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The Canterbury Tales ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales (A Prose Version in Modern English) ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) lived during the Middle Ages, almost two hundred years before Shakespeare. The English spoken at the time he lived is called Middle English, to distinguish it from Old English and Early Modern English (the language that Shakespeare spoke and wrote in). Chaucer’s most famous work is The Canterbury Tales, a collection of about twenty stories (some in prose but most in verse) with a simple premise: A group of diverse “pilgrims” (a nun, a knight, a miller, a priest, a doctor, a pardoner, a “wife,” etc.) on their way to Canterbury to pay homage to Thomas Becket (who “helped them when they were sick”) tell stories to pass the time and relieve the tedium of the road. Each pilgrim is required to tell a story, whether they want to or not. The stories range from bawdy, low humor to tragedy and give us a picture of what life was like in England at the end of the fourteenth century.

No matter how you’ve been spending your time lately, you probably haven’t been reading The Canterbury Tales in its original Middle English, unless, of course, you’re a graduate student preparing a thesis on the subject. If you’ve ever heard Middle English spoken, it’s beautiful to hear but not that easy to understand for modern speakers of English. A lot of the words are the same and are easily recognizable, but a lot of the words no longer exist in the language. (If you’d like to hear an example of spoken Middle English, here is an easy link to “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales on YouTube:

Since Middle English is beyond the ken of most people (including me), there’s this “Prose Version in Modern English” by David Wright. A lot of the “feel” of The Canterbury Tales, I’m sure, is lost is this translation (sort of like the “modern American translation” of the King James’ version of the Bible), but if you need to read The Canterbury Tales and you want to be able to understand it, this is the best, most accessible way. Of course, you have to be a dedicated reader if, like me, you’re reading it only for enjoyment and out of curiosity and not because you have to. After all these years since high school English class, I finally know what the Wife of Bath is all about.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

The Confidential Agent ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Confidential Agent ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The hero/protagonist of Graham Greene’s novel The Confidential Agent is referred to only as “D.” That’s how confidential he is. He’s a middle-aged man (think Charles Boyer), a foreigner, travelling in Britain, and he’s not there to see the sights, either. He is a lecturer in the Romance Languages, a scholar and peace-loving man, but things haven’t been going so well for him. His country is at war, he’s been in prison for two years apparently because he was on the wrong side, and his wife was shot and killed by the enemy. He’s in Britain to negotiate a coal deal with the owner of a huge coal-mining conglomerate, a certain Lord Benditch. His side must have the coal to have a chance of winning the war. If the enemy gets the coal, D.’s side is certain to lose. Well, guess what? There’s another “confidential agent” from the other side, known to us as “L.” who also wants the coal. Will “L.” kill “D.” to keep him from getting the coal, or will “D.” kill “L.” to keep him from getting it? It’s a cat-and-mouse game from the beginning. D. is badly beaten (although it doesn’t seem to stop him) and his papers that establish his identity are stolen, and this is just the beginning of the obstacles that are placed in his way.

We realize early that the business about the war or D.’s side needing the coal doesn’t really matter. We learn nothing of the politics of the war or who is fighting whom. This is only a device to propel the plot. Don’t waste any time or expend any brain power trying to figure out the war.

Of course, there always has to be a “femme fatale” in a story like this. In this case she is the daughter (what a coincidence!) of Lord Benditch, the coal magnate, and her name is Rose Cullen (think Lauren Bacall). She seems to know D. and to know the importance of his mission, but where do her loyalties lay? Is she to be trusted? After a while she claims to be in love with D., in spite of their age difference and also in spite of his not being very lovable. Can D. make a go of it with Rose Cullen or he is only deceiving himself? Will they have a future together after the war business is settled, or is she only sucking up to him, seeking his vulnerable side to knife him in the back? In a story like this, you can never be sure.

We are told that Graham Greene wrote The Confidential Agent in 1939 in a matter of a few short weeks, fueled by Benzedrine (whatever that is), and that he wrote it for money. After it was finished, he was so unhappy with it that he wanted to disavow it and publish it under a pseudonym, but it was published under his own name and it turned out to be well-received by critics and the reading public alike. It’s rather formulaic, a “thriller” (in other words, “light” reading), but it lives up to its subtitle: An Entertainment.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

The School on Heart’s Content Road ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The School on Heart Content's Road cover

The School on Heart’s Content Road ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

I first became a fan of Carolyn Chute when I read her novel The Beans of Egypt, Maine many years ago. Then Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts, Merry Men and Snow Man. Her most recent book (not that she’s published but that that I’ve read) is The School on Heart’s Content Road. She has another book out, Treat Us Like Dogs and We Become Wolves (just out in 2014) that I haven’t yet read but that I intend to read as soon as I’m ready to tackle another 700-page novel. (The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, is 769 pages.)

The thing about Carolyn Chute is that she’s not like other writers. Nothing bores me any faster than stories of yuppie angst and heartbreak (multiple marriages, affairs, fears about growing old, screwed-up kids because their parents are screwed up, blah, blah, blah). Carolyn Chute writes about the other end of the spectrum: people on the fringe, the dispossessed, the poor, illiterate (what’s called in the South white trash but is called something else in Maine where her books are set). These people are fascinating, and in The School on Heart’s Content Road we have a whole assemblage of fascinating characters. Characters who are much more concerned about survival than about their stock portfolios or what wines to have for dinner or what college two-year-old Muffy will apply to when the time comes.

The School on Heart’s Content Road is set, for some reason, in the year 2000. It is not about a school but instead centers around four characters: Michael (known as “Mickey”) Gammon, Jane Miranda Meserve, Richard York (likes to be called “Rex;” his mother calls him “Ricky”) and Guillaume (known as “Gordon”) St. Onge.

Fifteen-year-old Mickey Gammon smells bad (he doesn’t bathe) and he can’t read, even though he goes to school (or seems to). He lives with his half-brother Donnie Locke and Donnie’s family. Donnie works in an unidentified “chain” (like Wal-Mart) store and is understandably unhappy. He and his wife Erika have a sick child, Jesse, who is bound to die with cancer, whether he has treatments or not. They hardly have enough money for pain medicine for the sick child. Also living with them are Mickey and Donnie’s mother, Britta (she has three kids by three different men, none of whom she was ever married to), their younger sister, Elizabeth, and several of Donnie’s kids from a previous marriage (referred to throughout the novel as the “girl gang”). Donnie throws Mickey out of the house. (“You can’t live here anymore,” he says.) Mickey lives for a while in a tree house with Maine winter setting in. He begins spending time with Rex York, a fifty-year-old Vietnam veteran who has a military bearing and a soldierly attitude toward life (he doesn’t eat desserts and maintains his trim body with exercise). Rex is head of the True Maine Militia. This is a “separatist” group that doesn’t trust the government (with good reason) and will use force if necessary to “take back” (with plenty of guns and ammo) the country that they believe was stolen from them by greedy politicians and an even greedier corporate structure that “steals from them and tries to sell back what they have stolen.” They are a fringe group and have been much maligned by the mainstream media, whose job it is to stir up fear in the public imagination against them.

Gordon St. Onge is about ten years younger than Rex York, but they have known each other since they were young. (They consider themselves almost brothers.) Gordon is called (among other things) the “Prophet,” because he is a head of the “Settlement,” a sort of commune/co-op where a bunch of people live and work. Gordon is charismatic and is loved by most of the people who know him and feared by many because he has a lot of (not legal) wives and many children by those wives. It seems that nothing disturbs the public as much as the thought of “polygamy” and a “cult” in which young girls are made to have “relations” with much older men (it isn’t like that in the Settlement). Life seems to be pretty harmonious in the Settlement and the people living there are happy. Still, though, there is the idea that they will overthrow the government in an ugly way if (and when) they have the chance, or possibly even try to secede from the Union. For this reason they are disliked and feared.

Jane Meserve is a six-and-a-half-year-old, half-black girl (her father was a black musician with whom Jane’s mother, Lisa Meserve, had one encounter) who is suddenly left without a mother when Lisa is hauled off to jail on a drug charge. When Jane is wearing her heart-shaped, white-framed glasses that allow her to observe things that others can’t see, she is secret agent Jane, adding a lighter touch to the proceedings. She is a wry observer of everything going on around her, smart and clever beyond her years. She and her mother serve to illustrate how unfair and brutal police are (can be) to poor, powerless people. When her mother goes to jail, apparently forever, Jane is taken in by a Settlement family.

The School on Heart’s Content Road is always engaging reading. The “set piece” of the novel, toward the end, is a long, long (too long) sequence about an open house kind of event at the Settlement where everybody is invited. Hundreds of people show up; there are music, food and drinking. When Gordon speaks, he works the crowd up into a frenzy with his rhetoric about taking back the country and not standing for the government’s lies and double-dealing anymore. There are federal agents everywhere, and word has been circulated that somebody is going to try to kill Gordon. We know something is going to happen but we don’t know what until it happens. It’s not what we expected.

If you are a reader of “serious” fiction (as opposed to a reader of Harold Robbins or Jacqueline Susann), you will like The School on Heart’s Content Road. If it was a movie, it would play at art houses instead of at your neighborhood multiplex where they have Ant Man and Jurassic World and all the latest rom-coms. Some of us just want more out of life and we’ll do whatever we have to do to get it.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Go Set a Watchman ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Go Set a Watchman cover

Go Set a Watchman ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Harper Lee is famous for writing To Kill a Mockingbird but also for something else: she was friend and confidante to Truman Capote and has been portrayed by not one but two Hollywood actresses in movies about Capote and his writing of In Cold Blood. Truman Capote and Harper Lee were childhood companions in the tiny town of Monroeville, Alabama and remained friends until his death in 1984. While Capote became as famous for his eccentricities (his appearances on The Tonight Show) and his partying lifestyle as he was for the books he wrote, Harper Lee eschewed the limelight and has been, like other writers of her generation, notoriously reclusive. At age 89, she still lives in the tiny town of Monroeville, Alabama. You get the impression that fame hasn’t changed her very much.

With the phenomenal success of To Kill A Mockingbird and the equally famous movie that followed the publication of the novel, Harper Lee might have “cashed in” on her fame; she might have written other books or a sequel, but she didn’t. In the foreword to the thirtieth anniversary printing of her famous novel, she said simply that she didn’t have anything else she wanted to say. It doesn’t happen very often, especially when there’s money to be made.

Now, oddly enough, all these years later, in the futuristic year of 2015 (it would have seemed so in 1960), a new Harper Lee book has emerged, Go Set a Watchman. The title is from a passage in the Book of Isaiah: For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. Every man’s island, the book tells us, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.

At first glance, Go Set a Watchman seems to be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird because it’s set twenty years after the earlier novel, but Harper Lee didn’t intend it as a sequel. It is, we are told, a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. It was apparently shelved for a different version and hasn’t seen the light of day until now. The publisher, HarperCollins, must have recognized the enormous amount of interest (and the cash potential) in a new book by Harper Lee, even if it is a book written sixty years ago.

The girl in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, is an adult in Go Set a Watchman. When she is twenty-six, on her yearly summer visit to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, she witnesses many changes. Her father, seventy-two-year-old Atticus Finch (the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird) suffers from debilitating arthritis and is not as vigorous as he once was. Calpurnia, the black maid who kept house for him for many years, is too old to work anymore and has been replaced by Alexandra, Atticus’s bossy sister. Calpurnia’s grandson is in trouble for running down in his car (and killing) a drunken white man. Jeremy (known as “Jem”), Jean Louise’s older brother, has succumbed at an early age to the hereditary heart condition that claimed his and Jean Louise’s mother’s life. Henry Clinton, a young attorney and protégé of Atticus Finch (four years older than Jean Louise and a lifelong friend of her brother’s) wants to marry her, but she isn’t sure if he’s the right sort or not. The most significant change, however, is in the social and political landscape of the South. Black people, spurred on by “outside interests,” are demanding their civil rights. The white people who have taken for granted the “status quo” in the South for generations are going to have to adjust to a new order of things. It’s a transitional period in the South, not unlike the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War. It’s in this atmosphere of change that Go Set a Watchman is set.

Most people will probably agree that Go Set a Watchman is not as compelling or as nearly perfect as To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead of a five-star novel, it’s a four- or a three-star novel at best. That’s not to say, however, that it’s not worth the time and effort it takes to read it, especially for those who have read To Kill a Mockingbird and/or seen the movie version and would like to know what becomes of the characters twenty years later.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

The Idiot ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Idiot by Dostoevsky cover

The Idiot ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The title character in Dostoevsky’s 1869 novel The Idiot is Lyov Nikolayevitch Myshkin, or “Prince Myshkin,” as he is generally known. He is fair-haired, about twenty-eight, frail and unwell, an epileptic given to seizures at unexpected moments. For the last few years he has been living as a charity patient in a sanatorium in Switzerland. When the novel begins, he is released from the sanatorium, although he is not well, and is returning by train to his native Russia.

He comes into some money (less than he at first thought) that allows him to live without working. In Petersburg, he falls in with a collection of characters and finds himself so completely out of his depth because he is so unlike any of them. He seems to the others naïve and unworldly, trusting and good (in a world where there isn’t much that’s good). He earns the appellation “idiot,” not for lack of intelligence but for his simplicity.

Prince Myshkin befriends a family known as the Epanchins. The matriarch of the family, Lizaveta Prokofyevna Epanchin, is a distant relative of his and is in fact “Princess Myshkin.” The Epanchins have three daughters in their twenties. Prince Myshkin seems drawn to the youngest daughter, Aglaia. Whether she is drawn to him in return is not immediately clear, not even to her. The Epanchins waver in their belief that Prince Myshkin is an acceptable son-in-law. If they start to have a favorable opinion of him, something always happens to make them change their minds. His potential marriage to Aglaia is an on-again, off-again proposition.

In the meantime, Prince Myshkin has fallen in love (or thinks he is) with Natasya Filippovna Barashkov. She is a flighty, changeable woman who is known for her beauty but, more notoriously, for being the “kept” mistress of a wealthy man. She is both reviled and admired at the same time. Prince Myshkin decides he wants to marry this woman, although he hardly seems to know her. For her part, she is lukewarm toward him. She thinks at times about marrying him while at other times she makes fun of him for being an “idiot.” (If he had any sense, he would get as far away from her as possible.)

Also in love with Natasya Filippovna are Gavril Ardalionovitch Ivolgin (known as “Ganya”) and Parfyon Semyonovitch Rogozhin (on the train with Prince Myshkin when the novel begins and with him also at the end, playing an important role in how the story is resolved). Gavril Ardalionovitch Ivolgin is the older son of the Ivolgins. His father, General Ardalion Alexandrovitch Ivolgin, is one of the most colorful characters in the book. He tells improbable stories about historical events in which he played a part in his younger days (one a long, involved story about being a “page” for Napoleon when Napoleon’s armies invaded Russia).

The introduction of The Idiot states that it’s a “digressive” novel, meaning there’s a lot that happens that doesn’t have anything to do with the plot. It’s a long book (559 dense pages) that could have been shorter if it hadn’t seen so “digressive.” That’s the way with Russian novels, though. Forget tight plotting and economy of words. In one of the digressions, the character Ippolit Terentyev, who is dying of consumption, writes a long, long “explanation” of his life, which he then reads to a roomful of people, for no apparent reason. That’s not to say it’s not interesting, but it just doesn’t seem to serve any purpose.

There’s a character list at the beginning of the book that helps to keep the characters straight, especially since the same character will be referred to by one name in one place and then referred to by another name in a different place. For example, the person we have come to know as “Prince Myshkin” is called “Lyov Nikolayevitch” a little farther along. I found myself referring to the character list a lot.

For the dedicated reader of “heavy” reading (not “light,” not “breezy”), or for the fan of Russian novels, The Idiot is a fascinating reading experience. I was really glad to get to the last page. The next book I read will be something fun and easy.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

My Sunshine Away ~ A Capsule Book Review

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My Sunshine Away

My Sunshine Away ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

My Sunshine Away, by first-time novelist M. O. Walsh, is set in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the late 1980s. The unnamed narrator (referred to only by pronouns) lives in a pleasant middle-class housing development with his mother, his philandering father (he has a girlfriend younger than his daughters), and his two older sisters, Hannah (killed in a traffic accident in her twenties) and Rachel. The narrator harbors an unhealthy adolescent obsession for a girl in the neighborhood named Lindy Simpson. He thinks about her day and night. He fantasizes about her. He climbs into a tree in her yard and spies on her with binoculars. He tries to impress her in the way he cuts his hair and the way he dresses. He envisions a future with her. Everything for him is Lindy, Lindy, Lindy. If you think this doesn’t get tiresome after a couple hundred pages, you are mistaken.

On a summer evening when the narrator and Lindy are sixteen, Lindy is raped. It’s an unusual crime for the neighborhood. The narrator is a suspect for a while (he didn’t do it), as is nearly every other male in the neighborhood. The police are not able to find out who did it. Lindy didn’t get a good look at her assailant. The most tragic consequence of the crime is that Lindy changes: from a sweet, pleasant girl into a rebellious, sullen, foul-mouthed idiot. (Know anybody like this?)

Despite Lindy’s change for the worse, however, the narrator’s obsession for her only grows stronger. (She seems increasingly unworthy of his adulation.) He tries to find out who raped Lindy and in a way carries a burden of guilt because he was outside on the dark night of the rape, saw a male figure lurking around, and was too scared to do anything about it. He doesn’t find an answer until many years later when he and Lindy are in their thirties. Will it help Lindy, even at that late stage, to know who raped her? Probably not.

Being set in Baton Rouge doesn’t make My Sunshine Away a “Southern novel.” While there is some “local color” involving heat, swamps, bugs, crepe myrtle trees and hurricanes, it’s a story that could take place anywhere, in New Mexico or New Jersey. If you want to read a real Southern novel, read As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers or Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor.

My Sunshine Away is a beautifully written first-person narrative, highly readable, if a little wordy and repetitive at times. I liked it a lot when I first started reading it and a lot less about two-thirds of the way through. Where the story starts to go south for me is the mutual telephone masturbation scene between the narrator and Lindy. (I think this is what they call “phone sex.” Yuck.) Anyway, the last one-third of the book was a chore for me to get through. The narrator’s obsession with Lindy began to grow thin for me at the point where she turns into such a jerk and such an unlikeable person. His mostly absent father should have taken him aside and told him that Lindy was bad news and that he was wasting his time and emotional energy on her. She will cause you nothing but heartache. Don’t put yourself through that if you don’t have to. Or words to that effect.

The last thirty or forty pages of the book, while compellingly written (as the whole book is), are a little treacly and female-oriented for my taste, as if the writer is going for a female audience here. If you don’t roll your eyes through these pages (rhapsodizing about pregnancy, parenthood and love), you have a much stronger constitution that I do.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Benediction ~ A Capsule Book Review

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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 


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