Saturday, February 16, 2008


The Grass Harp, Truman Capote, Random House Inc, 1951, 181 pp

Truman Capote is a good storyteller. So far in his books he keeps telling the same story: a young boy loses his parents and is sent to live with weird relatives. Apparently the variations on this are endless.

In this case, he is put in the care of two spinster cousins of his father's. One is a business woman who owns half of the small southern town including the sheriff. The other cousin runs the house, has a half-breed Indian/Black friend who is toothless and becomes the boy's friend, pseudo mother and spiritual adviser.

After an argument between the sisters, the boy, the dreamy cousin and her friend "run away" to a tree house. This causes an uproar in the town. The boy finally gets a friend for the first time in his life. The cousin gets a sweetheart. The "mean cousin" gets a heart. All ends well and they go back home. It is almost like the Wizard of Oz, but completely enjoyable reading the whole way.

The Natural, Bernard Malamud, Farrar Straus and Giroux Inc, 1952, 241 pp

My first experience with this author was a good one. Roy Hobbs is a country boy with a natural skill and talent for baseball. He gets discovered by Sam, a fairly washed-up alcoholic scout who takes Roy to Chicago. Roy Hobbs turns out to be a cursed man and the whole story is about his determination to make baseball history. Though he comes very close to achieving his dream, his curse gets him in the end.

The writing is very fine. Malamud portrays the characters of baseball with a sure hand, especially for a first novel, as well as the shifty, sometimes evil ways of the men with the money. His weakest point might be the female characters although they are possibly characteristic of the times.

The Natural was made into a movie with Robert Redford. My husband says it is the baseball movie of all time and that he has seen it three times. (Somewhere on the web I found that the movie changes the book quite a bit with a whole different ending and message.) The book is a classic of its time along with The Man With the Golden Arm, by Nelson Algren; Wise Blood, by Flannery O'Connor; and Catcher in the Rye, by J D Salinger; all stories about the underbelly of American life. All was not suburban peace and prosperity in the 1950s.

Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut, Delacorte Press, 1952, 295 pp

Kurt Vonnegut's first novel is set in a postwar future where machines do all the work, engineers and businessmen rule and the haves are bored while the have-nots have lost their self respect and feel their lives have no purpose.

Dr Paul Proteus, son of one of the major developers of this machine age, has doubts about it all, despite his high position and comfortable life. When an old friend shows up and declares he has quit, they get involved with a revolutionary group that plans to wipe out the machines.

The plot is unlikely but the black humor is well done. He takes on all the issues including women, religion and the masses. I was reminded of some Edward Abbey novels and the one Stanley Elkins book I read.

Foundation and Empire, Isaac Asimov, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1952, 224 pp

This is the second in the Foundation Trilogy. It was so good that I immediately went on to the third book after finishing this one.

In Foundation and Empire, a "mutant" called The Mule, who has the ability to control and change people's emotions, begins a series of conquests in the crumbling First Empire. He throws an unknown and unexpected monkey wrench into the Foundation's plans for rebuilding the Second Empire.

How he is defeated is the story here. It reads like a combination of epic adventure and mystery. (I am beginning to see that mystery is an element of many good tales outside of the mystery genre.) Once again Asimov shows off his plotting chops as well as an impressive grasp of the ways of men, governments, science and society.

The Currents of Space, Isaac Asimov, Street & Smith Publications Inc, 1952, 172 pp

A spatio-analyst discovers that, due to certain currents in space, a planet will be destroyed. But this planet produces a commodity upon which a whole interplanetary civilization is economically dependent. Naturally the businessmen cannot have the spatio-analyst's discovery become broadly known, so they subject him to a psychic probe which wipes much of his memory.

All of that happens in the prologue. The rest of the story is about how he regains his memory and averts the annihilation of millions of people. Asimov's genius at plotting makes the story exciting on every page. He also has a range of vision about society, economics and science which is astounding and make him truly one of the greats of science fiction. Plus he produced two of these tales in one year! Now I really see what all the raving is about.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


In this and the next two posts I will cover other books from 1952; books that I rather arbitrarily decided to put on my list because I am interested in the authors or because they were representative books of the times.

The Soft Voice of the Serpent, Nadine Gordimer, Simon & Schuster, 1952, 244 pp

Nadine Gordimer's first book is a collection of short stories set in South Africa. I read the stories at the rate of a few each day; a much better method of reading than going straight through the book, because I can start each story with the expectation that it will be just a nugget of writing that will end very soon. Historically, I wonder if Gordimer or Doris Lessing would have had careers had the riots against apartheid not erupted in the late 1940s, made headlines and drawn world attention.

I was not as entranced with the writing here as I was by that of Doris Lessing. This is highly well-constructed prose but more distant, less deep when it comes to emotion. Gordimer covers race, love between man and woman, marriage, infidelity and social class conflict.

I ended up with a picture of South African life in that era. The white people there are of English and Dutch descent and have ties to those societies and nations, though they were not as shaken or influenced by WWII. This time in South Africa was a calm before the storm.

Martha Quest, Doris Lessing, Simon & Schuster Inc, 1952, 248 pp

This is her second novel and was not nearly as powerful as her first, The Grass is Singing (1950). It is the first of what she calls the Children of Violence series, of which there are five books. She depicts the strain of growing up female in the highly conventional society of English people who farm in South Africa. Martha Quest is that female and she has a high intelligence but no experience of life except what she has read in books.

When she finally breaks away and goes to the city to work, she falls in with a fast, young crowd who are in fact just as conventional in their own youthful way. After a love affair with someone outside that circle, which shocks them all, she impulsively marries the first man who asks her.

Martha is a young woman who never shows her true feelings, so the reader is told over and over how bad Martha feels but how differently she acts. I found this supremely annoying but reflecting on it now, I believe I did the same when I was young. It is almost an automatic response to an upbringing that attempts to groom a woman to be "what a man wants."

Doris Lessing is a writer who does not mince words, who gets under your skin. Perhaps she intended for Martha Quest to upset the reader. If so, she succeeded.

Arrow in the Blue, Arthur Koestler, The Macmillan Company, 1952, 353 pp

Arthur Koestler is one of my favorite authors and wrote powerful novels like Darkness at Noon, The Scum of the Earth, Arrival and Departure. This first volume of Arthur Koestler's autobiography covers the years 1905-1931. He was born in Budapest of Jewish parents. His father was of Russian descent, his mother Prussian/Austrian. She was approaching middle age when Arthur was born and suffered from chronic headaches, among other ailments. They lived in boarding houses and Arthur was cared for by nannies and governesses. He grew up feeling guilty and fearful, never had any friends but was extremely bright and studied science.

He became a newspaper man, lived in Israel, Paris and Germany. In 1931, at the end of the book, he has just joined the Communist party. He describes how he became a seeker after utopias, how he learned to make his living by writing and how psychoanalysis became his tool for understanding life.

His writing here is perceptive, intelligent and moving as it is in his novels but with a good deal more humor. There were sections that I found dry and boring but overall I was drawn, as I always am, into a writer's life story. The best parts for me were his descriptions of the fears and misconceptions of childhood; also his analysis of the stages a person goes through when becoming involved in any sort of ism or religious system.

The Judgment of Paris, Gore Vidal, EP Dutton & Company Inc, 1952, 374 pp

I did not like this one much. Supposedly he is retelling the legend of Paris and the Golden Apple in modern terms (I looked up the legend in Bullfinch's Mythology) but I think it was pretty much a stretch.

Philip Warren is an American, a recent college graduate, spending a year in Europe to "find himself" and decide what to do with his life. He meets up with all sorts of odd people, gets involved with three women (as does Paris in the legend) but decides nothing and returns to America.

Read as a spoof or piece of irony, it sort of works but I don't like getting to the end of a book and thinking, so what?

Men at Arms, Evelyn Waugh, Little Brown and Company, 1952, 342 pp

Two ironic novels in a row. This author is English so the irony is more deeply imbedded. For most of the book, I thought he was being serious. Guy Crouchback comes from an old English family of declining fortune and social standing. He has not been successful at much so when WWII comes he decides to join the army even though he is in his late 30s.

After much rejection, he gets into a historical regiment called The Halberdiers and then the story is about army life. Well, I've read plenty of those stories now and I like the American ones better. Being a pacifist, I don't exactly get the allure of armies and battles. Couldn't those urges be satisfied by team sports?

So I liked the character studies. I got the ridiculous waste and inefficiency involved in training and moving men around. Waugh is a good writer no matter what he is writing about. Otherwise I was not excited, enlightened or enriched by this novel.

Monday, February 11, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 10, 2008


This is part of my Big Fat Reading Project, where I am reading the top 10 bestsellers plus selected other books for each year beginning in 1940. It is a research project which at this point I plan to incorporate into a memoir I am writing.

In this post are my micro reviews of the first five bestsellers from 1952. To read about the books I read from the earlier years, click on the label at the bottom of this post: Big Fat Reading Project.

The Silver Chalice, Thomas B Costain, Doubleday & Company, 1952, 533 pp

At #1 on the 1952 bestseller list is historical fiction about the first years of the Holy Grail. Most of the story takes place in Antioch and centers around a gifted silversmith named Basil. Through a series of unfortuante events, Basil finds himself a slave, but he meets Luke, the Physician, author of one of the four gospels of the New Testament.

Eventually Luke and Basil travel to Jerusalem and the home of Joseph of Arimathea, who has in his possession the cup which Jesus used at the Last Supper. Basil is chosen to design a covering for the simple cup, thus creating a holy relic of exceptional beauty. During his adventures brought about by this task, he falls in love with and marries Joseph's daughter and becomes a Christian.

The novel covers a period of Christian history in the years just after Jesus Christ's life. Some of the story of St Paul and his struggles with the Jewish High Priest is included, as well as a segment in Rome when Basil creates busts for the Emperor Nero. It is an intriguing tale although it does not cover the disappearance of the Grail but ends when the work on the chalice is complete and the early leaders of the Christian Church take it into hiding.

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

Wouk's famous WWII novel was also #2 in 1951. In 1952 it won the Pulitzer Prize as well. My review for this book can be found in the post entitled BOOKS READ FROM 1951 PART ONE.

East of Eden, John Steinbeck, Viking Press, 1952, 602 pp

I read this book back in 2001 and it is one of my all time favorite books. I don't know if I will ever reread it because the first read was so magical for me and I don't want that to change. On the other hand I did not want the book to end, so maybe someday. That it could be a #3 top bestseller gives me hope for the world.

It is based in Salinas, CA, where Steinbeck grew up and lived for many years. He says it is a Cain and Abel story. It follows two generations of brothers and deals with how sons try to please their fathers. This novel also features one of the most evil female villains in literature.

I think that Steinbeck put into East of Eden all of the wisdom that he had been able to garner by the time he was fifty. In the biography of this author that I am gradually reading, he called this "the big novel." There are many truths here and I hope that any serious reader takes the time to read it. Good writing, sometimes great, but simple and never pretentious.

My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier, Doubleday & Company, 1952, 348 pp

At #4 is this extremely readable novel. In fact I couldn't put it down and read it in one day. Daphne du Maurier has become one of my most admired authors since I've been reading these older books.

Philip is a young English man who was orphaned in infancy and raised by his older cousin Ambrose. They lived on a large country estate which Ambrose, being single, ran in a distinctly masculine manner. In middle age, Ambrose developed rheumatism and was ordered by his doctors to spend winters abroad. Alas and alack, he finally met a woman in Italy who ended his long state as a bachelor.

After his marriage, Ambrose never returned to England, leaving Philip to run the estate. Then he died in mysterious circumstances. One day, his widow, Cousin Rachel, shows up at the manor and puts her spell on Philip.

The story is told in first person by Philip so that you experience Philip's bewilderment about Rachel right along with him. Is she an amazing person or an influence of evil? You are not able to answer that question for sure until Philip does at the end. The underlying threat of doom is classic du Maurier and makes for a thrilling yet chilling read.

Steamboat Gothic, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Julian Messner Inc, 1952, 560 pp

At #5 on the bestseller list is another work of historical fiction, based in the New Orleans area from 1869-1930 with scenes in New York City and France. Clyde Batchelor had been a riverboat gambler on the Mississippi and a speculator during the Civil War. But he fell in love with a Southern Civil War Widow from Virginia, so he went straight, married her and bought a plantation home on the Mississippi.

Steamboat Gothic was the style of that home, built to look like one of the great floating pleasure palaces. There Clyde and his wife Lucy lived and loved, raised Lucy's daughter from her first marriage and overcame the difficulties of life.

Later on, Clyde's grandson Larry becomes the main character, lives through WWI and ultimately brings his French wife to the plantation. Many characters have secrets which causes a share of trouble in their lives. But through loss and tragedy, love and hard work win the day. What else would you expect from a historical romance?

This is good storytelling with richly portrayed characters and is Keyes' best book since The River Road in 1945.

Friday, February 01, 2008


The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, Alfred A Knopf, 2005, 227 pp

I would not have read this book except that it was picked by one of my reading groups. I didn't look forward to reading about someone else's loss and grief and wading through a lot of emotional heavy waters. As it turned out, the only problem I had with the book was a certain lack of emotional depth, since Joan Didion applied her signature cerebral style to the story of her first year following her husband's death.

John Gregory Dunne had already had two heart surgeries and lived on into his seventies thanks to a pacemaker. Yet his death came as a complete shock to his wife. I realized that no matter how expected or prepared for, death is usually a shock to the living.

In the end I felt fine about Ms Didion's book and especially I understood the title to mean the kind of thinking that the living indulge in as a possible way to bring back the lost loved one. Because Didion is a writer by profession, I would like to think that writing this book was her way of dealing with what happened.

Personally I feel that death is much harder on the living than on the one who died. I also believe that the death of the body is not the end of life for an individual, and if that is an example of magical thinking, so be it. What I think is that people should be allowed to think what they like to think and I get that Joan Didion would agree with me on that.


Brothers, Da Chen, Shaye Arehart Books, 2006, 421 pp

The brothers are Tan, son of a powerful general in the height of China's Cultural Revolution, and Shento, the general's illegitimate son. Tan was raised in comfort and luxury while Shento, whose mother killed herself on the day of his birth, was raised by an old healer and his wife in a small mountainside village.

As times and politics change, each brother is driven by opposing passions. Tan wants only to glorify his father and fulfill the teachings of his grandparents. Shenko survives the deaths of his forster parents and a cruel orphanage with the undying will to revenge his desertion by his true father. In a quirky plot twist both young men fall in love with Sumi, a young woman who writes a popular novel. The novel then becomes the rallying point for the democratic views of the new revolutionary party, many members of which are eventually slaughtered at Tiananmen Square.

It is a big family saga of a novel in grand American bestseller style. The writing is passable and keeps the reader breathlessly turning pages. I read this fairly long book in a day and a half. What I liked best was finally getting straight the events of this chapter in Chinese history, of which (because I've never been good at following current events) I had only a hazy concept. I have to thank Lisa See whose early political thrillers got me interested in China and Da Chen, who wrote a compelling history of times through which he actually lived.