The Satanic Verses

tiny black dots on cover obscure both type and illustration
Two figures fighting

The uproar that greeted publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses doomed the book to the category of historical oddities.

Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is a complex set of nesting stories. The outer story is about two Indian Muslims who miraculously survive when the jet on which they are returning to London is blown up.

As they fall into the Atlantic, film actor Gibreel Farishta turns into the angel Gabriel while voice actor Saladin Chamcha becomes the devil.

Three of Gibreel’s dreams become sub-stories. The first, based roughly on the founding of Islam, led Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa against anyone associated with the publication of The Satanic Verses. Few non-Muslims would understand the story, let alone see why it enraged Muslims.

The other sub-stories are about aspects of the emigrant/immigrant experience.

Rushie’s prose mixes wise-cracking humor about people “of the tinted persuasion” with poignant narration that draws tears. Here, for example is Saladin’s reflection at his father’s death bed:

To fall in love with one’s father after the long angry decades was a serene and beautiful feeling; a renewing, life-giving thing.

The Satanic Verses isn’t easy reading, but it offers a needed glimpse of what it’s like to be an immigrant.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
Viking. ©1988. 546 p.
1989 bestseller #6 my grade: B+

Jacket illustration shows a detail from 17th century work “Rustam Killing the White Demon” from a Clive Album in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Tiny black dots on the dust jacket obscure the image.

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

One (a Richard Bach novel)

gold mobius strip against blue sky is background art for “One”
The mobius strip is symbolic

One is a novel by Richard Bach, best known for his fable for adults, Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, in which the author proved to the gullible that, with determination and practice, anyone could be anything.

In One, adroitly subtitled “a novel” to keep people from thinking it is nonfiction, Bach fictionalizes his philosophical position that everything is an illusion.

One opens with the real Bach and his real wife, Leslie, flying to the real city of Los Angeles.

On the way to LA, the landscape below disappears. The couple drop into another dimension in which time is timeless and choices are limitless.

The couple take off and land to meet the selves they would be if they had lived in other times and other places and made other choices: They might never have met!

Bach and his wife come across as having the personalities of Popsicle sticks.

Bach’s philosophical discussion is on a par with his characterization skills. It doesn’t take an Einstein to know that living in a different century in a different place you’d have different choices, or that making different decisions results in different outcomes.

The Bachs divorced in 1997, which just goes to show the value of having alternative realities.

One: a novel by Richard Bach
Silver arrow books series
W. Morrow. ©1988. 1st.ed. 284 p.
1988 bestseller #9; my grade: C-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Illusions, like Richard Bach’s earlier bestseller, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, is a ’60s-ish, love beads, and tie-dyed little novel, but without bird photos.

Cover gives illusion of looking into the depths of the universe.
Illusions is not as dark as the jacket suggests.

Illusions opens with 14 pages that look like hand lettered text on ruled paper covered with greasy fingerprints. Those pages tell what happened to Donald Shimoda before Illusions‘ narrator, Richard , met him.

Richard is a pilot who flies an over American’s heartland, landing to pick up locals willing to part with $3 for a 10-minute ride in his old Fleet biplane.

One day in Illinois, he sees a plane on the ground below and, feeling lonely, he lands beside it.

Before nightfall, Richard and Donald, the Messiah Mechanic, are friends. Richard picks up Donald’s “Messiah Handbook” and without realizing it, he becomes a messiah-in-training.

In a few weeks, he’ll be a full-fledged messiah.

Illusions is a “spiritual” novel whose theology posits that all things are possible if you have as much as a mustard seed’s worth of imagination.

It’s not much of a theology, but it’s better than Jonathan Livingston Seagull could come up with.

The best part of Bach’s novel is the quote featured on the dust jacket:

Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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

The Real Adventure harmonizes big ideas, great story

Rose Stanton’s mother, a women’s rights advocate, made a little money writing, but her daughter Portia was the real breadwinner, sacrificing to put her two brothers and Rose through college.

Unwittingly, Mrs. Stanton left Rose unsuited for any job but socialite wife, which is what Rose becomes shortly after meeting millionaire lawyer Rodney Aldrich on a tram.

Rose holds tight to Rodney's arm during their whirlwind courtship.
The lovers, Rose and Roddy

The Real Adventure by Henry Kitchell Webster

R. M. Crosby, Illus.  Bobbs-Merrill, 1916.  1916 bestseller #6.
Project Gutenberg eBook #15384. My grade: A.


The third week of their honeymoon, Rose panics when Rodney, pausing in reading a German textbook, tells her, “The insanity has worn off.”

How can she hold him apart from sexual attraction?

She wants to be someone he can respect for her work, as he respects his male friends.

What Rose does to earn Roddy’s friendship—and how it affects everyone around her—is the heart of the novel.

Henry Kitchell Webster not only has a yarn to spin through a host of crisply drawn characters, but he also has a subject to explore.

Webster wrote The Real Adventure as a serial, which would be the best way in which to read it:  The single-volume format makes it far too tempting to skip ahead to see what happens.

You’ll lose the book’s enduring value if you skip over the passages in which Webster probes the question of what makes a marriage good for both husband and wife.

©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

The Thinking Reed not worth a second thought

Rebecca West took her 1936 novel title from Pascal’s Pensées in which he says man is only a feeble reed, but a thinking reed, ennobled by knowing that he will die.

West’s Isabelle certainly knows she will die; that fact is quite possibly the only thing she does know.


The Thinking Reed by Rebecca West

© 1936, 1964. Compass Books ed., 1961. Paper, 431 pp. 1936 bestseller #8. My grade C-.


cover of 1961 paperback edition of Rebecca West's The Thinking Reed shows cherubic statue holding flowersIsabelle is a beautiful, rich, young widow, on the loose in Paris between the wars.

Isabelle prides herself on her thinking—she spends some time every day thinking—and on her rejection of impulse.

Isabelle decides to drop a lover who brings out her impulsive side and marry a thinker, but the cerebral guy she’d like to marry thinks she’s too emotional.

Isabelle rebounds and marries industrialist Marc Sallafranque the next week.

Marc is good in bed and good at making money, so Isabelle tolerates his deficiencies in the thinking department.

Eventually her toleration turns to love, and the book ends.

Isabelle’s thought processes are every bit as ridiculous as those of George Brush in Thornton Wilder’s Heaven’s My Destination, but West takes her ridiculous character seriously.

As one reviewer quoted on the back cover says, The Thinking Reed is “among the best novels in the short memory of modern man.”

The shorter your memory, the better this novel is.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The inevitable doesn’t happen in Sparkenbroke

Charles Morgan’s Sparkenbroke is about art and the artist’s relationship to the world.

The plot is only of marginal interest.


Sparkenbroke by Charles Morgan

MacMillan, 1936. 553 p. 1936 bestseller #3. My grade: B.


The novel is set in an English country town at the edge of the Sparkenbroke estate. Lord Sparkenbroke, a renowned poet and novelist, flits back from Italy occasionally, spending most of his time writing in a cottage on the estate.

Sparkenbroke’s wealthy wife runs the estate which she is restoring to profitability for their children to inherit.

Mary Leward comes to Chelmouth to visit her former teacher, Helen Hardy.

When Mary’s father practically disowns her for breaking her engagement to a wealthy man, Helen’s brother, George Hardy, steps in with a proposal of marriage.

Mary meets Lord Sparkenbroke, whom she knows through his poetry.

Mary thinks she can be Sparkenbroke’s muse and George’s wife, too.

Morgan explores Sparkenbroke’s vision of death as the ultimate transcendent experience. All most readers will see, however, is a picture of a working writer.

The seemingly inevitable affair is never consummated.

All the characters love, or at least are fond of, the others.

And Sparkenbroke’s one true love his is writing.

In the end, the solid, reliable George appears as the book’s hero.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Last Puritan: A dutiful attempt at a novel

The Last Puritan: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel—the only novel written by philosopher George Santayana*—is a better novel than you’d expect a philosopher to write.

Unfortunately, there’s too much of it.


The Last Puritan by George Santayana

Charles Scribner’s, 1936. 602 p. 1936 bestseller #2 My grade: B-.


The last puritan is Oliver Alden, son and heir of a wealthy New England couple who should never have married.

Oliver’s father abandons Oliver to be brought up by his mother.

Oliver’s mother abandons him to be brought up by a governess.

At 17, Oliver joins his father for a cruise.

Oliver is bewildered by his father’s unconventional ideas and appalled by his drug use. Oliver is, however, is drawn to Jim Darnley, the yacht’s skipper, despite Jim’s womanizing and gambling.

Oliver does his duty, whether that’s being civil to mother, studying philosophy, playing football for his school, or proposing to Jim’s impoverished sister.

People who enjoy life, like his European cousin Mario, are incomprehensible to Oliver.

When America enters the war, Oliver does his duty and enlists.

He’s killed in a road accident after the armistice.

Santayana rattles on about the opposing philosophies with which Oliver struggles.

Underneath the torrent of words, there’s a sad story about a pathetic little kid who got big without getting hugged or growing up.

*Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

In Garden of Allah weak, lapsed Catholics revive

The Garden of Allah begins with the arrival in North Africa of  an  Englishwoman headed to Beni-Mora.

Robert Hichens makes the vast, unpopulated Sahara a vivid backdrop flooded with colors and  vibrating with tom-toms, cymbals, castanets, and the howls of dogs for a story as unexpected as the scene.


The Garden of Allah by Robert Hichens

Grosset & Dunlap, 1904. 1905 bestseller #3. Project Gutenberg ebook #3637   My grade: A.


Domini Enfilden’s father, an English Lord, has recently died leaving her at 32 single, wealthy, and spiritually shaken by the collapse of her parents’ marriage and their Catholicism.

Domini hopes to find herself in the solitude of the desert, the vast empty space the Arabs call “The Garden of Allah.”

What she finds immediately is an annoying man said to be English, who is barely civil, and seems repelled by religion of every sort.

Aside from Count Anteoni, an Italian who is Arab in all but his failure to adopt Islam, the pair are the only Europeans in Beni-Mora.

The story is riveting.

Domini’s thoughts and mental corrections, her mood swings, her snobbery and charity all are perfectly believable.

Robert Hichens fascinates readers as he does Domini with the mysterious behavior of the man whose name they eventually learn is Boris Androvsky.

Then Hichens pulls readers into biggest mystery of all: the mystery of God’s love and forgiveness.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni