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Historical note: Islands in the Stream was one of over 300 of Ernest Hemingway’s unpublished works his widow, Mary Hemingway, found after her husband’s death.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

B.F.’s Daughter is old at 70

I suspect the reason B.F.’s Daughter made the bestseller list in 1946 had more to do with post-war malaise than with John P. Marquand’s writing, good as it is.

Though its story seems out-of-date, the novel is still good reading.


 

B.F.’s Daughter by John P. Marquand

Little, Brown, 1946. 439 p. 1946 bestseller #9. My grade: B.


After her wealthy industrialist father dies, Polly Brett goes to Washington where her husband is churning out war propaganda.

She and Tom quarrel.

He goes off, ostensibly to take refuge in his work.

Polly has no trouble meeting men who are also alone in Washington. Although Polly sees a certain attraction in an affair, she backs away.

Then Polly runs into a long-time acquaintance who tells her “nothing matters that happened before the war.”

When Polly learns Tom has a mistress, she begins to feel perhaps her pre-war marriage doesn’t matter.

The characters in this novel are well-drawn, complex people. Contemporary readers may find them old-fashioned—imagine not having sex just out of a sense of personal integrity!—but they are none the less believable individuals.

Today the idea that one simply walks away from an unhappy marriage is taken as a truism rather than an epiphany.

That’s not a criticism of B.F.’s Daughter, but of our culture.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Hucksters empty tale of empty life

As World War II winds down, Victor Norman resigns his military propaganda job.

A New York ad agency hires him to handle the Beaute Soap account.


The Hucksters by Frederic Wakeman

Rinehart, 1946. 307 p. 1946 bestseller # 5. My Grade: C-.


Beaute Soap CEO Evan Evans, is a cruel, controlling, old coot whose only joy in life (aside from selling soap) is making people’s lives miserable.

Vic finds he loathes advertising and radio.

He’s not particularly interested in money either.

Vic doesn’t really know what he wants.

All goes well until Vic falls for Kay Dorrance, a rich, sexy woman with two children who is waiting for her husband to come home. Vic becomes sugar daddy to the kids and bedfellow to their mother.

Vic wants Kay to divorce her husband and marry him. He’ll need a bigger salary to support her and the kids.

Vic’s need for money gives Evans a way to control him.

Vic sees himself poised to become a huckster like the people around him.

Will he fall?

Will readers care if he does?

Frederic Wakeman’s novel is as much a piece of hucksterism as any commercial.

The plot is complex and subtle as a billboard, the characters no more than billboard-deep.

In fact, if you strung together a series of billboards, you’d have as good a novel as The Hucksters.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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

Earth and High Heaven takes anti-Semitism personally

Several bestselling novels of the 1940s explore the issue of anti-Jewish prejudice among people who fought the Nazis, but none do it better than Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven.

Marc Reiser, a Jewish lawyer, meets Erica Drake “one of the Westmont Drakes,” at a cocktail party at her Montreal home in June, 1942. Marc had come with Erica’s brother-in-law, René.


 

Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham

Lippincott, 1944. 288 pages. 1945 bestseller # 9. My Grade: A.


Marc and Erica hit if off immediately.

cover of paperback edition of Earth and High HeavenErica attempts to introduce Marc to her father, who snubs both Marc and René.

Later, Erica’s parents explain social relationships with Jews are impossible.

For the first time in her life, Erica refuses to do what her parents expect. She continues to see Marc, though her parents won’t let him in the house.

Marc’s parents are almost as set against the relationship as Erica’s.

Graham shows prejudice is not an isolated problem. It’s hopelessly intertwined with individual personalities and complex family and social relationships.

Graham slows readers down to feel what’s happening. She’s so deft that her omniscient narrator seems to be looking at the world through the characters’ eyes.

Readers will feel the confusion, pride, frustration, and misery of distinctive characters who look and act extraordinarily like themselves.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The White Tower is shivery adventure

In The White Tower, James Ramsey Ullman turns several familiar themes inside out and upside down.

The result is World War II adventure story that appeals even to sedentary readers like me.


The White Tower  by James Ramsey Ullman

Lippincott, 1945. 479 pages. 1945 bestseller # 4. My grade: B+.


Spine art for The White Tower shows mountansand rocksHit by shrapnel during a bombing raid, Martin Ordway’s plane goes down in the Swiss Alps near a village where he spent his student vacations.

While friends arrange to slip him out of the country, Martin poses as a tourist. He organizes a group to climb the village side of Weissturm, the White Tower, which has never been scaled.

Besides Martin, the group includes an aging British geologist, a depressed French writer, an arthritic Alpine guide, an Austrian woman separated from her Nazi husband, and a German solider who is also a renowned mountain climber.

Sounds like a set-up for a Hollywood movie, doesn’t it?

Well, Ullman avoids that trap. No clichés for him.

Characters are well-drawn.

Action is tense.

Mountain settings are shiveringly vivid.

Contemporary readers may find the occasional German and French phrases difficult — today’s readers lack the language skills our 1940’s forebears had — but I could usually get the gist.

Whatever your linguistic skills, The White Tower remains a great book to climb into bed with.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Auntie Mame is outlandish and outdated

Auntie Mame and her nephewPatrick Dennis  subtitled Auntie Mame “an irreverent escapade.” It’s actually a series of escapades rather than a true novel.

The escapades are loosely tied together by comparing Mame to the stereotypical Reader’s Digest “My Most Unforgettable Character.”


Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade By Patrick Dennis [Edward Everett Tanner III]

This edition: Broadway Books,  2001, Intro. by Paul Rudnick, Afterward by Michael Tanner. 299 pages. 1955 bestseller #2, 1956 bestseller #4. My Grade: C-.


At his father’s death, motherless Patrick Dennis, 10, becomes the ward of his father’s sister, Mame.

Mame and Patrick hit it off immediately: They are approximately the same mental age.

Auntie Mame is a hold-over from the Jazz Age complete with cigarette holder, well-stocked liquor cabinet, and tastes for anything that would shock folks in Des Moines.

Mame has no sense, but her heart is in the right place.

She stands up against anti-Jewish practices and gives a home to six Cockney refugees more terrifying than the Blitz.

Mame might well have been the narrator’s most unforgettable character—she was his relative after all—but she’s someone most folks would rather not remember and certainly wouldn’t wish to admit was related to them.

Auntie Mame might have been as wildly funny in 1955 as the reviewers said, but it’s a sad bit of nonsense now, destined to be landfilled with all those thousands of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books that nobody has been able to give away since 1997.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo: Detail from cover of  Auntie Mame, Broadway Books edition, 2001.

A Bell for Adano still rings true for occupying armies

Bell tower of monastery at La Verna, Italy

When the American army kicks the fascists and their German allies out of Italy, Major Joppolo is assigned to restore order in Adano. He is supposed to see that there is food, water, sanitation and an appreciation for freedom and democracy.

He also has to keep his own troops in line.

The locals say the most important thing Joppolo can do is to replace the 700-year-old bell the fascists melted down to make gun barrels.

Joppolo vows to find Adano another bell.

He is beginning to get the town running again when General Marvin’s jeep is blocked by a mule cart as he passes through Adano.

The General orders the mule shot and all carts prohibited in Adano. Without the carts, Adano has no way to get water.

Joppolo countermands the General’s order.

John Hersey tells his tale with humor and gentle irony. The outcome of the story is predictable. The characters are predictable, too, by virtue of being very ordinary sorts of people.

We need men like Joppolo in our occupying armies, Hersey says, “to guarantee the behavior of men under pressure.”

Abu Grabe and Haditha testify that we still need to be reminded of that.

A Bell for Adano
By John Hersey
Alfred A. Knopf, 1944
269 pages
1944 bestseller #9
My Grade: B

Photo credit:  The old monastery uploaded by Mattox

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Armageddon Reveals the Price of Building Peace

dust jacket of ArmageddonArmageddon is a sprawling novel set as World War II ends and the Soviets move to turn Europe into Communist satellites.

The themes Leon Uris raises are as familiar as today’s news, but easier to examine with a degree of objectivity in a 75-year-old setting.

War-weary Americans want to pull out of Germany and let the Germans fend for themselves. General A. J. Hansen begs  American politicians to plan for a post-war political settlement.  He sees withdrawal would give rise to a more serious threat than Hitler’s Reich.

Hansen assembles a team of experts lead in everything from electrical generation to municipal government to design a plan for governing Germany after the war. Hansen sends them to a Nazi stronghold where they deploy and refine their plan.

Then Hansen redirects them to Berlin to begin guiding the city into rebuilding on democratic principles before the Russians can build Berlin into a Communist satellite.

When the Russians block all land routes into the city, leaving Berliners to face starvation in the frigid winter, Hansen fights against Congressional and military leaders to win presidential approval to attempt to supply the city by air.

Although Hansen is behind most of the novel’s action, he’s rarely seen in the novel. Uris reserves the role of the hero for the team of men who put their individual expertise at the service of America. Uris lists yards of facts about the Berlin airlift, emphasizing the monumental achievement and personal self-effacement of the men who made it happen.­

It takes a rare kind of man to serve his country without the benefit of pyrotechnics or reward and a different kind of courage to keep your mouth shut and go on working and believing when you are positive those around you are wrong. We don’t have enough men of this kind of dedication.

Armageddon
by Leon Uris
Doubleday 1964
632 pages
1964 bestseller #4
My grade: B+

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

From Here to Eternity is far too long

Hundreds of novels tell us war is hell.

In From Here to Eternity, James Jones tells us the peace-time military isn’t any better. The officers are incompetent and unethical, the enlisted men are social and moral misfits.

Recruits seeking refuge from bumming through the depression know it is just a matter of time until America enter the war. Shiploads of them have are stationed in Hawaii waiting for their time to fight the Germans.

The infantrymen of A company spend their time boozing, brawling, gambling, and queuing for sex at one of the thriving brothels. The officers are similarly occupied, except that instead of brawling, they connive for promotions in a dignified manner.

When the characters are not passed out drunk, they talk. They don’t make sense, but they talk. Mostly they talk in slang, but occasionally they break into long paragraphs that sound like transcripts from a graduate philosophy seminar.

From Here to Eternity is 860 pages of mind-numbing detail about people you wouldn’t want in your living room doing things you don’t want done in your town.

You have better things to do from here to eternity than read this boring book.

From Here to Eternity
by James Jones
Delacort Press, 1951
860 pages
1953 bestseller #5
© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni