RSS Feed

The Charioteer ~ A Capsule Book Review

Posted on

The Charioteer cover

The Charioteer ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

English writer Mary Renault (1905-1983) is known mostly for her historical fiction set in ancient Greece. Her 1953 novel The Charioteer, however, is set in a much different time period: World War II. Young British soldier Laurie (Laurence) Odell sustains a severe leg injury (his kneecap is blown off) in the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940. While recuperating in an army hospital from a series of operations on his leg, he meets Andrew Raynes, a Quaker and a conscientious objector. (These “COs” are very unpopular with most people.) Andrew doesn’t fight in the war because of his religion, but he’s doing “war work” as a hospital orderly. Andrew and Laurie Odell become friends, they begin to meet secretly every day and, after a time, they become more than friends.

Years earlier, when Laurie was in school, he was drawn to an older boy named Ralph Lanyon. Ralph was a “Head” (sort of a student leader) at the school. After Ralph is “sent down” at school (expelled), Laurie never sees him again but never stops thinking of him. Fast forward years later to the war: Laurie and Ralph meet again; it turns out that Ralph rescued Laurie at Dunkirk, even though Laurie was barely conscious at the time and wasn’t aware of what was going on. Not surprisingly, he still is drawn to Ralph in a sexual way and he discovers that Ralph feels the same way about him. Since Laurie has already committed himself in a way to loving Andrew, he is faced with a dilemma. Who needs him more, Andrew or Ralph?

Meantime, Laurie has family problems. His mother, who has been a widow since Laurie was five, is planning on marrying a vicar named Mr. Straike. Laurie and Mr. Straike don’t like each other very much and are at pains to keep it hidden.  Mr. Straike was instrumental in having Laurie’s eleven-year-old dog, Gyp, euthanized while Laurie was away and his mother didn’t bother to tell Laurie about it until he comes home for her wedding. He swallows his grief over losing Gyp and ends up giving his mother away in her wedding to Mr. Straike. Whenever Laurie is alone with his mother, he wants to tell her of his homosexuality and of his feelings for Andrew, but he is never able to get the words out; he knows that Mr. Straike would violently disapprove.

The more Laurie sees Ralph on his leaves from the hospital for treatment, the more he sees him a different light. Ralph is a member of an insular group of gay men, whom Laurie doesn’t like very much. (They’re plenty bitchy and one of them attempts suicide while Laurie is present.) Although Ralph is talking about him and Laurie being together forever, Laurie isn’t sure that’s what he wants, especially since Andrew has come into his life.

The Charioteer is interesting fiction for its time, the early 1950s. If the plot creaks at times (especially for the American reader) in the long, long conversations in the second half and we’re not always sure what the characters are saying, we can overlook the plodding and the occasional flaws. (Who doesn’t have them?) On the whole, it’s a rather conventional wartime love story made unconventional because all the participants are men. Despite its theme, however, it’s easy on the ears and eyes for those who might be offended by descriptions of an “alternative lifestyle.” The sections dealing with any kind of love or sexual activity are very chaste. For all we know, Laurie and Ralph or Laurie and Andrew might be playing chess when they are alone together. We know what’s going on here, but we’re not hammered over the head with it. This is what is known as subtlety and artistry, two qualities sorely lacking in today’s tell-all, anything-goes culture.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Hell or High Water ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Posted on

Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

When scruffy Texas brothers Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine) begin robbing banks, it’s more a question of seeking vengeance on a particular bank than a desire for money, even though they are poor. As Toby Howard says, he’s been poor all his life; his parents were poor and his grandparents; it’s been like a disease handed down from generation to generation. He’s a divorced father of two sons who would like to see his children have a better chance at life than he ever had.

Tanner Howard, Toby’s brother, is an ex-convict (out of 39 years, he says, he’s spent 10 of them behind bars). He is much more willing to fight, ignore the rules, and cause trouble than Toby is. When he returns from prison, their mother has just died. Both brothers feel they’ve been cheated by a certain bank, with seven branches in different Texas towns. They begin robbing these banks, taking what is considered small amounts, and not going after what’s in the vaults. Droll, about-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) methodically tries to figure out what’s going on with the brothers and what they will do next. He reasons that, since the brothers are only robbing the different branches of one bank, they probably have a grudge against that bank and are trying to get enough money for a particular reason.

For a time, the brothers are successful with their robberies. (Toby is able to catch up with his child support payments and pay off the debts on the farm. If anybody asks, he has the excuse of gambling winnings to account for his sudden wealth.) Although not very smart or experienced, the brothers manage to keep one step ahead of the law because they are bold (especially Tanner) and don’t mind taking chances. (They steal cars to commit their robberies and then have the cars buried under sand.) Tanner knows, however, that they won’t be able to go on that way forever. “Did you ever know of anybody to get away with anything?” he asks his brother. Toward the end when the brothers are parting and tell each other they love each other, they know and we know that their time is about up.

Hell or High Water is solid storytelling, a rich film with fully delineated characters. The Texas landscape is bleak and colorless; the Texas accents are at times indistinguishable. There’s nothing pretty or romanticized here, no special effects, no cutesy Butch Cassidy-type touches where we are made to feel the criminals are really good-hearted studs who ought to patted on the back for their crimes because they have such toothy smiles. If the ending (at least one element of it) is surprising, it makes perfect sense and we see, finally, where it has been heading the whole time.  And, yes, Marcus Hamilton gets as evidence the baby-voiced, bosomy waitress’s (button your uniform, dear) $200 tip that Toby left her, even though she told him she had to have it for her mortgage. Did she really think he’d care about that? No, poodle, not when catching bank robbers is at stake.

Copyright 2016 by Allen Kopp

Bal du Moulin de la Galette ~ A Painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Posted on

Bal du Moulin de la Galette by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1876)

Bal du Moulin de la Galette (1876) by Pierre-August Renoir

In the late 19th century, working-class Parisians liked to dress up and spend Sunday afternoons at Moulin de la Galette in the Montmarte district in Paris, dancing, drinking and eating galettes (small cakes). Bal du Moulin de la Galette (or Dance at Moulin de la Galette) is one of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s (1841-1919) most celebrated masterpieces, a typically Impressionist rendering of real life.  

Ice Pick

Posted on

Ice Pick image

Ice Pick ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“Go get the ice,” Reggie Stole said, “and be quick about it. We’ll leave as soon as you get back.”

Reggie’s wife, Fur Stole, had been anxious and nervous all day, getting ready to go on the camping trip. She had to see to all the arrangements, prepare all the food, pack the clothes, make sure the tent didn’t have any holes, and the car had enough gas and oil to make the long trip. She had already taken three nerve pills and was planning on taking the fourth one just as soon as she could get a moment alone. She had also been taking nips of whiskey straight from the bottle, finding that whiskey comforted her even more than pills.

Fur’s son and daughter, Biffy Stole and Shultzie Stole, were excited at the prospect of living out in the woods beside a lake for four days. They jumped up and down and screamed, making Fur believe she could easily strangle them without guilt if only it would give her some peace. She corralled them into the back of the station wagon, along with the old blue ice chest, and set out for the ice house two miles away in a neighboring town.

Fur was relieved to see there wasn’t a line at the ice house. “Let’s make this quick,” she said. “You know how daddy hates being kept waiting.”

Biffy and Shultzie went to get the ice chest out of the back of the car while Fur stepped up to the place in the side of the old brick building where you put in coins, and a block of ice, roughly one foot square, comes out.

She put in two quarters, the going price for one block of ice, and waited to hear the rumble of the ice coming down the chute inside, but, alas, there was no rumble and no ice.

“What’s the matter with it?” Biffy asked, standing beside Fur with the ice chest.

“Maybe it’s just moving slow today,” Fur said.

“Maybe they’re out of ice,” Shultzie said.

“There’d be a sign,” Fur said, “so dumbbells like me wouldn’t keep putting quarters in.”

She banged her fist against the place where the money goes in and stamped her feet, but still nothing happened.

“Go around to the office and see if there’s anybody there,” Fur said to Biffy.

An old blue pickup truck pulled into the tiny lot and parked next to Fur’s car. When she saw a man getting out, she thought he was somebody who knew the ice wasn’t working and was there to fix it.

The man, a burly Dutchman with a flattop haircut, ignored Fur as he stepped up to the coin deposit and started to put in his money.

“It’s not working!” Fur said. “I put my money in and nothing happened. I sent my son Biffy around to the office to see if there’s anybody there.”

Still ignoring her, the burly Dutchman dropped in his quarters, and in  a few seconds he had his block of ice. He began to lift it with his fat fingers.

“That’s my ice!” Fur said. “Didn’t you just hear me tell you I put my money in and nothing happened?”

“What?” the burly Dutchman said.

“I said I just put in my money to get a block of ice and none came out, so that’s my block of ice.”

“I don’t think so!” he said. “I just paid for it. I think that makes it mine.”

“You don’t understand,” she said. “Before you came along, I put in two quarters to get a block of ice and nothing happened. That means you have the ice I paid for!”

“Where’s the ice I paid for, then?” he asked.

“It didn’t come out.”

Yours didn’t come out,” he said. “Mine did.”

“I’m not going to let you take my ice!” Fur said. “My husband is waiting!”

He held the ice against his stomach and said with a sort of sneer, “It’s a tough world, though, ain’t it, lady?”

He turned to walk away and she, realizing she held the ice pick in her right hand, stabbed him in the back. The ice pick went in several inches to the right of the backbone and stuck there.

The burly Dutchman gave a sort of roar, dropped the ice and whirled around. “You crazy bitch!” he said. “You ought to be locked up!

He was reaching around to try to pull the ice pick out of his back but, of course, couldn’t get his hands on it. When Fur saw the burly Dutchman go to his knees and saw how much blood was pouring out, she pulled Biffy and Shultzie to the car and shoved them in. Running around to the driver’s side, she started the engine and narrowly missed being hit by a beer truck as she pulled back out onto the road.

When she got home, Reggie was waiting on the back porch, smoking a cigarette and picking at his nails. “Thought maybe you had to wait while they made more ice,” he said.

“No ice,” she said.

“What?”

Biffy and Shultzie avoided looking at Reggie because they knew he wasn’t going to be happy.

“I wasn’t able to get any ice,” she said, “but we can get some on the way. We’ll also need to get a new ice pick.”

“What happened to the ice pick?” he asked. “You lost it?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “We can get another one on the way. Right now we just need to all get into the car and get away as fast as we can!”

“I think you need to take another nerve pill,” Reggie said as he loaded the rest of his fishing tackle into the back of the car.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Florence Foster Jenkins ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Posted on

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

It’s wartime 1940s and the place is New York City. Meryl Streep is Florence Foster Jenkins: society matron, patroness of the arts (particularly music) and self-deluded singer. She has a smirking husband (Hugh Grant), a fawning vocal coach, a devoted maid, and a piano accompanist named Cosmé McMoon (played by Simon Helberg, who resembles French writer Marcel Proust). Mr. McMoon is chosen over a bunch of other pianists because in his audition he plays “The Swan” by Camille Saint-Saens, which reminds Florence of when she was young. Right away when Mr. McMoon hears Florence sing, he knows that something is not as it should be. She shrieks and screeches and is led to believe by those around her that she is a wonderful singer with perfect technique. What Mr. McMoon eventually comes to realize is that everybody loves the good-natured and well-meaning Florence and that nobody has the heart to tell her she isn’t nearly as good a singer as she thinks she is.

Florence isn’t well, we find, and probably won’t live much longer. She contracted syphilis from her first husband on their wedding night when she was eighteen and, in these days before penicillin, has had it ever since, almost fifty years. The doctor says he has never seen anybody live so long with the disease. Her second husband, for his part, loves her and is devoted to her but has a much-younger girlfriend on the side; he reveals to the doctor that he and Florence have always had a sort of platonic, non-sexual partnership, so he never contracted the disease.

When Florence gives a concert at Carnegie Hall, her husband goes to great lengths to buy up all the newspapers in the neighborhood so she won’t see the scathing (true, so, therefore, unkind) reviews. She gets a copy of one of the newspapers anyway and discovers that people consider her the “worst singer ever” and are only laughing at her. She has a moment of self-realization that, up to this moment, has eluded her. 

Florence Foster Jenkins is, we are told at the beginning, based on true events, meaning, I suppose, that part of it is true and part of it made up. Simon Helberg, who plays Florence’s accompanist, is, in reality, a pianist himself and plays all the piano parts, which is truly impressive. Meryl Streep does her own singing and is, as always, superb in the title role. Now, if she will only leave politics alone and stick to acting, everything will be fine.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Dracula ~ A Capsule Book Review

Posted on

Dracula cover

Dracula ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Irish author Bram Stoker lived from 1847 to 1912. He is known today for his famous Gothic novel Dracula, published in 1897. It’s a story of good versus evil that has inspired countless stage plays, books, movies and TV shows. It popularized the ancient legend of vampires and made it part of mainstream culture. Who doesn’t know that vampires are repelled by garlic, cast no reflection in a mirror, and can only be killed by a stake driven through the heart and the cutting off of the head?

From the first page we are immersed in atmosphere. Englishman Jonathan Harker is a solicitor working for a London real estate agent. Count Dracula, living in a crumbling, isolated castle in the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania, has purchased a piece of property in London known as Carfax Abbey. (Why anybody would want to buy the creepy old Carfax Abbey is never questioned.) Harker travels to Castle Dracula in Transylvania to handle the business end of the sale. Right away he sees that Count Dracula is beyond eccentric. He is never seen during daylight hours, he doesn’t eat food or drink wine, and his eyes and mouth are red and his teeth are sharp. (“Listen to them!” Dracula says about the wolves howling in the hills. “Children of the Night! What music they make!”) When Harker is confined to his room and not allowed to go home when expected, he begins to wonder if he will ever make it out alive. When he looks out the window, there is a thousand-foot drop-off, offering no means of escape. At night he witnesses Dracula leaving the castle by climbing down the wall like a fly. To make matters worse, some of Dracula’s “brides” are awfully interested in getting their hooks into Harker. (“He’s young and strong!” they coo.) “Leave him alone!” Count Dracula says. “He is mine!” No matter what evil he is engaged in, he is always suave and courteous.

When Dracula departs his home in Transylvania to take up residence in England, he goes aboard a ship call the Demeter. He’s not your ordinary commercial traveler, though. He has fifty coffin-sized boxes of dirt containing soil from his native Transylvania in the ship’s hold. When the Demeter docks in England, all the crew are dead, mysteriously drained of blood. Nobody can figure out exactly what happened during the trip. We, the reader, have a pretty good idea, however.

Jonathan returns to England, physically and emotionally ill. (Either he escaped, or Count Dracula released him.) Once back home, he finds that all is not well with his fiancée (later his wife), named Mina, and his circle of friends. Mina’s best friend, named Lucy Westenra, has a mysterious illness and nobody can figure out what is wrong with her. Enter Dr. Van Helsing of Amsterdam to try to solve the riddle. He knows right away that what is wrong with Lucy isn’t in the usual run of illnesses.

Dr. Seward is also interested in the case. He was romantically interested in Lucy Westenra (as was American Quincey Morris), but she rejected him in favor of Arthur Holmwood. (When Arthur’s father dies, he becomes Lord Godalming.) Lucy and Arthur are in love and plan to be married. Lucy, however, becomes increasingly ill. Dr. Seward and Quincey Morris, even though Lucy rejected them (politely), seem to hang around to see if they might be of assistance. As these characters gradually realize the type of foe they face in Count Dracula, they vow to band together to fight evil and do all they can to defend English womanhood.

Dracula is told in “journal” entries and correspondence of the various characters, giving it a first-person sense of drama and immediacy. There is also the occasional newspaper article (as with the account of the docking in England of the Demeter), further lending verisimilitude to the story.  It is fleet in its 326 pages and is never ponderous or wordy. Though it may be considered a “pulp” novel not on a literary scale with Poe, Oscar Wilde or other purveyors of the “Gothic” genre, it’s well-written and engaging. It won’t give you a headache and it will keep you turning the pages, even though it’s a story that is familiar to almost everybody by now.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Cab Fare

Posted on

Cab Fare image

Cab Fare ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“That took longer than it was supposed to,” Celia said. “I don’t know why doctors always have to keep you waiting like that. They think their time is so precious, but your time means nothing!”

“I’m hungry,” Roland said. “Can we stop someplace and get a hamburger?”

“No!” Celia said. “It’s almost six o’clock! I’m late now!”

“Late for what?”

“I already told you! Richard is picking me up!”

“Richard can wait.”

“No, he can’t! We have dinner reservations and then we’re going to the theatre.”

“You mean a movie?”

“No, dumbbell! A movie is a movie. When you say theatre, you mean a play with real people on a stage.”

“Oh.”

“When mother told me I had to take you to the doctor, I didn’t imagine it would take all afternoon! I thought there’d be plenty of time.”

“Well, don’t get your panties all in a twist!” he said and laughed.

She looked across the seat at him. “What did you just say to me?”

“I said don’t get your panties in a twist.”

She let go of the steering wheel and slapped at his shoulder with her right hand. “Where do you hear language like that?”

“I don’t know!” he said. “I hear it all the time!”

“I’m going to tell mother what you said.”

“I don’t care.”

“You know she doesn’t allow you to use that kind of language.”

“I’m not a baby anymore!”

“I know, but you still act like one!”

“I do not!”

“You’re fourteen years old! It’s time you started acting like an adult!”

“Oh, what do you know?”

“I know plenty! When mother became pregnant with you, I was ten years old and I knew it was a mistake for her to have another baby at her age! I knew she’d live to regret it!”

“Oh, it wasn’t my fault,” he said. “I didn’t ask to be born.”

“You don’t know how embarrassing it is to be in high school and have a baby brother only in kindergarten! It makes people think your parents are some kind of perverts!”

“Well, they are and so are you!”

“You’d better watch what you say to me while I’m driving the car! I can always pull over to the curb and make you get out and walk home!”

“Oh, you don’t scare me!”

“Oh, now!” she said. “What is this?

Traffic slowed and then came to a halt. Celia began honking the horn because others were honking theirs.

“That won’t do any good!” Roland said.

After about ten minutes with the car moving hardly a half-block, Celia opened her coin purse and took out a handful of nickels, dimes and quarters and handed it to Roland.

“What’s this for?” he asked.

“Find a phone booth and call mother and tell her to come and get you. Even if this traffic breaks up in the next few minutes, I won’t have time to take you all the way home now.”

“She won’t like having to come all the way down here to get me!”

“That’s too bad! She should have thought of that before she insisted I take you to the doctor this afternoon!”

“What if I don’t want to?” he said.

“Suit yourself. You can walk home. It’s only six miles.”

“At least give me some money for cab fare if mother isn’t home.”

“No!”

“I’m not getting out of the car until you give me twenty dollars for a cab.”

“Oh, you big baby!” she said. “When are you ever going to grow up?”

“When you do, I guess,” he said.

She flung a twenty-dollar-bill at him and he got out. Before he closed the door, she said, “I’m going to be sure and tell mother how terrible you acted and how disrespectful you were to me after I went out of my way to take you to the doctor today!”

“Go ahead!” he said. “I don’t care!”

He walked several blocks looking for an available cab or a pay phone and, finding neither, went into a restaurant. He felt grown up as he sat at a small table and ordered from the menu and had the elderly waitress do his bidding.

After he finished eating, he paid the cashier out of the twenty dollars Celia gave him and went back out to the street. It was dark now and he was alone in the city for the first time in his life and not the least bit afraid. If Celia could see him now, she would have no reason to call him a baby.

He walked and walked. The streets were unfamiliar and he had no way of knowing where he was or where he was going, but it didn’t seem to matter. He was in no hurry to get home. He felt some satisfaction in knowing that mother and Celia would not know where he was and would be worried about him.

He turned down a side street and came to a place called Pinky’s Night Spot. With its pink-and-green neon lights and its music spilling out into the street, it seemed inviting somehow. It was a place like he had never seen before except in the movies. He hesitated for a minute and when the door opened as if by magic he went inside.

The place was crowded and smoky. Nobody noticed him or even looked at him. He drifted toward the back where there were pool tables. He watched a pool game for a few minutes and finally one of the players noticed him and stopped playing.

“Play you a game?” the player asked. He was about twenty with black hair and a tiny earring in one ear.

“No, thanks,” Roland said. “I was just on my way home.”

“Got any money?”

“Cab fare.”

“You can double your money if you’re a good player.”

“I don’t know how to play,” Roland said.

“I can teach you. It’s easy.”

“No, thanks. I was just on my way home.”

“My name is Gunner.”

He held out his hand and Roland shook it limply.

“Are you lost?” Gunner asked. “You look kind of lost.”

“No, I’m not lost.”

“You’re younger than you look. When I first spotted you, I would have taken you for twenty or twenty-one and now that I see you up close I see you’re a lot younger than that.”

“I have to be getting home.”

“Could I buy you a drink?”

“No, thanks.”

“I want you to meet my friends. This is Ellis and Janice.”

Janice had very blonde hair, almost white, and small eyes without color. Ellis had a round face and wore horn-rimmed glasses.

“Are you having a good time?” Janice asked. “You look like you need a drink.”

“I just offered to buy him one and he turned it down,” Gunner said.

“That’s no good!” Janice said. “Tell me what you want and I’ll go get it for you.”

“That’s okay,” Roland said. “I was just leaving.”

“Could I give you a lift someplace?” Janice asked. “I have my car outside.”

“No, thanks. I can walk.”

“You’re not very friendly, are you?”

“He’s just a little shy,” Gunner said. “Weren’t you shy when you were his age?”

“How old are you, honey?” she asked.

“Seventeen,” Roland said.

“Too young to have all the social graces yet,” she said.

“Hey, I know where there’s a party!” Ellis said. “Let’s all go to the party!”

Gunner took Roland by the arm and the four of them went outside. They found Janice’s car, an old Chrysler the color of an army tank, and they all got in, Gunner and Ellis in the front and Roland and Janice in the back.

“I thought this was your car,” Roland said.

“It is, but I’m too shit-faced to drive,” Janice said. “Gunner can drive. He’s a good driver.”

“Where to?” Gunner asked, starting the engine.

“It’s always nice to make a new friend,” Janice said. She leaned close to Roland in the back seat and put her arm around his shoulder and nuzzled her nose into his neck.

“I, uh, I should be getting home,” Roland said.

“Before this night is over…” Janice said. “Before this night is over…”

He waited for her to finish but she didn’t. She seemed for the moment to have fallen asleep.

“What’s the matter with her?” he asked Gunner, trying to keep the note of panic out of his voice.

Gunner and Ellis exchanged a look and laughed. Roland felt he had missed something and wished he might go back and redo the last few minutes and maybe he would better understand what was going on. He watched the passing lights, trying to think, and wishing all the time that Janice would wake up and move away from him.

He thought about mother at home. She would be pacing the floor at this moment at his unexplained absence. She might even call the police. She would be mad at Celia for the way she made Roland get out of the car that afternoon and get home on his own. Celia would think twice now before she called him a baby again.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 334 other followers