The Satanic Verses

tiny black dots on cover obscure both type and illustration
Two figures fighting

The uproar that greeted publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses doomed the book to the category of historical oddities.

Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is a complex set of nesting stories. The outer story is about two Indian Muslims who miraculously survive when the jet on which they are returning to London is blown up.

As they fall into the Atlantic, film actor Gibreel Farishta turns into the angel Gabriel while voice actor Saladin Chamcha becomes the devil.

Three of Gibreel’s dreams become sub-stories. The first, based roughly on the founding of Islam, led Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa against anyone associated with the publication of The Satanic Verses. Few non-Muslims would understand the story, let alone see why it enraged Muslims.

The other sub-stories are about aspects of the emigrant/immigrant experience.

Rushie’s prose mixes wise-cracking humor about people “of the tinted persuasion” with poignant narration that draws tears. Here, for example is Saladin’s reflection at his father’s death bed:

To fall in love with one’s father after the long angry decades was a serene and beautiful feeling; a renewing, life-giving thing.

The Satanic Verses isn’t easy reading, but it offers a needed glimpse of what it’s like to be an immigrant.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
Viking. ©1988. 546 p.
1989 bestseller #6 my grade: B+

Jacket illustration shows a detail from 17th century work “Rustam Killing the White Demon” from a Clive Album in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Tiny black dots on the dust jacket obscure the image.

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Source: Jewish Roots and Contemporary Conflicts

To say James A. Michener’s whopping 1965 bestseller The Source is an historical novel both understates and misleads.

Into a narrative about a contemporary archaeological dig at Makor, a man-made mound in Israel, Michener weaves a chronological series of short stories about key people and events in Makor’s history. Through this complex literary device, Michener traces unravels the history of Makor from its earliest human occupation up to 1964.

photo of James A Michener at ruins of Tell Beth-Sham


The Source: A Novel by James A. Michener

New York: Random House, 1965. 909 pages. 1965 bestseller #1. My grade: A


The short stories explore the character of the various peoples who came to Makor—from the Canaanites to the British—with particular focus on the Jews.

Michener makes the characters increasingly complex as centuries pass, giving a sense of the progress of civilization.

Michener connects historical events in Israel and the Middle East with happenings in distant places like Rome and Mexico. He shows, for example, that the Crusades were part of Renaissance colonialism in which Europeans carved out city-states in the Holy Land.

The characters in the excavation narrative form a kind of Greek chorus to comment on and interpret the significance of the history of the Holy Land for the post-World War II world.

As America’s ties to Israel are tested by events in Syria, Iraq and Iran, The Source is worth reading once more.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Sea-Hawk Grabs and Won’t Let Go

Triple-masted pirate ship at sea with mountains in distance
Pirate Ship at Sea

In the first chapter of The Sea-Hawk, Rafael Sabatini whispers the broad outline of his plot just loudly enough that dedicated novel readers will catch it. Tte foreshadowing barely has time to register before Sabatini plunges his 16th century hero into an adventure that shows off his thoughtful, complicated personality as well as his biceps.

The story starts out in traditional romance fashion.

Sir Oliver Tressilian repaired his family’s fortune by preying on the Spanish Armada. Now he wants to marry  but Rosamond’s brother, Peter Godolphin, doesn’t want her to wed a pirate.

Oliver’s half-brother murders Peter Godolphin, then covers the murder by having  Oliver kidnapped and sold as a galley-slave. Oliver’s disappearance looks like an admission of guilt.

When fighters of the Basha of Algiers take the ship, Oliver turns Muslim. His prowess in attacking ships of Christian nations wins him the name Sakr-el-Bahr, Hawk of the Sea.

Learning Lionel is to marry Rosamond, Oliver seeks revenge. He makes a raid on Cornwall to abduct Lionel.

The raid raises questions about Oliver’s loyalty to Islam. The wrong answer would mean death.

The plot sounds rather Errol Flynn-ish, but there’s no hint of central casting in Sabatini’s characters. They react and develop in psychologically plausible ways.

You need not be fan of nautical thrillers, to enjoy The Sea-Hawk. It is worth reading just for its insights into Islamic culture.

The Sea-Hawk
by Rafael Sabatini
1923 bestseller #10
Project Gutenberg EBook #3294

Photo credit: Pirate Ship at Sea by KBlack

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni