1954 Club: overview of books to read or to add to the wishlist #1954Club

If the books on my bookshelf and available in my library are anything to go by, 1954 was a varied and interesting publishing year. A couple of likely authors were conspicuous by their absence and there are some more I may read later. As it is, I am behind on my reading and blogging. #1954Club will keep me going for a while yet.

Twice a year, Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings run a challenge to read and blog about books from a particular year. This time the lucky year was 1954 and I was determined not to get caught out. I collected some books together, some of which I’d already read, some of which are short or children’s books. I even started reading early and prepared my overview blog. I was all set! And then things began to go pear-shaped. By the way, that is one of my very favourite English sayings. But not so wonderful when you’re living the pear-shaped life!

Excuses, excuses!

This time last week, I was unusually organised and couldn’t wait for the start of the 1954 Club week. At the beginning of the week, I was coasting, reading one of the 1954 library books I’d borrowed, commenting on other people’s blogs, getting sucked into Twitter. Many, many things need to happen in my garden and I’d forgotten it was Easter weekend, so my husband was there expecting action. Then, out of the blue, the translation agency I haven’t heard from for six months asked me to do a 15,000 word translation which involves a fair bit of checking jargon, so is going to take me into next week. To top it all, I realised that the book I’d borrowed on ILL (De wand/The Wall by Maren Haushofer) had been immediately re-reserved and needed to be read pronto and returned. Very inconsiderately, this was not a 1954 book, so more precious time was wasted. This is all a rather long-winded way of saying my contributions to the 1954 Club will mostly be belated ones, but in the immortal words of Magnus Magnusson, I’ve started, so I’ll finish! I will link to my reviews whenever I get round to posting them. Promises, promises!

1954 books in my possession 

These are the books already gracing our bookshelves, plus a couple I was able to borrow from our local library:

TBR:

  • Live and Let Die (Ian Fleming)
  • Under the Net (Iris Murdoch, 1001)
  • The Horse and His Boy (C.S. Lewis)
  • Moominsummer Madness (Tove Jansson)
  • The Song of the Abbey (Elsie J. Oxenham)
  • 3x Perry Mason (Erle Stanley Gardner):
    • The Case of the Fugitive Nurse
    • The Case of the Runaway Corpse
    • The Case of the Restless Redhead

Library books borrowed (in Dutch):

  • I Am Legend (Richard Matheson) – now read
  • De diamant [The diamond] (Harry Mulisch) – currently reading 
Books published in 1954
My books to read for #1954 Club

Online:

Already read:

  • The Wheel on the School (Meindert de Jong)

Couldn’t find:

  • The Mystery of Tally-Ho Cottage (Enid Blyton)
  • Jip en Janneke. First 21 stories (Annie M.G. Schmidt). It doesn’t surprise me I can’t find this one. It may be a Dutch children’s classic, but as a young mother I was not at all impressed by the two naughty pre-schoolers. In fact, in one of the earliest chapters, they dig all of the sand out of the sandpit and Jip’s lackadaisical mother says the equivalent of “Oh, you can have fun tomorrow putting it all back in the sandpit, darling.” As I had a similarly-aged child who annoyed me by doing this every time and had no interest whatsoever in clearing it up, that day or the next, the story made my blood boil. Some of Annie M.G. Schmidt’s books and songs are wonderful, but I don’t think I’ll ever make my peace with Jip and Janneke.

1954 wishlist and future possibilities

  • The Eagle of the Ninth (Rosemary Sutcliff). When we were clearing out my mother’s flat, we discovered that she had collected many of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books. Sadly, The Eagle of the Ninth is not one of them. In fact, it may be the only one of hers I have read, but my memory of it is as lost in the mists of time as the Roman Ninth Legion.
  • The Bafut Beagles & Three Singles to Adventure (Gerald Durrell). I am sure I read The Bafut Beagles many years ago because the title is so familiar, but I have read many of Gerald Durrell’s books and loved them for their humour and superbly sketched illustrations. As I don’t have a copy of this to review, I will direct you to a Goodreads review that consists almost entirely of direct quotes and illustrations from The Bafut Beagles. The book is an account of one of Durrell’s animal collecting trips to Cameroon. One of the things I noted when I read The Drunken Forest for the 1956 Club is that Durrell often didn’t have to do much hunting to find the animals himself. He was extremely adept at getting local people to show him where they were to be found. In addition to going out himself, once local people knew what sort of creatures he wanted, they were only too happy to bring creatures back for him. In this book, Durrell tells a story about ‘pagans’ who were scared photos would gradually gain control of their soul, so he sneakily took photos standing side on so they wouldn’t notice. This reminds me of the recent (in my opinion) over-zealous privacy laws that supposedly prohibit you from taking photos in public places of much-photographed sites like the Eiffel Tower. Only after two trips to Japan did I discover that it is illegal to post photos online of people without permission, unless you blur the faces. Just as well I am not an efficient blogger and never actually got round to posting anything about Japan on my expat blog.
  • Under Milk Wood (Dylan Thomas) I feel like I ought to read this, but…
  • The Sound of Waves (Yukio Mishima, 1001). Available in English, national ILL, €5
  • Lucky Jim (Kingsley Amis, 1001).  Available in English, IL, free
  • Katherine (Anya Seton). Available in Dutch, national ILL, €5
  • The Living Room, a tragic play (Graham Greene)
  • Twenty-One Stories (Graham Greene)
  • Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (Barbara Comyns)

Prolific authors who didn’t publish anything in 1954

Elizabeth Goudge. The Heart of the Family, the third part of a trilogy about the Eliots of Damerosehay, came out in 1953, then there was a gap until The Rosemary Tree in 1956.

Mary Renault did exactly the same thing: The Charioteer in 1953 and The Last of the Wine in 1956. I’ve added The Charioteer to my wishlist because several reviewers said it perfectly expressed the experiences and self-loathing felt by gay men in the 1950s. The title made me expect it to be about the Romans, especially knowing some of her later books. How wrong I was; it’s about an injured WWII soldier convalescing in a British hospital and his developing relationship with a hospital orderly, a conscientious objector. As a sad corollary to this, I found this on an overview of notable events from 1954: Lester Callaway Hunt, Sr., a US Senator, committed suicide at his Capitol Hill desk after being blackmailed over his son’s homosexuality. 

Random 1954 events

  • Politics: Brown v. Board of Education legally ended “separate but equal” school segregation in the US.
  • Most popular songs included Sh-boom by The Chords, Mr. Sandman by The Chordettes and Oh! My Pa-Pa (O Mein Papa) by Eddie Fisher. I’ve always loved Mr. Sandman.
  • The most popular films included Rear Window, White Christmas and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.
  • The world population was only ~ 2,772,000,000! It’s now at a mind-boggling 7,942 million and rising.
  • Sports: Roger Bannister becomes the first man to break the four minute mile, at 3 minutes 59.4 seconds.
  • The 1954 book I Am Legend by Richard Matheson has had three movie adaptations. The Omega Man (1971), The Last Man on Earth (1964), and I Am Legend(2007).
  • The Piña Colada was invented in Puerto Rico in 1954 at the Caribe Hilton. Source: Pop Culture US

#1936Club – Blundering around the bookcase: finding books published in 1936

1936 was an eventful year and I found some interesting books published in 1936 for the #1936Club book challenge. Here’s what I found on my own shelves.

After taking part in the 1956 Club challenge, I was looking forward to hunting down some books on my TBR shelves for the next year chosen, which turned out to be 1936: the 1936 Club is born! Thank you to Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book for picking such an interesting year: unrest on the horizon, but pre-WWII. It was also a very eventful year, with the infamous Berlin Olympics, the Depression in full swing in the USA, the abdication of King Edward VIII, Beryl Markham was the first woman to fly the Atlantic, the Hoover Dam (then called the Boulder Dam) was completed and Crystal Palace burnt down. But what to read? I had plenty of time. I could read the books beforehand and line up some blogposts ready to go, surely… Full of enthusiasm, I did some research, made a 1936-club tab for my Goodreads page, started reading early and still didn’t manage to read them all. Here are my initial thoughts. I’ll be adding my reviews and updating the links here in the coming week, work and gardening commitments willing.

Books on my TBR shelves

I already had a few lined up on my shelves, but I discovered an unexpected one while perusing the shelves:

The Insect Man: Jean Henri Fabre by Eleanor Doorly, with an introduction by Walter de la Mare and the most wonderful woodcut illustrations by Robert Gibbings. This is a biography aimed at children and bought from my school library when it was selling off old stock. I seem to have been in a biography reading stage at the time because I believe I also bought a biography of Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine. This was also when I bought the book about the Pestalozzi Children’s Village that I read and reviewed for the 1956 Club.

South Riding by Winifred Holtby, published posthumously after she died tragically young. This is a semi-autobiographical novel set in rural Yorkshire, centring on the county council where all walks of life come together. This was given to me by a fellow BookCrosser together with Testament of a Generation, a collection of journalism by Holtby and her lifelong friend Vera Brittain, whose book A Testament of Youth made me a lifelong pacifist. I may very well have bought that at the same library sale; dangerous things, library sales. Sadly, Vera Brittain’s daughter, the indomitable politician and academic Shirley Williams, died on 11 April 2021 at the grand old age of 90. She was a worthy testament to her mother’s beliefs, so reading South Riding now seems perfect timing.

A City of Bells by Elizabeth Goudge. This is the first book in a trilogy set in a small rural country town where everybody knows everybody else’s business. Since the town has a cathedral, it is officially a city. In the books it’s called Torminster, but the author grew up in the similarly tiny rural city of Wells so it echoes the real place. This was a book that used to belong to my mother, who was the one to tell me about Elizabeth Goudge as The Little White Horse was her favourite book and was mine too, for a while. As one of the main protagonists is a young girl, it sometimes seems like a children’s book, but as one of the themes is mental health, desperation and suicide, though not too prominently, it is definitely aimed at adults. I did say I was going to read Goudge’s The Rosemary Tree for the 1956 Club, but that still hasn’t happened yet; it’s planned for June and my gardens theme.

Also on my shelves but unlikely to be read within the time frame (if at all) are Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Sleepwalker’s Niece and The Case of the Stuttering Bishop, books 8 and 9 in the series. I discovered to my surprise in the 1956 Club that the books are more entertaining than I expected, but I have so many books I really do want to read and these aren’t going anywhere as they’re part of my husband’s permanent collection. Having looked at the back covers, The Sleepwalker’s Niece sounds like it all comes down to the “brilliant cross examination” in the court case, my least favourite part of this sort of book. The Stuttering Bishop, on the other hand, sounds like it’s going to be far more about detective work and interviewing suspects, which I usually enjoy far more. And who could resist the front cover tagline:

Bogus bishops. Gold-digging granddaughters. No one in this case is for real – except the corpse.

1936 books I’ve already read 

One book published in 1936 that I read years ago and has stuck in my mind is Peter Fleming’s News From Tartary, about a journey on the lesser-travelled southern silk route. I will try to add my review near the 1936 Club week.

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. As one of my imaginary career options at the age of ten was to become a ballerina, I obviously read Ballet Shoes and several others by Noel Streatfeild. I still have it and am rather surprised it was written so long ago. Not to mention feeling perplexed to realise that I spent my entire life not noticing the odd spelling of the author’s name!

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I read this and loved it years ago, but was extremely disappointed by the film. After hearing about it my entire life, I found the first fifteen minutes so slow I turned off the television. I suspect I would feel the same way about the novel now, but it’s on my shelf, just in case I feel an uncontrollable urge to read it again. In actual fact, there is another reason to reread it with fresh eyes: when I first read it years ago, I was caught up in the romance. With a heightened awareness of race issues, it would be interesting to reread it from that point of view.

The Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft. My son listened to some of these creepy stories online somewhere and treated himself to an 878-page doorstopper commemorative edition. Fortunately for me, only three of the stories were originally published in 1936:

  • At the Mountains of Madness – an Antarctic expedition, extremely verbose
  • The Shadow Over Innsmouth – A Cthulhu tale; something fishy this way comes
  • The Shadow Out of Time – “After twenty-two years of nightmare and terror, saved only by a desperate conviction of the mythical source of certain impressions, I am unwilling to vouch for the truth of that which I think I found in Western Australia on the night of July 17-18, 1935.” That’s the one for me!

Other books published in 1936

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek ticks all my boxes: it is on the 1001 list, it was written by an author from an interesting country (he was Czech), satirises many nationalities but especially the Czechs and Dutch (my adopted country) and it was already on my wishlist. However, it’s not on my shelf, so it will have to wait.

Eyeless in Gaza by Aldous Huxley. On the 1001 list and on my wishlist. I devoured A Brave New World as a teenager, but unfortunately I haven’t come across a copy of this, especially as the title is so intriguing.

The Negro Motorist Green Book by Victor Hugo Green. First published in 1936, this was an annual guide book along the lines of a Michelin Guide, but instead of listing the best viewpoints or historical sites along the way, it listed places that it was safe for a person of colour to stay or stop to buy supplies en route. This was the era of the Jim Crow laws in the USA, so it also gave tips about places to avoid such as the so-called sundowner towns that were for whites only. I know I had read about this before and now I’ve found out where: it has turned up in a recent book review of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. This sounds like a book I want to read.

One Thousand Ways to Make $1,000 by Frances C. Minaker. This was the book that inspired Warren Buffet, who must have been an overachiever because he claims to have read it when he was about seven and went on to become a multimillionaire.

The Story of Ferdinand by Munroe Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson. This was a children’s picture book with a story about a little Spanish bull who preferred to sit under a tree and smell the flowers rather than fight. I will add a review to this soon.

So, there we have it! Unfortunately I haven’t found anything in Dutch or translated from any other language published in 1936. I’ll be looking forward to finding out what other people found.

1956 Club: Erle Stanley Gardner and Ian Fleming, Bonding over diamonds

Two books published in 1956: Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever and Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Terrified Typist. Both share a theme: diamonds! And diamonds were in the news, too, in more ways than one.

The Case of the Reluctant Reader (not by Erle Stanley Gardner)

Challenged to read books published in 1956 for the 1956 Club by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, I discovered that the prolific Erle Stanley Gardner published three books in 1956:

  • The Case of the Terrified Typist (#49)
  • The Case of the Demure Defendant (#50)
  • The Case of the Gilded Lily (#51)

As luck would have it, my husband has all three (I didn’t say it was good luck!). I’m not keen on them, so I view this as a mixed blessing, but I did want to try reading at least one. I’ve never been very demure nor do I go in much for gilding the lily, but I’m a pretty nifty typist and am old enough to have learnt on the last generation of manual typewriters. Apart from which, the Terrified Typist was the earliest, so that one it is.

However, as far as editions go, the Typist is the newest of the three, reissued in 1984 by Ballantine/Random House. It has a suitably ‘80s cover with neon pink title and a picture with rather a snazzy knife or letter opener, covered with what could be blood, but could just as easily be sealing wax, given the pile of letters lying next to it. The Demure Defendant was issued by Pan/Heinemann in 1964 (unabridged) in a cover with an orange/ochre/rust geometric design on a dull brown background with a photo of a blond who may be looking down with her heavily false eyelash-adorned eyes (they may be too heavy to lift!), but not demure enough to wear any clothes, or none that I can see. The Gilded Lily is a Pocket Book edition from 1968 with a photo of a Twiggy-style blonde with short hair, wearing square tinted glasses and enormous black and white square earrings, peering out from behind her heavily made up eyes over a martini glass with olive. By the way, we know that Perry Mason solves the case because it says so on the front cover! Nothing about the cover makes me want to read it.

Criticising The Case of the Terrified Typist, the reading experience

It was a quiet evening so I sat down to start reading, but I soon noticed that the book wasn’t as dated in language and attitudes to Della Street as I’d expected. I wondered if the book had been edited for the new edition, with attitudes and speaking style updated, perhaps to tie in with the script of the TV show. I didn’t find an answer to that and I’m not inclined to read another of the three from 1956 to compare.

Translation

However, I came across a fascinating article from an academic journal with an introduction/summary in French, describing how Erle Stanley Gardner’s French translators slightly adapted the endings and beginnings of the early novels to suit the different French book market where people were not as likely to buy every book of a series. Apparently, as Gardner was not only a lawyer, but had previously worked in marketing, he believed that you needed to hook your readers so they would be compelled to read the next instalment, rather like those irritating ‘next week’s episode’ at the end of television shows or the even more annoying excerpts from the author’s next book at the end of a novel. Erle Stanley Gardner may have a pioneer of this technique, but he did it more subtly, incorporating it into his storyline. He did this by using devices such as Della pulling out a file on the last page, handing it to Perry and telling him about what his next case will be. Then, at the start of the next book, there would be a quick recap of the previous one, reminding the reader where they had left off.

Foreword

This technique isn’t used in The Case of the Terrified Typist, but the book does begin with a foreword. In this, Gardner goes into a little history that feels irrelevant, then praises a particular legal colleague, in this case “my friend the Honorable (sic.) John Ben Shepperd [who] became the attorney general of the State of Texas.” Whether this was to curry favour with powerful men in real life, I don’t know, or perhaps he was paid to include the endorsement. It certainly has nothing to do with the book itself.

He also waxes lyrical about the generosity and enjoyment of drama (or showing off) common in Texas. It reminds me rather of James Michener’s autobiography, with name-dropping galore, which may be inevitable when you’re talking about popular and influential male authors of the 1950s and ‘60s (and undoubtedly earlier and later). It often feels like women authors haven’t had the same access to the ‘old boy network’, but maybe wome are just more subtle about it. I’m reminded of a story the blogger Judy Dykstra Brown shared fairly recently about being given a badge allowing her and her friend to enter an all-male Legion Club (a club for ex-members of the forces, like the British Legion) in Australia. To be allowed to attend was a special privilege for women that broke club rules. I suppose that was the reason for the country clubs in America. But I digress.

Looking at the next book in the series,  it occurred to me that Gardner used the Forewords as extended dedications. So often, a book is dedicated to a random friend or relation without giving any more details. Gardner’s forewords tell you something about the person he wishes to dedicate it to. It often expands on a particular legal peculiarity, a branch of investigation (forensics, toxicology; presumably  still in their infancy in 1956). And he takes the opportunity to tell some little edifying anecdote about his friend, such as you might use when introducing someone at a party.

Cast of characters

Another feature of this book is the Cast of Characters list (note the word ‘cast’, as Gardner also envisages it as a television script), giving a little potted biography of each, which does seem to give away plot points. For instance:

ANN RIDDLE—her frosty blue eyes observed many goings-on from her vantage point behind a cigar counter, and she seemed eager to report on all she saw—at first….

Hence we already know that she is going to be more than a one-off witness and it also sounds as if she will be pressured to keep quiet.

Words used to describe Della Street

If you aren’t reading the series in any sort of order, I suppose this does help to remind you who’s who of the regular cast. I particularly like the rather tongue-in-cheek description of Della:

DELLA STREET—she was everything a man could want in a confidential secretary—and then some ………….

Ooh la la! In The Case of the Demure Defendant, Della is described as Perry’s ‘amiable amanuensis’. I had just decided it might be interesting to find out how she is described in the Cast of Characters in each of the books we have when I discovered The Case of the Gilded Lily has no cast list. How disappointing!

Della Street has a dry sense of humour, for instance when she suggests Mason’s reputation may have intimidated the typist, “After all, […] you’re not entirely unknown, you know.” (p.4) We’re shown that she’s resourceful and observant and makes a good detective. Della admits she might have felt self-conscious if anyone had come across her searching the bin and the idea of concealing evidence makes her feel apprehensive; she is not as self-assured as she at first appears. She is also overly cautious about maintaining her good reputation and not allowing Gertie the secretary to jump to the wrong conclusion and gossip if she and Mason are locked in the law library together. She is also described as ‘demure’ when making the observation that Mason may be bending the law somewhat. Mind you, the word ‘demure’ seems to be Gardner’s shorthand for any well-behaved woman.

Sexism and demure dames

In a book written by a man in 1956, a certain degree of sexism is to be expected, of course. On the whole, it’s not to awful, but the young detective Paul Drake does describe trying to find a taxi driver who remembers a particular fare to the airport as being “like going to some babe wearing a skirt reaching to her knees, a tight sweater, and asking her if she remembered anybody whistling at her yesterday as she walked down the street.” (p.91)

One of the witnesses, Yvonne Manco, is described as ‘demure’, but when she crosses her legs, two of the male jurors “hitch forward in their chairs for a better look, while the chins of two of the less attractive women on the jury were conspicuously elevated.” (p.96) The objectivication of women is very much in evidence, though it’s not necessarily seen as an edifying characteristic. Victim blaming is lurking just around the corner.

The next female witness, Mae Wallis Jordan, is also described as “quiet, demure”; as I said, we’re amassing quite a collection of demure ladies!

The strange case of Della, Della Street

Incidentally, I’ve noticed a peculiarity of Erle Stanley Gardner’s writing style in that he never says simply Della, he always says Della Street. Why is this? It’s almost like a cutesie Southern affectation, like calling her ‘Miss Della Street’ (you’ll have to imagine the Gone With the Wind twang). Why the emphasis on her surname? Then, in an act of curiosity that could only be reasonably indulged in the age of the internet and an excess of time,  it occurred to me that there might be an actual road called Della Street, so I searched Google Maps and, yes, there’s one in Houston, Texas that may have served as inspiration. Incidentally, there are several around the USA, including one in Hernando, Missouri which I strongly suspect was named in homage to the character because it’s right around the corner from Mason Drive.

Certainly on television, there is definitely chemistry between Della and Perry. However, so far in this book, apart from the innuendo in the cast list, Della seems to be described as a professional and competent woman who contributes a great deal to the work, with no hint of the sexism  that had so annoyed me when I read The Case of the Fan-Dancer’s Horse. The titular typist is also incredibly competent, so Perry’s ‘flighty’ receptionist Gertie bears the brunt of the misogyny. On the other hand, one of Della’s roles is definitely to present female insight into how a woman might behave in a particular situation, which can grate on modern sensibilities.

Is it a crime to be too British?

As Duane Jefferson, the American defendant in the related murder trial, is working for a British company, there is an amusing exchange between him and Mason in which the latter accused him of becoming too British for his own good:

“There are certain mannerisms, Mr Mason, which the trade comes to expect of the representatives of a company such as ours.” [A diamond trading firm.]

“And there are certain mannerisms which an American jury expects to find in an American citizen,” Mason told him.

“If a jury should feel you’d cultivated a British manner, you might have reason to regret your accent and impersonal detachment.” (pp.47-48)

Lobotomies and other period props

One of the as yet unmet characters in The Case of the Terrified Typist has a brother who has been in a mental institution, but is now described as a “sort of a zombie” because he has had a prefrontal lobotomy , which Mason points out have been more or less discontinued by this time. I was very aware of this as I recently watched a couple of episodes of Ratched, which is a TV series written as a prequel to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Prefrontal lobotomies are heavily featured.

Behind the eight ball is a phrase I had never knowingly heard before. Mason uses it when he has no clear evidence. “If we don’t get some line on Mae Jordan and Marline Chaumont, we’re behind the eight ball”, he says. (p.86) It means to be in a difficult position, which is clear from the context, but the phrase surprised me. 

Two of the characters first come into contact with each other after an advert to exchange stereo photos in a photographic magazine. Perhaps Stereolist photos.

Now you’re cooking with gas! How unexpected to come across this phrase in a book published in 1956! I thought it was a British Gas advertising slogan from the 1980s, though I remembered it as ‘Now we’re cooking on gas!’. Apparently not. It was an early natural gas slogan in the USA in the late 1930s or early 1940s and used as sneaky product placement in radio scripts for Bob Hope, Jack Denny and in a Daffy Duck cartoon in 1942. All I can find for British slogans is ‘That’s the beauty of gas.’

Did I enjoy the book?

Unexpectedly, I did! There was enough excitement, red herrings, trickery, verbal dexterity and humour to keep my originally sceptical interest. I feared a deadly dull court case at the end, but that wasn’t as bad as expected, though I probably skimmed the bits where the lawyers are stopping the witnesses from actually saying anything. I was also pleasantly surprised about how modern it all felt, even if they were still using typewriters and carbon copies. In fact, I might even be tempted to read another Erle Stanley Gardner for the 1936 Club. And that was a conclusion I certainly hadn’t expected.

DIAMONDS IN 1956

It suddenly occurred to me that Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Terrified Typist revolves around diamond smuggling and that another high-profile book published in 1956 does exactly the same, Ian Fleming’s Bond thriller, Diamonds Are Forever. Were diamonds in the news in 1956 or, more probably, the year before? Well, yes, they were.

Marilyn Monroe memorably sang Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=knLd8bfeWtI  The diamond-themed heat was building. 

The first artificial diamonds were created at GE in Schenectady New York at the very end of 1954 by researcher H. Tracy Hall, running the machine in secret on December 16th and New Year’s Eve. GE was sceptical, but finally announced the invention on Valentine’s Day 1955.

On Christmas Day 1954, a plane carrying a cargo of diamonds valued at £1 billion crashed at Prestwick Airport, scattering the diamonds.

Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio in January 1954, with prominent photos of her diamond engagement ring in Vogue.

In 28 September 1955, a dramatisation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, A Diamond as Big as the Ritz was televised by Kraft Theater. The story is about a boy who visits a rich school friend whose mansion is built on top of a gigantic diamond. However, he soon realises that the father is paranoid and likely to kill anyone who visits. I will be attempting to squeeze this into my reading for Novellas in November (#novnov).

DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER – IAN FLEMING (1956)

I don’t know how to break this to you, but you have just missed your chance to bid for the original final typescript of Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever, including his signed revisions. It was on sale at Sotheby’s with a large collection of Fleming and Bond memorabilia In November 202. The typescript is expected to sell for between £80,000 and £120,000. All the lots will first be displayed at Sotheby’s prior to a range of four sales, Bond on Bond Street, celebrating all things Bond, from the first book to 60 years on screen. 

Who can forget the Diamonds Are Forever theme song by John Barry, sung so wonderfully by Shirley Bassey? It’s as timeless as a diamond and perfect for the glamorous Bond film of the same name. I’ve never been a great Bond fan, but last Christmas they were all shown on television and I watched many of the older ones and reluctantly admitted they had a certain je ne sais quoi.

However, I had never actually read any of the books, so once again, the 1956 Club challenged me to read something I would probably never have got round to.

First surprise: Bond going out for ‘dressed crab and a pint of black velvet’ (Stout and sparkling white wine) with the Chief of Staff. I thought he only drank ‘martini, shaken not stirred’.

He mentions an ‘inspectoscope’ used by customs officials. That’s explained here: https://flemingsbond.com/the-inspectoscope

Bond is going undercover as a diamond smuggler and his contact is a young woman (surprise, surprise) whose profession is given as ‘single woman’. Surely nobody ever filled that in a passport application? I am dismayed.

Then we visit the London Diamond Club where we are introduced to the idea that Jewish Ripley is instantaneously recognisable as such and may well speak with a strong Jiddish accent. Not very politically correct.

Ian Fleming is very specific with his descriptions of clothes and decor and accessories such as suitcases. I’m sure he was hoping it would be filmed, though the first film wasn’t released until 1962. Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman bought the film rights to all the Bond novels the previous year. In fact the decors and costumes and styling are the main reason for me to watch early Bond films, though some of the dialogue is very funny.

Where’s the humour gone?

That’s one of the things I really miss in the novel. All that witty repartee that makes Bond so appealing, the twinkle in his eye, comes from the film script, not from the book. In fact, I haven’t managed to finish the book yet because I tend to read it when I get into bed at night and before I know it, zzzzzzz.

That isn’t altogether fair of me, but it’s a description of a man’s world of drinking and eating, smoking, horse racing and gambling. It’s dry and long-winded and nowhere near as exciting as the films. Bond and his friend go off into long discussions about gambling odds about which I care not a fig. There was that scene in the steam room for excitement and a tense interview with a crook, but it really isn’t thrilling enough to make me want to push through to the end. I will do it and I may change my mind by then, but at this stage I decided it was time to finish my blog post and move beyond the book and accept that sometimes, just sometimes, the film is better than the book. As far as I know, he doesn’t even say, “The name’s Bond. James Bond.” And if he doesn’t say that, what’s the point?

RIP Sean Connery, (25 August 1930 – 31 October 2020). The best Bond.

#1956Club – Blundering around the bookcase: finding books published in 1956

Searching for books for the #1956Club book challenge, I found various candidates, some more appealing than others. This is what I found on my own shelves.

Whilst reading a book blog I follow, I recently saw a reference to the 1956 Club challenge, which involves reading and reviewing one or more books that were first published in – surprise, surprise – 1956. Did I have any books that fit the bill on Mount TBR, I wondered. How would I find them?

Apart from physically opening up any books that I thought were of the era on my own physical shelves (and discovering I have an inordinate number published in 1986 that I opened up, just in case they were older than I thought), I also decided to do a little speculative ferreting for likely candidates on Goodreads. Any author that I could think of who wrote in the 1950s seemed like a good bet, including the children’s authors I enjoyed in the 1960s and ‘70s. I also tried to think of the people who would have been on television back then.

Books that might have appeared in 1956

For me personally, one of the most important things that happened was that my parents got married, as did Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco. Rock and roll was taking off, with Elvis’ first appearance, the first Tefal pan was produced, the first nuclear power station opened in Britain, the first interstates in the US, there was the Suez crisis, The King and I was on Broadway. One thing I realised was that the 1950s was an era of exploration, with the first climbing of Everest in 1953 and other mountaineers and explorers also blazing a trail through the world’s more remote corners. Nevertheless, the Everest books, Annapurna and the Kon-Tiki expedition were too early. Elsbeth Huxley’s Flame Trees of Thika was published in 1959, Joy Adamson’s Born Free in 1960. The only book of that ilk I did find was The Drunken Forest by Gerald Durrell, describing a 1954 animal collecting expedition to Argentina and Paraguay. Fortunately for the purposes of the 1956 Club, his book telling the tale wasn’t published until 1956, followed by his most famous book, My Family and Other Animals, set on Corfu. I read that as a child and was captivated, but no longer have a copy. Sadly, I also never seem to put on the television at the right time to watch the dramatization of the Durrells’ chaotic family life. I am entirely willing to read The Drunken Forest this year, however, but probably not within the confines of the 1956 Club timescale.

Children’s books in 1956

Children’s books are another likely suspect for discovering books published in a certain year, especially those authors who publish many books in a series. As such, I suspected Noel Streatfeild might fit the bill and I was right. However, I have neither of the books which she had published in 1956: Dancing Shoes and a book called Judith that I have never come across. Dancing Shoes is part of the so-called ‘Shoes’ series that started with the wonderful Ballet Shoes, a book I still possess. When I looked up Streatfeild’s books on Goodreads, I was surprised that there were so many in this series, because I didn’t know many of them. I remember one of my favourites being Apple Bough, but had not remembered it as being connected in any way, but Goodreads tells me it was also known as Traveling Shoes. The clue is in the spelling: as Ballet Shoes (1936) had been so successful, Streatfeild’s American publishers decided to rebrand the books as the Shoes series, even though the stories were virtually unrelated. Hence another of my childhood books, Party Frock became Party Shoes. In the Frock version, the children decide to arrange a historical pageant for the whole village, simply because the girl staying with them for the summer has been sent a parcel containing a marvellous party dress (cream organdie with a blue sash) and they need to find a reason for her to wear it. I can almost physically feel the beauty of that dress, even though I read it in my very early teens, or earlier, in my ‘longing to be a ballet dancer’ stage.

Prolific authors

Another likely way of finding books published in a particular year is to think of prolific authors; the sort who publish series of books or who seemed to churn out a book every year. One of these was James Michener with 150 distinct works on Goodreads, starting with Tales of the South Pacific in 1947, then publishing new books in 1949, two in 1951, two in 1953, one in 1954 and… his next three in 1957. As already discussed on , another author who used to reliably produce a good novel every year or so was Ian Fleming and, indeed, he wrote Diamonds are Forever, his fourth James Bond novel, in 1956. My husband owns a copy of this, but it remains on my ‘maybe I’ll read it one day’ list.

I then realised that my next best bet was Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries. Gardner was horribly prolific. My husband collects his books (as did his father before him) and two entire shelves in our bedroom are taken up with them. I’m rather fond of the TV series starring Raymond Burr, especially the later ones, when his secretary Della Street is finally credited with a brain. Della was played by the phenomenally gravelly-voiced Barbara Hale, who was a movie star in her own right before switching to television roles. 

I believe I once read one Perry Mason mystery, possibly The Case of the Fan Dancer’s Horse, but don’t quote me on that. Even though my husband was so enthusiastic, I was put off straight away by the ridiculous names and the sexism; Perry always had to explain everything to his secretary Della. No matter that I often need mysteries explained to me at the end, I objected on principle! I had no idea that the first ones had already been written in the 1930s, which obviously makes me look upon the attitudes with slightly more understanding.

Since he was writing for a television series, whilst remaining a practising lawyer, Gardner published several books a year. In 1956 he published:

The majority of his titles are similarly alliterative, which I love, but I much prefer watching the television show to reading the books. Especially the later ones. I might have a peek at one of the Erle Stanley Gardners, just to see whether I dislike it as much as I thought.

Likewise Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever, one of my husband’s books. I am not really a Bond fan, though watching those early films is amusing just to see the decor. I’ve never attempted any of the books, though I have read his brother Peter Fleming’s account of travelling on the Silk Route, News from Tartary, which was fascinating (and is available online).

My candidates for the 1956 Book Club

Obviously I wasn’t able to read all of those within a week, especially as I didn’t even come across the concept until the week had already started. I have skimmed The Drunken Forest and will try to post a review very soon. I have started The Rosemary Tree and will post something about it as soon as I have something to say. I spotted a review on Goodreads of an Elizabeth Goudge fan who mentioned reading a chapter of The Rosemary Tree per night. In theory that is a wonderful idea, but inevitably I will get distracted. As Elizabeth Goudge is one of my mother’s favourite authors, I will try to read it this week, in honour of her birthday week. We shall see. As for the rest, time will tell. They are now earmarked for a skim and brief comments. Watch this space; I hope this will kickstart my return to more active blogging. Thank you for the inspiration, kaggsysbookishramblings, stuckinabook and thank you also to Liz at librofulltime.