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An American Son ~ A Capsule Book Review

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An American Son

An American Son ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Marco Rubio was born in Miami in 1971. His parents came to the United States from Cuba during the 1950s, in search of a better life for themselves and their children. They had no formal education and job skills that would only ever allow them to work in menial jobs, but they were determined that their four children would have better lives than they had had. They survived as Americans without exactly thriving and saw their son Marco become an attorney, a family man with four children of his own, and a successful and powerful politician.

An American Son is Marco Rubio’s story, from his modest upbringing in Miami to his hard-fought election in 2010 as Florida’s junior senator. He began in Florida politics when he was elected to the West Miami City Commission. From there he went to the Florida House or Representatives, where he was eventually elected speaker of the house. When his term of office ended there, he considered leaving politics for good and concentrating on his law practice, but the opportunity came up for him to run for the United States Senate. At a time when nobody believed he could win, he challenged a powerful and popular sitting governor, Charlie Crist, for the nomination of his party to run in the general election. Defying the odds and also conventional wisdom (not to mention a barrage of vicious personal attacks), he won the nomination of his party and went on to the win the general election in a three-way race. It’s a story of perseverance, of not giving up in the face of overwhelming odds.

Too often politicians in Washington, with their $1500 suits and their luxury vacations, come across as elitist and out of touch. Marco Rubio might prove over time to be a different kind of politician. He wasn’t born into a privileged environment. He has lived in the real world and he knows what it’s like to struggle. He comes across as a decent man, maybe overly ambitious but not overly egotistical. He’s not perfect, he makes mistakes, and he’s figuring out the way as he goes along the same as everybody else.

An American Son is breezy reading, never ponderous or bogged down in unnecessary detail. I found the whole book interesting but especially the second half where Marco details his up-and-down campaign for the Senate where he was attacked daily by the opposition. Some politicians have the job dropped into their laps because of what their names are, while others have to work for it, night and day, over months and sometimes years. It’s not an easy road and it takes a certain kind of person to want to do it. Somebody with plenty of drive and ambition but also with the conviction he can make a difference in the world.  

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Funeral Rites ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Funeral Rites

Funeral Rites ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Funeral Rites by Jean Genet (1910-1986) is set in France at the end of World War II when France was ridding itself of German occupation. There were some French people, mostly teen boys and men in their early twenties, who collaborated with the Germans against their own country. They positioned themselves on rooftops and functioned as snipers, shooting at Frenchman who were fighting for, or loyal to, France. These collaborators were naturally hated by the French.

Jean G. is narrating Funeral Rites. He confusedly switches from third person to first person and back again, so we don’t always know who’s who. He also switches back and forth in time, so he eschews the structure of the “traditional” novel. His twenty-year-old lover, Jean Decarnin, has been killed by one of the Frenchman who was acting as a German collaborator. Jean G.’s grief at the loss of Jean Decarnin drives the narrative. He sees a newsreel that shows a young French collaborator who is caught and the punishment that is meted out to him. Jean G. “imagines” the collaborator’s name is Riton. He is seventeen years old and, in Jean G.’s words, he is “beautiful.” Thereupon, the story (what there is of it) is about Riton and the young German invader, Erik Seiler, with whom Riton becomes infatuated. It seems at times that Riton and Jean G. are one and the same.) Riton claims to love Erik, even though Erik is the invader, the rapist, the occupier, the oppressor. (Genet constantly reverts to the theme of how sex and death are intertwined.) Erik is also the lover of Jean Decarnin’s mother, a silly Frenchwoman who doesn’t seem to care that she is consorting with the enemy. She doesn’t care very much that her son has been killed, either.

Jean Genet was born without a father to a prostitute, who gave him up for adoption when he was a few months old. Early in his life, until he turned to writing, he was a vagrant and petty criminal and spent much of his time behind bars. Funeral Rites is partly autobiographical and reflects Genet’s nontraditional approach to life. He is now considered a giant of twentieth century French literature. His other important works include Our Lady of the Flowers, Querelle and The Thief’s Journal.

Funeral Rites was first published in 1947 and wasn’t translated into English until 1953. At 256 pages, it’s challenging to read but not overly difficult, as long as you’re not bothered too much by the nonlinear structure. It’s often distasteful, as in the episode with the cat, but also has some flashes of humor, as when Jean Decarnin’s “stout” mother releases her bodily “wind” into the air of her boudoir. Most readers will find the sexual content (between men) mild by today’s standards. If you were going to be offended by that, you wouldn’t be reading this book anyway.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

The Immoralist ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Immoralist by Andre Gide

The Immoralist ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

French author André Gide lived from 1869 to 1951. His novel The Immoralist, published in 1902, is one of his most famous and enduring works. Gide was known for his homosexuality, and, not surprisingly, his protagonist in The Immoralist, Michel, is also homosexual, although it is never referred to in those words. (There are no descriptions of sexual activity here, but Michel’s attraction to members of his own sex is repeatedly implied throughout the novel.) Michel is the first-person narrator. He is telling his story to some old friends, not so much to explain himself but to help him to better understand his own nature. He is, after all, a seeker after truth.

Michel seems to be independently wealthy, although he mentions several times about not having enough money. He is some kind of a scholar or philologist but this is never fully explained. He marries a woman named Marceline, who loves him much more than he loves her. They leave their native France and travel to Tunis in Northern Africa (we are never told why Tunis in particular of all the places in the world they might have gone). Michel is entranced by Tunis and particularly by Arab boys, some of whom he pays to stay with him to keep him company. When he realizes he is the early stages of tuberculosis and is spitting blood, he believes he will die. It’s up to Marceline to take care of him the best she can.

After Tunis, Michel and Marceline travel restlessly from place to place in foreign lands. Michel’s health worsens, improves and then worsens again. During one of their happier moments, Michel and Marceline begin sleeping together for the first time. Marceline soon becomes pregnant, but the pregnancy doesn’t go well and she ends up losing the baby. Michel is torn between his tender regard for her and the selfish pursuit of his own ends.

At one point, Michel and Marceline return to France, where he manages some farms that he owns, inherited from his family. He discovers he doesn’t care about the day-to-day running of a farm, which involves dealing with tenant farmers and other mundane tasks. He finds during this time that what he most enjoys is spending time with the “handsome, well-built” young men who work for him. He begins spending all his time with them, while leaving Marceline alone to her own devices.

When Michel decides he no longer likes living on a farm and managing it, he and Marceline begin traveling again in foreign lands. His health has miraculously improved and he wants to pursue pleasure and discover the truth about himself that has for so long eluded him. (While traveling in Sicily, he tells a young carriage driver how beautiful he is and impulsively kisses him.) Michel finds that he prefers “low” people (men), people without breeding and customary “good manners,” to people of his own “class.” They are much more authentic and are not bounded so much by convention and rules of acceptable behavior.

While Michel’s health improves, Marceline’s health declines. As they continue to travel, she becomes sicker and more dependent on Michel. Her failed pregnancy took its toll and she develops tuberculosis that she caught from Michel when she was nursing him back to health. Eventually she dies in a foreign land. We don’t know what happens to Michel after Marceline’s death, but we assume he continues his quest for self-knowledge on his own, or possibly with a male companion he picks up along the way (now that he is no longer burdened with a wife). Will he ever find what he’s looking for? Does he even know what it is?

The Immoralist is a fascinating study of one man’s psyche. If that sounds boring, it isn’t. Gide’s style (translated from French to English, of course) is accessible and easy to read. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could have been ponderous and bloated. On another level, it’s frank for the time in which it was published (1902). It’s impossible to imagine an American novel of this time with the same tone and subject matter.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Marcel Proust ~ A Capsule Book Review

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

French author Marcel Proust lived from the Belle Époque (born 1871) to the Roaring Twenties (died 1922.) Of all the writing that he did in his relatively short life, he is best known for his monumental seven-volume novel (approximately 4300 pages), In Search of Lost Time, or, as it has previously been translated, Remembrance of Things Past. Many people believe In Search of Lost Time to be the ultimate in novelistic art and Proust the greatest writer of his time.

Proust didn’t always enjoy such a lofty reputation, however. Early in his writing career he was dismissed as a socialite and a snob, incapable of producing anything of lasting value. He was slight of stature (one hundred pounds), always in poor health from asthma (there were times when he was virtually an invalid); had piercing dark eyes and a small black moustache. His homosexuality (which he took pains to conceal in certain quarters) led him into inappropriate liaisons, often with heterosexual social climbers who used him to get from him what they could.

Unlike other writers of his generation (the so-called “modernists”), Proust’s literary style is one of wordy, flowery sentences and the persistent use of metaphors. He practically invented a new style of writing fiction in which “involuntary memory” and autobiography play a large part. He frequently wrote about male partners with whom he shared dalliances and turned them into female characters in his writing. The “Narrator” of the novel (presumably Proust himself) is a raging heterosexual, even though many of his characters are gay.

Proust had a hard time finding a publisher for the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, which he called Swann’s Way. When it was published in 1913, it was dismissed as long and pointless by some leading critics. It wasn’t until subsequent volumes came out that people came to see it as a groundbreaking literary masterwork. (Apparently one has to read all seven volumes to get the full effect and understand Proust’s vision.) The final volume (volume 7) wasn’t published until 1927, five years after Proust’s death at the age of 51.

Edmund White, who has studied Proust at great length and taught courses about him, wrote this biography, Marcel Proust, for the Penguin Lives series. For the literature student who wants an overview of the life and times of Proust without spending too much time and effort, this book is an excellent choice. Edmund White concludes the book with an analysis of why Proust is even more popular today than ever before. In his words, “Proust is the first contemporary writer of the twentieth century, for he was the first to describe the permanent instability of our times.”

Marcel Proust 2

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Virginia Woolf ~ A Capsule Book Review

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was one of the leading lights of English literature of the twentieth century. Her famous novels include Orlando, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, has added to her fame, or at least to her name recognition, even though it has nothing to do with her. She was married to Leonard Woolf, a publisher and writer, from 1912 until her death in 1941. They never had any children.

Besides being a brilliant writer, Virginia Woolf was a feminist (extreme in her views that women had always been held back by men), lecturer (she would spend a year preparing a series of lectures she was going to give), snob (she believed America or Americans had never produced anything of value), pacifist (her lack of patriotism and indifference in World War I were mitigated by her fear of Hitler and the outbreak of World War II), and a lesbian. One of her long-term lesbian lovers was the writer Vita Sackville-West. Vita was married to Harold Nicholson, a writer who was also a homosexual. In spite of their sexual proclivities, Vita and Harold had two sons, Ben and Nigel. Nigel Nicholson was born in 1917 and knew Virginia Woolf when he was a child and she was an adult. (We should assume, I suppose, that he didn’t know the nature of his mother’s relationship with Virginia Woolf until many years later.) Nigel Nicholson wrote this brief (190 pages), engaging biography, Virginia Woolf, for the Penguin Lives series.

During Virginia Woolf’s life, she was as famous for her day-to-day activities as for her writing. She was a leader and outspoken member of the Bloomsbury Group, an aggregation of writers, thinkers and intellectuals whose works and outlook influenced literature, aesthetics, criticism and modern outlooks on pacifism, feminism and sexuality. Members of the Bloomsbury Group were well-known for their love affairs and espoused what later would be called “free love.” The Bloomsbury Group included (among others) writers E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey and painters Dora Carrington and Virginia’s sister, Vanessa Bell.

What most people today know about Virginia Woolf (thanks, in part, to the novel and movie, The Hours) is that she had “bouts of insanity.” She suffered from a form of mental illness, probably manic depression or bipolar disorder, that could today be controlled by medication. After a number of suicide attempts throughout her life, she drowned herself in the River Ouse near her home in 1941 at the height (for Britain) of World War II, age fifty-nine. Her life and legacy live on in her work.

For students of twentieth century English literature, Virginia Woolf by Nigel Nicholson is a fascinating, easy-to-read overview of the author’s life and times. Nigel Nicholson has the added advantage of having known Virginia Woolf firsthand and says in 190 pages what other writers would say in 500.

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp  

Shirley ~ A Capsule Book Review

Shirley

Shirley ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Shirley is an odd little novel by a writer named Susan Scarf Merrell about the celebrated American writer Shirley Jackson, who was born in 1916 and died in her sleep of apparently undiagnosed heart disease in 1965 at the age of 48. Shirley Jackson is known today mostly for her short stories (of which my favorite is The Daemon Lover), but she also wrote a handful of novels. She was an eccentric, as writers or artists very often are, and was married to the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, who was a professor at Bennington College in Vermont. He and Shirley Jackson had four children and lived near the Bennington campus.

Entering the odd world of Shirley Jackson, her husband and family is the fictional character, Rose Nemser. Rose is the first-person narrator of Shirley. Her husband, Fred, is a protégé of Shirley Jackson’s husband, Stanley Hyman. Rose and Fred have sort of been adopted by Shirley Jackson and her husband and live with the family in their large house. Fred has a job teaching at Bennington College with Stanley. Rose and Fred have an infant daughter, Natalie.

Rose is very young, has literary aspirations of her own, and is awed to be in the household with the celebrated writer Shirley Jackson and her not-quite-as-celebrated husband. Rose helps out with the housework and the cooking and becomes a confidante and friend of Shirley Jackson. Rose also comes to understand the strange marriage that is Shirley and Stanley’s. Shirley is a large woman, unattractive and bespectacled. Stanley is exposed every day to willing young college girls who adore their professors, no matter how unattractive they are. That Stanley is cheating on Shirley is understood, even by Shirley. (“He’s a magician of the loins,” Shirley says.) In a scene reminiscent of the movie, Terms of Endearment, Rose discovers that her own husband is also cheating with a female student.

Hanging over the Jackson-Hyman household (for Rose, anyway) is the unsolved murder of a Bennington college student from years earlier, one Paula Welden, who was lost in the Vermont mountains and was never seen again. Rose comes to believe that Paula Welden was one of Stanley’s extramarital dalliances and that Shirley, in a fit of jealousy, might have done away with her. Of course, we never know for sure.

Shirley is an interesting (though speculative) account of Shirley Jackson’s private life. We come to see Shirley Jackson as a real person, rather than just a shadowy literary figure. People who have an interest in Shirley Jackson or her work will find the book intriguing. About ninety-nine percent of other people, though, will know she’s not Jennifer Lopez and will say: “Who the hell is Shirley Jackson?” Not everybody majored in English.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

A Brief History of Time ~ A Capsule Book Review

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A Brief History of Time

A Brief History of Time ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Did the universe have a beginning and, if so, will it have an end? Is the universe infinite, or is it curved around in on itself so that it appears to be infinite when it is, in fact, finite? What role does gravity play in the universe? Is the universe expanding or contracting? What are black holes and what causes them? What are worm holes? What is man’s place in the universe and how did he come into existence? Why are certain locations in the universe suitable for advanced life, such as man, and other places unsuitable? Is the universe what it is just so man can observe it and ask questions about it? (This would imply the existence of an intelligent creator.) What does Einstein’s general theory of relativity tell us? What is the uncertainly principle? What are quantum mechanics and how do they affect the study of the universe? What is a quark? A proton? A neutron? Of what is light composed? It is possible to travel faster than light? Is time travel ever going to be a reality? These and many other weighty questions are addressed by Stephen Hawking in his book, A Brief History of Time.

I don’t ordinarily read science books but was compelled to read A Brief History of Time after seeing the movie about Stephen Hawking’s life, The Theory of Everything. It’s written in clear, concise English (not overly wordy, as is the usual academic style), obviously aimed toward the reader who isn’t scientific and who doesn’t ordinarily read books on scientific subjects. While I can’t say I always understood what I was reading, I was sufficiently interested to keep going through to the end. I learned a few things I didn’t know before, not the least of which is the universe is a lot more complicated than people thought. With technological advances, new theories are being formulated all the time to understand the universe better. Maybe someday man will know the mind of God, or at least a part of it.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

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