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The Fires of Vesuvius ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Fires of Vesuvius ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

During the early Christian era and for hundreds of years before, Pompeii was a thriving seaside town of 20,000 people or so, about 150 miles southeast of Rome. In the year 79 AD (or BCE), the volcanic mount Vesuvius erupted and literally buried the town alive under layers of pumice and volcanic debris. Scholars had known of the existence of Pompeii from written records, but the town itself wasn’t “rediscovered” until the 1700s, at which time archaeologists began the painstaking job of digging it out bit by bit. (Excavation continues to this day, 250 years later.) Since the town hadn’t been touched for all those centuries, its streets, temples, houses, paintings, etc., were remarkably well preserved. It gave the world a chance to know a lot more about a long-lost period in history than had been previously been known.

The Fires of Vesuvius by Mary Beard is an exhaustively detailed account of what the ruins and artifacts teach about what life was actually like in the Pompeii of two thousand years ago: how people lived (bad teeth, no toothbrushes), what their dwellings were like (those made of wood mostly don’t remain except for nails and fittings), how they navigated about town (one-way streets), how they got water into their homes (a fairly sophisticated system of “running” water that not everybody could get), how and what they ate (a fairly healthy diet of fruits and vegetables; cooking utensils and ovens for baking bread remain), how they made a living (farmers in the immediate vicinity around the town; shopkeepers, fullers and small-business owners in the town), what they did for entertainment (plays and gladiatorial games), how and who they worshipped (many gods to choose from; few or no signs of Christianity at the time of the eruption), what their political structure was like (only the rich could stand for office because they were expected to use their money to benefit the public in some way), what they wore (not so many togas), what artwork they admired (phallic symbols carved everywhere, meaning prosperity and good fortune), how they buried their dead (on the roads outside of town, elaborate memorials for the cremated remains of the rich; barely a hole in the ground for the poor), where they went to take a bath (elaborate public baths with little or no sanitation; sometimes turds floating in the water), and in some cases, their private thoughts expressed in “graffiti” that is everywhere in the town. The people of Pompeii were apparently a fairly literate bunch, and they took advantage of the quaint custom of writing their thoughts and feelings on walls or wherever they happened to be, much of which survives. Thankfully this custom has mostly died out. I, for one, don’t want to have to look at scribbled writing on every surface, which, I’m sure, would be unbelievably ugly.

Readers who have more than just a passing interest in Pompeii, or those who plan to go there, will find plenty in The Fires of Vesuvius to recommend it. The casual reader will probably be put off by the dense text (although it isn’t that difficult to absorb) and the wealth of minute detail, more than the average person reading for pleasure is going to want to know. If, however, you are a student of archaeology or are writing a research paper, this book will prove to be a valuable storehouse of information.

A tiny footnote that I found interesting that I hadn’t known before: During World War II, the Allies, in bombing Italy to subdue Il Duce, destroyed parts of the ruins of Pompeii. Whether this was deliberate or accidental isn’t stated. The irony is that some of the ruins had to be reconstructed to make them look the way they did before the bombing.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Restoration ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Restoration ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

From 1649 to 1658 was the period in English history known as the English Interregnum or the English Commonwealth. The country during this period was a de facto republic with Oliver Cromwell as virtual dictator. A political crisis resulting from Cromwell’s death in 1658 led to the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II as king. The period that followed is known as the “Restoration.” It was a time of fashion (plumes, powdered wigs, knee britches with stockings, high-heeled shoes with polished buckles—all for the men), relaxed moral values, hedonism, excesses of every kind, greed and materialism. The historical novel Restoration by Rose Tremain is about this period in English history and about one man in particular, the fictional Sir Robert Merivel.

Merivel is very much a man of his times. He comes from humble beginnings, begins studying to be a doctor as a young man, and is soon caught up in the pursuit of fulfillment of his appetites. He abandons his study of medicine, becomes a sort of courtier in the court of King Charles and, for a brief period, is a favorite of the king. The king, however, is known for his mercurial personality and for his whims, for taking up one person one day and throwing him down the next. Merivel makes the king laugh but the king finds for him another purpose: the king will marry Merivel to the king’s mistress, Lady Celia, a marriage in name only. In return for this marriage, the king sets Merivel up in a magnificent country estate called Bidnold, which has everything an English country gentleman could ask for: lots of servants, a park filled with abundant wildlife, and lots of room to pursue a life of idleness and pleasure. (Merivel takes up painting and playing the oboe but finds he has little talent for either pursuit.) Like Adam and Eve in Paradise, however, Merivel does the one thing he is absolutely not supposed to do: he falls in love with Lady Celia. When the king finds out, he dispossesses Merivel, telling him he needs to go find himself, to “restore” himself to the kind of man he was always meant to be. Suddenly without money or a home, Merivel must embark on a quest to find out who he really is and to fulfill his purpose in life. Fate takes him to a mental hospital run by Quakers in a rural part of England (where he inadvertently finds himself a father) and back to London again where he deals with a plague epidemic and the Great Fire of 1666.

Restoration is not the potboiler one might expect it to be. It elevates the “historical fiction” genre into the realm of “good literature.” It’s beautifully written and contains not a dull or extraneous word. It illuminates a fascinating period in English history without ever being academic or seeming like a history lesson. It brings a remote period of history alive and makes it somehow relevant.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp 

My Antonia ~ A Capsule Book Review

My Antonia cover

My Antonia ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

I first read My Antonia (pronounced An-to-NEE-ah) in my youth and recently read it again. It is the venerable American classic novel by Willa Cather, first published in 1918, about life on the prairie in Nebraska in rough pioneering days. It is set in the late 1800s, when all the farm work had to be done by hand, there was no electricity yet to speak of, and cars were still mostly only a figment of the imagination. The story is told in the voice of Jim Burden, a young boy from Virginia who goes to live with his grandparents in Nebraska after his parents die. His grandparents have been farming for a long time and are fairly prosperous and comfortable for the time and place.

Jim Burden befriends a girl a few years older than he is named Antonia Shimerda, whose family has emigrated from Bohemia. They live in a mud hut in the side of a hill and don’t seem to be able to adapt to farming life on the prairie. Antonia’s father, seeing he has made a mistake to bring his family to such a hard life, commits suicide, leaving Antonia, her mother, sister and two brothers to manage on their own. Antonia has no other choice but to do the work of a man to keep her family going. She endures many hardships but survives her youth and grows into adulthood.

Eventually Jim’s grandparents give up farming and move into the Nebraska town of Black Hawk. Jim and Antonia remain friends, as she becomes a sort of servant girl in town to Jim’s neighbors, the Harlings. There is never any sort of “romance” between Jim and Antonia; they are more like brother and sister. Soon Antonia disappoints those who know her by taking up with the wrong kind of man. After she runs off with him and he abandons her, she finds herself with an illegitimate child. She bears this burden as she has all the others in her life. In later years, after Jim Burden has been away to school and becomes a lawyer, he returns to find Antonia married to a not-very-successful but kind man named Cuzak, with a large brood of children. They are happy, although still struggling.

My Antonia is steeped in time and place (isn’t that better than steeped in vulgarity?) and is about a way of life that no longer exists. Its themes are friendship, growing up, overcoming adversity, and holding onto memoires long after one has moved on. It’s one of the most readable classic American novels, for younger and older readers. There’s a reason it has endured for almost a hundred years while a lot of other books have fallen into obscurity.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

New York Mosaic ~ A Capsule Book Review

New York Mosaic cover

New York Mosaic ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Her name was Mary Britton Miller but she wrote under the name Isabel Bolton, a little-known American writer who lived from 1883 to 1975. She wrote children’s poetry and stories and a handful of novels. Three of her short novels (Do I Wake or Sleep, The Christmas Tree, and Many Mansions) have been collected into one 400-page volume under the title New York Mosaic.

Not much happens in Do I Wake or Sleep (first published in 1946), the first of the three short novels in New York Mosaic. The story (or what there is of one) centers around an “older” woman named Millicent. She has come from humble beginnings but has somehow managed to live in a luxurious New York apartment amid the skyscrapers. She and all her friends are angst-ridden because World War II is in progress and they are all worried about the fate of the world. Millicent’s friend Bridget has a retarded daughter living in Vienna (“my little cretin”) who might be in danger because she’s living with Jewish relatives, and the Nazis…well, you know what the Nazis were doing. In spite the danger that Bridget’s daughter might be facing, Bridget is “gay” all the time, attending parties in her fancy clothes and running around with the smart set. Bridget tells her friends that being a society girl is the only way she can deal with the problems of the world. Then there’s Percy Jones, a novelist of some renown and a drunkard. He is fascinated with Bridget and everything about her, but he is so much older than she is and knows he doesn’t have a chance with her. Millicent is concerned about Percy and is thinking about marrying him herself to get him to “settle down” and stop fussing over Bridget. There is an altercation at a cocktail party that comes about as the result of a misunderstanding. Percy is injured when he is knocked to the floor. That is the big dramatic moment in the novel.

The Christmas Tree (first published in 1949) is my favorite of the three novels. It has much more “bite” than the other two. Hildegard Danforth, another New York matron, has a young grandson named Henry and, since it’s Christmas, she wants to give him a beautiful Christmas tree. Larry, Henry’s father and Hildegard’s son, is gay. Anne, Henry’s mother and Larry’s ex-wife, sends Larry a telegram telling him that she has just married a flyer and they are on the way to his mother’s apartment in New York to spend Christmas. (The reason for the telegram isn’t clear, unless it’s to taunt him.) For some unexplainable reason, Larry also heads for New York for Christmas. He has just left his gay lover, Gerald Styles, and doesn’t seem to know where to go or what to do. Gerald follows Larry to New York without Larry knowing. All the characters converge on Hildegard’s apartment on Christmas Eve. When Henry sees Larry, his father, he wants nothing to do with him and tells him he hates him. Larry is crushed while the stepfather seems very smug. The tragedy that occurs on the terrace, sixteen flights up, is probably not what you would expect for a novel from the 1940s.

In Many Mansions (first published in 1952), an eighty-year-old woman, Margaret Sylvester, is re-reading a novel she wrote about her life when she was younger and is reflecting on all the things that happened to her in her life. She is born into a wealthy New York family where everybody has plenty of money and plenty of leisure to do as they please. When she is a young woman, she has a summertime romance with an uncle by marriage and finds herself pregnant. Her family is forgiving, but they whisk her off to Europe for a year or so, where she gives birth to the baby without anybody knowing. The baby is put up for adoption and it is as if the entire episode never happened. (The baby’s father, her uncle, never knows.) Her life after the baby takes a different course than what is expected of a girl of her class. She has plenty of money to live on, but she takes up with some radicals and union organizers and becomes politically active with the intention of ending war, improving conditions for workers, and making the world a better place. Her family doesn’t approve. During this time, she has “very close” relationships with other woman (read into that what you will). Years later, after she has moved on from political activism, she buys a large old house, which she renovates to her own use. She rents her basement apartment to a young man, who promptly, against Miss Sylvester’s wishes, moves his pregnant girlfriend in with him. By a quirk of fate, she discovers that the young man was the baby she gave up for adoption all those years ago. He never knows that she is his mother, but she settles a large sum of money, apparently anonymously, on his child, her grandchild.

Isabel Bolton’s writing is dense, wordy, old-fashioned by today’s standards, and not easy to read or digest. She loves the compound-complex sentence with many clauses. With a lot of her sentences, you have to go back and break down the various clauses to figure out what she is saying. For the serious reader, New York Mosaic is engaging enough to recommend it, but the casual reader will probably find it not worth the effort.

Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp

The Maid’s Version ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Maid's Version cover

The Maid’s Version ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Daniel Woodrell is one of the best current American writers. He is from Missouri and his characters are country people, poor white trash and small-town people. His novels are darkly realistic, spare (averaging about 200 pages), and are so much fun to read because they are so good and so different from a lot of current fiction that is bloated and pretentious. My favorite books by Daniel Woodrell are Tomato Red and The Death of Sweet Mister. I went to one of his book signing events in St. Louis and came away with signed copies of both those books. Daniel Woodrell in person is about what you would expect him to be from his writing. There’s nothing flashy or pretentious about him. You wouldn’t know by looking at him that he’s a celebrated writer.

Daniel Woodrell’s latest book is The Maid’s Version. It is the fascinating story, set in the fictional Missouri Ozarks town of West Table, of an illicit love affair that leads to tragic consequences. The maid of the title is one Alma Degeer Dunahew, an uneducated woman who is employed as a domestic in the home of one of the leading citizens of the town, Arthur Glencross. Arthur lives in a fine house with his wispy wife and two children and is president of the bank.

Alma has a difficult life. She lives in what is described as a shack. Her husband, named Buster, is a drunk and isn’t very reliable. She has to take care of three boys (one of whom, Sidney, is sick) out of her meager earnings. She also has a younger sister named Ruby, a vivacious girl who is popular with the men and who doesn’t much care whether they’re married or not. Ruby’s unlikely love affair with Arthur Glencross forms the emotional core of the novel. Arthur claims to be in love with Ruby but is terribly afraid that people will find out he is carrying on with her. Their meetings are furtive and passionate. Ruby is also in love with Arthur, so the secrecy is fine with her.

We learn at the beginning that Ruby, along with thirty-nine other people, dies tragically in a fire and explosion at a dance at the Arbor Dance Hall in 1929. (The unidentifiable victims, including Ruby, are buried in a mass grave in the town cemetery, marked by a black angel.) For decades people speculate about what, or who, caused the fire. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but nobody seems to know for sure. Was it a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher who wanted to teach people a lesson about the wrath of God, or was it St. Louis gangsters? Any theories that people have are all unproveable.

The Maid’s Version isn’t told in linear style. It moves back and forth in time and from one character to another, making it seem a little disjointed and more challenging to read that it might otherwise have been. (Some of the brief sections throughout the novel are glimpses at the lives of people who died in the fire and of how they came to be at the dance.) All the pieces come together at the end, though, and we learn, finally, the truth of how the fire got started and what made it so much worse than in might otherwise have been. The explanation is ironic but completely plausible.

Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp

Brave New World ~ A Capsule Book Review

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First Edition Cover

Brave New World ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Brave New World was written by British writer Aldous Huxley in 1931. It is the influential and highly regarded novel (number five on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best books of the twentieth century) about a utopian earth hundreds of years in the future where all people are created in a laboratory. Viviparous birth (where the mother carries the child and delivers it alive) is passé and vulgar. People are divided into castes: alpha, beta, epsilon, etc. The lower castes are created to be inferior mentally and physically so they will be well suited to performing menial jobs. There is no family and no marriage. Neither are there any moral restrictions on sexual activity—the motto is: “Everybody belongs to everybody else.” The state relies heavily on conditioning and “hypnopaedic” learning (homilies and truisms are delivered to the brain of the learner while he/she is asleep) to make sure everybody is conforming in the way they are supposed to. Those who express subversive thinking or engage in subversive activity are exiled to “an island,” in some cases Iceland. What happens to them on the island can only be imagined because we are never told.

Most diseases have been eradicated, as has any unhappiness or discontent. Nobody is allowed to be alone because solitude breeds unhappiness. If there is ever the slightest trace of depression or sadness in a person, it is made to vanish with the application of a drug called “soma.” There is no God and no religion; old copies of the Bible or religious books are considered pornographic. Henry Ford is the one man who is looked to as a sort of god. The current state of things finds its germination in his methods of mass production and conformity.

One character named Bernard Marx stands out from the others. It is believed that a mistake was made when he was created in the test tube that made him different from the others. (Being different is the one unforgiveable sin in this world.) When he goes on a vacation to New Mexico with his “girlfriend” Lenina (if you’ve seen the Diane Keaton character in Woody Allen’s Sleeper, you know what Lenina is like), he meets a strange young, blond-haired man named John, who lives on an Indian reservation with his alcoholic, bloated mother, Linda. (Linda had been impregnated by a government official and abandoned on the reservation; the result of her impregnation was John.)

Bernard becomes enamored of John (if it’s a sexual attraction, it’s never explored) and takes him and Linda back to London with him. John, who apparently is quite good-looking, is drawn to Lenina, as she is to him. When she makes herself freely available to him sexually, he is shocked and repelled.

John, who is referred to as “the Savage,” finds himself completely at odds in the strange new world in which he finds himself. His “humanness,” his moral code, is bound to get him into trouble. While he was not accepted on the reservation because he wasn’t like the Indians, he finds himself even more ostracized in the civilized world. After a while, he seeks to get away from it all. He is famous by now, though, and people won’t leave him in peace. It does not end well for him, or for his mother.

Brave New World is a highly accessible, not-very-long, twentieth century English classic. It is a “classic” in the truest sense of the word, meaning that it’s the “best of its class.” Its influence can be seen in countless other books and movies. People will still be reading this book for a long time to come.

Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp

The Seven Wonders ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Seven Wonders by Steven Saylor ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

The Seven Wonders is a historical novel by Steven Saylor set in 92 B.C. It’s about a young Roman, Gordianus, and his tutor, the poet Antipater of Sidon, who set out on a journey from Rome to see the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. At the beginning of the novel, Antipater fakes his own death and travels under an assumed named, Zoticus of Zeugma. We don’t know until the end of the book why he has done this.

The pair travel from one Wonder to another, apparently with ease and without too much discomfort. Such a trip, 92 years before Christ, takes months, if not years. In the order they appear in the book, the Wonders are: The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, The Colossus of Rhodes, the Wall and Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, and the Pharos Lighthouse in Alexandria. They were all engineering and architectural wonders that made even the most jaded traveler sit up and take notice. If you look at them and go “ho-hum,” you are either faking it or you just aren’t right in the head.

At every one of their stops, Gordianus and Antipater encounter some kind of intrigue. There is always a mystery to be solved, which Gordianus is usually able to solve using his deductive powers. He is sort of a junior-grade detective who only has to mature to become something really special. He has his first sexual encounters on this trip (male and female), which is mostly left to our imagination, and he takes a giant leap toward manhood in more ways than one. In the end, he is left alone in Alexandria, Egypt, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the world at that time, because political unrest makes it unsafe for him to return to Rome and to his family. His story is continued in other novels by the same author.

There is a subplot in The Seven Wonders involving Rome and its political enemies. Rome has conquered most of the civilized world of the time and has its sights set on the parts it hasn’t yet conquered. Some Greeks, however, are not going to stand by and let Rome have everything. Political unrest is fomenting all over the civilized world.

If The Seven Wonders seems contrived, it seems less so at the end when all the pieces come together, rather like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s “pop history,” but the apparently well-researched information it contains about the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is fascinating. Through the characters in the book, it’s almost as if we are seeing the Wonders for ourselves.

An interesting footnote is that the Great Pyramid in Egypt, the oldest of the Seven Wonders, is also the only one left standing. The others were destroyed by earthquakes, fires, or by pillaging invaders bent on destroying what was left of a once-great civilization. Like Titanic and the World Trade Center, they exist only in our imaginations, in pictures and in stories.

Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp

Delta Wedding ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Delta Wedding
by Eudora Welty ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Famed American writer Eudora Welty is known for her many short stories, but she also wrote a handful of novels, including The Optimist’s Daughter, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1973. Her novel Delta Wedding, published in 1946, was written when her publisher suggested that she turn some of her short stories into a novel.

There isn’t much story or plot to Delta Wedding. The Fairchilds own a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta called Shellmounds. It’s September 1923 and their second-oldest daughter, seventeen-year-old Dabney, is marrying her father’s overseer, Troy Flavin. Troy is thirty-four years old and rough around the edges; most of the Fairchilds believe that, in marrying Troy, Dabney is marrying “beneath” herself.

Dabney Fairchild is “spoiled,” as are all the Fairchild children. The Fairchilds are moderately rich and have given all their children a good life, a life that hardly seems to have been touched by the real world. A Fairchild cousin who has recently lost her mother, Laura McRaven, has arrived on the Yellow Dog (the name they’ve given the train), for a visit. Much of what goes on at the Fairchilds is seen through Laura’s eyes.

In addition to all the Fairchild children (another one on the way), there are lots of aunts: widowed aunts (it is just a few years after World War I), spinster aunts who never married, great-aunts who remember the Civil War, a crazy aunt and a deaf aunt, etc. There are so many characters that, at times, it’s hard to keep everybody straight. Ellen and Battle are the parents of all the Fairchild children. Their children are Shelley, Dabney, Orrin, India, Little Battle, Bluet, and Ranny. Outspoken Aunt Tempe is Battle Fairchild’s sister. She has a husband, but he seems to be away on business all the time. Sisters Jim Allen and Primrose live together and never married. They live in a place called the Grove, which is owned by their brother, George. George is the most beloved of all the Fairchilds and has a rather troubled marriage to Robbie Reid. The Fairchilds look down on Robbie Reid and believe she isn’t good enough for George. Ellen, we learn at the end of the book, has a secret yearning for George but she will make sure nobody ever knows about it.

While Delta Wedding is about the events leading up to a wedding, it is, more than anything, a portrait of a large, close family in a simpler time. It’s all goodness and light, to the accompaniment of piano selections played endlessly by Mary Lamar Mackey. I’ll turn the ice cream freezer while you take the buggy into town and pick up the groceries. It’s so hot tonight I think I’ll sleep on the sleeping porch. When I wake up in the morning I’ll be as happy as I am now and there’ll be a wonderful breakfast waiting for me downstairs and I’ll be surrounded by all the people I love most in the world. They all love me, too, and, when it comes to my faults, they won’t talk about them or even acknowledge that I have any. What a family!

Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp  

The Rainbow ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

When English writer D. H. Lawrence’s novel, The Rainbow, was first published in 1915, it was hailed as obscene and Lawrence himself was labeled a pornographer. The book was banned in many quarters while the righteous of the day took great pleasure in making a public display of burning it. It wasn’t available in England and the United States for many years after its publication, except in an “expurgated” version, meaning that somebody went through the book and took out the parts they considered “offensive.”

Readers nowadays will not understand what all the fuss was about when The Rainbow was first published nearly a hundred years ago. We live in a permissive age where any words might be spoken for public consumption; anything might be seen on TV or in movies or written about in magazines, newspapers and books. All the rules, all the taboos, seem to have been lifted, and nothing is sacred anymore. The Rainbow seems very mild by today’s standards. Lawrence only suggests that his characters engage in sexual activity. (He was, possibly, the first “mainstream” English writer to do this; thus all the furor.) His heroine in The Rainbow, Ursula Brangwen, sees her boyfriend (to whom she is engaged but doesn’t marry) naked while he is bathing, sleeps with him in his hotel room while pretending to be his wife, and has outdoor sex with him. There are no steamy details; the sex is only implied. This is no Peyton Place. Any of the words connected with sex are never used.

The Rainbow is a multi-generational story of a fictional English family, the Brangwens. It begins with Tom Brangwen, a gentleman farmer who marries a strangely detached Polish woman named Lydia. She is a widow, older than Tom, with a daughter from her previous marriage named Anna. When Anna is older, she marries her stepfather’s nephew, Will Brangwen. If Anna and Will have nothing else together, they have sexual compatibility; they end up having nine children, the oldest of whom is Ursula. She becomes the focal point of the second half of the novel.

As Ursula Brangwen becomes older, she longs to break free from the conventions and constraints that she believes have held women back for so long. She isn’t content to live as other women of her class have lived. She is a “modern” woman of the early twentieth century. She seeks a teaching career (with disastrous results), a college degree (she fails her final exams), and marriage (she decides she can’t go through with it) to a handsome young military man named Anton Skrebensky, a veteran of the Boer War. After The Rainbow ends, Ursula’s story is continued in the novel Women in Love, which was published in 1920.

Much of The Rainbow is taken up with the interior lives of its characters, meaning that we are constantly being told what they think and how they feel, rather than what they are doing or saying or what they are having for dinner. If this sounds like tedious reading, it isn’t. It isn’t a difficult book to read for those who are so inclined, although a little long at 515 pages.

D.H. Lawrence was plagued by ill health throughout much of his life and died at age 45 of tuberculosis in 1930. If he failed to achieve the acclaim and success that he deserved during his lifetime, he is today hailed as a giant of twentieth century English writing. The Rainbow is one of his most famous and enduring works. 

Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp

The Orphan Master’s Son ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Orphan Master's Son cover

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Every year I read the work of fiction (usually a novel but sometimes a volume of short stories) that wins the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. For me, there have been many high points (Ironweed, Martin Dressler, The Hours, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, The Road, A Confederacy of Dunces) and some low points (anything involving yuppie angst or “relationships”). It seems that some years the winner is based more on “suitability” or “political correctness” rather than merit.

This year’s winner is The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. It is set in North Korea, the one country on earth that is like no other. I had never given much thought before to North Korea. It is a communist totalitarian society. People are routinely tortured or imprisoned in horrible prison camps where they are certain to die in a few months. There is no religion other than worship of the “Dear Leader” and the state. The simple freedoms we take for granted in the United States are absent. It is a crime punishable by death to own certain items, such as a Bible or an unauthorized radio. People “disappear” overnight, for no apparent reason, and nobody ever knows what happened to them. People must act and think at all time for the good of the collective. There is no individuality.

The protagonist of The Orphan Master’s Son is a young man named Jun Do. He grows up in an orphan asylum, although he claims he has one parent living, the “orphan master.” In young adulthood, he is conscripted to help kidnap people who happen to be unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. (What they do with these kidnapped people is not fully explained.) When he is older he ends up as a radio operator on a North Korean fishing vessel. What happens to him on the fishing vessel drives the narrative for the rest of the novel.

Only married men are allowed to work on fishing vessels. Their wives’ likenesses are tattooed on their chests. If any of them dare to defect to Japan or some other country, their wives and families can be tortured and killed. Since Jun Do doesn’t have a wife, the men on the fishing vessel tattoo on his chest the likeness of Sun Moon, Korea’s national actress and a favorite of the Dear Leader, who has made her what she is. All her films are propaganda disguised as entertainment.

Sun Moon’s husband is the mysterious and powerful Commander Ga. We don’t know much about Commander Ga, except that he is cruel and feared. Through a quirk of fate (or many quirks of fate), Jun Do kills Commander Ga and assumes his identity. From that point on in the story, Jun Do becomes Commander Ga. In pretending to be Sun Moon’s husband (and father to her two children), he falls in love with her and finally, through many twists and turns, determines her fate. He is inspired by the story of the movie Casablanca, in which “the honorable man stays behind.”

While The Orphan Master’s Son is easy to read and held my interest for much of its 443 pages, the reading of it seemed interminable to me. After about page 300, I was ready for it to end. Too much torture and unrelieved grimness. I mostly came away with the impression that I sure am glad I wasn’t born in North Korea. I don’t think I’d last a whole day there and it’s a world I don’t want to revisit anytime soon.

Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp 

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