The Man from St. Petersburg

Dust jacket uses red type to suggest The Man from St. Petersburg is targeted for death.
Targeted man faces symbols of empires

In The Man from St. Petersburg, Ken Follett once again spins an imaginary tale around an actual attempt to win a war by misdirection. Here his focus is World War I.

All Europe knows war is inevitable: Germany has the continent’s strongest army and it wants Alsace and Lorraine back.

England is militarily weak. She and France will need a third ally against Germany.

The Czar wants an alliance with England; he’s sent Prince Orlov to London to seek one.

Winston Churchill taps the Earl of Walden to handle negotiations for England. Walden’s Russian wife is Orlov’s cousin.

Before their marriage, Lady Walden had a lover in St. Petersburg, a poor, militant radical; when her family found out, they had Feliks arrested and tortured. To save his life, she agreed to marry Lord Walden.

The couple have a daughter making her debut in society in 1914 just as Feliks, hardened by imprisonment in Siberia, has come to London to kill Orlov.

Compared to his ordinary blokes, Follett’s upper crust characters are two-dimensional, and unfortunately the focus in The Man is on the social and political elite.

Only Follett’s generous sprinkling of 1914 historical trivia raise the novel above the ordinary.

The Man from St. Petersburg by Ken Follett
W. Morrow. © 1982. 323 p.
1982 bestseller #10. My grade: B

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

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 frontline 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

Sonia puts human face on first year of WWI

A memoir of 1898-1915 written by a “member of the governing classes” who spent those years at a British public school and at Oxford doesn’t sound particularly interesting.

And it wouldn’t be, except for what George Oakleigh records happened between August 1914 and August 1915.

Title Sonia: Between Two Worlds superimposed on map of pre-World War I Europe


Sonia: Between Two Worlds by Stephen McKenna

George H. Doran, 1917. 475 pages. 1918 bestseller #10. My grade: B.


The Prague-born son of an Irish lord who, after his pro-Greek father was murdered by Turks, worked his way back to England, David O’Rane pays all his money to buy one term’s tuition at Merton.

David quickly wins admirers and friends including George, the reliable guy everyone trusts; Jim Loring; Tom Dainton, and Tom’s younger sister, Sonia.

Sonia enters into a secret engagement with David until she decides he isn’t rich enough for her.

Sonia later becomes engaged to Jim Loring, whom she also dumps.

Sonia is motoring on the continent in August, 2014, when war is declared.

David borrows an American identity, gets Sonia out of danger, and escorts her home.

Then he enlists.

Stephen McKenna makes the David-Sonia story end well, but little else does.

McKenna’s descriptions of Melton, Oxford, and party politics are only for the initiated.

His descriptions of the feeling of the possibility and then the certainty of wa­r are for everyone.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Sexy WWI female spy proves The Pawns Count

The Pawns Count is a can’t-put-down thriller about a female spy in the tense days when Germany and England were fighting trench-to-trench in France.

E. Phillips Oppenheim clothes characters from the era’s pop fiction with individual personalities and immerses them in detail his readers would have heard shouted by paperboys in London and New York.


The Pawns Count by E. Phillips Oppenheim

1918 bestseller #8. Project Gutenberg ebook #9836. My grade: B+.


Pamela VanTeyl is lunching with a British officer in a London restaurant when another guest, an explosives inventor, goes to wash his hands, and disappears.

When Pamela visits two of the restaurant’s employees that afternoon, readers learn that she’s much more than a rich, sexy, American socialite.

Pamela is actively pursued by German-American Oscar Fischer, a man her equal in brains and fortune. As long as America stays out of the war, Fischer is for Germany first, America second.

Pamela also pursued by John Lutchester, a lightly-wounded British officer doing desk duty in the Ministry of Munitions.

Before the novel ends, the intrigue has reached to the highest levels of government in four nations.

Oppenheim’s novel is more than a pleasant pass time: It gives a window into American attitudes toward Europe and the Great War, and lays the historical groundwork for the next war two decades later.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Major an amalgam of familiar plot lines

Canadian Expeditionary Forces artillerymen prepare shell as early Christmas present to Germany, Nov. 2016
Canadian artillerymen ready early Christmas package to Germans.

Larry Gwynne, normally an obedient 10-year-old, plays hooky from school with some other boys one spring day.

Challenged to prove himself in a fight, Larry refuses. The other boys say he’s a coward, like this Quaker mother.


The Major by Ralph Connor

1918 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg ebook #3249. My grade: C.


From that beginning, Ralph Connor produces a novel about how rural Canadians responded first to the threat and then to the fact of the first World War.

The plot is an amalgam of familiar story lines.

As the title suggests, Larry grows up to become a major in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces.

There are several romances in the novel as Larry’s two sisters, some of their friends, and then Larry himself find true love.

There’s also a plot of sorts about Larry’s beloved mother, scrimping to supply the necessities her husband’s inept management deprives them of.

Connor doesn’t actually develop any of the plots: He merely drags them through the same pages together.

The novel is not a bad first draft, but it needs a good working over with a blue pencil to reduce the number of plots, and give more definition to the central characters, and smudge the outlines of the lesser ones.

Connor’s skills improved with practice, as his bestseller the following year shows.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Dere Mable sees WWI recruit’s funny side

Dere Mable is what it’s fictional narrator would probably call an E. Pistol Larry novel.

Dust jacket of Dere Mable shows Bill Smith in his tent in France penciling a letter to Mable back home.

The American army is attempting to turn Bill Smith into a clog in its fighting machine in France.

Bill had mastered the clog part before he reached training camp.


Dere Mable: Letters of a Rookie by Edward Streeter

G. William Breck. illus. 1918 bestseller #4. Project Gutenberg ebook #13993.
My grade C.


Turning Bill into a soldier makes defeating the Germany army look like child’s play.

Bill writes Mable chatty letters about life in the Army where “bed and board mean the same thing” and recruits are told to “walk a post but their aint no post.”

Bill tells Mable he’s taking French lessons at the YMCA so he can talk to girls when he gets to France, but when Bill hears Mable has been spending a lot of time with someone named Broggins, he is furious.

Dere Mable has little plot and virtually no character development. G. William Breck’s droll illustrations bring the story to life and make it long enough to be called a book.

Though he makes Bill a comic figure, Edward Streeter’s tone is gentle. He doesn’t mock Bill for lack of education, but for his smug self-delusion.

Streeter’s respect for the American conscript is what makes Dere Mable a more durable work than Mac Hyman’s No Time for Sergeants 36 years later.

Streeter dedicates his novel to the privates who "serve as a matter of course."
The dedication page of Edward Streeter’s Dere Mable

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Amazing Interlude explores the meaning of America

It was fitting that I read The Amazing Interlude  on July 4, because the plot of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s novel grows out of a young girl’s developing sense of what being an American means.


The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Illustrations by the Kinneys. 1918 bestseller #3.
Project Gutenberg ebook #1590. My grade: A-.


Sara Lee Kennedy, 19, is planning to marry a man “as slow as he was sure, as unimaginative as he was faithful,” when a letter telling of the appalling conditions of the Belgian Army touches her imagination.

Sara offers to go to France before marrying Harvey if the Methodist women donate money for her to run a soup kitchen.

Though she knows no French, has no credentials, and has no contacts to help her, Sara gets to Europe and sets up a soup kitchen in a roofless house in Dunkirk, a few hundred yards from the front.

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Her finacé regards her decision as treacherous. While Sara makes soup and cleans wounds, Harvey fumes at home.

Finally Harvey explodes.

He accuses the Methodist ladies of being publicity hounds just as Sara’s letter arrives asking them for more funds for the kitchen.

She’s recalled to America.

When Harvey refuses even to listen to Sara’s stories of what she saw in France, Sara breaks the engagement.

She saw him for what he was, not deliberately cruel, not even unkindly, but selfish, small, without vision. Harvey was for his own fireside, his office, his little family group. His labor would always be for himself and his own. Whereas Sara Lee was, now and forever, for all the world, her hands consecrated to bind up its little wounds and to soothe its great ones. Harvey craved a cheap and easy peace. She wanted no peace except that bought by service, the peace of a tired body, the peace of the little house in Belgium where, after days of torture, weary men found quiet and ease and the cheer of the open door.

Rinehart lets Sara find love, but the romance is secondary to Sara’s finding herself.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

One Increasing Purpose seeks answer to “Why me?”

In One Increasing Purpose, A. S. M. Hutchinson presents a nice guy, Simon “Sim” Paris, who survived World War I without a scratch.

Sim  wonders why he was spared.


One Increasing Purpose by A. S. M. Hutchinson

Little, Brown,and Company, 1925,  448 pp. 1925 bestseller #10. My grade: C+.


All his family call on Sim’s sympathy.

Andrew, Sim’s oldest brother, is married to a woman temperamentally her husband’s opposite; after 10 years of marriage they are finding passion a poor substitute for shared values.

Sim’s other brother, Charles, is fond of his wife and she of him, but their relationship ends with fondness.

Looking for a sympathetic ear for his own problems, Sims looks up girl he’d known before the war. When Sim tell Elizabeth he’s convinced he was spared for a purpose, she says the purpose “is of God.”

Sim spends the rest of the novel trying to find God’s purpose, while simultaneously trying to help his brothers and sisters-in-laws with their marital problems.

Sims is the sort of person you’d want as a friend, but he’s awfully dull as a male lead. Sim’s declaration of undying love is, “Elizabeth,” which is not a particularly memorable line.

To get the mess untangled, Hutchinson resorts to a deus ex machina, which perhaps is appropriate for a protagonist whose statement of faith is “Christ the Common Denominator.”

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

WWI Veterans “Backed the Wrong Horse”

American flag waving in breeze

Since this is Memorial Day weekend when America stops between barbeques and ball games to remember those who served in its military, this excerpt from Conningsby Dawson’s 1924 bestseller The Coast of Folly is perhaps apt. The speaker, an American heiress in her twenties, is reflecting on how World War I —”the Great War” — affected her generation.

While it had lasted, it had made us postpone our youth by dazzling us with visions of the rewards of sacrifice. From the moment it had ended, we had grown increasingly certain that, if such rewards had ever existed, during our generation they were going to be withheld. We grew cynical about the advantages of goodness. They seemed to be more profitable to preach about than to practice. We saw those who had gone in search of them in the face of wounds and death, sleeping out in parks like broken speculators. They’d backed the wrong horse in doing their duty; the bottom had fallen out of the hero-market. Selfish people and shirkers had come out on top. No one thought the worse of them. They were fussed over and courted, these far-seeing investors who had refused to accept ideals at an inflated value. They’d kept their heads in the frenzy of patriotism, their hands in their pockets, their skins whole. While the gullible had been smashed in trenches, they’d converted calamity into business opportunity. We girls who had looked on, had learned a lesson in disillusionment: sin was a bug-a-boo; God a legend; right and wrong party cries in the game of self-advantage. To live for oneself and go in quest of pleasure seemed the only wisdom to adopt.

In the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, has the bottom fallen out of the hero-market again?


 

The Coast of Folly is slated for review here July 29.

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Razor’s Edge is dull today

Cover of The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, a new novel.The narrator of The Razor’s Edge  says he never began a novel with more misgiving.

His apprehension is well-founded.

Invited to a luncheon by an American acquaintance, the narrator meets his niece Isobel and her boy friend. Larry had lied about his age to become a pilot in The Great War. Since the war ended, he’s done nothing.

Isobel’s family refuse let her marry Larry unless he stops loafing and starts working.

Isabel threatens to call off their engagement unless he gets a job.

Larry calls her bluff.

Isobel marries a financier instead.

Larry bums around Europe and India reading philosophy and contemplating infinity, a flower child 40 years ahead of his time.

Why won’t Larry work?

We’d say he had post-traumatic stress disorder. Larry says (much later to the narrator) – that he was grappling with how evil could exist if there is a good God. In this tale of rich Americans in European watering spots between the wars, a  discussion of the problem of good and evil is as bizarre as a singer in a tuxedo at the Woodstock Festival.

The book’s high point is W. Somerset Maugham’s oft-quoted line about American women expecting the perfection in their husbands that English women expect only in their butlers.

The Razor’s Edge: a novel
By W. Somerset Maugham
Doubleday, 1943
343 pages
1944 bestseller # 5
My Grade: B-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni