Semi-Tough: Thoroughly sixth grader humor

Three facts about Dan Jenkins’s 1972 bestseller Semi-Tough tell all you really need to know:

Football star sits with his girl, a beer, and his guitar.
This is how the Giants get ready for the Super Bowl.
  • The novel is about two teams facing off in the Super Bowl.
  • The author was a senior editor at Sports Illustrated at the time he wrote the novel.
  • A portion of the novel appeared in Playboy magazine prior to the book’s publication.

Semi-Tough‘s narrator is Billy Clyde Puckett, a running back (and running mouth) for the New York Giants.

His best pals are his teammate “Shake” Tiller and Shake’s girlfriend, model Barbara Jane Bookman. The three spent their childhood in the same Texas town. It would be incorrect to say they grew up there or anywhere else.

Billy Clyde has a book contract to keep a journal of events before and after the Super Bowl. That’s why he’s taking notes about players drinking and screwing in preparation for the Big Game.

Football fans say Semi-Tough is funny; personally, I’m just not that in to jokes about farting.

I did laugh at Shake’s philosophical observation, “There’s no heartbreak in life like losing the big game in high school,” but I don’t think he meant it to be funny.

Semi-Tough by Dan Jenkins
Atheneum, 1972. 307 p.
1972 bestseller #10 My grade: C-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My Name is Asher Lev: Art for truth’s sake

As the title suggests, My Name is Asher Lev is related by Asher Lev, born in Brooklyn in 1943 to parents whose marriage united two prominent Hasidic families.

front dust-jacket of My Name is Asher Lev shows the artist at work.
What is Asher Lev thinking as he eyes a blank canvas?

Asher is a very sensitive child, but he cannot communicate his feelings except through art. His earliest playmates “are Eberhard and Crayola.”

Asher’s mother, an emotionally fragile woman, likes him to draw pretty birds and flowers.

Asher’s father, principled and highly disciplined, thinks art is at best a waste of time; at worst, it’s a violation of the Law.

Mr. Lev travels as a missionary/community organizer, setting up schools in Jewish communities in communist countries.

When Asher enters yeshiva, his mother enters college to study Russian so she can work with her husband in stead of waiting for him to return.

The Rebbe, a faceless figure at the periphery of Asher’s life, arranges for him to study art with the world’s most prominent Jewish artist.

Asher grows distant from his family even as he grows mature enough to understand why they view life as they do.

Chaim Potok’s characters are complicated, sometimes puzzling to themselves as well as to those around them.

In Asher Lev, as in The Chosen and The Promise, Potok writes straightforward prose that mutes profound meaning: I burst into tears after reading the novel’s last line.

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
Alfred A. Knopf, © 1972, 373 p.
1972 bestseller #9. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Two from Galilee: A Love Story

All-text cover of Two From Galilee touts Marjorie Holmes' book "I've Got to Talk to Somebody, God"
Cover art wasn’t what drew readers to “Two from Galilee.”

In Two from Galilee, novelist Marjorie Holmes pieces together a plausible but saccharine story to cover what is known from the gospel records about Mary and Joseph, the parents of the Christ Child.

Holmes fills in the pages thanks to a good imagination supported by research into Jewish customs of the time.

Mary is the prettiest, most sought-after girl in town. Her parents are poor, but they expect Mary to marry above her station. Joseph wouldn’t be their choice: His family isn’t prosperous enough for their Mary.

Joseph is a handsome, hardworking young man, some half dozen years her senior. In love with Mary since they were children, he’s been waiting for her to grow up.

Joseph’s father, a wood worker, is slipshod about completing work on time if the job doesn’t interest him; as a result, his family is even poorer than Mary’s.

Mary can twist her father around her little finger—and does—to get her parents to accept Joseph as her bridegroom.

When she’s later found to be pregnant, she goes off to spend time with her relative Elizabeth, who has conceived her first born late in life.

Reading Two From Galilee won’t do anyone any harm, but it’s not likely to do anyone much good either.

Two from Galilee: A Love Story
by Marjorie Holmes Revell [1972] 223 p.
1972 bestseller #8. My grade: B-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Captains and the Kings is a far-sighted novel

Who'd think Captains and the Kings so low key?
Staid all-type dust jacket belies the explosive story of Captains and the Kings.

Taylor Caldwell read the news and saw the future.

In Captains and the Kings, she tells the story of a boy who came to America to escape the Irish famine in the early 1850s.

By the time he arrived, he was 12, an orphan with a younger brother and infant sister to care for, and America didn’t want any more Irish.

Both honest and ruthless, as “Joe Francis” teenage Joseph Francis Xavier Armagh outsmarted and outworked men twice his age.

Brains and discipline put him in the way of luck.

Friends were unwaveringly loyal to him.

Women fell for him.

His children loved him, though he did nothing to win their love.

What makes Captains and the Kings an unusual historical novel is that Caldwell puts Joseph into situations where wealthy men behind the scenes plot how to quite literally take over the world.

Their plan includes the establishment of income taxes in every country in the world, extermination of the middle class via taxation, and “prudently scheduled” wars around the world “to absorb the products of our growing industrial and technological society.”

Captains and the Kings has an exciting plot interwoven with a powerful message for readers with the guts to take it in.

Captains and the Kings by Taylor Caldwell
Doubleday, 1972. Book Club Edition. 695 p.
1972 bestseller #7. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Word: More than its title is deceiving

Stark black and red type on dull white background lead the ey toward the symbol of a skewered fish.
The skewered fish is a clue.

Irving Wallace’s The Word is not a religious novel any more than Elmer Gantry is.

It’s a suspense-packed novel about Steve Randall, a public relations man who has had a buy-out offer that would give him enough money to be able to go write a novel.

There’s a hitch: He first has to organize a PR campaign for a new translation of the New Testament incorporating a recently-found gospel by James, the younger brother of Jesus, that contradicts existing accounts.

An international syndicate of religious publishers and theologians are risking their fortunes on the success of the new translation.

Steve, who has no faith, is intrigued.

Doing background research for the book launch, Steve comes upon various bits of information that don’t add up. Digging deeper, he finds a tangle of deceits with deadly consequences.

Since The Word is an Wallace novel, the leading man must have minimum of three sex partners in 500 pages and wind up doing something of redeeming social value.

Despite those preset parameters, Wallace holds readers’ attention. There’s plenty of technical detail to make the story seem mysterious, and plenty of weird characters to make it feel threatening.

The Word is a definite page turner.

The Word: A novel by Irving Wallace
Simon and Schuster, ©1972. 576 p.
1972 bestseller #5. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Odessa File: Suspense with a philosophical side

The night of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, German free-lance journalist Peter Miller followed an ambulance hoping to find a story at its destination.

All-text dust jacket of The Odessa File emphasizes the SS in Odessa.
The SS stands out in The Odessa File.

What he found was Solomon Tauber, 56, dead from suicide.

Beside the body was a diary of Tauber’s experiences in the SS extermination camp run by SS Captain Eduard Roschmann, the “Butcher of Riga.”

After reading the diary, Peter feels compelled to find out what happened to Roschmann. He learns Tauber had seen Roschmann alive just a month before right in Hamburg.

Peter starts hunting for Roschmann.

Soon his snooping is noticed by Odessa, the secret organization of ex-SS officers living under new identifies, and by spies for Israel’s Intelligence Service who don’t want amateurs messing up their efforts to stop the development in Germany of a guidance system for Egyptian missiles.

Frederick Forsyth’s spins a suspenseful tale drawing on his career as an investigative reporter in Europe. He weaves actual names and events into his fiction so seamlessly that story feels both real and important.

Forsyth’s invented characters feel real, too. He gets the details right.

Best of all, Forsyth quietly raises questions about human motivation and whether citizens should be held guilty for actions of their government.

The Odessa File: a novel by Frederick Forsyth
Viking Press, ©1972, 337 p.
1972 bestseller #3 & 1973 bestseller #4
My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

August, 1914: Russia was doomed

Author's name and novel title set in yellow and orange respectively against camouflage backgound of dust jacket.
Author and title stand out against the camouflage.

August, 1914, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel about the first two weeks of World War I on the Eastern Front is not for the faint of heart.

Russian naming conventions are bewildering, the story jumps from one military unit to another, and the camouflage green liner-paper maps are hard to read.

Those who persevere will find the novel worth the effort.

The novel traces the events of the first two weeks of WWI. Russia had foolishly promised France they’d begin war operations 15 days after war was declared, long before the country was prepared to supply its frontline troops.

Russia’s generals were mainly old duffers whose skills consisted mainly of “being able to compose the right sort of dispatches…which can make inaction sound like hard fighting.”

Up against a German army armed with tanks and connected by telephone, the Russian horse soldiers with 19th century weaponry and hand-delivered battle orders were out of their league.

Against this backdrop of incompetence on a monumental scale, Solzhenitsyn shows the rugged endurance and bravery of ordinary soldiers.

If you read nothing more of August 1914, read chapter 50 in which eight soldiers carry their regimental commander’s body home for burial. Even in translation, it’s a great piece of writing that can stand alone.

August, 1914 by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Trans. Michael Glenny
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ©1972, 622 p.
1972 bestseller #2. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Jonathan Livingston Seagull, feathered allegory

Jonathan Livingston Seagull is an Allegory.  Just so you don’t miss the point, author Richard Bach thoughtfully capitalizes Important Words.

A grainy photograph of a seagull is on the dust jacket cover of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
Russell Munson’s photos accompany Bach’s narrative.

Jonathan is No Ordinary Bird. Although no gulls are killed when he dives at 214 miles an hour into the breakfasting flock, Jonathan is expelled from the flock for for “reckless irresponsibility.”

In exile, he practices flying, neglecting to eat, until he is called to a better place where he meets other gulls who also live to fly.

After spending some time in the better place in the sky, Jonathan returns to earth and gathers disciples whom he teaches to consider themselves “special and gifted and divine.”

Some of Jonathan’s disciples consider him the Son of the Great Gull but he’s not. He merely wants his followers to “reach out and touch perfection” in the thing they most love to do.

Jonathan leaves them after instructing them to Go Make Disciples who will devote their lives to doing whatever they want to do.

Fortunately, this paean to the totally self-centered life is short.

Its 93 pages are already as nauseating as a gull’s breakfast.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
Photographs by Russell Munson
Macmillan, © 1970. 93 p.
Bestseller #1 in 1972 and 1973. My grade: C-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni