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Posts Tagged ‘Morris L. West’

Map of Middle East with inset cover of Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel is set in the Middle East just before the Six-Day War in June, 1967.

The novel opens as an Israeli man on a tractor is killed by an exploding mine as he crosses a narrow demilitarized zone into Syria.

The Israelis suspect such incidents are trying to provoke them into military action.

They’re right.

Col. Safreddin, Syria’s director of security, has picked PLO field director Idris Jarrah to spark an incident for political reasons.

Jarrah knows the PLO is closing its Phoenician Banking Company account. He schemes to get bank owner Nuri Chakry’s help to keep from becoming Safreddin’s fall guy.

Meanwhile, Jakov Baratz, Israel’s director of military intelligence, is worried about an Israeli operative in Damascus whose cover is blown.

The characters in Morris L. West’s taut thriller aren’t particularly heroic or admirable: They are just as likely to be fighting for thrills as for their country.

West focuses on characters’ personalities and motivations, providing little physical detail from which to craft mental images. I found it hard to remember who was who without mental pictures of them.

Torture scenes in the novel are tame compared to ISIS’s latest vidotape, but I for one find state-sponsored terrorism more frightening than lone wolves inspired by ISIS.


The Tower of Babel by Morris L. West
William Morrow, 1968. 361 p. 1968 bestseller #10. My grade: B+.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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When you read as many novels as I do—I read and reviewed more then 75 novels for Great Penformances this year—there’s a tendency to become jaded.

Plots get to feel familiar.

Characters seem to reappear in different outfits in different novels.

And the point of it all often is hardly worth the words expended in stating it.

As a reflected on the novels I reviewed here in 2015, four stood out as being distinctly different from the rest:

Although their subjects cover a wide range, each has the same central theme: the importance of having a moral compass.

The Ambassador

The Ambassador is a story about the politics of American involvement in the Vietnam War. The American Ambassador to South Vietnam says what his government pays him to say. In so doing, he assures the war will drag on, body bag after body bag, for years.

His career crisis underscores the Ambassador’s personal crisis: He had depended on his late wife’s faith to provide him with a moral compass. Without her, he can’t locate North.

Something of Value

Something of Value also is set against the backdrop of a war, this one between the white settlers of Kenya and the black guerrilla army, the Mau Mau.

The white colonialists have prohibited the blacks from practicing their culture and religion, but the tepid Christianity they demanded Kenyans substitute for traditional ways provide neither white or black with a moral compass.

The 40 Days of Musa Dagh

The 40 Days of Musa Dagh is a story about the events called, except in Turkey, the Aremnian genocide.

In 1915, the Ottoman Empire, part of Central Powers (which also included Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria), ordered Armenians within its borders to the Syrian deserts.

Only a few Armenian communities resisted.

As World War I began, some 5,000 Armenian from the Mediterranean mountains due west of Aleppo, Syria, took up positions on Musa Dagh (“Mount Moses”) to repel the Turkish military.

They held out for 53 days (Werfel calls it 40 days, which sounds more biblical) before the Western Allies evacuated the Musa Dagh survivors by ship.

In Werfel’s novel, as in history, the moral question is about the responsibility of uninvolved observers. Without a moral compass, bystanders to brutality waver over their options until the possibility for action is gone.

The Garden of Allah

The Garden of Allah brings moral issues down to the level of marriage.

Both marriage partners had had strong faith at one time. Domini’s faith dwindled; Boris rejected his.

The central question of the novel and the marriage is whether the individual puts his or her needs above those of the spouse. The question can only be answered by a muscular faith in obedience to the moral compass.

You or I may not approve of the direction chosen by the characters in some of these novels. Yet each novel shows the value of having a moral in a world that sets its course by opinion polls.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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I have two sets of favorites from the 1965 bestsellers, one serious and the other lighter.

The Source by James A. Michener and The Ambassador by Morris L. West are the best of the 1965 bestsellers. They engage readers in examining weighty topics without being dull or pedantic.

Front of dust jacket of The Source by James A Michener.Michener’s novel is about the history of an archeological dig in Israel. It remains  significant today because the Middle East is still being fought over by descendants of people who settled there in ages past.

Although the topic sounds dry and book is long, The Source can be read comfortably because of Michener’s unusual technique: He reveals significant developments and significant people in the site’s history in what is almost a series of novellas.

Cover of Morris L. West's novel "The Ambassador"The Ambassador is about another war zone: Vietnam.

West looks at American involvement in Indochina through the perspective of an American diplomat whose assignment to head the embassy in Saigon begins inauspiciously:  A monk burns himself to death as the official limousine passes.

In carrying out Washington policy, the ambassador has to do things that offend his sense of American principles.

Today, The Ambassador puts the Vietnam quagmire in historical and cultural context for readers who know little of that era.

On the lighter side, I recommend Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman and Don’t Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk.

Kaufman takes readers inside an inner city high school with a novice teacher.

Wouk takes readers to tropical paradise with a middle aged Manhattan publicist looking for a stress free life.

Both novels are funny, but their humor hugs reality closely enough to give readers something worth some serious consideration.

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The Ambassador is the second and the best of the 1965 bestsellers about America’s war in Vietnam.

Unlike Robin Moore, who focuses on soldiers, Morris L. West focuses on the policymakers who set in motion events that ended in body bags.

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The Ambassador by Morris L. West

William Morrow, 1965. 275 pages . 1965 bestseller #9. My grade: A.


Ambassador Maxwell Amberley is transferred from Japan to Saigon to deal with the uncooperative South Vietnamese president who would prefer Americans gave him money and let his government fight the Viet Cong.

America is ready—eager, even—for Cung’s generals to overthrow him.

Amberley finds he likes Cung, admires the man’s managerial skills, and envies his moral compass.

But Amberley must represent his government, which is committed to military action and short-term solutions.

Through his fictional account, West is able to show a complex maze of political interests that cannot merge even when they intersect, because their cultural mindsets are diametrically opposed.

West avoids facile characterization. His men and women are complicated people, facing difficult decisions.

Ultimately, American policy in Viet Nam fails because individuals fail to make a morality a habit.

Ambassador Amberley says the words that unleash a coup, make the U.S. party to an assassination, and assures that the war will drag on for many more years.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The best novels from 1963’s bestseller list are not the most memorable.

The Battle of Villa Fiorita  and Elizabeth Appleton are extraordinarily detailed pictures of rather ordinary people by fine writers. Rumer Godden and John O’Hara, respectively, make the ordinary characters of those novels assume importance for the duration of their novels.

Once the covers are closed and the book jackets are straightened, however, the fascination dissipates. The casts of Villa Fiorita and Elizabeth Appleton are just too ordinary to be memorable.

By contrast, John Rechy’s City of Night is memorable because its protagonist and its subject are far from mainstream. The fact that Rechy states his theme repeatedly helps, too. Rechy’s novel isn’t entertaining at all.

Between those two extremes are three good, but aging, novels with something to say and a decent story to carry the message: The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris L. West, Caravans by James A. Michener, and The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna. The relevance of each of these novels has diminished with age, but they still provide good entertainment.

Sometimes, good is better than best.

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Daughter of Silence opens with Anna Albertini shooting the mayor of San Stefano to death at noon before turning herself in to police.

There’s no doubt Anna is guilty of murder. The only question is whether mitigating circumstances should be considered in her sentencing.

In a plot reminiscent of Robert L. Traver’s Anatomy of a Murder, Morris L. West follows Anna’s defense team as they probe for soft spots in the law.

Carlo Rienzi is the handsome defense attorney hoping to make his name with the case, Peter Landon the equally handsome forensic psychiatrist hoping to boost his career with the case.

The courtroom drama is offset by bedroom drama in the small San Stefano community. Carlo is jealous of his unfaithful wife. Both Carlo and Valeria resent her father, in whose law firm Carlo works. Ascolini is a great man to his law students, a nasty piece of work to his family.

Landon, meanwhile, has fallen for artist Ninette Lachaise who once had an affair with Valeria’s current lover.

The novel’s ending is predictable. The characters, while fascinating, are people you’d just as soon forget.

The real mystery in Daughter of Silence is why somebody didn’t murder all the characters: it wasn’t for lack of motive.

Daughter of Silence
By Morris L. West
William Morrow, 1961
275 pages
1961 bestseller # 8
My Grade: B-

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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