Insomnia by Stephen King

Close-up black-and-white drawing of Ralph Roberts' face
                      Ralph Roberts, insomniac as drawn by David Johnson

As he so often does, in Insomnia Stephen King takes some everyday experience and turns it into something extra-ordinary.

As the story opens, retiree Ralph Roberts hasn’t been sleeping well since his wife died. He walks around Derry, ME, talking with other old-timers and trying to get tired enough to sleep.

On one of those walks, he’s shocked to see Ed Deepneau almost come to blows with another driver over a minor collision that Ed caused. Ralph knows Ed as “one of the kindest, most civil young men” he’d ever met. Ralph and his late wife had been fond of Ed’s wife, Helen, and their baby, Natalie as well. In his waking hours—of which he has more every week—Ralph tries to puzzle out what’s wrong with Ed.

When Ralph sees Helen in the convenience story parking lot, beaten, bloodied, staggering, holding her screaming infant, and muttering, “Why didn’t he stop this time?” Ralph calls the Derry police.

creature that looks like a little bald doctor carrying big scissors
Those scissors look sinister.

The next 625 pages relate the horrific consequences of that call.

The supernatural elements of King’s story are less frightening than the human horrors. And issues King raises about human behavior and human responsibility still demand attention, regardless of whether you like King’s novel.

Insomnia by Stephen King
David Johnson, illustrator
Viking. ©1994. 787 p.
1994 bestseller #4; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Smiley’s People: Last but not least

All-text dust jacket of Smiley's People
Like George Smiley, this cover does what it must

Smiley’s People is the last John Le Carré novel centered on George Smiley, an unsexy, un-egotistical, unflappable, unheroic, and unrelenting British Cold War era spymaster.

When a former agent is found murdered after having tried to contact him with information about Sandman, Smiley is brought back from retirement to “help.”

Sandman is the nickname agents had given to Smiley’s opposite number in the Russian spy apparatus.

Smiley does a deep dive through the memories of his former staff people, seeking clues to who murdered Vladimer and why.

He also does a little sleuthing on his own.

Le Carré’s novels are always more about personalities and procedures than about high speed chases and high-caliber shootouts.

In Smiley’s People, that spotlight focus is particularly chilling. Smiley is old, alone, unloved. He’s filling time until he dies. He gets one more chance to pull off something spectacular.

Everything he’s worked his whole career for depends on getting one thing right. He must solve the murder and the problems it presents for the agency.

The secret service heads want him to succeed, but not so well that he shows them up.

Le Carré’s ending is dark and plausible with the perfect amount of surprise.

Smiley’s People by John Le Carré
Knopf, 1980, ©1979. 374 p.
1979 bestseller #10 My grade: A-

©2018 Linda G. Aragoni

Travels with My Aunt pleasantly diverting

Travels with My Aunt is a novel I’d hate to part with. It’s undemanding, pleasant, and quite forgettable once it’s back on the shelf.

It is, in fact, rather like Henry Pulling the retired bank manager who is the nephew alluded to in the title of Graham Greene’s novel.

All-text cover of Travels with My Aunt
My copy of Travels with My Aunt

Henry’s unvarying routine of tending to his dahlias and telephoning to Chicken for his meals, was agreeably disrupted by his mother’s funeral.

Henry’s Aunt Augusta, whom he’d not seen in over 50 years attended the funeral. She tells Henry bits of family history he’d never known, and hints at more he would prefer not to know.

He quickly finds himself sucked into a world of eccentrics and crooks to whom wouldn’t have given even a secured loan in his banking days.

Being a gentleman and a nephew, Henry feels he ought to accompany his aunt when she travels abroad. Travel scares and exhilarates Henry. It’s certainly more interesting than growing dahlias.

Greene paints vivid pictures of his characters. In his pen, even bland Henry breathes. His gradual release of respectability in favor of adventure is believable.

There’s no great moral here. Just a pleasant reminder that growing old does not need to mean growing bored.

Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene
Viking Press, 1970. The Collected Edition, 319 p.
1970 bestseller #9. My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Perennial Bachelor a portrait of senseless waste

The title character of The Perennial Bachelor, Victor Campion, is a virtual nonentity to all but his immediate family, including Anne Parrish’s readers.

Victor was his parents eighth child but first son.

The Perennial Bachelor by Anne Parrish

Harper & Brothers, 1925, 334 pp. 1925 bestseller #8. My grade: B.

Only three of the Campion girls lived past childhood. Victor was born the evening his father died in a riding accident.

Margaret Campion is a lovely but stupid woman. At her death, she makes Maggie, the eldest daughter, promise to take care of Victor.

Victor becomes his sisters’ life as he was their mother’s.

Parrish presents the story in not-quite-in-focus memories of various of the “three Campion girls” and Victor.

Readers see each sister trying desperately to conceal from the other sisters the pain of sacrificing her own dreams so Victor can have the best.

Details about the clothing, household habits, handicraft projects, and social activities of the family members from the Civil War period through the Jazz Age reveal the extent to which the Campion’s fortunes decline as they grow older.

The Campions are pathetic when they are young. As they get old, the senseless waste of four lives is painful to watch.

Readers will want a sunny novel as a chaser after The Perennial Bachelor.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Dark Hester Lifts Curtain on Adult Growing Pains

Steam locomotive coming down the track
In-law troubles can make a woman want to run away or throw herself under a train.

Dark Hester is less dark than Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s earlier bestseller, Tante, but it, too, confronts the problem of growing older.

After burying her husband in India, Monica Wilmott returned with their infant son to England. By hard work and good management, she provided Clive with a happy childhood and an Oxford education.

She even selected a woman for him to marry.

When Clive married Hester Blakeston,  after the Great War, Monica couldn’t like her.

Everyone knew it, including Clive, but he hoped for the best.

‘We are all nothing more than children,’ thought Monica…And we discover, as we grow old, that we never grow up’

As the novel opens, a man about Monica’s age buys an adjacent farm. He makes clear he’s interested in Monica. Despite an instinct, supported by gossip, that he’s the wrong sort, Monica is attracted to Captain Ingpen.

Her daughter-in-law, however, is repelled by him.

Monica realizes the two have met before. By some sleuthing, she learns Ingpen and Hester were lovers.

That knowledge could break up Clive and Hester’s marriage.

It could also shatter the close mother-son relationship.

Monica and Hester are sufficiently well delineated that their parts are plausible, but Clive appears too bloodless to inspire the devotion of either woman.

Despite all that goes wrong, Sedgwick holds out the possibility that, given the right incentives, even adults can grow up.

Dark Hester
By Anne Douglas Sedgwick
Houghton Mifflin, 1929
300 pages
1929 bestseller #3
My Grade: B+

Photo credit: Puffing Billy by timobalk

 © 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni



The Enchanted April: Sunny, Witty, Insightful

Wisteria in bloom
The Enchanted April  is a charming novel about four unhappy women, previously unacquainted, who vacation together in Italy for a month and find love.

Elizabeth von Arnim flits from character to character, telling sections of the narrative from different one’s view point. She employs the technique with finesse, making each character a deliciously distinctive individual.

The story begins one rainy day when Lotty Wilkins sees advertisement.

To Those Who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine.
Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

On impulse, Lotty asks a woman with  whom she knows only by sight at chruch to rent the castle with her and split expenses, leaving their husbands behind. Rose Arbuthnot finds the idea of a vacation irresistible even with someone as decidedly peculiar as Lotty.

Unable to afford the rent, the pair seek two more companions. Their advertisement draws a snobbish elderly widow, Mrs. Fisher, who had known Tennyson and Matthew Arnold, and Lady Caroline Dester, 28, fleeing the host of suitors for her face and fortune.

In Italy, one after another, the women come realize their attitudes, rather than their circumstances, have been the root of their misery back home.

The novel bubbles with mirth at the folly of being disappointed by what one lacks instead of enjoying what one has, even if what one has is a not entirely satisfactory husband.

If you cannot enjoy this novel, perhaps you need a month’s holiday in Italy.

Incidentally, there’s an Academy Award nominated video version of The Enchanted April, which unfortunately omits von Arnim’s  funniest bits, but is otherwise faithful to the story and spirit of the novel.

The Enchanted April
by Elizabeth von Arnim
1923 bestseller #3
Project Gutenberg ebook #16389

Photo credit: Wisteria in Bloom 2  by Dubock

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Nothing about Black Oxen Is Plodding

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The years like Great Black Oxen tread the world
And God the herdsman goads them on behind.
—W. B. Yeats

From it’s title, I expected Black Oxen to be a story of rural life. From its, author, Gertrude Atherton, I expected a fireworks plot that fizzled after a brilliant beginning, as her 1921 Sisters-in-Law did.

I was hopelessly wrong on both counts.

Lee Clavering, a young New York drama critic, is intrigued by an attractive, obviously European woman attending a bad opening night performance.

Clavering’s cousin says the woman must be the illegitimate daughter of Madame Zattiany, née Mary Ogden, a New York socialite with whom he and the city’s most eligible bachelors were in love 30 years before. The lovely socialite married a Hungarian diplomat, from whom she was later estranged, then widowed.

The mystery lady’s lawyer—one of the long-ago suitors of Madame Zattiany—refuses to be pumped by his friends. The mystery makes the lady even more attractive to Clavering.

Alert readers will figure out the mystery long before the besotted Clavering does half way through the book, but nobody could predict what Atherton will do with the story after that.

Black Oxen‘s extraordinary characters behave in totally plausible ways as she explores issues of generational differences, ethics, marriage, international politics, medical research, sexuality, and human motivation.

The well-crafted plot is enhanced by peripheral episodes whose irrelevance to the plot lends a strong sense of reality. And Atherton combines lyric prose with razor-sharp dialogue.

Black Oxen will knock your socks off, stand you on your head, and make you wonder what hit you.

Black Oxen
by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
A. L. Burt Co., 1923
Illustrated with photos from the screen version
1923 bestseller #1
Project Gutenberg ebook #25542

© 2013 by Linda Gorton Aragoni

There’s plenty of life in Mrs. Parkington yet

Cameo Mrs. Parkington, 84, is the very rich widow of a larger-than-life scoundrel whom she adored.

The only one of herfamily Mrs. Parkington can stand is her great-granddaughter, Janie.  Daughter Alice is addicted to drugs and alcohol, much-married Madeline has just added a cowboy to her string of husbands, and Helen, Janie’s mother, is married to a man she hates.

Janie falls for a young government lawyer investigating her father’s fraudulent securities deals. Mrs. Parkington steps in to help the young lovers and repay the people her son-in-law defrauded.

Then Mrs. Parkington settles her own affairs. She changes her will to leave her heirs enough so they can live very well but “won’t be able to make fools of themselves.” Janie will get her share at age 40, after she’s had 15 years to learn what money can’t buy.

Louis Bromfield tells the story of Mrs. Parkington’s life piecemeal, as events trigger her memories. Readers get a detailed picture of the innocent Nevada lass who became a social leader by dint of her intelligence, perceptivity, moral fiber, and kindness as much as by her husband’s money.

Mrs. Parkington celebrates the art of growing old by living every day well.

Three cheers for Mrs. Parkington.

 Mrs. Parkington
By Louis Bromfield
Harper, 1942
1943  bestseller #6
My Grade: A-

Photo Credit:  Camafe  by girianelli

© 2013  Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Old Man and the Sea is short and phosphorescent

Varadero beach, Cuba.

It’s impossible to say anything really bad about Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 literary classic The Old Man and the Sea.

In the first place, it’s awfully short—I read it standing up at the local laundromat while my clothes sloshed and tumbled. A book that short doesn’t really give you much to not like.

If short isn’t enough, it’s also simple.

The characters are simple: an old man and a fish.

The plot is simple: man catches fish, man loses fish.

The dialog is simple, too: the old man has all the lines.

Even the vocabulary is simple, if you ignore phosphorescence, which Hemingway likes to throw into the story every so often, just to show he knows some big words.

Probably the worst thing you can say about The Old Man and the Sea is that it’s Literature, with a capital L. That means there is deep significance to the story. The old man isn’t just an old man, he’s All Men; and the fish isn’t just a fish, it’s human aspiration; and sharks aren’t sharks, but adversity with fins.

If you aren’t into Literature with a capital L, just watch the laundry tumble: it’s more interesting than this novel.

The Old Man and the Sea
Ernest Hemingway
Scribner’s, 1952
140 pages
1952 Bestseller #7
My grade: C
Photo credit: Varadero beach, uploaded by ZaNuDa
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Edge of Sadness cuts through sentiment

In the The Edge of Sadness, Edwin O’Connor explores the murky territory of late middle age through the experience of a Catholic priest.

When he returns East after four years in a facility for alcoholic priests,  Father Hugh Kennedy is posted to St. Paul’s. He  is content in the undemanding, shabby parish whose immigrant parishioners can spare little time from scratching a living to come to church.

An unexpected phone call from Charlie Carmody brings Father Kennedy back to his pre-bottle associations and face-to-face with the unpleasant truth that alcohol was not his only form of escapism.

Charlie wants something from Father Kennedy—Charlie always wants something—and he gets it: Charlie always gets his way. But afterward, he dies. Death comes to everyone in the end.

O’Connor’s intricate plot unfolds as a natural consequence of the personalities of his characters. From nasty, manipulative Charlie Carmody to the trusting, boyish Father Donowski, O’Connor’s characters are fully drawn human beings with distinctive absurdities.

In O’Connor’s skilled pen, Father Kennedy emerges as a figure with whom readers over 50 will immediately identify. When he is forced to confront his home truths, readers are forced to confront theirs.

The Edge of Sadness
By Edwin O’Connor
Little, Brown 1961
460 pages
1961 bestseller # 9
My Grade: A-

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni