Mitla Pass: a novel by Leon Uris

“Mitla Pass” cover is all text; the story’s too complex for a picture.The first chapter of Mitla Pass suggests the novel will be a war story.

What Leon Uris delivers is a story of the personal war of writer Gideon Zadok, a man with “the soul of a poet, the rage of a lion.”

Gideon has spent this entire life doing battle against his father, his mother, his wife, the publishing industry, and everyone and everything else that failed to value him.

Uris excavates Gideon’s past. He uncovers stories of people Gideon thinks let him down, flicking a flashlight into Russian shetetls, American slums, Hollywood studios, and Israeli strategy sessions.

Readers see all those individuals in a far more nuanced way than Gideon ever sees them.

For all his literary sensitivity, Gideon is incapable of seeing other people’s perspectives on any subject that affects him personally.

As the novel nears its end, Uris gets Gideon to the 1956 Sinai War foreshadowed in the opening chapter.

The battle for Mitla Pass is short, bloody, futile.

The book ends with Gideon’s wife wondering if their marriage will survive, while beside her, Gideon dreams that he’s going to make people proud of him.

Mitla Pass by Leon Uris
Doubleday. ©1988. 435 p.
1988 bestseller #10; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Misery a Stephen King novel

Man in wheelchair sits beside bedroom window in shadow of female figure with axe
Death by hatchet awaits

Stephen King terrifies most when his stories most closely reflect everyday life. In Misery, King weaves together two familiar memes, throws in a couple of  over-the-top bits of nastiness, and produces a novel which can terrify on two levels.

The story begins with Paul Sheldon waking in a strange place in incredible pain.

A few days before, Paul had typed the last page of Fast Cars, which he thinks is his best novel, way superior to the “Misery” series that made him rich and famous.

Somewhere in the Colorado Rockies, Paul crashed his car. He’s had the misfortune to be rescued by his “number one fan,” an ex-nurse.

Annie Wilkes can’t wait for Paul’s next book.

When she learns Paul killed off that novel’s lead character, Annie insists he write a novel just for her in which Misery Chastain doesn’t die.

Despite the blur of the pilfered drugs Annie feeds him, Paul realizes she’s a pathological killer and he will be her next victim.

The pathological killer in medical settings was already a familiar and terrifying figure in the ’80s.

Nearly 40 years later, we’re now getting accustomed to the other terror in King’s novel: The adoring fans determined to control the artists they idolize.

by Stephen King
Viking, 1987. 310 p.
1987 bestseller #4; my grade: A-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

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 French Lieutenant’s Woman

John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman is the sort of book that would-be novelists with beer and beards discuss in existential terms.

Drawing of The French Lieutanant's Woman on the cover of the novel.
 The French Lieutenant’s Woman 1st ed dust jacket.

The woman of the title is Sarah Woodruff, a young English woman enamored of and jilted in 1867 by a Frenchman, whose whore the Lyme Regis locals assume her to be.

Charles Smithson, an English gentleman with enough funds to indulge his scientific avocation and a fiancée who’s the adored only child of a wealth merchant, finds Sarah irresistible.

She’s equally besotted.

After a brutal mating, Charles breaks his engagement and returns to Sarah who he’s recognized as his soulmate.

She’s disappeared.

Fowles interrupts his story periodically to offer commentary on Victorian culture, the history of Dorset’s Lyme Bay, and his own authorial process, even appearing as a character in the story.

When Charles finally finds Sarah, Fowles offers two endings to the story.

One would have been quite enough.

Nothing Fowles reveals about Sarah makes her believable as anything other than the psychological case the local doctor pegs her as. Charles is nothing to write home about either.

If The French Lieutenant’s Woman had been written by anyone other than Fowles it would be called pretentious.

Because Fowles is Fowles, it’s called literary.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
Little, Brown. © 1969. Book Club Edition. 480 p.
1970 bestseller #2. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Jaffery narrator gives perspective and poignancy

Jaffery is an odd novel in which war correspondent Jaffery Chayne, a character better suited to a graphic novel than a literary one, appears only sporadically.


Jaffery by William J. Locke

Illus. F. Matania. Publisher, John Lane, 1915. Project Gutenberg ebook #14669. 1915 bestseller #6. My grade: B-.


Jaffery arrives back in England, escorting widow Liosha Prescott, just as Adrian Boldoro publishes a novel to great acclaim.

Liosha deals with loose cargo during a storm at sea
Loose cargo in the hold during a storm is no problem for Liosha Prescott

Liosha is Jaffery’s mate in appearance and temperament, but Jaffery is too besotted with Doria Jornicroft to notice her.

Despite her father’s opposition, Doria has gotten engaged to Adrian,  which skewers Jaffrey’s plan to fix Liosha up with Adrian.

Neither Jaffery nor Hilary Freeth would have been surprised had their deceased Cambridge pal, Tom, published a bestseller, but no one expected “precious, finnikin Adrian” to amount to anything.

When Adrian dies suddenly with a new book unfinished, Jaffery sees his chance to win Doria.

Jaffrey’s plan backfires.

Liosha has her own romantic contretemps.

Both sign on as hands on a tramp steamer, returning home in time to tie up the plot.

Liosha quiets a horse while Jaffrey talks to a native.
Liosha and Jaffrey are in the war zone in the Balkans.

William J. Locke packages the novel as Hillary’s memoir. Funny, loving and loveable, Hilary, together with his wife and daughter, provide a common-sense perspective for viewing the antics of others who seem be playing roles they scripted for themselves.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Old Wine and New Is Pleasure for Mature Palates

Tyne Cot World War I Cemetery
Tyne Cot Cemetery

Warwick Deeping’s Old Wine and New is an unexpected and rather extraordinary tale about the making of a novelist in the years between the First and Second World Wars.

Timid, gentle to a fault, scarcely able to make himself a cuppa, Spenser Scarsdale is as unlikely a hero as a protagonist can be. He blunders along through life, finding almost by accident something he’s sufficiently interested in to put in the effort to make a success of it.

Scarscale serves as a medic in France, caring for victims of the trenches. As the war winds down, one dying man gives Scarsdale an envelope to deliver to his daughter. Scarsdale falls for the girl. He leads her to believe, as he does, that he’s a reasonably well-off literary gentleman.

Scarsdale is unaware that, at 45, he’s considered a washed-up editorial hack. In the post-war slump, Scarsdale loses his job, his savings, and the girl, who never was his anyway.

Scarsdale ends up renting a room from a woman who does domestic work for wealthy Londoners.

Eleanor takes Scarsdale in hand, tactfully helping him to see that he needs to write about real life. With her encouragement, advice, and occasional behind-the-scenes manipulation, Scarsdale writes a successful first novel and follows it up with a second.

Unlike the typical novelist-protagonist, Scarsdale has no passion to write. He writes because it’s the only thing he has the least bit of ability to do, and he must eat.

Deeping’s realistic characters and believable plot will delight readers. Perhaps they may even inspire a few who are blundering into middle age still wondering what they want to do when they grow up.

Old Wine and New
Warwick Deeping
Alfred A. Knopf, 1932
387 pages
1932 Bestseller #6
 

Photo credit: Tyne Cot WW1 Cemetery uploaded by ssaanen http://www.sxc.hu/photo/892542

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Star Money a Depressing Tale of Neurotic Novelist

The star of Kathleen Winsor’s Star Money, Shireen Delaney, is a  disturbed child who grows up to become a hugely successful novelist, disturbing a great many other people in the process.

As a teenager, Shireen was not interested in school or reading. She appeared to have little interest in boys.  Nobody knew about the novels she’d been writing for years.

Within a few months of her marriage to nice, quiet Ed Farrell, however, he goes to the war and all the undiscovered facets of Shireen’s personality burst out.

To relieve the monotony of life alone, Shireen pounds out a novel and has affairs with Ed’s buddies. A New York agent turns Shireen into a celebrity author and becomes the closest thing Shireen has to a friend.

When Ed returns from service, he finds himself a non-entity in his wife’s social circles. Ed packs up and goes back home to L.A., leaving Shireen to face life  alone, with only  her agent, her boyfriends, and thousands of adoring fans for support. If you can believe author Kathleen Winsor, not one of those folks realizes Shireen has a few screws insufficiently tightened.

Winsor babbles about Shireen’s childhood, but show us nothing that could have warped anyone who was not already soft in the psyche.

Save your own psyche. Forget this novel.

Star Money
by Kathleen Winsor
Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1950
442 pages
1950 bestseller # 5
My grade C

© Linda Gorton Aragoni