Sunday, December 07, 2008


This is the final post for books read from 1954. It covers the award winning books from that year.

THE PULITZER PRIZE: There was no fiction award for the Pulitzer in 1954.

THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD: The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow, The Viking Press, 1953, 536 pp

I was so excited to start this book, which won the NBA and was Bellow's breakout book, earning him a towering literary reputation; one which he built on and sustained for a long lifetime of many novels. I had read and quite liked his first two novels: Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947.) None of this prepared me for the sense of having plowed into a brick wall at the beginning of Augie March.

The writing is dense though lush with detailed descriptions of places, people and situations. Augie is the son of an unassimilated Jewish immigrant mother, who was deserted by the father of Augie and his brothers when they were toddlers. It is unclear whether or not the parents were ever married. In a small and decrepit apartment with them lives Grandma Lausch, who is not really related to them but who dominates the household. The setting is the Jewish ghetto of Chicago in the early 20th century, so everyone seems to be related with large extended families, but I have never read about a ghetto described quite in this suffocating way where each character's personality, looks, views and shortcomings are picked over like a Jewish housewife shopping at market.

I soldiered on, getting a feel for the style, the sentences, the milieus, but just feeling so outside of the story, as though I were a tourist in a land where I didn't speak the language. It was similar to reading Dostoevsky or some poorly translated Eastern European novelist from the 1940s.

Finally I went to Google and got some background. I don't usually do that anymore until I have finished a book because I have experienced disastrous effects on my reading pleasure, but I wasn't having much pleasure here and it helped. I got the literary context in which Bellow was writing: a sort of Don Quixote thing. I learned a new word: picaresque (a genre of literature in which the life and adventures of a rogue are chronicled) and a better definition of rogue (thieves, vagabonds and tricksters.) Now oriented, I proceeded and grew to love both Augie and the book.

From Depression days in Chicago to a decadent Mexican town to the film scene in Paris to New York City, associating with countless rogues without truly becoming one himself, in and out of love affairs with all sorts of women, Augie grows to manhood. He is on a quest to find his own destiny. One of the ideas in this novel that struck me and stuck with me, is that a person's personality determines his destiny. I've started looking at people this way.

There are several levels going on in The Adventures of Augie March. I'm not sure I got them all. I finished the book with the conviction that there is an innocence in the most evil of persons and a bit of evil in the most innocent. I am for sure a fan of Saul Bellow.

THE HUGO AWARD: Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, Ballantine Books, 1953, 165 pp

This is probably Bradbury's most famous book but I had never read it before. It is said that the book is about censorship but it is actually about the loss of literacy and the willingness of mankind in general to agree with being dumbed down and giving up their freedom to think for themselves.

Guy Montag is a fireman whose job it is to burn books and any houses that contain them. 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns. He meets a young girl who opens his eyes to the actual pleasure of life and the beauty of literature. He rebels against the powers that be and eventually goes underground and joins up with people who are trying to preserve the knowledge found in books.

I had a problem with the writing. I thought it was his worst so far. But the story is a unique take on a universal theme (Keep the wisdom!) I especially liked the image of the TV room in people's houses. All four walls of a room comprised the TV screen. How prescient.

THE EDGAR AWARD: (Here we have a new award, created by The Mystery Writers of America in 1954 in its first year of existence. The award is named after Edgar Allan Poe who is considered to be the father of the detective story.)
Beat Not the Bones, Charlotte Jay, Harper, 1953, 219 pp

This deeply creepy mystery, set in Papua, New Guinea (an island off the coast of Australia), won the first ever Edgar Award. It was Charlotte Jay's second novel. (She wrote seven books under the pseudonym Charlotte Jay, one as Geraldine Jay and seven more as Geraldine Hall.) Her writing is excellent as is her plotting. The characters are fully developed and the descriptions of tropic jungle make you see the foliage and feel the heat as well as the humidity.

Beat Not the Bones is the old story of colonials vs natives told in a unique manner. A young, innocent and inexperienced woman arrives in New Guinea, determined to find her new husband's murderer, not believing the report that he committed suicide. As she gets her bearings and begins to penetrate the layers of lies and secrets as well as the tragedies of lives ruined by the tropics, you watch Stella Warwick grow up, get wise and learn true compassion.

The revelation of the truth of what happened is so well done that the reader is as puzzled as Stella until the end. If all mysteries were this good, I would read more of them. What a find!

THE NEWBERY AWARD: And Now Miguel, Joseph Krumgold, Thomas Y Crowell Company, 1953, 245 pp

In this Newbery Award winner, as always, I was won over by a tale of a boy coming of age. (Note that in 14 years of reading these winners, only one so far had a female main character.)

Miguel is 11 years old, the third son of a Spanish/Mexican family of sheep ranchers in New Mexico. His greatest desire is to be allowed to go with the men and the sheep to the Sangro de Cristo Mountains for the summer season. The sheep are taken there to escape the heat and ensure pastures of grass. He plans, he works, he prays and makes wishes, but when he gets his heart's desire it comes along with other changes that include sorrow and loss. Big life lessons are learned but conveyed by the author with tact. No preaching here.

I learned a lot about sheep.

THE CALDECOTT MEDAL: Madeline's Rescue, Ludwig Bemelmans, The Viking Press, 1953, 56 pp

This is the second book in the Madeline series and Bemelmans is the author as well as the illustrator. Madeline and her eleven roommates are out for a walk with Miss Clavel, when Madeline manages to fall into the Seine. She is rescued by a dog who goes back with the girls and becomes the object of their affections as well as the center of their jealousies and the source of trouble for Miss Clavel.

I only remember the first Madeline book from my childhood but seeing the glorious illustrations again made me go to the picture book section in the store where I work and read them all.


  1. What an interesting concept for a blog posting - all the books from a particular year. I must have a think about that for my own one.

    Followed the link from you comment on Granta Online

  2. Hi Tom,
    I visited your blog (very nice, with books reviewed that one doesn't usually hear about, at least here in the US) and your website with the gorgeous photos. I wanted to move there tomorrow!
    Thanks for visiting, come back soon and let me know how the books from a particular year idea works for you.