My Picks of 1965 Bestsellers

I have two sets of favorites from the 1965 bestsellers, one serious and the other lighter.

The Source by James A. Michener and The Ambassador by Morris L. West are the best of the 1965 bestsellers. They engage readers in examining weighty topics without being dull or pedantic.

Front of dust jacket of The Source by James A Michener.Michener’s novel is about the history of an archeological dig in Israel. It remains  significant today because the Middle East is still being fought over by descendants of people who settled there in ages past.

Although the topic sounds dry and book is long, The Source can be read comfortably because of Michener’s unusual technique: He reveals significant developments and significant people in the site’s history in what is almost a series of novellas.

Cover of Morris L. West's novel "The Ambassador"The Ambassador is about another war zone: Vietnam.

West looks at American involvement in Indochina through the perspective of an American diplomat whose assignment to head the embassy in Saigon begins inauspiciously:  A monk burns himself to death as the official limousine passes.

In carrying out Washington policy, the ambassador has to do things that offend his sense of American principles.

Today, The Ambassador puts the Vietnam quagmire in historical and cultural context for readers who know little of that era.

On the lighter side, I recommend Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman and Don’t Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk.

Kaufman takes readers inside an inner city high school with a novice teacher.

Wouk takes readers to tropical paradise with a middle aged Manhattan publicist looking for a stress free life.

Both novels are funny, but their humor hugs reality closely enough to give readers something worth some serious consideration.

Don’t Stop the Carnival. It’s too much fun.

Chucking the workaday world for tropical beaches is a paradise most of us only dream about.

Norman Paperman tries it—and his inventor, novelist Herman Wouk, tells the tale.

Map of the imaginary island of Amerigo
Map of the imaginary Island of Amerigo

Don’t Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk

Doubleday, 1965. 395 pages. 1965 bestseller #10. My grade: B+.


Norm is bored with his work as Broadway publicity agent when a mild heart attack signals he needs a change of pace.

With encouragement from millionaire Lester Atlas, a hard-drinking slob he can’t stand, Norm buys the Gull Reef Club on the island of Amerigo, which Lester assures him will be a gold mine.

Lester gets the gold and Norm gets to do the heavy digging.

Norm knows nothing of the hospitality business.

He’s unprepared for the loonies and eccentrics on whom he must rely to make the hotel run.

In addition, he finds certain aspects of life in the West Indies—such as hurricanes, earthquakes, lack of drinking water—too far off Broadway for his liking.

Norm finally learns to put his managerial skills to work in the strange surroundings. He’s on the verge of a success of the hotel when a series of tragic accidents produce a shocking ending that upon closer examination appears entirely reasonable.

Wouk makes the boisterous story laugh-out-loud funny, but the guffaws cover some serious growing-up for the middle-aged non-hero.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Ambassador Makes Sense of Vietnam War

The Ambassador is the second and the best of the 1965 bestsellers about America’s war in Vietnam.

Unlike Robin Moore, who focuses on soldiers, Morris L. West focuses on the policymakers who set in motion events that ended in body bags.

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The Ambassador by Morris L. West

William Morrow, 1965. 275 pages . 1965 bestseller #9. My grade: A.


Ambassador Maxwell Amberley is transferred from Japan to Saigon to deal with the uncooperative South Vietnamese president who would prefer Americans gave him money and let his government fight the Viet Cong.

America is ready—eager, even—for Cung’s generals to overthrow him.

Amberley finds he likes Cung, admires the man’s managerial skills, and envies his moral compass.

But Amberley must represent his government, which is committed to military action and short-term solutions.

Through his fictional account, West is able to show a complex maze of political interests that cannot merge even when they intersect, because their cultural mindsets are diametrically opposed.

West avoids facile characterization. His men and women are complicated people, facing difficult decisions.

Ultimately, American policy in Viet Nam fails because individuals fail to make a morality a habit.

Ambassador Amberley says the words that unleash a coup, make the U.S. party to an assassination, and assures that the war will drag on for many more years.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Arthur Hailey Dishes Up a Literary Mac-and-Cheese in Hotel

Hotel is a lot like home: The settings, personalities, and action are all comfortably familiar. By the time you’re a quarter way through the novel, you know how the main plot line will end.

Fortunately Arthur Hailey packs his 1965 novel with enough subplots that, although each of them is also familiar, the collection will keep you entertained.

Multi-story hotel is image on front dust jacket of Arthur Hailey's novel "Hotel"


 

Hotel  by Arthur Hailey

Doubleday, 1965. 376 pages. 1965 bestseller #8. My grade: B-.


Peter McDermott is the young general manger of a failing, privately-owned New Orleans Hotel, He’s competent and reliable, though hounded by a youthful indiscretion.

Peter would have fired several incompetent and unreliable senior staff members had the St. Gregory’s dictatorial owner, Warren Trent, not protected them.

Unless Trent can refinance the hotel’s mortgage by Friday, they will have to take their chances under new ownership.

When an elderly guest stops breathing, Peter and Trent’s assistant, Christine Francis, cope with the medical emergency and the staff actions that triggered the respiratory crisis.

They also become aware of each other as attractive, unattached individuals.

Hailey did his research. Right down to the fat security chief who’s never around when needed, the problems and personalities of St. Gregory staff look like those I saw while working in an independently owned hotel.

Hotel will occupy your time without straining your brain.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Man with the Golden Gun Outlines a Thriller

The Man with the Golden Gun, the final James Bond novel, was published after Ian Fleming’s death.

The novel’s presence on the 1965 bestseller list was a memorial tribute from Fleming’s loyal readers.

Dust jacket cover forThe Man with the Golden Gun


The Man with the Golden Gun by Ian Fleming

New American Library, 1965. 183 pages. 1965 bestseller #7. My grade: C-.


Between the end of the previous novel, You Only Live Twice, and the opening of Golden Gun, Commies brainwash Bond to repudiate capitalism.

Bond tries to assassinate M, who orders Bond re-brainwashed to believe in capitalism again.

M. sends Bond to prove his right-thinking by finding and killing “Pistols” Scaramanga, an entrepreneurial killer putting together a deal linking organized crime and anti-Western governments.

Scaramanga is somewhere in the Caribbean where there are swamps, snakes, alligators, female bodies tied to railroad tracks, swords honed to razor-sharpness, and strippers to entertain after dinner.

As always, Bond is cool, brave, irresistible to women, and smarter than the bad guys, even when he does dumb things, which he does at lot.

Scaramanga, in a Liberace-white suit and cowboy hat, and Hendricks, a KGB agent in a dark wool suit and Homberg, would as soon kill Bond as look at him.

They try, but Bond survives.

Folks who think James Bond is God’s gift to readers will enjoy Golden Gun.

The rest will be glad it’s short.

©2015 Linda G0rton Aragoni

Those Who Love: Romantic, Educational, Hopeful

John Adams was “nothing but a lawyer” when Abigail Smith married him, but he was determined to be the best lawyer he could be.

Early on, John spent weeks “riding circuit” while “Nabby” took care of house, farm, and family.

Abigail and John


Those Who Love by Irving Stone

Doubleday, 1965. 647 pages. 1965 bestseller #6. My grade A-.


As John rose professionally, even more of the couple’s lives were lived apart. Fortunately for us, both were prolific writers of letters and journals.

By careful selection and judicious updating of the 18th century language, Irving Stone transformed their words into a novel that rings true today.

Since Stone published his novel about the Adams family, their lives were chronicled on stage and on television. Those productions may have rendered the general outline of their lives familiar, making Stone’s nuanced novel all the more appealing.

Stone relates Those Who Love primarily from Abigail’s perspective, revealing the bread and butter aspects of the long struggle to build a nation.

That vantage point allows Stone to downplay the partisanship and animosities almost split America in the days of Adams, Tom Jefferson, and  Ben Franklin.

Reading Those Who Love may give us hope that statesmen may arise to pull together our own divided national government.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The portrait of Abigail Adams is from the National First Ladies Library. It was painted by an unknown artist at the time of her wedding. The portrait of John Adams by Asher Brown Durand was released by the United States Navy with the ID 031029-N-6236G-001. Both works are in the public domain.

The Green Berets Covers Vietnam War With Acronyms

Robin Moore started out to write a nonfiction account of the undercover work of the Green Berets.

When it became clear the special missions in which they engaged in Vietnam were too sensitive to be reported, even in disguise, Moore decided to present the book as fiction. Even then, its publication met with negative reaction from the US Army.


The Green Berets by Robin Moore

Crown Publishers, 1965. 348 pages. 1965 bestseller #5. My grade: C-


From dust jacket cover for The Green Berets by Robin MooreCalling The Green Berets a novel is also a work of fiction.

It’s a collection of stories—the publisher calls them “brilliant, inspiring tales”— Moore collected and imaginatively expanded based on his experiences with Special Forces in Vietnam.

Moore assumes readers will know the historical background  and geography and need only modest two-page glossary of acronyms to make sense of events that involve characters named Hin and Hon, Ming and Mong, who fight for or against CIDG, ARVN, LLDB, USOM or STRAC.

I suspect the only readers today who have that kind of knowledge are Vietnam-era veterans.

Moore concludes the book by saying that regardless of the outcome of the Vietnam war, Special Forces will continue to “make friends for America” in underdeveloped nations.

Given the stories Moore tells, however, I suspect Special Forces will need to deploy a lot more chocolate bars to accomplish that.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Egos Are Deadly in The Looking Glass War

John Le Carré’s The Looking Glass War is a tale of Cold War espionage undertaken by a World War II military spy agency.

Le Carré focuses on what makes the characters tick rather than in what they blow up.

Dust jacket of Looking Glass War shows mirror image of word War


The Looking Glass War by John Le Carré

[David John Moore Cornwell] Coward-McCann, 1965. 320 pages. 1965 bestseller #4. My grade: B-


Fighting to keep his agency viable, Leclerk sends agents to check reports of a suspected Russian missile site.

When the agent is killed, Leclerk sends his assistant, John Avery, to pose as Taylor’s half-brother, claim the body, and get the film he was carrying.

Despite inadequate preparation, Avery gets back to gets back to England alive, but without the film.

Next Leclerk recruits a man who served with the resistance during the war. Leister gets a month of training, which enables him to stay alive a couple of days when he’s slipped into occupied territory.

Each of these rather boring men is enticed, like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s children’s book, into an exciting world in which their expectations are turned against them.

Missiles turn out to be less deadly than inter-departmental feuds and civil service egos.

Looking Glass has too much blather for a spy story and too much spying for a good psychological novel.

It will keep your attention, but leave little to mull over later.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Academic Debris Gives Up the Down Staircase Allure

Until Bel Kaufman published Up The Down Staircase, the teacher in popular fiction was either a joke or a beloved martyr to the teaching profession like Miss Bishop and Mr. Chips.

Sylvia Barrett is neither a martyr nor a joke. She’s young, pretty, hard-working, and willing to learn even from her students.

Mustard-yellow paint peeling in stairwell


Up The Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman

New York: Barker Publishing, 1965. 340 pages. 1965 bestseller #2. My grade: B


She is also totally unprepared for the students and the problems she finds at Calvin Coolidge High School.

Up the Down Staircase is not a particularly good novel; the 1967 film version makes the storyline stronger.

The novel compensates for its sketchy plot by a backpack’s worth of artifacts from the academic arena: notes, memos, bits of homework.

At first, Sylvia thinks the administrators are incompetent. She resents being treated as a clog in the system.

Gradually, however, she realizes that the administrators are doing their best in a bureaucracy over which they have no control.

Of course, this being fiction, we know Sylvia will be a wonderful teacher. The only suspense is whether she will survive long enough to decide she wants to stay on at CCHS.

When a student commits suicide at the school, that event makes the minimal impact on Sylvia’s life—which reveals she, too, has become part of the system.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo credit: Yellowslide by phreekdog.

The Source: Jewish Roots and Contemporary Conflicts

To say James A. Michener’s whopping 1965 bestseller The Source is an historical novel both understates and misleads.

Into a narrative about a contemporary archaeological dig at Makor, a man-made mound in Israel, Michener weaves a chronological series of short stories about key people and events in Makor’s history. Through this complex literary device, Michener traces unravels the history of Makor from its earliest human occupation up to 1964.

photo of James A Michener at ruins of Tell Beth-Sham


The Source: A Novel by James A. Michener

New York: Random House, 1965. 909 pages. 1965 bestseller #1. My grade: A


The short stories explore the character of the various peoples who came to Makor—from the Canaanites to the British—with particular focus on the Jews.

Michener makes the characters increasingly complex as centuries pass, giving a sense of the progress of civilization.

Michener connects historical events in Israel and the Middle East with happenings in distant places like Rome and Mexico. He shows, for example, that the Crusades were part of Renaissance colonialism in which Europeans carved out city-states in the Holy Land.

The characters in the excavation narrative form a kind of Greek chorus to comment on and interpret the significance of the history of the Holy Land for the post-World War II world.

As America’s ties to Israel are tested by events in Syria, Iraq and Iran, The Source is worth reading once more.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni