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photo of boxing gloves

 

The American setting of The Definite Object allows Jeffery Farnol to diversity his usual cast of minor characters with immigrants, gangsters, slumlords, and professional pugilists.

The variety adds complexity to the novel without noticeably changing Farnol’s usual story line.


The Definite Object: A Romance of New York by Jeffery Farnol
1917 bestseller #9. Project Gutenberg eBook #16074. My grade: C+.

Half-English Geoffrey Ravenslee is “so rich that [his] friends are all acquaintances.”

He wants a wife who wants him more than his money.

When Geoff catches Spike Chesterton breaking into his mansion, he decides not to prosecute if Spike will take him to Hell’s Kitchen to meet his sister, Hermione.

Geoff gets a room in the same tenement as the Chestertons and proceeds to charm everyone except gangster Bud M’Ginnis.

Spike hangs around M’Ginnis hoping to break into fighting. He’s sure he could make a fortune to give Hermione the country home she wants.

Geoff’s courtly behavior wins over women.

Men, except M’Ginnis, are more impressed with his boxing behavior.

As English characters are thrown in with American characters, neither comes off as believable. The large cast allows ample time for the absurdities of the characterizations to punish the never-strong plot.

Farnol gets in some of his delightful wry observations, but they aren’t enough to raise this novel beyond the level of mediocrity.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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In 1935, Europe was preparing for war against the Jews and Socialists and anybody else who didn’t care to knuckle under to the likes of Hitler and Mussolini.

Watching Europe fall into the clutches of dictators, Sinclair Lewis pondered how a dictator could come to power in America.

Novel title  "It Can't Happen Here" superimposed on photo of German army officers listening to Adolph Hitler.


It Can’t Happen Here: A Novel by Sinclair Lewis

Sun Dial Press, 1935. 458 p. 1936 bestseller #6 My Grade: B+.


It Can’t Happen Here opens as the Rotary Club in Fort Beulah, Vermont, makes patriotic speeches.

In the audience, newspaper editor Doremus Jessup views both the flag-waving and the potential for dictatorship with skepticism.

Before long, however, America elects Berzilius Windrip president and what couldn’t happen begins to happen.

First the “Minute Men” become Windrip’s private army.

Then civil rights are suspended to fight unspecified threats to national security.

Dissidents lose their jobs, go into concentration camps, are killed.

Jessup is drawn into the opposition.

The personalities are credible, the places recognizable, the situations horrifying.

The nightmarishness of the story is oddly intensified by the flatness of Lewis’s presentation: It’s as if none of the characters dares feel deeply.

Doremus doesn’t turn into a hero.

No one does.

That’s what’s terrifying about this once more timely novel.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The House of Mirth is a Jane Austen plot set in 1900’s New York City in which everything goes wrong.

Like Miss Eliza Bennett, Lily Bart must marry money soon.


The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905, 1951. 329 pp. My grade: A.


Beautiful and witty, Lily is already 29, living on the charity of an aunt who dislikes her, and racking up debts for her bridge losses.

Lily’s choice would be bachelor lawyer Lawrence Seldon, but they both know he hasn’t enough money to satisfy her.
Lily examines a crowd of potential husbands from beneath her parasol.

Lily hooks one of the city’s most eligible bachelors, but when it’s time to reel him in, she can’t bear the thought of living with him.

She vamps a friend’s husband into investing money for her—his money, not hers—and when he wants payment of her gambling debts in services, she bolts.

Bertha Dorset invites Lily on their yacht, then dumps her in Europe, giving friends the impression Lily had been having an affair with her husband.

Within two years, Lily is dead in a rooming house.

Edith Wharton’s characters are more complex and self-aware than Austen’s, but without their practicality and willingness to make do.

New York is as rigid a society as Austen’s England, only far more savage.

Instead of social snubs, Wharton’s characters administer body blows.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Mr. Twist talks to the twins, "Christopher and Columbus"

Countess Elizabeth Von Arnim makes Christopher and Columbus a joyous romp as twin orphans and their staunch friend who “would have been very handsome indeed if he hadn’t had a face” put their wits together to figure out how to survive in America’s 1916 anti-German hysteria.

Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas Twinkler, “very German outside and very English inside,” bravely call themselves Christopher and Columbus because they’re going to discover America.

The twin’s shipboard friend Edward Twist  is “a born mother. The more trouble he was given the more attached he became.”

The 17-year-olds, happily rolling their r’s , give Mr. Twist a great deal of trouble indeed.

The first “family friend” to whom the girls are sent has just left her home and her husband.

Edward and his sister would give the girls a home, but their dragon of a mother spits fire at having the twins under her roof.

The twins take matters into their own hands, entrain for California, and find another closed door.

Edward goes to their rescue.

What a country, Mr. Twist had thought, fresh from his work in France, fresh from where people were profoundly occupied with the great business of surviving at all. Here he came back from a place where civilization toppled, where deadly misery, deadly bravery, heroism that couldn’t be uttered, staggered month after month among ruins, and found America untouched, comfortable, fat, still with time to worry over the suspected amorousness of the rich, still putting people into uniforms in order to buttonhole a man on landing and cross-question him as to his private purities.

Von Arnim crafts a tangled plot, peoples it with believable characters, and lards the pages with witty descriptions such as, “She was a lady whose figure seemed to be all meals.”

Don’t leave this 1919 charmer undiscovered.

Christopher and Columbus
by Countess Elizabeth Von Arnim
1919 bestseller #9
Project Gutenberg ebook #14646
My grade: B

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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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

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In Maid in Waiting John Galsworthy takes up the post-war fortunes and misfortunes of Dinny Charwell, a young woman with sense, humor, loyalty, breeding, and a big, extended family.

Although he is a marvelous writer, John Galsworthy isn’t an easy read. His characters talk about politics, religion, art, culture — everything except their personal miseries. There’s nothing of  21st century exhibitionism about these people, but they are delightfully real.

Dinny’s brother is facing extradition to Bolivia on murder charges in connection with an expedition mounted by an American, Hallorsen, who blamed Hubert for the trip’s failure.

Dinny pushes Hubert’s case with politicians, makes a match for Hubert with the rector’s daughter, and finds herself pursued by both the rector’s son and Hallorsen.

Meanwhile, the mentally ill husband of the woman Dinny’s Uncle Adrian loves has come home. Dinny stays with Diana until her husband flees the house to end his life at the bottom of a mining pit.

The British  Home Office gets Hubert off, and Adrian goes abroad to give Diana a year to recover.

That leaves Dinny still waiting for love to come to her.

Readers of the ’30s wrote Galsworthy to let Dinny marry somebody nice.

You’ll feel that way, too.

Maid in Waiting
By John Galsworthy,
Charles Scribner’s, 1931
My grade: A
 
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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James A. Michener was a World War II aviator.  In 1949, convinced that America’s future was linked with Asia’s, he decided to return to the South Pacific  “to write a kind of book that . . . had never been tried before.”

The result is Return to Paradise, a collection of essays about the island nations of the South Pacific interspersed with short stories set in those countries.

Today it’s obvious why this kind of book hadn’t been tried before:  it just does not work.

Michener could make a bus schedule interesting. His essays mix tidbits of trivia with a broad historical perspective. But much of his commentary needs footnotes today: Was $2200 a year big money in 1948 or chicken feed?

The short stories, however, are timeless. Beautifully written, they plunge deep into human relationships.

“Until They Sail,” explores what happens to women when all the able-bodied mean are gone to war.  Another stunner is “The Jungle,”  which explores what American women want from their men through the unlikely lens of a vacation to Guadalcanal aboard a tramp steamer.

A historian might make a great book today from juxtaposing Michener’s essays with contemporary views of the same islands. Until such a historian comes along, stick to reading Michener’s short stories: they don’t date.

Return to Paradise
by James A. Michener
Random House, 1951
437 pages
My grade C—
1951 bestseller #8

© Linda Gorton Aragoni

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