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Benediction ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Benediction

Benediction ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

I met writer Kent Haruf at one of his book-signing events in St. Louis. We spoke for a minute about Cormac McCarthy and Oscar Hijuelos and I came away with a signed copy of his novel Plainsong to add to my collection of signed books. His 2013 novel Benediction continues his string of quietly impressive books set on the high plains in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. The main character here is Dad Lewis (we never know his first name), lifelong owner of the town’s hardware store. He has a faithful wife named Mary and two children, Lorraine and Frank. When we meet him, he is old and sick and doesn’t have long to live. His daughter Lorraine, now middle-aged, returns home to be with him in his final stretch. He longs to reconnect with his estranged son Frank before he dies, but Frank is gay and he and Dad have never hit it off very well.

Then there’s Reverend Lyle, new to Holt from Denver. His wife and son are unhappy with small-town life and they never pass up a chance to remind him. (His wife was having an extramarital affair in Denver and that was one of the reasons they left.) When Reverend Lyle preaches a sermon in the Congregational Church about loving one’s neighbors and turning the other cheek, it doesn’t go over well with small-town folk, especially during wartime. (He’s only stating what the Bible says, but most people seem to think he’s siding with the enemy.) He is so disliked after this sermon, it seems there is no way he can survive attempts to have him fired or reassigned. After his unsympathetic wife leaves him and his son attempts suicide, what’s left for Reverent Lyle in the town of Holt?

Other characters include Berta May, the old lady who lives next door to Dad and Mary Lewis, raising her young granddaughter, Alice, after the girl’s mother dies; Tanya, the wife of a fired employee who Dad Lewis helps (without expecting anything in return, although sex is offered) after her husband commits suicide; Willa Johnson and her fifty-six-year-old daughter Alene, a teacher who once had an unhappy love affair with a married man that she was never quite able to get over. On a hot day the ladies (Mary Lewis and her daughter Lorraine, Willa and Alene Johnson, Berta May and her granddaughter Alice) take off all their clothes and get into the stock tank. I might have expected them to be more modest than that, especially in the company of a young girl, but it seems that woman aren’t as modest as men.

Benediction is a slice of small-town life, understated in the way of the man who wrote it. There’s nothing bombastic or larger than life here, just solid storytelling told in uncluttered language with plenty of drama (but no drama queens) just underneath the surface. It’s people living out their good-and-bad lives, forcing us to wonder—and not for the first time, either—what it’s all about.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp 

The Stranger ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Stranger

The Stranger ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

French writer Albert Camus was born in Algiers in 1913 and died in an automobile accident in 1960 at the age of 47. His novel The Stranger was published in 1942 and first appeared in English in 1946. It’s the simple story of an ordinary French Algerian, named Meursault, and the act of senseless violence that changed his life.

When the story begins, Meursault’s mother has died in the rest home where he put her because he couldn’t take care of her properly at home. When he travels to her funeral it is a very hot day. He loved his mother in his own way but is not able to cry over her death. In the ordeal of sitting up with her body overnight and the funeral the next day, he shows no emotion. He stands before her coffin, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, observing the other mourners. His lack of emotion is noted by those in attendance and plays a significant part in what is to come.

Meursault has a friend named Raymond Sintès. When Raymond has a dispute with an Arab girlfriend, Meursault helps Raymond by writing her a letter. This leads to an altercation between Raymond and the girl, which leads to Raymond hitting her. A few days later when Meursault and Raymond go to the beach with some friends, the girl’s brother is waiting for them. There is a fight, during which Raymond is slightly injured. Meursault takes Raymond’s gun from him to keep him from doing anything rash. Later in the day, after they have all calmed down, Meursault returns to the beach with the gun and shoots the Arab five times and kills him. Meursault can’t explain why he killed the man, except to say that it was very hot.

Meursault is put in prison to await trail. He is detached about prison as he is about everything else. He is appointed a lawyer, who assures him that he will be acquitted. When the trail begins, it doesn’t go well for Meursault. The prosecution brings in all the people from Meursault’s mother’s funeral who testify that Meursault didn’t cry. The prosecutor in his eloquence portrays Meursault is a cold, calculating murderer and an unfeeling monster. The jury finds him guilty and he is sentenced to die by the guillotine. While awaiting death he allows himself to imagine some miracle occurring by which he is acquitted, but he knows it isn’t going to happen.

Meursault confides to a prison chaplain that he believes in nothing, that life is meaningless and random. There is no plan, no design that gives life a larger meaning. Meursault believes he understands the indifference of the universe toward man, and this allows him to come to terms with his own death. “…I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world,” he says. “Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.”

The Stranger is divided into two parts, before the murder and after. It’s a first-person narrative, told in Meursault’s own voice. We’re being told Meursault’s version of what happened. This makes the story seem immediate and relevant. While Meursault is detached in all things, his story is not detached and the reader doesn’t feel detached either. It’s a very readable classic, never dull or ponderous. In tenth grade when we were given a list of books to read to write a report on, I chose Pride and Prejudice. If I had known then how good The Stranger is, I would have chosen it instead. The Bennett sisters are chloroform in print.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

All the Light We Cannot See ~ A Capsule Book Review

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All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It’s a World War II story (yes, another one) set mostly in the small French coastal town of Saint-Malo. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a French girl, blind from the age of six. She lives with her widowed father, who is employed as a locksmith at an enormous Paris museum. Marie-Laure is very bright and seems to live life to the fullest despite her blindness. She reads books in Braille—Jules Verne is her favorite writer—and she and her father are happy in their lives. All of that changes, however, when Germany occupies France and Marie-Laure and her father flee to the town of Saint-Malo and the home of Marie-Laure’s father’s uncle, whose name is Etienne.

Marie-Laure and her father are happy in Saint-Malo with Uncle Etienne and his housekeeper, Madame Manec, in spite of the deprivations of war. After a time, though, Marie-Laure’s father is called back to Paris by his employer (apparently a trick) and is captured and imprisoned by the Germans. Marie-Laure has no other choice but to continue to stay with her great-uncle in the narrow, six-story house in Saint-Malo. The town is right in the way of the fighting, though, so war comes to their doorstep when the Allied forces invade France to liberate it from the Germans. Etienne is forced to give up any radio transmitter in his home, but he keeps one secretly and continues to broadcast information that will be of help to the resistance movement. Marie-Laure is also part of the resistance, as she carries information, baked into loaves of bread, that he can transmit.

Marie-Laure’s story is juxtaposed with that of a German boy named Werner Pfennig. Werner and his sister Jutta live in an orphan home in a dreary mining town in Germany. Werner is also very bright and teaches himself the principles of mechanics and radio technology. When people see that he can repair radios that nobody else can, he is chosen to go to a “Hitler Youth” school. He has been looking for a chance to escape his dreary, futureless existence (and an enforced job in the coal mine when he turns fifteen) and this is his one chance, although he isn’t at all political and he hates to leave behind his sister, Jutta, as she is his only family.

Werner and his small contingent happen to be in Saint-Malo when it is heavily bombarded. They are buried for many days beneath a hotel that has collapsed. With what little he has to work with, he is able to put together a radio receiver that allows him to hear radio transmissions. He hears the voice of Marie-Laure as she reads from Jules Verne. When he and the others miraculously and unexpectedly escape from their imprisonment, he goes looking for the girl whose voice he heard. We knew all along that his life and Marie-Laure’s life were in some way going to intersect. He plays an important role in her life, but not in the way one might expect.

All the Light We Cannot See is a very readable book, with short chapters, most no more than two or three pages long. It’s not what you would call a long-winded book despite its 530 pages. The characters are engaging and believable and, even though it’s a wartime story, it’s not about war but about innocents whose lives are caught up in war. World War II continues to provide an unending source of storytelling material. What would the twentieth century be without war? Not nearly as tumultuous or as interesting.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Bettyville ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Bettyville

Bettyville ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Bettyville is a memoir by a writer named George Hodgman set in the small town of Paris, Missouri. Paris is an insignificant town in a state full of insignificant towns. George is a middle-aged man and is gay, always feeling that there is something wrong with him or he doesn’t quite measure up. (“The people who feel okay in the world,” he says, “don’t understand those of us who don’t feel okay.”) He knows his conservative parents will never understand or embrace his sexuality, so he chooses to never discuss it with them. He becomes adept at secrecy and at hiding his true feelings. At the age of forty, when he finally admits to his mother that he’s gay (“Surely you must have known.”), she replies, “Well, then, I guess you’ll go your way and I’ll go mine.” She doesn’t make it easy for him.

Knowing he will never fit in or be accepted in his home town, George goes to New York, where he embraces the “gay lifestyle.” He spends summers on Fire Island. He has a series of “relationships,” somehow never managing to make one of them last for the long haul. He works for publishing houses as a book editor or at places like Vogue magazine. He turns to drugs to help him cope with his demanding job and eventually becomes an addict. In spite of all this, though, he manages to go back to Missouri a couple of times a year to visit his family.

When George’s father dies (George senior), his mother, Betty, is left alone. As she gets older and more frail, it is up to George, an only child, to care for her. He would like to put her in a nursing home so he can live his own life, but, as expected, she won’t hear to it. After George loses his job (making him feel like more of a failure than ever), he moves back home with his mother and takes on the difficult job of caring for her full-time. So, a fifty-year-old repressed, secretive man is taking care of his failing, often difficult, emotionally reserved ninety-year-old mother who has dementia. He wants to “do right” by her and see her through to the end, whatever the end is. That’s what Bettyville is about: acceptance of one’s own failings, putting another person’s interests before one’s own, and doing it all with humor and grace.

Bettyville is almost effortless reading and is full of humor. When George takes his mother to see the art film The Master, she says in a loud voice, “Why would anybody want to make a movie like that?” When they go to the Muny Opera in St. Louis to see The Music Man, George’s father sings along, embarrassing George and Betty. In drug rehab, when somebody asks George when he became aware that his emotions had shut down, he replies, “I don’t think they were ever opened up.” George is a clever man who uses self-deprecating humor to keep people from seeing what he really is, as if what he is needs covering up.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

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

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