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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

Kim ~ A Capsule Book Review

Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Kim ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Rudyard Kipling’s novel about India, Kim, was first published in 1901. Its principal character is an orphaned Irish boy, Kimball “Kim” O’Hara. At the beginning of the book, Kim is twelve years old. He dresses like a native and can speak Hindi, so he can go anywhere, blend in, and be accepted as one who belongs. When he meets a traveling Tibetan lama, an old man looking for a sacred river that was supposedly formed when the Buddha shot an arrow, he decides to travel with the lama as his chela. This friendship between Kim and the lama is one of the enduring “male-bonding” friendships in English literature.

Kim and the lama travel throughout India, intermingling with the many ethnic and religious groups. When they come upon (apparently by accident) the army regiment that Kim’s father belonged to, Kim meets Colonel Creighton. When Colonel Creighton sees how smart and resourceful Kim is and how he is able to blend into any part of India, he trains Kim as a British spy and mapmaker. There are secret plans afoot for a war to begin and Kim can assist by ferreting out information in the unlikeliest of places. It turns out that Kim’s friend Mahbub Ali, besides being a horse trader and a sort of father figure to Kim, is also a member of the British Indian Secret Service.

Kim spends three years in an English-run boarding school (that the lama pays for), where he learns English customs and ways. All the rest of the time he continues to bum around with the lama. The book ends five years after it begins, in the hills of Tibet, with Kim on the verge of manhood and the lama achieving the kind of spiritual enlightenment he always wanted.

Kim is not an easy book to read. Since it is a picaresque, it has hardly any plot or “story” to speak of and very little emotional resonance. It is mostly a set of characters moving around from place to place, speaking in “thee” and “thou” language, and having “adventures” that hardly seem relevant or fitting into any kind of cohesive whole. Maybe Kipling fancied himself inventing a new kind of storytelling with this novel, his most famous work.

The Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics version that I read has a forty-page “introduction” that is dry, academic and completely unnecessary. I read the whole thing, but it is painful reading. Adding to my problems with Kim is the heavily footnoted text. Almost every page has multiple footnotes and, instead of the footnotes being at the bottom of each page (which I would have found helpful), they are all gathered in a special section at the back of the book. So, if you are reading every word, you will find yourself having to flip through the pages to the back of the book far too often. To make matters worse, many of the footnotes are explaining obscure place names in India that don’t matter and aren’t essential to what is going on. As soon as you read them, you will forget them.

If Kim is a “juvenile classic” (because the main character is a child), I can’t imagine school kids voluntarily reading and enjoying it. This adult barely made it through the entire 300 pages. If I had tried to read it in eighth or ninth grade, I wouldn’t have made it through the first chapter and would have been begging to read something else instead, just as long as it wasn’t Moby Dick or Little Women.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Tarzan of the Apes ~ A Capsule Book Review

1914 First Edition Cover

1914 First Edition Cover

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Tarzan of the Apes, by American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, was first published in All-Story Magazine in 1912 and in book form in 1914. The book proved so popular that Burroughs wrote more than twenty sequels over the next thirty years. The first movie version of the novel was in 1918, with many others following. It was during the 1930s, however, that Tarzan became a genuine movie icon. The movies made the story of the jungle ape man much more famous and popular than it would otherwise have been.

As the book begins, John Clayton and his wife, Anne (Lord and Lady Greystoke) have set out from England for Africa. John Clayton is going to assume a post in Africa for the British government. Things do not turn out well for them, however. The crew of the ship they are on mutinies, kills the officers, and puts John Clayton and his wife ashore in an isolated and remote part of Africa where they have very little chance of surviving. Anne is going to have a baby, but that is the least of the couple’s worries. They set about building a small cabin in the jungle where they can keep themselves safe from jungle predators.

Anne delivers herself of the baby, but she and her husband soon die, leaving the baby alone. The baby would also die if a female ape named Kala, who had recently lost her own baby, hadn’t come across him and adopted him as her own. Kala belongs to a tribe of apes that are described as being somewhere between gorillas and man on the evolutionary scale. They are brutal and vicious predators, but Kala takes care of and protects the baby until he grows to about ten years of age, at which time she is herself killed. The apes name the boy Tarzan, which means “white skin.”

Tarzan soon discovers that he is not like the other apes. The most striking difference is that he isn’t covered with fur. As he grows into manhood, he begins to display the best of both worlds: the cunning and intelligence of a man and the strength and agility of a jungle predator. He swings from tree to tree, from branch to branch, with ease, apparently defying gravity. When he is hungry, he kills a jungle animal and eats it raw. Eventually he comes across the little cabin that his father built (not knowing, of course, that it was his father) and discovers the books that belonged to his parents. Their skeletal remains are, in fact, inside the cabin.

With much painstaking effort, Tarzan teaches himself to read English from the books in the cabin without ever having heard it spoken. He gradually puts the pieces together to learn the truth about himself, that he is descended from an English Lord and is an English Lord himself, Lord Greystoke, but it doesn’t matter to him. He is still Tarzan, king of the apes.

When Tarzan is at the height of his muscularity and physical beauty, a small band of white people find themselves in his jungle. (Included in this group is, ironically, Tarzan’s cousin, William Clayton.) The whites are lost and abandoned, in much the same way that Tarzan’s parents were, and, finding Tarzan’s cabin, use it as their own.

Among these white people is one Jane Porter, an American girl traveling with her professor father. She is the first white woman Tarzan has ever seen and he falls in love with her. He becomes the benefactor and protector of all the whites, but he is really doing it for Jane. When he rescues her, they have a romantic interlude in the jungle. The jungle adventure at this point turns into a love story.

Tarzan rescues one of the party of whites, the Frenchman Paul D’Arnot, from torture by cannibals. D’Arnot and Tarzan are then separated from the others for an extended period of time as Tarzan nurses D’Arnot back to health. During this time, Tarzan learns much more about civilization from D’Arnot and learns to speak French.

When D’Arnot is well enough, he and Tarzan make their way back to the camp of the whites, but they have gone way. They waited one week longer for the return of Tarzan and D’Arnot at the urging of Jane Porter, but, alas, they finally go away, believing that Tarzan and D’Arnot are probably dead.

Becoming more and more familiar with the ways of civilization, Tarzan, along with D’Arnot, make their way back to civilization and eventually to America, where Tarzan wants to claim Jane Porter as his own, only to discover that she has agreed to marry his cousin, William Clayton. We learn that she is marrying Clayton only for money to help her father, when it’s Tarzan she really loves.

Tarzan of the Apes is written simply, obviously for a youth audience, but it is engaging enough for an adult audience. If it lacks the depth and nuance of great literature, it still has literary merit. That it is still in print and still being read after a hundred years says a lot.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

The Spoils of Poynton ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Spoils of Poynton cover

The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Henry James was an American writer who lived from 1843 to 1916. If he seems more an English writer than American, that’s because he did most of his work while living in England and, late in his life, gave up his American citizenship and became a British subject. He wrote about twenty novels, the most famous of which are The Golden Bowl, Wings of the Dove, and Portrait of a Lady. He is one of the key figures of nineteenth century literary realism.

The Spoils of Poynton is a short (for Henry James) novel first published in 1897 that touches on the themes of greed, friendship, the nature of love and the strength of familial connections. Mrs. Gereth is a headstrong widow who lives on her estate called Poynton. Poynton is filled with “treasures” (these are the “spoils” of Poynton) that Mrs. Gereth and her late husband collected, including furnishings, tapestries, old china, paintings, object d’arts, etc. According to a silly and unfair English law, all the things in Poynton (including the house and estate) belong (upon the death of Mrs. Gereth’s husband) to her son, Owen. Owen can do as he pleases with his mother. He can put her out of the house of he wants to. He is under no legal obligation to her.

Owen is engaged to be married to one Mona Brigstock, whom Mrs. Gereth, his mother, loathes. Mrs. Gereth can’t stand to see Mona installed in Poynton with all the “things” that she considers her own. She would do almost anything to keep Owen from marrying Mona. This is where Fleda Vetch enters the picture. She is a friend of Mrs. Gereth’s and Mrs. Gereth’s choice for Owen to marry instead of Mona. After Owen and Fleda meet a few times, they admit they have “feelings” for each other. Could it be love?

Mrs. Gereth moves out of Poynton at the prospect of her son’s marriage to Mona and takes up residence in a place called “Ricks.” Ricks is all right in its own way but far inferior to Poynton. To mollify his mother, Owen tells her she may have a few (a dozen or so) of her favorite pieces from Poynton. She surprises everybody by taking literally everything. Owen is outraged and threatens legal action. (Apparently the desire for earthly possessions is more important than the mother-son bond.) Mona tells Owen the marriage is off until the things are returned to Poynton. She wants to marry Owen, it seems, only if Poynton and everything in it are part of the bargain.

Mrs. Gereth’s friend, Fleda Vetch, is faced with a dilemma. She loves Owen and he apparently loves her, but she believes it would be improper for her to take him away from Mona. The only way she will get Owen herself is if Mona chooses to break off with him. Owen believes it his duty to follow through on his marriage to Mona, even though he seems at times to prefer Fleda. Which way will he go? Will Mona tell him she no longer wants to marry him? What will happen to the “spoils” of Poynton?

Somebody once said that Henry James could find more drama in a raised eyebrow than most people could find in an earthquake. The Spoils of Poynton is a simple and engaging story told in Henry James’s inimitable grand literary style. If a thing could be said in five hundred words, he will more than likely use five thousand. Let’s see…how many ways are there to say the same thing?

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Absalom, Absalom ~ A Capsule Book Review

1936 first edition cover

1936 first edition cover

Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

William Faulkner (1897-1962) is arguably the best American novelist of the twentieth century, the supreme literary stylist. His works are deep, cerebral, rich and complex. His style is dense, sometimes fragmented, wordy and difficult to read. He has the longest sentences and the longest paragraphs of any other writer. If you are trying to follow the thread of a sentence, you might have to go back and break it down into its many parts to figure out exactly what is being said. If reading a novel by Faulkner is frustrating and tedious at times (a painful slog), you must also know that it is worth the effort or you wouldn’t be doing it.

When I first started reading Faulkner’s 1936 novel, Absalom, Absalom, I found the first chapter (told in the voice of Miss Rosa Coldfield in 1909 when she is 64 years old) so difficult that I almost gave up. If you are able to make it through the first chapter, however, the following chapters are easier. Not easy, but not quite as difficult. (There’s no linear structure to the novel.)

Absalom, Absalom is the multilayered family saga of the Sutpen and Coldfield families in the American South in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Thomas Sutpen confounds the town of Jefferson, Mississippi—and particularly the Coldfield family—when he comes from nowhere and acquires a huge tract of land, called the Sutpen Hundred (square miles, not acres), and builds an enormous house on the edge of a swamp with the help of his band of wild black men and a French architect, who he more or less treats as a captive.

For years after the house is built, Thomas Sutpen entertains a band of his male friends with wild hunting and drinking parties and wrestling matches, until the day arrives when he decides he wants to acquire respectability in the form of a wife and children. He drives away his male friends and proposes to a town girl named Ellen Coldfield. (Faulkner compares her throughout the novel to a butterfly.)

To the unlikely union between Thomas Sutpen and Ellen Coldfield are born Henry and Judith. (Thomas Sutpen also has a half-black daughter named Clytemnestra, or “Clytie,” that he had with a slave woman.) Ellen Coldfield has a sister, Miss Rosa Coldfield, who is twenty-seven years younger than she is (younger than her own children). The first part of the story is being told by the elderly Rosa Coldfield to Quentin Compson, whose grandfather was the best friend of Thomas Sutpen. The part that Rosa Coldfield plays in the novel is more of an observer than active participant in what is going on.

When Henry Sutpen is grown (or almost grown), he goes away to college in Oxford, Mississippi. There he meets and becomes good friends with one Charles Bon. Charles is older and more worldly-wise and sophisticated than Henry. (Henry is clearly infatuated with Charles Bon. Faulkner later suggests more than just simple friendship between the two, especially on Henry’s part.) When Henry writes home about Charles Bon, his mother immediately sees Charles as a likely husband for Judith. Charles visits the Sutpen home with Henry on more than one occasion. His interest in Judith seems perfunctory. Will he propose to her or won’t he? We learn later a dark secret about Charles Bon, which I won’t reveal here, and that his association with the Sutpen family is part of an elaborate scheme of revenge. This element of the story drives the narrative for much of the second half of the novel.

The Civil War obtrudes upon the lives of the characters. The three principal male characters (Thomas Sutpen, Henry Sutpen, Charles Bon) all find themselves in battle. (Thomas Sutpen achieves the rank of colonel.) The war, of course, doesn’t turn out the way many Southerners hoped it would or expected it would. (Faulkner points out that the Southern army had the highest mortality rate of any army in history.) The men who survive, defeated not only in war but also in spirit, return home starving and in tatters to discover that everything they loved or cared about has been swept away. It is this defeat that is subtext to everything else.

Absalom, Absalom (the name derives from a character in the Bible) is a dark story, full of revenge, incest (or almost incest), miscegenation, family secrets, hubris, intentions gone awry, class distinction, loss and suffering. There’s no redemption for anybody, no life-affirming conclusion. Nobody writes about these things (or about the South) the way Faulkner does. 

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

A Journal of the Plague Year ~ A Capsule Book Review

A Journal of the Plague Year cover

A Journal of the Plague Year ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

English author Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) was a literary late bloomer. He wrote his three famous novels (Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and A Journal of the Plague Year) after the age of sixty. A Journal of the Plague Year was first published in 1722 and is an account of the London plague epidemic in 1665, when Defoe was only five years old.

A Journal of the Plague Year is fiction but is told in first person, as if the narrator is there at the time of the epidemic. The fictional narrator doesn’t leave London when he has the chance when the plague starts, as many sensible people do, but stays behind. He is spared the infection but witnesses firsthand the horrors of the epidemic and lives to tell about them. Defoe supposedly drew on the journals of his uncle, one Henry Foe, in writing the novel. That is obviously what gives the story its sense of authenticity and immediacy.

People can have the plague and not even know it, so are spreading it to everybody they come into contact with. Is it airborne or does it come about only through contact with an infected person? In 1665, nobody seemed to know for sure. Those who have someplace to go outside the city leave before the epidemic takes hold. It’s mostly the poor people who have to stay behind, so they are the principal victims.

So many people are dying during the height of the epidemic that the niceties of burying the dead in coffins are dispensed with. With a thousand or more people dying a day, “dead-carts” are dispatched to round up the dead and dump them into a huge pit. The only requirement for the pits is that the dead be buried at least six feet deep. As the lucky people who collect the bodies sicken and die themselves, new people have to be found all the time to fill the job. (It sounds even worse than a job as a technical writer for a restaurant chain.)

As with any human tragedy, there are stories of heroism and sacrifice along with the stories of opportunism and charlatanism. Quack doctors prey on the poor and uneducated, selling them fake “medicines” that are supposed to be a surefire remedy against the plague. Houses of the sick are ransacked by thieves. Unscrupulous “nurses” murder the sick people they have been hired to care for. Infected people willingly spread the disease to those they know are uninfected. On the other hand, caring people risk their own lives to stay behind and care for the sick in the “pest houses.” Charities are set up that provide food and necessities to the poor to see them through the epidemic.

There isn’t much plot or story to A Journal of the Plague Year, but that doesn’t mean it’s dull reading. A plague epidemic in a large seventeenth-century city is dramatic enough without much embellishment. Once you get used to the old style of sentence structure, it’s a fascinating reading experience. I bought a paperback of the novel when I was in college for sixty cents (new, not used—so you know how long ago that was). I read a hundred or so pages of the novel back then but for some reason didn’t finish it. That’s why I undertook to read the entire book (a breezy 240 pages) this summer, and I’m glad I did.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

One Hundred Years of Solitude ~ A Capsule Book Review

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One Hundred Years of Solitude cover

One Hundred Years of Solitude ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

The novel One Hundred Years of Solitude was written by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014), first published in 1967, and translated to English in 1970. It tells the story of seven generations of the Buendía family, whose patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, founds the town of Macondo (the city of mirrors that will reflect the world around it) in search of a better life. Ursula, José Arcadio Buendía’s wife (and first cousin), lives for 130 years and is a dominant character in the life of the family. (Incest is a recurring theme throughout the novel.)

One Hundred Years of Solitude can be read and enjoyed as merely a chronological sequence of events in the lives of the Buendia family, but it helps to know something of the underlying meaning. Gabriel García Márquez uses a fantastic fictional story as an expression of reality, with myth and history overlapping. Myth serves as a vehicle to transmit history to the reader. For example, the characters in the novel experience the Liberal political reformation of their colonial way of life, the arrival of the railway, the Thousand Days’ War (1899-1902), the corporate hegemony of the “banana company,” the cinema, the automobile, and the massacre of striking workers.

The inevitable and inescapable repetition of history is a dominant theme in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Márquez reiterates the metaphor of history as a circular phenomenon through the repetition of names and characteristics belonging to the Buendía family. The characters are controlled by their pasts and the complexity of time. Throughout the novel the characters are visited by ghosts that are symbols of the past and the haunting nature that the past has over their lives.

Another major theme is solitude. Macondo is in the remote jungles of the Colombian rain forest. The solitude of the town is representative of the colonial period in Latin American history, where outposts and colonies were, for the most part, not interconnected. The Buendías, isolated from the rest of the world, grow increasingly solitary and selfish. With every member of the family living only for himself or herself, they become representative of the aristocratic land-owning elite of that period in Latin American history.

Whether you’re interested in the political and historical implications or not, One Hundred Years of Solitude is still a multi-layered and entertaining story with many interesting characters. (Sometimes the names of the characters are difficult for the reader to keep straight because of the repetition of names.) José Arcadio Buendía and his wife Ursula are parents of José Arcadio, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, and Amaranta. Colonel Aureliano Buendía is a warrior and revolutionary leader. He starts thirty-two unsuccessful wars and fathers seventeen sons by seventeen different women. All of the sons have the name Aureliano with their mothers’ last names. He marries Remedios Moscote while she is still a child; she dies soon after the marriage during her first pregnancy.

Rebeca is the orphaned daughter of Ursula’s cousin who comes to live with the Buendías. She carries the bones of her parents in a bag and eats earth and whitewash off the walls. She eventually marries her adoptive brother José Arcadio and lives a life of seclusion after his death.

Arcadio is José Arcadio’s illegitimate son, a schoolteacher who assumes leadership of Macondo after Colonel Aureliano Buendía leaves. When Liberal forces in Macondo fall, he is shot by a Conservative firing squad.

Aureliano José is the illegitimate son of Colonel Aureliano Buendía. He joins his father in several wars but deserts to return home to Macondo because he believes he is in love with his aunt Amaranta. He is eventually shot to death by a Conservative captain midway through the wars.

Santa Sofía de la Piedad is a beautiful virgin girl who marries Arcadia Buendía. After her husband is executed, the Buendías take her in, along with her children.

Remedios the Beauty is Arcadio and Santa Sofía’s first child. She is so beautiful that several men die of love (or lust) for her. She is so naïve that she is perceived as being mentally retarded. Too beautiful and perhaps too wise for the world, she ascends into the sky one afternoon while folding a white sheet.

José Arcadio Segundo and Aureliano Segundo are twins born to Arcadio and Santa Sofía. José Arcadio Segundo plays a major role in the banana workers’ strike and is the only survivor when the striking workers are massacred. After the massacre, he spends the rest of his days studying the parchments of Melquiades (a history of the family written in Sanskrit, which is mentioned repeatedly throughout the novel) and tutoring the younger Aureliano. (The two twins die at the exact same time.) The twin brother, Aureliano Segundo, marries the beautiful and bitter Fernanda del Carpio and takes as his mistress Petra Cotes. After the long rains (four years, eleven months and two days), his fortune dies up. He begins searching for buried treasure, a pursuit that nearly drives him to insanity. He dies of throat cancer.

Renata Remedios, who is called Meme, is the second child and first daughter of Fernanda and Aureliano Segundo. To placate her mother, she learns to play the clavichord as well as a professional performer. When Meme falls in love with a mechanic named Mauricio Babilonia, her mother has him shot as a chicken thief and sends Meme off to a convent, where, a few months later, she gives birth to Mauricio Babilonia’s child. Her mother, Fernanda, takes the baby (Aureliano) and claims he was a foundling who came delivered in a basket to cover up her daughter’s promiscuity.

José Arcadio II (the only possibly gay character in the novel) is raised by Ursula, who wants him to enter the priesthood and become pope. He studies in Rome but doesn’t become pope. He eventually returns to Macondo and discovers buried treasure, which he wastes on lavish parties and escapades with adolescent boys. He plans to set up his nephew, Aureliano Babilonia, in business but is murdered in his bath by the adolescent boys, who ransack his house and steal his gold.

Amaranta Ursula is the third child of Fernanda and Aureliano. She never knows that the Aureliano Babilonia, the child sent to the Buendía home, is her nephew, the illegitimate child of Meme. Amaranta Ursula and Aureliano Babilonia become best friends in childhood and enter into a passionate affair when they are older, in spite of Amaranta Ursula having a husband, Gaston. Amaranta Ursula has a baby by Aureliano, which is born with a pig’s tail, as was prophesied. This baby, which is eaten by ants (also according to the prophesy), is the last of the Buendía line. As the line dies out, the town of Macondo is destroyed in a hurricane.

One Hundred Years of Solitude has become a classic of world literature and is the most famous work by Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez, who died in April 2014 at the age of 87.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

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