Sunday, November 16, 2008


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.

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