Wednesday, May 28, 2008


This post is the first of four which will cover other books I read for 1953. This is a list I make up myself featuring authors I am interested in or who have written important novels and non-fiction.

The Lying Days, Nadine Gordimer, Simon and Schuster Inc, 1953, 340 pp

This is Nadine Gordimer's first novel and is set in South Africa in post WWII times. Helen Shaw grows up at "The Mine", with English parents living the proper colonial life in the sheltered white community. In her teens she becomes aware of the isolation and utter boredom of that life and begins to see the racism and the plight of the natives. She breaks away by going to university in Johannesburg, taking up with radical friends, living with a man who works to "help" the natives.

It is the coming of age story of women in the generation just before mine. I liked it but it seemed to take forever to read. She is true in her observations but a bit wordy and reserved in her style. She never really lets go in her writing but keeps it under some kind of strict control. Since it was her first novel and better than the book of stories I read (The Soft Voice of the Serpent, 1952), I have hope for her. Plus she has remained a respected and well-known writer for her whole life.

Five, Doris Lessing, Michael Joseph Ltd, 1953, 382 pp

This volume collects five short novels and was hard to find. None of my libraries or book stores had it and as far as I can tell, it was never published in the United States. I finally found some copies at Alibris. Yet these five novels are easily worth more than any five of the 10 bestsellers I read for 1953.

First of all, Doris Lessing is such a stunningly good writer and it can only be because she is a woman and an opinionated one at that, that she did not receive a Nobel Prize until this year. Four of the stories take place in South Africa. As in The Grass Is Singing, her ability to put the reader in that place, where I have never been, is astounding, as is her skill at making the inner lives of both whites and native so real. While she tells these South African tales she also delves into universal themes about men and women, a search for meaning and happiness, issues of personal freedom and deep matters of the heart.

I think that is the greatest thing an author can do, because while racism, political idiocracies, clashes of social classes, are fairly unique depending on place, an understanding of the hopes and failings of all mankind is the key to unlocking the struggles. Because Lessing's plotting and characterization and storytelling are so good, she does this great thing, compromising nothing and entertaining fully.

I hope that because of the Nobel Prize, more people will read her books.

The Heart of the Family, Elizabeth Goudge, Servant Publications Edition, 1953.

I read this back in 1998 when I was reading through all of Goudge's books. She is quite Christian in her philosophy with her most sterling quality being her tolerance of human foibles. My life in the 90s was full of stress and she brought me a much needed dose of peace. The Heart of the Family is the third and last of the Eliot family series, which began with The Bird in the Tree in 1940, followed by Pilgrim's Inn in 1948.

At first and for about half of the book, I was annoyed by it. There was too much spiritual stuff and almost a preaching tone, which is unusual for Goudge. She was clearly getting down her own philosophy and thoughts rather than letting the story tell them. But by the end, she won me over and it became that usual Goudge magical thing that she does. She makes me be a better person somehow.

Life Among the Savages, Shirley Jackson, Farrar Straus and Young, 1953, 241 pp

This is a wonderfully funny account of Ms Jackson's life as a mother of young children in a huge old house in Connecticut. It is hard to believe that this is the same author who penned the creepy Hangsaman.

She begins when her first child is a toddler with a hilarious account of their search for a place to live after she and her husband were evicted from their NYC apartment because they forgot to renew their lease. Each chapter is another phase in their lives: a child's first days at school, a new baby, Shirley learning to drive, etc. She and her husband are clearly writers but she does not go into how or when she writes, only mentioning that she reads a lot of mysteries. Her insight into children is deep and while she is a conscientious and loving mother, she is also somewhat unconventional. The kids are smart, precocious really, but not brats.

I was highly entertained throughout and found myself wishing I could have grown up in that family. Somehow she made being a mother and housewife in the 50s sound fun, not boring, though I suspect some irony because of how much she goes on about all the chocolate pudding she made.

The Siege, Illes Kaczer, Dial Press, 1953

This is another book I read a while back, 1994 to be exact. That was before I had conceived of My Big Fat Reading Project, when I was trying to read all the fiction in the library alphabetically by author. When I got tired of the A's, which I never got through, I would go through the other letters. It was also before I knew that it was cool to read translated literature from other countries. I was just reading books as I came to them.

Well, that is how I found out for myself that it is cool to read translated literature because it would take me into worlds which were utterly new to me. The Siege is a story about Jews in Hungary in the 1800s, written by a Hungarian Jew. There is just no comparison as far as getting the real feel between this and some historical fiction written by an American author. I really got what it is like to be an oppressed people.

The Return of Lanny Budd, Upton Sinclair, The Viking Press, 1953, 555 pp

Yes, Lanny is back one more time and does his bit at the beginning of the cold war. This volume is heavily anti-communist, anti-Stalin and very pro-American. But the pages went by quickly and I learned a good deal about the days when Berlin was split into East and West.

Sinclair makes a good point about the lack of funding for positive propaganda concerning America as opposed to funding for arms. I also saw the birth of the fight against communism in this country. He makes a convincing case for the need to fight that political system, though he was once fairly enamored of it. I couldn't quite buy everything he had to say but it was timely.

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