Jaws, a novel: Not just a scary story

dust jacket of Jaws is undercover scene of shark about to attack
A woman is swimming within a gulp of the shark’s jaws.

Having seen the trailer for the movie Jaws, I was surprised to find Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws not only read-in-one-sitting interesting, but also remarkably insightful.

The story is about how people respond when an elusive great white shark begins terrorizes a small Long Island town just before the July Fourth weekend that opens the tourist season.

When a young woman is reported missing, local police chief, Martin Brody, finds what’s left of her body down the beach from where her clothes were found.

The coroner confirms what Brody suspects: a shark attack.

Brody wants to close the beach to protect the public. The town council and businesses forbid him to do that.

When the shark kills again, this time with witnesses, Brody blames himself for lacking the guts to stand up for his convictions.

The rest of the novel focuses on Brody’s ham-fisted attempt to protect public safety and recover his self-respect.

A young shark expert from Woods comes to look for the big white. Up the coast a 50-something fishing charter operator sees the financial possibilities of shark-searching.

Benchley blends shark facts with keen observation of people. Jaws isn’t quite Greek tragedy, but it’s a ladder above most of the pop fiction of the ’70s.

Jaws: A Novel by Peter Benchley
Doubleday, 1974, 311 p.
1974 bestseller #3. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Watership Down is for children of all ages

In Richard Adams’s Watership Down a dozen males bond as they flee unknown danger into certain danger in search of a better life.

The adventurers are all rabbits.

The story opens when Fiver, a clairvoyant runt, senses disaster. He convinces his big brother, Hazel, to warn the warren’s chief rabbit.

Sign says six acres are to be developed into housing.
                 Fiver senses something ominous about this sign.

Hazel’s warning is ignored but the brothers and nine other rabbits leave the warren, ready to risk life in the open until they can find safety away from men.

Their exit is not a day too soon.

The warren is bulldozed to make way for a housing development. Only one rabbit escapes to tell the story.

The rabbits soon realize the habits they learned as kittens won’t work on Watership Down.

They learn to work together drawing on each individual’s strengths, befriend animals with whom they have common enemies, and become masters of strategy.

Adams is marvelously inventive in giving each rabbit the lapine equivalent of a personality and creating a rabbit oral tradition on which readers may eavesdrop.

Watership Down is a real place in England’s Berkshires and the landmarks that figure in the story actually exist.

Map of  Watership Down from the novel
   The map from Watership Down doesn’t photograph well

Adams is equally factual about rabbit habits, drawing on The Private Life of the Rabbit by R. M. Lockley.

Adams’s work ranks with C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Tokien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, although it differs from them in one significant way: Its characters are all ones we’ve all seen.

Watership Down by Richard Adams
Macmillian, 1972, 429 p.
1974 bestseller #2. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Centennial tops history with prophesy

map of Centennial from the novel's endpapers
The town’s map was laid out in straight lines, its history was less straightforward.

Readers familiar with Hawaii, Caravans, and The Source, will find Centennial is another of the place-based novels covering centuries of history for which James A. Michener is famous.

Through the lens of a fictional town in what is now Colorado, Centennial tells America’s history from the age of the dinosaurs up until the early 1970s, warts and all.

The first people who appear in Michener’s narrative are Native Americans whose nomadic lives bring them through the area along the South Platte River hunting buffalo.

An Arapaho named Lame Beaver and his family become the thread holding Michener’s tale together for generations.

Beaver trappers come to land, followed by farmers.

Centennial's first edition dust jacket
The story’s too complex for an image.

The vast prairie next tempts cattlemen whose livelihoods are soon threatened by sheep farmers.

Sugar beets mark the next phase of settlement.

No matter their occupations, the people of the plains are at the mercy of the weather. They and their animals require water, which by 1970 is already a rapidly disappearing resource.

Centennial is vintage Michener: Passionate, precise, picturesque, never glossing over the despicable, never wallowing in the salacious.

And as always Michener brings into his story historical facts that are more bizarre than any fiction readers could imagine.

Centennial by James A. Michener
Random House [1974] p. 909
1974 bestseller #1. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Honorary Consul: Incisive, insightful, intriguing

Graham Greene called his earlier bestseller Travels with My Aunt an entertainment and The Honorary Consul a novel. The distinction is apt.

Bright sunny colors with thin box around words The Honorary Consul
An image can’t capture the story of The Honorary Consul.

The main character in The Honorary Consul is physician Eduardo Plarr whose English father disappeared after having gotten involved with revolutionaries in Paraguay.

Plarr’s medical bag gives him entree into all classes of society in the unnamed Argentinian city in which Charles “call me Charley” Fortnum is honorary consul. Britain recalled the under-worked real consul. The locals don’t know the difference, and most of the time Charley is too drunk to care.

Charley has wed a woman from the local brothel who, to Charley’s delight, is pregnant. Unknown to Charley, Dr. Plarr is Clara’s lover and father of his child.

Charley is kidnapped by revolutionaries who mistake him for the American Ambassador. Rather than waste a hostage, the revolutionaries threaten to kill Charley if their demands are not met.

The kidnappers call Plarr to look after Charley.

Greene is a master of incisive detail. Whether sketching a character or describing a revolution, his pen is precise: Every word matters.

What’s more, every character matters. Greene cares about the countries and the people about whom he writes.

He’ll make you care, too.

The Honorary Consul: A Novel by Graham Greene
Simon and Schuster, © 1973, 315 p
#1973 bestseller #8. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Billion Dollar Sure Thing: Sure good reading

Spine of The Billion Dollar Sure Thing
  All caps title indicates just how sure The Billion Dollar Sure Thing is.

The Billion Dollar Sure Thing is a suspense novel about international monetary policy.

Novelist Paul E. Erdman knocks off in chatty style a complex story of wheeling and dealing by “three arms-length cronies” who control the currency exchanges in three European central banks.

One of the three, Switzerland’s Dr. Walter Hofer, happens to see the American Treasury Secretary Crosby and Bank for International Settlements Secretary-General Bollinger dining together when there was no public reason for both men being in London.

Hofer observes they discuss a red-bound document the American brought, but which the BIS secretary-general carried when they left the Savoy.

Hofer shares with his alternate numbers in New York and London what he observed and what he thinks it might presage.

Hofer’s instincts are right.

The U.S. government is secretly preparing to announce a return to the gold standard and simultaneously revalue gold from $38 to $125 an ounce.

Days later, a red-bound document is stolen from Bollinger’s home safe.

Erdman’s novel is an engrossing yarn; he has a knack for simplifying complicated ideas and a flair for apt character tags.

Sure Thing is also an education in history and economics. Nixon took America off the gold standard in 1971 and we’re living with the consequences today.

The Billion Dollar Sure Thing
By Paul E. Erdman
Scribner’s, © 1973, 248 p.
1973 bestseller #9 My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Matlock Paper: Thrills at the university level

Silver and black type on front cover tell book author and title
The paper looks innocent enough.

The Matlock Paper is a tense, carefully plotted thriller about Jim Matlock, a young English literature PhD recruited by the Department of Justice to go undercover to find Nimrod, the brains behind an organization running drugs, gambling, and prostitution and in nearly every university in New England.

The DOJ regards Matlock as “flawed but mobile” and susceptible: Matlock’s younger brother died from a heroin overdose and he holds himself responsible.

Organized crime has arranged a conference to negotiate an accommodation with Nimrod, whose extraordinary growth is taking a bite out of crime.

The same night after giving him a crash course in how to go undercover, Matlock’s DOJ contact is killed on the way to his car and someone takes a shot at Matlock.

All that happens in the first 38 pages.

Even though there are dozens of characters to watch, novelist Robert Ludlum makes his characters distinctive so that there’s no trouble remembering who’s who.

Aside from letting Matlock go more than two weeks without ever going to teach a class, Ludlum makes his inventive tale seem plausible.

You won’t gain and wisdom from The Matlock Paper, but you’ll be totally caught up on Matlock’s world for a few hours.

The Matlock Paper by Robert Ludlum
Doubleday, © 1975. 310 p
1970 bestseller #8. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Evening in Byzantium

Evening in Byzantium isn’t set in Byzantium.

a city by the sea that could be anywhere is image onon Evening In Byzantium
Cannes is not quite Byzantium.

That’s just the first of many intriguing and ultimately frustrating aspects of Irwin Shaw’s 1973 bestseller.

Jesse Craig, 48, a film producer who hasn’t produced anything in years, is in Cannes to pitch a film he’s written — if he can work up the courage.

He was successful early in his career, but the work he put in to create the success took its toll. Craig’s wife is divorcing him, he’s alienated from his daughters, and the pilgrims coming to to Cannes worship money rather than honest storytelling.

A 20-year-old “journalist” chases Craig for an interview. She’s obviously motivated by something more than a byline, but Craig can’t figure out what.

At Cannes, Craig learns what he had feared: He may get a buyer for his script but he’ll never get an audience for his film. The world Craig knew is gone.

Craig returns to New York where he is almost immediately hospitalized for a month with a bleeding ulcer which his surgeon tells him is self-induced.

In Shaw’s pen, Craig comes across as a genuinely decent guy. He treats even people he dislikes politely, albeit coolly.

Nothing in the novel prepares readers for Craig’s hospitalization or for his behavior after release.

Evening in Byzantium by Irwin Shaw
Delacorte Press, 1973, 368 p.
1973 bestseller #7. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni