Islands in the Stream: One man, three places

Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream is a three-part novel. Its sections are connected by characters and settings, but are totally different in tone.

Well-read copy of Islands in the Stream

The first section, Bimini, introduces Thomas Hudson, a twice-divorced painter living happily with his personal devils by keeping to a rigid schedule for working and drinking.

His three sons come to visit during their summer holidays. Tom and an old friend, writer Roger Davis, keep the boys busy swimming and fishing.

After the end of their vacation, Tom’s two sons by his second wife are killed in a car accident.

The second section, Cuba, is set during World War II. Tom has just learned that last remaining son has been killed in the war.

When reasonably sober, Tom does reconnaissance work for the US military, using his own boat. During most of the Cuba section, Tom sits in a bar and drinks.

The third section, At Sea, has Tom and his crew tracking survivors of a sunken German U-boat who, in their escape, massacred a village. In a shoot-out, Tom is badly, perhaps fatally wounded.

Islands will probably appeal to Hemingway fans. Those bored by watching others fish or drink, will probably quit reading long before the massacre.

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway
Scribner, [1970] 466 p.
1970 bestseller #3. My grade: B

Historical note: Islands in the Stream was one of over 300 of Ernest Hemingway’s unpublished works his widow, Mary Hemingway, found after her husband’s death.

© 2018 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

My top pics from the 1941 bestseller list

The 1941 bestseller list  contains two  fine novels:  For Whom the Bell Tolls (a hold-over from 1940’s bestseller list) and The Sun is My Undoing.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a classic by an acknowledged master of fiction, Ernest Hemingway. It is the superior book in terms of its literary quality. However, it’s subject—an insider view of an insurgency—seems positively wimpy compared The Sun is My Undoing by an untouted novelist, Marguerite SteenSteen writes about the  slave trade from the perspective of a slave trader

The rest of the 1941 line consists of relatively undistinguished novels of which James Hilton’s Random Harvest is best known and H. M. Purlham, Esquire by John P. Marquand is the best written.

Linda Gorton Aragoni

Carryovers from 1940

Two novels on the 1941 bestseller list were also on the 1940 list.  Their reviews were posted along with those for the year they made their first appearance.

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, which was in fourth place in 1940, slipped to fifth in 1941.

Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts, which was in seventh place in 1940 crept up to sixth place in 1940.

If you didn’t read them last year when they were in the rota, look for them now. They are worth reading.

My top picks of the 1940 bestselling novels

Of the  bestsellers from 1940, the only ones familiar to today’s readers are by iconic American writers Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. Hemingway’s novel is the better book; Steinbeck’s the more memorable:  it was on the bestseller list two years running.

Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is a war story told from the perspective of weary guerrilla fighters. Although the novel is set in Spain in the 1930s, the story could just as well be about an insurgency anywhere in the world in 2010.

Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a propaganda piece about America’s working poor displaced by the dust bowls and economic upheaval of the Great Depression. The novel elicits an orgy of compassion that ends with emotionally exhausted readers feeling they’ve been manipulated.

Several other novels on the 1940 bestseller list deserve a resurrection. Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts, The Family by Nina Fedorova,  Night in Bombay by Louis Bromfield, and Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley (another novel on the bestseller list two years in a row) are readable second-rate novels relevant to contemporary readers.

If you find any of these in a yard sale or Salvation Army store, pick it up. It will be well worth the investment.

For Whom the Bell Tolls Goes Inside an Insurgency

Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is a gripping and thought-provoking look at war from the perspective of guerrilla fighters worn down by years of sniping.

The novel is about Robert Jordan, an American fighting  with the Communist International Brigades against fascists in Spain in the 1930s.  The freedom fighters are a handful of men and two women who have lost homes and families in the civil war.

Jordan is ordered to rally local freedom fighters to blow up a mountain bridge, timing the blast to cut off reinforcements when the communist attack elsewhere.  Jordan blows the bridge, but his superiors bundle the operation.

The novel’s plot feels familiar. You can easily imagine Tom Hanks playing Jordan. What isn’t familiar is the perspective.

The guerrillas aren’t sainted freedom fighters. Some who believed in The Cause are disillusioned. Some enjoy killing. Some seek power. Some have nothing else to do.

Hemingway’s prose is straightforward but not sparse. He shows the swiftness of death, the malingering  memories of killing and violence. His characters relive what they cannot forget, looking for absolution.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is worth rereading in a day when a half-dozen civil wars fester an almost every continent.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Ernest Hemingway
Scribner, 1940
#4 on the 1940 bestseller list
#5 on the 1941 bestseller list
My grade: A

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

War as ultimate test: Over the River and into the Trees

Over the River and into the Trees is a man’s novel.  Ernest Hemingway does not glorify war, but revels in it as an ultimate test of  combattants’ physical, mental, and emotional resources.

A war-scarred veteran of many battlefields and equally scarred victim of military bureaucracy, Colonel Richard Cantwell has come to Venice, his favorite Italian city, to do some duck hunting.

Cantwell is not a man who suffers fools gladly. At 50, he finds the only people with whom he actually is comfortable are people who have been through wars. He can be brusque or worse even to the beautiful Renata, the Italian countess with whom he has fallen deeply in love.

The Colonel passed an Army physical the day before his Venice trip, but he knows his days are numbered.

Renata knows too. She passes him the pills that keep him going and begs for stories of the experiences that shaped his life.

Cantwell tells her stories about the camaraderie of war and the colossal stupidity of military men with no experience of war. In every encounter, the bureaucrats win; the loyalty and discipline of military life won’t allow any other outcome.

That insight keeps this brooding, unhappy novel relevant to each new generation of readers.

Across the River and into the Trees
By Ernest Hemingway
Charles Scribner’s Sons,  1950
308 pages
1950 #3 bestselling novel
My grade B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni