Monday, December 30, 2013

1958: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

The Author:

Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) was born into a wealthy assimilated Jewish family in Moscow.  His father was a painter and art professor and his mother was a pianist.  Leo Tolstoy was a close friend of the Pasternak family and his family became part of the Tolstoyan movement.*   Pasternak went to college to study music in Moscow, but in 1910 began taking studies in philosophy at the University of Marburg, in Germany.

Pasternak returned to Russia at the outbreak of World War One. In 1914, he also published his first collection of poetry, Twin in the Clouds.  Pasternak remained in Russia through the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War.  In 1922, as the Civil War ended and the USSR was formed, Pasternak published his collection of poems titled, My Sister, Life, which earned him massive acclaim.  In 1922, Pasternak married Evgeniia Lourie with whom he had a son.  They divorced in 1931. He married Zinaida Neigauz in 1934.

Over the decades following the Civil War, the Soviet Union began to institute stricter censorship and harsher punishments.  In 1934, one of his friends and colleagues, Osip Mandelstam, was abducted by the secret police.  More of his friends were taken in the Great Purge of 1937.  Pasternak believed he and his wife would be taken also, after he refused to sign a statement supporting the death penalty for those swept up in the purge, a statement which was signed by most of the Union of Soviet Writers.  

In 1946, Pasternak began his affair with Olga Ivinskaya, a single mother working for the literary magazine, Novy Mir.  By all accounts, Ivinskaya was Pasternak's muse and their relationship was incredibly important to both of them.  In 1949, Ivinskaya was arrested by the KGB and sent to the gulags for five years.    

In 1956, Pasternak finished Doctor Zhivago, but no Russian printing house was willing to publish it.  An Italian publishing agent in Russia managed to arrange an Italian translation which he brought back with him to Italy, where it was published in 1957.  The book was banned in the USSR, and a smear campaign against Doctor Zhivago and Boris Pasternak was launched by the Soviet press.  In 1958, the Nobel Committee awarded Pasternak the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he declined, fearing harsh reprisal from the Soviet government.  This inspired the Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoon by Bill Mauldin:

"I won the Nobel Prize for literature. What was your crime?"

Pasternak remained in Russia.  He announced plans to write a trilogy of plays, but died of lung cancer before the first was completed.

The Book:   

Length: 563 pages
Subject/Genre: Post-Revolutionary Russia/Historical fiction

What can I say about Doctor Zhivago that hasn't been said before?  The old paperback I picked up boasts on its cover that it's "One of the great novels of the century."  Which, along with some books on this list (e.g. The Grapes of Wrath, All Quiet on the Western Front), makes it a bit difficult for me to review.  But I'll try.  

If you're not familiar with the story, it follows Yurii Zhivago, the titular doctor.  Beginning around the Revolution of 1905, then skipping around up to the October Revolution in 1917, we see Zhivago's growth into adulthood as well as a parallel focus on Lara Guishar.  Zhivago is orphaned at a young age and sent to live with the Gromekos, a wealthy couple whose daughter, Antonina (aka Tonia), Yurii eventually marries.  Lara is the daughter of a widowed French émigré.  Her mother owns a dress shop which is abandoned in the revolution.  As a teenager, Lara has an ongoing affair with her mother's beau.  All in all, there are about half a dozen characters who show up frequently throughout the novel, fighting with or against each other as circumstances determine.      

One of the great things about this book, and one part of what makes the story so compelling, is the perpetual grey area the characters inhabit.  The novel is extremely political, as one would expect from the subject matter.  But Pasternak manages to capture the complexity of the situation, politically and morally.  When a violently oppressive system is overthrown, and a massive power struggle consumes a large nation, when dozens of competing factions vie for political and military supremacy, morality becomes obfuscated.  Zhivago is a rich Moscow intellectual, who supported the overthrow of the Tsar and had great hopes for a socialist state, yet the very fact that he is a rich intellectual from the capital makes him an enemy to many of the people he ideologically supports.      

But beyond the politics, there is a beautiful story about a man trying to survive a troubling and dangerous era.  I don't want to give away too much of the story, but suffice it to say that Pasternak succeeds in creating a character as multi-faceted and complex as his times.  

I want to include a particularly fantastic passage here, which has nothing to do with the review, except that I wanted to share it.  It's a bit long, so feel free to skip it if you want.  Yurii Zhivago, speaking of death:

"'You want to know my opinion as a scientist? Perhaps some other time? No? Right now? Well, as you wish.  But it's difficult like that, all of a sudden.' And there and then he delivered a whole impromptu lecture, astonished that he could do it.

"Resurrection.  In the crude from in which it is preached to console the weak, it is alien to me.  I have always understood Christ's words about the living and the dead in a different sense.  Where could you find room for the hordes of people accumulated over thousands of years? The universe isn't big enough for them; God, the good, and meaningful purpose would be crowded out.  They'd be crushed by these throngs of greedy merely for the animal life.      

"But all the time, life, one, immense, identical throughout its innumerable combinations abd transformations, fills the universe and is continually reborn.  You are anxious whether you will rise from the dead or not, but you rose from the dead when you were born and you didn't notice it.    

"Will you feel pain? Do the tissues feel their disintegration? In other words, what will happen to your consciousness?  But what is consciousness?  Let's see.  A conscious attempt to fall asleep is sure to produce insomnia, to try to be conscious of one's own digestion is a sure way to upset the stomach.  Consciousness is a poison when we apply it to ourselves.  Consciousness is a light directed outward, it lights up the way ahead of us so that we don't stumble.  It's like the headlights on a locomotive--turn them inward and you'd have a crash.    

"So what will happen to your consciousness?  Your consciousness, yours, not anyone else's.  Well, what are you?  There's the point.  Let's try to find out.  What is it about you that you have always known as yourself?  What are you conscious of in yourself?  Your kidneys? Your liver? Your blood vessels?   No.  However far back you go in your memory, it is always in some external, active manifestation of yourself that you come across your identity--in the work of your hands, in your family, in other people.  And now listen carefully.  You in others--this is your soul.  This is what you are.  This is what your consciousness has breathed and lived on and enjoyed throughout your life--your soul, your immortality, your life in others.  And what now? You have always been in others and you will always remain in others.  And what does it matter to you if later on that is called your memory?  This will be you--the you that enters the future and becomes a part of it."

Doctor Zhivago has a famous film adaptation.  The 1965 film version directed by David Lean and starring Omar Sharif (Lawrence of Arabia) was a giant financial success, remaining the eighth highest grossing film ever, after adjusting for inflation.

While this is certainly an excellent novel, I'm not sure I'd recommend it to everybody.  If you're looking for a light read, or have no interest in the politics and ideology of Revolutionary-era Russia, you probably won't enjoy it.  It's a very dense book (which is pretty characteristic of Russian lit) and requires at least a bit of knowledge of that time period (e.g., if you don't know the difference between the Reds, Greens, and Whites, you may end up confused), but this is nothing ten minutes on wikipedia can't help you out with.  

The Bestsellers of 1958:
1. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
2. Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver
3. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
4. Around the World with Auntie Mame by Partick Dennis
5. From the Terrace by John O'Hara
6. Eloise at Christmastime by Kay Thompson
7. Ice Palace by Edna Ferber
8. The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton
9. The Enemy Camp by Jerome Weidman
10. Victorine by Frances Parkinson Keyes

Also published in 1958:
Chinua Achebe - Things Fall Apart
Truman Capote - Breakfast at Tiffany's
Ian Fleming - Dr. No
Jack Kerouac - The Dharma Bums

Pasternak, Boris. Doctor Zhivago. 1958. Trans. Max Hayward, Manya Harari, and Bernard 
          Guerney. New York: Ballantine Books, 1981. Print.

Monday, December 23, 2013

"Blade Runner," "Blade Runner (a movie)," and "The Blade Runner"

I was in the library last week, when I came across a surprising title.  Blade Runner (a movie) by William S. Burroughs.  It turns out Blade Runner (a movie) has nothing to do with the movie Blade Runner, which is based on the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Elecrtic Sheep?  No, Blade Runner (a movie) is based on the novel The Bladerunner, which has no connection to Blade Runner or its source material.   Perhaps some background will help.  

In 1968, Philip K. Dick published one of his most famous novels, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Fig. 1.1: Electric Sheep

In the novel, Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter, must 'retire' six escaped androids.  The biggest difference between the androids and humans is the androids' complete lack of empathy.  In a plotline that didn't make it into the film, the humans on the largely depopulated Earth all need to care for some kind of pet, to prove to their neighbors that they have empathy.  However, due to nuclear war, most species are extinct, and those that remain are incredibly expensive, prompting many, including Deckard, to own an electric animal, one that behaves exactly like, and appears identical to, a real animal. (Which leads to the question: if taking care of the animals is a matter of conformity/self-preservation, does empathy even apply, which leads to further questions about the possibly self-serving nature of empathy).  Deckard has an electric sheep. The term "blade runner" does not appear anywhere in the novel.

In 1974, Alan E. Nourse published a dystopian novel titled The Bladerunner.  The backstory: Medical science has managed to prolong life and allow people to live with previously fatal conditions.  A rapidly aging population that needs medical care, along with an aging government, increase taxes on the proportionally smaller youth demographic, which is itself producing less, until the economy is on the verge of collapsing (A strangely prescient premise).  The solution to the problem ends up being free healthcare for life, on the condition that the recipient be sterilized.  This leads to an underground medicine industry, with suppliers, doctors, and bladerunners, the latter act as go-betweens for the doctors, suppliers, and patients.  Although it gets a little bogged down with medical specifics and some of the exposition can be clunky (especially in the second part of the novel), it's a relevant, thought-provoking sci-fi novel.  

Well, in 1979, William S. Burroughs was commissioned to write a film treatment for The Bladerunner.  Although no film was made, the treatment was published as Blade Runner (a movie).  I'd recommend reading the novel before the Burroughs treatment.  The treatment, as it goes on, gets more and more disjointed and surreal, and bizarre imagery starts taking more and more precedence over coherence.  There are considerable differences between the film treatment and the novel.  There are more "throbbing phalluses" than in the source material.  A lot more

In 1982, Blade Runner, the famous sci-fi film starring Harrison Ford, was released.  One problem the filmmakers encountered was picking a good title.  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was a) not catchy and b) nonsense, since there were no electric sheep in the film.  One of the screenwriters, Hampton Fancher, had a copy of Burroughs's treatment, and suggested the title Blade Runner for the film.  Ridley Scott bought the title rights for The Bladerunner and Blade Runner (a movie).       

So, if anyone ever decides to make a film adaptation of Alan E. Nourse's The Bladerunner, they're going to have to call it something else.  May I suggest Ubik?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

10 More Short Books You Should Read

A couple weeks ago, the Huffington Post ran an article titled "These Amazing Classic Books Are So Short You Have No Excuse Not to Read Them."  It included the usual suspects, Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, Animal Farm, The Turn of the Screw.  There list is definitely worth checking out, but I thought I'd add a few of my own suggestions to the mix.  Here are ten great books under 200 pages:  

CHRONICLE OF A DEATH FORETOLD by Gabriel García Márquez (120 pages):

García Márquez is one of the best known Latin American writers of our time.  His 1981 novel follows an unnamed narrator's attempt to reconstruct what happened in his small hometown decades earlier.  Everyone in the town knew that the Vicario brothers were planning to kill Santiago Nasar, except, seemingly Nasar himself.

THE BALLAD OF THE SAD CAFE by Carson McCullers (71 pages):  

Carson McCullers is a writer in the Southern Gothic tradition, like Shirley Jackson and Flannery O'Conner.  The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (which usually comes with a few other stories), shows a haunting portrait of a small town, and the rise and ruin of Miss Amelia at the hands of the grotesque Cousin Lymon.

SULA by Toni Morrison (192 pages):

Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison's 1973 novel Sula focuses on a town and two women, and has one hell of an opening line: "Except for World War II, nothing ever interfered with the celebration of National Suicide Day."

THE CRYING OF LOT 49 by Thomas Pynchon (183 pages): 

Probably the only Pynchon book that will take you less than a month to read, but this slim 1966 volume has a lot of depth to it.  Oedipa Maas wades through a world populated with equally improbable names and even less probable explanations, as she stumbles through what is either a massive conspiracy, a colossal prank, or her own paranoia.  

FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury (179 pages):

"It was a pleasure to burn..." A great first line for one of the great dystopian novels in American fiction.  Guy Montag is a fireman: one of the chosen few who make sure that no book is left unburned.  A treatise on the evil of censorship and illiteracy, the danger of pacification through television, as well as a compelling story make this a fantastic read.

THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA by Ernest Hemingway (127 pages):

Published in 1952, this is the novel that restarted Hemingway's career.  It is a prime example of Hemingway's unparalleled style.

THE HITCHHIKERS GUIDE TO THE GALAXY by Douglas Adams (180 pages):

Published in 1979, Hitchhikers Guide is the first in the world's longest trilogy (the series has five books, whereas most trilogies tend to peter out around the third), this is the one of the great examples of absurdist humor and genre parody.

THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY by Thornton Wilder (138 pages):

Wilder's 1927 novel focuses on a disaster.  A bridge that has stood for a century collapses, and five people fall to their death.  Brother Juniper decides to try to understand the lives of those who died, and determine if it was all a meaningless accident or something more meaningful.

POST OFFICE by Charles Bukowski (149 Pages):

"Maybe I'll write a novel, I thought.  And then I did."  Love him or hate him (and I've seen plenty of both), Bukowski has had a significant impact on 'dirty realism' and can be pretty damn funny.  His 1971 debut novel is semi-autobiographical, the author surrogate Henry Chinaski has to deal with a soul-crushing position working in the post office.

A POLITICAL FABLE by Robert Coover (88 pages):

Originally written and published in 1968 under the more descriptive title, The Cat in the Hat Runs for President, A Political Fable is a bizarre book.  Allegorical and surreal, it will answer questions you never knew you wanted to ask like, "How many Republicans can be swallowed whole by a whale" and "Just how far do you have to go to drive the opposition quite literally insane."

Monday, December 16, 2013

1957: By Love Possessed by James Gould Cozzens

The Author:

         James Gould Cozzens (1903-1978) was born in Chicago but grew up in Staten Island.  He came from old money, a New England Governor on one side of the family and a colonial heritage on the other.  He attended Episcopalian schools.  He attended Harvard for two years and published Confusion, his first novel, in 1924.  In debt, he dropped out of Harvard and published his second novel in 1925, which, like his first, was not successful.  Cozzens went to Cuba to teach the children of Americans, but a year later he travelled through Europe as a private tutor.  In 1927, Cozzens married Sylvia Baumgarten, a literary agent who helped edit his future works.  His career took a turn for the better in the 1930s.  His short story, "A Farewell to Cuba," (1931) was nominated for an O. Henry Award.  His 1936 story, "Total Stranger" one first prize in that year's O. Henry Awards.  
         During World War Two, Cozzens served as a press liaison in for the Army Air Forces.  One of his main job duties was neutralizing stories that could potentially cause serious negative press for the military.  It was his experiences here that formed the basis for his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Guard of Honor (1948). His first novel after Guard of Honor was 1957’s bestseller, By Love Possessed.  The success of the work was as much a curse as a blessing.  Cozzens writing style, which is admittedly Victorian, as well as the rather conservative morality of his novels, made him the epitome of the old guard of American fiction at a time when writers like John Updike and Philip Roth were becoming mainstream.  Cozzens, despite his fame, generally gave very few interviews, a habit he broke for the September 2, 1957 issue of Time (By Love Possessed was released August 26th).  His interview led to further denunciation by his critics. 

            The next year, Cozzens and his wife moved to Williamstown, Massachusetts. Cozzens published his last novel, Morning, Noon and Night in 1968.  He lived out of the spotlight until his death from pneumonia in 1978.

The Book:

Length: 570 pages
Subject/Genre: Character Study/Psychological Realism

The title By Love Possessed made me assume the novel would be a trashy romance.  Instead, it is a look into the life of Arthur Winner Jr., a small town New England lawyer, a partner in the firm his deceased father founded with Noah Tuttle, a current partner and father of Winner Jr.’s first (and now deceased) wife.  The novel takes place over the course of a couple days, and is primarily focused on Winner’s coming to terms with revelations about the ethics (or lack thereof) of his partners and himself.  

            The story’s action, well, maybe action isn’t the right word.  It’s wrong to say that nothing happens in this novel, but most of what happens is consequent to action, lies in the effect it has on the Winner.  It is a heavily introspective novel.  This is not a bad thing, in and of itself, but it becomes complicated by Cozzens style.  In the first section, I stated that Cozzens has a Victorian style.  Cozzens is also technically skillful.  The sentences are complex and crafted wonderfully.  However, it seems out of place.  There’s a quote I find myself going back to frequently, from John Barth’s essay, “The Literature of Exhaustion.”  It goes: “In any case, to be technically out of date is likely to be a genuine defect: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony or the Chartres Cathedral, if executed today, might be simply embarrassing.”  This of course leads to a lot of literary theory-type-questions, not the least of which being ‘does the time in which the novel was produced necessarily affect the interpretation of its prose?’  Cozzens writes like a (very talented) nineteenth century writer, or at least a pre-modernist, though he’s writing in the era of Pynchon and Gaddis, and Kerouac and Burroughs (William, not Edgar).  There’s no question that people like Pynchon wrote complicated sentences, rife with allusions (more on this in a moment), but the tone strikes back to the Romantics.  Describing a clock in dead father’s study, designed with a girl and cherub:

     “The little god was about to conquer all. Indeed, he did conquer all.  L’esprit est toujours – yes, Always! – la dupe du Coeur! So cuddlesome in form, he was the heart, the baby lord and master of the head. His victory was love – love’s bliss of thoughtlessness.  Love pushed aside the bitter findings of experience.  Love knew for a fact what was not a fact; with ease, love believed the unbelievable; love wished and made it so.  Moreover, here where love’s weakness seemed to be, love’s strength resided.  Itself all unreality, love was assailed by reality in vain.  You might as well wound the loud winds, kill the still-closing waters.” (10)

       This type of apostrophizing would be right at home in Dumas or Austen, and would there be a splendid passage, but it’s hard to reconcile something like this in the middle of a book written and taking place in the 1950s.  I mentioned the use of references earlier, and there are two in that above passage.  The first being the French phrase (in English, “The mind is always the dupe of the heart”) from François de la Rochefoucauld’s Maximes, published in 1655.  The last line of the passage is lifted from The Tempest (Act III, Scene 3). Shakespeare is subtly and frequently invoked, as are numerous other literary figures, the first chapter alone introducing Robert Browning and Thomas Moore, in addition to the above mentioned (and any I may have missed).  

            The story itself is strong, although the narration can be repetitive at times.  Winner has to deal with questions about his partners’ trustworthiness, his own infidelities, and managing a case of a man accused of rape.  But the real story is Winner’s loss of innocence and his struggle with his conscience, which may not sound like typical fare for a bestseller.  Then again, this was Cozzens first novel since his Pulitzer-winning Guard of Honor, and was itself nominated for a Pulitzer (and won the William Dean Howells Medal in 1960), so it’s not too difficult to see how it became a success, especially with the controversy mentioned in the author section of the review.  

            Like almost every book I’ve reviewed on the list so far, By Love Possessed was adapted for the screen.  The 1961 version focused more on Arthur’s infidelity, with Lana Turner as Marjorie Penrose.  

Winner was played by Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who today might be best known for playing the voice of Alfred Pennyworth in almost every animated version of Batman since the early ‘90s.

            All qualms about its timeliness aside, By Love Possessed is a good book.  At the same point, I can’t think of who it would be good for.  Usually I try to avoid simply saying read/don’t read this book, and focus more on what tastes would this book match and which would it not.  But due to this weird mismatch between the style and the content, I’m not sure.  If you don’t like books that delve into ethics and focus on introspection instead of action, you won’t like By Love Possessed.  If you do, and you like the style, it would certainly be worth a chance if you happen to run across it.  I’m sure there’s a demographic that this novel is perfectly suited for, but I can’t think of what that would be off the top of my head.

Bestsellers of 1957:
1. By Love Possessed - James Gould Cozzens
2. Peyton Place - Grace Metalious
3. Compulsion - Meyer Levin
4. Ralley Round the Flag, Boys! - Max Shulman
5. Blue Camellia - Frances Parkinson Keyes
6. Eloise in Paris - Kay Thompson
7. The Scapegoat - Daphne du Maurier
8. On the Beach - Nevil Shute
9. Below the Salt -Thomas B. Costain
10. Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand

Also Published in 1957:
John Cheever - The Wapshot Chronicle
Ian Fleming - From Russia, with Love
Jack Kerouac - On the Road
Bernard Malamud - The Assistant 
Vladimir Nabokov - Pnin

Bruccoli, Matthew J. James Gould Cozzens: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh, PA: 
         University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981. Print.

Burke, James Henry and Hackett, Alice Payne. 80 Years of Best Sellers: 1895-1975. New 
         York: R. R. Bowker Company, 1977. Print.

Cozzens, James Gould. By Love Possessed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 
         1957. Print.

Monday, December 2, 2013

1956: Don't Go Near the Water by William Brinkley

The Author:

           William Brinkley (1917-1993) was born in Custer City, Oklahoma.  Brinkley graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1940 after which he worked for a couple years as a reporter for the Washington Post before becoming a commissioned officer in the US Navy, a position in which he dealt mostly with public relations.  After the war, Brinkley published his debut novel, Quicksand (1948) before going back to work at the Washington Post.  In 1951, Brinkley started working at Life Magazine, a position he retained until 1958.  In 1955 he published his only non-fiction work, a biography of a Slovakian nun titled The Deliverance of Sister Cecelia

            His best-selling work, Don’t Go Near the Water, was published in 1956.  He published six more novels between 1961 and his final novel, The Last Ship, in 1988.  In 1971, Brinkley moved to McAllen, Texas, where, in 1993, after a long bout of depression, he died from an overdose of barbiturates.

The Book:

Length: 373 Pages
Subject/Genre: Military/Humor

       Don't Go Near the Water focuses on a group of public relations officers stationed on the tropical Pacific island of Tulura during World War Two.  Structurally, the novel is episodic, each chapter dealing with a different problem and placing emphasis on different characters.  The 'episodes' range from the problems of an enlisted man dating a nurse (i.e., an officer), to blackmailing a self-absorbed war correspondent into building a schoolhouse for the island's children.  

         The novel's main character is Ensign Max Siegel, a burly Harvard grad who is the only one of the PR group to have learned to speak Tuluran.  The first episode of the novel deals with a very serious problem:  Edgar Rice Burroughs is coming to Tulura (NOTE: Burroughs actually volunteered to be, and served as, a war correspondent in WWII, despite being in his sixties at the time) and the PR people want to take some photos of Burroughs with the native Tulurans.  Unfortunately, the natives don't look native enough, so it's up to Siegel to convince them to dress like savages.  

     Reading Don't Go Near the Water is like watching an old sitcom that has aged remarkably well.  The humor is often predictable but generally sincere and the second to last chapter, focusing on everyone's reaction to the use of the nuclear bomb, is strangely touching, and perhaps presages Brinkley's post-nuclear-apocalyptic novel The Last Ship.  The humor is largely based on the absurdity of the PR division, the self-importance of its commanding officers, and the idiosyncrasies of the war correspondents.  From the novel:   
                 "[Siegel] foresaw the day when there would be one Public Relations officer 
                  for each combat man in the Navy, and the fleet commanded by the president 
                  of the Associated Press, with a six-star rank of Admiral-Admiral, who would 
                  decide on operations solely on the basis of their news value, with transmission 
                  ships occupied by nothing but correspondents, with no operation dispatches 
                  being permitted until the fleet was wiped out to provide a good news item." (p. 76)

In 1956, Don't Go Near the Water sold 165,000 copies, not including its book club sales.  The film rights were secured quickly, and a film adaptation starring Glenn Ford and Eva Gabor was released in 1957.

Don't Go Near the Water was reprinted in 2005, and TNT is apparently planning to release a made for TV version of Brinkley's The Last Ship next year.  

       I really like Don't Go Near the Water.  If you like humor, especially the type you'd find in good sitcoms, you should definitely give it a read.    

Bestsellers of 1956:
1. Don't Go Near the Water by William Brinkley
2. The Last Hurrah by Edwin O'Connor
3. Peyton Place  by Grace Metalious
4. Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis
5. Eloise by Kay Thompson
6. Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor
7. A Certain Smile  by François Sagan
8. The Tribe That Lost Its Head by Nicholas Monsarrat
9. The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir 
10. Boon Island by Kenneth Roberts

Also published 1956:
James Baldwin - Giovanni's Room
Albert Camus - The Fall
Allen Ginsburg - Howl and Other Poems
Eugene O'Neill - Long Day's Journey into Night

Brinkley, William. Don't Go Near the Water. New York: Random House, 1956. Print.

Burke, James Henry and Hackett, Alice Payne. 80 Years of Best Sellers: 1895-1975. New 
            York: R. R. Bowker Company, 1977. Print.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Interview with George Saunders

If you haven't got around to it yet, check out some work by George Saunders.  He's quickly become one of my favorite writers (In Persuasion Nation is my favorite collection of his so far).  Here's him doing a reading from his most recent collection:

Monday, November 18, 2013

1955: Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk

The Author:

Herman Wouk (1915 -    ) was born in New York, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants.  He lived in the Bronx and later attended Columbia University, from which he graduated in 1934.  He worked in radio until the bombing of Pearl Harbor, at which point he joined the Navy.  He used his experience in the Navy when writing his Pulitzer Prize winning third novel, The Caine Mutiny (1951).  His first novel, Aurora Dawn (1947) was a book of the month club selection, but his second, City Boy (1948), failed financially.  He married Betty Sarah Brown in 1945, and they remained married until her death in 2011. 

Wouk has had a long, prestigious career.  Other notable works include The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978), both dealing with the Holocaust.  He currently lives in Palm Springs, California.  His most recent novel, The Lawgiver (2012) is an epistolary novel concerning the making of a Moses movie, told through text messages, emails, etc.  

The Book:

Length: 573 pages
Subject/Genre: Character Study/Bildungsroman

Marjorie Morningstar is a bildungsroman about an upper-middle-class Jewish girl with dreams of being an actor.  Marjorie Mogenstern starts off as an idealistic beautiful teenager in the 1930s. She comes into conflict with the social norms of her parents and her contemporaries.  She falls in love with an older man, Noel Airman, a composer also looking for success in the theater.  Their relationship is a rocky one.  

While I try to avoid spoiling endings, I'd be remiss if I didn't discuss the epilogue for Marjorie Morningstar.  So, if you don't want any spoilers, skip this paragraph:  The epilogue takes place fifteen years after the rest of the story.  Marjorie, now in her late thirties, is a typical suburban stay-at-home mom.  All trace of her ambitions are gone.  This has led to a lot of debate and dissent amongst Wouk's readers.  Either it is a moralistic story, condemning sexual exploration and individualism in women, or it is meant to capture what happened to women in a society that was unfair to them.  Whether it's a depiction of society the way it was, or an attempt to reinforce those norms is a contentious point.

Wouk's critical and commercial success with his previous novel, The Caine Mutiny, no doubt aided sales for Marjorie Morningstar, which become a cultural phenomenon in its own right.

TIME magazine, Sept. 1955

And, like most of the books on the #1 bestseller's list, a film version was produced.  The 1958 adaptation starred Gene Kelly and Natalie Wood.

Marjorie Morningstar has a complex protagonist, and deals with the serious issues of adolescence.  I feel the book may be a bit dated, not to the extent that it is unrelatable, but it is clearly a product of a 1950's sensibility.  If you're looking for a coming of age story and don't demand a Hollywood ending, Marjorie Morningstar is a good pick.

Also published in 1955:
William Gaddis - The Recognitions
Graham Greene - The Quiet American
Vladimir Nabokov - Lolita
Flannery O'Connor - A Good Man Is Hard to Find
J.R.R. Tolkien - The Return of the KIng
Tennessee Williams - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Wouk, Herman. Marjorie Morningstar. 1955. New York: Signet Books. 1957. Print.

Monday, November 4, 2013

1954: Not As a Stranger by Morton Thompson

The Author: 

Morton Thompson (?-1953) is hard to find information on.  The only print source of information I have on him doesn’t have a birth year.  The Wikipedia page and other online sources have his birth year down as circa 1907, but there’s no certainty that that’s accurate.  What I have found on Thompson is that his first work was a non-fiction humor collection titled Joe, the Wounded Tennis Player which was popular with soldiers in the Second World War.  In 1949, he published The Cry and the Covenant, a fictional biography of Ignaz Semmelweiss, the nineteenth century doctor who was forced out of the medical community with much hostility.  Semmelweiss had the crazy idea that doctors should wash their hands between the morgue and the delivery room. 

            Thompson committed suicide in 1953.  His last and most successful work, Not As A Stranger, was published in 1954.  That’s the sum of the information I’ve been able to verify about Morton Thompson.  If anyone has another source of information, please leave a comment.

The Book:

Length: 948 Pages
Subject/Genre: Medical drama/bildungsroman

  Not As a Stranger tells the life story of Lucas Marsh.  Born in a small town in the Midwest at the beginning of the twentieth century, Lucas is the son of a successful businessman and a devout mother.  Despite his parents' wishes, Lucas wants nothing more in life than to become a doctor.  His mother dies, and his father's business collapses around the time Lucas is going to medical school, leaving him broke as well.  Lucas marries an older nurse for her money and the story from then on is half drama, as Lucas becomes a great doctor but a bad person, and half exposé of the medical industry.  

   It seemed like this was two different books.  On one hand, a look at the inside of the medical industry, and on the other, a drama about the costs of success.  The former doesn't require over a hundred about the narrator's childhood, and the latter doesn't require the amount of technical information present in the novel.  Given the length of the book, it frequently felt like things were not really leading anywhere.  For example, we know from the beginning that Lucas is going to be a doctor.  On page four, the last line of the first chapter reads: "Lucas Marsh was born in the town of Milletta in the early 1900's, to Job Marsh, owner of a harness store, and Ouida Marsh, daughter of a druggist.  He was to be a doctor.  No more is known."   

    Of course, more is known.  944 pages more.  The story has some strong points, most notably the vibrant supporting characters.  Lucas's mother is a Freudian minefield.  The first time we're introduced to her, she's sitting at the kitchen table reading about phrenology (the pseudo-scientific belief that skull shape affects personality traits).  The seven year old Lucas comes in and Ouida measures his skull, noticing a bump that indicates "pronounced amativeness."  She tells Lucas that that means "playing with yourself."  She goes on:  "You must never play with yourself, Lucas.  Remember that, always.  And if you do, you must tell Mother.  Always."  She goes on a page later to tell Lucas that "Mother has such great dreams for you, darling. You're Mother's whole life, you know.  Never forget that.  Mother wants the little boy she suffered such agonies to bring into the world to be a great artist, a spiritual being the whole world will look up to."   

    The father is not as unsettling, but still a strange personality.  His name is Job, as I've mentioned, which also happens to be where the title is taken from.   The epigraph for the novel is "But as for me, I know that my redeemer liveth, and at the last he will stand upon the earth, and though worms shall devour my flesh, and my bones be as dust, yet Shall I see god, whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold him, and not as a stranger. Job, 19;25"  The naming isn't particularly subtle.  In fact, the mother's maiden name is "Bourgeois."  And of course, the name Lucas/Luke has biblical significance.  On the one hand, there's Lucas's father who is not spiritual at all, who sleeps around and is predominately interested in making money.  The mother is spiritual to the point where she almost kills Lucas as a baby because she refuses to listen to doctors.  And Lucas learns to strike a balance between the two.    
   Despite its length, Not As a Stranger is not only an accessible read but deals with the medical profession, which has been a consistently popular subject in literature (e.g. The Egyptian or Green Light).  It also had the benefit of controversy, having been denounced by Catholic World and the added attention of the author's untimely end.  The following year, a film version was produced:

The film starred Robert Mitchum as Lucas Marsh, alongside Olivia de Havilland and Frank Sinatra. This was the directorial debut of Stanley Kramer.

    As an exposé of the medical industry, the story is very dated, which I feel detracts from its strength today.  It's not a bad novel, but it's not great either.  It's too long for its subject, even if there are bright points scattered throughout.  Not As a Stranger appears to be out-of-print, but unless you have a burning passion for doctor stories, it's not something you need to go out of your way to look for.   

Also published in 1954:  
James Baldwin - Go Tell It to the Mountain
Pierre Boulle - The Bridge on the River Kwai
William Golding - Lord of the Flies
Richard Matheson - I Am Legend
J.R.R. Tolkien - The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers

Server, Lee. Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers. New York: Facts on File. 2002. Print.
Thompson, Morton. Not As a Stranger. New York: Scribner's. 1954. Print.

Monday, October 28, 2013

1953 and a Brief Announcement

If you're looking for the entry for 1953's bestseller, The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas, follow this link.

Otherwise, a brief announcement!  

       I'm really enjoying this project and plan to continue it until it's completed.  However, my course load is pretty heavy right now.  So I won't be able to maintain the weekly schedule for my project posts and will be doing them biweekly, at least until the end of the semester.  The reading and research required for each post takes considerably more time than writing the post itself.  In addition to giving me more time to study, I will also be able to focus more on posts outside the main review project.  So stay tuned!

Monday, October 21, 2013

1952: The Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain

The Author:

            Thomas B. Costain (1885-1965), was born in Brantford, Ontario, Canada.  His writing career started in 1902 when he was hired by the Brantford Courier as a reporter.  He later went on to work for the Ontario’s Guelph Daily Mercury in 1908.  In 1910, he married Ida Spragge and was hired as an editor by the Maclean Publishing Company.

            In 1920, Costain moved to the United States to become an editor of the Saturday Evening Post. That same year, he became a naturalized citizen.  He remained at the Saturday Evening Post until 1934, when he became a story-editor for Twentieth Century Fox.  He published his first novel in 1942, My Great Folly, which, like the rest of his novels, was a piece of historical fiction.  Costain also wrote a lot of non-fiction volumes, most notably the Plantagenet series, about the Middle Ages dynasty of the same name.

The Book:

Length: 533 pages

Subject/Genre: Early Christianity/Historical Fiction

            The Silver Chalice takes place in first century Greece, Rome, and Jerusalem.  The novel’s protagonist is a gifted silversmith named Basil.  Adopted by a wealthy Greek merchant, Basil was wrongly sold into slavery by his adoptive Uncle after his adopted-father’s death.  But the quality of his workmanship gained the attention of Luke (as in, ‘the gospel according to’).  Luke buys Basil’s freedom and takes him to Jerusalem to work for Joseph of Arimathea.  After completing demonstrating his ability to Joseph (and impressing his Joseph’s granddaughter, Deborra), Joseph reveals to Paul and Luke that he has the Holy Grail.

Artist's recreation

Joseph wants Basil to craft a silver chalice to house it.  This will require Basil to travel and meet the apostles so he can sculpt them.

            This is by no means the first time I’ve said what I’m about to say, but I feel like I need to say it again.  I was clearly not in the target audience for this piece of Christian historical fiction.  What I’ve found reading a bunch of these, is that they start with the assumption that anyone who reads it is already going to feel very strongly for Christianity.  If you don’t start with this viewpoint, the character’s emotional and spiritual growth doesn’t seem particularly reasonable because it acts as if there is only one possible spiritual/philosophical response.  Which, if you start with a foregone conclusion, isn’t a problem, but otherwise it falls apart a bit. 

            As I pointed out in the bio section, Costain was also known for his non-fiction histories.  From what I’ve found, the detail in The Silver Chalice (and there’s a lot of it) is very well researched.  In his attempt to capture the ancient world, Costain, like Lloyd C. Douglas, decided to use prose that mimics a scriptural tone. For example, “The oil merchant, gasping for breath and slightly purple of cheek, stepping inside to escape the sun, which was beating down with all the fury of the fires of atonement.”  The frequent use of archaic grammar (“purple of cheek”) and over-the-top religious metaphor seems a bit pompous, honestly.
            It wasn’t incidental that I mentioned Lloyd C. Douglas in the previous paragraph.  The Silver Chalice was frequently compared to The Robe, which is also the bestseller for the second time in 1953.  Religious fiction and historical fiction have been perennial favorites in American popular literature.  Likewise, one of the best ways to get on the bestsellers list is to have previously been on the bestsellers list.  Costain appeared on the top ten annual bestsellers four times in the 1940s, reaching the number two spot in 1947.  As with most of the bestsellers so far, The Silver Chalice was made into a film.

            The 1954 film is notable for two things: Being Paul Newman’s first feature film role (he played Basil) and being so bad that when it was going to air on TV years after its theatrical release, Newman took out an ad apologizing for the film. 

            Like with a lot of the books I’ve read so far on this list, The Silver Chalice is not bad, but it’s not very good.  It’s pretty understandable why it’s no longer famous.  If you enjoy religious/historical fiction, you’ll probably like The Silver Chalice, but there’s no particular reason to seek out this novel, specifically.

Also published in 1952:

Ralph Ellison - Invisible Man
Edna Ferber - Giant
Ernest Hemingway - The Old Man and the Sea
Flannery O'Connor - Wise Blood
John Steinbeck - East of Eden
Kurt Vonnegut - Player Piano
E. B. White -Charlotte's Web

Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribners. Supplement 7 (1961-5). Print.
Costain, Thomas B. The Silver Chalice. Garden City, New York: Doubleday. 1952. Print.

Monday, October 14, 2013

1951: From Here To Eternity by James Jones

The Author:

          James Jones (1921-1977) was born in Robinson, Illinois. Although the discovery of oil on family property briefly brought the Joneses wealth, when Jones graduated High School in 1939, the money had run out.  With no money to pay for college, Jones joined the U.S. Army Air Corps.  His poor eyesight prevented him from becoming a pilot, so in 1940 he transferred to the infantry and was sent to Schofield Barracks in Honolulu. Over the following year, both of Jones’ parents died, and the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. In December 1942, Jones was sent out to fight in Guadalcanal. 

            Wounded physically and emotionally, Jones was shipped home in 1943. He decided to stay in the army on limited duty, but was sent to a combat outfit preparing to ship out for battle.  Jones went AWOL and headed back to Robinson.  Here, he met his mentor and future lover, Lowney Handy and her husband Harry.  Jones went AWOL several times over the following year, and was eventually given a medical discharge.  He then went to live at the Handy Writers’ Colony. 

In 1951, he published From Here to Eternity, which focused on the military life in Hawaii.  In 1957 he married Gloria Patricia Mosolino.  They moved back to the Writers’ Colony, but left after a violent altercation between Lowney and Gloria. The Joneses moved to Paris. Although he published many novels over the decades following From Here to Eternity, the first to receive the critical and public reception that FHtE received was 1962’s The Thin Red Line, about his experiences in Guadalcanal.  This was the second book of his “War Trilogy.”  He returned to the U.S. to teach at the Florida International Institute in 1974.  He died of congestive heart failure in 1977.  The last book of his war trilogy, Whistle, was published posthumously in 1978.

The Book:

First Edition Cover

From Here To Eternity follows the life of Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a soldier from a small southern town stationed in Hawaii before the U.S. entered World War II.  Prewitt had blinded another soldier during a boxing match before the events in the novel begin gave up boxing so as not to hurt any one else.  Upon transferring back to G company, known for its boxing, Prewitt’s refusal to fight puts him at odds with his superiors.  There are other major storylines, like Sgt. Warden’s affair with Cpt. Holmes’ wife, Karen. 

The novel deals honestly and directly with morally ambiguous situations, and with topics like sex and honor.  Which is a bit of a relief and surprise, seeing as the previous bestseller was about a morally upright priest and the book after this is biblical historical fiction about a morally upright metallurgist.  Of course, this frankness, the sex scenes, the frequent cussing, would itself help sales for the novel.  Controversy is good for sales. 

That’s not to say that the novel isn’t good.  It is, very much so.  In fact, From Here To Eternity is one of the six novels on the list to also appear on Modern Library’s List of 100 Best Novels (the other five: The Grapes of Wrath, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Portnoy’s Complaint, Main Street, and Ragtime).  From Here To Eternity was a critical and commercial success. 

Of course, the 1953 film adaptation starring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, is about as famous (and well-received) as the novel.  Even if you’ve never heard of the movie (several people I’ve spoken to recently haven’t), you’re definitely familiar with this famous scene:

If you don’t recognize it here, you might recognize it from The Seven Year Itch, Airplane!, The Nutty Professor, or Shrek 2, as well as countless other films and TV shows that parodied this scene.

The novel’s a little slow in the beginning, and it’s not a war novel so much as it is an army novel. If you like books that deal with complex relationships, both romantic and professional, and with complex group dynamics, this is a must-read.

Also Published in 1951:
Isaac Asimov - Foundation
Ray Bradbury - The Illustrated Man
Howard Fast - Spartacus
J. D. Salinger - The Catcher in the Rye
Herman Wouk - The Caine Mutiny

Jones, James. From Here To Eternity. New York: Scribner's. 1951. Print.
Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner's. Supplement 10 (1976-
           80). Print.