Breakfast of Champions: Quirky, possibly brilliant

T-shirt with slogan "Breakfast of Champions"
A Kurt Vonnegut Jr. drawing

Breakfast of Champions has nothing to do with breakfast or champions. It has a lot to do with what it means to be human. More precisely, it has to do with what it means to be Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., a human and a writer.

For his fiftieth birthday Vonnegut decided to clear his head of all the junk that was in it, including setting free the characters in his previous novels.

Discussing his plot with readers and appearing in his own book have been done before but Vonnegut makes them integral to his story. Vonnegut’s drawings have that same sense of belonging.

Writing in the first person, Vonnegut tells only one of his characters of his new freedom: Kilgore Trout, a science-fiction writer whose voluminous writings had been published, with no remuneration to him, wrapped around pornographic photographs.

The other characters from in Breakfast don’t know they have been freed or that they were once characters. That’s because humans other than Kilgore Trout are really just machines.

If this sounds nonsensical, maybe it is. But if it’s nonsense, what accounts for the lack of humanity people exhibit?

Kilgore Trout's final resting place.
Freed from Vonnegut’s books, Kilgore Trout became a popular lecturer on mental health.

I can’t decide if Breakfast is brilliant or just quirky, but I’ll definitely read it again.

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
with drawings by the author
Delaworte Press/Seymour Lawrence, Book Club ed. 304 p.
1973 bestseller #3. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman

John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman is the sort of book that would-be novelists with beer and beards discuss in existential terms.

Drawing of The French Lieutanant's Woman on the cover of the novel.
 The French Lieutenant’s Woman 1st ed dust jacket.

The woman of the title is Sarah Woodruff, a young English woman enamored of and jilted in 1867 by a Frenchman, whose whore locals in Lyme Regis assume her to be.

Charles Smithson, an English gentleman enough funds to indulge his scientific avocation and a finacée who’s the adored only child of a wealth merchant, finds Sarah irresistible.

She’s equally besotted.

After a brutal mating, Charles breaks his engagement and returns to Sarah who he’s recognized as his soulmate.

She’s disappeared.

Fowles interrupts his story periodically to offer commentary on Victorian culture, the history of Dorset’s Lyme Bay, and his own authorial process, even appearing as a character in the story.

When Charles finally finds Sarah, Fowles offers two endings to the story.

One would have been quite enough.

Nothing Fowles reveals about Sarah makes her believable as anything other than the psychological case the local doctor pegs her as. Charles is nothing to write home about either.

If The French Lieutenant’s Woman had been written by anyone other than Fowles it would be called pretentious.

Because Fowles is Fowles, it’s called literary.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
Little, Brown. © 1969. Book Club Edition. 480 p.
1970 bestseller #2. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Couples all look alike with their clothes on

dust jacket of John Updike's 1968 "Couples"
Couples’ jacket art reproduces William Blake watercolor  “Adam and Eve Sleeping”

John Updike’s 1968 bestseller,  Couples,  is about a clique of 10 couples, which is roughly five times as many as any self-respecting novel should have.

The couples live in a small New England village called Tarbox, somewhere within a longish commute of Boston.

The couples are the usual Kennedy presidency era suburbanites in the 1960s novels that pretend to be literature: hard-drinking, social climbing, sexually voracious.

Updike focuses main on local contractor Piet Hanema, who doesn’t let his devotion to his wife, Angela, interfere with his sex life.

When a new couple come to town, Piet takes up with the already pregnant wife, named Elizabeth but called Foxy, while still obliging other wives of the couples in their clique.

After Foxy has her baby, she’s less interested in her husband than before.

Within weeks, she’s pregnant again, this time with Piet’s child.

Other members of their clique arrange an abortion for Foxy, who promptly confesses all to her husband.

Updike writes delightful sentences, such as, “She studied him as if he were an acquisition that looks different in the home from in the store.”

But delightful sentences don’t make a novel, especially one with character-less characters all of whom look alike with their clothes on.


Couples by John Updike
Alfred A. Knopf, 1968. 458 p. My grade: C-.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mr. Britling Sees nuanced view of Great War

In Mr. Britling Sees It Through, H. G. Wells gives an account of World War I from the perspective of an intellectual with an optimistic view of human nature.

The title character, Mr. Britling, is a moderately well-known writer, who pens essays and articles from his study in Essex, England.


Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells

Macmillan, 1916. Project Gutenberg ebook #14060.
1916 bestseller #4. My grade B+.


Close up photo of HG Wells shows bushy eyebrows, tired eyes, and stubby mustache

Up until the German invasion, Britling tells anyone who will listen that the German people don’t want war.

When war is declared, Britling has to confront both the German support for the war and the British lack of preparedness for that war.

Soon he has to face harsher realities.

Britling is turned down for military service.

Members of his household, including his eldest son, enlist.

Britling’s understanding of war morphs from pins on a map into a girl delivering a telegram.

His political opinions change coincidentally.

Wells based Mr. Britling on his own experience. Indeed, the development of Britling’s thought as events unfold in Europe suggests reportage rather than imagination.

The plot, too, seems determined by historical events rather than story requirements.

Instead of fictionalizing, Wells follows the war so readers can have a sharp, nuanced perspective on one of the most significant events of the 20th century.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Private Life of Helen of Troy, trophy wife

Menelaos was understandably upset after Paris violated the sacred laws of hospitality by running off with his wife, Helen.


The Private Life of Helen of Troy

by John Erskine

Bobbs-Merrill, 1925. 304 p. 1926 bestseller #1. My Grade: B.


Menelaos and his pals followed Paris to Troy, hell-bent on revenge. After a 20-year siege, they sacked the city.

Helen was still so beautiful Menelaos couldn’t bear to kill her.

All that happens before John Erskine’s story begins.

In The Private Life of Helen of Troy, Erskine explores what happens when this beautiful and maddeningly frank woman is back under her husband’s roof again.

Daughter Hermione, age 1 when Helen ran off with her lover, wants to marry her double-cousin Orestes.

The parents quarrel over what’s best for their child, forgetting that Hermione is no longer a child.

Meanwhile Orestes mother, who is Helen’s sister, murders his father, who is Menelaos’ brother.

Orestes and his sister murder their mother and her lover to avenge their father.

Hermione marries Orestes, leaving her parents to figure out what their attitude to the newlyweds will be.

All the sex and violence is off stage.

Erskine’s interest is not in what happens but in how people react.

Erskine makes Helen and Menelaos come alive—a remarkable feat since these people don’t do anything but talk about what they did years before.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Eyeless In Gaza is tale of a moral midget

Aldous Huxley wrote extensively in a half dozen genres, making a name as a literary virtuoso.

His 1936 bestseller, Eyeless in Gaza, is a literary novel by a literary man. The book’s chapters are dated; readers have to figure out the sequence of events from the dates.


Eyeless in Gaza by Aldous Huxley

Chatto & Windus, 1936; 620 pp. 1936 bestseller # 10. My Grade: D+.


Samson pushes pillars apart, collapsing building. Engraving by Gustave Dore shows Samson pushib
   Death of Samson by Gustave Dore

The novel’s focus is the emotionally homeless Anthony Beavis.

The boy’s mother dies when Anthony is a lad at boarding school; he has no affection for his eccentric father.

Anthony grows up to become a professional social scientist, a moral midget interested in life as a spectator sport.

Anthony has repeated chances to behave ethically and ignores every one of them.

He has affairs with a woman and her two daughters.

He’s indirectly responsible for the suicide of his best friend.

The story ends with Anthony fearlessly going off to face a hostile audience at a political rally.

The title suggests Huxley intends readers to see Anthony as a second Sampson, ending his life in one redeeming dramatic gesture when he gains spiritual insight.

Nothing in the novel makes that seem plausible.

Huxley doesn’t tell us what happens at the rally, but whatever tomatoes are thrown at Anthony are no less than the rotter deserves.

And the same could be said of Huxley’s novel.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Europa: The Days of Ignorance isn’t a smart pick

Robert Briffault packed Europa with wise and witty sentences. Unfortunately, he neglected to include a plot in the novel.

What story there is concerns Julian Bern, a deep thinker.


Europa: The Days of Ignorance  by Robert Briffault

Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935. 510 pages. 1935 bestseller #10. My grade: C-.


"Europa" cover shows woman riding bullJulian spends a lot of his time thinking deep thoughts about God, beauty, truth, social justice and sex.

Julian has a wide range of acquaintances who do not think as deeply as he, but who have far more extensive knowledge of sex in all its perversions.

In his late teens, Julian acquires a girl friend. Zena’s parents rush her into an arranged marriage with a Russian homosexual lest she be tainted by Julian’s middle class values.

A decade later, Julian and Zena link up again just as Europe plunges into World War I.

Most of the novel consists of party gossip about who is sleeping with whom, but the tittle-tattle lets Briffault get in some good lines. For example, Julian’s aunt complains to her brother,

Julian reads far too much, and I’m afraid it puts ideas into his head.

The theme of the novel appears to be that education prevents people from perceiving ideas.

Perhaps it does.

At any rate, my education prevents me from perceiving any value in this novel.

© 2015 by Linda Gorton Aragoni