Rich Man, Poor Man: A story without a message

Irwin Shaw’s beguiling novel Rich Man, Poor Man will keep you turning pages way past your bedtime.

Rich Man, Poor Man 1st ed dust jacket

It won’t, however, provide anything other than entertainment.

Shaw looks at the lives of Rudolph, Gretchen and Thomas Jordache from the end of World War II through the Vietnam War.

Their father, a German immigrant, killed to get to America. He finds he can’t get ahead no matter how hard he works. He takes his bitterness out on his wife and kids.

Rudolph, 16, has brains, ambition, and willingness to work hard. He deliberately cultivates his more rare assets: trustworthiness and likeability.

Gretchen is 19. Her high school friends went to college; her parents couldn’t afford to send her. She works as a secretary: The family needs her paycheck.

Tom, 15, is as bitter as his father. He’s smart, just not school-smart. He enjoys hitting people.

Shaw makes the separate lives of the three very different siblings come alive.

When they reach their 40s, Shaw succeeds in bringing them under one roof, but nothing can resolve their childhood traumas.

That’s probably a realistic outcome. Readers, however, crave some glimmer of hope that people can change the trajectory of their lives.

Shaw can’t produce one.

Rich Man, Poor Man by Irwin Shaw
Delacorte Press, [1970]. 723 p.
1970 bestseller #10. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Travels with My Aunt pleasantly diverting

Travels with My Aunt is a novel I’d hate to part with. It’s undemanding, pleasant, and quite forgettable once it’s back on the shelf.

It is, in fact, rather like Henry Pulling the retired bank manager who is the nephew alluded to in the title of Graham Greene’s novel.

All-text cover of Travels with My Aunt
My copy of Travels with My Aunt

Henry’s unvarying routine of tending to his dahlias and telephoning to Chicken for his meals, was agreeably disrupted by his mother’s funeral.

Henry’s Aunt Augusta, whom he’d not seen in over 50 years attended the funeral. She tells Henry bits of family history he’d never known, and hints at more he would prefer not to know.

He quickly finds himself sucked into a world of eccentrics and crooks to whom wouldn’t have given even a secured loan in his banking days.

Being a gentleman and a nephew, Henry feels he ought to accompany his aunt when she travels abroad. Travel scares and exhilarates Henry. It’s certainly more interesting than growing dahlias.

Greene paints vivid pictures of his characters. In his pen, even bland Henry breathes. His gradual release of respectability in favor of adventure is believable.

There’s no great moral here. Just a pleasant reminder that growing old does not need to mean growing bored.

Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene
Viking Press, 1970. The Collected Edition, 319 p.
1970 bestseller #9. My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Secret Woman: Implausible diversion

Victoria Holt’s The Secret Woman is an old-fashioned mystery story arising from the Victorian aristocrats’ need for a male heir carry on the line.

Dust jacket of The Secret Woman
Book Club Edition dust jacket

The leading lady is Anna Brett, a orphan in the care of an eccentric maiden aunt who buys but rarely sells antique furniture in an English seaport dominated by the Crediton shipping firm.

When her aunt dies under mysterious circumstances, leaving an-all-but bankrupt business, Anna gets a job as governess Castle Crediton. She owes her job to Chantel Loman who had come to nurse Aunt Charlotte and became Anna’s confidant.

It’s Chantel who sees Anna has fallen hard for the Crediton’s bastard son, Captain Redvers Stretton, about whom dark things are hinted.

Chantel, who had become nurse to Captain Stretton’s disturbed wife, seems more interested in Rex Crediton, the acknowledged son and heir to the family’s fortune.

Lady Crediton plans for Rex to marry the daughter of a competing firm, effectively merging the two.

The Secret Woman contains only nice, appropriately Victorian upper-class murders: no blood in sight, no police on the premises.

Holt keeps the story moving so readers don’t think too hard about the multiple implausibilities in the story until after they’ve finished the tale.

The Secret Woman by Victoria Holt
Doubleday, ©1970, Book Club Edition, 374 p.
1970 bestseller #8. My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight is a comic novel about unfunny topics, such as murder, written by an angry man.

Dust jacket of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot StraightAuthor Jimmy Breslin, a brash New York Daily News columnist, invents a gang war between a Mafia don “Papa Baccala” and malcontents who want to get a bigger share of the proceeds: 100 percent is the figure they have in mind.

Instead of liquidating his opposition, Baccala decides to keep them quiet by letting them organize a six-day bike race and keep most of the money.

The opposition, led by Kid Sally Palumbo (Palumbo rhymes with Dumbo, get it?) are total incompetents.

Breslin makes fun of the incompetent crooks he invented, but beneath the sometimes ribald humor is a deep anger against competent political crooks and the intertwined police and justice systems that work against the innocent.

The film rights to Gang were sold before the book came out, which probably accounts for the novel’s sales: The novel is mostly a series of theatrical sight gags, funnier seen than read about.

The novel’s lasting contribution is undoubtedly its title: Referring to an organization as “a gang that can’t shoot straight” has become shorthand for systemic incompetence.

The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight by Jimmy Breslin
Viking Press, ©1969. 249 p.
1970 bestseller #7. My grade: C-

Reviewer’s note: Breslin died March 19, 2017.

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

QB VII asks: What would you have done?

Leon Uris’s QB VII tackles antisemitism the way a terrier tackles a rat.

QB VII has a no-nonsense look.
Dust jacket of this copy of QB VII has disappeared.

Uris introduces readers to Dr. Adam Kelno as he leaves Jadweiga Concentration Camp. Soviet-dominated Warsaw has no place for a Polish Nationalist.

Kelno lands in England where he spends two years in Brixton Prison while England decides whether to allow his extradition to Poland to face war-crimes charges.

Exonerated, Kelno and his family flee as far as possible from Europe. In Borneo he does medical work for which he is knighted.

Returning to England, Kelno settles into small clinic, doctoring longshoremen and immigrants.

One day an English medical student from Borneo shows Kelno a paragraph in Abraham Cady’s book The Holocaust . It says Kelno performed experimental operations for the SS without the use of anesthetic.

Kelno sues Cady for libel.

The suit is heard at QB VII: courtroom 7 of the Queen’s Bench.

Uris produces rounded pictures of both Kelno, a Polish Catholic, and Cady, an American Jew, both of whom have their share of flaws. Reader’s sympathies are pulled one way and then the other.

QB VII is a tense, fast-reading novel that leaves readers to ponder what they would have done in Jadweiga.

QB VII by Leon Uris
Doubleday 970 [1st ed]. 504 p.
1970 bestseller #6. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Great Lion of God is a mangy beast

The Apostle Paul is one of the towering figures of the New Testament, but little is known of his pre-Damascus Road experiences.

dust jacket of Great Lion of God features lion rampant
Lion rampant symbolizes courage, nobility.

In Great Lion of God, Taylor Caldwell imagines a Jewish-Roman family and childhood experiences to account for his behavior in later life.

Not content with that, she also deliberately sets out to draw comparisons between the Roman era and twentieth century America, with an ultimate goal, she says in her introduction, to influence people to study the scriptures.

With all those weighty goals, it’s no surprise the novel feels as if it’s back is broken.

Caldwell extensively researched the background of her story and the pictures she draws of the different communities and cultures in the first century are fascinating. Unfortunately, the historical characters she moves through these scenes are not fascinating.

Caldwell’s attempt to make Paul appear a man like ourselves backfires: Readers won’t want to be like Paul. From childhood, the Paul of the novel is cold and generally unpleasant.

Even the youthful sexual experience Caldwell invents to account for Paul’s alleged anti-woman attitudes doesn’t make him interesting. The man is boring.

If you’re interested in Paul, read his letters: He’s at his best there.

Great Lion of God by Taylor Caldwell
Doubleday, 1970. Book Club Edition. 597 pp.
1970 bestseller #5. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Crystal Cave: Dark and dull

The Crystal Cave is Mary Stewart’s hallucinogenic tale of Merlin, the shadowy figure of Arthurian legends and post-Roman history.

Dust jacket of the Crystal Cave has black background with type colors suggesting light reflected from crystals.
First edition dust jacket of The Crystal Cave.

Myrddin Emrys, later to become known as Merlin, is the bastard son of the daughter of the King of South Wales by an man the daughter refuses to name.

When the story opens, Merlin is six years old, has the vocabulary of an Oxford don and absorbs every word he hears.

Political intrigue abounds and Merlin hears more than is good for him.

In his early teens, Merlin is kidnapped and taken to Brittany where he has one of his first visions, which brings him to the attention of the man who turns out to be his father. Ambrosius is preparing to invade and make himself King of all Britain.

Merlin joins him.

Even the dust jacket writer couldn’t come up with a summary of the plot of Cave. I won’t even attempt one.

All sorts of implausible events happen to Merlin, all of which fit perfectly with Stewart’s implausible characterization of him.

Merlin is not only a seer, but a skilled engineer, astronomer, physician, diplomat, politician, and dirty tricks artist.

Cave is not an historical novel, nor a fantasy, nor a romance, but a mash of all of them.

This long, convoluted tale is best avoided by all but die-hard Mary Stewart fans.

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
William Morrow, © 1970. 514 p.
1970 bestseller #4. My grade: C-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Islands in the Stream: One man, three places

Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream is a three-part novel. Its sections are connected by characters and settings, but are totally different in tone.

Well-read copy of Islands in the Stream

The first section, Bimini, introduces Thomas Hudson, a twice-divorced painter living happily with his personal devils by keeping to a rigid schedule for working and drinking.

His three sons come to visit during their summer holidays. Tom and an old friend, writer Roger Davis, keep the boys busy swimming and fishing.

After the end of their vacation, Tom’s two sons by his second wife are killed in a car accident.

The second section, Cuba, is set during World War II. Tom has just learned that last remaining son has been killed in the war.

When reasonably sober, Tom does reconnaissance work for the US military, using his own boat. During most of the Cuba section, Tom sits in a bar and drinks.

The third section, At Sea, has Tom and his crew tracking survivors of a sunken German U-boat who, in their escape, massacred a village. In a shoot-out, Tom is badly, perhaps fatally wounded.

Islands will probably appeal to Hemingway fans. Those bored by watching others fish or drink, will probably quit reading long before the massacre.

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway
Scribner, [1970] 466 p.
1970 bestseller #3. My grade: B

Historical note: Islands in the Stream was one of over 300 of Ernest Hemingway’s unpublished works his widow, Mary Hemingway, found after her husband’s death.

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The French Lieutenant’s Woman

John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman is the sort of book that would-be novelists with beer and beards discuss in existential terms.

Drawing of The French Lieutanant's Woman on the cover of the novel.
 The French Lieutenant’s Woman 1st ed dust jacket.

The woman of the title is Sarah Woodruff, a young English woman enamored of and jilted in 1867 by a Frenchman, whose whore the Lyme Regis locals assume her to be.

Charles Smithson, an English gentleman with enough funds to indulge his scientific avocation and a fiancée who’s the adored only child of a wealth merchant, finds Sarah irresistible.

She’s equally besotted.

After a brutal mating, Charles breaks his engagement and returns to Sarah who he’s recognized as his soulmate.

She’s disappeared.

Fowles interrupts his story periodically to offer commentary on Victorian culture, the history of Dorset’s Lyme Bay, and his own authorial process, even appearing as a character in the story.

When Charles finally finds Sarah, Fowles offers two endings to the story.

One would have been quite enough.

Nothing Fowles reveals about Sarah makes her believable as anything other than the psychological case the local doctor pegs her as. Charles is nothing to write home about either.

If The French Lieutenant’s Woman had been written by anyone other than Fowles it would be called pretentious.

Because Fowles is Fowles, it’s called literary.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
Little, Brown. © 1969. Book Club Edition. 480 p.
1970 bestseller #2. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Love Story: Plotline without characters

Erich Segal’s Love Story is what book jacket blurb writers describe as “a slender novel.”

The story is narrated by Oliver Barrett IV, a high IQ, prep-schooled, WASP rich kid who is a pre-law student at Harvard.

Checking out a book at the Radcliffe library, he checks out the girl at the desk, Jennifer Cavilleri, a music major from Cranston, Rhode Island, which, in Oliver’s family’s world is the wrong side of Boston.

The pair exchange insults and fall madly into bed.

Oliver splits with his all-too-perfect father over his decision to marry Jennifer.

Oliver Barrett III will not pay Oliver’s law school tuition.

The couple scrounge to put Oliver through law school.

He makes the Law Review, graduates third in his class, and gets a good job.

Then they find out Jen has leukemia.

I’ve not seen Love Story the movie, but it would almost have to be better than the book.

Oliver is a self-absorbed, over-age adolescent. There’s nothing in the novel to account for his rocky relationship with his father, which is the pivot on which the story turns.

Segal’s novel was ideally suited for the movies: It’s really just a plot line lacking characters to bring it to life.

Reviewer’s note: I learned after writing this review that Paramount had already approved Love Story for production when they asked Segal to turn the script into a novel as a marketing tool. Released on Valentine’s Day in 1970, it stayed 41 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

Love Story by Erich Segal
Harper & Row, 1970; 131 p.
My grade: C+.

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni