Caribbean (a Michener novel)

island scene in center of dust jacketJames A. Michener’s novelistic style is as distinctive as a fingerprint.

In Caribbean, the Michener imprint is unusually sunny considering how bleak much of Caribbean history is.

The first chapter ends with cannibals eating a tribe they despise for playing ballgames instead of making war.

That sets the stage for centuries of conflicts both among those who live around the Caribbean Sea and between nations far away who prefer to fight their wars far from home. (More civilized, don’t ya’ know.)

Famous names like Columbus and Sir Francis Drake appear, along with a host of less familiar Caribbean heroes and villains.

The chapters of Caribbean read almost like short stories, which makes the hefty novel very accessible.

drawing of sugar processing plant
Sugar plantation

Two intertwined themes run through all the stories: Race relations and economic survival.

From the appearance of white explorers to Michener’s day, the Western belief in white superiority prevented darker skinned individuals from participating in a significant way in the islands’ economies.

The exodus of the most talented among them has left the islands at the mercy of the North American tourist trade.

The novel is worth reading as a novel and equally worth reading as a discussion of economic and political realities that are still impacting the United States.

Caribbean by James A. Michener
Cartography by Jean Paul Tremblay
Illustrations by Franca Nucci Haynes
Random House. ©1989. 672 p.
1989 bestseller #5 my grade: A+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Jailbird: An oddball in dark places

Title page of Jailbird shows a yellow bird sitting a a tea cup.
The bird, a prothononotary warbler appears in the novel.

Jailbird is not what you’d expect from Kurt Vonnegut’s fertile imagination.

Jailbird is a fictional memoir combining a few oddball characters with a raft of real characters who commit immoral and criminal acts in public places.

Jailbird’s fictional narrator, Walter F. Starbuck, can do nothing right, even when he follows good advice.

The son of immigrant employees of a millionaire industrialist who sends him to Harvard, Walter holds a federal job until he inadvertently betrays a friend and is fired.

Walter’s wife to support him.

Walter finally gets work again in the Nixon administration, where he gets caught in the Watergate scandal and goes to jail.

Released in 1977, he goes to New York where he unlawfully fails to reveal a will  and soon is on his way back to jail.

Vonnegut cannot avoid including a few laugh-out-loud wise cracks and off-beat perspectives on ordinary life, but on the whole Jailbird is a dark novel.

Vonnegut uses the fictional Walter to examine the real history of labor relations in the U.S., the Sacco and Vanzatti trial, the McCarthy investigations of subversive elements, and the unequal distribution of wealth in America.

Vonnegut’s Walter, when asked why he concerns himself with the working class responds, “Why? The Sermon on the Mount, sir.”

Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut
Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, ©1979. 246 p.
1979 bestseller #5 My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Honorary Consul: Incisive, insightful, intriguing

Graham Greene called his earlier bestseller Travels with My Aunt an entertainment and The Honorary Consul a novel. The distinction is apt.

Bright sunny colors with thin box around words The Honorary Consul
An image can’t capture the story of The Honorary Consul.

The main character in The Honorary Consul is physician Eduardo Plarr whose English father disappeared after having gotten involved with revolutionaries in Paraguay.

Plarr’s medical bag gives him entree into all classes of society in the unnamed Argentinian city in which Charles “call me Charley” Fortnum is honorary consul. Britain recalled the under-worked real consul. The locals don’t know the difference, and most of the time Charley is too drunk to care.

Charley has wed a woman from the local brothel who, to Charley’s delight, is pregnant. Unknown to Charley, Dr. Plarr is Clara’s lover and father of his child.

Charley is kidnapped by revolutionaries who mistake him for the American Ambassador. Rather than waste a hostage, the revolutionaries threaten to kill Charley if their demands are not met.

The kidnappers call Plarr to look after Charley.

Greene is a master of incisive detail. Whether sketching a character or describing a revolution, his pen is precise: Every word matters.

What’s more, every character matters. Greene cares about the countries and the people about whom he writes.

He’ll make you care, too.

The Honorary Consul: A Novel by Graham Greene
Simon and Schuster, © 1973, 315 p
#1973 bestseller #8. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Surprise ending raises Lewis Rand above pot-boilers

In the early 1900s, readers relied on Mary Johnson to supply them regularly with novels about lower socioeconomic class individuals of superior ability who participate in history-making events.

In Lewis Rand, Johnson pulls out an unexpected ending that raises the novel above the pot-boiler class.

On river path, two mounted gentlemen in top hats fight while trying to control their horses
Lewis Rand fights Fairfax Cary, who thinks him allied with Aaron Burr.

Lewis Rand by Mary Johnson
F. C. Yohn illustrator. Houghton Mifflin, 1908.
[506+ pages] 1908 bestseller #7.
Project Gutenberg ebook #14697. My grade: B.

Lewis Rand wants to study law, but his father won’t even let Lewis attend school.

Their neighbor Thomas Jefferson intercedes on the boy’s behalf.

By 1804, Jefferson’s help and Lewis’s own ambition have marked him for at least the governorship, perhaps the presidency.

Lewis has an an accident outside the home of the pro-Federalist Churchills. While he recuperates in a Churchill bedroom, Jacqueline Churchill a proposal of marriage from his Federalist opponent.

Jacqueline marries Lewis against her family’s wishes.

After their marriage, Lewis becomes increasingly ambitious.

After turning turns down the nomination for Virginia governor, he begins corresponding in cipher with the audacious Aaron Burr about America’s newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase territory.

Johnson keeps the complicated political background understandable.

Where she falls down is in not allowing characters to speak for themselves.

The novel ends much as The Cruel Sea will end decades later. The one significant difference is that Nicholas Monserrat made readers care about George Ericson.

Johnson doesn’t make readers care about Lewis Rand.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Silver Spoon untarnished by time

The Silver Spoon is an easy introduction to one of the most durable writers of the 20th century.

There’s no need to have read earlier books in John Galsworthy’s three-trilogy Forsyte Chronicles (Spoon is the fifth book of the nine) to follow the story.


The Silver Spoon by John Galsworthy

Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1926. 320 p. 1926 bestseller #6. My grade: A-.


1926-06_silverspoon2In 1924, Fleur and Michael Mont move in a London circle that prides itself on its lack of moral prejudices.

When Fleur’s father overhears a woman make disparaging remarks about Fleur at one of her parties, he makes a scene. Instead of protecting Fleur, his defense makes her social group snub her as ridiculously old-fashioned and hypocritical.

Fleur is determined not to be thwarted in her social ambitions as she was thwarted in love.

Michael knows Fleur is merely fond of him. He has thrown himself into politics in hopes of influencing England’s future since he cannot win his wife’s love.

Although usually described as a social satirist, Galsworthy writes with both realism and compassion.

He likes his characters, even though he sees their faults. He loves his country, too, though he sees its flaws.

Like Fleur, England has a silver spoon it’s unwilling to give up.

Contemporary readers may wonder if the same might be said of America.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Mandarins tread murk of post-war politics

The Mandarins is Simone de Beauvoir’s fictional account of the upper echelons of the political left in post-war Paris, a group that she knew personally.

Gen. Charles de Gaulle and his entourage marching down the Champs Elysees
DeGaulle leads march to thanksgiving service for liberation of Paris.

The book follows two middle-aged characters, writer Henri Perron and psychotherapist Anne Dubreuilh.


The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir

Leonard M. Friedman, trans. Regnery, Gateway, 1956. 610 pp. 1956 bestseller #9.  My grade B.


Henri and Anne’s husband, Robert, were active in the French resistance.

After the war, they work to create a socialist movement separate from the Communist Party and find the ambiguity of politics a greater moral challenge than fighting the Nazis.

Anne is more interested in people than politics, but finds working with war-scarred minds depressing.

On a tour to learn American psychoanalysis techniques, she meets a Chicago writer she thinks is the love of her life.

Their affair fizzles to friendship on his part, misery on hers.

Sooner or later, each of the characters faces a decision: Do I continue fighting, though I’m no longer sure I believe in what I’m fighting for?

The Mandarins should still be read, but it won’t find many takers.

Beauvoir’s novel is too intellectual, the narrative too dispassionate for today’s America.

Even its seamy elements, like the vigilante justice meted out to former Nazi sympathizers, would seem tame to Americans raised on high-definition crudity.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Politics damages All in the Family

Although Jack Kinsella’s Uncle Jimmy was a little man, when he threw his weight around, he got what he wanted.

Except for one time when his plan backfired.


All In the Family by Edwin O’Connor

Little, Brown, 1966. 434 pages. 1966 bestseller #10. My grade: B+.


Red type, black dingbats are only art on cover of All in the FamilyBy the time his three sons are grown, Jimmy decides one of them will have to go into politics to “give back.”

Since the eldest son has chosen the priesthood, the task falls to the youngest son, Charles.

The middle son, Phil, is his campaign manger.

Jimmy supplies money, influence, and drive, all of which has in abundance.

The family try to get cousin Jack involved, but as much as Jack loves his cousins, he is his father’s son: His father refused to bow to Jimmy’s will.

Besides, Jack is too focused on his reconciliation with his wife to have much time for politics.

Edwin O’Connor is a fine writer. The opening chapter is a pearl, worth reading all by itself.

Although O’Connor leaves a glimmer of hope in the final chapter, the novel is permeated with a sense of melancholy.

Jimmy’s ambition destroys his most cherished asset: his family.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Capable of Honor takes on the media

In Capable of Honor, Allen Drury picks up his story of Washington politics where A Shade of Difference ended.

Familiar faces from the cast of his two previous whopping political novels are here again, but this time Drury’s focus is the role of media in shaping political opinion.


Capable of Honor by Allen Drury

Doubleday, 1966. 531 pp. 1966 bestseller #4. My grade B+.


Capable of Honor uses all-type dust jacket, red type on black groundDrury’s wrath is turned on Walter Dobrius, nicknamed “Walter Wonderful” by the politicians who despise the columnist’s all-too-successful attempts to sway American voters and world opinion to right-thinking as Walter defines it.

Walter has picked California Governor Ted Jason as the peace candidate American needs as president.

Walter is willing to do whatever it takes to elect Ted and defeat the incumbent president who, with his secretary of state, has ordered American troops into Africa and Panama to protect American interests.

In pursuit of peace, Walter and Ted are happy to accept the support of certain well-organized and violent organizations at the party convention.

Unfortunately, they have no ability to control those supporters.

Drury presents complex characters caught in a bewildering situations.

Although he is vehement in his denunciation of the types of behaviors he considers un-American, Drury has sense enough to not let his rhetoric overwhelm his story.

The novel remains timely even after 50 years.

The Marriage of William Ashe

From its title and the author’s designation of herself as Mrs. Humphrey Ward, readers might expect The Marriage of William Ashe to be a light romance.

They would be wrong.


The Marriage of William Ashe by Mrs. Humphrey Ward

Albert Sterner, illus., 1905, 570 pp (approx.) 1905 bestseller #1. My grade: A


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William  Ashe is a young man of ability backed by a family with money and influence. Until he’s named undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, he’s always pretended not to care whether he appeared successful or not.

The post challenges his talents as nothing has previously done.

William knows he must marry if he’s to have a political career.

His family deplores his choice of Lady Kitty Bristol, who “comes of  a bad stock.”

William loves Kitty because she’s so un-English, so sexy, and so clearly destined to become the prey of a man as undisciplined as herself unless William’s  love can change her life.

William’s problems with his impulsive child-wife may remind readers of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels. Unlike Glencora Palliser, however, Kitty is not just interfering; she swings from sleepless, manic hyperactivity to depression that borders on suicidal.

Also unlike Trollope, Ward uses politics merely as the backdrop to the story. Ward couldn’t care less about the Reform Bill. Her interest is in finding out what makes her characters tick.

Today’s readers will find that exploration equally intriguing.

A Far Country is reached via expediency

A Far Country is presented as the autobiography of a corporate lawyer, a “typical American” disciple of the doctrine of enlightened self interest.

Winston Churchill dealt the results of that doctrine in his 1913 bestseller. This time, however, he treats it from the perspective of the man who pursues expediency.


A Far Country by Winston Churchill

     MacMillan, 1915, 509 pages. 1915 bestseller #2. Project Gutenberg ebook #3739 My grade: C​+.


After his father’s death, Hugh Paret goes into law. He learns to use the law to manipulate, and thus becomes a behind-the-scenes political power.

Cartoon shows corporate interests running the US Senate
The Bosses of the Senate, a cartoon by Joseph Keppler from 1889

Hugh is opposed by Hermann Krebs, skillful advocate for the powerless, whom Hugh respects and despises.

Only his childhood friend Nancy seems to see Hugh’s career as a downward path, but she, too, chooses expediency.

Hugh marries a woman without ambition and soon regrets choosing Maude, though it draws him and Nancy closer than ever.

Maude keeps up appearances until the children are in their teens. Then she quietly takes them off to France just as Hugh is being considered for a run for the US Senate.

The timing couldn’t be worse. Hugh faces strong opposition from his old opponent, Krebs.

The plot of the novel is essentially a romance, albeit an unconventional one.

Churchill’s characters are believable enough to keep readers’ interest, but not believable enough to make the book memorable two weeks after reading it.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni