Louis L’Amour’s western adventure The Lonesome Gods is as irresistible as it is implausible.
When readers meet the novel’s hero, Johannes Verne is six years old. His dying father is taking him to California to his only other living relative.
Johannes remembers overhearing his parents say his grandfather hates him. Before he gets to California, he learns that his grandfather hates him enough to leave him to die alone in the desert.
Fortunately, good people take to Johannes instinctively. He’s nurtured by people who have common sense, extensive contacts, wide reading, and loyalty.
At 20, Johannes is a mid-twentieth century silver screen western hero plunked down in 1840s California.
L’Amour lets Johannes narrate the episodes in which he appears and an omniscient narrator relate the others. This technique gives an unwarranted aura of objectivity to implausible people and events.
There’s more than a whiff of Horatio Alger about The Lonesome Gods. Johannes’ friends impress on him the value of education, the importance of knowing how to do business regardless of one’s job, the need to have a goal for what he wants to become as well as for what he wants to do.
L’Amour’s story is forgettable; the advice in it worth remembering.
The Lonesome Gods by Louis L’Amour
Bantam Books. 1983. 450 p.
1983 bestseller #10. My grade: B
I got off to a bad start with Stephen R. Donaldson’s White Gold Wielder. The condensed, all-caps type on the cover made me think the title was “White Gold Welder.”
Once inside the book, I bogged down in the author’s retrospective of his previous five Thomas Covenant novels. The first paragraph is written in past tense and the rest of the five-page retrospective in present tense, which I found disorienting.
The retrospective contains references to magic and spells and giants, which suggest a fantasy world, but the retrospective never makes clear whether the characters are humans or some fantasy species.
In Wielder proper, Donaldson has Thomas Covenant and a female character, Linden, wear jeans and flannel shirts, which makes me think they may be human. On the other hand, Covenant spends the first quarter of Wielder dozing while other characters do the hard work, so it’s possible Covenant is a mutant, possibly a congressman.
Wielder is chock-a-block with murder and mayhem, particularly assaults on English grammar.
Donaldson’s pronoun references don’t just squint: They turn a blind eye.
And his paragraphs are full of non-sentences such as, “To the scream which had nearly torn out his heart when Linden told him the truth of the venom of the Worm.”
I’ll tell you the truth of the venom of the reviewer: White Gold Wielder is not worth reading unless you’ve read and loved the preceding books in the series.
The Name of the Rose, one of the world’s all-time best-selling novels, is a fascinating Italian novel that most American readers will set aside before they finish chapter one.
The 14th century setting in which author Umberto Eco sets his tale is half the novel’s story.
In 1327, Italy was part of the Holy Roman Empire beset by religious and political turmoil. Two competing emperors had recently been elected; the real winner will be the one the Pope chooses.
The Pope has his own problems: People are increasingly vocal about the church’s immense wealth and power.
The Pope’s picked men are scheduled to arrive soon for a theological disputation—a debate to establish truth— at a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy where a monk has died under suspicious circumstances.
The abbot has summoned Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan friar to investigate. Brother William brings young Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice, to assist him.
For a week, there’s a bizarre death a day for the pair to solve.
Eco adheres to the familiar hero and sidekick pattern, but the setting, culture, and passages in Latin will turn off American readers who lack the background and the curiosity to read demanding European fiction.
Danielle Steel’s novel Changes isn’t a great work of literature but it’s a story about topics that are always timely for women: second marriages, blended families, gender roles, and why men are such jerks.
The novel is the story of Melanie Adams, a woman who married a guy who didn’t want children and quickly found herself divorced and the mother of twin daughters.
Mel went to work to support her family. By dint of hard work, she rose from receptionist for a television network to a New York City news anchor before she was 40.
When she’s assigned to do a feature about heart transplants, Mel meets a widowed California heart surgeon with three children. Peter Hallam takes his job as personally as Mel takes hers.
Their recognition of each other as professionals who care deeply about their work is one part of the instant attraction between them; the other part is sex appeal.
There is a whirlwind, long distance romance that very nearly ends when they marry.
Aspects of the story have too much daytime television soap opera about them, but overall Steel does a reasonably evenhanded job of showing the strains faced by working couples trying to maintain careers and blend their families.
The eponymous character of Stephen King’s 1983 bestseller, Christine, is a 1958 Plymouth who will be responsible for 10 murders before the novel ends.
In 1978 in a town outside Pittsburgh, Arnie Cunningham—a smart kid with pimples and a passion for auto mechanics which his college professor parents reluctantly tolerate—sees a car he is determined to have.
The car, in his best friend’s opinion, is a pile of junk, and the guy selling her, Roland LeBay, is no better.
From the day he makes his down payment, Arnie’s obsession with Christine alienates him from his family and his only real friend, Dennis, the story’s narrator.
Dennis begins to notice odd things. He suspects Arnie is in some kind of trouble, what kind he doesn’t know.
King’s characters are ordinary people who for the most part do predictably ordinary things, which makes the dark forces that seep out of his pages seem especially sinister.
King has a special knack for depicting ’60s and ’70s teens: Their slang, snacks, school life, teachers all are spot on.
If you don’t care for King’s sinister side, you could read the novel as an inquiry into the century-old question: What is it with guys and their cars anyway?
In The Little Drummer Girl, John Le Carré abandons George Smiley’s British gloom for a world of international terrorism.
Le Carré fashions a tale about a Palestinian responsible for deaths of Jews throughout Europe. The Israelis know him by the coil of surplus wire left with his crude bombs and by the professionalism with which he eludes detection.
They have no idea who he is, but they have a plan to find out.
The Israelis offer a young English actress called Charlie the role of her life.
The Israelis invent a character for her: the role of a dead terrorist’s lover. They drill her in the facts they know of him and the story they have concocted.
Her job is to get inside the terrorist organization and bring its leader to the Israelis.
Charlie has not only to play her character, but once she’s involved, she has to play other roles, the psychological equivalent of portraying a Russian nesting doll.
The “nestedness” of Charlie’s character requires close attention from readers. Sometimes Charlie isn’t sure which character she’s playing.
Le Carré lightens the load with apt, sometimes even hilarious, character descriptions, but never lets readers forget that terrorists and anti-terrorists each kill people.
The Little Drummer Girl by John Le Carré
Knopf. 1983. [Book Club ed.] 429 p.
1983 bestseller #4. My grade: A-
Although Stephen King is associated with supernatural horror stories, in my opinion King’s really frightening stories are those in which the action centers around people’s all-too-human characteristics.
Pet Sematary is one of those stories.
The story opens with the arrival of Louis Creed and his family in the small community of Ludlow, Maine.
Creed, a medical doctor, has been hired to run the University of Maine student health program. Wife Rachel will have her hands full at home: Gage is still in diapers, Ellie will begin kindergarten in a few weeks, and Ellie’s cat, Church (short for Winston Churchill) has yowled nonstop the entire three-day car trip from Chicago.
The Creeds get a warm welcome from their elderly neighbors across Route 15, Jed and Norma Crandall.
Jed takes the family on a hike up a path on their property. It leads to pet burial ground created years before by local kids—they named it “Pet Sematary”—and still maintained by them.
Rachel’s reaction is bizarre: She doesn’t want her children to even hear the word death.
In the rest of the novel, King explores attitudes toward death.
And horrible things happen because of human weakness.
Like many of James A. Michener’s other bestselling novels, Poland is a story about fictional characters whose lives allow Michener to show how historical events affected and were influenced by the real people who lived in that real place.
In Poland, the opening and closing chapters are set in 1981 as farmers in a fictional Polish farming community along the Vistula River try to organize a union, which the Soviets oppose: A union would give Polish farmers too much control over Russia’s food supply.
In the chapters in between, Michener traces Polish history forward from the 13th century when invaders from the East under Genghis Khan ravaged Poland.
From that period through 1918, Poland’s rulers kept its peasants tied to the land, little better than slaves.
Various of Poland’s neighbors sought to influence, control, or eliminate it in accordance with their own political aspirations: Poland disappeared entirely from the map of Europe for 123 years.
Russia succeeded after World War II in turning Poland into a Soviet satellite.
The sweep of the novel, the difficulties of Polish names, and the strangeness of Poland’s political system make for challenging reading, but it will reward readers with a better understanding of the corner of Europe that Vladimir Putin dominates today.
Return of the Jedi by Joan D. Vinge has two strikes against it before readers even crack the cover.
First, it’s a book based on an action-fantasy-adventure movie packed with special effects.
Second, it’s a sequel to two previous storybooks, The Star Wars Storybook and The Empire Strikes Back Storybook, both of which were based on action-fantasy-adventure movies packed with special effects.
The storybook doesn’t have any special effects.
When readers to the first page, Return strikes out.
Here’s a paragraph from page 1:
An Imperial Star Destroyer moved toward the monstrous superstructure of the half-finished Death Star. Darth Vader, the Dark Lord of the Sith, was on board the destroyer. He had come to check on the progress of construction at the battle station. He boarded a shuttle and flew toward the waiting Death Star.
Don’t those lines sound like something read aloud by a fifth grader in a special ed class?
Return of the Jedi does have some good points. It’s short—about 60 pages—and every page has one or more stills from movie.
Unfortunately, the photos have no captions, so they are meaningless to anyone who didn’t see the movie.
If you didn’t see the movie, get the DVD instead of reading its appalling storybook.