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Archive for the ‘Psychological novel’ Category

In The Chosen, Chaim Potok explored how two brilliant teenage boys struggled to find a way to reconcile their orthodox Jewish faith with their academic interests.

NYC sidewalk scene on cover of The Promise

Cover for Potok’s 1969 bestseller about two young Orthodox Jewish scholars.

The Promise again brings Reuven Malther and Danny Saunders, now both graduate students, together around a problem to which they respond differently.

Reuven meets a famous Jewish scholar who, though unable to believe in the Jew’s God or their theology, believes in Judiasm’s ethics and culture.

Prof. Gordon’s son has mental problems.

Through Reuven, the Gordons learn of Danny, who is doing brilliant work in psychotherapy. They agree to letting Danny isolate Michael until he opens up to Danny.

The very idea appalls Reuven.

He has his own problems.

The man who will determine whether he passes the smicha exam and becomes a rabbi is an ultra-Orthodox Jew who has violently attacked Reuven’s father for heretical views.

Potok weaves these and many more threads together into a exploration of friendship, father-son relationships, faith and orthodoxy, and the potentially lethal consequences of the zeal of the persecuted becoming a club by which they can persecute others.

The Promise is as good on second—or seventh—reading as on the first.

The Promise by Chaim Potok
Alfred A. Knopf, 1969. 368 pp. 1969 bestseller #8. My grade A.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

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cover of Godfather shows puppeteer

Manipulating people is what The Godfather does.

As one of the 32 people in America who hadn’t seen the film version of The Godfather, I was pleasantly surprised that the novel is not just another gory Mafia story.

Mario Puzo’s story is solid: It’s packed with more characters than a casting call, each of them interesting variations on familiar gangster-film types. The characters and fast-paced plot never let attention drag.

The Godfather is Don Vito Corleone, a well-to-do olive oil importer hoping one of his sons will take over the family business, which is a front for a gambling and extortion empire in New York City.

His eldest, Sonny, is keen on taking over, but too impulsive for the job; second son, Fredo, lacks leadership.

Michael, the youngest son, defied his father by entering the Marine Corps, became a hero, left the military for Dartmouth College, where he met an all-American WASP, whom he wishes to marry.

The outside story is about how Mike becomes head of the business and steps into his father’s role as Don.

The underlying story is about the culture people carry with them, a mindset and values that are resistant to geography and time.

The novel is worth rereading in 2017 for that underlying story alone.

The Godfather by Mario Puzo
G. P. Putnam, 1969. 448 p. 1969 bestseller #2. My grade: A.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

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all-text cover of Portnoy's Complaint

Complaint in plain wrapper.

Alexander Portnoy, Assistant Human Opportunity Commissioner for New York City, is a psychological mess, and it’s all his parent’s fault.

At least that’s what he tells his psychiatrist, Dr. Spielvogel, in Philip Roth’s aptly named Portnoy’s Complaint.

Alex suffers from stereotypes.

He’s the brilliant and personable only son of a New Jersey Jewish couple. Alex’s eighth-grade educated father slaves for a Protestant insurance company, selling life insurance in the black slums. His mother cooks, cleans, kvetches.

Alex grew up being alternately praised to the hilt and told he was a disgrace to his family.

At 33 he’s still unmarried. His professional life is devoted to doing good for others.

His nonprofessional life is devoted to activities discussed primarily in four-letter words.

Alex’s monologue mixes exaggeration with self-deprecation. His occasional flashes of insight are masked with jokes.

He tells his shrink, “I hear myself indulging in the kind of ritualized bellyaching that is just what gives psychoanalytic patients such a bad name with the general public.”

Roth’s novel is genuinely funny, but as he lets Alex makes readers laugh, he makes them see how emotionally frail Alex is.

Roth’s technical skill and his humanity — plus the final punch line — combine to produce a hopeful portrait of a damaged man.

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
Random House, 1969. 274 p. 1969 bestseller #1 My grade: A

 

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

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island is central image on dust jacket of "Testimony of Two Men"

Islands can be emotional as well as physical.

Taylor Caldwell begins Testimony of Two Men where more usual novels would have ended: Dr. Jonathan Ferrier has been acquitted of the murder-by-botched-abortion of his young wife, Mavis.

Unable to live among people who doubted his innocence, Jon has sold his practice to young Robert Morgan, who, of candidates Jon interviewed, seemed least likely to do harm.

Robert feels something akin to awe of Jon, for his culture as much as for his brilliant medical skill.

Jon finds Robert’s conventional, mamma’s boy behavior amusing.

Jon’s brother, Harald, made a marriage of convenience to a rich widow. She’s dead; Harald is living on an island with her nubile daughter, whom he wishes to marry.

When Robert sees Jenny, he’d like to marry her, too.

Jon thinks Jenny is a whore and Harald one of her sex partners.

Taylor Caldwell makes the novel part mystery, part romance, but always keeps her focus on the psychological development of her characters.

Jon’s insulting manner with people he thinks cruel, incompetent, or corrupt make him his own worst enemy.

Fortunately, he has some good friends who come to his rescue.

Caldwell wraps up the novel with enough of Jon’s hostility showing to prove she’s a good novelist.


Testimony of Two Men by Taylor Caldwell
Doubleday, 1968, Book Club Edition, 600 pp. My grade: A-.

© 2107 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The Eighth Day begins with murder of Breckenridge Lansing in his yard as he and his friend John Ashley are engaged in their customary Sunday afternoon rifle practice.

Tried and convicted for the murder, Ashley was rescued from execution by six silent, disguised men and never heard from again.


The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder
Harper & Row, 1967. 435 p. 1967 bestseller #6. My grade: B+.

Having hooked his readers, Thornton Wilder plays them for another 400 pages, now letting them drift backward on the story line, them abruptly jerking them forward into the Great War era.

Set out in linear fashion, the plot would be fairly simple. Wilder’s literary style makes it complicated—which appears to be his point: The world’s bid and wide and our perspective is narrow.

Wilder dips deep into the histories of the Lansings and Ashleys, seeking family traits that the 1902 characters might have inherited that could explain their behaviors.

The time shifts nearly hide the absurdities in the plot.

Wilder’s characters are clearly drawn, entirely believable bundles of heroism and absurdities.

Despite that, whatever is distinctive about the characters is crushed beneath Wilder’s self-conscious style.

quote : compares way some people naturally idealize to silk moth's secretion

He produces bon mots as continuously as a Bombyx mori secretes silk.

quote: idealism of youth compared to silk moth's silk secretion

Two comparisons to a Bombyx mori secreting silk within 16 pages is one mot too many.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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collage of photos of Hasidic Jews, a baseball glove, broken glasses.

The Chosen begins with Hasidic Jews, baseball, and broken glasses.

Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen opens with a baseball game between two Jewish parochial schools.

The Hasidic school’s best player is Danny Saunders. Reuven Malter leads the orthodox school’s team, which the Hasidim consider as bad as Christians.


The Chosen by Chaim Potok
© 1967. Book Club Edition, 284 pp. 1967 bestseller #3. My grade: A.

Danny slams back one of Reuven’s pitches, sending shards of his glasses into his eye.

Later Danny comes to the hospital to apologize.

Reuven is smart, Danny, with his photographic memory, is brilliant. A friendship springs up between the boys who have no intellectual peers in their schools.

Through the boys’ friendship, Potok takes readers deep into the orthodox scene.

Reuven is very close to his scholarly father. He finds Rabbi Saunders’s refusal to speak to Danny on any topic other than the Talmud appalling.

Danny is hurt by the silent treatment, but loves and respects his father.

As the boys begin college, the question arises: What will happen if they want different careers than their fathers have chosen for them?

In Potok’s deceptively straightforward narrative, it’s easy to miss details that reveal motives deeply rooted in the two faith communities. Some readers will need to read the novel twice to grasp the faith context.

Others may read The Chosen twice because it’s worth reading more than once.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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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

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