The Thorn Birds

As World War I sputters to its end, the Paddy Cleary’s childless older sister offers to turn her sheep station, Drogheda, over to him and his family on her death if he’ll come run it.

The Thorn Birds cover shows house, bare tree, sky, nothing else.
Barren landscape of The Thorn Birds

The Cleary family leaves the green intimacy of New Zealand for brown horizons of the Outback.

Life is hard, but even young Meggie accepts that as normal.

Four of the five Cleary boys love Drogheda; only Frank, the eldest and his mother’s favorite, hates it. He goes off to be a boxer.

The handsome priest who serves the parish is eyed lecherously by Paddy’s sister.

Determined if she can’t have Ralph de Bricassart God won’t either, she writes a new will, leaving Paddy’ s family Drogheda and its income for their lifetime, but giving the bulk of her vast wealth to the Church.

Meggie gets away from Drogheda long enough to marry a man by whom she has one child and to have an affair with Ralph, now attached to the Vatican.

The Thorn Birds is not a pretty story, but Colleen McCullough doesn’t wallow in the dirt.

Her characters make mistakes, takes their lumps, learn their lessons, move on.

And the novel’s worth reading just for McCullough’s Australian landscapes.

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
Harper & Row, 1977. 533 p.
1977 bestseller #2. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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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

The Shoes of the Fisherman has lots of wear left

When Morris L. West published The Shoes of the Fisherman in 1963, the idea of a pope who could be both spiritual leader and international activist created a sensation. Since the book was first published, fiction has become fact.

As the novel opens, a pope has just died. The cardinals choose Kiril Lakota, a Slav who spent 17 years in Siberian prisons and labor camps after World War II. He owes his release to the Communist leader of Russia.

As Pope Kiril settles into his new role, Catholics in Rome go on with their lives. Jewish convert Ruth Lewin is working among pro-communist Sephardic Jews to compensate for having survived the holocaust. Newspaper correspondent George Fisher is waiting for the church to annul his mistress’ marriage to a homosexual government official. Vatican newspaper editor Campeggio is stewing over his son’s relationship with that same official. Eventually all these people’s paths cross that of Pope Kiril. whose elevation to the Triple Tiara hasn’t changed his essential values.

Although The Shoes of the Fisherman may sound more like historical fiction today than it does like invention, it remains a fine novel. The plot moves surely, characters are well-drawn, descriptions are precise and lively, and West’s theme transcends historical boundaries.

If a man is centered upon himself, the smallest risk is too great for him, because both success and failure can destroy him. If he is centered upon God, then no risk is too great, because success is already guaranteed—the successful union of Creator and creature, besides which everything else is meaningless.

The Shoes of the Fisherman
by Morris L. West
William Morrow, 1963
374 pages
1963 bestseller # 1
My grade: B+
 
© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Don’t Bother Taking The Founding Home

Francis Cardinal Spellman has a remarkable memory for plots: He’s woven every one he ever read into The Foundling.

Peter Taggart, a wounded World War I vet, finds a baby in a Catholic cathedral at Christmas.  Paul and his wife want to adopt Peter, but the church won’t allow the baby to go to a Protestant home.

Peter grows up in an orphanage where he learns to farm and play the organ. His music teacher leaves him her unfinished symphony to complete.

When a respected critic calls Peter’s composition “puerile,” Peter is crushed. Fortunately, war is starting in Europe again, which gives Peter something to do.

He comes home blind, but his girl is waiting for him and he’s ready to finish the fourth movement of the symphony.

That synopsis doesn’t do The Foundling justice. The plot is really far more silly  than it sounds.

I suspect the reason The Foundling became a bestseller was that the good cleric gave the book rights to the New York Foundling Hospital, a fact touted on the book jacket and frontpiece.

Charitable folks in 1951 may have bought the book to help poor little orphans. Today, however,  even poor, little orphans couldn’t find any value in The Foundling.

The Foundling
By Francis Cardinal Spellman
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951
304 pages
1951 bestseller # 9
My Grade: C-

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Edge of Sadness cuts through sentiment

In the The Edge of Sadness, Edwin O’Connor explores the murky territory of late middle age through the experience of a Catholic priest.

When he returns East after four years in a facility for alcoholic priests,  Father Hugh Kennedy is posted to St. Paul’s. He  is content in the undemanding, shabby parish whose immigrant parishioners can spare little time from scratching a living to come to church.

An unexpected phone call from Charlie Carmody brings Father Kennedy back to his pre-bottle associations and face-to-face with the unpleasant truth that alcohol was not his only form of escapism.

Charlie wants something from Father Kennedy—Charlie always wants something—and he gets it: Charlie always gets his way. But afterward, he dies. Death comes to everyone in the end.

O’Connor’s intricate plot unfolds as a natural consequence of the personalities of his characters. From nasty, manipulative Charlie Carmody to the trusting, boyish Father Donowski, O’Connor’s characters are fully drawn human beings with distinctive absurdities.

In O’Connor’s skilled pen, Father Kennedy emerges as a figure with whom readers over 50 will immediately identify. When he is forced to confront his home truths, readers are forced to confront theirs.

The Edge of Sadness
By Edwin O’Connor
Little, Brown 1961
460 pages
1961 bestseller # 9
My Grade: A-

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Adventurer Is A Bad Trip

Michael Bast is 6 or 7 when his Finland home, Abo, is sacked by the Jutes.  Pierjo Furfoot, whom local children call a witch, takes him in. Michael’s goal is to become a priest, but the 16th century Catholic Church won’t accept take bastards.

Michael and brawny pal, Andy Karlsson, are drawn into a series of misadventures that take them all over Europe just as Luther’s reforms split entire countries along religious lines. They witness torture and mayhem from Finland to Rome, and have a hand in some of it themselves – with the noblest of intentions, of course.

Fortunately neither Michael nor Andy has any real political or religious convictions. They fall in with whichever side talks longest, thereby convincing Michael, and whichever pays best, thereby winning over Andy.

Michael is the stereotypical scholar full of good intentions and without a shred of common sense. Andy is an illiterate muscle man whose shrewd instinct for spotting a con snatches Michael from mayhem again and again.

To follow Mika Waltari’s blood-soaked plot requires a thorough knowledge of Renaissance and Reformation history. Understanding Waltari’s cardboard characters requires nothing but suspension of disbelief.

The Adventurer
By Mika Waltari
Trans Naomi Walford
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1950
377  pages
1950 bestseller #9
My Grade: C-
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Cardinal Contrasts Religion and Spirituality

The Cardinal opens with  Father Stephen Fermoyle returning to Boston after study in Rome. Stephen’s first job as a curate is under “Dollar Bill” Monaghan, a gifted fundraiser who is suspicious of Stephen’s mystical and intellectual bent.

Stephen next serves an impoverished parish under a saintly priest with no financial abilities at all. Stephen steps into the breech, revealing an aptitude for management.

The Diocese next sends Stephen to the Vatican where his first job is sorting the diplomatic mail that arrives from all over the world. As he learns, he gets more and more responsibility.

In 1927 the Pope sends Stephen back to America as Bishop of Hartfield.

At 44, Stephen bcomes the youngest Archbishop in the US. When the next pope is elected, Stephen is one of the red hatted cardinals voting their choice.

Henry Morton Robinson writes as a lay Catholic, loyal to the Church but not blind to the faults of its leaders. Robinson makes Stephen human, subject to temptations but strong enough to walk away from them.

Unlike most religious novelists, Robinson focuses on the managerial and administrative work of the clergy. This perspective lets Robinson give nuanced portrait of a man who often finds his religious obligations require him to surpress his own spiritual longings.

The Cardinal
By Henry Morton Robinson
Simon and Schuster, 1950
579 pages
#1 bestselling novel in 1950
My grade: B+
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni