Sophie’s Choice is a great choice for readers

William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice has all-text front cover.
No picture could suggest the subtlety of this novel.

William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice is a novel in the guise of personal remembrances told by a writer. Styron draws heavily on contemporary documents to ground his characters’ stories and on details to make readers feel they are hearing a true, first-person account.

Fired after five months at McGraw-Hill, Stingo, a 22-year-old, Duke-educated, Virginia boy settles into a cheap Brooklyn rooming house to devote himself to writing a novel that will out-do Thomas Wolfe.

Stingo’s upstairs neighbors are an unwed couple maintaining separate rooms to comply with 1947 standards of decency.

Sophie is a sexy, blonde, Polish Catholic marked with a number from Auschwitz; Nathan is a brilliant and charismatic Jewish biologist working for Pfizer.

Although Stingo lusts after Sophie, both she and Nathan accept him simply as a friend.

It’s not long before Stingo realizes there’s sinister about Sophie’s obsequious devotion to Nathan despite his verbal and physical abuse of her.

Stingo becomes Sophie’s confidant, hearing about her childhood, prewar life, and what happened to Poles in Auschwitz.

Stingo is far more perceptive about the characters in novels he reads than he is about people in real life. He has to be told what’s wrong with Nathan.

Stryon seems incapable of drawing a flat character or of leaving a detail hanging lose.

Sophie’s Choice is a gem.

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
Random House, © 1979. 515 p.
1979 bestseller #2 My grade: A

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Fixer refuses to let hatred break him

Some novels are hard to read because they are badly written; a few are hard to read because they are very well written.

The Fixer is one of those few.


The Fixer: a novel by Bernard Malamud

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966. 335 pp. 1966 bestseller #6. My grade: A.


The front dust jacket looks like cell door; the title and author information are placed so they appear to be behind bars.Yakov Bok, a handyman recently come to Kiev, sees people running in the early morning and thinks “something bad has happened.”

Bok is one of those people who seem to be natural victims. He never causes trouble: It finds him.

A Russian boy, 12, has been found murdered.

Tzarist Russia, viciously anti-Semitic, sees not a murder but a Jewish ritual slaying to provide blood to use in making Passover matzos.

Though Bok is only “a Jew by birth and nationality,” he finds himself arrested and charged with a murder he didn’t commit.

Bernard Malamud puts readers into Bok’s mind as his misery pushes him to the edge of insanity.

For nearly his entire two-and-a-half-year pre-trial imprisonment, Bok is kept in solitary confinement, denied reading material or exercise, watched by a silent “eye in the hole” of his cell door.

Bok’s refusal to confess embarrasses the government.

It also makes Bok a public figure.

Readers never learn what happens to the fixer when he finally goes to trial, but they will never forget having met him.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Earth and High Heaven takes anti-Semitism personally

Several bestselling novels of the 1940s explore the issue of anti-Jewish prejudice among people who fought the Nazis, but none do it better than Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven.

Marc Reiser, a Jewish lawyer, meets Erica Drake “one of the Westmont Drakes,” at a cocktail party at her Montreal home in June, 1942. Marc had come with Erica’s brother-in-law, René.


 

Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham

Lippincott, 1944. 288 pages. 1945 bestseller # 9. My Grade: A.


Marc and Erica hit if off immediately.

cover of paperback edition of Earth and High HeavenErica attempts to introduce Marc to her father, who snubs both Marc and René.

Later, Erica’s parents explain social relationships with Jews are impossible.

For the first time in her life, Erica refuses to do what her parents expect. She continues to see Marc, though her parents won’t let him in the house.

Marc’s parents are almost as set against the relationship as Erica’s.

Graham shows prejudice is not an isolated problem. It’s hopelessly intertwined with individual personalities and complex family and social relationships.

Graham slows readers down to feel what’s happening. She’s so deft that her omniscient narrator seems to be looking at the world through the characters’ eyes.

Readers will feel the confusion, pride, frustration, and misery of distinctive characters who look and act extraordinarily like themselves.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Auntie Mame is outlandish and outdated

Auntie Mame and her nephewPatrick Dennis  subtitled Auntie Mame “an irreverent escapade.” It’s actually a series of escapades rather than a true novel.

The escapades are loosely tied together by comparing Mame to the stereotypical Reader’s Digest “My Most Unforgettable Character.”


Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade By Patrick Dennis [Edward Everett Tanner III]

This edition: Broadway Books,  2001, Intro. by Paul Rudnick, Afterward by Michael Tanner. 299 pages. 1955 bestseller #2, 1956 bestseller #4. My Grade: C-.


At his father’s death, motherless Patrick Dennis, 10, becomes the ward of his father’s sister, Mame.

Mame and Patrick hit it off immediately: They are approximately the same mental age.

Auntie Mame is a hold-over from the Jazz Age complete with cigarette holder, well-stocked liquor cabinet, and tastes for anything that would shock folks in Des Moines.

Mame has no sense, but her heart is in the right place.

She stands up against anti-Jewish practices and gives a home to six Cockney refugees more terrifying than the Blitz.

Mame might well have been the narrator’s most unforgettable character—she was his relative after all—but she’s someone most folks would rather not remember and certainly wouldn’t wish to admit was related to them.

Auntie Mame might have been as wildly funny in 1955 as the reviewers said, but it’s a sad bit of nonsense now, destined to be landfilled with all those thousands of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books that nobody has been able to give away since 1997.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo: Detail from cover of  Auntie Mame, Broadway Books edition, 2001.

Magnolia Street Throbs with Emotion

1914-1918 engraged on a war cenotaph

Between 1910 and 1930 in England’s North County city of Doomington, Jews live on the odd-numbered side of Magnolia Street and gentiles live on the even-numbered side. Those 24 households hold a microcosm of human nature complicated by clashing cultures.

For the most part, Jews and gentiles don’t even recognize each others’ existence. Few make an attempt to cross the street; even fewer succeed. The threat of war hangs over both sides of the street like August humidity, invisible yet palpable.

With his eye for detail and ear for speech, author Louis Golding makes Magnolia Street pulsate with life, sob with loss, and keen the dead who died for nothing at all.

Magnolia Street has no plot to speak of. The book is a collection of related episodes hung together by a few names and anecdotes. You can lay the book down and pick up again days later without having lost the thread of the plot because Golding is constantly reminding readers who so-and-so is.

Perhaps because of those deficiencies, the novel feels like the visit of a slightly older childhood friend who helps you understand the half-remembered events and conversations that shaped your life. It’s no great novel, but it’s an intense emotional experience.

Magnolia Street
Louis Golding
Five Leaves Publications, 2006
531 pages
1932 bestseller #4
 

Photo credit:  “First World War” An engraving on a war cenotaph uploaded by mistereels http://www.sxc.hu/photo/161464

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Mortal Storm Has Gale-Force Power

In The Moral Storm, Phyllis Bottome rejuvenates the tired brother-against-brother theme by putting it into the setting of Nazi Germany.

The story concerns a young medical student, Freya Roth. With her first year exams over, she begins to notice that her parents aren’t thrilled with her two half-brothers’ infatuation with Hitler. Freya thinks, “What do politics matter?”

Olaf and Emil warn their parents that Freya’s friendship with a Communist peasant lad could have serious consequences since Dr. Roth is Jewish. As a matter of principle, Dr. and Mrs. Roth refuse to close the door to Hans because of his politics.

By the time Freya begins to see how serious the German situation is, her lover has been shot dead by a Nazi patrol lead by her favorite bother, her father is in a concentration camp, and Freya is pregnant.

Freya has to get out of Germany. She also has to decide what to do with her baby and what to do about her 12-year-old brother who is part Jewish.

The novel derives its power from the contrast between the loving concern the Nazi boys show to their Jewish stepfather and the self-absorption of their Jewish half-sister. The family is divided by politics, but united by love.

The Mortal Storm
By Phyllis Bottome
Little, Brown, 1938
357 pages
1938 bestseller # 9
My Grade: B+
© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni