Hearts in Atlantis

ost cat poster and peace sign on utility pole figure in the plot
Bad guys post “lost” messages.

Hearts in Atlantis is probably the best Stephen King bestseller people will never read. Its five interconnected stories probe 1960s history as experienced in small towns by baby boomer Americans who remember the draft.

“Low Men in Yellow Coats” is about Bobby Garfield, age 11 in 1960, being raised by his widowed mother in Harwich, Connecticut. A man who moves into the third-floor apartment introduces Bobby to The Lord of the Flies. His summer experiences teach him that evil isn’t confined to novels.

Next, the title story is about college kids—Bobby isn’t among them—who get hooked on playing the card game Hearts for a nickel-a-point, oblivious to the Vietnam War and how academic failure could kill them. The main character in this story straightens out only after watching—and laughing at—a disabled student who risked expulsion and possibly death from exposure to hang an antiwar message decorated with peace signs on a campus building.

A final three stories explore the post-war experiences of Bobby and other boys from Harwich.

Millennials and Generation Z readers, if they know what books are, won’t read Hearts in Atlantis: There’s no supernatural here. All the terrifying elements are expressions of human nature.

Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King
Scribner. ©1999. 523 p.
1999 bestseller #6; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Bourne Identity: Gripping story, forgettable characters

A sea shell pierced by a nail against a black background on the dust jacket of “The Bourne Identity”
The Bourne Identity cover art symbolizes murder attempt at sea

As he did in his previous bestseller, The Matarese Circle, in The Bourne Identity novelist Robert Ludlum tells a story that will keep readers turning pages long past their bedtime.

Bourne is the identity assumed by a man pulled from the Mediterranean “more corpse than man,” unable to remember anything about his past, including why he has a piece of microfilm with a Swiss bank account number implanted in his hip.

In Zurich, the amnesiac takes a woman hostage—every spy story requires the hero have a woman to complicate the plot—and together in Paris they begin to piece together Jason Bourne’s origins in Southeast Asia.

Ludlum is a master storyteller. Plot is his forte. Ludnum gives his characters just enough depth to be recognizable. They learn what’s necessary to advance the plot, but they don’t grow.

A day after closing The Bourne Identity, readers may wonder how Bourne, even before being shot in the head multiple times, could have been expected to remember everything he was required to remember to implement the machination of the West’s intelligence services.

Two days later, readers may even be unable to recall the names of the main characters.

But while they’re reading, they will be totally immersed in this complex, fast-paced thriller.

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
R. Marek Publishers, © 1980. 523 p.
1980 bestseller #2. My grade: B+

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Ambassador Makes Sense of Vietnam War

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