Burr: Scapegoat or scapegrace?

In his “Afterward” to Burr, Gore Vidal says that with the exceptions he describes, “the characters are in the right places, on the right dates, doing what they actually did.”

Cover of Burr shows close-up of dueling piece.
Dueling pistol trigger mechanism is background image.

One of the exceptions is Charlie Schuyler, Vidal’s invented narrator.

Charlie is working as a clerk in Burr’s law office ostensibly with an eye on joining the bar; in truth, he wants a literary career. That vantage point lets Charlie record personal and public information about Burr from a wide range of sources, including Burr himself.

Charlie agrees to dig up dirt on Burr for publishers with political as well as mercenary motives.

The facts about Aaron Burr that today’s typical reader knows appear on the first page of Vidal’s novel. While vice-president, Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Three years later, Burr was charged with treason in connection with a plot to invade Spanish territory and make himself emperor of Mexico.

Readers get to sift all the dirt and make up their own minds about Burr’s character.

Tidbits of the novel are fascinating (eg: George Washington wanted to be addressed as “Your Mightiness”: Thomas Jefferson wanted to send slaves back to “their original latitude.”).

Vidal’s writing is witty while it reveals how much—and how little—America has changed in 200 years.

Burr by Gore Vidal
Ballantine Books, © 1973, [paper] p. 564 p.
1973 bestseller #5. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Reviewer’s note: Get the hardbound edition. The yellowed pages of the paperback were painful to read.

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Breakfast of Champions: Quirky, possibly brilliant

T-shirt with slogan "Breakfast of Champions"
A Kurt Vonnegut Jr. drawing

Breakfast of Champions has nothing to do with breakfast or champions. It has a lot to do with what it means to be human. More precisely, it has to do with what it means to be Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., a human and a writer.

For his fiftieth birthday Vonnegut decided to clear his head of all the junk that was in it, including setting free the characters in his previous novels.

Discussing his plot with readers and appearing in his own book have been done before but Vonnegut makes them integral to his story. Vonnegut’s drawings have that same sense of belonging.

Writing in the first person, Vonnegut tells only one of his characters of his new freedom: Kilgore Trout, a science-fiction writer whose voluminous writings had been published, with no remuneration to him, wrapped around pornographic photographs.

The other characters from in Breakfast don’t know they have been freed or that they were once characters. That’s because humans other than Kilgore Trout are really just machines.

If this sounds nonsensical, maybe it is. But if it’s nonsense, what accounts for the lack of humanity people exhibit?

Kilgore Trout's final resting place.
Freed from Vonnegut’s books, Kilgore Trout became a popular lecturer on mental health.

I can’t decide if Breakfast is brilliant or just quirky, but I’ll definitely read it again.

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
with drawings by the author
Delaworte Press/Seymour Lawrence, Book Club ed. 304 p.
1973 bestseller #3. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Once Is Not Enough: It’s more than enough.

Once Is Not Enough is not nearly as bad as Jacqueline Susann’s prior two bestsellers, thank goodness.

Eyes focus on trophy represent worthyless pursuits in Once in Not Enough.
January Wayne wants to be important like her father.

Once is about the spoiled daughter of a famous producer, Mike Wayne. Mike ships January off to boarding school at age 7 after his wife kills herself trying to abort their second child.

January has no real friends at school, has no idea of what families are.  She idolizes her father, whom she sees sometimes on weekends in New York.

Graduated at 17, she wants to go work with Mike. He’s busy so he sends her to enjoy herself with an actor several years older.

Franco takes her on a wild motorcycle ride.

January is thrown off, hitting a wall. She spends three years learning to walk again.

That’s about all January ever learns.

All the people around her are immature, self-centered, greedy for money and power.

January’s fate is predictable.

Once Is Not Enough is a forgettable novel, though technically far better than Susann’s earlier bestsellers, Valley of the Dolls and Love Machine.

In Once, Susann draws her plot out of the personalities of her characters, but none of the characters in is someone you’d want to know: They carry too much drama around with them.

Once Is Not Enough by Jacqueline Susann
William Morrow, © 1973. 467 p.
1970 bestseller #4. My grade: B-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Semi-Tough: Thoroughly sixth grader humor

Three facts about Dan Jenkins’s 1972 bestseller Semi-Tough tell all you really need to know:

Football star sits with his girl, a beer, and his guitar.
This is how the Giants get ready for the Super Bowl.
  • The novel is about two teams facing off in the Super Bowl.
  • The author was a senior editor at Sports Illustrated at the time he wrote the novel.
  • A portion of the novel appeared in Playboy magazine prior to the book’s publication.

Semi-Tough‘s narrator is Billy Clyde Puckett, a running back (and running mouth) for the New York Giants.

His best pals are his teammate “Shake” Tiller and Shake’s girlfriend, model Barbara Jane Bookman. The three spent their childhood in the same Texas town. It would be incorrect to say they grew up there or anywhere else.

Billy Clyde has a book contract to keep a journal of events before and after the Super Bowl. That’s why he’s taking notes about players drinking and screwing in preparation for the Big Game.

Football fans say Semi-Tough is funny; personally, I’m just not that in to jokes about farting.

I did laugh at Shake’s philosophical observation, “There’s no heartbreak in life like losing the big game in high school,” but I don’t think he meant it to be funny.

Semi-Tough by Dan Jenkins
Atheneum, 1972. 307 p.
1972 bestseller #10 My grade: C-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My Name is Asher Lev: Art for truth’s sake

As the title suggests, My Name is Asher Lev is related by Asher Lev, born in Brooklyn in 1943 to parents whose marriage united two prominent Hasidic families.

front dust-jacket of My Name is Asher Lev shows the artist at work.
What is Asher Lev thinking as he eyes a blank canvas?

Asher is a very sensitive child, but he cannot communicate his feelings except through art. His earliest playmates “are Eberhard and Crayola.”

Asher’s mother, an emotionally fragile woman, likes him to draw pretty birds and flowers.

Asher’s father, principled and highly disciplined, thinks art is at best a waste of time; at worst, it’s a violation of the Law.

Mr. Lev travels as a missionary/community organizer, setting up schools in Jewish communities in communist countries.

When Asher enters yeshiva, his mother enters college to study Russian so she can work with her husband in stead of waiting for him to return.

The Rebbe, a faceless figure at the periphery of Asher’s life, arranges for him to study art with the world’s most prominent Jewish artist.

Asher grows distant from his family even as he grows mature enough to understand why they view life as they do.

Chaim Potok’s characters are complicated, sometimes puzzling to themselves as well as to those around them.

In Asher Lev, as in The Chosen and The Promise, Potok writes straightforward prose that mutes profound meaning: I burst into tears after reading the novel’s last line.

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
Alfred A. Knopf, © 1972, 373 p.
1972 bestseller #9. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Two from Galilee: A Love Story

All-text cover of Two From Galilee touts Marjorie Holmes' book "I've Got to Talk to Somebody, God"
Cover art wasn’t what drew readers to “Two from Galilee.”

In Two from Galilee, novelist Marjorie Holmes pieces together a plausible but saccharine story to cover what is known from the gospel records about Mary and Joseph, the parents of the Christ Child.

Holmes fills in the pages thanks to a good imagination supported by research into Jewish customs of the time.

Mary is the prettiest, most sought-after girl in town. Her parents are poor, but they expect Mary to marry above her station. Joseph wouldn’t be their choice: His family isn’t prosperous enough for their Mary.

Joseph is a handsome, hardworking young man, some half dozen years her senior. In love with Mary since they were children, he’s been waiting for her to grow up.

Joseph’s father, a wood worker, is slipshod about completing work on time if the job doesn’t interest him; as a result, his family is even poorer than Mary’s.

Mary can twist her father around her little finger—and does—to get her parents to accept Joseph as her bridegroom.

When she’s later found to be pregnant, she goes off to spend time with her relative Elizabeth, who has conceived her first born late in life.

Reading Two From Galilee won’t do anyone any harm, but its not likely to do anyone much good either.

Two from Galilee: A Love Story by Marjorie Holmes
Revell [1972] 223 p.
1972 bestseller #8. My grade: B-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Captains and the Kings is a far-sighted novel

Who'd think Captains and the Kings so low key?
Staid all-type dust jacket belies the explosive story of Captains and the Kings.

Taylor Caldwell read the news and saw the future.

In Captains and the Kings, she tells the story of a boy who came to America to escape the Irish famine in the early 1850s.

By the time he arrived, he was 12, an orphan with a younger brother and infant sister to care for, and America didn’t want any more Irish.

Both honest and ruthless, as “Joe Francis” teenage Joseph Francis Xavier Armagh outsmarted and outworked men twice his age.

Brains and discipline put him in the way of luck.

Friends were unwaveringly loyal to him.

Women fell for him.

His children loved him, though he did nothing to win their love.

What makes Captains and the Kings an unusual historical novel is that Caldwell puts Joseph into situations where wealthy men behind the scenes plot how to quite literally take over the world.

Their plan includes the establishment of income taxes in every country in the world, extermination of the middle class via taxation, and “prudently scheduled” wars around the world “to absorb the products of our growing industrial and technological society.”

Captains and the Kings has an exciting plot interwoven with a powerful message for readers with the guts to take it in.

Captains and the Kings by Taylor Caldwell
Doubleday, 1972. Book Club Edition. 695 p.
1972 bestseller #7. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni