Reading the Decades #5: The 1950s

I haven’t done one of these posts for a while now. I am more often than not devoted to contemporary fiction, the shiny and the new. But I do read some older books too. The metrics in my annual reading stats include the number of books I’ve read published before I was born in 1960 and those between 1960 and 1999: they prove I’m not totally addicted to the latest titles!

This series picks out some of those old books that I’ve read, sorted by publishing date, not reading dates which can be any time. You can read the previous posts here: 1930s1940s1960s; 1970s.

This time, we’re looking at the 1950s, the decade before I was born and a decade which influenced my reading a lot as a child, teen and young adult, cementing some favourite genre themes in place that continue to his day. My trusty spreadsheet showed 57 titles read from that decade since I started keeping records, so once again, in order to achieve a spread across my reading at just one for each per year, I’ve had to leave out some cracking good books, so I’ve snuck in a few extra mentions! NB: Links in the headers go to my original reviews.

1950: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S.Lewis

A childhood favourite which I was delighted to rediscover when Chris recently hosted his #Narniathon21. I did find in the second half that the whole Christian allegory side got a bit heavy as an adult, but I loved the wintery bits yet.

1951: A Sense of Upbringing by Anthony Powell

The scene-setting introduction to Powell’s acclaimed ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ sequence of twelve novels, this first volume introduces us to the two key characters, the enigmatic narrator Nick Jenkins, and the tragicomic Kenneth Widmerpool. We begin as Nick looks back at their last year at school and time at university. The language is rich and dense, with some exceedingly long sentences, but won me over enough to read the next three books in fairly quick succession. I must return to the rest!

1952: The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

A truly dark novel of revenge told in the first person that set the scene for so many that followed. Thompson’s modern classic follows Deputy Lou Ford, whom everyone thinks is a good man, but he lets his sickness overwhelm him as he goes on a killing spree to avenge the death of his brother, deluding himself that he won’t be caught. It’s something that I found the 2010 film too sick, but I could cope with Ford’s descriptions of his killings on the page! Also The Old Man & The Sea by Hemingway

1953: Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

The first Bond novel is rather different to the rest. It’s the events here that mould him into the suave, chauvinistic, killer spy we grow to expect. He already has his licence to kill before this novel starts, but he was just a hitman from a distance. In Casino Royale it gets personal – partly with the infamous torture scene that threatens his potency, but the real catalyst is love as he falls for Vesper Lynd. It also has one of the best opening lines ever…

 The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.

1954: Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

Part of Tolkien’s magnum opus was bound to appear in my books of the decade. I chose the first for the introduction of one of my literary heroes: Aragorn, particularly when he was masquerading as the mysterious Strider. Nuff said really. Also Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

1955. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

After we read Day of the Triffids at school, I had to more John Wyndham – and this is the one that stuck with me then and ever since. Set in post-apocalypse Labrador, this fundamentalist dystopian society abhors any mutation, so when a group of children develop telepathic powers, they must escape to safety. I do need to re-read this one. Also The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith.

1956: The Death of Grass by John Christopher

From one dystopia to another – this time, the breakdown of civilisation caused by a virus that kills grasses, so all our edible grains are getting wiped out. Two brothers – one in a remote Westmorland valley, the other with his family in London. The London set realise they need to head north, so added to the eco-thriller aspect is their tricky journey. The dialogue is slightly cheesy, but I loved this book too. Also Peyton Place by Grace Metalious.

1957: A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes

The book that introduced us to hardboiled Black detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones whose beat is Harlem. This first novel in the series features a gullible undertaker’s assistant, Jackson and the love of his life, Imabelle, but also the wonderful character of Goldy, Jackson’s brighter twin brother, who impersonates a nun to collect money for the so-called ‘Sisters of Mercy’. Harlem itself is perhaps the real star, just dripping with atmosphere. It’s hilariously funny too. Read this one and you’ll definitely want to read the whole lot.

1958: Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr

Simply my favourite children’s book ever, with a slight horror aspect that still haunts me, but it is a story with subtlety and depth. Marinanne is ill with glandular fever, and to while away the hours draws a house with her grandma’s pencil. In her dreams that night, the house comes to life. In subsequent days she adds more detail including a boy at the window which then also comes alive in her dreams. It turns out her doctor is also looking after a boy who ends up in an iron lung at on stage, and Mark is the boy in the picture. Can she help him escape the house and get better?

1959: Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell

What a joy it was to discover this diary novel of a 1930s Kansas City housewife. We get to know India and her family through 117 vignettes, varying from a paragraph to a few pages in length. She has a workaholic husband and three children, the youngest of whom, Douglas, can be very exasperating! But will an empty nest be any better? There is much humour in these pages, but also great melancholy, as she worries about things and struggles to stay busy. A simply wonderful book. Connell went on write Mr Bridge ten years later, giving her husband’s side of things following the same timeframe, which has a different feel but makes for a superb pairing. Also Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes.

What are your personal favourites from the 1950s ?

14 thoughts on “Reading the Decades #5: The 1950s

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thanks Simon, and yes, you *must* read Mrs Bridge. You will undoubtedly compare it with TPL, but it is a lovely, lovely book.

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Oh, some great choices – Lewis and Tolkien, of course, and Powell – do read the rest of the sequence, Widmerpool matures into an even larger than life character!! And totally agree about Marianne Dreams – I recall being really scared of the TV adaptation! It’s ages since I read Absolute Beginners – definitely due for a re-read!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I don’t know why I halted on the Powells, I’ve not quite had the urge to return – but I will one day.

  2. thecontentreader says:

    This is my decade, born in 1955. I have note read most of the books you mention. It is a good idea though to read the decade in which you are born. I might take it up.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I was born in 1960, so not surprisingly many of the 50s children’s classics made up my reading once I was away.

  3. Calmgrove says:

    I’ve read six of the titles you mention – the Lewis, obviously, but also the Fleming (in my teens I read my mother’s copy surreptitiously!), also the Highsmith, the Christopher, the Golding and – multiple times – the Tolkien. I’m now curious as to why I never read the Storr when I was devouring lots of spooky kids books from the junior library.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Marianne Dreams is such an interesting book to read as an adult. I got a totally different feel from it and loved it all over again. I used to ‘dream’ of finding a magic pencil…

  4. Rob says:

    A very wide-ranging selection! I think the fifties was a really vital decade in the development of the novel in English. Some observations: Powell’s sequence is 12 vols, not 10. My fifties list would include Anthony Burgess’s Malayan trilogy: Time for a Tiger (1956);The Enemy in the Blanket (1958); Beds in the East (1959). Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (1958) would also be there, as would Lucky Jim (1954) by Kingsley Amis. Some other possibilities: William Cooper’s Scenes from Provincial Life (1950) and Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (1957). Henry Green’s last two novels Nothing (1950) and Doting (1952) are contenders too. Then there’s TH White’s The Once and Future King (1958) and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart from the same year. Iris Murdoch started in the fifties, so Under the Net (1955) should be mentioned. Muriel Spark also started in the fifties, so what about Memento Mori (1959)? So much to choose from!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thanks Rob. I considered several of those books you mention, but as my choices are limited to those I’ve read some of your mentions weren’t on my list, but have been added to my wishlist. Memento Mori isn’t my favourite Spark, she’s in my 1960s selection! 1958 had too many wonderful choices, but Marianne Dreams was such a feature in my reading as a child, it earned its place for that year, again LOTR similarly won over Lucky Jim for 1954.

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