Daniel Martin: Introspection writ long

Daniel Martin is a bildungsroman in which little happens but much is thought by 40ish Daniel Martin whose Hollywood screenwriting job is at odds with his Oxford educated instincts.

Daniel is having an affair with an actress his daughter’s age.

Daniel goes home to England to see a university friend at his request.

Since university, Daniel had been estranged from Anthony and his wife, Jane, whom Daniel had loved during university and with whom he’d had sex once before she married Anthony and he married her sister, Nell.

Daniel improves relations with his daughter and Nell, now his ex-wife, and tries to restore his relationship with Jane. He also debates how to break up with Jenny.

Daniel Martin, like his creator, novelist John Fowles, is an intellectual, as are his friends from Oxford. They discuss ideas (with a capital I), analyze everything, but remain wrapped up in themselves.

Flashbacks initially make figuring out the intertwined relationships difficult.

After getting the dramatis personae sorted, the problem becomes remembering the references so you can follow Daniel’s growing up.

I’m sure if I read Daniel Martin again I’d rate it more highly: Fowles is literate and a brilliant word craftsman.

But I just don’t find Daniel interesting enough to bother.

Daniel Martin by John Fowles
Little, Brown ©1977 629 p.
1977 bestseller #10. My grade: B+

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Delta of Venus: Erotica

A student of mine once advised me, “Never judge a book until you’ve read its cover.”

On cover of Delta of Venus, a woman in roaring '20s outfit exposes her gartered stocking tops while ignoring the camera That’s good advice when the book is Delta of Venus: Erotica by Anaïs Nin. If the cover hadn’t said the book was erotica, I might not have realized that what I was reading.

In her preface Nin says a collector of erotic literature offered Henry Miller $100 a month to write original stories for him.

When he was busy or bored with the work, Miller fobbed the job off on Nin who in turn recruited impecunious poets to produce erotica.

The collector complained. He wanted writers to, “Concentrate on sex. Leave out the poetry.” The result is the Delta of Venus: Erotica.

For the most part, the stories are about as erotic as a physiology textbook.

Even the woman on the dust jacket cover wearing a cloche and showing off her garters is interesting only because she’s so precariously perched on the arm of the chair.

Back of "Delta of Venus" is plain brown, no art or text.
Plain brown back.

The 15 stories—the longest is 64 pages—are not only short on poetry, they don’t have any characters resembling live people.

The characters are bland as mannequins.

There’s plenty of sex, but it’s about as appealing as the back cover of the dust jacket: plain brown.

Delta of Venus: Erotica by Anaïs Nin
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. 250 p.
1977 bestseller #9. My grade: D

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

How to Save Your Own Life

How to Save Your Own Life is a divorce story, which is the flip side of a love story.

Isadora Wing, neé Isadora White, tells the story.

front dust jacket: close-up of kissing couple
Kissing couple are married, about to marry, or divorcing. 

Isadora wrote the best-selling novel Candida Confesses, which her fans say is not only Isadora’s personal story but theirs as well.

Isadora, 32, has been married for eight years to Bennett Wing, a psychiatrist who sees his analyst and advises Isadora to talk to her analyst.

Bennett and Isadora never talk. They occasionally exchange information and have sex together even when they aren’t talking at all.

Isadora has had affairs, but when she learns Bennett has had affairs that all their friends knew about— and assumed she knew about—she begins to divorce Bennett emotionally, intellectually, sexually.

Her marriage to Bennett makes her distrust the possibility of a happy marriage.

Erica Jong makes Isadora’s tale feel absolutely true.

That’s her novel’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

Although Isadora clothes her observations in quotable witticisms, so many people have had experiences like Isadora’s that there doesn’t seem to be anything new in Jong’s retelling of it.

The love poems that compose the final chapter, however, reveal the uniqueness of Isadora’s experience.

They’re worth the price of the book.

How to Save Your Own Life:
a novel by Erica Jong
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, ©1977. 310 p.
1977 bestseller #8. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Beggarman, Thief: Murder with a surprise ending

Beggarman, Thief is a sequel to Rich Man, Poor Man, but readers need have no acquaintance with Irwin Shaw’s 1970 bestseller to enjoy this 1977 follow-up.

cover of "Beggarman Thief" is all text
Complexity of “Beggarman, Thief” defies imagery.

Tom Jordache has been clubbed to death on the deck of his own ship in the harbor of Antibes.

After scattering Tom’s ashes, Tom’s sister, Gretchen, goes back to her Hollywood job.

Tom’s bride of five days goes home to England to bear Tom’s child there.

Toms 16-year-old son, Wesley, who had only shortly before come to live with his father, wants revenge.

Wesley vents his rage his loss on a man in a bar, nearly killing him. He’s released from jail on condition he leave France. He reluctantly goes to stay with his mother and her new husband in Indianapolis.

That leaves Rudolph, the brother Tom and Gretchen always disliked, to settle Tom’s estate in France and make sure Wesley doesn’t commit murder.

Handling unpleasant affairs is how Rudolph made his millions.

In Rich Man, Poor Man, Shaw presented a complicated family story. In Beggarman, Thief he adds both a murder and terrorism to a family story—and does it all with seeming effortlessness and an optimism missing in his 1970 novel.

When push comes to shove, the Jordaches are family.

Beggarman, Thief by Irwin Shaw
Delacorte Press, c.1977. 436 p.
1977 bestseller #7. My grade: A

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Dreams Die First

Dreams Die First is another of Harold Robbins’ raunchy tales about sex to fit all tastes.

“Dreams Die First” cover features a woman's breasts, nipples tastefully concealed.
Cover art is most tasteful part of Dreams Die First.

The story is about Gareth Brendan, Vietnam vet, doing nothing rather unsuccessfully in California when his rich, powerful uncle offers him control of an underground newspaper.

Gareth had tried writing: No one would buy his stuff.

Now his unemployment has run out.

He takes the offer.

Gareth finds he has an aptitude for sleaze.

He goes from the newspaper, to a magazine called Macho which features the “supercunt of the month.”

From there he expands into “Lifestyle” publications and clubs not just for men interested in women.

He’s about to take his company public (I inadvertently typed pubic instead of public. I’ve been reading too much Robbins.) when the operation falls apart.

No worries.

There’s a happy ending.

Despite his reliance on drugs and alcohol, his violence, and his general stupidity, Gareth is a peach of a guy.

Women love him.

Men, including a prominent California clergyman, love him.

The only people who don’t love him are the FBI, the Narcotics Division of the Treasury Department, Scotland Yard, and the Condor Group of the Mexican Police.

And me.

P.S. I’m not too fond of Harold Robbins either.

Dreams Die First by Harold Robbins
Simon and Schuster, ©1977. [paper] 408 p.
1977 bestseller #6. My grade: D-

Oliver’s Story in which Oliver grows up

Oliver Barrett IV, last seen at the end of Love Story mourning his deceased wife, is still emotionally dead 18 months later when Oliver’s Story opens.

Oliver's Story dust jacket is all text: title, author, and a reference to “Love Story”
Oliver’s Story dust jacket: Just the facts.

Even Jenny’s father thinks its time workaholic Oliver started looking for a new love.

Friends introduce Oliver to a pediatrician, who doesn’t appeal to him, though he finds himself unexpectedly enjoying her family of classical musicians and their music.

Oliver starts seeing a psychiatrist.

He refuses to talk to the shrink about his relationship with his father.

Oliver accidentally meets a woman who intrigues him. He doesn’t even seem to notice that Marcie’s snappy, smart-mouth comebacks sound like Jenny.

But what Marcie Nash tells Oliver about herself doesn’t add up. What does she do with her time? Why won’t she level with him?

Oliver’s Story is twice as long as Love Story, but it’s still Oliver talking about himself—and he’s really rather a jerk.

On the plus side, Erich Segal lets readers finally learn the reason for Oliver’s alienation from his parents.

And he lets Oliver begin to act like an adult.

However, I can’t help wondering what might have happened if Segal had let Oliver accept the Steins’ invitation to join their living room orchestra.

Oliver’s Story by Erich Segal
Harper & Row, ©1977. 264 p.
1977 bestseller #5. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Honourable Schoolboy

The Honourable Schoolboy is a John Le Carré tale from the dark underside of the West’s Cold War spy operations.

Cover of The Honourable Schoolboy: gold text on black.
Gold text suggests the gold seam of The Honourable Schoolboy 

After his unmasking of British secret service chief Bill Haydon as a 30-year Russian agent, told in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, George Smiley was appointed its caretaker.

Exploring investigations that Haydon surpressed, Smiley sends Jerry Westerby, a.k.a., “the honorable schoolboy,” to Hong Kong where he learns the owner of a trust fund to which the Russians have been covertly a “gold seam” is millionaire Drake Ko.

Ko has never touched the fund, which amounts to a half-million dollars.

Smiley wants to know what the Russian are buying.

To find out, Westerby follows some very unsavory characters in Cambodia, Thailand, and in Saigon as the North Vietnamese Army captures it.

As in the other le Carré novels about the Circus, Schoolboy holds stories nested inside one another like a wedding gift of mixing bowls.

There’s plenty of action, but the toughest work is done men and women poring over documents looking for patterns and anomalies and asking, “Why?”

The novel requires similar close attention from readers just to keep up with the twists of the story.

The Honourable Schoolboy
by John le Carré
Knopf, 1977. 533 p.
1977 bestseller #4. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Illusions, like Richard Bach’s earlier bestseller, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, is a ’60s-ish, love beads, and tie-dyed little novel, but without bird photos.

Cover gives illusion of looking into the depths of the universe.
Illusions is not as dark as the jacket suggests.

Illusions opens with 14 pages that look like hand lettered text on ruled paper covered with greasy fingerprints. Those pages tell what happened to Donald Shimoda before Illusions‘ narrator, Richard , met him.

Richard is a pilot who flies an over American’s heartland, landing to pick up locals willing to part with $3 for a 10-minute ride in his old Fleet biplane.

One day in Illinois, he sees a plane on the ground below and, feeling lonely, he lands beside it.

Before nightfall, Richard and Donald, the Messiah Mechanic, are friends. Richard picks up Donald’s “Messiah Handbook” and without realizing it, he becomes a messiah-in-training.

In a few weeks, he’ll be a full-fledged messiah.

Illusions is a “spiritual” novel whose theology posits that all things are possible if you have as much as a mustard seed’s worth of imagination.

It’s not much of a theology, but it’s better than Jonathan Livingston Seagull could come up with.

The best part of Bach’s novel is the quote featured on the dust jacket:

Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Thorn Birds

As World War I sputters to its end, the Paddy Cleary’s childless older sister offers to turn her sheep station, Drogheda, over to him and his family on her death if he’ll come run it.

The Thorn Birds cover shows house, bare tree, sky, nothing else.
Barren landscape of The Thorn Birds

The Cleary family leaves the green intimacy of New Zealand for brown horizons of the Outback.

Life is hard, but even young Meggie accepts that as normal.

Four of the five Cleary boys love Drogheda; only Frank, the eldest and his mother’s favorite, hates it. He goes off to be a boxer.

The handsome priest who serves the parish is eyed lecherously by Paddy’s sister.

Determined if she can’t have Ralph de Bricassart God won’t either, she writes a new will, leaving Paddy’ s family Drogheda and its income for their lifetime, but giving the bulk of her vast wealth to the Church.

Meggie gets away from Drogheda long enough to marry a man by whom she has one child and to have an affair with Ralph, now attached to the Vatican.

The Thorn Birds is not a pretty story, but Colleen McCullough doesn’t wallow in the dirt.

Her characters make mistakes, takes their lumps, learn their lessons, move on.

And the novel’s worth reading just for McCullough’s Australian landscapes.

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
Harper & Row, 1977. 533 p.
1977 bestseller #2. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Silmarillion

Close-up of female figures on Silmarillion cover.
Creatures in the art on the 2001 paperback Silmarillion cover.

To the bestseller list in 1977 did The Silmarillion penned by J. R. R. Tolkien, ascend, whose passing had some four years before occurred.

By Christopher son of Tolkien in filial duty from notebooks scribbled and aged were fitted his sire’s tales of the creation and of the First Age of the World wherein Morgoth, the first Dark Lord, dwelt in Middle-Earth, and the High Elves upon him made war to reclaim the Silmarils.

Those three great fiery jewels by Fëanor  made to contain imperishable the glory of the Blessed Realm had Morgoth seized and within his crown had set, guarded within his fortress Angband.

Praised much has been the beauteous language of The Silmarillion but this reader wearied of that beauty, desiring ever the longer to see characters wherein distinguished could be  Elf, or Man, or Dwarf without recourse required be to the Index of Names.

Of sentences long and cunningly crafted doth The Silmarillion consist, and rare it is for one to plainly speak and straightforward tell its tale with grammar clear and modifiers that squinteth not.

In the glory and the beauty of the Elves and in their fate may others find great pleasure, for me The Silmarillion delighteth not.

The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien
Christopher Tolkien, ed.
2nd American ed. [paperback] (pub. 2001)
Houghton Mifflin, ©1977, ©1981, ©1999. 365 p.
1977 bestseller #1. My grade: C

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni