The Satanic Verses

tiny black dots on cover obscure both type and illustration
Two figures fighting

The uproar that greeted publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses doomed the book to the category of historical oddities.

Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is a complex set of nesting stories. The outer story is about two Indian Muslims who miraculously survive when the jet on which they are returning to London is blown up.

As they fall into the Atlantic, film actor Gibreel Farishta turns into the angel Gabriel while voice actor Saladin Chamcha becomes the devil.

Three of Gibreel’s dreams become sub-stories. The first, based roughly on the founding of Islam, led Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa against anyone associated with the publication of The Satanic Verses. Few non-Muslims would understand the story, let alone see why it enraged Muslims.

The other sub-stories are about aspects of the emigrant/immigrant experience.

Rushie’s prose mixes wise-cracking humor about people “of the tinted persuasion” with poignant narration that draws tears. Here, for example is Saladin’s reflection at his father’s death bed:

To fall in love with one’s father after the long angry decades was a serene and beautiful feeling; a renewing, life-giving thing.

The Satanic Verses isn’t easy reading, but it offers a needed glimpse of what it’s like to be an immigrant.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
Viking. ©1988. 546 p.
1989 bestseller #6 my grade: B+

Jacket illustration shows a detail from 17th century work “Rustam Killing the White Demon” from a Clive Album in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Tiny black dots on the dust jacket obscure the image.

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Caribbean (a Michener novel)

island scene in center of dust jacketJames A. Michener’s novelistic style is as distinctive as a fingerprint.

In Caribbean, the Michener imprint is unusually sunny considering how bleak much of Caribbean history is.

The first chapter ends with cannibals eating a tribe they despise for playing ballgames instead of making war.

That sets the stage for centuries of conflicts both among those who live around the Caribbean Sea and between nations far away who prefer to fight their wars far from home. (More civilized, don’t ya’ know.)

Famous names like Columbus and Sir Francis Drake appear, along with a host of less familiar Caribbean heroes and villains.

The chapters of Caribbean read almost like short stories, which makes the hefty novel very accessible.

drawing of sugar processing plant
   Sugar plantation

Two intertwined themes run through all the stories: Race relations and economic survival.

From the appearance of white explorers to Michener’s day, the Western belief in white superiority prevented darker skinned individuals from participating in a significant way in the islands’ economies.

The exodus of the most talented among them has left the islands at the mercy of the North American tourist trade.

The novel is worth reading as a novel and equally worth reading as a discussion of economic and political realities that are still impacting the United States.

Caribbean by James A. Michener
Cartography by Jean Paul Tremblay
Illustrations by Franca Nucci Haynes
Random House. ©1989. 672 p.
1989 bestseller #7 my grade: A+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Star by Danielle Steel

all-silver book jacket of Star sparklesDanielle Steel’s Star is an inspiring story of how Crystal Wyatt, a teenager from a northern California ranch with nothing but a gorgeous body and incredible voice, becomes a Hollywood star by overcoming daunting obstacles such as her own ignorance and her reluctance to sleep with her agent.

Around that story, Danielle Steel wraps a love-at-first-glance story, in which Crystal at 14 falls hopelessly in love with ex-Army officer, Spencer Hill, age 27.

Although equally smitten, Spencer does the sensible thing. He goes to law school, and marries the daughter of a Supreme Court justice.

Within days of their wedding, Spencer is recalled to service in Korea. As he waits to deploy, he meets Crystal again.

When he leaves for Korea, she’s carrying his child.

Spencer spends three years in Korea. For the last year, he’s so miserable he doesn’t write to anyone stateside.

Finally home, Spencer becomes a political figure in Kennedy White House.

Kennedy has been shot and buried when Crystal calls saying she’s been arrested for the murder of her agent.

Spencer leaves Washington, wife, and career to go to Crystal’s defense.

The novel ends with the obligatory happy ending of all Danielle Steel novels.

Star by Danielle Steel
Delacorte Press. ©1989. 447 p.
1989 bestseller #4; my grade: C

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Daddy by Danielle Steel

Front dust jacket has gold type on medium blue background, no imagesDaddy is most unusual for a Danielle Steel novel: It’s told almost entirely from a man’s viewpoint.

The novel opens with a brief history of the 18-year marriage of Oliver and Sarah Watson, who met as students at Harvard.

When she became pregnant, Sarah wanted an abortion. Oliver had talked her into marrying him instead.

Although Sarah hadn’t wanted babies, she’s a wonderful mother to their three children.  Oliver thinks they have a perfect marriage.

Then Sarah announces she’s been accepted into a master’s program at Harvard. She leaves right after Christmas.

The reactions of Oliver and the children are predictable: They’re hurt, angry, feel abandoned, wonder what they did wrong.

While they’re trying to deal with those issues, Oliver’s father is trying to cope with his mother’s dementia while also trying to pretend it’s not happening, and Oliver gets a big promotion that requires the family to move cross country to California.

Daddy attempts to explore the “What do women want?” question, but Steel can’t get beyond the surface. For Oliver (and perhaps Steel and her legions of devoted readers) the answer is that real women want a man and children.

Daddy isn’t a great novel, but it’s extraordinary for a Danielle Steel novel.

Three days after reading it, I could still remember the plot.

Daddy by Danielle Steel
Delacorte Press. ©1989. 352 p.
1989 bestseller #3; my grade: B-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Dark Half (novel)

undistinguishable dark blurs are background for author and title name
Nothing’s clear here

The Dark Half is a Stephen King novel with all the creepy ambiance and nightmarish monsters for which King is justly famous.

And, like most King novels, at its core is a fairly common occurrence: Writing under an assumed name.

When novelist Thad Beaumont slammed into writer’s block, he occupied his time writing violent novels under the pen name George Stark. Stark’s name was on four very successful novels.

A dozen years later, in a mock ceremony captured in People magazine, Thad and his wife buried Stark beneath a tombstone inscribed “Not a Very Nice Guy.”

Stark’s readers are furious.

So is Stark.

The never-existent Stark is determined to use Thad as an instrument for writing his stories, just as Thad used Stark.

When the Beaumonts’ odd-jobs man is found murdered, Thad’s fingerprints are found on the man’s truck.

Sheriff Alan Pangborn thinks it’s an open-and-shut case, but until he interviews Thad, who has witnesses to the fact he was at home miles away when the murder occurred.

The Dark Half blends the mundane with bizarre facts about twins, adds a touch of Alfred Hitchcock, and winds up with the all-too-real possibility that the Beaumont’s marriage won’t survive.

It also leaves the question: How do novelists create their characters?

The Dark Half by Stephen King
Viking. ©1989. 431 p.
1989 bestseller #2; my grade: B

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Clear and Present Danger

helicopter is at the center of dust jacket
‘copter rescues trapped soldiers

Tom Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger hit the top of The New York Times bestseller list as soon as it was published. It’s still a winner today.

Like Clancy’s earlier thrillers, Danger is a fast-moving, intricately plotted, richly detailed.

In an election year, the President authorizes his National Security Advisor, Admiral Cutter, to take all necessary action to stop the flow of drugs into the US. Cutter decides a war on drugs demands military action.

Hispanic members of the military with no dependents are selected, secretly trained, and helicoptered into Columbia.

Neither Congress nor Columbia is informed, nor are some top-ranking members of the president’s administration, including acting CIA director Jack Ryan.

When Ryan learns of the secret military action, he’s perplexed as well as angry. How far does the President’s right to act without congressional authorization go?

Clear and Present Danger is an action-packed adventure that is hard to put down. But it’s also a thoughtful novel about serious topics.

Although Danger was clearly sparked by the Reagan-era war on drugs and the Iran-Contra affair, the passage of 40 years hasn’t reduced the timeliness of the novel’s themes: free speech, executive orders, the congressional oversight role, the importance of personal integrity, and the destructiveness of drugs.

Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy
Putnam. ©1989. 656 p.
1989 bestseller #1; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Mitla Pass: a novel by Leon Uris

“Mitla Pass” cover is all text; the story’s too complex for a picture.The first chapter of Mitla Pass suggests the novel will be a war story.

What Leon Uris delivers is a story of the personal war of writer Gideon Zadok, a man with “the soul of a poet, the rage of a lion.”

Gideon has spent this entire life doing battle against his father, his mother, his wife, the publishing industry, and everyone and everything else that failed to value him.

Uris excavates Gideon’s past. He uncovers stories of people Gideon thinks let him down, flicking a flashlight into Russian shetetls, American slums, Hollywood studios, and Israeli strategy sessions.

Readers see all those individuals in a far more nuanced way than Gideon ever sees them.

For all his literary sensitivity, Gideon is incapable of seeing other people’s perspectives on any subject that affects him personally.

As the novel nears its end, Uris gets Gideon to the 1956 Sinai War foreshadowed in the opening chapter.

The battle for Mitla Pass is short, bloody, futile.

The book ends with Gideon’s wife wondering if their marriage will survive, while beside her, Gideon dreams that he’s going to make people proud of him.

Mitla Pass by Leon Uris
Doubleday. ©1988. 435 p.
1988 bestseller #10; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni