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A House for Mr. Biswas ~ A Capsule Book Review

A House for Mr. Biswas ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Trinidad is a small island off the coast of Venezuela. Tobago is an even smaller island to the northeast of Trinidad. The two together make the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, the southernmost island country in the Caribbean. V. S. Naipaul was a Trinidadian and Tobagonian British writer of works of fiction and nonfiction in English who lived from 1932 to 2018. His 1961 novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, was the first of his many books that brought him international acclaim as a writer. It ranks number 78 on the Modern Library’s List of the Hundred Greatest Novels in English of the Twentieth Century.

Mohun Biswas is the “everyman” protagonist of A House for Mr. Biswas. He is the son of immigrant parents from India, a Hindu, living in the Caribbean country of Trinidad. Mr. Biswas (the title by which he is known throughout the novel) is a the “little man,” the “one against the world.” A House for Mr. Biswas is the story of his unspectacular life. We are told on the very first page of the novel that he dies in his mid-forties. He marries Shama, a woman from a family of many daughters. It is a strictly matriarchal family, dominated by Shama’s mother, Mrs. Tulsi. He doesn’t like being dominated by his wife’s family, but he doesn’t seem to be able to help it. He and Shama never seem to care very much for each other, never seem to share any kind of an emotional bond, but they have four children, one boy and three girls.

Not being particularly well-educated, smart or competent, Mr. Biswas seems to have trouble making a meager living for himself and his family. He manages a “rum shop,” works as a sign-painter, and works in his wife’s family’s store, which seems to be kind of “everything” store. His main ambition in life is to be independent (from his wife’s family and from anybody else) and to have his own home that belongs to him and nobody else. About midway through the novel he undertakes to have his own house built by an anything-but-reliable builder, but it doesn’t go well, and his unfinished house is destroyed in a storm. In the second half of the novel, he gets a job as a journalist for a small newspaper, where he writes a column about “deserving destitutes.” This is a step-up for him, where he makes about $150 a month, and he eventually he owns his own car, but still lives by his wife’s family’s dictates (especially his wife’s mother) in a house they own.

Despite its length (568 pages) and exotic setting, A House for Mr. Biswas isn’t difficult to read. It’s in clear, concise, easy-to-understand English. There are no tangled sentences, no tortured descriptive passages. There are lots of character names, though, sometimes difficult to remember and keep straight because many of them are similar (Shama, Sharma, Savi, Chinta, etc.). This is a minor quibble, though, and no reason not to read the book. For American readers, A House for Mr. Biswas is a glimpse at a life in another country, on another continent, in another culture. If you think life is difficult for you, consider the life of Mr. Mohun Biswas.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

He Sang Songs

He Sang Songs ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Lesley Crippen, age three, stood beside the bed and looked down at her three-week-old brother. He waved his arms and legs like a spider upside down on its back. He was all pink and already beautiful, with abundant blond hair and full, rosy cheeks. He made little gurgling sounds with his mouth; his eyes were roving but expressionless.

His name was Benjamin; they would call him Ben for short. Mother chose the name out of a book. Lesley hoped to be able to persuade mother to give him back to the hospital where he came from. What did they need him for? They had her, after all, and wasn’t that enough? She absolutely did not want or need a brother, or a sister for that matter, but it’s funny how nobody asked her.

She had seen people killing other people on TV. She didn’t exactly want to kill Ben or even hurt him, but she did want him to go away, to disappear, to no longer exist. Maybe they could find a family that would take him and pretend he belonged to them from the start. Nobody would ever know. It would be as if he had never happened. Everybody would be happy, including him.

But Ben didn’t go anywhere. He stayed and stayed. By his first birthday, he was walking and even running. He spoke in complete sentences. He sang songs and recited poems. He could change channels on the TV and bathe himself. He could get the cookies out of the upper kitchen cabinet without help from anybody. He put himself to bed at night and got himself up in the morning.

And he was blond-haired, blue-eyed perfection. His body and head were perfectly proportioned. People would stop mother in the grocery store and tell her, “That is the most beautiful boy I have ever seen.” “You can have him if you want him,” mother would say, and everybody would have a good laugh.

When he started to school, he was teacher’s favorite. He was smart and bright and no trouble at all. He took to reading and writing almost faster than anybody else and when he was in second grade he was reading at fifth-grade level. At the end of third grade, the school recommended that he skip the fourth grade and go on to fifth. He was the school’s champion speller and got his picture in the paper. He started learning the trumpet and could sight-read almost any piece of music that was put in front of him. When it came to athletics, he could score more baskets, run faster and jump higher than anybody else. And, on top of everything else, people liked him. He was polite, considerate, humble, helpful, kind, the righter of wrongs. Even the most vicious bully in school was diminished in his presence.

You might say that everybody loved Ben except his sister Lesley. She didn’t hate him but she didn’t love him, either. More than anything else she was jealous of him. He was always the favored one, always the one people noticed and admired, while she was the little brown mouse over in the corner that nobody cared about or looked at, except maybe to throw a shoe at when it suited them.

And when the gifts of beauty and intelligence were being distributed, she clearly had been left far behind Ben. Her hair, no matter what beauty treatment was applied, always managed to look lusterless and chewed-off. Pimples took up residence on her long nose and sad face when she was eleven years old and seemed reluctant to leave, despite all the most up-to-date pimple treatments.

In first and second grade, she had trouble learning to read and had to spend a whole hour several evenings a week with a tutor, a retired schoolteacher with bad breath and a wooden leg named Miss Eye. Lesley was sure that Miss Eye was a bonafide witch but was never able to prove it. Miss Eye would pinch Lesley on the arm for being lazy and not trying hard enough.

Instead of being able to skip fourth grade and move on to fifth as Ben did, Lesley failed fourth grade and had to do it all over again. So, when people always asked the inevitable question, “What grade are you in?”, she was forced to admit, two years running, that she was in the fourth grade. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” they’d asked. “I’m going to be a garbage collector,” she’d answer.

At Christmastime, half the presents under the tree were for Ben. Lesley was sure the most elaborate packages, the ones with the prettiest bows, were for Ben. His presents were taking up the space where her presents should be. If he had never been born at all, all the presents under the tree would be hers. Why did life have to be so unfair?

Lesley took Ben’s little white underpants out of the dryer and folded them with the rest of the laundry, the way mother showed her, and when she was finished and had a neat little stack of ten or twelve pairs, she took them up to Ben’s perfectly ordered bedroom and put them in his neat-as-a-pin underwear drawer. Before she left the room, she always had the impulse to mess up the books on his desk or take a few shirts out of the closet and scatter them on the floor. The only trouble with that was there was no one else she would be able to blame it on.

When Lesley’s girlfriends gushed about how gorgeous Ben was and what an interesting older boy he was sure to be, Lesley always wanted to slap them in the face and twist their arms out of their sockets. It was a sign of incivility and disloyalty for anybody to praise Ben in front of her. After all, hadn’t she been hearing it all her life and wasn’t she awfully tired of it?

So, in the fall, Ben was ten and in the sixth grade, the youngest and most precocious person of either gender in his class. Leslie was thirteen and in the seventh grade, only one grade ahead of Ben. If she wasn’t careful, she might fail another grade, and if that happened she and Ben would be in the same grade, even though she was three years older. She was sure she would never survive the humiliation if that came to pass.

On a crisp Saturday morning in October, Lesley wanted to go downtown on the bus to do some shopping. She still had some birthday money and wanted to spend it. Mother would only allow Lesley to go if Ben went along, too; it was no longer safe for children to ride the bus alone, she said. Ben was looking for new shoes and readily agreed to go along with Lesley. After breakfast the two of them set out to catch the fifteen-minute downtown bus.

Ben and Lesley had different ideas about how to have fun downtown. After Ben bought his new shoes, they couldn’t agree on where to go next, so Lesley said they should split up and meet later in a designated spot. Then they’d have a hamburger and a milkshake and go back home on the bus.

They parted on a busy street corner and agreed to meet at the same spot in an hour and a half or so. Whoever got there first would wait for the other. Ben went off to do his boy things and Lesley to do her girl things.

Fur collars were all the rage that fall. Lesley went to three different stores but wasn’t able to find one she liked. She bought herself a romance magazine (which she’d have to keep hidden), a pair of shoelaces, a half-pound of English toffee, a pair of toenail scissors, some stretchy gloves and paperback novel that she had to read for English class.

When she went back to the corner an hour-and-a half later to meet Ben, there were people everywhere. It was the busiest time of the day. She saw Ben standing near the stoplight, surrounded by other people, and then she saw he was with someone, or, rather, someone was with him. It was a grown man who had his hand on Ben’s shoulder. Lesley didn’t know who the man was but thought he might be one of one of Ben’s teachers or maybe the swimming coach from school.

She was about thirty feet away, walking toward Ben, when she saw another man. He had hold of Ben’s other arm, lightly, not forcefully, by the elbow as if he were leading him. A green car stopped at the corner and the back door opened. The first man got into the back seat of the car, followed by Ben and then by the second man. The door closed and the car sped away. It all happened in just a few seconds.

Lesley stood on the corner for a few minutes, wondering what to do. Maybe the green car just went around the block for a spin and would be back in a minute or two. Should she wait?

Wait a minute, she thought. Why should I worry about Ben? Isn’t he the smart one? Isn’t he the resourceful one? Isn’t he the problem solver? He’s gone, isn’t he? Isn’t that what I’ve wanted every day and night of my life from the moment he was born?

She waited on the corner for about fifteen more minutes but still saw no sign of Ben or the green car. She was getting cold. All she could think to do was take the bus back home, tell mother what happened, and be absolved of all responsibility. Mother would yell at her, of course, but really, how was she to be blamed if Ben wanted to leave with somebody else? She wasn’t going to lose any sleep over it.

While she was waiting for the bus, she happened to run into two friends from school, Janey Jones and Helen Whitney. They asked Lesley if she was in any hurry to get home and when she said she wasn’t, they suggested they do a little shopping and find some high school boys to stare at and giggle over.

They walked around in the stores for a while, pretending to be grownup women out on the town. They tried on some lipsticks at the cosmetics counter in Pascale’s Department Store until the woman behind the counter came and stared at them and made them feel uncomfortable, so they left. They went to the dress department, where Helen Whitney tried on clothes while Janey Jones and Lesley waited impatiently for her.

After they split a pizza three ways and after many rounds of Coca-Colas, Lesley told her friends she’d better get home, as it was getting late and mother would begin to wonder what had happened to her. The whole time she was with Janey Jones and Helen Whitney, she never once mentioned Ben’s name.

When she got home, it was nearly five o’clock. Mother was waiting at the door.

“Where’s Ben?” mother said.

“Isn’t he here?” Lesley asked.

“No, he isn’t here. Why isn’t he with you?”

“We got separated. He wanted to do some shopping on his own. I figured he came back by himself.”

“Well, he didn’t.”

“Well, isn’t that funny?”

“Yes, it’s hilarious. When did you last see him?”

“I told you we were together and decided to split up. He went his way and I went mine. I met some friends and then I guess I just forgot about him.”

“What friends?”

“You don’t know them.”

“I think we’d better get in the car and go downtown and try to find him,” father said.

“I’m not going to bother with that,” mother said. “I’m calling the police. Do you think he could have got lost somehow?”

It was so typical of them, Lesley thought. They only thought of Ben. It was just further proof, as if she needed it, that they preferred Ben over her. After they found out all they wanted to know from her, they left her standing there and pretended she didn’t exist.

She had been going to tell them about the two men and the green car, but after they were so cold to her, she would just keep it to herself. Let them find it out on their own. Maybe when they realized she knew some things they didn’t know, they would treat her more in the way she deserved to be treated. Like a princess or, better yet, like the junior bitch queen she was.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Until I Die

Until I Die ~ A Noir Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This is a repost, under a different title.) 

Henry Hudson was waiting at a stoplight in town the first time he saw her. She passed within two feet of his car. She was with three other young people, obviously high school students. She had hair the color of burnished copper; she was wearing green. He was sure her eyes would be green, too.

The next time he saw her was at the public library. He was sitting on a bench reading a newspaper when she came in alone and sat down at a table and opened a book. She was dressed casually but in excellent taste. No blue jeans with tears in the knees or sneakers. Everything about her was perfect. From her hair to her skin to her fingernails, from her shoes to her purse, she generated good taste. She exuded perfection.

He saw her three more times in the next two weeks. The first time she was coming out of the drugstore with a woman obviously her mother. The next time he was driving by on Main Street when he saw her walking on the sidewalk, alone, in front of city hall. The third time she was with somebody else in a red car.

Then he saw her picture in the newspaper. Her name was Colleen Cork and she was eighteen. She was the daughter of Dr. Sidney Cork, neurosurgeon. She was named Outstanding Young Citizen of the Month by the mayor’s office for her charitable work, for her high scholastic standing and for her talent as a singer and musician. When she graduated from high school next year, she planned to go to New York and become a professional musician. The world would open up at her feet.

So now she had a name. He looked up her address in the phone book and found it easily enough. With the help of a map, he found the street where she lived and then the house. It was a large, scenic, three-story brick house on a verdant lot with towering trees in the front yard. The house, the whole setting, was perfect, as he knew it would be.

He parked across the street and watched the house, imagining the perfect life she must live with her perfect family. She would have a brother or two, manly and, like her, good-looking; a handsome, heroic, distinguished father with graying temples who saved lives; an attractive, slim-hipped mother who hosted charity luncheons and boasted an ancestral lineage dating all the way back to the Pilgrims. An all-American family devoid of strife ugliness, and dysfunction.

As for his own family, they lived above the funeral home that his grandfather and then his father owned and operated. His mother had nervous breakdowns the way other people have colds. She committed suicide when he was sixteen by drinking a corrosive poison. Her death two days later in the hospital was a psychological blow from which he would never fully recover. He would carry her sadness around with him always, like a weight around the neck.

After high school, he studied embalming for a few semesters. He was all ready to take up the family business when he came to the astounding conclusion that he didn’t have the stomach for that kind of life, dealing with grieving family members and handling cadavers all the time. It wasn’t the kind of life he wanted. He told himself he was choosing life over death, but the truth was he was choosing to do nothing.

After he left school, he began drinking heavily and at twenty-five he was a full-fledged alcoholic. Doctors told him his liver was aging five times faster than normal. When he came to the realization he would die if he didn’t stop drinking, he spent several years in and out of different hospitals taking different “cures.” In time, only his willpower and determination made him stop drinking.

His father died and left him the family fortune, which was not millions but a little in excess of two hundred thousand. It wasn’t enough to live the life of an international playboy and jetsetter, but it gave him a reasonable income that he could draw on for years to come (if he didn’t live to be too old) without having to scratch for a living in the workaday world.

He lived, by himself, in the funeral home establishment outside of town. It was no longer a funeral home but his home, the only home he had ever known. It had fifteen rooms but he only ever used five. He never went down to the basement where the embalming rooms were and all the tools and equipment, including some caskets that had never been used.

He had always been a solitary person. He had never known romantic love or even real friendship. He always believed that one day he would meet his ideal. She, like his mother, would have hair the color of burnished copper and green eyes. She would be a little taller than average and have natural grace and dignity. She would speak quietly but forcefully and she would always be on the side of right. Just being in her presence would make him a better person, would rectify all his errors and false steps and make everything right in the world.

The more he saw Colleen Cork, the more he was convinced she was the one he had been fated to meet out of all the others. All he had to do now was to have her make the miraculous discovery on her own.

He began driving around the high school at times he believed he would be most likely to see her, when school was taking up in the morning and letting out in the afternoon. More often than not, he would catch a glimpse of her, always surrounded by admirers and hangers-on. He would drive on then, satisfied, until the next time.

Once when he was driving by on Fourth Street near the school, he saw her go into the bookstore. He parked the car at a meter and got out and went into the store behind her. While she was looking around in the store, he followed along, hanging back just enough so that if she turned around she wouldn’t see him. When he saw that she was standing in the cashier’s line to pay, he picked up a book to buy without even looking at the title. He stood behind her in line, as close to her as he could get without jostling her. She never once turned and looked at him or knew he was there.

Any time he saw information about her in the newspapers, he cut it out and added it to a scrapbook. She was captain of the debating team, president of the music guild, on the board of the library and children’s hospital. She was chosen to participate in a statewide music competition in the state capitol. She appeared in the high school production of a play called Street Scene and might be interested in pursuing an acting career when she finished her education, in addition to her music. Everybody who saw her performance in the play said she was a “natural.”

He had taken to driving by her house almost every night at ten o’clock. Sometimes the house would be dark and at other times there would be lights in all the windows. He imagined which upstairs room would be hers. He could picture her sitting up in bed reading a book or washing her face in the bathroom before going to bed.

One night, when driving past didn’t seem satisfying enough, he stopped on the other side of the street and parked. He had been sitting in his car for about ten minutes when a police car pulled up alongside and stopped. He smiled because he knew he hadn’t done anything wrong.

He rolled down his window and looked up into the face of a middle-aged police officer. “Good evening,” he said pleasantly.

“Would you step out of your vehicle please?” the officer said.

“Why?”

“Just do as I say and there won’t be any trouble.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“I need to see your operator’s license.”

“My what?”

“Your driver’s license.”

He took it out of his wallet and handed it to the officer, who looked at it for a long time underneath the flashlight.

“You don’t live here,” the officer said. “This is not your address.”

“That’s right.”

“Then what are you doing here?”

“I wasn’t doing anything, really. Just waiting for a friend.”

“What friend?”

“I don’t know where he went. That’s why I’m waiting for him.”

“You need to go on home, now. It’s late. When people see you waiting around out here in the dark for no reason, they think you’re a prowler and they become alarmed.”

“I’m not a prowler.”

“Well, go on home, then. This is not your neighborhood.”

“Yes, sir.”

He was going to have to be more discreet. He didn’t care what people thought of him, but he didn’t want Colleen Cork to hear about him and get the idea that he meant to do her harm or that she needed to be afraid of him. He had only the kindest and most generous intentions toward her.

He was trying to think of a way that he might approach her without alarming her or making her suspicious. If he only had some pretext to talk to her, it might break down the barrier between them, but what could the pretext be? He was mulling these questions over in his mind when he heard the news.

He saw it in the morning newspaper: Country Club Trio Killed in Saturday Night Car Crash.

Colleen Cork was a member of a string trio performing at a function at the country club on Saturday night. About eleven o’clock, after the function ended, the car in which the trio were riding was struck head-on by a drunk driver going eighty-five miles an hour about five miles outside of town. Two of the young musicians were pronounced dead at the scene. The third died at the hospital before morning. The drunk driver was not injured. Charges were expected to be filed.

The world turns on such events. Everything changes in the blink of an eye.

On seeing the news, he lost consciousness. When he awoke again, he began drinking whiskey and taking pills. He intended to kill himself, but twenty-four hours later he was still alive. God had kept him alive, when a lesser man would have succumbed.

After he sobered up and thought clearly again, he knew what he was going to do.

Colleen Cork lay in state at the Vernon Vale and Sons Mortuary Chapel on Mission Street. On Tuesday morning the body would be removed to the Central Avenue Methodist Church for an eleven o’clock service. Private interment would follow at the Cemetery of the Holy Ghost.

On Tuesday morning at two o’clock, he got out of bed after several hours of sleep and dressed entirely in black. He drove his car to the Vernon Vale and Sons Mortuary Chapel on Mission Street. Using a crowbar, he easily broke the lock on a side door and made his way in the dark, with the aid of a small flashlight, to the viewing chapel where Colleen Cork’s body lay.

She lay in a white casket, dressed in a white gown, with a wreath of rosebuds in her hair. He wept with gratitude when he saw her beauty was in no way diminished from what had happened to her. Quickly, before anybody knew what he was doing, he scooped her up in his arms and carried her out of the building, barely stumbling with her in the dark as he ran back to his car. He opened the door and slid her easily enough onto the back seat and covered her with a blanket. The whole thing had taken less than ten minutes.

In the lower basement of the funeral home was a vault-like room where his grandfather and his father prepared bodies for burial. He unlocked the door with the only key in existence, turned on the lights, carried the body of Colleen Cork inside and placed it in an old steel-and-ebony casket from his grandfather’s day.

He learned from the newspaper that the purloined body of the beautiful Colleen Cork caused quite a stir in the town. Nothing like it had ever happened before. What kind of a depraved person would steal a body from a funeral home hours before the funeral? Police were investigating but so far had no leads. Everyone was wondering how the family would proceed with the funeral with the body missing.

They would be coming for him, he knew. The policeman he encountered on Colleen Cork’s street would remember him, would remember what he looked like and remember his car. It wouldn’t take long for them to figure out what he had done.

Every time he heard a car outside the house, he imagined it would be the police; they had come for him with a warrant to search the house. They would find the body of Colleen Cork, take her away, and send him to jail for the rest of his life. It wasn’t the ending he imagined for himself.

After two days of waiting, he locked himself in the vault-like room in the lower basement with the still-beautiful Colleen Cork. After what he had gone through to have her with him, he wasn’t going to give her up now. In the dim light, he looked with relief and gratitude upon the bottles of chemicals and poisons on the shelves that his father and grandfather had used in pursuit of their profession. Drink it down. Drink hearty, my man. Drink so much of the stuff that it overwhelms your body and death comes for you as quickly as it came for Colleen Cork. She’s waiting for you just on the other side. Just a little bit farther. Not very far at all.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

JoJo Rabbit ~ A Capsule Movie Review

JoJo Rabbit ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Johannes “JoJo” Betzler is a winsome, ten-year-old boy living with his unconventional mother in Nazi Germany during World War II. His father is fighting in Italy, unseen for two years and presumed dead. JoJo has an “imaginary” companion, who turns out to be none other than the Fuehrer himself, Adolf Hitler. Caught up in the fervor of his time and place, JoJo believes he is a loyal Nazi, until he starts seeing things in a different way.

The Hitler of JoJo’s imagination is funny and endearing, or at least that’s the way JoJo sees him. He has a funny accent and a comical mustache and he’s fun to be with and to talk to, a really nice fellow. Sometimes when he’s talking he lapses into his “fiery speech” mode. JoJo has some growing up to do before he sees Hitler for what he really is and becomes disenchanted with him.

Jews are the enemy, according to Germans of the era, the cause of all the world’s woes. JoJo is more than willing to go along with the hatred of Jews until he discovers that his own mother is hiding one of them in her house, a teen girl named Elsa. JoJo and Elsa becomes friends. After JoJo becomes friends with a Jew, he comes to see the race in an entirely different light. (“What will you do when the war is over and you no longer have to hide?” JoJo asks Elsa. “Dance,” she says.) JoJo wants Elsa to tell him all about the Jews because all he knows about them is the stereotypes. He plans on writing a book that will be the definitive book on how Jews are different from Aryans. JoJo is intelligent beyond his years.

The war isn’t going well for Germany. Allied forces are closing in. The Russians are on Germany’s doorstep. Realistic Germans see the war is lost. The time for believing in miracles is past. When JoJo’s mother pays the ultimate sacrifice for hiding a Jew in her house, JoJo finds himself all alone in the world. Suddenly the war has ended. What do JoJo and Elsa do now? Isn’t it time to dance?

New Zealand actor Taika Waititi plays Hitler in JoJo Rabbit. (I saw Taika Waititi in a little-seen, crazy, funny and dark movie from New Zealand about vampires called What We Do in the Dark.) Taika Waititi also wrote the screenplay for JoJo Rabbit from a novel by Christine Leunens. Taika Waititi also directed JoJo Rabbit. (Give the multi-talented Taika Waititi an Oscar.) A child actor named Roman Griffin Davis is perfect as JoJo Rabbit (so-named because he refuses to strangle a rabbit early in the movie). He’s cute without being cloyingly cutesie-pie. Archie Yates is another child actor who plays JoJo Rabbit’s pudgy, well-meaning friend, Yorki. There’s something reassuring and endearing about Yorki. He’s the perfect friend to be with if you’re stuck in a war.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Psycho ~ A Capsule Book Review

Psycho ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 movie, Psycho, is a slice of pure cinema. In the directorial hands of a master, it’s a movie where all the different parts—writing, acting, music, film editing, sound, set design, directing—come together in just the right way to create an enduring film masterpiece that has easily stood the test of time. In the hands of a less talented director, it could easily have been just another schlocky, soon-to-be-forgotten stab movie with breasts, a scintillating boudoir scene, and a sensational shower scene, complete with blood going down the drain.

Psycho is a horror movie about a cross-dressing, knife-wielding, multiple-personality maniac, but it’s a high-class horror movie that somehow manages to be tasteful, eschewing blood and cheap horror for a more subtle brand of thrills. It broke new artistic ground and set the standard for movies of its kind. It has been copied, imitated, parodied and emulated, but the one thing it never has been is equaled.

There never would have been the movie Psycho without the novel Psycho by Robert Bloch. Before the movie comes the novel. When Alfred Hitchcock chose the novel to make into a movie, he plucked it from almost certain obscurity. Not that it wasn’t read by readers of its day, but if would never have lasted the way it has if the Hitchcock movie hadn’t made it famous. It is “pop” fiction with little literary merit, except that it makes entertaining reading.

We all know the story. Norman Bates is an odd boy-man who runs an obscure motel on an out-of-the-way California highway. The Bates Motel doesn’t get many guests, except one rainy night, a runaway girl who has lost her way stumbles onto the motel and decides to spend the night. She has just stolen forty thousand big ones from her employer and is on her way to her debt-ridden boyfriend in Fairvale, California.

If the runaway girl, Mary Crane (Marian in the movie), has a secret, Norman Bates has an even bigger one. He has always had a mother fixation. He murdered his dear old mother out of jealousy (she had a lover, you see), but mother’s not resting in her grave. Years earlier, Norman stole her body from her grave and keeps it in the creepy old house behind the motel. He has a split personality. He’s Norman, but he’s also mother. He dresses up in her clothes and wears her wig and, as mother, stabs Mary Crane to death as she’s taking a shower. He hides the body, of course, crying to cover up mother’s crime. Then he has the arduous task of keeping people from finding out what he is and what he has done.

All right, if you want some light reading and you want to read a story that by now is familiar to you, you can’t go wrong with Robert Bloch’s Psycho. It’s not Sister Carrie, but it’s plenty engaging and will keep you turning the pages. The movie follows the novel closely, but, as I said, it makes a much better movie than it does a novel. The movie is distinctive and the novel is not.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Lighthouse ~ A Capsule Movie Review

The Lighthouse ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

The Lighthouse has to be the most unusual new movie of the year. It’s set in 1890 and shot in black and white, with an aspect ratio of approximately 1.19:1, which means the picture is practically square (instead of elongated, which is what we’re used to) to emulate early motion picture photography. The music score (with a nod to the classic film scores of Bernard Hermann) is made up of a foghorn, horns and pipes, glass harmonica and an ocean harp (a stainless steel bowl with bronze rods around the rim that gives off an ethereal sound when used struck a friction mallet). The dialogue spoken by the two characters is based on the “local color” poems and writings of Sarah Orne Jewett. All these filmmaking elements come together to spell “A-R-T” instead of a commercial project designed to generate box office revenue. (You know, like about 98% of the movies released during the year.)

The only two characters in The Lighthouse are two very different men, one younger (Robert Pattison) and the other older (Willem Dafoe). Both men are named Thomas (although the younger man lies and says his name is Winslow). The older Thomas used to be an old seafaring man and is now a lighthouse keeper who knows all about tending the light. The younger Thomas has a murder on his conscience from when he worked in logging (he let a fellow worker die when he could have saved him). He is hired for a period of four weeks to be lighthouse assistant.

The film is set entirely in and around a lighthouse on the Atlantic seacoast of the United States. It’s not an inviting, scenic or hospitable place. The work the younger Thomas does is backbreaking labor and very often involves nasty chores, such as emptying chamber pots and cleaning out the cistern. “I did not take this post be a housewife or slave,” he says defiantly. The older Thomas is something of an uncouth swine and, understandably, gets on the younger Thomas’s nerves. They sleep in very cramped quarters and are always together. The older Thomas talks incessantly, sometimes in soaring soliloquies that don’t make much sense.

The loneliness and isolation begin to play on the younger Thomas’s mind. The four weeks he was supposed to be at the lighthouse are up, but a terrible storm sets in and the person who was supposed to relieve him doesn’t show up. So, now there’s a psychological element in play. Is any of this really happening or is it all just in the younger Thomas’s head? He’s already killed one man. Will he be driven to kill again?

The Lighthouse is not for everybody, of course. If you see it, you might think it’s not your cup of tea, but you can honestly say it isn’t like anything you ever saw before. Remember The Artist in 2011, a silent, black-and-white movie set in the 1920s? The Lighthouse is as uniquely memorable as The Artist, but in its own special way.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

God’s Secretaries ~ A Capsule Book Review

God’s Secretaries ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

England’s Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, after a reign of forty-four years. She failed to produce an heir, a successor, during her lifetime, so James I of Scotland succeeded her to the English throne. He was the son of Elizabeth’s cousin and political rival, Mary Queen of Scots. The twenty-two years that he sat on the throne of England is called the “Jacobean Age” because “Jacobus” is Latin for James.

Hundreds of years ago in England, religion was of the utmost importance, much more important than it is today. People were willing to fight and to die for their religion. There was much in-fighting between Catholics and Protestants and between other sects and splinter groups. It was about this time that a small group of religious dissenters who weren’t happy with the way they were treated in their own country came to the “New World” for a fresh start in a new place where they could decide the dictates of their own religion. They were what we today might call the “lunatic fringe.”

Early in his reign (which turned out to be fairly disastrous for the country), King James I commissioned a new translation of the Bible. There were existing translations of the Bible, of course, including the Geneva Bible and the Bishops’ Bible, but they were considered inadequate (for whatever reason) and there was a perceived need for a uniform Bible. The King James translation of the Bible was to be a Bible for all the people, not just for the elite and educated. It was to be written in elegant, yet accessible to everyone, Jacobean English.

The translation was a huge undertaking, involving some fifty Translators and taking about eight years. The Translators were not writers or journalists but high-level churchmen, bishops and ministers. They used as their source material existing versions of the Bible, principally that of William Tyndale. King James, who had taken a personal interest in the translation, kept a close watch on the project through to its completion in 1611.

The King James translation of the Bible was not an immediate success. For many years, people still preferred other translations. However, it still remains the “standard” Bible translation hundreds of years later. There are more modern translations but, for millions of people, the stately, soaring language of the King James Bible is the voice of Christianity.

God’s Secretaries by Adam Nicholson is not only about the King James Bible but about the times in which it was written, the king who brought the translation about, and the political climate of the times. It was a time in which the government was in charge of religion; church attendance was mandatory; religion played a central role in everyday life. Churchmen were some of the most powerful people in the country. People lived and breathed the Scriptures. If you were not of the proper faith, you just mind find yourself dead. How different the times are in which we live today!

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp