Selfishness Bred by The Sheltered Life

In The Sheltered Life, Ellen Glasgow tells a story about a girl who grows up in the early 1900s “without coming in touch with the world.”

When Jenny Blair Archbald scrapes her knees roller skating, Eva Birdsong’s laundress, Memoria, patches her up. George Birdsong, Eva’s handsome husband, swears he won’t tell Jenny’s mother she was in the colored section of town if she won’t say he was at Memoria’s house.

As she grows into her teens, Jenny has no interest in boys her own age. She adores Eva Birdsong while fantasizing about Eva’s husband.

Victorian style American home
What lies behind Victorian facade?

Eva knows all about George’s weakness for women, but insists he loves her. He does care enough to try to protect her from being confronted by evidence of her affairs.

Weakened by the emotional stress of keeping up appearances, Eva is despondent after “female surgery.” George takes her away to recuperate.

Jenny is young and pretty, but she’s not innocent, only naive. Her sheltered life has kept her from knowing the destructiveness of selfishness.

When the Birdsongs return, Jenny throws herself in George’s way. The results are disastrous.

In the final chapter, Jenny sees her motives stripped bare, while her family clings to the deception that she’s young and innocent.

The Sheltered Life
Ellen Glasgow
Doubleday, Doran, 1932
395 pages
1932 Bestseller #5
My Grade: B+
 

Photo credit: “Victorian home”  uploaded by andrewatla

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Keys of the Kingdom top seller second year in row

A. J. Cronin’s novel The Keys of The Kingdom headed the bestseller list in 1941. It was still on the list in 1942, although it had dropped to tenth place.

The novel remains good entertainment today. It is an intriguing character study of someone who finds that fitting is definitely overrated.  Keys’ lead character, Francis Chisholm, the missionary priest to China’s “rice Christians,”  could probably have answered “yes” to each of Leonard Felder’s 15 self-analysis questions to determine if one is an “insightful outsider.”

A full review of the novel is included with the 1941 bestsellers.

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Cold War thriller packs contemporary message

Nuclear Warning
Nuclear Warning

During a military exercise, American bombers armed with nuclear weapons streak off past the fail-safe point, headed for Moscow.

Watching blips on the air command’s radar screen blink are a congressman and a manufacturer whose equipment went into the complex system intended to make the nuclear deployment program accident-proof. All hope fervently that the radar reports are wrong.

Russians watching their radar screens are also convinced the problem is in the display: nothing has prepared them for an attack or an American accident.

The President calls Krushchev.

To prevent an unprovoked attack on Moscow, the President first tries to shoot down the US planes. When that does not work, he seizes the only option available to avert World War III.

With that material to work from and their taut prose, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler could not help turning out a thriller.

Fail-Safe, however, is not just a few hours’ entertainment. It’s a reminder that in any complex, untested system, the occurrence of several statistically improbable errors can bring the whole system crashing down. Perhaps if that lesson had been learned from this novel, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico might not have come as such as shock to the American public.

Fail-Safe
Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler
McGraw-Hill, 1962
284 pages
1962 Bestseller #6
My grade: B+
Illustration Nuclear Warning 2 by Flaivoloka
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Thriller built on race relations and foreign policy

Gov. George Wallace attempts to block black students from entering University of Alabama
Wallace at University of Alabama

Allen Drury followed up his blockbuster novel Advise and Consent with A Shade of Difference, which builds on events and characters from that novel.

In the mid-twentieth century, “Terrible Terry,”a Western-educated leader of a British possession, is seeking UN help in getting immediate independent status for his African country.  Terry has the support of the Communist countries as well as the non-aligned and anti-American nations. More important, Terry has the support of the liberal segment of Americans always ready to denounce their nation.

When Terry dramatically escorts a black girl to integrate a white Southern school, he unleashes a violent clash of races and political opponents.

An experienced political reporter, Drury writes with an insider’s knowledge and a propagandist’s aim.

However, he’s also a capable story teller, who never forgets that readers come for the story. His omniscient character descriptions are borne out by the words and actions of those characters.

The most startling aspect of A Shade of Difference is how contemporary the story feels. Representative Cullee Hamilton, caught in the conflict between the races and his own political ambitions is a fictional sixties Barack Obama.

Whatever your political leanings, you will find intrigue and entertainment in the pages of this political thriller.

A Shade of Difference
Allen Drury
Doubleday, 1962
603 pages
1962 bestseller #3
My grade:B+
 
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

This Above All is a patriotic potboiler

In This Above All, Eric Knight explores the meaning of patriotism through the experiences of the English between the Dunkirk evacuations and the London blitz.

Private Clive Briggs is on leave when he meets Prudence Cathaway. They have a roll in the hay, then spend a week together at sea coast hotel.

Clive has had his fill of war. He has no intention of going back. He spends most of the book telling Prue about how the war treats poor slum kids like him as disposable units. Prue counters with platitudes drawn from her experience growing up as the daughter of a well-to-do brain surgeon.

Some of Knight’s verbal snap shots of the war in France and Clive’s youthful work experiences are superb. On the whole, however, This Above All is disjointed and disappointing.

Knight resists the temptation to produce a happy ending, but grabs nearly every other lure for the unwary novelist. He holds Prue and Clive up like marionettes and fills their mouths with speeches. Periodically, he abandons them entirely and pops in on Prue’s relatives who have nothing to do with the main plot.

In the end, the novel is as platitudinous the speech from which the title is taken.

This Above All
By Eric Knight
Grosset & Dunlap, 1941
473 pages
1941 #3
My grade: C-
 
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mrs. Minever offers “The imponderable tribute of grief”

Here is Mrs. Miniver musing about the atrocities against the Jews as World War II rages across the channel:

However long the horror continued, once must not get to the stage of refusing to think about it. To shrink from direct pain was bad enough, but to shrink from vicarious pain was the ultimate cowardice. And whereas to conceal direct pain was a virtue, to conceal vicarious pain was a sin. Only by feeling it to the utmost, and by expressing it, could the rest of the world help to heal the injury which had caused it. Money, food, clothing, shelter—people could give all these and still it would not be enough: it would not absolve them from the duty of paying in full, also, the imponderable tribute of grief.

Mrs. Miniver Finds Something Good Every Day

Of all my favorite novels, Mrs. Miniver is undoubtedly the worst.

The characters are pleasant, but not memorable.

It doesn’t have a plot; Jan Struther’s chapters were originally printed as short stories in The Times of London, and they remain short stories.

The writing is good, but not brilliant.

Despite all those flaws, I usually spend New Year’s Day reading Mrs. Miniver.

The Minivers are an intelligent, cultured, fundamentally decent couple. As a second world war becomes inevitable, the household gets gas masks, the children are evacuated to safer schools, Clem joins the anti-aircraft corps, his wife signs on as an ambulance driver.

In a topsy-turvy world, the Miniver household is emotionally stable and comfortable. The Minivers don’t dwell on worst-case scenarios. They concentrate on looking for something good today to be thankful for. Even the youngest, Toby, lugging his Teddy bear as he goes to be fitted for his gas mask, finds something to chuckle about.

Without preaching, Mrs. Miniver reminds us of the debt each person owes to the world, and shows that the most ordinary human interaction can be an extraordinary blessing if we allow it to be.

Mrs. Miniver
By Jan Struther
Harcourt, Brace 1940
288 pages
My grade: B-

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

WWI’s Horror In Details of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was acclaimed the greatest novel of the great war when it appeared in 1918.

Few today would rate it so highly.

Vicente Blasco Ibanez relies heavily on exposition, paints all French as noble and all Germans as monsters, and shifts focus unnecessarily. But despite its flaws, The Four Horsemen is still worth reading.

To escape military service, Marcelo Desnoyers flees to Argentina, where he and a German marry a rancher’s daughters.

Both ex-patriots become rich and return home. The German’s son goes into the military. The Frenchman’s son becomes a painter and philanderer. After Julio seduces a friend of his father, the elder Desnoyers refuses to see him again.

To fill the void in his life, Desnoyers begins collecting art in his Marne River castle. When World War I begins, Desnoyers is caught in the Battle of the Marne.

Afterward he is old, sad, and vehemently anti-German. Mutual emptiness reunites father and son until war parts them forever.

The novel’s strength lies in tiny details, like a farmer swerving his plow around mounds that indicate buried corpses, and  Desnoyers’ reply when asked in what capacity he served during the Battle of the Marne.

“Merely as a victim,” he replies.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
By Vicente Blasco Ibanez
Trans. Charlotte Brewster Jordan
E.P. Dutton, 1918
Project Gutenberg ebook #1484
489 pages
My grade: B+
©2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Ugly American Is Alive, Well, and Living Abroad

The Ugly American is less a novel than a series of related stories of Americans in Asia during the era of the Korean and Viet Nam conflicts.

William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick contrast the American foreign service staff in Asia with the Russian foreign service, basing their tale on actual people and events.  The novel’s goal isn’t entertainment, but persuasion.

America’s diplomatic core in Asia don’t speak the language, don’t know the customs, stick to themselves, never get outside the cities where their embassies are housed.

Worse, they reject advice from Americans whose language skills and willingness to interact with the locals give them expertise.

The Russians, by contrast, train their foreign service staff thoroughly before deploying them. As a result, the Russians win the hearts and minds of the people.  The Americans are despised.

The great — and horrific — thing  about The Ugly American is that it still feels real today. You have only to see newscasts of President George W. Bush shrugging off  the Iraqi shoe-thrower to see that Americans still have no appreciation of the cultures in which they have troops stationed. And post 9/11,we’ve seen how effective Mao’s embedded insurgents can be.

I hope you will read this novel— and that you won’t like what you read one bit.

The Ugly American
by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick
W. W. Norton, 1958
285 pages
My grade C+
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni