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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

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

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