The Bourne Supremacy

Black background directs focus of The Bourne Supremacy to man, woman in gun scope
Bourne and Marie are targets

The Bourne Supremacy is Robert Ludlum’s sequel to his 1980 bestseller The Bourne Identity.

Here David Webb is pulled from university teaching to return to being Jason Webb, an assassin working for the U.S. government.

The U.S. government secures Webb’s cooperation by kidnapping his wife.

While Webb has been recovering from the physical and mental trauma of his former life, someone in the Far East hired an assassin to impersonate him.

Highly placed American diplomats fear assassinations of highly-placed individuals will trigger an invasion of Hong Kong by mainland China, disrupting economies worldwide.

Most of the novel’s action takes place in Hong Kong’s crowded streets and back alleys, where men change their allegiance for a $20 bill.

Readers need to pay close attention as Ludlum constructs stories within stories.

In the Orient — and in American political life — things are often not what they seem and it’s assumed that every assertion is a lie.

While Ludnum’s characters are not, one hopes, the sort of folk readers rub shoulders with every day, they are believable in their context.

It’s not necessary to read Ludlum’s 1980 and 1986 bestsellers as a set—Ludlum’s too good a writer for that—but doing so gives The Bourne Supremacy greater impact.

The Bourne Supremacy by Robert Ludlum
Random House, ©1986. 597 p.
1986 bestseller #4; my grade: B+

©2019 Linda G. 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


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

The Black Rose sheds light on three cultures

In The Black Rose novelist Thomas B. Costain takes readers back into the Dark Ages with a romantic tale that sweeps from England to China.

The bastard son of a Crusader, Walter of Gurnie hopes to make a fortune in the Far East so he can come back to England and be somebody.

The Black Rose by Thomas B. Costain

Doubleday, Doran, 1945. 403 pages. 1945 bestseller #5, 1946 bestseller  #8. My grade: B-.


Walter  gets caught up in the common people’s fight for justice against the nobles.

Dust Jacket of The Black Rose
This novel was on my parents’ bookshelves.

When their role becomes known, Walter and his sidekick, Tristram, skeedaddle.

Walter and Tristram hook up with a caravan led by Mongolian General Bayan of the Hundred Eyes. The party includes 81 girls being sent as a present to Kubla Khan.

Walter and Tristram help Maryam, a girl sired by a Crusader, to escape. Walter marries her.

The trio make a fortune in China.

Then the men get separated from Maryam and return without her to England.

The Black Rose would be worth reading just for its comparison of the cultures of West, Middle-East, and Far East in later 13th century.

Neither the characters nor the plot is believable, but Costain moves things along quickly so readers don’t have much time to notice. The result is an entertaining novel with some educational value slipped in.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni


Oil for the Lamps of China Once Farsighted, Now Timely

oil lamps collage
Chinese Oil Lamps

Oil for the Lamps of China is a story of a company man in an alien culture. The novel’s detail reflects the lifetime Alica Tisdale Hobart spent in the Far East.

Stephen Chase goes to China in 1908 as a sales rep for an American oil company, leaving Lucy, his fiancé, behind: The company frowns on men dragging their wives along.

When Lucy throws him over, Stephen marries Hester Wentworth, whose father died on their voyage to China.

Stephen works hard, learning to stifle his personal wishes. He also learns to respect and value the Chinese culture. He becomes a real asset to the company.

Hester doesn’t fare so well. She never really adjusts to China.

At long last, Stephen realizes the company feels no loyalty to its employees. That realization frees him to chuck the whole thing.

Stephen and Hester are not vivid personalities, and their associations drain them. The company and China submerge individuals and become the novel’s real main characters.

China is just now becoming the consumer economy Hobart envisioned. And Americans have only recently realized that multinational companies don’t value employee loyalty.

It’s time to rediscover this far-sighted novel.

Oil for the Lamps of China
By Alice Tisdale Hobart
Grosset & Dunlap, 1933
403 pages
1934 bestseller # 9
My Grade: B+

Photo collage : Chinese Oil Lamps by Linda Aragoni

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Sand Pebbles shows gunboat diplomacy’s murky underside

sailing on Yangtzee River
Yangtzee River

In 1925, Jack Holman becomes a Sand Pebble, one of the U. S. Navy seamen assigned to the San Pablo, an aging gunboat that patrols the Yangtze River. Jack’s a loner whose passion is engines.

He quickly learns the San Pablo is “a home and a feeder,” where coolies do the work and living conditions are easy.

Jack’s eagerness to make the engine room run perfectly raises the ire of those content to leave all the work to the coolies. And when he teaches one of the ordinary coolies how engines work, he makes the head of the coolie engine crew lose face.

Jack resents the battleship drill imposed by the impeccably Navy skipper, Lt. Collins, but he makes an effort to fit in, make friends. He even meets a girl he likes and could even love.

Shirley Eckert has come to teach at the China Light Mission run by belligerent missionary convinced the presence of the gunboats cause resentment among the Chinese and cause more problems than they solve.

One of Shirley’s brightest Chinese students becomes involved in the revolution. Shirley and the other China Light missionaries feel safe knowing Cho-jen’s political genius will protect them from even the resentment against Americans that the Navy’s river patrols arouse.

The Sand Pebbles have nothing to protect them from the Chinese resentment or from Lt. Collins’s patriotic fervor.

Richard McKenna plots his story with military precision. The characters are cleanly drawn, utterly believable, bewilderingly human.

And, if that were not enough, from his own service on a Yangtze River gunboat, McKenna has insights into the Chinese landscape and culture that help contemporary readers understand events in the Far East today.

The Sand Pebbles
by Richard McKenna
Harper & Row, 1962
597 pages
1963 bestseller # 9
My grade: A

Photo credit: Three Gorges by GoldDuck

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Sons Eyes Chinese Modernization and Disappointments

A view of downtown Guangzhou, China
Modern Guangzhou is far from The Good Earth

Sons ends the story of Wang Lung begun in Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth and traces the stories of his three sons who despise the land their father worked all his life to acquire.

The eldest son, a fat, womanizing lout, rents out land to tenant farmers, from which he gets the nickname Wang the Landlord.

The second son, Wang the Merchant, makes money in financial transactions that are not always entirely respectable.

The third son, Wang the Tiger, is a soldier. By courage, cunning and luck, he builds a hundred rag-tag illiterates into a mercenary army.

Wang the Tiger keeps returning to the family to get money to support his army. He adopts a son of each of his brothers, but both disappoint in different ways.

Finally at his request, the brothers find two wives for Wang the Tiger, one of whom gives him a son. He trains the son to become a military man. The son, however, chooses to be a farmer like his grandfather, repeating the theme of sons rejecting their fathers’ values.

Focused on life’s disappointments, Sons is a novel most readers would prefer to forget. Today it seems more highly valued as a guide to understanding the forces driving Chinese modernization than as a piece of literature.

Pearl S. Buck
The John Day Company, 1932
467 pages
1932 bestseller #3

Photo Credit: “Guangzhou across the Pearl”   by Integam

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Good Earth Top Seller Second Year in Row

In 1932, Pearl S. Buck’s fictional portrait of a Chinese peasant whose backbreaking work and sacrifice made him wealthy took the number one bestseller spot for the second year running.  In an era when being a bestselling author meant more than selling 79 copies of a 99¢ ebook, being top of the bestseller list two years in a row was a true achievement.

In addition to winning  popular acclaim, The Good Earth won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1932. A half-dozen years later, The Good Earth was influential in winning Buck the 1938 Nobel Prize for Literature although by that time she had already published the other two novels in the trilogy she began with The Good EarthSons in 1932 and A House Divided in 1935.  (Look for a review of Sons here at GreatPenformances in June.)

Today The Good Earth is probably more highly regarded by critics than by readers. Contemporary readers are less interested in farmers than in the murder and mayhem found in some of Buck’s less-well-known novels, like Dragon Seed,

Nonetheless, the novel is still good reading, and remarkably easy reading for such an acclaimed literary success.

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Keys of the Kingdom top seller second year in row

A. J. Cronin’s novel The Keys of The Kingdom headed the bestseller list in 1941. It was still on the list in 1942, although it had dropped to tenth place.

The novel remains good entertainment today. It is an intriguing character study of someone who finds that fitting is definitely overrated.  Keys’ lead character, Francis Chisholm, the missionary priest to China’s “rice Christians,”  could probably have answered “yes” to each of Leonard Felder’s 15 self-analysis questions to determine if one is an “insightful outsider.”

A full review of the novel is included with the 1941 bestsellers.

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni


Dragon Seed Eyes Killing in a Good Cause

Rice paddies and mountains near Yangshuo in Southern China

In Dragon Seed, Pearl S. Buck returns to her beloved China to explore an important question: does killing change people into killers?

Ling Tan is an illiterate farmer. He and his wife Lao San have three married children and a younger son and daughter.

When the Japanese invade China, Ling Tan and the other farmers hope that by being civil to the conquerors, they can lead fairly normal lives.

They are merely fooling themselves.

The invaders rape and pillage, then set up local puppet governments to systematically bleed the country.

Ling Tan and his family organizes a local resistance. But Ling Tan worries about whether the killing at which he and his family become adept will not fundamentally change them, dehumanize them. Secret radio broadcasts from the Allies give them courage to wait for the light for the invaders to be repelled.

With its secret rooms, guerrilla raids, and the constant threat of exposure hanging over the characters’ heads, Dragon Seed will attract more readers today than Buck’s better known novel The Good Earth.  Dragon Seed covers less time and has more action, much of it horrifying, though tastefully presented. It also has a vivid characterizations and a wealth of telling detail.

Above all it has that nagging question every thoughtful person must consider in an era of conflict: does killing change people into killers?

Dragon Seed
Pearl S. Buck
John Day, 1942
378 pages
1942 Bestseller #3
My Grade: A-

Photo credit: “Chinese Landscape” showing rice paddies and mountains near the town of Yangshuo in Southern China. Uploaded by bewinca

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni