My picks of the 1969 bestsellers

The three bestsellers of 1969 that retain the most value for 2017 readers each deal in very different ways with family relationships: The Godfather by Mario Puzo, Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, and The Promise by Chaim Potok.

The Godfather is first a father.

I suspect  The Godfather is known as a Mafia thriller because more people saw the film than read the novel.

There’s certainly enough blood and gore in the book to make an emergency room crew feel at home, but the deeper stories of family, culture, and crime-as-a-business are more important.

Don Vito Corleone quote on need to treat extortion as a business.

Don Vito Corleone is  getting old. He can’t delay much longer selecting a new CEO of the family’s gambling and extortion businesses.

Mike, his youngest son, has the best temperament for the job. Unlike the eldest son, Mike is levelheaded, and unlike the second son, he has proven leadership skills. Mike also has a proven record of killing when required: Mike is a war hero.

The problem is that Mike got his war-hero status by defying his father and enlisting in the Marine Corps.  Home from the war, he chose to attend an Ivy League college, where he’s fallen in love with a rich daddy’s girl with impeccable WASP credentials.

The novel traces Mike’s journey from rebellious son to his father’s successor as godfather. Becoming a mob boss was never Mike’s wish, but his upbringing and personality make it inevitable.

Along the way, readers learn about the European Mafia operated for centuries as an elaborate system of interpersonal favors before becoming an international business operation in the twentieth century.

The Promise

Compared to The Godfather, The Promise may seem tame, but it deals with incidents that, although bloodless, are emotionally lethal.

Quote from The Promise saying each generation fights same battles with different people.

The story, like Potok’s earlier bestseller The Chosen, focuses on Reuven Malther and Danny Saunders, two brainy Jewish boys whose fathers are each rabbis.

Reuven, who has always had a close relationship with his father, is studying to become a rabbi himself. Danny, whose relationship with his father was emotionally distant, has rejected the rabbinical life and is a doctoral student in psychology.

The relationship between the two friends becomes strained when Danny recommends a radical treatment of a disturbed young boy to whose family Reuven introduced him.

Reuven finds Danny’s isolation treatment, so reminiscent of Danny’s own upbringing, as appalling as he had earlier found Rabbi Saunders’ refusal to interact with Danny.

Reuven also finds himself out of sympathy with his own father, an unfamiliar and upsetting experience.

Like the Godfather, The Promise places twentieth century characters in situations firmly rooted in centuries-old culture. They all have to figure out how to fit their heritage and their ideals into a world they are reluctant to belong.

Portnoy’s Complaint: Too much family

self-deprecating quote from Portnoy

Portnoy’s Complaint is related by Alexander Portnoy to his psychiatrist.

Alex has no end of problems, all of which he blames on his parents. Had they never had him, he would have been fine.

Even with his psychiatrist, Alex attempts to disguise the extent of his misery under a barrage of wisecracks.

Alex is so funny, it’s hard to imagine even a psychiatrist failing to laugh at his jokes.

But it doesn’t take a shrink to see that Alex is a seriously damaged individual—and his parents probably had a big role in that.

The question is whether Alex has enough willpower to try acting differently than he learned to do as a child.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The House on the Strand lacks curb appeal

In The House on the Strand, an historical novel meets a sci-fi novel.

Medieval Cornwall coast scene on novel cover
This bestseller mixes ’60 drug culture into history.

The two don’t get along well.

Dick Young gladly accepts the offer of longtime friend’s Cornwall estate, Kilmarth, for his family for the summer. Dick and Magnus were in university together and remained close until Dick’s marriage.

Dick’s wife, Vita, disliked Magnus from their first meeting.

Magnus, an academic researcher, has secretly stumbled upon a drug that takes people back in time.

Magnus wants Dick to take it and report his findings.

The first dose transports Dick back the Kilmarth environs in the 14th century. Each time he takes a dose, he becomes more interested in the historical figures than in his own era.

When Magnus is found dead, apparently after attempting to commit suicide, the story twists to a halt.

Daphne du Maurier provides diagrams showing who married whom, but readers need a guide to who is sleeping with whom to make sense of the historical part of the book.

The 20th century portion makes more sense, but even though du Maurier has Dick narrate the story, both plots feel detached from him. Sadly, Du Maurier’s characters have no more personality than figures in someone else’s nightmare.

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
Doubleday, 1969. Book club edition, 308 pp. 1969 bestseller #10. My grade: C.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

“The Pretenders” begins with a death, then decays.

Author Gwen Davis
Author Davis looking dazzled.

Reviewers typically refer to The Pretenders as trash fiction and jump into a discussion of how another of Gwen Davis’s novels landed her in a libel suit some years later.

Davis herself described The Pretenders as “a dazzling novel of the beautiful people.”

I failed to be dazzled.

The dead man whose funeral is the social event that kicks of the novel is a rich, ruthless Hollywood producer. Mourners come to impress other mourners—no one had any respects to pay— and to see if there’s any way they can profit from Harry Bell’s death.

Davis’s “beautiful people” are losers with more money than brains and more ego than money.

The novel has a huge cast of characters playing unmemorable roles badly. There’s a lot of sex, little plot, and nothing that is either worth remembering or memorable.

The Pretenders is the only one of the nearly 70 years of bestsellers I read for this blog that I wasn’t able to finish. I gave up somewhere around page 200, and I refuse to try again.

John Ashley Nail read the entire book and has  intelligent  comments about it on Amazon.

The Pretenders by Gwen Davis
World Publishing, 1969. 512 p. My grade: D-

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni

 

The Promise: Cultural clash on personal level

In The Chosen, Chaim Potok explored how two brilliant teenage boys struggled to find a way to reconcile their orthodox Jewish faith with their academic interests.

NYC sidewalk scene on cover of The Promise
Cover for Potok’s 1969 bestseller about two young Orthodox Jewish scholars.

The Promise again brings Reuven Malther and Danny Saunders, now both graduate students, together around a problem to which they respond differently.

Reuven meets a famous Jewish scholar who, though unable to believe in the Jew’s God or their theology, believes in Judiasm’s ethics and culture.

Prof. Gordon’s son has mental problems.

Through Reuven, the Gordons learn of Danny, who is doing brilliant work in psychotherapy. They agree to letting Danny isolate Michael until he opens up to Danny.

The very idea appalls Reuven.

He has his own problems.

The man who will determine whether he passes the smicha exam and becomes a rabbi is an ultra-Orthodox Jew who has violently attacked Reuven’s father for heretical views.

Potok weaves these and many more threads together into a exploration of friendship, father-son relationships, faith and orthodoxy, and the potentially lethal consequences of the zeal of the persecuted becoming a club by which they can persecute others.

The Promise is as good on second—or seventh—reading as on the first.

The Promise by Chaim Potok
Alfred A. Knopf, 1969. 368 pp. 1969 bestseller #8. My grade A.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Naked Came the Stranger: It’s not pretty.

Let’s get right to the point.

Cover shows naked woman tally marks in lipstick
The cover tells the tale.

Penelope Ashe’s novel Naked Came the Stranger is trash.

As story opens Gillian Blake, co-host of radio show Billy & Gilly, has just learned via the services of Ace-High Private Investigators, Inc., that Billy is having an affair with the show’s recently hired assistant producer.

Gilly is incensed.

It was not simply that William Blake had made a mockery of her marriage. Even worse he had made a mockery of her radio show.

Divorce is unthinkable: According to the polls, what attracts the listeners is their belief that the Blakes have the ideal marriage.

Her fans believe, as Gilly observes, “The family that stays together, stays together.”

Gilly decides to get back at William by having affairs with other women’s husbands and breaking up their marriages.

The next 230 pages describe psychologically, anatomically, and physiologically how Gilly goes about it.

The novel has only one good but not redeeming feature: It was set in Baskerville type, which is better than the book deserves.

It deserves Comic Sans.

Naked Came the Stranger by Penelope Ashe
Lyle Stuart, 1969. 255 p. 1969 bestseller #7. My Grade: D.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Seven Minutes: A case against censorship

The Seven Minutes is a novel about a novel.

Barely visible nude woman on her back
The sexual element is central to, but not the focus of,  Irving Wallace’s bestseller The Seven Minutes.

An Oakland, CA, bookstore owner sells a pre-release copy of The Seven Minutes to undercover cops who arrest him for selling pornography.

Shortly thereafter, a college boy from a good family confesses to rape and murder. He claims reading the French-printed copy of the novel, which was banned worldwide as pornographic and blasphemous, was behind his assault.

Fearing he’ll be left with thousands of unsaleable books, the publisher hires his friend Michael Barrett to defend the bookstore owner.

The District Attorney realizes that by prosecuting the case he can muster support for his planned run for Congress.

Despite its sexy topic (the banned novel relates a woman’s thoughts during seven minutes of sexual intercourse) I suspect many readers found The Seven Minutes over-hyped.

Although there is graphic sex in the novel—and some scuzzy lowlife characters—it’s a small portion of the page count.

The meat of the story is the exhausting legwork the defense slogs through to build its case.

Irving Wallace gives Barrett long passages to recite from cases and legal scholars. Unless Barrett has a photographic memory, the quotations not only  interrupt the story flow, but are implausible.

If you’re interested in the censorship issues, I suggest you read The Seven Minutes once for the story, then go back to examine the legal arguments.

The Seven Minutes by Irving Wallace
Pocket Books, 1969. [paper] 630 p. 1969 bestseller #6. My grade: B.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Andromeda Strain: Be careful what you wish for.

Dot matrix diagrams
Computers are used to identify the organism causing the deaths.

The US military has sent small, unmanned satellites into space, hoping to find weaponizable microorganisms.

After being briefly bumped out of orbit, one of those satellites lands in Piedmont, AZ, pop. 38.

Within minutes all but two of the inhabitants — a baby and an old man — are dead.

A team of medical scientists chosen in advance for their varied expertise, are summoned to a secret subterranean laboratory in the Nevada desert to identify and contain the organism.

They work feverishly, sometimes brilliantly, often stupidly, trying to piece together what the deadly thing is.

Michael Crichton said he deliberately wrote in the “factual, non-fiction writing style of New Yorker profiles.”

Crichton intensifies the sense of reality by referring to scholarly journals, academic conferences, and including copies of documents in the text.

The characters are barely more than CV highlights. What they do is more important than who they are — and even what they do is done inside man-sized, inflatable plastic suits to keep them from contamination.

Crichton’s writing is good. His musings on the hazards that personalities bring to collaborative projects are still worth rereading.

The dot-matrix printed documents, though, are a blurry reminder that Andromeda is approaching its fiftieth birthday.

The Andromeda Strain: A Novel by Michael Crichton
Alfred A. Knopf, 1969. 295 p. 1969 bestseller #5. My grade: B.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Inheritors: Sex and balance sheets

Naked woman being filmed in bed
Sex, TV camera and Robbins name dominate cover of The Inheritors.

The Inheritors combines steamy sex with stultifying descriptions of multi-million dollar financial deals.

To make things worse, Harold Robbins’ odd organization makes following the story difficult.

Steve Gaunt and Sam Benjamin are frenemies and business partners. Steve and Sam each have three-track minds: Women, booze, and business.

Needless to say there’s not a lot of character for Robbins to develop.

Robbins opens the novel with a chapter about the morning of a spring day in which Steve and Sam talk about things that mean nothing to readers.

Books one and two relate events of 1955-60 in New York from the viewpoints of Steve and Sam respectively.

Then there’s a chapter about the afternoon of the spring day.

Next books three and four relate events of 1966-65 in Hollywood from the viewpoints of Steve and Sam respectively.

Sam, the homely fat guy, is the more interesting of the two. The suave Steve with his nose in a balance sheet is not stimulating company for any reader.

What little interest there is in the novel is in the cultural history of how television disrupted the film industry, embraced rock music, and metamorphosed into the communications industry.

The Inheritors by Harold Robbins
Pocket Book Edition, 1971. 373 p. paper. 1969 bestseller #4. My grade: C-.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Love Machine: a novel about television

Female gender symbol fills front cover of The Love Machine
The Love Machine is a novel that’s not afraid to be noticed.

The Love Machine has a lot of action, most of which occurs in beds. Nevertheless, it’s a far better novel than I expected from the author of the appalling Valley of the Dolls.

The alpha male in the novel is Robin Stone, who comes out of TV news and pushes his way to temporarily dominate a TV network.

There are lots of women in the novel, Amanda, Maggie, and Judith being the three who lend their names to the novel’s sections.

Amanda, the blonde, dies.

Maggie, the brunette, goes into films.

I don’t remember Judith’s hair color or what happens to her. By the time she appeared, I’d lost what little interest I’d had in Robin’s sex partners.

The most interesting part of the novel is the mystery of why Robin dislikes brunettes.

Under hypnosis, Robin learns he is adopted; his dark-haired German mother was a prostitute who was murdered by a customer.

After his foster mother dies, Robin tries to find his real family, but he can’t find any of her relatives.

Whether Robin sorted out his childhood trauma, readers never learn.

Susann wraps up the novel with the consummate expertise of a writer who won the Best Dressed Woman in Television Award four times.

The Love Machine by Jacqueline Susann
Grove Press, 1969. paper. 511 p. 1968 bestseller #3. My grade: C+.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni