Lincoln: A Novel by Gore Vidal

dust jacket cover is all textGore Vidal’s Lincoln is an absolutely marvelous historical novel, far too good to interest average American readers who propelled North and South to the 1984 bestseller list.

Vidal doesn’t invent stories: He pulls out the stories hidden in historical documents, translates them into contemporary language, and puts them in dramatic context. He lets readers can decode the character and motivation of persons long since dead.

Vidal’s focus is Lincoln’s “White House” years. (During Lincoln’s occupancy, it was called the President’s House.)

The novel opens February, 1861 with president-elect Lincoln’s arrival in Washington, disguised in plain clothes and guarded by detective Allan Pinkerton.

The country has split over slavery.

Several “cotton republics” have already seceded from the Union.

Lincoln’s life has been threatened.

Lincoln has one overriding goal: Maintaining the unity of the states.

Vidal weaves into his narrative contrasting and conflicting impressions of Lincoln held by the people with whom he spent the most time:  His personal staff, his cabinet, and the generals who he is forced to rely on to fight to save the Union.

Vidal’s writing is sparklingly clear and bubbles with humor.

Through the multiplicity of viewpoints, Vidal provides nuanced picture of President Lincoln, the politician.

Lincoln: A Novel by Gore Vidal
Random House 1st ed. 1984. 657 p.
1984 bestseller #10; my grade: A+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

 

The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abromowitz

Heidi copies famous Marilyn photo holding down her skirts
Heidi isn’t Marilyn.

All you need to know about Joan River’s novel The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abromowitz is that it is by Joan Rivers.

The book is 99 pages of one-liners about sex and syphilis designed to titillate a night club audience that’s already imbibed too much to survive a breathalyzer test.

Rivers doesn’t even attempt to create a plot.

The front cover cartoon of Heidi standing on a grating with the skirt of her dress blowing up around her thighs suggests Marilyn Monroe.

The cartoon on the back of the dusk jacket showing Heidi pulling her dress off doesn’t suggest anything. It’s a statement: Heidi is a whore.

James Sherman’s pen-and-ink humorous illustrations are the best part of the book. He captures the incidents Rivers relates without the tawdry nastiness that is Rivers’ stock in trade.

Heidi as a kindergartener
Heidi was the center of her own world from preschool.

While displaying Heidi’s physical assets, Sherman makes Heidi’s eyes reveal her mental deficits. Without his work, the book would be total trash.

It says something about American taste that this un-funny abomination outsold Gore Vidal’s Lincoln in 1984.

The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abromowitz
by Joan Rivers
Illustrations by James Sherman
Delacourt Press. 1984. [Book Club ed.] 99 p.
1984 bestseller #9. My grade: D-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Danielle Steel’s Full Circle goes flat

interlocking circles on “Full Circle” cover represent mother-daughter relationships
The interlocking circles are a visual metaphor

Full Circle is a story about mothers and daughters.

Jean Roberts’s husband enlists right after Pearl Harbor and is killed before Tana is born. Jean is determined Tana won’t have to struggle as she did.

Jean becomes assistant to a wealthy Arthur Dunning, performing all wifely duties without benefit of marriage.

When Tana is 15, Arthur’s son rapes her.

Jean refuses to believe Tana’s story.

In response, Tana shuts herself off emotionally.

Fortunately, she meets Harry Winslow who loves her enough to respect her desire that they never be more than friends.

Tana leaves home for college, then on to study law.

When Harry loses his legs in Vietnam, Tana talks him into studying law, too. When Harry is admitted, the two rent a house together, much to Jean’s horror.

Harry and Tana remain only friends.  Harry marries and Tana acts as godmother to Harry’s children.

Tana becomes a prosecutor, then a judge.

All her life Tana fights against her mother’s definition of what a woman needs to be fulfilled.

Danielle Steel’s story is intriguing but it never feels like more than a movie script: It needs some real people to show the emotional turmoil Steel’s stage directions require.

Full Circle by Danielle Steel
Delacorte Press. ©1984. 324 p.
1984 bestseller #8. My Grade: B-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Fourth Protocol

 On Fourth Protocol dustjacket, a pen drips blood
Blood drips from the pen.

Like all Frederick Forsyth’s thrillers, The Fourth Protocol, is a riveting story of good guys—Britain and her allies—versus the bad guys of the Soviet bloc.

The story begins in London with the New Year’s Eve diamond heist from the home of a civil servant. Despite the jewels’ fame and value, the theft goes unreported.

The thief has unwittingly made off with something more valuable.

When he finds out what he has, he tries to set things right.

A package containing the inadvertently stolen item is delivered to Brigadier Bertie Clapstick at the Ministry of Defense.

Clapstick he calls John Preston, who had worked undercover for him in Northern Ireland. The wife of a jeweler had already called Preston to tell relate her husband’s  words as he died from the injuries delivered by unknown assailants.

Preston convinces Clapstick and a few others that there’s a traitor in the Service. Those of his superiors who respect his work set Preston on the case.

Preston saves Britain, but is forced to realize its government doesn’t make the world better—a truth not unlike that embedded in novel’s dedication to Forsyth’s five-year-old son “without whose loving attentions this book would have been written in half the time.”

The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth
Viking Penguin. ©1984. 389 p.
1984 bestseller #7. My grade: B+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Butter Battle Book

Yooks on the Butter Battle Book cover march for bread buttered side up
Which side are you on?

From its cover, The Butter Battle Book appears to be another Dr. Seuss picture book with rhymed text for children.

However, inside is an anti-war message for adults by the man behind the pseudonym, Theodor Seuss Geisel.

The Yooks and the Zooks live on opposite sides of The Wall. Zooks eat their bread butter side down while the Yooks eat theirs butter side up.

A young Yook, encouraged by his grandfather, begins throwing increasingly dangerous missiles across the wall at the Zooks, who retaliate with increasingly more lethal weapons of their own.

The Big War is inevitable.

The Yooks hide in a hole in the ground as the grandfather, leaps up on the wall to drop a bomb on the Zooks and finds himself eye-to-eye with a Zook with a bomb to drop.

Who will drop it first?

The book ends with the words, “We will see” opposite a blank page.

The last page of the story is followed by a blank page
The blank page at the right should be read as the end of the story.

The Library of Congress classified the book as (1) War-Fiction and (2) Stories in rhyme, both more fitting than the children’s collections where it tends to end up.

Today, 30 years after the Berlin Wall came down, The Butter Battle Book is a Cold War Era relic out of place among Dr. Seuss’s children’s books.

The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss
Random House. 1984. Unpaginated
1984 bestseller # 5: My grade: C-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

“…And Ladies of the Club”

A lady dressed for 1868 club meeting on cover of “...And Ladies of the Club”
font and image recall 1860s

“…And Ladies of the Club” opens in 1868 as Congressman General Deming tells Waynesboro Female College graduates, “The hand that rocks the cradle is mightier than the hand that wields the sabre.”

The novel focused primarily on two graduates, Anne Gordon and Sally Rausch, reveals the truth underlying that cliché.

Both graduates are invited to become founding members of a local women’s literary club.

Sally accepts because she thinks the club might become influential in Waynesboro.

Anne accepts because Sally did: She can back out later.

Sally marries a German immigrant, Ludwig Rausch, a man with a passion for machinery and endowed with a business shrewdness equal to any Yankee’s.

Anne marries her childhood sweetheart, a doctor scarred by his experiences as a military surgeon and his family history.

Helen Hooven Santmyer traces the interwoven lives of the two women, their families, their small town, and America up until 1932.

Politics, wars, economic booms and depressions, social and technological changes are revealed the way people felt them.

“…And Ladies of the Club” is a marvelous work of historical fiction with an historical sweep and psychological intimacy equaling Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, John Galsworthy’s Forsythe novels, and Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown.

“…And Ladies of the Club”
by Helen Hooven Santmyer
Putnam’s. ©1982. 1176 p
1986 bestseller #6. My grade: A+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Love and War

collage of icons for North and South are on front cover of “Love and War”
Icons suggest splintered focus

In Love and War, volume two of John Jakes’ trilogy about America’s war between the states, Jakes shows there was nothing civil about it.

In North and South, knowing war was inevitable, George Hazard of Pennsylvania and Orry Main of South Carolina had vowed nothing would destroy their friendship forged at West Point Military Academy.

In Love and War Jakes shows the difficulty of keeping that vow.

In his struggle to follow a dozen members of the two families, Jakes writes chapters that are crazy quilts of story patches.

An extra line of leading signals a change of focus to a different character. The characters themselves are paper dolls moved around on a map.

Jakes’ stuffs the novel with historical trivia which, while interesting, underscore the disjointedness of his storytelling.

Jakes toils to show all his “good characters” developing sympathy for people who are not like them social, economically, or racially, but he doesn’t succeed.

The novel’s only nuanced interracial interaction that of southern belle Brett Hazard and freed slave she assists in running a school for orphaned Black children.

Love and War ultimately proves that in fiction, as in race relations, emotional ties can be built only with individuals, not with abstractions.

Love and War by John Jakes
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1st ed. ©1984. 1019 p.
1984 bestseller #4. My grade: C

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Sicilian: a novel

Guiliano’s belt buckle with lion and eagle on front of “The Sicilian”
The belt buckle is Turi’s

Michael Cordelone, exiled to Sicily at the end of Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, is about to return to the US at the beginning of The Sicilian.

His father has ordered Michael to bring Salvatore “Turi” Guiliano to America with him.

Turi has been a bandit in the Robin Hood tradition since his teens. He is idolized by the poor for his opposition those who keep them poor: the government in Rome, the Mafia, the Catholic Church hierarchy, the police.

For seven years, Turi and his band have lived in the mountains, from which they raid and escape. Now Turi’s enemies seem to be joining forces against him.

Why does his father want Michael to help Turi?

How are the police and army getting information about Turi’s movements?

Can Michael get Turi out of the country before his enemies kill him?

Who cares?

Turi and the other characters are about as plausible as paper dolls.

There are a few tidbits of interesting Italian history in The Sicilian but the story is a bore.

Just as he did in Fools Die, his second attempt to recreate the success of The Godfather, in The Sicilian Mario Puzo produces an entirely forgettable novel.

The Sicilian: a novel by Mario Puzo
Linden Press/Simon & Schuster. 1984. 410 p.
1984 bestseller #3. My grade: B-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Aquitaine Progression

 “The Aquitaine Progression” dust jacket is black with only small circle in which action is visible.
Converse waits for a cable car

The Aquitaine Progression, like Robert Ludlum’s other thrillers, is an incredibly complex multi-layered story that demands all a reader’s attention.

The main character is Joel Converse, an international lawyer and former Navy pilot. During the Vietnam War, Converse had been imprisoned by the North Vietnamese, escaping to freedom on his third attempt.

The novel’s action is too complicated to relate but the premise at the novel’s core is too believable to be forgotten.

A handful of highly placed military men—in the U.S., France, West Germany, England, Israel, and South Africa are planning to, in effect, take over Europe and Europe’s former colonies in the Americas.

Their plan is to take advantage of peaceful demonstrations to create chaos. The conspirators have trained men ready to attacking both the demonstrators and the demonstrator’s opponents without revealing their own identifies.

In the confusion, the conspirators will assassinate the leaders of the major democracies, expecting that lawlessness they’ve sparked will make people beg for strong military leaders to restore order: The military men have the trained troops and the munitions needed to do that.

Although Ludlum was writing in the ‘80s, it takes little imagination to see how the plot he imagines could play out today.

The Aquitaine Progression by Robert Ludlum
Random House. ©1984. 647 p.
1984 bestseller #2; My grade: A

©2019 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Talisman: Novel by committee

Front cover of The Talisman
A web? or something shattered?

The Talisman is a tour de force by a pair of authors known respectively for horror and fantasy novels: Stephen King and Peter Straub.

The novel’s hero is 12-year-old Jack Sawyer. Jack’s father is dead; his mother, Lily, dying of cancer.

The pair are holed up in a New Hampshire hotel in the off-season to get away from his uncle, Morgan Sloat, who is trying to get Lily to sign over property she inherited on her husband’s death.

Jack meets an old, black handyman, who encourages Jack to journey into a parallel universe called “The Territories” to bring back the Talisman to cure his mother’s cancer.

Jack develops the ability to flip between universes. In the Territories, Jack pushes west, running into all kinds of nasty creatures—some bestial, some humanoid—on his odyssey to find the Talisman.

The Talisman oozes blood and gore, but the most frightening elements are those that are most closely modeled after 20th century America: An employer who takes advantage of his employees and a sadistic preacher who runs a home for boys with behavior problems.

The Talisman is proof that novel writing by committees, even a two-person committee, leaves a great deal to be desired

The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub
Viking, G. P. Putnam’s Sons. ©1984. 646 p.
1984 bestseller #1. My grade: C+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni