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Roanoke, Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Roanoke, Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

During the long reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603), there were malcontents—religious dissenters and Separatists—who didn’t like their country and wanted to live elsewhere. England was overcrowded, disease-ridden, and becoming more and more libertine and loose in its values. Constant religious fighting raged among Catholics, Protestants, and Church of England. The New World, which meant the North American continent, beckoned. It was largely untouched and contained unlimited land and unimaginable natural resources, which would translate into wealth, power and prestige. Every European power wanted to be the first to claim this prize.

In 1587 a group of 115 colonists set out for the New World. Their destination was the Chesapeake Bay, but they ended up on Roanoke Island off the coast of what is today North Carolina. Roanoke Island was completely unsuited for colonization. The colonists believed they would, in time, be relocated to a better place. They were essentially abandoned, cast off, sacrificed. What was going on here? Their leader, John White, set off to England to get help (the voyage across the Atlantic took about four months). He promised to return as quickly as he could with supplies and whatever help was needed. He had a personal interest in the venture because his daughter was among the colonists. When he returned to Roanoke Island three long years later, there was not a sign of the 115 colonists. They seemed to have vanished, along with their houses and any other trace of them. What could have happened to them? Were supernatural forces at play? It’s a mystery that has endured for four hundred years.

In the nonfiction book, Roanoke, Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony, author Lee Miller lays out a compelling case that the 115 Roanoke colonists were sabotaged by someone who didn’t want the venture to succeed. Who could that someone be? There were only a few men in the government powerful enough to pull off such a scheme. Lee Miller narrows it down to Walsingham, powerful member of the queen’s Privy Council. Walsingham despised the upstart Sir Walter Raleigh, who had become the queen’s favorite. If the colony had been a success, it would have been in a feather in Raleigh’s cap. If it failed, it would cast a pall over Raleigh’s career from which he might never recover.

Several rescue attempts were launched to save the 115 colonists stranded on the inhospitable Roanoke Island, but all of them failed or were scuttled by co-conspirators who were in on the plot. The 115 colonists were left to die, to fade away, to succumb to disease and starvation. And why was their fate such a mystery over all the centuries? Why was the public left to believe that the colonists simply “disappeared?” They didn’t just disappear; they were sacrificed and then the truth was covered up. If the truth had been told, it would have been very bad publicity for colonization in the New World.

Roanoke, Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony is a minutely and meticulously detailed account of the feckless and ill-advised Roanoke Colony, of the treachery and political machinations that made the venture the failure it was. The message is simple: powerful politicians will screw over anybody they can, will double-deal their way into hell, and then lie about it to make sure the truth is never known. Sound familiar?

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Muscle for the Wing ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Muscle for the Wing ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

We first met boxer-turned-policeman Rene Shade in Daniel Woodrell’s 1986 novel, Under the Bright Lights. He’s back two years later in Muscle for the Wing, another crime romp set in the fictional bayou city of St. Bruno. Muscle for the Wing is not as atmospheric as  Under the Bright Lights, but there’s still plenty of murder, mayhem and people doing ugly things to each other.

Wanda Bone Bouvier is the redhaired femme fatale in Muscle for the Wing. (She inflames men’s passions, don’t you know.) She’s married to the much-older Ronnie Bouvier, who is behind bars.  She claims to love Ronnie, but that does not keep her from being carnally unfaithful with tough-guy Emil Jadick. She’s going to get revenge on Emil for Ronnie’s sake (and at his direction from the state penitentiary), but she admits openly that she “digs” Emil’s muscular body. (She’s a good-time girl who will take her fun wherever she can get it.) Emil wants Wanda to be his number-one girl—and his alone—not knowing she will eventually hurt him in a big way. When she gets a job as a do-anything stripper in a naughty nightclub, it’s all part of Ronnie’s plan.

When young, off-duty police officer Gerry Bell is shot to death at a gentlemen’s poker game at the country club by intruders set on robbing the wealthy poker players, police officer Rene Shade is called in to figure out what happened. Evidence leads to Emil Jadick and his two dimwitted associates, all members of a white supremacist prison clique called “the Wing.”

World-weary, boxer-turned-policeman Rene Shade has lived in St. Bruno his whole life; he knows the city and he knows the people. In investigating the murder of Gerry Bell, he’s drawn into a morass of crime and corruption, involving some of his old friends and associates, including friend-since-childhood Shuggie Zeck, who beats his wife to a bloody pulp. In St. Bruno, everybody is tainted in some way. There’s no such thing as innocence. Everybody is guilty of something. You can’t even tell the good people from the bad ones.

Daniel Woodrell is one of the best current American writers. If you like redneck noir, nobody does it better. His books are a delight to read, even if you are on your second reading. I highly recommend The Death of Sweet Mister and Tomato Red.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Nickel Boys ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Nickel Boys ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Nickel Boys, won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s a story about a fictional (but based in reality) boys’ reformatory in Florida, the Nickel Academy, in the early 1960s.

The principal character is a black teen named Elwood Curtis. Elwood lives with—and is raised by—his grandmother, Harriet, since his parents have run off and left him. Harriet works as a maid in a hotel.

Elwood is a “good” boy who doesn’t get into trouble the way some of his friends do. He works in a small store that sells newspapers, cigarettes, and candy and he understands the value of an education. When he is riding in a stolen car that he doesn’t even know is stolen, he is arrested and ends up being sentenced to the Nickel Academy.

Elwood is out of his depth at Nickel, meaning he doesn’t belong there. He meets all kinds of other boys, some of them friendly and others bullying and cruel. They all have one thing in common: they are all part of a cruel and unjust system that punishes young people, black and white, who haven’t yet reached adulthood. Boys are routinely mistreated (inadequate food), beaten, locked in solitary confinement or a “sweat box,” or sexually assaulted. Those who commit a serious enough transgression might be beaten and tortured to death and, after their bodies are furtively buried, reported to have “run off.”

When state inspectors come to Nickel for an inspection, management puts on a good show to demonstrate that they are taking good care of their charges, even to the point of serving good food with ice cream for dessert (on that day only). Elwood Curtis has a plan. He has been keeping a written record of what conditions are really like at Nickel and how people are really being treated. He hopes to slip the written record to one of the inspectors without any of the Nickel employees seeing. He’s taking a dangerous risk; if he gets caught, it could mean the end of him.

The Nickel Boys is a good book, but I think you will agree it’s not a great book. It’s the companion piece to a novel from three years ago called The Underground Railroad, which also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. (Colson Whitehead is one of only four writers to win two Pulitzer Prizes for fiction in their careers; the others are Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner, and John Updike.) Both novels deal with black issues while embracing universal themes of belonging, oneness, isolation, and functioning in a world that is very often unjust to anybody of any skin color.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Member of the Wedding ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Member of the Wedding ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

In Carson McCullers’ wonderful, adolescent-angst novel, The Member of the Wedding, Frances “Frankie” Addams is a feisty twelve-year-old girl living in a small Southern town. Too smart for her own good, she is just on the verge of her teen years. Her mother died when she was born, so she just has her father, a preoccupied watch repairman at a jewelry store in town. The time is the 1940s, during World War II, but Frankie has other things on her mind besides war. Her young-adult brother, Jarvis, is marrying a girl named Janice in Winter Hill, a town a hundred miles away. Frankie longs to escape from her dreary, small-town life. She believes that Janice and Jarvis will take her with them after they are married and they will be a threesome. Everybody who knows how the world really works knows that Frankie is about to be seriously disillusioned.

In the absence of a mother, Frankie has Bereniece Sadie Brown to take care of her. Bereniece is an oft-married black lady who has known her share of grief in the world. Her favorite husband, Ludie Maxwell Freeman, died of pneumonia on a winter night, and since then she has been trying, without much success, to find someone to take his place. Bereniece is always kind to Frankie and tries hard to understand her and help her with her loneliness and insecurity.

John Henry West, Frankie’s brightly inquisitive, six-year-old cousin, lives in the neighborhood but is always at Frankie’s house. He eats most of his meals there and spends the night with Frankie a lot in her room, an “enclosed sleeping porch” above the kitchen. Frankie may not want to admit it, but John Henry is her best friend. She tells him to “go home” when she’s had enough of him.

The world is a frightening place for Frankie and we can see that, at age twelve, she has a lot of growing up to do. She has a near-date with a soldier who believes she is older than she is and is forced to hit him in the head with a water pitcher in his hotel room to discourage his advances. When she goes by bus to the wedding of Janice and Jarvis in Winter Hill with her father, Bereniece, and John Henry, she discovers just how disappointing the world—and life in general—can be.

The Member of the Wedding is a delightful novel to read, so beautifully written, by one of the most talented American writers of the twentieth century. It is evocative not only of time (the 1940s) and place (the American South) but also of childhood. What adult hasn’t experienced the terrors of growing up in an uncertain, frightening world? One of my favorite novels out of the many thousands I’ve read.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Trial ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Trial ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Franz Kafka, one of the most celebrated writers of the twentieth century, was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1883, and died of tuberculosis at the young age of forty in 1924. His famous novel, The Trial, was written in 1914 but not published until 1925, after his death.

The Trial is set in an unnamed city in an unnamed European country. The principal character is Josef K., age thirty. He lives in a boarding house and has an important job, that of chief loan officer, in a large bank. One morning, just as Josef K. is getting out of bed to go to the bank, some men show up at his boarding house and arrest him for a crime. What is the crime? We never know and Josef K. never knows either.

After his arrest, he optimistically believes that it (his arrest) will all just go away if he ignores it and does nothing, but soon he is drawn into an inexplicable and nightmarish world of court procedures that go nowhere, nonsensical meetings with a bedridden lawyer, flirtation with the lawyer’s servant, paranoia, fear, a meeting in a dark cathedral on a rainy day (the person he goes there to meet never shows up, but he has a strange encounter with a priest), flirtation with a woman in his boarding house, speculation and worry about what is going to happen to him and to his position at the bank. (His trial is taking up so much of his time and energy that he hardly has enough energy anymore to do his job.)

So here we have a person, Josef K., with a pleasant life and a successful career whose world is shattered in a flash. Isn’t this the kind of thing that could happen to anybody anywhere? Isn’t it the stuff of nightmares?

The Trial is a less-than-perfect exploration in weirdness, but well worth reading. It contains long, long paragraphs (in some cases going on for pages), but the sentences are not long and tortured, as you might expect, so it is mostly easy to read. The long scenes and long chapters should hold your interest about ninety percent of the time. It’s a novel that might have been improved by some judicious editing. Since the original novel was written in German, I (of course) read it in an English translation. I’d like to be able to see I read German fluently, but if I said it, it wouldn’t be true.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Under the Bright Lights ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Under the Bright Lights ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Daniel Woodrell (born 1952) is among the best current American writers. His novels The Death of Sweet Mister, Tomato Red, and The Maid’s Version are among my favorites. His 1986 novel, Under the Bright Lights, is a noirish story set in the fictional Missouri town of Saint Bruno, a medium-sized city of 200,000 residents. Saint Bruno sits on edge of the roiling, mysterious Mississippi River and has a distinctly Southern quality to it, as well as a French flavor. A lot of the residents of Saint Bruno are of French descent; a largely French section of town is known as “Frogtown.”

When Arthur Rankin, prominent black politician and porno-movie theatre owner, is shot and killed in his own home, police detective Rene Shade is called in to investigate. Rene is a former boxer who might have been a “contendah” but wasn’t. He has lived in Saint Bruno his whole life and has a less-than-spectacular personal life, living over a poolroom with his mother. In his professional capacity as police detective, he peels back the layers of corruption to get to the truth behind the murder of Arthur Rankin. There are low-level gangsters and high-level gangsters, shady politicians (sometimes politicians and gangsters are the same thing), thugs, bimbos, redneck punks, losers, not-very-bright paid killers, and lots of local color in the steamy river town of Saint Bruno, Missouri. Oh, and let us not forget, there’s a slam-bam climactic scene and shootout in the primeval swamp called “Marais de Croche” (Crooked Swamp). You wouldn’t want to be stuck in this creepy swamp alone at night. You might never get out.

Under the Bright Lights is an atmospheric, smart-talking, tightly written short novel (160 pages) by a very talented writer, Daniel Woodrell. I met him once at one of his book signings in St. Louis and he’s as unpretentious in person as his writing is impressive on the printed page.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Hotel de Dream ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Hotel de Dream ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

American writer Stephen Crane was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1871, and died of tuberculosis in Germany in 1900 at the age of twenty-eight. He was one of the most gifted young writers of his generation. His 1895 Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, achieved worldwide acclaim for its realistic depiction of war, which Crane wrote without ever having seen battle.

Hotel de Dream, a 2007 novel by Edmund White, is a fictionalized account of Stephen Crane’s final illness and his struggle to complete his final work of fiction called The Painted Boy (which only exists in Hotel de Dream and Crane never actually wrote). The Painted Boy was in the mold of Crane’s earlier novel, Maggie, Girl of the Streets, and was quite daring for its time because it deals with an “invert” (a coy, turn-of-the-century word for a homosexual). The invert in question is named Elliott. He’s a sixteen-year-old boy of the streets, a male prostitute, who comes to New York from a farm, where he was sexually abused by his father and older brothers. As a rent-boy, Elliott meets stodgy, married, middle-aged banker Theodore Koch. After a few “dates,” Koch is convinced he is in love with the syphilitic boy and is willing to risk everything—career, marriage, home, children, place in the world—to be with him. He rents a room where he and Elliott can meet every day. When he is blackmailed, he begins stealing money from the bank where he works. This cannot end well, for him or for Elliott.

Hotel de Dream is a story-within-a-story. Sections about Crane’s private life are interspersed with his fictional story of Theodore Koch and Elliott. Crane is too weak from his tuberculosis to write, so he “dictates” The Painted Boy to his common-law wife, Cora. She knows that Crane is dying, is in love with him, and will do anything to help him.

If you are a student of American literature or a fan of Stephen Crane’s naturalistic style of writing, Hotel de Dream is well worth your time. It’s a fascinating fictional excursion into the life of a real-life American writer, his time and the people he knew. And it’s a reminder, once again, of what a terrible disease tuberculosis is and how fortunate we are to live in an age in which it has been eradicated.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Viking Age ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Viking Age: Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Vikings of the ancient world came from Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland. The time in which they were active was 800 A.D. to 1100 A.D. They were a fearsome bunch (bearded men in horned helmets wielding battle axes) to their neighbors because they were raiders, plunderers and invaders. Their major contributions to the world were navigation and the building of “longboats.” In other words, they were seaworthy and could go about any place they wanted to go, including the North American continent about 500 years before Columbus. Not all people who came from Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland were Vikings. They were called Scandinavians or Norsemen. The Vikings comprised but a small part of the Scandinavian population, but they are the people from this period we remember.

The Scandinavians of the Viking age were pagan, worshiping multiple gods, until they converted to Christianity. Life expectancy was only 30-40 years. They were not particularly clean or hygienic, which accounts in part for the low life expectancy. Old people were virtually nonexistent. Many women died in childbirth. Many children died in infancy Men ended up raising children on their own or abandoning them to strangers. Despite the reputation of the Vikings, the Scandinavians were not a particularly war-like people. They were farmers, hunters, fishermen, cattle producers.

Kirsten Wolf, professor of Scandinavian studies at the University of Wisconsin, wrote Viking Age. The subtitle is Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen. It is an overview of everything you might want to know about this ancient age and its Scandinavian people, including what they ate, what they wore, how they lived, their politics, their religion, their belief (or nonbelief) in an afterlife, their art, their recreational life, etc. I’m not a scholar or an academic, but I found the book readable and fascinating; that is, if you have an inquiring mind and are open to historical subjects.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Praise Singer ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Praise Singer ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Simonides of Keos was a real-life lyric poet who lived in ancient Greece from 556 B.C. to 469 B.C. The Praise Singer is a 1978 historical novel by Mary Renault (real name Eileen Mary Challans). Though fiction, The Praise Singer is a biography of sorts based on the life and times of Simonides, and is narrated in his first-person voice. Simonides experienced during his lifetime a flowering of the arts in ancient Greece, especially in poetry and the written word. Up until that time, poetry and literature had mostly been an oral tradition. Simonides was possibly the first person to set down the works of Homer (The Iliad, The Odyssey) in writing.

Simonides has an unusually long life for his time. He is telling the story as an old man in his eighties. He has much to tell, including lots of political intrigue and associations with some of the great and celebrated people of his age. He is so accomplished at his art (a traveling singer, a bard, a performer of his own poems) that he himself becomes a celebrity through his talent rather than good looks, which he didn’t possess. He never marries and has no children but raises his nephew as his own son and teaches him to follow in his footsteps as a traveling bard and poet.

Simonides is brought up in strict discipline by his father, Leoprepes. He finds encouragement in the love of his handsome older brother, Theasides, and in music. When he meets a traveling musician and performer, Kleobis, Simonides persuades him to take him on as an apprentice. Under Kleobis’ tutelage he becomes a talented composer and performer. He attempts to find a patron at the court of Polycrates in Samos but is held back by his lack of physical beauty.

Simonides then finds a patron in Peisistratos the tyrant (a word that has a different meaning now than it did then) of Athens. He becomes a successful musician and after Peisistratos’ death, his sons Hippias and Hipparchos continue the family’s patronage. Through Hipparchos, Simonides is introduced to the prostitute Lyra, whose lover he becomes. Hipparchos sexually favors boys over women, and as the novel concludes we witness his eventual downfall as he uses his political power to punish the family of a young boy who rejects his advances. The boy and his lover retaliate by murdering him.

If you are a fan of historical fiction and the works of Mary Renault, then you will probably like The Praise Singer. I found it rather tedious at times and was glad when I came to the end. There are a lot of characters coming and going all the time and their names are not always easy to keep straight. When you stop reading the novel and then pick it up again, neither is it always easy to remember what happened the last time you read because it wasn’t that interesting to begin with. It’s best when reading a book like this to consider the whole rather than the parts. It could have used some judicious editing and restructuring to juice it along.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Meditations of Marcus Aurelius ~ A Capsule Book Review

Meditations of Marcus Aurelius ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Marcus Aurelius lived in the early Christian era, from the year 121 to 180. He was a Stoic philosopher and emperor of Rome from 161 until his death. He wrote his Meditations as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement. He was able “to write down what was in his heart just as it was, not obscured by any consciousness of the presence of listeners or any striving after-effect.” To put it another way, he probably never planned for Meditations to be published as a book and read by people nearly two thousand years later.

Meditations is divided into twelve books, each book representing a different period in Marcus Aurelius’ life. The books are not in chronological order. A central theme is the importance of analyzing one’s judgment of self and others, and the development of a cosmic perspective. In Marcus Aurelius’ own words, “”You have the power to strip away many superfluous troubles located wholly in your judgment, and to possess a large room for yourself embracing in thought the whole cosmos, to consider everlasting time, to think of the rapid change in the parts of each thing, of how short it is from birth until dissolution, and how the void before birth and that after dissolution are equally infinite.” Another important theme is maintaining focus and being without distraction, while maintaining strong ethical principles.

Marcus Aurelius’ Stoic philosophy advocated avoiding indulgence in sensory affections, which will free a man from the pains and pleasures of the material world. The only way a man can be harmed by others, he says, is to allow his reaction to overpower him. Order, or “logos” (the principle of divine reason and creative order) permeates existence, allowing one to rise above perceptions of “good” and “bad.”

Meditations is not exactly entertaining or breezy reading, but it’s interesting on a historical level because it was written by a Roman Emperor, it’s a product of its time, and it explains the Stoic philosophy, which is in itself quite interesting. Meditations held my interest (mostly) throughout its one hundred pages and I never once wanted to set it aside and read something else, but I was glad when I came to the end.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp