Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The ghosts of best-sellers past

I have a reading project I've been working on over the years - catching up on books that were much talked about in their day. Best-sellers of yore. Many of them were popular when I was a kid - I'd see them listed in book club ads (which always intrigued me - all those books for just a dollar!). I found them fascinating in the same way I did the independent movie theater listings - what were these things?

What I've come to find is that most of these books, or at least the ones I've read, aren't all that great from a literary standpoint. But it's been an interesting reading experience, because for the most part I can tell why these books were talked about in their day, and as cultural artifacts some of them are interesting.

In no particular order:

Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor
Oh, how I wanted to like this book. I love a big, fat book, especially if there's plenty of the four food groups of fiction* to go around. But scandal alone can't make a book readable, not when the protagonist is a shallow, unlikable sociopath. The title character sleeps and marries her way up through society, all the while carrying a torch for a man who doesn't give a damn about her. Amber comes off as a pathetic stalker, and I could only make it through half of the book's 800-some pages before tossing it into the giveaway basket.

Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams
A real missed opportunity. The story of a novelist who marries a woman who turns out to be unhealthily obsessed with him (he resembles her dead father, never a good sign) and pathologically jealous of anything or anyone that takes attention away from her (including their unborn child!) could have made for a compelling melodrama. Unfortunately Williams makes the crucial error of making the woman one of the story's narrators, which takes much of the mystery out of things, and makes the novelist hero look oblivious at best as he misses signs of the woman's sociopathy. Watch the movie instead.

The Godfather by Mario Puzo
Speaking of watching the movie instead! Puzo's book is a strange beast, with some excellent drama marred by inconsistent characterization (I'd ditch that cipher Michael and have a book with nothing but Vito Corleone and Tom Hagen) and weird subplots that add nothing (the girl with the gynecological problems). Would make an excellent reading double bill with Peter Benchley's Jaws, another instance of a literary sow's ear turned into a cinematic silk purse.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner
Probably one of the best of the past best-sellers I've read. At times it felt almost like science fiction, with its detailed portrayal of a culture that's fairly recent but seems so alien to me, and a protagonist who's both pathetic and sympathetic as she looks for physical connection while shunning emotional ties. It's not a pleasant read, and might have worked better without its preface that reveals the protagonist's fate at the outset, but it's worth reading if you've an interested in the seedier side of the 1970s. Would make a good double bill with Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays for a "Who Knew the 70s Were So Depressing" read.

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
Wow. Just... wow. And that's not a good wow. Even now, Peyton Place packs a wallop, mostly because it combines some truly terrible writing and overheated melodrama with a creepy sexuality. I don't recall there being a single healthy relationship in the book. Every encounter in the book is suffused with a perverse atmosphere, from a man dreamily reminiscing about the first time he molested his step-daughter to the tryst between the protagonist's mother and the high school principal that gets uncomfortably into date-rape territory. It makes for a thoroughly unpleasant read, and yet I keep it on the shelf. Because it's Peyton Place.

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
I feel about Valley of the Dolls (as well as Susann's Once Is Not Enough) the same way I do about Keanu Reeves' acting. It's not, strictly speaking, good. But like Keanu, Susann tries so hard I can't help but like her. Plus, sincerity counts for a lot and Susann obviously had a story she deeply believed in and wanted to tell. The surprisingly dark story of three women who find that fame and fortune isn't all it's cracked up to be, especially when addiction to "dolls" (pills) takes its toll, is a soap opera but an involving one. It's easy to see why people couldn't put it down, back in the day.

And I'll be off to the bookstore soon (got a trip coming up and need to pack some books) - who knows, maybe another Best-seller from Days of Yore will find its way into my carry-on luggage!

*The four food groups of fiction are: crime, sex, death, and insanity.

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