“Good Old Books”, from the National Review, 23 December 1996

A post on the NYRB Classic blog led me to the 23 December 1996 issue of the National Review, which featured two articles, by Florence King and Terry Teachout, about favorite reads — forgotten ones, in particular.

Florence King’s picks and comments:

· The Valley of Decision, by Marcia Davenport

This novel has everything: sex amid the Johnstown Flood, labor-union strife, an expatriate adventuress, a playboy turned monk, a society wife who goes mad, a Czech violinist fleeing the Nazis. And if all this weren’t enough, the author even keeps us glued to the page when she describes the operation of the open-hearth furnace, a tour de force of “writing like a man” that won her high praise from male reviewers in that benighted pre-feminist age.

· The Cardinal, by Henry Morton Robinson

The Cardinal opens in 1915 and traces Steve’s [Stephen Fermoyle] rise from Boston parish priest to prince of the church. My favorite parts are the behind-the scenes accounts of how the Vatican works, and the descriptions of the Roman contessa’s salon: a hierarchy of ecclesiastical guests, their rank denoted by the colors of their flowing capes and birettas (the book answers all the Protestant questions about vestments), soignee women kissing rings, learned Jesuits swapping bons mots, and Cardinal Merry del Val capping quotations from Horace while juggling oranges. That’s what I call a party.

· Jubilee Trail, by Gwen Bristow

Sisterhood eludes feminist novelists, but it fairly leaps off the pages of Gwen Bristow’s Jubilee Trail, a good girl/bad girl western in which the male characters are all satellites.

· Maggie-Now, by Betty Smith

Maggie Moore (her childhood reprimand, “Maggie, now,” becomes her nickname) is a simple Irish-Catholic girl who wants only to marry a good man and have children. But along comes Claude Basset, a Protestant-agnostic college graduate with an ironic wit that goes over her head and a wanderlust she doesn’t find out about until after she marries him. The O. Henry-like twist here is the blissful marriage of this mismatched pair. Under normal conditions they would grow to hate each other, but their strange modus vivendi inadvertently keeps the dew on the rose.

· Kings Row, by Henry Bellamann

Suffice to say that Kings Row is immensely satisfying to read during political campaigns when the Trad Vals pile up too high.

[The movie version of Kings Row gave Ronald Reagan the title of his 1965 autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?; as King notes, the novel was a bloodfest of medical malpractice, insanity, and small-town vice. — ed.]

· Katherine, by Anya Seton

Another favorite Anya Seton novel is Katherine, about the love affair between John of Gaunt, the ambitious younger son of Edward III, and Lady Katherine Swynford, whose four bastard children became the progenitors of the York and Tudor lines in fulfillment of the ancient prophecy, “Thou shalt get kings though thou be none.” Richly descriptive of medieval life, the story dramatizes major events of late-fourteenth-century England — the Black Plague, the Lollard heresy, the storming of the Savoy palace in the Peasants’ Revolt — and presents a brilliant fictional portrait of Katherine’s brother-in-law, Geoffrey Chaucer.


Terry Teachout’s picks and comments

· The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy

Anyone capable of marrying Kenneth Tynan must have had a sense of humor, and Elaine Dundy’s first book, originally published in 1958, proves the point. It’s the stock Wanderjahr plot, transposed into a female key: Sally Jay Gorce, young, fairly innocent, and full of beans, heads for Paris in search of romance and adventure, gets more of both than she bargained for, and in the process makes modest headway toward maturity.

[Teachout provided the introduction to the forthcoming NYRB Classics reissue of The Dud Avocado. You can also find more about Dundy at her website, www.elainedundy.com.— ed.]

· Pictures from an Institution, by Randall Jarrell

This savage satire of life at a progressive women’s college circa 1954 is so good, it made Whittaker Chambers laugh. Some characters are drawn from life (Mary McCarthy among them), but you don’t need a scorecard to get the point, for every liberal fallacy of our time is here made as flesh.

· Father Malachy’s Miracle, by Bruce Marshall

This lovely, all-but-forgotten book tells the story of what happens when an easily exasperated priest, vexed to the utmost limits of his endurance by the invincible ignorance of the heathen multitude, requests God to confound them all definitively and simultaneously by working a jumbo miracle in broad daylight — and God obliges, leaving the world agog.

· The Locusts Have No King, by Dawn Powell

Long a fixture on short lists of Most Underrated American Novelists, Dawn Powell finally got lucky last year when Steerforth published her diaries and started reissuing her wicked novels. This is the best of the lot, a caustic tale of frustrated love and inadvertent success in postwar New York.

· Max Jamison, by Wilfrid Sheed

Speaking of critics, here’s a minor miracle: a comic novel about a famously ferocious drama critic for a weekly news magazine who awakes one day to find himself athwart a five-alarm spiritual crisis.

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