Culture, faith, and conspiracy theory: My picks of ’66

In picking my top choices from a year’s bestseller list, I look not only for good writing, plausible plots, and believable characters, but also stories whose topics have enduring relevance.

My choices for 1966 top novels

collage of elements from dustjackets of The Fixer and Tell No Man

When I considered the 1966 bestsellers, enduring relevance tipped the scales in favor of The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud, and Tell No Man, by Adela Rogers St. Johns.
The two novels look at what happens when a society confuses cultural heritage with religious faith.

The Fixer

Malamud takes readers inside the mind of a victim of religious persecution, Yakov Bok, a Jew in Tsarist Russia.

1966-06_fixerEarly in the novel, a boy is found murdered.

Tsarist Russia was a state sponsor of conspiracy theories. Whenever anything bad happened, the Tsarist government assumed one of “those people” must be behind it.

Although there’s no credible evidence pointing to Bok, he’s a Jew, so he must be involved in some secret Jewish plot against innocent Russian Orthodox Christians, such as the murdered boy.

Bok’s experience of torture, starvation and months of solitary confinement is raised to tragedy by the fact that he doesn’t believe in the Jewish religion: Bok has merely been brought up in a community of Jews and grown up behaving outwardly as others in the community believe.

The Russians mistake Bok’s Jewish cultural heritage for Jewish religious faith.

Tell No Man 

Adela Rogers St. Johns examines another society that mistakes cultural heritage for religious faith, that of mid-twentieth century America.1966-07_tellnoman

The central character of the book is Hank Garvin, a white, Yale-educated, former soldier and rising Chicago stockbroker.

Hank knows some of the more familiar Bible stories, but aside from a religion class at Yale, never considered Christianity had any relevance to his daily life.

Then his best friend commits suicide.

Hank has nothing to fall back on until he experiences a religious conversion.

He shucks his job, takes a quick course in how to be a a clergyman, and in a matter of months finds himself pastor of a church in an about-to-boom California city.

Unlike Malamud’s central character, Hank’s faith is personal, not cultural.

Hank takes literally Jesus’s promise that His disciples would do greater works than He did. Hank preaches that everyone who claims to be Christian also take that promise literally.

Hank arouses opposition from the church, the city, friends, family, and wife—most of whom consider themselves Christian because they lived in culture whose heritage was predominately Christian.

Culture, faith, and conspiracy theories today

Throughout the world today, groups of people are being given preferential treatment because of what their society assumes they believe to the point of practicing that belief.

And in those same societies others are being singled for harassment (frequently by those getting preferential treatment) because of what society assumes is their faith.

The Fixer and Tell No Man remind us that culture and faith are not identical. Confusing the two can be hazardous to a society or an individual.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Share your top picks of 1966 bestselling novels

Choose up to three novels from the top 10 bestsellers for 1966. Please feel welcome to share why you picked particular books. Take all the space you like in the comments section.

I’ll share my top choices and the reasons for choosing them next Tuesday in this blog.



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

The Embezzler is too good to be memorable.

The Embezzler is the story of a man, a society, and an era.

Of the three, only the society and the era are memorable.

The Embezzler by Louis Auchincloss

Houghton, Mifflin, 1966, 277 pp. 1966 bestseller #9. My grade: B+.

Embezzler dust jacket has title in red against stock market page of newspaperGuy Prime belongs to a Manhattan family who claim society membership because their forebears married people who were distinguished.

Guy has a talent for making people like him, which, he realizes, is as big an asset as brains or ambition.

Guy’s best friend, Rex Geer, lacks even Guy’s marginal social credentials, but he makes up for them in brains, hard work, and integrity.

Rex goes into banking, Guy becomes a stockbroker.

In the depths of the Depression, Guy uses stock belonging to clients as collateral for three of his ventures.

Setbacks in 1936 bankrupt Guy.

His attempt to avoid bankruptcy leads to discovery of his embezzlement and five-years in jail.

Louis Achincloss allows Guy to tell his story, then gives Rex and Guy’s wife, Angelica, opportunity to tell their versions.

All three are over 70, recalling events 35 to 55 years earlier: It’s unlikely that any one comes close to an objective account of who Guy was.

Readers will forget Guy quickly, like a jigsaw puzzle that might have pictured either Mount Hood or a basket of kittens.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Missing Tai-Pan would be bad joss

Tai-Pan is the story of six months in the life of Dirk Straun, the Tai-Pan (Chinese for supreme leader) of the European trading community in China in 1841.

The novel is as complicated as Straun himself.

Tai-Pan: A Novel of Hong Kong  by James Clavell

Atheneum, 1966. 590 pp. 1966 bestseller #8. My grade: A.

1966-08_Tai-PanStraun is scrubbed, clean-shaven, and suave in a day when men are dirty, lousy, and smelly.

He’s a devoted family man, with families by a wife in England and two mistresses in China.

A master manipulator, ruthless in pursuit of a dynasty, Straum’s respected even by those who hate him.

Once he’s secured Hong Kong for the English, Straum plans to go home leaving  his son to take over the trading firm.

Hong Kong is the key to the vast Chinese market: The mountainous, malaria-ridden island has the best harbor in the world.

Straun has many enemies, but the Brocks, father and son, are the deadliest.

Tensions between the two families mount as Straun’s son elopes with Brock’s daughter.

Straun usually keeps things under control, but sometimes joss—luck—is against him.

Tai-Pan has dozens of characters to keep straight. Chinese characters speaking pigeon English make it hard to understand the power struggles below the surface.

James Clavell’s writing and the once-again timely topic, however, will repay readers’ efforts.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Tell No Man shows muscular faith

Tell No Man is the story of a rising young stockbroker involved in a passionate affair with a sexy socialite to whom he’s been married several years.

Service in Korea shook Hank Garvin badly. When a long-time friend commits suicide, Hank’s foundation gives way.


Tell No Man by Adela Rogers St. Johns

Doubleday, 1966. 444 pages. 1966 bestseller #7. My grade: A.

1966-07_tellnomanShortly thereafter, Hank has a Damascus Road experience.

Like Paul, Hank’s ready to chuck everything to follow Jesus, believing he will do the same works Jesus did.

Mellie, Hank’s atheist wife, is ready to chuck Hank if he persists in going into the ministry.

Hank is convinced Mellie will stick with him.

She does, but soon realizes she “didn’t come first with Hank any more. God came first.”

That changes their marriage.

Adela Rogers St. Johns chose Mellie’s godmother, a Bible-reading Catholic and veteran Chicago newspaper reporter, to tell the story.  Her credentials give the narration authority: She is well-placed to know, to see, to speak truth.

I rarely find religious novels inspiring. This one is not just inspiring but inspiring in practical ways.

The events that lead up to the story’s climax will be familiar to anyone who’s read religious novels.

The climax, itself, however, is both a logical outgrowth of St. Johns’ plot line — and an absolutely stunning surprise.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Fixer refuses to let hatred break him

Some novels are hard to read because they are badly written; a few are hard to read because they are very well written.

The Fixer is one of those few.

The Fixer: a novel by Bernard Malamud

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966. 335 pp. 1966 bestseller #6. My grade: A.

The front dust jacket looks like cell door; the title and author information are placed so they appear to be behind bars.Yakov Bok, a handyman recently come to Kiev, sees people running in the early morning and thinks “something bad has happened.”

Bok is one of those people who seem to be natural victims. He never causes trouble: It finds him.

A Russian boy, 12, has been found murdered.

Tzarist Russia, viciously anti-Semitic, sees not a murder but a Jewish ritual slaying to provide blood to use in making Passover matzos.

Though Bok is only “a Jew by birth and nationality,” he finds himself arrested and charged with a murder he didn’t commit.

Bernard Malamud puts readers into Bok’s mind as his misery pushes him to the edge of insanity.

For nearly his entire two-and-a-half-year pre-trial imprisonment, Bok is kept in solitary confinement, denied reading material or exercise, watched by a silent “eye in the hole” of his cell door.

Bok’s refusal to confess embarrasses the government.

It also makes Bok a public figure.

Readers never learn what happens to the fixer when he finally goes to trial, but they will never forget having met him.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Walking dead man reveals The Double Image

Passing through Paris on his way to Greece, historian John Craig runs into one of his Columbia professors, a former Auschwitz inmate on his way back to the states after testifying at the trial of Nazis in Frankfurt.

The Double Image by Helen MacInnes

Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966. 309 pp. My grade: B.

words The Double Image shown as mirror image
Over drinks, Sussman confides that he’s seen a dead Nazi on a Paris street.

Craig wonders if Sussman is hallucinating.

Then he sees a man follow Sussman from the cafe.

The next day Craig learns the professor was found dead, apparently of suicide.

Those unsettling experiences—and a party hosted by his brother-in-law in the foreign service—plunge Craig into the grim world of Cold War international espionage.

Helen MacInnes keeps a tight rein on her complex plot. She sketches the main characters in only slightly more detail than necessary to make their behavior believable.

There’s nothing of James Bond about Craig. He can use his fists or a pistol, but his intelligence is his main weapon.

And he doesn’t get even one woman into bed—not even the one woman he’d like to have there.

The Double Image will please readers who like their entertainment fast moving and intellectually challenging.

© 2016 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.

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