfax and to hand down a legacy of hope to his fellow black people. The first half of Red River is the story of the massacre and the second half is life in and around Colfax from 1873 to 1937. It is a tale of perseverance, integrity, incredible suffering and strong family and community ties. She lays bare the effects of racism, especially on black men, while celebrating the human spirit and the miraculous results of people who have vision and purpose.

It is amazing to me how hard those people worked, how strong was their sense of survival and how completely insane racism is. Her writing is as powerful as Richard Wright's and though I liked Cane River better for its emotional impact, Red River is a very close second.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


The People's Act of Love, James Meek, Canongate, 2005, 387 pp

Here is one of the stranger books I have read in a while. Set in Russia in the early 20th century, on the edge of Siberia, it is a telling of the Russian Revolution from a perspective not usually employed. The characters are a widow, an escaped political prisoner, a stranded regiment of Czech soldiers left over from WWI and an extremely odd fanatic Christian sect who live communally after practicing castration.

As the story progresses, no one turns out to be what they seemed at first. This book is brutal and violent but laced with humor. The characters, while unique in some details, are mostly archetypes. Even though there are history, politics, love, religion, even a sort of mystery, I could not totally care about any of the characters, except to a degree, Anna, the widow.

I often found it hard to stay awake while reading, yet I do recognize that Meek has created a literary marvel. Ever since reading Ruska, by Edward Rutherford, I have felt that the Russian people are a subspecies of the human race who are hard for a Westerner to understand. No wonder they were once America's archenemy. In The People's Act of Love, James Meek has made yet another attempt to explain these people, but I don't think he understands them either.


Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for literature and I say Excellent; it's about time. Since I have been reading her books in chronological order, I feel a bit of a connection with her these days. According to her (and I don't blame her), it would have been nicer if it had happened sooner.

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield won best first novel in the Quill Awards. Now, I don't have a lot of respect for this award; it mostly seems like literature light, but I loved The Thirteenth Tale and I am happy for her that she got the recognition. The book just came out in paperback and is flying off the shelf at Once Upon A Time, the bookstore where I work.

I am working on my chapter for 1951 and as usual it is taking longer than I planned, so I will post about some recent fiction that I've been reading over the past months.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Finally we come to the end of the 1951 reading list. It is a long one: 34 books!

In this post, I will include the prize winning books for the year. Back in the early 50s, there were only four awards:

The Pulitzer Prize was created in 1917 by journalist Joseph Pulitzer for (among other categories) distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.

The Newbery Medal was created by the American Library Association in 1922 to award the most distinguished children's book. These books are usually for ages 8-12.

The Caldecott Medal is another American Library Association award, begun in 1938, to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.

The National Book Award (NBA) is the newest one, created in 1950 by a group of publishers to honor the best work in fiction, non-fiction and poetry.

I only read the fiction winners of these awards because that is the main focus of my reading project. Although there may be politics or other dirty dealing involved in the choosing of books for these awards, I am reading them as part of my research into what was being read, sold or esteemed in fiction during these years.

Onto the list...

The Witch Diggers, Jessamyn West, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1951, 441 pp

This is her second novel and it was odd but excellent. It takes place in southern Indiana where a young man named Christie has just lost his mother. He is starting out in life as an insurance agent after graduating from college. It is the turn of the century: 1899-1900.

Christie falls in love with two women and wavers between the two, but the real story is about the Conboy family. One of their daughters is Christie's fiancee for part of the story. They live at a "Poor Farm", where the father is the Administrator.

This book is full of characters, that is quirky people. One thing I like about Jessamyn West is that everyone of her characters is as unique as any real human being. She does not do stereotypes. The relationships between the Conboy family members are complex, contradictory and violently emotional. Sometimes I felt that I was learning way too much personal information about these people.

The witch diggers are two poor farm residents, brother and sister, who are somewhat cracked. They believe that the answer to what makes people happy was buried by the devil and spend all their time digging (literally) to find it. They are symbols in this story where each person is looking for happiness but mostly finding confusion, heartbreak and difficulties in connecting to other people.

I think our country was really like this a century ago. People were much different in that they were more involved in life somehow, more vital, yet similar in that they were looking for the answers to the same life questions. This story had a big impact on me.

Lie Down in Darkness, William Styron, The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc, 1951, 400 pp

I finished reading this first novel of William Styron's on the very day that he died (November 1, 2006). How weird! The novel is dark and depressing. From the articles I have read since Styron's death, I glean that his mind was dark and depressed but also sharp and brilliant, as a writer's mind should be.

I have read Sophie's Choice, his 1976 novel, twice. Of all the novels I've read, which are many, that book made one of the deepest and most lasting impressions on me. While reading Lie Down in Darkness, I could hear the writing voice of Styron, the voice I know so well from Sophie's Choice.

Lie Down in Darkness is about the suicide of young Peyton, told in back story as her mother and father live through the day of her funeral. It is a tale of mismatched people, lost connections and emotional cruelty stewed in a terrible brew of alcoholism and religion. There is no hope for these people, yet they go on trying, each in his or her own way, to redeem themselves.

Styron has said that he didn't consider himself a Southern writer but has been compared to and looked upon by critics as a literary descendant of Faulkner. He sounds and feels Southern to me but then I can think of several writers from around the world with a similar gloomy outlook and ability to portray the dark side of love and human existence. It doesn't matter. Styron was a masterful stylist with a distinct voice who has spoken in this novel for anyone who has ever felt depressed, whether for a brief period or a lifetime.

He was given hell by critics throughout his career which I consider a sign of success. It is a good thing to rile a group of people who mostly can only pronounce judgement but either cannot or dare not write fiction themselves.

The Puppet Masters, Robert A Heinlein, Doubleday and Company, 1951, 340 pp

Heinlein wrote this in 1951 and later revised it. According to his website, the revised version is the one to read, so I did. (Published by Del Ray/Ballantine in 1990.)

He is such a good writer. Of all the sci fi I have read, he is the best as far as writing chops go, not to mention story telling ability. The Puppet Masters is also extremely creepy. The story is set in 2007 and there has been an invasion of aliens who are parasitic on human bodies and even mammals. Sam Cavanaugh is an agent in an extremely under-the-radar security organization. The "Old Man" who runs it turns out to be Cavanaugh's father; a genius who regards all agents as expendable, even Sam. Mary is the other agent on the case and eventually she and Sam become emotionally involved.

Together they must determine where the aliens are from and how to get rid of them. Sam and Mary both spend some time as hosts (called being hag-ridden) and the descriptions of what the aliens do to the humans, emotionally and mentally, are truly harrowing. The book gave me nightmares.

It is a fantastic read. If you've got the mental stability, I highly recommend it.

Prince Caspian, C S Lewis, Macmillan Publishing Co Inc, 1951, 208 pp

In the Chronicles of Narnia series, Prince Caspian is #2 by publication date and #4 in the later order-to-be-read wishes of C S Lewis. In fact, it tells of the second visit to Narnia by Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. They are pulled into Narnia by magic from a railway platform where they are waiting for the train to boarding school. (What is it about railway platforms that are portals into magical worlds?)

Only a year has gone by in England but centuries have passed in Narnia. There is a new evil King and all the talking animals and magical creatures have been driven into hiding. Prince Caspian, the nephew of the evil King, has always been drawn to the "old stories" and now has his chance to put things right. The children are transformed back into High King and Queen status and along with Aslan they come to the aid of the prince.

I remember that this volume was less loved by me as a child compared to some of the others. Now I see why. It is more about the history of Narnia and less about the children. Also the vocabulary takes a huge forward leap. Even now, I had to keep the dictionary close by. When I was a child, no one ever taught me to look up words. It is a wonder that I became such a reader.


PULITZER PRIZE: The Town, Conrad Richter, Alfred A Knopf, 1950, 433 pp

It took me two starts to get into this book but once I did I found it more than good. Conrad Richter wrote a trilogy: The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946) and this one. All are about the same family, who first came to Ohio as pioneers, settled and prospered. I did not read the first two, but by the time of The Town, their little settlement has become the county seat, it is about 1840 and "progress" is changing many things including the name of their town.

Sayward Wheeler is the matriarch of the tribe. She came to Ohio as a small child and is now the mother of nine children and the wife of the town judge. She has passed her childbearing years and now watches her children grow, marry and in some cases leave. Through this character Richter unfolds the growth of the town and its increasing gentrification.

It could have been a dull read about a subject that has been covered many times but the writing is good and the stories of these people have impact. I found myself turning the pages and caring deeply for the characters. Finally I gained a deeper understanding of the history of the Midwest, which was my home for many years.

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD: Collected Stories of William Faulkner, Random House Inc, 1950, 893 pp

The second ever NBA is this huge book of stories. I must confess that I did not read the whole collection but I did read about half of the stories. Some of them were very good but too many were either not exciting or too hard to follow. There are 42 stories in all, some of which were collected in other books and some from magazines. I read in a biography of Faulkner that he wrote short stories to pay the bills. I see.

NEWBERY AWARD: Amos Fortune, Free Man, Elizabeth Yates, E P Dutton & Co Inc, 1950, 181 pp

Amos Fortune was a slave who was brought to America in 1725. He had been the prince of his tribe in Africa. He has the great good fortune to be sold to a Quaker in Boston, who treats him well, teaches him the trade of weaving and allows Amos to learn to read.

So Amos' life goes that way. He eventually gains his freedom, buys the freedom of other slaves (one of whom becomes his wife) and becomes a respected tanner who even owns his own property. He suffers the slings and arrows of prejudice without reacting in violence. He is hardworking and thrifty so he and his family are not poor.

It is possibly an unlikely story or at least unusual but I liked it because it portrays a man with many excellent virtues who happens to be Black; a man who never agreed that he should be a slave and rose above his misfortune; a man who never deserted his race or looked down on those who did not have the strengths he had. I cried at the end out of admiration for all the suffering that he overcame.

CALDECOTT MEDAL: The Egg Tree, Katherine Milhous, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950, 29 pp

The winner of the Caldecott Award in 1951 was written and illustrated by the same person. It takes place in Pennsylvania Dutch country on an Easter Day. A large group of cousins are having an Easter egg hunt at their grandmother's. One girl finds a box of beautifully painted eggs in the attic covered in Pennsylvania Dutch designs.

The grandmother shows the children how to make such eggs and another cousin has the idea to cut a small tree for the eggs to be hung on. This becomes a tradition for the kids who make an even bigger egg tree the next year. The idea spreads through the whole area.

The story brought back happy memories of coloring Easter eggs with my sisters. Eventually one of my sisters had the idea of making an egg tree. My mother still cuts a branch of forsythia at Easter time and hangs colored eggs on it.

Friday, October 12, 2007


The Green Hills of Earth, Robert A Heinlein, Signet Books, 1951, 176 pp

Again we have a collection of stories which Heinlein published in various magazines in the 1940s. The stories all concern space travel and living on such locations as Space Station #1, Moon Base, Venus and Mars.

Heinlein's writing in these stories has developed. His characters are believable. His dialogue is good. The level of emotion is high and I felt what these characters were feeling. You get what it is like to be a spacer with family back on Earth, or to be a couple who have lived on Mars and try to move back to Earth.

So while it is a collection of stories, I enjoyed the book because I was drawn into a world where space travel and life on other planets is made very real.

Requiem For A Nun, William Faulkner, Random House Inc, 1951, 286 pp

Faulkner always has a surprise. This novel was written as a play. Before each act is a prose section which covers the history of Jefferson, a town in Faulkner's invented Yoknapathawpha County. The play concerns Temple and Gowan Stevens, whose baby has been murdered by their nanny. Gavin Stephens, the main character from Intruder in the Dust (see Books Read From 1948), is Temple's uncle and the lawyer who defended Nancy Mamaigoe, the nanny. Nancy is a local black women with a bad history.

As the play moves on though, it turns out that Temple has an unsavory past herself and all is not as it seems. The reader gets the whole story by the end; a story which began in the 1939 novel, Sanctuary, which I have not read. Also by the end, I could see why he began with the history of Jefferson. The courthouse and the jail where Nancy awaits execution both figure in this history. The history deals with truth vs lies and the way that events and history ultimately establish truth. Nancy's and Temple's histories have an odd relationship to truth as well.

So, while this was not one of Faulkner's classic novels, it is definitely Faulkner, his themes, his way with a story. The novel was adapted for the stage and the play ran in New York City for several months in 1959. I think I would have been less lost if I had read Sanctuary so I recommend reading them in order.

The Troubled Air, Irwin Shaw, Random House Inc, 1951, 418 pp

This is a story about the "Red Scare" and its impact on people who worked in radio. Clem Archer is the producer of a radio drama that airs weekly. The actors, writers and composer of music are all, to one degree or another, his friends. One day he gets word from the radio station head to fire four of them because their names are about to appear in a right wing magazine where they will be accused of being communists. The sponsor of the program doesn't want any trouble.

Archer is one of those 1940s style heroes: he has integrity and some guts, but he also suffers from a sort of innocence. He has a high-maintenance wife who is pregnant at the age of 39 and having trouble with that. He tries to hold out against the radio station and the sponsor, making his own investigation of the accused persons and even personally confronting the sponsor.

In the end, he is betrayed by a man whom he considered his best friend. He loses big time but preserves his family. The telling of this tale is fairly melodramatic, as I imagine those radio dramas from that time to be. But Shaw does an excellent job of portraying the unthinking hysteria of the times, the effects of a lack of due process on people's lives during a witch hunt and the individual fears and prejudices of the people who participate in or aid the hunt. The Troubled Air is the first book I have come across to deal with the communist threat.

The End of the Affair, Graham Greene, The Viking Press, 1951, 240 pp

This is one of Greene's dramatic novels dealing with love and infidelity, though the question of God and faith is there as well. Maurice Bendrix is a writer living in London. He recounts his affair with Sarah Miles, a married woman who lived across the common. It is one of those stories, like Penelope Lively's The Photograph, where you slowly learn the back story while the current story goes on. In fact, the two novels are similar in other ways. I wonder if Greene was an influence of Lively's.

In any case, the whole novel is a study in opposites: love/hate, atheism/faith, friend/enemy. The coin always flips and some of it is tragic but some is comic. It was not one of my favorite Graham Greene novels. He made all the characters real and flawed but I did not find one for whom I felt any sympathy. Maurice Bendrix was the least sympathetic of all.

World So Wide, Sinclair Lewis, Random House Inc, 1951, 250 pp

I had thought that The God-Seeker was Lewis' last book, but it turns out he had one more. Hayden Chart is an architect in a growing Colorado city set in the contemporary times of 1950. He is successful, somewhat unhappily married and feels unfulfilled in his life. Then his wife is killed in an automobile accident when Hayden drives off the road. Hayden himself is badly injured.

Once he recovers, he goes off to Europe to pursue a life of travel and study. The story starts out well with these big questions about identity and the meaning of life. In his usual ironic manner, Lewis makes fun of Americans living in Europe: the way they keep to themselves, their social pretensions and inability to learn the language of the countries where they live. Hayden ends up in Florence and begins his study of old European history and writing, but from that point on the book deteriorates into a rather screwy love story and loses its earlier promise.

Barbary Shore, Norman Mailer, Rinehart & Co Inc, 1951, 312 pp

One of the strangest books I have ever read. I can't say that I liked it. The Naked and the Dead, his first book, was so amazing. The only similarity here is the intensity.

Mikey Lovett is a young writer and tells the story. He seems to be an amnesia victim from WWII. He takes a room in a rooming house in New York City so he can live cheaply and write a novel. But he is drawn into a group of people in the house who are all so bizarre, quite mad and really the reader cannot tell what is going on for half of the book.

Finally you make out that there is an agent of some group (government? political?) who is trying to get something from the landlady's husband. That husband was prominent in a communist government somewhere. All very vague. The last quarter of the story is mostly composed of political, quasi-Marxist theory, expounded by the ex-communist. There are also two women and a child who are the oddest of all and it is not clear exactly how they figure in the story. Is this a book about the failure of the communist revolution? Could be.

The writing reminded me of Kobe Abe. I get that Mailer is known for a certain inconsistency in his books. I've read two so far and I see the pattern.

The Catcher in the Rye, J D Salinger, Little Brown & Company, 1951, 192 pp

I first read The Catcher in the Rye when I was in high school. For some reason, it was a hot book in the 60s. Even my dad was into it. Maybe he was trying to understand teens. It is again amazing to me what I remembered and what I didn't. Mostly I remembered Holden Caufield's relationship with his sister Phoebe and the last section of the book when he was with her.

What I didn't remember is that he was a junior in prep school, that he'd been expelled for low grades and that the reason he was knocking around alone in New York City was that he ran away. That is so odd because I ran away from college in my sophomore year.

The vernacular way of talking that Holden has, in his first person account, seems to me probably not the way teens talked in 1951, but it sure is the way they've talked ever since. Did Salinger invent this? What is so true is the way everything that grownups say and want is boring to Holden. Anything that someone his own age does that he likes gets a "that kills me."

I also forgot the scene where his old teacher comes on to him. I could have sworn that wasn't even in the book before.

Well, he nailed it. The disturbed teen who is not with the program and doesn't fit in. Every teen feels that way at some time.

The Stars Like Dust, Isaac Asimov, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1951, 169 pp

Not as good as his last, Pebble in the Sky, but not bad. It is a story about a group of planets under oppressive rule who want their freedom. The hero is a young man without social graces and with a bad temper. There is a romance and a mystery.

The mystery is the best thing about the story because you cannot tell who the bad guy actually is until the very end. Lots of action, plot twists and good outer space data about hyper-space jumps and how to find habitable planets for humans. Unfortunately it has a hokey ending.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


The next three posts will cover other books I read which were published in 1951. These include authors whose full oeuvre I am working through (such as Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, etc) as well as books I simply came across in browsing. Finally, I am also covering books that won the major literary awards.

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, The Novels and Stories of Carson McCullers, Carson McCullers, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1951, 791 pp

This is a collection of most of the pieces of Carson McCullers' work. It includes:
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, a long story, very dark yet moving. A strong manly woman and a male dwarf with a hunchback live in a sort of co-dependant relationship. It all ends badly and reminded me of a scene from Dickens' Great Expectations.

Six short stories: The Jockey, Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland, The Sojourner, A Domestic Dilemma, A Tree-A Rock-A Cloud. In every story the characters are odd and eccentric, the way most people are inside. McCullers always delves for what goes on inside.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I remembered reading this in high school and thinking it was the saddest story I ever read. It is about how most people are basically alone but trying to connect somehow. Mick, the teenage girl and Singer, the deaf mute are the characters I remembered but in this re-reading I found Dr Copeland, the negro doctor; Jake, the crazy commie; and Mr Brannon, who owns the all-night restaurant. Each in his own way was watching out for Mick.

Reflections in A Golden Eye. Way dysfunctional people: army guys, their wives, infidelity and one crazed young soldier who reminded me of a guy in a Flannery O'Conner book.

The Member of the Wedding. I liked this one the best. Frankie, a 12 year old girl, wants to be part of a wedding just so she can feel included. The story evokes what it is really like to be 12 in the summer.

What I found in this collection was a complete dearth of hope, excruciatingly accurate descriptions of southern summer heat, the human heart and its sufferings exposed and raw. Powerful writing, powerful emotional effect, like Faulkner, et al.

The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury, Doubleday & Company, 1951, 253 pp

The illustrated man is an out of work side-show performer who is covered with tattoos. These tattoos are works of art but at night they also move and tell stories that predict the future. The Illustrated Man is a collection of those stories.

The stories are all futuristic, though some take place on earth, some on other planets. There are stories about nuclear war, racism, rockets, time travel and space travel. Most of the stories had been published earlier in magazines and the pulps. But aside from the theme of the future, the variety made for a book that did not come together as well as I, Robot or The Martian Chronicles.

However, one other integrating feature was that the author is unmistakably Ray Bradbury. The oddity, the slightly creepy feeling, side by side with the humanitarian concerns, are what I have come to expect from this author. He does not really bother with modern or futuristic technology but thru his imagination works out all kinds of frightening present and future prospects.

This Was the Old Chief's Country, Doris Lessing, Thomas Y Crowell, 1952, 175 pp

This was Doris Lessing's first story collection. Since it was published in England in 1951, I read it for that year. I actually had to get a later collection, African Stories, in which I found the 10 stories that were originally in This Was the Old Chief's Country, which may be out of print.

The country of the title was Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when Doris Lessing was writing the stories. She was born and raised there and her writing so excellently evokes that area that the reader feels she is there. The stories include racial issues but also deal with the social conflicts of the whites who farmed the land. Her accounts of the interaction between white landowners and the natives who worked for them are the work of someone who lived through those times and grew up to be miraculously free of racism. She clearly loves the land and ALL of its people.

One other thing I must say about Lessing's writing at this early stage of her long career, is that it is wonderfully good. As I read these stories, I was not even aware of the writing. I was just there and living the story along with the characters. How she did that, I have no idea.

Hangsaman, Shirley Jackson, Farrar Straus and Young Inc, 1951, 280 pp

Shirley Jackson is best known for her short story, The Lottery, which can be found in many short story collections and on college English reading lists. Hangsaman is her second novel and just the title is a bit creepy. The book is much more than creepy.

Natalie Waite is seventeen and setting off for college. Her father is a writer and she has a close but not fully comfortable relationship with him. Her mother is unhappy in her marriage; she cooks and drinks and likes to warn Natalie about the horrors of marriage for a woman.

Natalie herself lives mostly in a dream world where she creates stories about herself. She does not blend in at college. Her freshman experience is eerily similar to that of Lee Fiora in Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep which I read just three weeks before I read this novel. It is also vaguely similar to my freshman year. I was not as emotionally maladjusted as Natalie, but I surely was confused and unhappy.

As the story moves along, it gets more and more creepy. I thought that Natalie was going crazy and it would end in her suicide. But it does not. She comes out of it in a sort of female hero state. Not an outward hero, but an inner one who conquers demons. This was a very satisfying book and something new. Only so far has Simone deBeauvoir written this much truth about female life.

Foundation, Isaac Asimov, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1951, 200 pp

OK, I read this once before but I didn't really get it, although I could tell it was good. Now I have learned that this book was compiled from stories he wrote in the 1940s for "Astounding Science Fiction". For the book, he wrote an intro chapter describing the psychohistorians and tweaked some of the stories to make them flow.

There was a Galactic Empire, it got bloated and complacent, it died. Hari Seldon, the original psychohistorian, used advanced math to predict the future. He wrangled a deal with the Empire in its dying days that would keep knowledge safe and made a plan that would shorten the inevitable dark ages after the Empire expired.

Each chapter deals with a moment of crisis, called a "Seldon Crisis", when certain individuals could see what needed to be done to move things along. The coolest thing was that it was never the established psychohistorians who could see what to do but some upstart guy who by chance also knew his psychohistory.

I really liked the book this time. I learned from Asimov's autobiography that he got his ideas for this series by reading Gibbons' Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire three times as he was growing up. Wow!

The Tentmaker, Julius Berstl, Rinehart & Co Inc, 1951, 312 pp

This is a story of the early life of St Paul. It depicts Paul as a high-strung, spiritual seeker born into a materialistic family. I got this book for free at a closing of a used bookstore in Burbank, CA, several years ago. It sat on my shelf and entered into the list of books for 1951. It is a translation from German.

I had to put the book down for a couple months in the middle of reading it. It was either the author's style or was intentional in conveying Paul's character, but it is so intense, Paul is so tormented and this goes on almost to the end of the book, that it was quite heavy reading. But good. It provoked in me many thoughts about seeking spiritual truth and freedom.

Poor Cousin Evelyn, James Yaffe, Little Brown and Company, 1951, 269 pp

I read this a few years ago when I was on a reading plan to take the first book in the fiction section of the library from each letter of the alphabet. I read some very odd books, some bad books and quite a few interesting books that I would otherwise have never come across. This was the first book I ever read, since I started keeping records, by an author whose last name started with Y. Since it was published in 1951, it made it onto the list.

These are short stories about Jews on New York City's West Side in the 1940s. How else would a girl like me learn anything about this except by reading a book? Good preparation for Amos Oz, Saul Bellow and others. Yaffe is a fine storyteller who writes about great characters and life truths.

Tracy's Tiger, William Saroyan, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1951, 143 pp

Thomas Tracy has an imaginary tiger that is really a black panther. Tracy falls in love with a girl but scares her off with his passion. Somehow the tiger becomes visible, is mistaken for an escaped zoo is really a silly story that is more like a dream. It ends happily.

But Saroyan gets to make fun of psychiatrists, newspaper reporters, policemen and the gullible common people. It is a kind of modern day fairy tale, quite short, with illustrations. The writing is not great, except here and there. Yet, Tracy is a good hero and love conquers all.

Saturday, October 06, 2007


The following books comprise the second half of the top 10 bestsellers of 1951.

The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Monsarrat, Alfred A Knopf, 1951, 510 pp

Here is another of four books about World War II to make the list in 1951. At #6, The Cruel Sea takes place on the Atlantic Ocean and involves the British Navy.

Monsarrat takes the reader through the entire war, beginning with the building and staffing of a corvette in 1939. The corvette was a small and minimally equipped ship, designed to provide escort and protection for supply ships. In 1939, they did not even have radar, so life at sea was dangerous in the extreme. From 1940 through 1943, German submarines had the upper hand in the Atlantic and only about half of the supply ships reached their destination. The other aspect of the cruel sea was weather, the Atlantic being known for storms, cold and fog.

The two main characters are the captain, Ericson and his first lieutenant, Lockhart. After looking up Monsarrat on the web, I am sure that Lockhart is the author, who states that the novel is based on a true story. He keeps a good balance of adventure versus the human stories of various sailors and of defeats versus victories.

This is a patriotic story and very pro-British Navy, but not in an annoying way. You get a fair portrayal of the differences of viewpoint between military and civilian. He also gives a humorous picture of Americans from the British side of the story. It occurred to me, while reading this book, what a difference it made for the United States that the war was not fought on our land. We may have suffered from rationing, but American civilians had no concept of the devastation and losses which all European civilians had to undergo.

The Cruel Sea is, according to an article in "Bookmarks" magazine, one of the World War II books that is still read today. I think that would be because of the masterful descriptions of life at sea. I was bored a few times while reading this novel, but generally was involved and excited by it.

Melville Goodwin, USA, John P Marquand; Little, Brown and Company; 1951; 596 pp

This is the fifth bestseller I've read by this author since 1940. It was #7 on the list for 1951 and the fourth book on the list about war and the military. Marquand has a very smooth style which lays out a story for the reader and at the same time involves you emotionally with each character.

Sidney Skelton is a radio commentator and the narrator of the book. He has his own troubles with his amount of fame, the way his income is made and the entertainment industry in general. But the main character is General Melville Goodwin, US Army, West Point graduate, husband, father and overall good person.

The entire life story of Goodwin unfolds and Sidney Skelton's connection with him from WWII brings them together again. Goodwin is a career soldier and has clear, simple views about it all. As long as he is in action, he is happy and has no doubts about anything.

Peacetime is a different story and Melville Goodwin falls into various pitfalls including "woman trouble". Sidney feels obliged to try to help him out. The book then is a study of military life versus civilian life, between which there is a lack of reality on both sides. It is also a study of what happens to committed generals like Goodwin when the war is over. Basically peacetime is unexciting and all they really have to hope for is another war, because that is what they are trained to do.

In the background of all this is Marquand's signature viewpoint about women, which is that they actually run the show. So this was, I think, a representative novel of the times in 1951. It is a time of postwar malaise and adjusting to peacetime. While the wind down goes on in Europe, new wars are being cooked up. Yet, it is different from many of the postwar novels in its attempt to understand and even admire the military sector of our nation.

Return to Paradise, James A Michener, Random House Inc, 1951, 416 pp

Michener wrote this as a follow-up to Tales of the South Pacific, which came out in 1947 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948, starting off a long career of bestselling books for the author. Tales was a memoir of fighting World War II in the Pacific and in Return to Paradise, Michener revisits each island covered in the first book. I suppose it counts as fiction because he makes up stories about soldiers and the natives with whom they interact.

The format here is a report on how each island is doing in the late 1940s followed by a short story, island by island. It is not his best writing in my opinion and was quite boring to get through. I read this book about six years ago when I was attempting to do a full chronological read of Michener's books and in my report I wrote, "He also gets a bit of his own world political view in." I now do not recall what that view was except that Michener was not a writer to denigrate the United States in any way.

The Foundling, Francis Cardinal Spellman, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951, 304 pp

The #9 bestseller for 1951 was written by a Catholic Cardinal who was Archbishop of New York for 28 years beginning in 1939. I wonder how a Catholic Archbishop becomes a bestselling author of fiction. Judging from the book, it isn't because he is a good writer.

Peter Lane was found in the manger of the Christmas display in Saint Patrick's Cathedral by a young soldier just returning home from WW I. The soldier brings him to a home for foundlings and is prevented from adopting the boy because he is not Catholic, while the home for foundlings is a Catholic institution.

The book follows Peter's life and includes the way the young soldier and his wife stay in touch with Peter. It is horribly written, sappy and sentimental and a stunningly boring read. Spellman seems to be saying that all religions should be recognized but at the same time, supporting the idea that a Catholic can only be raised by Catholics. Sometimes I get so tired of double-speak.

The Wanderer, Mika Waltari, G P Putnam's Sons, 1951, 438 pp

This is the third and last of Waltari's books to be a top ten bestseller; in fact it was #10 in 1951. It continues the story of Michael, the main character in The Adventurer, which was #9 on the list in 1950.

Still in the 16th century, Michael and his faithful friend Andy set off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem because Michael wants forgiveness for his sins. But they are soon captured by Moslems and must convert to save their lives. Even though they are slaves for the rest of the story, Michael becomes the right hand man to the advisor of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and lives a life of luxury for many years. Thus you get the story of Suleiman's attempts to rule the world.

Once again, as in his other two books, travel, adventure, war and political intrigue abound at a non-stop pace. Waltari's point is that war, politics and religion go together and keep a world in turmoil. The Moslems and the Christians are equally corrupt but this game of conquest, riches and power is what keeps everyone going, including the women, the slaves and the Jews. Michael is always looking for knowledge, wisdom and peace, but he never finds it.

Friday, October 05, 2007


This post contains micro-reviews of the first five of the top 10 bestsellers of 1951.

From Here to Eternity, James Jones, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951, 860 pp

The #1 bestseller in 1951 is also the longest book on the list. Along with many other books from this era, we are back in the army again, on Schofield Army Base in Hawaii, just before, during and a bit after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This is a very good book and hard to describe because it encompasses so much.

Using the microcosm of one army company, Jones writes about life including men, women, hopes, goals, love, politics, organization, justice, ethics and philosophy. The two main characters are career army guys; called 30 year men. They are in the army because it is the best thing they have found in life, but they are not upper class West Point officers; they are just guys.

Robert E Lee Prewitt is a Kentucky boy, a coal miner's son. After some youthful years riding box cars and being on the bum, he enlisted as soon as he was old enough. He is a musician, a tough guy full of energy, but he has certain limits beyond which he will not go. He is basically what's needed in a soldier when there is a war going on but he has a problem with authority, so he gets in lots of trouble.

Sergeant Milt Warden runs the orderly room. He is one of those guys who actually keeps the regiment organized and gets away with just about anything because he is the only one who can do the job.

But underneath all the politicking, the drinking, the whoring, of which there is plenty in this story, these men are looking for a woman to love, something to make sense of it all and, probably most basic, they are looking for action. Huge periods of time in army life are boring: either mind-numbing drills and drudgery or just plain waiting. In peace time it is one hundred times more boring.

So, great stuff for stories, trouble, humor and tragedy. This is my favorite kind of book. It might be thought of as a man's book but I was never bored because it is about people. The novel stands way above most of this genre because the characters are so real, so interesting and the writing is superb.

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

The #2 bestseller in 1951 is also about World War II, but in the US Navy this time. Willie Keith was raised with money and comfort. He went to Princeton and was knocking around New York City as a nightclub entertainer when it was time to get into the armed forces and fight the war.

He is already a conflicted character, trying to escape his overbearing mother but not sure what to do with his life. His girlfriend is from an Italian family of recent immigrants and would not fit in his mother's world. So Willie joins the Navy and thus begins to grow up. He has to confront the discipline of military life, life on a small minesweeper, cranky incomprehensible commanding officers, etc.

When I read these novels about the military, it is truly a wonder that we won the war. The quality of people, in all levels of rank, was just not that high. It always sounds like they barely muddled through. On Willie's ship, the officers are guys like Willie, who rose up because of the demands of war. He is a spoiled boy, another is an aspiring novelist with no faintest sense of responsibility, a third is a blue collar fisherman who would rather be in the Navy than go back to fishing.

Between them, they actually create a mutiny on their ship. There is a Court Martial. Lives are ruined. Willie gets off fairly unscathed and figures out his love life. He is stronger, more responsible, but still has a bunch of silly illusions.

The Caine Mutiny was a pretty good story, too long and I'm not really sure what the message was. It represents a huge leap in writing quality for Wouk and won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1952.

Moses, Sholem Asch, G P Putnam's Sons, 1951, 505 pp

I dreaded another dreary slog through a Sholem Asch book, but this one was his best and actually moved along very well. It is the story of the Exodus. (I'll be reading the Leon Uris version when I get to the 1959 list.) Asch follows the bible story closely, at least as I remember it, but adds enough Egyptian history to place the story in the world.

I was the most struck by the plight Moses faced. He took a people who had been slaves for generations and had to make them into a nation united with a common purpose. He had to teach them their destiny as God's chosen people, teach them discipline and righteousness, teach them what he felt was God's will. He also had the role of intervening between God and the people and convincing God to have mercy on the people when they were disobedient and went astray.

As a child, learning this story in Sunday School, I did not grasp the many significances of the story. Who knows how much in this novel is Asch's interpretation? Since I have always been on some spiritual path in my life, I was intrigued by the concept of a group of people made responsible for mankind's destiny. That responsibility most assuredly sets such a group of people apart from the common, run-of-the-mill antics of human beings. It is a lot to ask and the big question is, would such a group ever achieve the goal of bringing all of mankind to a higher spiritual plane?

From my studies of religion, every different one has a version of that same goal. I think it is the dream of all people.

The Cardinal, Henry Morton Robinson

This book is a holdover from 1950, when it was #1. See my review in the post "BOOKS READ FROM 1950, PART ONE." I will just say here that this is one of three highly religious books on the bestseller list for 1951 which says much about the beginning of the decade.

A Woman Called Fancy, Frank Yerby, The Dial Press, 1951, 309 pp

Another Frank Yerby bestseller; #5 in 1951. I am not a fan of Frank Yerby.

Fancy is a poor girl from the Carolina hills who runs away to Augusta, Georgia in 1880. After escaping from lecherous men with her virtue intact, she falls for Courtland Brantley, son of an antebellum plantation family fallen on hard times. Court naturally is hopelessly in love with his brother's wife but he marries Fancy, who rises from her humble origins and helps Court make a fortune.

Improbable romantic historical fiction as usual for Yerby, though Fancy is a more rounded character than most of Yerby's heroines. He also gets in some good digs at racism and the treatment of Blacks in the South and the North.


I may have no readers left; I've not posted in so long. I had a fine summer with lots of reading done while I enjoyed my job at the bookstore and spent long hours watering and caring for my yard and flowers. But alas, my work on Reading For My Life (working title of my memoir of reading and growing up) languished. I was entranced with current fiction this summer and most of the fiction of the 1950s just pales in comparison.

I do, however, truly desire to continue and (if I live long enough) complete My Big Fat Reading Project and the memoir. Thanks to some guardian angel of writers, I have one friend and fellow writer who is interested in reading more. Fall is here with its reminders of beginning the school year and learning new things, so in the last few weeks I returned to the list for 1953, which is the one I am supposed to be reading from. It is a long list and has some truly nap-inducing tomes on it, especially among the bestsellers, but I have gritted my teeth and plunged back in. What is wrong with naps anyway? Absolutely nothing.

Last week, I read an inspiring and educational little book about writing: Ron Carlson Writes a Story, by Ron Carlson, who teaches creative writing at UC Irvine and has published countless short stories. If you are any kind of writer, I recommend it. I learned some good things from his 112 pages, one of which is that one doesn't necessarily need to know how a story will end before writing it. I think the dreaded writer's block is not a vague malaise but a specific thing at a specific time for any writer, which boils down to some dumb idea one didn't know one was operating on that has dried up the writing urge. Anyway, it appears that thinking I needed to know where I was going in writing was holding me up.

Then I took a look at what worked to get me through the last couple chapters and it was posting it on the blog and at least imagining that there were some people waiting to read it. So I have returned to the blogosphere and am hoping it works for me and keeps me going. I have the reading done for 1951 and 1952 with the chapters boiling in my mind but not written down. I will finish the reading for 1953 in the next few weeks. So here goes!