August, 1914: Russia was doomed

Author's name and novel title set in yellow and orange respectively against camouflage backgound of dust jacket.
Author and title stand out against the camouflage.

August, 1914, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel about the first two weeks of World War I on the Eastern Front is not for the faint of heart.

Russian naming conventions are bewildering, the story jumps from one military unit to another, and the camouflage green liner-paper maps are hard to read.

Those who persevere will find the novel worth the effort.

The novel traces the events of the first two weeks of WWI. Russia had foolishly promised France they’d begin war operations 15 days after war was declared, long before the country was prepared to supply its front line troops.

Russia’s generals were mainly old duffers whose skills consisted mainly of “being able to compose the right sort of dispatches…which can make inaction sound like hard fighting.”

Up against a German army armed with tanks and connected by telephone, the Russian horse soldiers with 19th century weaponry and hand-delivered battle orders were out of their league.

Against this backdrop of incompetence on a monumental scale, Solzhenitsyn shows the rugged endurance and bravery of ordinary soldiers.

If you read nothing more of August 1914, read chapter 50 in which eight soldiers carry their regimental commander’s body home for burial. Even in translation, it’s a great piece of writing that can stand alone.

August, 1914 by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Trans. Michael Glenny
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ©1972, 622 p.
1972 bestseller #2. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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QB VII asks: What would you have done?

Leon Uris’s QB VII tackles antisemitism the way a terrier tackles a rat.

QB VII has a no-nonsense look.
Dust jacket of this copy of QB VII has disappeared.

Uris introduces readers to Dr. Adam Kelno as he leaves Jadweiga Concentration Camp. Soviet-dominated Warsaw has no place for a Polish Nationalist.

Kelno lands in England where he spends two years in Brixton Prison while England decides whether to allow his extradition to Poland to face war-crimes charges.

Exonerated, Kelno and his family flee as far as possible from Europe. In Borneo he does medical work for which he is knighted.

Returning to England, Kelno settles into small clinic, doctoring longshoremen and immigrants.

One day an English medical student from Borneo shows Kelno a paragraph in Abraham Cady’s book The Holocaust . It says Kelno performed experimental operations for the SS without the use of anesthetic.

Kelno sues Cady for libel.

The suit is heard at QB VII: courtroom 7 of the Queen’s Bench.

Uris produces rounded pictures of both Kelno, a Polish Catholic, and Cady, an American Jew, both of whom have their share of flaws. Reader’s sympathies are pulled one way and then the other.

QB VII is a tense, fast-reading novel that leaves readers to ponder what they would have done in Jadweiga.

QB VII by Leon Uris
Doubleday 970 [1st ed]. 504 p.
1970 bestseller #6. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Islands in the Stream: One man, three places

Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream is a three-part novel. Its sections are connected by characters and settings, but are totally different in tone.

Well-read copy of Islands in the Stream

The first section, Bimini, introduces Thomas Hudson, a twice-divorced painter living happily with his personal devils by keeping to a rigid schedule for working and drinking.

His three sons come to visit during their summer holidays. Tom and an old friend, writer Roger Davis, keep the boys busy swimming and fishing.

After the end of their vacation, Tom’s two sons by his second wife are killed in a car accident.

The second section, Cuba, is set during World War II. Tom has just learned that last remaining son has been killed in the war.

When reasonably sober, Tom does reconnaissance work for the US military, using his own boat. During most of the Cuba section, Tom sits in a bar and drinks.

The third section, At Sea, has Tom and his crew tracking survivors of a sunken German U-boat who, in their escape, massacred a village. In a shoot-out, Tom is badly, perhaps fatally wounded.

Islands will probably appeal to Hemingway fans. Those bored by watching others fish or drink, will probably quit reading long before the massacre.

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway
Scribner, [1970] 466 p.
1970 bestseller #3. My grade: B

Historical note: Islands in the Stream was one of over 300 of Ernest Hemingway’s unpublished works his widow, Mary Hemingway, found after her husband’s death.

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

B.F.’s Daughter is old at 70

I suspect the reason B.F.’s Daughter made the bestseller list in 1946 had more to do with post-war malaise than with John P. Marquand’s writing, good as it is.

Though its story seems out-of-date, the novel is still good reading.


 

B.F.’s Daughter by John P. Marquand

Little, Brown, 1946. 439 p. 1946 bestseller #9. My grade: B.


After her wealthy industrialist father dies, Polly Brett goes to Washington where her husband is churning out war propaganda.

She and Tom quarrel.

He goes off, ostensibly to take refuge in his work.

Polly has no trouble meeting men who are also alone in Washington. Although Polly sees a certain attraction in an affair, she backs away.

Then Polly runs into a long-time acquaintance who tells her “nothing matters that happened before the war.”

When Polly learns Tom has a mistress, she begins to feel perhaps her pre-war marriage doesn’t matter.

The characters in this novel are well-drawn, complex people. Contemporary readers may find them old-fashioned—imagine not having sex just out of a sense of personal integrity!—but they are none the less believable individuals.

Today the idea that one simply walks away from an unhappy marriage is taken as a truism rather than an epiphany.

That’s not a criticism of B.F.’s Daughter, but of our culture.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Hucksters empty tale of empty life

As World War II winds down, Victor Norman resigns his military propaganda job.

A New York ad agency hires him to handle the Beaute Soap account.


The Hucksters by Frederic Wakeman

Rinehart, 1946. 307 p. 1946 bestseller # 5. My Grade: C-.


Beaute Soap CEO Evan Evans, is a cruel, controlling, old coot whose only joy in life (aside from selling soap) is making people’s lives miserable.

Vic finds he loathes advertising and radio.

He’s not particularly interested in money either.

Vic doesn’t really know what he wants.

All goes well until Vic falls for Kay Dorrance, a rich, sexy woman with two children who is waiting for her husband to come home. Vic becomes sugar daddy to the kids and bedfellow to their mother.

Vic wants Kay to divorce her husband and marry him. He’ll need a bigger salary to support her and the kids.

Vic’s need for money gives Evans a way to control him.

Vic sees himself poised to become a huckster like the people around him.

Will he fall?

Will readers care if he does?

Frederic Wakeman’s novel is as much a piece of hucksterism as any commercial.

The plot is complex and subtle as a billboard, the characters no more than billboard-deep.

In fact, if you strung together a series of billboards, you’d have as good a novel as The Hucksters.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Vittoria’s secret: a million bottles of wine

After I finished The Secret of Santa Vittoria, I couldn’t help thinking that I must have seen the film version and not remembered it.

Robert Crichton’s novel, however, is not soon forgotten.


The Secret of Santa Vittoria by Robert Crichton

Simon and Schuster, 1966, 447 pp. 1966 bestseller #3. My grade: B+.


1966-03_santavittoria_200With Mussolini’s death, the remote mountain town of Santa Vittoria expects to be plundered by the German army before being liberated by the Allies.

Santa Vittoria has only one asset: its wine.

Bombolini, the clownish wine merchant and student of Machiavelli, steps up to save the day.

Bombolini becomes Mayor by giving away free wine.

But his real genius is in organizing the entire town to hide a million bottles of wine within an arm’s length of the Germans.

Determined to prove he and his seven German soldiers can subdue an entire town without bloodshed, Captain von Prum swallows Bombolini’s bait every time.

Though a thousand people know the secret, no one tells, not even under torture by the SS.

The result is a story that swings like a bloody pendulum from farce to horror.

The funny parts are almost vaudevillian.

The horrifying parts are nauseating.

And all of The Secret of Santa Vittoria is so ridiculously, stupidly human that the novel seems perfectly plausible.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Earth and High Heaven takes anti-Semitism personally

Several bestselling novels of the 1940s explore the issue of anti-Jewish prejudice among people who fought the Nazis, but none do it better than Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven.

Marc Reiser, a Jewish lawyer, meets Erica Drake “one of the Westmont Drakes,” at a cocktail party at her Montreal home in June, 1942. Marc had come with Erica’s brother-in-law, René.


 

Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham

Lippincott, 1944. 288 pages. 1945 bestseller # 9. My Grade: A.


Marc and Erica hit if off immediately.

cover of paperback edition of Earth and High HeavenErica attempts to introduce Marc to her father, who snubs both Marc and René.

Later, Erica’s parents explain social relationships with Jews are impossible.

For the first time in her life, Erica refuses to do what her parents expect. She continues to see Marc, though her parents won’t let him in the house.

Marc’s parents are almost as set against the relationship as Erica’s.

Graham shows prejudice is not an isolated problem. It’s hopelessly intertwined with individual personalities and complex family and social relationships.

Graham slows readers down to feel what’s happening. She’s so deft that her omniscient narrator seems to be looking at the world through the characters’ eyes.

Readers will feel the confusion, pride, frustration, and misery of distinctive characters who look and act extraordinarily like themselves.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni