LOOK BACK IN LANGUOR July is a month for retro pleasures — kites, badminton, snow cones and water balloons, to name a few. So why do so many of us reach for books that are hot off the presses? I decided to pay a visit to best-seller lists of yore to find out what shiny penny novels were flying off the shelves 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 years ago this week.
“Smokin’ Seventeen,” by Janet Evanovich. On July 10, 2011, Evanovich’s — you guessed it — 17th Stephanie Plum novel landed in the No. 1 slot on the hardcover list. In an item called “Sales Are Smokin’ for Evanovich Book,” The Times reported that the Evanovich sold “an eye-popping 218,000 copies” on her publication day, a record for Random House. She went on to write 11 more books about New Jersey’s favorite bounty hunter.
“Cane River,” by Lalita Tademy. This debut novel about four generations of Black women between 1834 and 1936 entered the list at No. 5 on July 8, 2001, but rose even higher a few weeks later after Oprah picked it for her book club. It remained on the list for 17 weeks. Tademy has written two other books, “Red River” and “Citizens Creek.”
“The Kitchen God’s Wife,” by Amy Tan. Our reviewer described Tan’s much-anticipated follow-up to “The Joy Luck Club” as “a harrowing, compelling and sometimes bitterly humorous tale in which an entire world unfolds in a Tolstoyan tide of event and detail.” On July 14, 1991, it was in its second week in the No. 1 spot.
“Goodbye, Janette,” by Harold Robbins. There were no newcomers on the fiction list on July 12, 1981, but the description of the novel in the No. 3 spot caught my eye: “Two randy sisters at large in the Parisian world of haute couture.” Our reviewer didn’t mince words. “It is, quite simply, a dirty book written in accordance with the demands of the form. The plot need not concern us.”
“On Instructions of My Government,” by Pierre Salinger. The veteran White House press secretary landed at No. 9 on the fiction list on July 11, 1971. “Without any ands, ifs or buts, let it be said Pierre Salinger has written a superior suspense novel,” our reviewer raved. “And he has done it by making the suspense derive not from gore, mayhem and derring-do, although the book has its share of these, but from the hazards of political maneuvering, the clash of ideologies and from the natural complexity that is inherent in all human situations.”