A moral compass links best of 2015 reading

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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My Picks of 1965 Bestsellers

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.