The Last Enchantment

Merlin's harp is focus of front cover of the Mary Stewart novel The Last Enchantment.
Merlin plays his swan song on this harp.

The Last Enchantment is the final book in Mary Stewart’s trilogy about how Arthur became England’s king, subdued the Saxons, and ruled from Camelot.

As in The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, Stewart tells the story from the vantage point of Merlin, the prophet/wizard who is cousin to Arthur and his mentor.

Merlin has lost his youthful stamina and he’s losing his ability to foresee the future.

Having lived either alone or among men all his life, without his prophetic gift Merlin is at the mercy of women.

Arthur has just won the crown. He must fight to keep it and to beget a son to carry on his line.

Arthur also has to worry about his half-sisters, who have dynastic ambitions of their own, and about his bastard son by one of those half-sisters.

For the first 400 pages of the novel, Stewart spins a fascinating yarn.

She seems then to realize she has too much history still to cover, so she sidelines Merlin while she advances the story.

Then brings him back, gives him a “while you were out” message, wraps up the story, and closes the covers.

The result is 80 percent enchantment and 20 percent disappointment.

The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart
Morrow, 1979. 538 p.
1979 bestseller #07 My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Sophie’s Choice is a great choice for readers

William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice has all-text front cover.
No picture could suggest the subtlety of this novel.

William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice is a novel in the guise of personal remembrances told by a writer. Styron draws heavily on contemporary documents to ground his characters’ stories and on details to make readers feel they are hearing a true, first-person account.

Fired after five months at McGraw-Hill, Stingo, a 22-year-old, Duke-educated, Virginia boy settles into a cheap Brooklyn rooming house to devote himself to writing a novel that will out-do Thomas Wolfe.

Stingo’s upstairs neighbors are an unwed couple maintaining separate rooms to comply with 1947 standards of decency.

Sophie is a sexy, blonde, Polish Catholic marked with a number from Auschwitz; Nathan is a brilliant and charismatic Jewish biologist working for Pfizer.

Although Stingo lusts after Sophie, both she and Nathan accept him simply as a friend.

It’s not long before Stingo realizes there’s sinister about Sophie’s obsequious devotion to Nathan despite his verbal and physical abuse of her.

Stingo becomes Sophie’s confidant, hearing about her childhood, prewar life, and what happened to Poles in Auschwitz.

Stingo is far more perceptive about the characters in novels he reads than he is about people in real life. He has to be told what’s wrong with Nathan.

Stryon seems incapable of drawing a flat character or of leaving a detail hanging lose.

Sophie’s Choice is a gem.

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
Random House, © 1979. 515 p.
1979 bestseller #2 My grade: A

©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

Humboldt’s Gift: A look at a life

Humboldt’s Gift is a ramble through the mind of Charlie Citrine, pejoratively described by friends and relatives as “an intellectual.”

Saul Bellow invites readers to tag along as Charlie revisits his past and explores his options for the future if a gift from an old friend allows him to be more than “a formidable mass of credentials.”

All text cover of Humboldt's Gift
Will the rest of Charlie’s life all sunshine like the novel’s cover?

Charlie came east in 1952 to see Literature being made.

In New York, he met Von Humboldt Fleisher, a poet living on the fame of having published a book of highly acclaimed ballads at age 22.

Due in no small part to Humboldt, Charlie became a writer. But unlike Humboldt, Charlie made a fortune doing it.

When the novel opens, Humboldt has just died penniless.

Middle aged now, Charlie has a good life, aside from lawsuits by his ex-wife, trouble with the IRS, an expensive mistress, death threats by a mobster, and an inability to write.

He says he keeps “being overcome by the material, like a miner by gas fumes.”

As death loomed, Humboldt left Charlie a legacy.

Can it put Charlie’s life to rights?

You may wish you knew only half as many of Charlie’s thoughts as Bellow records for readers, but you won’t escape the odd feeling that you’ve known Charlie.

Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
Viking Press, 1975. 487 p.
1975 bestseller #10. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Ragtime: America without nostalgia

Told by an omniscient narrator, Ragtime, E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 bestseller, focuses on a New Rochelle, NY, family who he identifies by their roles, and a handful of characters outside their social group whose paths cross and mingle with theirs.

Ragtime shows a less than star-spangled America.

Father goes off to the Pole with Perry. He returns, physically weakened by the experience.

Mother, who previously had done nothing but run the house, has been running his flags-and-fireworks company competently in his absence.

If that weren’t change enough for one family, Mother finds an abandoned newborn baby in the yard, finds the black woman who abandoned it, and takes both mother and baby into the family’s home.

The baby’s father, black musician Coalhouse Walker, comes to win Sarah back.

Coalhouse introduces the family to ragtime music, which with its syncopation and black associations evokes the unsettled feeling of pre-WWI America.

Coalhouse also introduces the family to New York as blacks experience it.

Doctorow mingles his fictional story with stories of real people, from J. P. Morgan to Henry Houdini.

Doctorow’s omniscient narrator, rather than distancing the characters, seems to lay them right before readers, rather like paintings from which they may see what they will.

Ragtime is short, easy reading, and easily worth re-reading.

Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow
Random House [1975] 1st ed. 270 p.
1975 bestseller #1. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Travels with My Aunt pleasantly diverting

Travels with My Aunt is a novel I’d hate to part with. It’s undemanding, pleasant, and quite forgettable once it’s back on the shelf.

It is, in fact, rather like Henry Pulling the retired bank manager who is the nephew alluded to in the title of Graham Greene’s novel.

All-text cover of Travels with My Aunt
My copy of Travels with My Aunt

Henry’s unvarying routine of tending to his dahlias and telephoning to Chicken for his meals, was agreeably disrupted by his mother’s funeral.

Henry’s Aunt Augusta, whom he’d not seen in over 50 years attended the funeral. She tells Henry bits of family history he’d never known, and hints at more he would prefer not to know.

He quickly finds himself sucked into a world of eccentrics and crooks to whom wouldn’t have given even a secured loan in his banking days.

Being a gentleman and a nephew, Henry feels he ought to accompany his aunt when she travels abroad. Travel scares and exhilarates Henry. It’s certainly more interesting than growing dahlias.

Greene paints vivid pictures of his characters. In his pen, even bland Henry breathes. His gradual release of respectability in favor of adventure is believable.

There’s no great moral here. Just a pleasant reminder that growing old does not need to mean growing bored.

Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene
Viking Press, 1970. The Collected Edition, 319 p.
1970 bestseller #9. My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Confessions of Nat Turner a wrenching reminder

In August, 1831, a few dozen slaves in Southampton, Virginia, revolted, slaughtering whites mercilessly.

The confession of the revolt’s leader, Nathaniel Turner, presented at his trial and subsequently published as a pamphlet, is the factual basis of William Styron’s novel.


The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
Random House, 1966, 1967; 428 p. 1967 bestseller #2. My grade: A.

sketch shows Nat being captured by white man

Nat Turner’s capture.


Nat’s mother was a cook, so Nat became a “house nigger.” The Turner family taught him to read and figure, gave him carpentry training, bought a Bible, and promised he’d be given his freedom at age 25.

By the time Nat was 25, faced with dwindling income from over-worked land, Turner family had sold all their possessions—including Nat—and left Virginia for good.

Nat’s freedom disappeared with Marse Samuel.

Nat’s Bible reading and his ache for companionship with like-minded people, gradually twist into the conviction that God wants him to lead a slave rebellion.

Styron avoids the familiar clichés of slave novels. Characters, both black and white, are victims of conditions they can’t control. The worst physical and mental suffering among blacks and whites occur among those least affluent even at the best of times.

Styron’s tale could easily be moved to Baltimore or St. Louis in 2015.

His novel is a wrenching reminder that how we treat individuals matters more than our opinions about race.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni