Greatest Hits of the Fifties

Here are some books that were on the best seller lists from 1950 to 1959. Many of them were made into memorable movies. Many of these titles are still around and worth another look fifty years later.

Below the Salt

By Thomas Bertram Costain

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A United States senator believes that he is the reincarnation of a Saxon freedman who saw King John sign the Magna Carta. (NoveList)
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Doctor Zhivago

By Boris Pasternak

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“The best way to understand Pasternak’s achievement in Doctor Zhivago is to see it in terms of this great Russian literary tradition, as a fairy tale, not so much of good and evil as of opposing forces and needs in human destiny and history that can never be reconciled . . . [Zhivago is] a figure who embodies the principle of life itself, the principle that contradicts every abstraction of revolutionary politics.”—from the Introduction by John Bayley

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The Caine Mutiny: A Novel of World War II

By Herman Wouk

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Herman Wouk's boldly dramatic, brilliantly entertaining novel of life--and mutiny--on a Navy warship in the Pacific theater was immediately embraced, upon its original publication in 1951, as one of the first serious works of American fiction to grapple with the moral complexities and the human consequences of World War II. The novel inspired the now-classic film, starring Humphrey Bogart, as well as a hugely successful Broadway play.

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Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft

By Thor Heyerdahl

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Am going to cross Pacific on a wooden raft to support a theory that the South Sea islands were peopled from Peru. Will you come? Reply at once.

That is how six brave and inquisitive men came to seek a dangerous path to test a scientific theory. On a primitive raft made of forty-foot balsa logs and named Kon-Tiki in honor of a legendary sun king, Heyerdahl and five companions deliberately risked their lives to show that the ancient Peruvians could have made the 4,300-mile voyage to the Polynesian islands on a similar craft. On every page of this true chronicle from the actual building of the raft through all the dangerous and comic adventures on the sea, to the spectacular crash-landing and the native islanders hula dances each reader will find a wholesome and spellbinding escape from the twenty-first century. Actual film from the expedition is available on an Academy Award-winning documentary.

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The Wall

By John Hersey

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Riveting and compelling, The Wall tells the inspiring story of forty men and women who escape the dehumanizing horror of the Warsaw ghetto. John Hersey's novel documents the Warsaw ghetto both as an emblem of Nazi persecution and as a personal confrontation with torture, starvation, humiliation, and cruelty -- a gripping and visceral story, impossible to put down. This book was the number 4 best selling novel of 1950. The 1982 film based on this book is available on DVD.

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The Last Hurrah

By Edwin O'Connor

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Edwin O'Connor's prize-winning The Last Hurrah is one of the most entertaining novels ever written about American politics. It evokes the seedy grandeur of Frank Skeffington, last of the great big-city Irish political bosses, making his final race for mayor. The novel was adapted as a successful 1958 film, starring Spencer Tracy.

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Peyton Place

By Grace Metalious

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Peyton Place, published in 1956, has sold over 10,000,000 copies world-wide and remains one of the biggest selling novels of all time. Its sequel, Return to Peyton Place, published in 1959, was a national best-seller for many, many months. It was considered absolutely scandalous when it was published. Peyton Place stirred controversy with its explicit—for the time—depictions of sex and sins in a small New England town. Today, the once shocking novel and its sequel seem tame, and are taught in college English courses as classics of their time, well-written and honest in the evocation of the passions, jealousies, and secrets of small-town America. In 1957, it was made into an award-winning movie starring Lana Turner.

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On the Beach

By Nevil Shute

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"In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river...
This is the way the world ends--
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper."

Nevil Shute placed this quote from T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" on the title page of his chilling bestselling 1957 novel about life and death in Australia after a nuclear war in the northern hemisphere. The novel focuses on the crew of an American ship stranded in Australia after all of the northern hemisphere has destroyed itself in nuclear war. Radiation slowly travels south with the winds, and we meet memorable characters who try to grab what enjoyment life can offer before the inevitable end comes. Stanley Kramer's 1959 film starring Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck was very faithful to the book. This title is also available as a recorded book.

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No Time for Sergeants

By Mac Hyman

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When the man from the draft board arrives to take country bumpkin Will Stockdale for induction into the army, Will’s father chases him off. But even hastily erected barbed wire cannot prevent Uncle Sam from claiming this draftee, and soon Will is on a bus to Fort Thompson, Georgia. This bestselling novel from 1954 was made into a popular play and film. No Time For Sergeants is as wildly original a series of humorous escapades as has ever been written about military life.

In the barracks, our hapless hero meets little Ben Whitledge, a fellow trainee who thinks he deserves a medal simply because his grandfather fought under Stonewall Jackson. This odd duo is assigned to the elite Air Force although they would rather serve in that most glorious and revered branch of the Army — the Infantry. Sergeant King, Will’s nemesis, is determined to dampen the young soldier’s enthusiasm, but Will consistently prevails and unknowingly confounds the gruff sergeant at every turn. The 1958 film version starred Andy Griffith, Don Knotts, and Nick Adams.

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My Cousin Rachel

By Daphne du Maurier

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Philip Ashley's older cousin Ambrose, who raised the orphaned Philip as his own son, has died in Rome. Philip, the heir to Ambrose's beautiful English estate, is crushed that the man he loved died far from home. He is also suspicious. While in Italy, Ambrose fell in love with Rachel, a beautiful English and Italian woman. But the final, brief letters Ambrose wrote hint that his love had turned to paranoia and fear.

Now Rachel has arrived at Philip's newly inherited estate. Could this exquisite woman, who seems to genuinely share Philip's grief at Ambrose's death, really be as cruel as Philip imagined? Or is she the kind, passionate woman with whom Ambrose fell in love? Philip struggles to answer this question, knowing Ambrose's estate, and his own future, will be destroyed if his answer is wrong.

This 1952 best seller was made into a film starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton.

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