A GOOD READ by Jay Williams
The inspiration for this column comes from quite a few years ago when I was reading highly readable books that may not be considered high art (I am trying to avoid the use of the word "trashy"). I realized that from the 1930s to the 1970s, each decade has its own. What follows are some must-reads if you want to understand mainstream North American book tastes for the 20th century.
The book that kicked it all off is Gone with the Wind. Saying you haven't heard of this book is like saying you've never heard of the Mona Lisa. Margaret Mitchell's 1936 oeuvre has had a sequel (Scarlett, by Alexandra Ripley, in 1991) and a spin-off (Rhett Butler's People, by Donald McCaig, 2007), which are a testament to its power. The story of Scarlett O'Hara won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937. What more can be said about such a legendary book?
The Gone with the Wind of the 1940s is Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. Published in 1944, it was highly popular at the time but has become less well-known over time. It tells the story of Amber St. Clare, a young woman who uses her wits to become part of the court of King Charles II. It is full of intrigue and, yes, the Black Death makes an appearance. I was never even remotely interested in 18th century England until I read this fascinating historical romance. Amber is an adventuress cut from the same cloth as Vanity Fair's Becky Sharp. According to Wikipedia, it sold more than 100,000 copies in its first week of release and went on to sell over three million copies. Oh yes, and it was banned in 14 states.
In 1956, Grace Metalious' Peyton Place was published. Reading it is like watching a really good soap opera. The "stories" are set in a small New England town where three main female characters and supporting players appear episodically in this scandal-ridden chronicle. It sold 60,000 copies within the first 10 days of its release and remained on The New York Times bestseller list for 59 weeks. Although the sequel sold well, its success did not approach that of the original. Like the two books above, it was the first one that was the author's best work.
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann was published in 1966 and became an instant bestseller. It follows the lives of three women and their relationship with "dolls" - pills. This enthralling book is set against a the backdrop of show business. Some of the characters are based on real people of the time in the entertainment industry. This book has no equal and, once you have finished it, grief may set in because there is nothing else quite like it to read. That said, there is a somewhat sequel (Jacqueline Susann's Shadow of the Dolls by Rae Lawrence, 2001), which has a somewhat implausible plot but which is true to the spirit of the original.
The Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough, published in 1977, is not an American novel, as are the others. McCullough is Australian but the book caught on big time in North America and soon after being published, was made into a television mini-series. It is a family saga about women from three generations of the Cleary clan. Part of the shocker factor for this book was the relationship between Fr. Ralph and Meggie - read it to find out more.
The Prince of Tides? The Bridges of Madison County? The Corrections? Perhaps it's too early to tell what the blockbusters are for the 1980s, '90s and '00s. These sorts of books need the test of time.
If you have suggestions or opinions about what is the best read of any of these decades, please send them to the Coquitlam Library blog, I Was Told There'd be Cake, at email@example.com.
And if you are interested in American bestsellers, you might want to have a look at Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900-1999 by Michael Korda. It encapsulates bestsellers for the 20th century.
A Good Read is a column by Tri-City librarians that is published every Wednesday. Jay Williams is a reference librarian at Coquitlam Public Library.