The Rise of Silas Lapham ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Rise of Silas Lapham ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

American writer William Dean Howells lived from 1837 to 1920. After the “romanticist” writers of the nineteenth century such as Hawthorne and Poe, Howells was an advocate of “realism” in fiction; realism, that is, that’s not sordid. He was at the forefront of a new wave of American writing and has been called the “Dean of American Letters.” Of the thirty-five novels he wrote, The Rise of Silas Lapham is the most popular and most enduring.

The fictional Silas Lapham is an American “type,” a self-made millionaire, one of Boston’s nouveau riche in the decades after the Civil War. Despite his fortune and his station in the business world, “Corporal” Lapham (he fought at the Battle of Gettysburg) is a little rough around the edges and doesn’t quite fit in with Boston crème de la crème. His grammar borders on the atrocious and he tends to be a bit of a blowhard.  He has a matter-of-fact (she nags) wife named Persis who speaks her mind and doesn’t mind telling Silas exactly what she thinks of him and his business dealings. He also has two deb daughters, Penelope and Irene, of marriageable age. Penelope is the older of the two; she’s serious, clever and not so pretty as Irene.

As you might expect, Silas came from humble beginnings. His family were people of the earth. When his father discovers a “mineral paint mine” on their property in Vermont, Silas is able to turn the enterprise into a successful money-making venture. Soon he is at the forefront of the American paint market and has all the heartache and responsibilities of a titan of industry. To solidity his family’s status in Boston society, he has his heart set on building a showy, expensive ($100,000 in 1875) mansion in one of the most fashionable sections of Boston.

The Coreys are a snooty, blue-blood Boston family of Silas Lapham’s acquaintance. He would like to be like the Coreys if only he had more “class.” He believes that any association with the Corey family would benefit him professionally and socially. The Coreys have a handsome son named Tom. When Tom begins hanging around the Lapham home, everybody believes he’s interested in Irene, the younger and prettier of the two daughters. No, wait a minute! He’s not interested in Irene, but in the older, homelier daughter, Penelope. This confusion sets up a love-story subplot with many complications. How can Penelope marry a man with whom her younger sister was once in love?

As might be expected, Silas Lapham experiences financial reverses in his business empire, facing some unexpected competition from a rival paint manufacturer. Not only that, his beloved Boston mansion, still under construction, is destroyed in a fire, one week after its insurance policy lapsed. As quick as you can say “financial collapse,” he faces insolvency and the loss of his world.

The Rise of Silas Lapham is a solid American classic, easy to read and with none of the antique qualities that are sometimes associated with 19th century American writing, such as tortured, twisted sentences and high-blown syntax. If you, like me, first encountered The Rise of Silas Lapham in your younger days in school, it is well worth another look.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Wuthering Heights ~ A Capsule Book Review

Wuthering Heights ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

English Author Emily Brontë was born into a literary family in 1818. Her only novel, Wuthering Heights, was published in 1847 when she was twenty-nine years old. She died the next year, in 1848, at the age of thirty. Wuthering Heights is a seminal work of nineteenth century English literature that has stood the test of time. In the 171 years since its initial publication, it has never been out of the public consciousness.

The estate Wuthering Heights (house and grounds) is on the desolate Yorkshire moors in northern England (“a perfect misanthropist’s heaven”). Four miles away is Thrushcross Grange. All the action in Wuthering Heights takes place in either of these two places. The action that occurs inside the two houses is as storm-tossed as the weather that occurs outside on the wild moors.

When the story begins, kindly Mr. Earnshaw is the owner of Wuthering Heights. He lives there with his two children, Catherine (Cathy) and Hindley. He takes in a poor orphaned beggar boy and gives him the name Heathcliff. Heathcliff has no last name. As a man, Heathcliff is the pivotal character in the book. All the other characters sooner or later fall into his sphere.

Mr. Earnshaw dies and leaves Heathcliff to defend himself against the cruel nature of Hindley. Hindley treats Heathcliff as a servant and a stable boy and never lets him forget where he came from, calling him a “gypsy beggar.” Heathcliff and Hindley become mortal enemies, to the death. Hindley is a good-for-nothing drunkard and gambler, squandering the fortune his father left him.

And then there is Catherine. Her tortured relationship with Heathcliff forms the core of the novel. They are brought up together as brother and sister. As children, they are inseparable companions. They come to love each other deeply into adulthood. Catherine knows that Heathcliff is not of her world and is socially unacceptable, but she can’t help herself. As she tells her faithful servant, Nelly Dean, she and Heathcliff are one and the same. As we will see by the end of the book, their love is a love that transcends the physical world.

Against her nature, Catherine decides to marry Edgar Linton of Thrushcross Grange, at which point Heathcliff runs off to only-God-knows-where. Edgar is nothing like Heathcliff. He is from a wealthy family, cultured and educated, and he has a sweet nature. Catherine lives in wealth and refinement with Edgar and his sister Isabella at Thrushcross Grange. Then, after several years of domesticated bliss for Catherine and Edgar, Heathcliff returns. He is his old self, only prosperous. Wherever he has been and whatever he has been doing, he has acquired money and a good suit of clothes, if nothing else. He buys Wuthering Heights to pay off Hindley’s gambling debts. Soon Hindley conveniently dies.

Edgar Linton’s sister, Isabella, is drawn to Heathcliff, even though she has been warned against him. Heathcliff marries Isabella, if only to get back at Catherine and Edgar. He takes Isabella to Wuthering Heights to live and thereby makes her miserably unhappy.

Catherine and Edgar have a daughter, also named Catherine; Heathcliff and Isabella have a son named Linton. The unhappiness engendered by their parents is carried on into their own lives.

Wuthering Heights is a dark book, with plenty of cruelty, brutality, hatred and unhappiness to go around among its characters. Its nonlinear structure and shifting of narrators make it a moderately difficult book to read. Most of the story is being narrated by the servant Nelly Dean to Mr. Lockwood, Heathcliff’s new tenant. (We don’t know until the end of the book why Heathcliff even needs a tenant.) When the narrator shifts to somebody else, we are a little disoriented. It is, however, a valuable reading experience. I first read it when I was nineteen and decided it was worth another look.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

A Prayer for Owen Meany ~ A Capsule Book Review

A Prayer for Owen Meany ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

John Irving’s 1989 novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, is a story about friendship, faith and destiny. It takes place from the early 1950s through the late 1960s and into the turbulent Vietnam War years. The story is told in the first-person voice of John Wheelwright, best friend of Owen Meany. John and Owen live in the small town of Gravesend, New Hampshire. They both have things that set them apart. John was “born out of wedlock” and doesn’t know who his father is. (John and Owen spend many years trying to figure it out.) John lives with his pretty mother and snooty grandmother in a large, imposing house; his grandmother has plenty of money. Owen is very small and, when he grows to adulthood, will only be about five feet tall and weigh one hundred pounds. His voice is described as an arresting “falsetto” that doesn’t change and deepen as he gets older, as other boys’ voices “change.”

Owen doesn’t have the advantages that John Wheelwright has. He lives with his ignorant parents near a granite quarry, where there is always dust in the air. His father is in the granite and gravestone business. Owen is an only child. His mother, who might be retarded, sits and stares and doesn’t say much. The Wheelwright family practically adopts Owen; he almost spends more time in their home than he does in his own. When Owen and John are about ten years old, Owen is the unwitting cause of John’s mother’s death.

Despite his limitations, Owen is smart and funny and people love him. He feels terrible about what happens to John’s mother, but John doesn’t blame him. “It was an accident,” John says. John’s grandmother, who doesn’t like many people, likes Owen. She comes to be his benefactor in many ways. Another major character is Dan Needham, John’s stepfather and a widower now that John’s mother is dead. The Reverend Lewis Merrill, the stuttering minister, also figures prominently in the story.

The most important thing about Owen Meany is that he has an unshakeable faith in God. He seems himself as God’s instrument. He has a destiny to fulfill, he believes, and he will fulfill it, despite any obstacles placed in his way. John, who is at first an unbeliever, comes to believe in God because of his association with Owen. Owen’s odd father tells John toward the end of the book that they believe Owen was a “virgin birth.” Owen is different in so many ways and touches many lives. You have to read the book to know what a miraculous character Owen is.

A Prayer for Owen Meany is long (617 pages), too long at times, especially toward the end. The liberal 1980s politics that the narrator interjects seem out of date and unnecessary. (I cringe at the mention of the “Iran-Contra” affair of the 1980s. That doesn’t belong in this story. The politics of the Vietnam War era are at least relevant to the story.) Another quibble I had while reading the novel was the crude character Hester, John’s cousin to whom he is sexually drawn and Owen’s “girlfriend.” I for one could have done without her. The “cringe factor” of A Prayer for Owen Meany is small, though, and doesn’t ruin a generally compelling story. It’s fast, light reading that doesn’t require a lot of deep concentration.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Poe-Land ~ A Capsule Book Review


Poe-Land ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The overarching themes of Edgar Allan Poe’s life is that his all-too-brief span on this earth was tragic and unhappy and his towering literary genius went mostly unrecognized until after his death. His parents were itinerant actors. He was born in Boston on January 19, 1809, because that’s where his parents happened to be working at the time. His father abandoned the family when Edgar was small and his mother died of consumption at the age of twenty-four. Edgar, his brother and his sister were then placed in separate foster homes. Edgar ended up in the home of one John Allan and his wife Frances of Richmond, Virginia. John Allan had inherited wealth but was parsimonious with his young foster son, whom he never bothered to adopt legally. Edgar and John Allan most likely would have killed each other gladly if they could have managed it without being detected.

Edgar Allan Poe seemed destined from the beginning to never find his place in life. He was, to put it mildly, not like anybody else. At a time when most people must have stayed in one place all their lives out of necessity, Edgar moved around a lot. He spent a few years of his childhood in England with his foster family, which probably accounts for the European “feel” of some of his writing. As a young man, he attended college at the University of Virginia in Richmond, but John Allan wouldn’t give him enough money to live decently, so he ran up gambling debts, further infuriating Mr. Allan. He tried the army and did better than one might have expected, but when he ended up at West Point Military Academy after his military stint, he lasted only a few months before being expelled.

So, Edgar was a talented misfit. He made a little money from his published stories and poems but never enough. He moved around from place to place, never gaining wide acceptance in the literary world, although there were a few who recognized his uniqueness. (The most fame he would ever achieve during his own lifetime was with his poem The Raven, which is, arguably the most famous poem in American literature.) He had several ill-fated romances with different women, but they didn’t really work out either the way he had hoped. At the age of twenty-seven, he married his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, and lived with her and her mother (or they lived with him) until Virginia herself died of consumption at the age of twenty-four, exactly as Poe’s mother had. Are we able to see now the pattern of his life?

Poe-Land by J. W. Ocker is an exploration of Poe’s life (a sort of travelogue/biography) through all the places he lived or at least spent some time. Besides Boston, these places include Providence, Rhode Island; the Bronx and Manhattan in New York; Great Britain; Baltimore; Richmond, Virginia; Philadelphia; Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina; Fort Independence in Massachusetts and Fort Monroe in Virginia. One of the ironies of Poe is that, however he might have been dismissed during his own life as a no-talent crackpot, almost any place he ever lived or even spent some time is today almost a sacred site or a tourist attraction. Anything Poe ever touched or anybody he ever knew is today of interest because of his association. The New England states abound with Poe sites or museums, including places he lived or worked and places that he somehow signified with his presence, no matter how briefly. Poe fans are legion all over the world, some of them to the point of obsession. Of course, one of the things that makes him so interesting is his death in Baltimore at the too-young age of forty, on October 7, 1849, of unknown or mysterious causes. He was found, apparently desperately ill, and admitted to a Baltimore hospital, where he died in a delirious state after several days. His attending physician became a sort of celebrity but never seemed to be able to cast any light on the cause of Poe’s death, changing his story as it seemed to fit the circumstances.

One of the many interesting details I learned about the life and death of Edgar Allan Poe from reading Poe-Land is that, when he died, he was placed in an undistinguished grave toward the back of Westminster Cemetery in Baltimore. Within twenty-five years of his death, his literary stature had grown to the point where people began to realize that his grave wasn’t as good as it should be, so his body was exhumed and he was moved to a more prominent place in the cemetery with a much more showy headstone, which still stands today. After twenty-five years in a wooden box in the Maryland earth, there wasn’t much left of dear old Edgar except for bones, hair and clothing. Chunks of his decayed original coffin became coveted collectors’ items and are on display in Poe museums today.

The story of Poe’s life is enough to make you wish in an afterlife so that he might know what became of his literary “legacy” after he died. Today he is probably the most famous of American writers and is almost universally recognized and loved throughout the world. Not only did he practically invent a new literary genre, that of the detective story, but he found a new way of writing poetry, quite unlike anything that had ever been done before. All we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier ~ A Capsule Book Review

Fancies and Goodnights cover

Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

English writer John Collier’s (1901-1980) most famous short story is “Wet Saturday.” I remember reading this story in tenth grade, which was, of course, the first I had heard of John Collier. “Wet Saturday” is for John Collier what “The Lottery” is for Shirley Jackson and “Metamorphosis” for Franz Kafka. “Wet Saturday” is a sly story about a murder, a crime of passion from a person who is ordinary passionless, and the efforts on the part of the murderer’s father to find somebody to pin the murder on. It’s such a famous and well-known story because it’s simple to understand, a lot of the action is revealed in dialogue, and it packs a memorable punch at the end.

John Collier’s short story collection, Fancies and Goodnights, which was first published in 1951, is a collection of fifty short stories (including “Wet Saturday”) with Collier’s signature wit and dark, ironic humor. Most of these stories are not grounded in reality but in flights of fancy. There are demons from hell, an orchid that absorbs people into it, a man who spends an evening with his wife after she has just died, a man obsessed with a store mannequin, a doctor who murders his wife, a strange talking bird that reveals a secret to its owner that the owner would have been better off not to know, a man who pretends to be twins so he can marry two woman, a flea that takes Hollywood by storm, and on and on. As Ray Bradbury says in the introduction, “Anything can happen in a story by John Collier and it usually does.”

Of the fifty stories in Fancies and Goodnights, a few are about fifteen or twenty pages, but most of them are much shorter and can be read in one sitting or in a matter of minutes. It’s interesting to note that several of John Collier’s stories were adapted for TV in the 1950s and ‘60s, most notably for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

John Collier considered himself a “third-rate writer,” but he was clearly a master of the short story form. Students of writing can learn a lot from his stories.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

American Tabloid ~ A Capsule Book Review

American Tabloid cover

American Tabloid ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

I once met James Ellroy at one of his book-signing events. He is outspoken and some might say outrageous. He greets the audience with something like: “Hey, all you pimps, whores, scumbags, screwheads, weirdos, daddy-o’s, etc…” He isn’t afraid to be what he is and makes no apologies. He is the self-described “white knight of the far right.” I like his style. If you dare to challenge him on political matters, he will cut you off at the knees. (I love seeing that.) Another point that he gets across is that if you want political correctness, you won’t get it from him, so go someplace else. He wrote an interesting inscription in my copy of his novel The Cold Six Thousand concerning the writer Frank McCourt, who wrote Angela’s Ashes. I hope that one day my copy of that book is worth—oh, I don’t know—about six thousand dollars, but I don’t think I would sell it even for that much.

If you’ve ever read any of James Ellroy’s books, you know that he’s probably the only person who writes the way he does. If there are any others, I’m sure they’re imitators. He writes about a shadowy world of crime, of bad people doing bad things, in an age when the world was different. His sentences are short and punchy. You will never have to go back and try to unravel one of his compound-complex sentences to figure out what he’s saying, because he doesn’t write them. Of the books I’ve read by him, my favorite is his only nonfiction book, My Dark Places, which is an account of his mother’s murder in 1958, when he was ten years old, and his lifelong obsession with finding her killer. (He never does.)

His novel American Tabloid is a massive (575 pages) saga of corruption, malfeasance, wiretapping, eccentricity bordering on insanity, union criminality, dirty politics, Mob violence, hypocrisy, ego, hatred and vengeance. It is set in the tumultuous period of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Castro took control of Cuba and America found a communist dictatorship on its doorstep. It was also the first time that America elected a president based on the way he looks and speaks rather than on his ability to lead.

The action of the book is driven by three main fictional characters—Kemper Boyd, Pete Bondurant, and Ward Littell—who are all involved in some capacity with the CIA, FBI, or Justice Department; their association with these organizations doesn’t mean they are ethical or fair, law-abiding or honest. They also have Mob connections and are involved in clandestine efforts to remove Castro from power.

The three fictional characters (Boyd, Bondurant, and Littell) interact throughout the novel with the real-life characters, including J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes, Jimmy Hoffa, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Jacob Rubinstein (“Jack Ruby”), etc. None of them are presented in a flattering light. John Kennedy (“Jack the Haircut”) is portrayed as a sexually voracious, pretty-boy airhead who will choose political expediency over genuine leadership when the “Bay of Pigs” invasion doesn’t go well. His brother, Robert, is a priggish opportunist, a truly unlikeable man. The novel ends with the Kennedy assassination, which is a Mob hit with a patsy “fall guy.” The Mob despised Kennedy (according to the fictional premise of this novel) because he wouldn’t take decisive action to remove Castro from Cuba, depriving the Mob of its Cuban casino profits.

American Tabloid has so many characters and situations that it’s kind of hard at first to keep them all straight, but the pieces come together in the end. It’s a fast-paced, though long, reading experience; always interesting; at times fascinating; not to be taken too seriously or taken for truth. Read and enjoy.

Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp

Babylon Revisited and Other Stories ~ A Capsule Book Review

Babylon Revisited and Other Stories cover

Babylon Revisited and Other Stories ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

More than any other American writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald chronicled the age he lived in, especially the 1920s. He coined the term “Jazz Age.” If you want to know what it was like to live in the twenties, with its good times, easy money, Ivy Leaguers, extravagance, sexual freedom and booze in spite of Prohibition, read the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In his relatively short time on earth (44 years), he wrote four completed novels—one of which, The Great Gatsby, is among the three or four greatest American novels of the twentieth century—and dozens of short stories, which were mostly written for magazines.

Babylon Revisited and Other Stories is a collection of ten of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories. Some of the stories in the collection are much longer than conventional short stories, which should run about 5,000 words or less. If a story is much longer than that, I think it technically qualifies as a novella. This collection runs over 250 pages. With ten stories, that’s an average of 25 pages per story. One story in the collection, May Day, is 50 pages. I think the shorter stories are better plotted and more memorable.

The best and most famous story in the collection is, of course, the story for which the collection is named, Babylon Revisited. It was written in 1931 and is about a man, Charlie Wales, who has passed through the 1920s but not unscathed. He is a reformed (or trying to reform) heavy drinker who used to spend money freely when he had it. He had an unhappy marriage to a woman named Helen. Charlie and Helen had a daughter, named Honoria, who is nine years old when the story takes place. Helen has died of “heart trouble” and Honoria lives with her aunt (Helen’s sister, Marion) and Marion’s husband, Lincoln, in Paris, since Charlie is seen as too irresponsible to care for her and give her a proper home. Now that Charlie has a steady job and has his drinking habit under control, he wants to take Honoria back and have her live with him. He must, of course, prevail upon snooty Marion, who doesn’t like him, to give up Honoria. This isn’t going to be easy since Marion has legal custody of Honoria and still sees Charlie as an irresponsible drunkard. When he just about has Marion convinced to give up Honoria, his past catches up with him in the form of two drunken profligates he used to associate with, reawakening Marion’s doubts about him.

Other memorable stories in the collection are The Ice Palace, about a girl from the warm, sunny South who wants (or thinks she wants) to marry a boy from the cold North. When a frightening episode occurs when she’s visiting her boyfriend’s home in the icy North, she calls off the marriage.

A Diamond as Big as the Ritz is the not-so-happy story about the richest man in the world who owns a mountain that is in reality a diamond. He and his eccentric family live in splendor, apart from the rest of the world. When his son takes a classmate from boarding school home with him for vacation, the visiting boy comes to know this family first-hand. What he discovers about them isn’t pretty.

Absolution is about a “beautiful” eleven-year-old boy who comes from a strict Catholic family. He is confused about his religion and believes his sins are much graver than they really are. When he confesses to an old priest—the priest is struck by the “beauty” of the boy’s eyes—he finds the priest is just as confused as he is and isn’t capable of offering him any comfort.

The Freshest Boy is about a boy named Basil Lee who is attends a fancy boys’ prep school. His family can barely afford to send him there and he is very unhappy because he is so unpopular and disliked by the other boys. It seems that everything he does makes him even more hated. On a trip to New York to see a show, however, he has a revelation about his life. When he has a chance to leave prep school forever and live in Europe with his mother, he decides not to take it.

The shortest story (five pages) in the collection is The Long Way Out. It’s about a woman who has had a nervous breakdown and is a patient in a mental hospital. She is waiting for her husband to come and take her on a trip, but he has been killed in an accident on his way there. The nurses don’t want to tell the woman her husband is dead, so every day they tell her he has been delayed one day but will be there the next day. The woman believes that the arrival of her husband is just one day away. Always one day.

Babylon Revisited and Other Stories is a good sampling of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short fiction. It gives the reader a sense of what he was about as a writer. There are many more stories to be had for those who are interested in delving further and, of course, there’s always The Great Gatsby, which, as a novel, is about as good as it gets.

Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp