After posting my final review of the 940 bestselling novels of the twentieth century before Christmas, I collapsed in front of the TV to binge-watch the Masterpiece “Inspector Morse” videos.
That done, I pulled out my 1,176-page paperback edition of Helen Hooven Santmyer’s “…And Ladies of the Club” and began rereading it. It was even better the second time around.
This time, in addition to getting the story line, I was able to appreciate the historical context. Watching the Trump presidency encouraged people to think nothing like it had ever happened before. Santmyer’s novel made me realize how much present day history echoes 19th century history.
People don’t change much, and it’s people that are the elements of history.
Here are a few quotes that seemed particularly timely.
Defeat never converts. It is to the defeated what persecution is to the persecuted. The cause becomes daily more precious, and devotion to it a more sacred duty.
We acted for the best. People almost always do, and so often it turns out wrong.
People always have to face up to what they’re by nature least well equipped to face.
If you’ve not read Helen Hooven Santmyer’s novel, I can’t recommend it too highly. It’s a whopping big book—perhaps enough to get you through the pandemic—and you have to pay close attention , but the novel is worth the effort.
In A Perfect Spy, novelist David John Moore Cornwell, known to his fans as John le Carré, rummages through the debris of the British boyhood of Magnus Pym to explore what turned an eager-to-please lad into a spymaster.
The novel opens with Magnus Pym’s disappearance into a bolt hole in Devon shortly after his father’s funeral. It’s a refuge he’s been preparing for years.
Rick Pym had been an engaging rogue who made his living by conning people out of theirs.
Magnus grew up trying to win his father’s approval by being the sort of man Rick professed to admire and being it by using all the deceits he learned from observing his father’s behavior.
Magnus mastered the arts of deceit so well that the British hired him for what they viewed as his natural talent for espionage.
It’s only after his father’s death that Magnus feels free to look back on his life and assess his own personal culpability.
In his Devon room, Magnus writes his life story, addressing much of it to his son, Tom.
Le Carré intersperses Magnus’s story with perspectives from his wife and colleagues.
The result is a novel as complex, fascinating, and ambiguous as Magnus himself.
Louis L’Amour’s Last of the Breed is a western set in the Siberian wilderness. Its hero contends, not with Indians, but with the Soviet army, KGB, and black marketeers who will sell anything or anyone for a price.
U.S. Air Force Major Joseph Makatozi, called Joe Mack by friends, has been picked up by the Soviets after the experimental aircraft he was testing over the Bering Sea failed.
He’s been taken to an isolated prison camp where kidnapped foreigner experts with technical know-how Russia wants are interrogated and killed.
Colonel Zamatev expects Joe will willingly reveal military secrets: Joe is an American Indian.
Russians know from American films that Indians hate the white men who stole their land.
With days of his capture, Joe pole-vaults over the prison fence and into the wild.
Joe spent his boyhood in the American wilderness, getting his food, clothes, and shelter from what he found there.
Zamatev’s city-reared soldiers are no match for Joe. However, Alekhim, a Siberian native tracker may be.
The adventure unfolds in an unfamiliar setting that in L’Amour’s hands become one its protagonists.
L’Amour’s characters don’t develop, but they don’t need to. L’Amour gives them sufficient depth that readers are carried away on the strength of the story line.
Wanderlust opens in the 1930’s with spinster Audrey Driscoll preparing for her sister’s marriage while wishing she could travel the world as her father did.
It ends during World War II with Audrey married and traveling the world as her father did.
As Steel tells the story, Audrey was 11, her sister 7 when their parents were killed and the girls sent to live with their grandfather, who had strongly disapproved of his son’s foot-loose ways.
With Annabelle married, against her grandfather’s wishes, Audrey goes traveling.
She meets an English couple who introduce her to Charles Parker-Scott, a travel writer whose work she admires.
They fall in love and travel together.
Audrey’s photography skills make her and Charles a good team,
Before too long, Audrey’s commitments to people come into conflict with Charlie’s commitments to his work.
The novel ends happily for its implausible heroine.
Audrey not only gets her man, but becomes a professional photographer without training or experience, and wins plaudits for singlehandedly caring for 17 orphans in a rural Chinese village one entire winter.
And she does it all without breaking a fingernail.
Nothing less than achievement of her fondest dreams is possible for a Danielle Steel heroine.
Hollywood Husbands is a Jackie Collins novel, which means it’s about sex among the rich, powerful, and glamorous.
Here the setting is the entertainment industry.
The Hollywood husbands are two currently married jerks and one divorced jerk-in-rehab.
The two currently married jerks, once-divorced actor Mannon Cable and three-times-divorced film studio head Howard Solomon, haven’t a brain between them.
The only one of the three husbands who seems to have an ounce of sense is Jack Python, host of a top-rated television interview show.
Divorced once, Jack is in a sexual relationship with an Oscar-winning actress who he’d just as soon drop.
When model Jade Johnson, who is supposedly as smart as she is beautiful, comes to Hollywood to pose for a TV commercial, she gets sucked into the cesspool in which the husbands, wives, and their exes swim.
Collins doesn’t try to make any of three husbands interesting.
Instead, Collins focuses on daytime soaps megastar Silver Anderson’s marriage to an ex-bartender. Poor Wes had the misfortune to walk off with a gun and thousands of dollars belonging to the mob.
Hollywood Husbands serves up more than you want to know about people you wouldn’t want to know at all.
James Clavell’s Whirlwindis a good novel, but there’s just too much of it.
Whirlwind is about employees of a British helicopter company operating in Iran in 1979. The Shah has left, and the country has descended into chaos. Pro-Khomeini Iranians are scrambling to grab all they can from the detested atheistic capitalists.
Pilot Scot Gavallan describes the company’s predicament this way:
Our Iran’s gone. Most of the fellows we’ve worked with over the years have fled, are in hiding, dead—or against us if they like it or not.
The S-G employees come up with a plan to get themselves and as many of their aircraft as possible out of Iran before the fleet is nationalized.
Their plan, code-named Whirlwind, will be very dangerous, but staying is also dangerous.
Though Clavell is a fine writer, Whirlwind is simply too much story for one novel. Readers have to keep track of a dozen pilots, their wives or girlfriends, spies for several governments, and a host of minor characters.
Besides that, there are not many novel readers around today who watched the Iranian revolution unfold on NBC Nightly News and acquired the background to appreciate Clavell’s story.
Whirlwind by James Clavell
W. Morrow, 1986. 1147 p.
1986 bestseller #3; my grade: B+
In Red Storm Rising, Tom Clancy imagines a situation in which Cold War Era Russia finds itself an oil shortage for at least a couple years.
The Politboro sees its only option is to seize the oil in the Persian Gulf in such a way that the NATO alliance will be afraid to retaliate.
It devises an invasion of Europe in hopes that the military action will conceal their need for oil.
After setting up that scenario in about 30 pages, Clancy goes for nearly 600 more pages about a month of fighting—particularly the submarine warfare—between the Soviet and NATO Alliance members.
The novel repeatedly cycles through a huge, cast of predominantly male characters whose work is their lives.
They watch screens, listen to beeps, and say things like, “The sonobuoys have our torp but nothing else,” “Dead in the water,” and “Roger that.”
In the novel’s final post-war scene, the American General asks the Russian General, “Why didn’t you tell us you needed oil? … We would have demanded and gotten concessions of some kind—but don’t you think we would have tried to prevent all this?”
Similarly, Red Star Risingisn’t worth the effort expended by author and readers.