1968 bestselling novels not gone, but largely forgotten

The bestsellers of 1968 are notable for being forgettable.

In some cases, the title elicits an “Oh, yeah, I think I read that,” but the stories behind the titles shriveled into the ether within weeks after I finished reading them.

The few that rise above placebo level are Preserve and Protect by Allen Drury, The Tower of Babel by Morris L. West, and Myra Breckenridge by Gore Vidal.

Preserve and Protect

Preserve and Protect is the last of Allen Drury’s set of six political novels following a group of Washington characters through a series of political crises., the earliest being, Advise and Consent (1959), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1960;  A Shade of Difference (1962); and  Capable of Honor (1966).

Capable of Honor, as you know, ends in a cliffhanger.

Drury’s next two novels provided readers with alternative finales.

Come Nineveh, Come Tyre (1973) became a bestseller like the earlier four novels.

The last of the six novels, The Promise of Joy (1975) was the only one of the set that didn’t become a bestseller.

Tower of Babel

West’s Tower of Babel is set just before the outbreak of the Six Day War 51 years ago this past June. The novel delivers its thrills through a tale of spies and espionage.

West didn’t give the spies enough personality to make the thriller part of the story memorable. All that lingers is a bleak sense of military force being used as a political tools.

Myra Breckenridge

Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge is satirical and Myra thoroughly unpleasant. The novel is remembered today for breaking the social taboos around discussions of sex and transgender issues in general.

The story itself is readily forgotten — which may be the best thing to be said for it 51 years after its initial publication.

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Our look at bestsellers of 1969 start August 5.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Tower of Babel: Terror for PR purposes

Map of Middle East with inset cover of Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel is set in the Middle East just before the Six-Day War in June, 1967.

The novel opens as an Israeli man on a tractor is killed by an exploding mine as he crosses a narrow demilitarized zone into Syria.

The Israelis suspect such incidents are trying to provoke them into military action.

They’re right.

Col. Safreddin, Syria’s director of security, has picked PLO field director Idris Jarrah to spark an incident for political reasons.

Jarrah knows the PLO is closing its Phoenician Banking Company account. He schemes to get bank owner Nuri Chakry’s help to keep from becoming Safreddin’s fall guy.

Meanwhile, Jakov Baratz, Israel’s director of military intelligence, is worried about an Israeli operative in Damascus whose cover is blown.

The characters in Morris L. West’s taut thriller aren’t particularly heroic or admirable: They are just as likely to be fighting for thrills as for their country.

West focuses on characters’ personalities and motivations, providing little physical detail from which to craft mental images. I found it hard to remember who was who without mental pictures of them.

Torture scenes in the novel are tame compared to ISIS’s latest vidotape, but I for one find state-sponsored terrorism more frightening than lone wolves inspired by ISIS.


The Tower of Babel by Morris L. West
William Morrow, 1968. 361 p. 1968 bestseller #10. My grade: B+.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Vanished resurrects Cold War era anxieties

Letters of Vanished on novel jacket in progressively smaller letters

Vanished is a Cold War era political thriller that will sound familiar to readers who grew up in that era.

White House Press Secretary Eugene Culligan relates the events.

One election year, a good, personal friend of President Roudebush vanishes from Burning Tree Golf Club.

Investigators learn Steve Greer left the country by a circuitous route.

That raises speculation that Greer’s in trouble, and that the President may be involved, too.

The President’s party gets jittery; so does Wall Street.

The President assigns the FBI to handle the investigation, which infuriates the CIA director and raises further speculation of something shady going on.

Culligan gets nervous because he can’t get information.

The press is hounding him, but he has nothing to say because he knows nothing.

Eventually, Culligan learns everything, but not before the American public and Fletcher Knebel’s readers do.

Knebel draws all his characters well enough that they are distinguishable but not particularly memorable. The focus is the story of what happened to Steve Greer and who’s going to break the story.

The ending fits its Cold War setting, but may sound a little simplistic today.

None the less, Vanished will entertain without deadening the brain cells.


Vanished by Fletcher Knebel
Doubleday, 1968. 407 p. (Book Club Edition). 1968 bestseller #8. My grade: B.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Myra Breckenridge repels and fascinates

Eponymous Myra Breckrenridge is as repellent a character as you’d ever not want to meet.

And she’s absolutely fascinating.

Photo collage of dictators with overprint.
Myra believes her life mission is to realign the sexes.

Gore Vidal presents Myra’s story as her confidences in her diary, written as therapy on the urging of her dentist and analyst, Randolph.

Myra is in Hollywood to attempt to get money she believes owed to her by Buck Loner, her late husband Myron’s uncle. Buck had built a flourishing acting school on land willed jointly to him and his late sister, Myron’s mother.

Buck says he’ll get his lawyer on it; meanwhile, he invites Myra to join his faculty to teach courses in Empathy and Posture.

Myra and Buck set out to swindle each other without dropping the pose of family bonding.

For 20 of her 27 years, Myra in imagination cast herself as a the female lead in films she saw while growing up. But Myra doesn’t want the subservient roles: Myra hates men, and she’s determined to dominate them.

Despite his heavy hand with satire, Vidal makes the transgender Myra believable and human.

I didn’t like Myra the person or Myra the novel, but I felt I did something necessary and respectful just by exposing myself to Myra’s perspective.


Myra Breckenridge by Gore Vidal
Little, Brown, [1968] 264 p.
1968 bestseller #7. My grade: A-.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Preserve and Protect taut political thriller

Washington DC buildings, 1st edition jacket of Preserve and Protect
First edition cover.

Preserve and Protect is a logical development  of the political landscapes Allen Drury envisioned in Advise and Consent (1959),  A Shade of Difference (1962),  and Capable of Honor (1966).

Allen Drury plunges readers into American politics as it might be played if violence becomes a political tool.

Sometime in the post-LBJ era, Air Force One has crashed, killing an American president on his return to Washington after garnering his party’s nomination.

The Speaker of the House, William Abbott, assumes the presidency until elections can be held. He carries on the policies of his predecessor, Harvey Hudson, keeping American troops in Africa and Panama and retaining Orrin Knox as Secretary of State.

That continuity brings Abbott into direct confrontation with a coalition of extremist groups out to control the presidency by electing Ted Jason, a man they think they can control.

Preserve and Protect is a stronger novel — there’s less author commentary — than the other three novels in Drury’s series.

Readers are left in no doubt as to Drury’s position, but here they have the pleasure of thinking they figured it out themselves.

The characters met in earlier novels seem to have grown more complex, the issues less clear.

The book slips from political novel toward political thriller.

Drury pulls all the threads together skillfully in a shocking — but totally logical — conclusion.


Preserve and Protect by Allen Drury
Doubleday, 1968. 394 pages. 1968 bestseller #6. My grade A-.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Testimony of Two Men, one his own worst enemy

island is central image on dust jacket of "Testimony of Two Men"
Islands can be emotional as well as physical.

Taylor Caldwell begins Testimony of Two Men where more usual novels would have ended: Dr. Jonathan Ferrier has been acquitted of the murder-by-botched-abortion of his young wife, Mavis.

Unable to live among people who doubted his innocence, Jon has sold his practice to young Robert Morgan, who, of candidates Jon interviewed, seemed least likely to do harm.

Robert feels something akin to awe of Jon, for his culture as much as for his brilliant medical skill.

Jon finds Robert’s conventional, mamma’s boy behavior amusing.

Jon’s brother, Harald, made a marriage of convenience to a rich widow. She’s dead; Harald is living on an island with her nubile daughter, whom he wishes to marry.

When Robert sees Jenny, he’d like to marry her, too.

Jon thinks Jenny is a whore and Harald one of her sex partners.

Taylor Caldwell makes the novel part mystery, part romance, but always keeps her focus on the psychological development of her characters.

Jon’s insulting manner with people he thinks cruel, incompetent, or corrupt make him his own worst enemy.

Fortunately, he has some good friends who come to his rescue.

Caldwell wraps up the novel with enough of Jon’s hostility showing to prove she’s a good novelist.


Testimony of Two Men by Taylor Caldwell
Doubleday, 1968, Book Club Edition, 600 pp. My grade: A-.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A Small Town in Germany is a keeper, not a thriller

 A Small Town in Germany is cover art jacket of novel of that name
Dust jacket of A Small Town in Germany

A Small Town in Germany is a complex, Cold War era mystery that totters on the edge of a thriller.

In Germany, “an amorphous Movement* of popular resentments, popular protest and occasional violence” threatens Britain’s desperate attempt to gain admittance to the Common Market.

As if that weren’t enough, Leo Harting, a Second Secretary at the British Embassy in Bonn, has disappeared.

Boxes of documents disappeared with him.

London sends Alan Turner to Bonn to find Harting.

What Turner finds is a massive security screw-up: Harting had been a “temporary worker” at the British Embassy for 20 years without ever undergoing a security check.

The embassy staff are more upset by a missing tea trolley, typewriter, and electric heater than either their missing colleague or the missing files.

Instead of making Turner a sexy, James Bond type, John Le Carré keeps readers’ interest with the wealth of detail Le Carré accumulated during the two-and-a-half years he spent in Bonn doing the same Embassy job as the missing Harting.

Although Brexit has made a story about Britain trying to unite with Europe seem almost farcical, the populist movement of Small Town feels terrifyingly contemporary.

So, too, does the behind-the-scenes intrigue of men who want to rule without the annoyance of seeking office.


A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré
381 p. Coward-McCann, 1968. 1968 bestseller #3. My grade: B+.

*from the preface to the American edition of A Small Town in Germany. The full quote is “”An amorphous Movement of popular resentments, popular protest and occasional violence has come into being. The policies are immaterial: it is a Movement of the resentful mass; it is unified by its slogans, and fed by its dreams.”

 

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Salzburg Connection is high voltage spy story

jacket of The Salzburg Connection shows swastika over Austrian landscapeIn The Salzburg Connection, Helen MacInnes returns to a theme she explored in her earlier bestseller The Double Image: Nazi activity in the Cold War era.

This time, Nazis are protecting records that they can use for blackmail purposes when the time is right.

Like her earlier book, Connection has an unlikely hero.

Lawyer Bill Mathison is in Salzburg on business for a client, a science book publisher.

Photographer Richard Bryant had written them about a book contract he’d signed and for which he had received an advance.

The publisher had never heard of Bryant, doesn’t publish art books, and the check for the advance was written on a New York bank account used for undercover activities against the U.S.

While Mathison is trying to sort things out, Bryant’s car is found crashed in the Austrian Alps with two bodies in it burned beyond recognition.

Bryant’s wife, brother-in-law, and a family friend all know bits of the story about why Bryant was in the Alps.

Mathison has to figure it out.

MacInnes writes cerebral espionage stories with minimal violence tastefully conveyed and the obligatory love interest handled discretely.

MacInnes has little to offer beyond the plot, but dishes up that bit superbly.


The Salzburg Connection by Helen MacInnes
406 p. Harcourt, Grace & World, 1968. 1968 bestseller #3. My grade: B+.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Couples all look alike with their clothes on

dust jacket of John Updike's 1968 "Couples"
Couples’ jacket art reproduces William Blake watercolor  “Adam and Eve Sleeping”

John Updike’s 1968 bestseller,  Couples,  is about a clique of 10 couples, which is roughly five times as many as any self-respecting novel should have.

The couples live in a small New England village called Tarbox, somewhere within a longish commute of Boston.

The couples are the usual Kennedy presidency era suburbanites in the 1960s novels that pretend to be literature: hard-drinking, social climbing, sexually voracious.

Updike focuses main on local contractor Piet Hanema, who doesn’t let his devotion to his wife, Angela, interfere with his sex life.

When a new couple come to town, Piet takes up with the already pregnant wife, named Elizabeth but called Foxy, while still obliging other wives of the couples in their clique.

After Foxy has her baby, she’s less interested in her husband than before.

Within weeks, she’s pregnant again, this time with Piet’s child.

Other members of their clique arrange an abortion for Foxy, who promptly confesses all to her husband.

Updike writes delightful sentences, such as, “She studied him as if he were an acquisition that looks different in the home from in the store.”

But delightful sentences don’t make a novel, especially one with character-less characters all of whom look alike with their clothes on.


Couples by John Updike
Alfred A. Knopf, 1968. 458 p. My grade: C-.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni