My picks of 1967’s bestselling novels

From the 1967 bestsellers, I can recommend two very good novels and one good collection of quotations.

The very good novels are The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron and The Chosen by Chaim Potok.

The good collection of quotations is The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder.

The Confessions of Nat Turner

Quote overlaid on photo of Black Lives Matter rally says white people can't help taunting and tormenting blacks.

Confessions is a novel, but one that’s based solidly in fact, with just Styron’s finessing to make it coherent and powerful for a twentieth century audience.

Nat Turner, a Negro slave who was raised as a “house nigger,” was educated by his owners at a time when allowing a black to have any schooling was a crime.

The family also had Nat trained as a carpenter, gave him his own Bible, and promised him his freedom at age 25.

Before that date rolled around, the family fell on hard times and had to sell their most valuable assets.

One of those assets was Nat.

Because of his carpentry skills, Nat manages to survive under the plantation system, but because of his education, in the white South he finds himself without companionship.

Loneliness warps Nat’s mind.

He begins to believe God wants him to lead a slave insurrection.

In August, 1831, a few dozen slaves in Southampton, Virginia — far fewer than Nat expected to join him — rose up against their white overlords, slaughtering mercilessly.

Styron presents Nat’s story from two perspectives. One is the story he tells his lawyer,  who is more interested in making a name for himself from the trial than in defending Nat.

The other is the story he doesn’t tell his lawyer: the story of what Nat saw, felt, and believed about the people and incidents that shaped his life.

Nat’s inner story is gripping.

He can’t ever be friends with white people:

Even when [white people] care, even when they are somehow on your side they cannot help but taunt and torment you. ~

And he can’t even hope to better himself by talent and hard work:

A Negro’s most cherished possession is the drab, neutral cloak of anonymity he can manage to gather around himself, allowing him to merge faceless and nameless with the common swarm: impudence and misbehavior are, for obvious reasons, unwise, but equally so is the display of an uncommon distinction, for the former attributes can get you starved, whipped, chained, the latter may subject you to such curiosity and hostile suspicion as to ruinously impair the minute amount of freedom you possess.

An historical note in the novel’s afterward reveals that Nat was right to be wary of whites:

All of the insurrectionists executed were given a decent burial except Nat. His body was handed over to doctors who skinned it. A purse was made of the hide, the flesh cooked for grease.

The Chosen

Chaim Potok’s novel about Hasidic Jews in New York City, revolves around a teenager with a different sort of relationship issues.

Two Jewish rabbis talk. Both love their sons.

Danny Saunders, a brilliant boy with a photographic memory, is being raised in an Hasidic home. His father, Rabbi Saunders, refuses to speak to Danny on any topic other than the Talmud.

Danny loves his father, but he’s boiling with anger and resentment about his father’s silent treatment.

At a Jewish inter-mural high school baseball game, Danny vents his hostility on the opposing team’s pitcher: Danny’s powerful, carefully directed swing smashes Reuven Malter in the face with the baseball, sending shards of his glasses into his eye.

Later Danny comes to the hospital to apologize to Reuven.

The two boys, finding they are both without intellectual peers among their classmates, become friends.

Reuven’s father becomes a mentor to Danny.

Reuven becomes a conduit by which Rabbi Saunders tells Danny that his father is sincerely, lovingly doing what he believes is best for him.

The Chosen is a shortish novel, and there’s nothing self-consciously literary in Potok’s writing style. Nevertheless, The Chosen isn’t a novel that can be skimmed: It requires thoughtful attention or readers will miss the love underlying the seemingly fractured father-son relationship.

The Eighth Day

Unlike The Chosen and Confessions, which are short novels with emotionally dense stories, The Eighth Day is a long novel with hardly enough story to fill a novella.

Wilder fills space with ramblings. They don’t make a good novel, but they make clever quotes.

These three quotes could be a comments on The Confessions of Nat Turner:

Man is cruel to man and even those who are kind to those nearest them are inhuman to others. It’s not kindness that’s important but justice. Kindness is the stammering apology of the unjust.

♠ ♠ ♠

Suffering is like money… It circulates from hand to hand. We pass on what we take in.

♠ ♠ ♠

There are no Golden Ages and no Dark Ages. There is the oceanlike monotony of the generations of men under the alternations of fair and foul weather.

These two comments might be stimulated by reading The Chosen:

No man can be a good father until he has understood his own.

♠ ♠ ♠

Men and faith and men of genius have this in common: they know (observe and remember) many things they are not conscious of knowing. They are attentive to relationships, recurrences patterns, and “laws.”

Here are three other quotes from The Eighth Day, to show to range of Wilder’s wanderings.

Boredom is energy frustrated of outlet.

♠ ♠ ♠

There is no creation without faith and hope.

♠ ♠ ♠

All mothers love their children. We know that. But maternal love is like the weather. It is always there and we are most aware of it when it is undergoing change.

♠ ♠ ♠

That wraps up my reviews and ramblings about the 1967 bestselling novels. The next time we meet, it will be to look at the bestseller list of 1968.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni


The Exhibitionist: The title reveals all

paperback copy of *The Exhibitionist* minus its front cover
The Exhibitionist lacks the decency to cover up.

My paperback copy of The Exhibitionist arrived minus a front cover.

That is what literary scholars call symbolism.

The Exhibitionist: A Novel by Henry Sutton
Fawcett Crest Book, 1968 [paper], 479 pp. 1967 bestseller #10. My grade: D-.

The Exhibitionist is a novel about film people who seem to spend most of their lives minus a front cover.

Or back cover.

The story begins in a small town in Montana, where a traveling salesman gets a young girl drunk, and seduces her.

Her father, himself the son of an unwed mother, brings her home where she bears a son, Amos Meredith Houseman.

When Amos is old enough, he is seduced by his high school drama teacher. Then Amos goes off to drama school, studies acting, and becomes film star Meredith Houseman.

Amos’s first wife, Elaine, has a child whom they name Meredith but call Merry.

Merry’s parents divorce, and each remarries.

Amos has several marriages, many liaisons.

Merry grows up anything but merry. She craves love and attention, but she’ll settle for attention.

Merry, too, goes into the film business.  She becomes a commercial success and a moral bankrupt.

Merry goes home to Montana to have her baby and “a new beginning.”

This depraved tale is rendered more reprehensible by the fact that  David R. Slavitt — Henry Sutton is a pseudonym —
can write.

Really write.

What a waste of talent.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Gabriel Hounds: Suspense with a hashish haze

The plot of The Gabriel Hounds is one that Catherine Morland would have loved, had that Jane Austen creation lived in the 1960’s drug culture.

Christy Mansel is on a package tour of the Middle East when she bumps into her second cousin, Charles, who’s on a business trip.

The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart
M. S. Mill Co. 1967, 320 p. 1967 bestseller #9. My grade: B.

Christy and Charles decide to look up their Great Aunt Harriet, an eccentric recluse,  taking separate vehicles.

When her tour group heads home, Christy stays on in Beirut, hires a car and driver and goes to Dar Ibrahim, her great aunt’s crumbling palace in the Lebanon mountains.

Hamid, Christy’s driver, shoulders their way in over the objections of the old Arab porter.

They’re greeted by John Lethman, a young researcher who says he came to Lebanon doing research and Lady Harriet took him into her household.

Christy finds him plausible, given her Aunt Harriet’s fondess for young men.

Hamid sees the signs of a hashish smoker.

Mary Stewart keeps the story moving, with just enough sexual tension between the cousins to make Christy interesting when she’s alone on the page.

Stewart lets Christy talk far more to strangers than any reasonably intelligent young woman alone in a foreign land would do, but most readers will finish the novel before they notice.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Plot: A novel great in its day

Section of dust jacket for *The Plot* shows Paris site of peace conference at night.

The Plot is a novel about a handful of characters trying to recreate their picture of themselves at their best.

It’s set against the background of a Paris conference aimed at keeping China from acquiring a nuclear bomb.

The Plot: A Novel by Irving Wallace
Simon and Schuster, 1967. 828 p. 1967 bestseller #8. My grade: B.

The story is, as blurb-writers say, “ambitious” and “monumental” — which means slow-starting and agonizingly complex.

Irving Wallace is a good story-teller, but there’s simply too much story to tell in one novel.

The lead character, Matthew Brennan, is an American who worked for the State Department until wrongfully accused of treason. He’s in Paris hoping to get one of the two people who can clear his name to speak for him.

Former political columnist Jay Thomas Doyle is in Paris to see his old girl friend who knows the man who can say who really killed JFK — and give Doyle material for a book to resuscitate his career.

The old girl friend is writing color pieces for a news service at the Paris Summit.

There’s also a heart-of-gold whore trying to get home to England, an incompetent who was America’s president at the time of Brennan’s troubles, and a host of other characters too numerous to remember.

Few readers who aren’t baby boomers or older will have the background knowledge to appreciate this great-in-the-day novel.

©  2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni


Rosemary’s Baby: Infantile horror novel

Everybody over 40 knows what Rosemary’s Baby is about, just as they know Moby Dick is about a guy hunting a white whale.

creepy Victorian house on*Rosemary's Baby* book jacket

The difference between Ira Levin’s novel and Herman Melville’s is that there’s more to Moby Dick what everybody knows.

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
Random House, 1967, 245 p. 1967 bestseller # 7. My grade: C.

The story is about Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse, a young couple who move into a New York City apartment house noted for its Victorian architecture, its history of unsavory residents, and its unusually high rate of suicides.

Guy goes to work—he’s an actor who works mainly in commercials —and Rosemary putters at decorating, always with an eye to how the rooms can be rearranged to accommodate a baby.

After the inexplicable suicide of young woman who lived with the older couple next door, Rosemary and Guy get sucked into friendship with them.

Strange things start to happen.

Ira Levin, a master of the art of plotting, keeps the story moving briskly.

Levin doesn’t attempt to flesh out any of the characters beyond their initial descriptions. Nobody in the book learns anything or changes in any way.

The characters are dummies in an all-dummy cast which, in horror novels, may be the proper authorial pose.

Sympathy is wasted on dummies.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni


The Eighth Day: A simple story made complicated

The Eighth Day begins with murder of Breckenridge Lansing in his yard as he and his friend John Ashley are engaged in their customary Sunday afternoon rifle practice.

Tried and convicted for the murder, Ashley was rescued from execution by six silent, disguised men and never heard from again.

The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder
Harper & Row, 1967. 435 p. 1967 bestseller #6. My grade: B+.

Having hooked his readers, Thornton Wilder plays them for another 400 pages, now letting them drift backward on the story line, them abruptly jerking them forward into the Great War era.

Set out in linear fashion, the plot would be fairly simple. Wilder’s literary style makes it complicated—which appears to be his point: The world’s bid and wide and our perspective is narrow.

Wilder dips deep into the histories of the Lansings and Ashleys, seeking family traits that the 1902 characters might have inherited that could explain their behaviors.

The time shifts nearly hide the absurdities in the plot.

Wilder’s characters are clearly drawn, entirely believable bundles of heroism and absurdities.

Despite that, whatever is distinctive about the characters is crushed beneath Wilder’s self-conscious style.

quote : compares way some people naturally idealize to silk moth's secretion

He produces bon mots as continuously as a Bombyx mori secretes silk.

quote: idealism of youth compared to silk moth's silk secretion

Two comparisons to a Bombyx mori secreting silk within 16 pages is one mot too many.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Christy: Facts get in the way of fiction

Against her parents’ wishes, after hearing the founder of the American Inland Mission tell about needs of impoverished people within a day’s train ride of her Asheville, N.C., home, Christy Huddleston goes off to teach in a one-room school in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains.

section of map of Cutter Gap, TN, 1912
Small section of map on inside cover of Christy.

From the moment she steps off the train in a snow storm and finds no one to meet her, Christy’s romantic ideas of Christian service begin crumble.

Christy by Catherine Marshall
McGraw-Hill, 1967 496 pp.
1967 bestseller #5. My grade: B.

Christy has over 60 students of all ages in a single room.

There are no books.

Students walk to school barefoot year round, heedless of mud and snow.

The smell of unwashed bodies is overpowering.

Cutters Gap has some assets. Handsome preacher David Grantland is one of them.

Another is Alice Henderson, a quiet and sensible Quaker woman who wants the highlanders to know that God loves them.

Prickly, anti-religious Dr. Neil McNeil is a third.

Catherine Marshall based her novel on her parents’ experience in Appalachia in 1912-13, telling the story through her mother’s perspective. That perspective seriously weakens the story: Marshall is too close to her real life characters to make their fictional counterparts feel real.

Like a sermon in a movie theater, the story just feels out of place.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Topaz digs the dirt on Russian disinformation campaign

Topaz is a political thriller on a hot topic of the sixties: Russia’s attempt to put missiles in Cuba.Military dress hat and gloves adorn Topaz dust jacket of Topaz

As a dictator threatens the US with nuclear attack and the US investigates the Russians’ disinformation tactics in the 2016 election, Topaz seems timely again.

Topaz by Leon Uris
McGraw-Hill, [1967] 341 p. 1964 bestseller #4. My grade: B.

Leon Uris weaves a story that involves people at the highest levels of the diplomatic services in America, France, and Russia, including a fictionalized John F. Kennedy-like character.

The story begins when a KGB agent seeking to defect contacts Americans secret service agents in Copenhagen.

The US gives Brois Kuznetov and his family asylum.

Kuznetov insists André Devereaux, head of the French secret service in Washington, be present when he is interrogated.

Kuznetov revels he ran a secret department, code name Topaz, that specialized in disinformation.

Topaz accomplished much of its highly successful effort to mislead America by leaking information to their French allies who passed it on. The KGB’s work reached to office of the French president.

Characters interest Uris more than events: He makes opportunities to tell of their lives years prior to the story’s start.

His biographical sketches make his characters believably ordinary, despite their important political roles.

And political victories take a back seat to friendships.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

“The Chosen” examines friendship, faith, fatherhood

collage of photos of Hasidic Jews, a baseball glove, broken glasses.
The Chosen begins with Hasidic Jews, baseball, and broken glasses.

Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen opens with a baseball game between two Jewish parochial schools.

The Hasidic school’s best player is Danny Saunders. Reuven Malter leads the orthodox school’s team, which the Hasidim consider as bad as Christians.

The Chosen by Chaim Potok
© 1967. Book Club Edition, 284 pp. 1967 bestseller #3. My grade: A.

Danny slams back one of Reuven’s pitches, sending shards of his glasses into his eye.

Later Danny comes to the hospital to apologize.

Reuven is smart, Danny, with his photographic memory, is brilliant. A friendship springs up between the boys who have no intellectual peers in their schools.

Through the boys’ friendship, Potok takes readers deep into the orthodox scene.

Reuven is very close to his scholarly father. He finds Rabbi Saunders’s refusal to speak to Danny on any topic other than the Talmud appalling.

Danny is hurt by the silent treatment, but loves and respects his father.

As the boys begin college, the question arises: What will happen if they want different careers than their fathers have chosen for them?

In Potok’s deceptively straightforward narrative, it’s easy to miss details that reveal motives deeply rooted in the two faith communities. Some readers will need to read the novel twice to grasp the faith context.

Others may read The Chosen twice because it’s worth reading more than once.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni