Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes ~ A Capsule Book Review

Boxes cover
Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

As a young man, Howard Hughes (born 1905) inherited the Hughes Tool Company from his father, using it as the starting point to build a vast business empire. He was a pioneer of aviation design and a daring test pilot (in 1946 he was nearly killed when the aircraft he was testing crash-landed and burned). In the 1930s and ‘40s, he was a movie maker in Hollywood, having become enamored of the movies as a child. He owned an airline and then another one, getting into trouble with the U.S. government for violating antitrust laws. At one time he owned almost all the gambling casinos in Last Vegas, lending an air of respectability to an unsavory industry. For a while, he was not only the richest man in America, but the richest in the world. He was a playboy, an escort for some of the most beautiful and well-known ladies in Hollywood. He had ties with organized crime and rubbed elbows with some of the most famous political leaders of his time. More than anything else, though, he was known for being extravagantly eccentric, reclusive, and mysterious.

This following quote from the nonfiction book, Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes (by Douglas Wellman and Mark Musick), tells us a lot about the real Howard Hughes:

“The world of Howard Hughes is sometimes unfathomable. Between the things he did do, the things he didn’t do but was accused of, and the things he did but covered up, his life is a bewildering series of conflicting stories. He was a master of secrecy, intrigue, and diversion, which is apparent from the abundance of books and articles on the man, many of which are contradictory.”

At the height of Howard Hughes’ fame, the world knew him as a rich eccentric. People loved to talk about him and write about him, but much of what was spoken and written was exaggeration or blatantly untrue. Nobody could know Howard Hughes, so people fabricated stories about him to sell books, newspapers and magazines. He was “hot” copy.

The world believes that Howard Hughes died a broken old man at age 71 in April 1976. He had been living in a Las Vegas hotel room, barely kept alive by his uncaring custodians. He was filthy, malnourished, emaciated and addicted to Codeine, Valium, and other drugs that he didn’t need. He left behind a fortune in excess of two billion dollars. At the time of his supposed death, he had at least forty pending lawsuits against him and was being hounded all the time by the U.S. government for non-payment of taxes. Great wealth has its own unique problems.

The premise of the nonfiction book Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes is that Hughes didn’t really die in 1976. A decoy died in his place, a Howard Hughes stand-in, presumably a Las Vegas derelict of about the same age, with similar physical characteristics. Why would a man like Howard Hughes fake his own death? The answer should be obvious. He wanted to be left alone, to live the rest of his life in peace and seclusion. The forfeiting of his great wealth was the price he was willing to pay.

We hear all the time about people faking their own deaths, but if anybody could do it, it was Howard Hughes. He had the means to do it and the “enablers” to carry out his wishes and keep their mouths shut. He assumed the name and identity of Verner “Nik” Nicely. He married a woman named Eva McClelland. He died in 2001 at the age of 95.

The book presents plenty of compelling evidence that the mysterious and eccentric old man named Verner “Nik” Nicely was in reality Howard Hughes. Mr. Nicely had burn scars on his body, consistent with the scars that Howard Hughes sustained in a crash in his test pilot days. He was the same height as Howard Hughes, had the same physical characteristics, and was in possession of encyclopedic knowledge of aviation and mechanics. His wife, Eva, who died a few years after he died, was certain that she was married to the once-famous Howard Hughes. Read the book and decide for yourself if she was telling the truth.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp    

The Confessions of Nat Turner ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Confessions of Nat Turner book cover 2

The Confessions of Nat Turner
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

In 1831, about thirty years before the Civil War, in the state of Virginia, a slave uprising resulted in the deaths of 59 white people and significant destruction of property over the course of two days. A slave named Nat Turner (he heard voices and had visions) planned the methodical attack for years, believing he was following the will of God. He saw himself as an avenging angel. He didn’t act alone in the uprising; he recruited followers from among his fellow slaves who were more than willing to wreak havoc against the establishment.

American author William Styron (1925-2006) published his historical novel The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1967. It is a fictional account (historical accuracy not verified) of the only slave uprising of its kind in the Southern United States. The mastermind of the uprising, Nat Turner, narrates the story in his first-person voice. Through the character of Nat Turner, William Styron gives an articulate voice to the enslaved.

The irony of Nat Turner, according to this novel, is that he was favored among slaves. He was intelligent, he could read, he was a skilled carpenter and he possessed mechanical abilities beyond his station in life. He possessed an uncanny knowledge of the Bible, better than most preachers, as one character in the book observes. He passed through several owners, some of them cruel and callous, but, for the most part, he was with people who cared for him, valued his abilities and wanted only the best for him. Already we see the irony of this situation. Why would such a man plan and carry out a bloody and violent attack of vengeance?

Nat Turner spent years planning the bloody insurrection, working out every small detail, even drawing maps. He thought of it as a military operation. He shared his plans with his group of loyal core followers, swearing them to secrecy. They were all willing to give up everything to make the undertaking a success. They hoped that, as they made their bloody way across the landscape, hundreds of other slaves would join them and their numbers would grow into an invincible army. Their plan was to kill every white person in their reach (eventually numbering in the hundreds or thousands), and when they were finished with their march of death and destruction, they would escape into the swamp and never be seen or heard from again.

The operation fell far short of Nat Turner’s expectations. The group of renegade slaves killed 59 white people, including at least one small child, and attracted about two dozen additional slaves to their ranks. The problem with most of these “recruits” was that they were undisciplined and wanted only to drink whiskey and run wild. Ironically, Nat Turner killed only one victim, a young white woman named Margaret Whitehead. She had shared her views of the Bible with him and had only ever been kind to him; he had no reason to want to kill her except for her whiteness. Most of the white people killed were not known for their cruelty or mistreatment of slaves.

The Confessions of Nat Turner is the psychological portrait of a subjugated man and the cruel times in which he lived. It is a fascinating glimpse into a chapter of our long-ago history. It is a thoughtful, intelligent book, beautifully written, filled with bitter irony. If you read no other “serious” book this year, you will have made a wise choice.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp    

Ramses, the Son of Light ~ A Capsule Book Review

Ramses, The Son of Light Book Cover
Ramses, The Son of Light
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II (also known as Ramses the Great) lived an astonishing ninety years, from 1303 BCE to 1213 BCE, about twelve hundred years before Christ. As Pharaoh, he was a builder of mighty monuments and an effective administrator. His father, Seti, was Pharaoh before him. Seti made Ramses his regent when Ramses was only fourteen years old, meaning he would be Pharaoh after Seti.

French writer Christian Jacq has written a series of six fictional books about the long-ago life of Ramses. The first book in the series is Ramses, the Son of Light. It’s about the early life of Ramses, from childhood into young adulthood. Though he was born into privilege, he did not have an easy life. There were always those who wanted to destroy him or marginalize him. His older brother, Shaanar, was his biggest rival and his greatest enemy. Shaanar saw himself as the future Pharaoh and would have done anything to remove Ramses from the scene, especially after it became clear that Seti wanted Ramses to succeed him.

Being regent meant that Ramses had to undergo many tests to prove that he could be an effective Pharaoh when the time came for him to ascend the throne. Not only would he have to deal with treachery and opposition in his own sphere, he would have to keep Egypt’s enemies at bay and do what needed to be done to avoid war.

Ramses was precocious, as one might expect, and manly in his teen years. He had a girlfriend, Iset the Fair, with whom he shared many passionate embraces, beginning when they were barely out of their teens. When it came time to marry, though, Ramses chose Nefertari as his blushing bride. A Pharaoh wasn’t limited to only one wife, so Iset the Fair became his number-two wife after Nefertari. With Nefertari he felt love, while with Iset the Fair he felt passion.

Ramses, the Son of Light is lightweight reading. It’s not a serious examination of a long-ago monarch or the time in which he lived. It’s what is called pop fiction instead of serious literature. Book two in the series, which I haven’t read, will be sure to pick up at the beginning of Ramses’ long and successful reign as Pharoah. There will be wars, there will be rivals, there will be intrigue, there will be dishonesty, there will be plenty of ugly and destructive human nature to go around.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp   

The Castle on Sunset ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Castle on Sunset cover

The Castle on Sunset
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

It overlooks the famous Sunset Strip in Hollywood. It stands seven stories tall and was built, in 1929, in imitation of a French chateau. It was an apartment building at first and was later turned into a residential hotel. It has long been a mecca for artists and creative people, in an out of the movie business. It is the Chateau Marmont.

Shawn Levy’s nonfiction book, The Castle on Sunset, is a detailed account of the life of the Chateau Marmont, a Hollywood landmark that has seen its fortunes rise and fall. It has had many different owners over the decades, some indifferent and uncaring, while others were scrupulously caring and attentive. The Chateau Marmont was a quiet, “un-Hollywood” retreat in the thirties through the fifties; a favorite of stage-trained, New York, Method actors in the fifties and sixties who came to Hollywood to make movies; in the seventies and eighties, it was a bohemian enclave, slightly seedy and run-down; in the twenty-first century, it became, with its upgrading and renovations, a trendy destination for hip, young Hollywood. Over the years it went from being a reasonably priced hotel to one that only the wealthy can afford. If you think you can go to Hollywood and stay in the Chateau Marmont, you won’t be able to get in unless you are a Hollywood A-lister. (Do you know anybody who is? Neither do I.)

I might not have learned much that I didn’t already know by reading The Castle on Sunset, but it’s intermittently interesting to read, depending on how interested you are in the person being discussed. If you are interested in the death of John Belushi, you will be riveted by the section on his drug overdose death that occurred in one of the hotel’s bungalows in 1982. You didn’t know that Anthony Perkins was gay? He was known for entertaining his male dates at the Chateau Marmont. Movie director Nicholas Ray conceived of his classic film, Rebel Without a Cause, while staying at the Chateau Marmont, while simultaneously having an affair with his sixteen-year-old leading lady, Natalie Wood. He was considerably older than she was.

If you are interested in Hollywood lore, gossip, and naughtiness, you are sure to find The Castle on Sunset a valuable addition to your reading list.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

The Bridge of San Luis Rey ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Bridge of San Luis Rey first edition cover
The Bridge of San Luis Rey
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

American author Thornton Wilder lived from 1897 to 1975. He wrote his most famous novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, in 1927, when he was thirty years old. The novel is set in Peru in 1714. A certain primitive bridge that had been constructed by the Incas a hundred years earlier falls into the ravine below, killing the five people who happen to be on it at the time. The question the novel poses is this: Was the collapse of the bridge just a matter of “chance,” or was there some “design” to the deaths of the five victims?

Those who die in the bridge collapse are male and female, young and old:

  • The Marquesa de Montemayor is an aristocratic woman, all alone in the world except for a daughter who marries and moves to Spain. The mother and daughter do not get along well when they’re in the same location, so they communicate by letter, between Peru and Spain. Since it is the eighteenth century, a letter takes six months to reach its destination. She and her servant girl, Pepita, die in the bridge collapse.
  • Pepita is a girl from the convent whom the Marquesa de Montemayor takes as a companion.
  • Esteban has an identical twin named Manual. They have been educated in the convent and become scribes, writing letters for people for pay. Esteban and Manual are so close they develop a secret language between them. When Manuel falls in love with a famous actress in the theatre named Camila Perichole, the relationship of the twins is tested. Manuel meets a sad fate before Esteban dies in the bridge collapse.
  • Uncle Pio is an old man who works for Camila Perichole, as a kind of all-purpose servant and father figure. Camila Perichole isn’t very kind to Uncle Pio, but he persuades her to let him take her only son, Jaime, to Lima with him to educate him.
  • Jaime is with Uncle Pio on the bridge when it collapses. He is the fifth victim of the collapse.

After the bridge collapse, Brother Juniper spends years investigating the lives of the five victims to try to make sense of the collapse and to ascertain if there was any design in the accident or if it was all purely chance. Of course, in the end he realizes he has wasted his time and effort. It is a conundrum, a question without an answer.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is one of the twentieth century masterpieces of American literature and ranks number 37 on The Modern Library List of the 100 Best Works of Fiction in English of the twentieth century.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

No Country for Old Men ~ A Capsule Book Review

No Country for Old Men book cover
No Country for Old Men
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, No Country for Old Men, is set in Texas around 1980.

There are three principal characters in No Country for Old Men:

  • Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, sheriff of Terrell County, Texas. He represents the old America where people said “sir” and “ma’am” and were polite to each other. He is approaching the end of his career as a lawman. He has little patience for, or understanding of, the modern world.
  • Anton Chigurh, a psychopathic killer with a philosophical bent. He kills, not so much because he enjoys killing, but because he believes it is what he is supposed to do. He has no sympathy or empathy for any of his victims. In reading the book, I eventually lost track of how much many people he kills.
  • Llewellyn Moss is the “everyman” character. He is thirty-six years old, a decent and ordinary fellow who works as a welder, lives in a trailer and has a pretty, nineteen-year-old wife named Carla Jean.

Out in an isolated spot in the Texas desert, Llewellyn Moss inadvertently stumbles across a scene of carnage: a drug deal gone wrong. There are several vehicles and eight dead bodies. It’s apparent there has been a shootout. After Llewellyn does a little snooping, he comes across a case containing over two million dollars. What does he do? Does he alert the police? No, he takes the case home with him. He may be unsophisticated, but he’s not stupid. He knows that somebody will be coming after him to get the money back and, even if they do get the money back, they will still kill him.

It’s up to traditional Texas lawman Ed Tom Bell to solve the drug-shootout crime in the desert, since it happened in his jurisdiction. Besides eight dead bodies and some shot-up vehicles, he doesn’t have much to go on. Llewellyn Moss knows that as long as he has the two million dollars in his possession, he is in deadly peril. He sends Carla Jean to her mama in Odessa and goes on the run. He comes to realize after a while that, in with the money, is a “transponder” sending a signal of his whereabouts to a receiver. This does not bode well for him.

It’s up to murderer Anton Chigurh to locate the money and get it back, inflicting pain, death, and mayhem with his every move. He might be thought of as the physical incarnation of Satan.

No Country for Old Men is a sort of modern-day western. It might just as easily have taken place in 1880 as 1980. There’s a crime committed and then the crime’s aftermath. There’s the hunter and the hunted. There are good men and bad. There are surprising twists and turns in the plot. There is much death, much violence. Cormac McCarthy turns it all on its ear.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

The Road ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Road book cover 3
The Road
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

A cataclysmic event has occurred. Planet Earth is dying and can no longer support life. Plant life is dying. Trees are toppling over, no longer able to hold themselves upright by their roots. Cities are burned to the ground. There is perpetual ash in the air. The landscape is littered with dead bodies in various stages of decay. Earth has become a living vision of hell.

This didn’t just happen yesterday or last week; it has been going on for years. Most of the people in the world have already died. The people remaining have a horrible life, trying to find enough to eat to keep themselves alive. The “good guys” have to work awfully hard to keep from being killed and eaten by the “bad guys.” The good guys refuse to stoop to eating other people. They have maintained a semblance of humanity; they “carry the fire within them.”

There are two principal characters in The Road, both unnamed: a man and a young boy, his son, about nine years old. They are referred throughout the novel as “the man” and “the boy.” They have left their home and are headed for some unnamed destination south of them. They are seeking more than safety, shelter, or food. As important as those things are, they seek something more profound. The man is driven by the desire to save the boy, his son. He believes God has given him the special task of delivering the boy to another place.

The Road is not a “doomsday thriller,” nor is it another diatribe about saving the environment. It is a simple human story about survival and the hope that there might be something on the other side of death. It is eerie, haunting, profound and memorable. Some readers might see a “God-Christ” metaphor in the “man-boy.”

I’ve read The Road by Cormac McCarthy twice, years apart, and was tremendously impressed both times. It is one the rare novels you will read in your lifetime that advances the art of fiction, that takes the reader to a place he has never been before. It makes you happy that a book can be that good.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

The City of Falling Angels ~ A Capsule Book Review

The City of Falling Angels cover
The City of Falling Angels
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

American writer John Berendt made the charts in 1994 with his first nonfiction book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a real-life murder mystery set in Savannah, Georgia. It was phenomenally successful, occupying the New York Times Best-Seller list for 216 weeks, and was made into a movie in 1997 directed by Clint Eastwood.

John Berendt’s second nonfiction book, The City of Falling Angels, came over ten years after Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The City of Falling Angels is set in Venice, Italy, and, as with Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, it’s full of local color and eccentric real-life characters.

Venice is one of the most unique cities in the world. It has been in existence since about the eighth century. It’s a quiet city because, with canals instead of streets, it has no automotive traffic. The people of Venice walk wherever they go, or take the vaporetto, the water taxi. Venice is a quaint and romantic city abounding in history. It was at one time a powerful city state. Many of its buildings are hundreds of years old.

In 1996, a historic Venetian opera house, Teatro La Fenice, over two hundred years old, caught fire and was entirely destroyed. Investigators, of course, had no clue as to what caused the fire. Was it the result of natural causes, or were sinister forces at work?

At the time of the Fenice fire, the theatre was closed to public performances and was undergoing renovation. The fire happened at night, when any daytime workmen had departed. Because the buildings in Venice are so old and so close together, many other structures were threatened by the fire. Firefighters eventually brought the fire under control, but the opera house was destroyed. Would it be possible to rebuild it as it had been before the fire, or was it a case for the wrecking ball?

The City of Falling Angels follows the years-long investigation into the fire, with many twists and turns, many false leads and conspiracy theories; much finger-pointing and gnashing of teeth.

Sometimes The City of Falling Angels veers off into subjects other than the fire, such as a Venetian glass-blowing family of many generations, a Venetian poet who committed suicide, the Ezra Pound Foundation (he was an expatriate American poet who lived in Venice), or in-fighting among the Venetian upper-crust. During these long digressions from the fire, we wish to return to the subject at hand. The fire is much more successful at holding the reader’s interest.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp  








Mirror Mirror ~ A Capsule Book Review

Mirror Mirror cover
Mirror Mirror
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Gregory Maguire’s 2003 novel, Mirror Mirror, is set in Tuscany, Italy, in the early 1500s. A beautiful girl named Bianca de Nevada lives with her father, Vicente, on an isolated hilltop estate called Montefiore. Bianca, a motherless girl, has lived a sheltered life and doesn’t know much of the world. Lucrezia Borgia, real-life daughter of Pope Alexander VI (the Borgia Pope), comes to Montefiore with her brother, Cesare Borgia. Lucrezia and her brother Cesare are both moved by Bianca in different ways: Cesare wants her for a sex toy, even though she is still a child, and Lucrezia is jealous of Bianca’s girlish beauty, which will soon be womanly beauty.

Lucrezia and Cesare decide they will stay at Montefiore for a while. Cesare is suffering from the French disease (we all know what that is). Cesare sends Bianca’s father on a (nearly) impossible quest (to get him out of the way) to find a fabled branch from the Tree of Life (you know, the one from the Garden of Eden), that still has three perfect apples attached to its branches. Bianca’s father doubts the branch with the apples on it even exists, but he has no other choice but to comply with Cesare’s commands. It might take him years to find it (if it even exists) and he might die in the effort.

With Bianca’s father on his quest, Bianca is left at Montefiore under the questionable care of Lucrezia Borgia, who just might do anything. Since Bianca has flowered into a lovely young woman and is no longer a child, Lucrezia is still jealous of her and has decided she will have her killed. She hires a young man to take Bianca into the woods and do away with her. The young man does as Lucrezia tells him to do, but he finds he is unable to kill her. He leaves her alone in the woods, making Lucrezia think he has done the deed.

Left alone in the woods, Bianca falls into a deep sleep that mimics death. Seven dwarfs (nothing like the Disney variety) find her and, believing she is dead, place her in a glass coffin and watch over her body. She will awake, though, and when she does she will go back to Montefiore. Her father, contrary to all expectations, has returned from his quest, bearing the ever-elusive branch from the Tree of Life.

Mirror Mirror blends elements of legend, history, fairy tale, and fantasy into an imaginative, lightning-speed novel. If you are an admirer of Gregory Maguire’s work (Wicked, Son of a Witch, Notes on a Cowardly Lion, Out of Oz, After Alice, etcetera.), you will find everything here that makes his work unlike anybody else’s. Highly recommended for connoisseurs of the different and unusual.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp    

Shuggie Bain ~ A Capsule Book Review

Shuggie Bain cover

Shuggie Bain
 A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp  

Shuggie Bain’s real name is Hugh. He is a slight, sensitive, preteen boy (at school he is called a “wee tiny poof”) living with his mother and his older half-brother and half-sister in a wretched housing complex in Glasgow, Scotland, in the 1980s. Shuggie doesn’t have a very happy childhood. The family is poor and on the “dole,” but his biggest problem is that his mother, Agnes Bain, is a hopeless alcoholic, “hopeless” in the sense that she will never stop drinking, will never “get better,” and will eventually drink herself to death. Shuggie loves his mother and he believes, unrealistically, that if he stays by her side, when everybody else abandons her, he can protect her and get her to stop drinking.

Shuggie’s  estranged father is Shug Bain, or “Big Shug,” as he is called. He is a real bastard, a self-centered, womanizing, amoral taxi driver. Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, leaves her first husband, taking her two children with her, to marry Big Shug. From that unfortunate union is born the youngest of her three children, Shuggie “Hugh” Bain.

Shuggie’s older half-brother is named Alexander but everybody calls him “Leek.” Shuggie’s half-sister is Catherine. Agnes if the kind of mother who makes her children want to get away from her. She has good intentions as a mother, but she always manages to disgust and alienate her children with her incessant drunkenness. Catherine marries at an early age and moves to South Africa, thousands of miles away from her mother.

The housing complex where Shuggie lives with his family is called Pithead. It was originally intended for coal miners, but most of the coal mines have closed down. The residents of Pithead are crude, spiteful, and cruel. The women hate Agnes Bain because she dresses up whenever she goes out of the house. People who like her tell her she resembles Elizabeth Taylor. Her good looks don’t help her very much.

The Scottish people in Shuggie Bain speak working-class English. They use a lot of words that American readers probably won’t be unfamiliar with. For example, “boak” means vomit; “biro” is an ink pen; a “grass” is a snitch; a “dout” is a cigarette; “wellies” are boots; “papped” means to be thrown out of the house; “weans” are children or offspring; “scheme” is a housing project; “gallus” is an act of boldness or daring. If you don’t have a dictionary of Scottish colloquialisms and slang, these unfamiliar words can usually be deduced from their context in the sentence.

Shuggie Bain is an ambitious (430 pages), rich first novel by a writer named Douglas Stuart. It is a story as much about a self-destructive alcoholic as it is about being the child of an alcoholic. It is a book steeped in time and place (Glasgow, Scotland, of the 1980s). A compulsively readable book, a book well worth reading.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp