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Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey is not about ghosts or ghost stories but is instead about the places (houses, prisons, brothels, mental hospitals, parks, cemeteries, etc.) that have, for one reason or another, come to be thought of as haunted. This book doesn’t espouse a belief in ghosts or hauntings or a disbelief in them. When you read the book, you decide for yourself.

Most ghost stories are folklore, “urban legend,” or tall tales. They start with a grain of truth and go on from there to fantastic make-believe. But, no matter how implausible the stories are, people are willing to believe them without question because they affirm a belief that there is, indeed, life after death. When you hear a ghost story that begins with a tragedy, an unresolved and unavenged murder, it’s satisfying on a psychological level because it makes you feel good that such a terrible thing has happened to somebody else and not to you and, more importantly, it makes you glad you’re alive.

Ghost hunting has grown into an industry, popularized in part by “reality” shows on TV. People believe what they want to believe. If a person on TV is telling you convincingly that a house, a commercial building, park, or cemetery is haunted, you believe it because it’s so easy to believe. Why shouldn’t you believe? When somebody takes the time and effort to dig deeper into a ghost story, however, the truth is often uncovered, and the truth is not nearly as interesting or as much fun as the tall tale.

Sometimes a house or its owner need only be eccentric or unusual. Sarah Winchester (1840-1922) is a perfect example. As heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, she was fabulously wealthy. The Winchester repeating rifle was the gun that “won the West.” Sarah bought a house in San Jose, California, and began adding on to it and, once she got started, she added and added and added. The house was never finished but, by the time she died in 1922, she had 160 rooms, staircases that went nowhere, and other features that, over time, marked the house as “haunted”—haunted supposedly by all the people who were killed by the Winchester rifle. When people think of American haunted houses, the Winchester house in San Jose tops the list. Serious scientific investigation, however, has yet to uncover credible evidence of a single ghost at the Winchester house. People believe what they want to believe.

The house that inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne to write his 1851 gothic novel, The House of the Seven Gables, is in Salem, Massachusetts. The house still stands and is a tourist attraction. There’s no absolute proof that the house is haunted, although it very well could be if you go entirely on the way it looks. Inside the house is a “secret staircase” on which people claim to have experienced ghostly emanations. Nobody has ever seen an actual ghost in the house, though. Hawthorne didn’t think the staircase was important enough to include in his novel.

The Lemp family of St. Louis became wealthy from the manufacture of Falstaff beer in the 1890s. They had their brewing plant, and their residence, in South St. Louis. Underneath their property were vast natural caves in which they stored the beer before electronic refrigeration became common. As wealthy and successful as the Lemps were, they were also plagued with mental illness, which today might be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Several of the Lemps committed suicide. People believe the ghosts of the Lemps haunt the house, which is now a restaurant and a bed-and-breakfast. Employees at the restaurant claim to have seen spirits, or at least felt them. Teams of “ghost hunters” regularly inhabit the premises, looking for evidence of spirits that nobody else has been able to find. The vast brewery is also still standing but is mostly unused, except as a haunted Halloween attraction in October.

So, in addition to the Winchester house in San Jose, the House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts, and the Lemp house in St. Louis, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places takes us to a brothel in Nevada, an abandoned mental hospital in Maine, a plantation in Louisiana, a park in Portland, Oregon, that’s haunted by the ghost of a murdered fifteen-year-old girl, a house in New Orleans where slaves were mistreated, a prison in West Virginia where prisoners were starved and neglected, and from there to creepy Los Angeles hotels, where deceased stars still cavort, Civil War battlefields where many thousands of men died and on to Detroit, the once-thriving industrial hub of the U.S. that has its share of tragic ghost stories, most of them fabricated but still believed by people who are willing to believe what they choose to believe.

If you believe in ghosts, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places won’t get you to not believe in them, but the one thing the book does is to show that most ghost stories can be easily explained and debunked. The thing is, though, the truth is not nearly as compelling as the legend or the tall tale that, over time, has come to be accepted as the truth.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp  


The Handmaid’s Tale ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Handmaid’s Tale ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is set in a nightmarish dystopian America where the government has been usurped, its leaders murdered and the Constitution discarded. People no longer have individual rights, except for the right to serve. If people are not exactly slaves, they are chattel. Everybody must live in fear because any perceived infraction can result in exile to the Colonies (cleaning up dangerous hazard waste, resulting in death) or hanging in a ritual execution called a “Salvaging.” Dead bodies appear overnight hanging from hooks on a wall for everybody to see, and it’s not always certain what the people hanging there did to deserve such a fate.

The Handmaid’s Tale is not, however, about revolution or the overthrow of a government. It’s a personal story about one “Handmaid” whom we know as “Offred.” (We never learn her real name.) She’s thirty-three years old and had a husband and young daughter in times before. Offred is narrating the story in her own voice. We are privy to her private thoughts and inner feelings, which she must keep secret to go on living.

Childbirth is in decline. The country needs babies to replenish its dwindling population. Since Offred is known to have reproduced before, she is chosen as a “Handmaid.” She lives with an older couple and her job is to provide them with a baby. (She must wear a red habit-like dress and a stiff white headdress with wings, rather like an old-time movie nun.) The man is known as the Commander and his old lady is the Wife. Offred and the Commander copulate mechanically, fully clothed, and with the Wife present, of course. Offred is supposed to bring forth a baby from these couplings. She has three chances and if she fails she will end up in a much worse place, being forced to do very unpleasant work that could easily end in her death. It’s better to be a Handmaid than not.

The Commander has a young chauffeur named Nick. He flirts with Offred surreptitiously when he has the chance. Offred knows that any association she has with Nick could be dangerous. When she fails to conceive a child by the Commander, the Wife arranges a clandestine session for Offred with Nick in his room over the garage after everybody has gone to bed. Nick is happy to oblige—it’s part of his job—but he makes sure Offred knows there is to be no romance involved. Offred develops “feelings” for Nick anyway. He represents for her what her life was like before her world was turned upside down. Where exactly do his loyalties lay? Will he help Offred to escape to another country, or will he betray her in the worst way by turning her over to the authorities?

The obvious comparison of The Handmaid’s Tale is with George Orwell’s novel, 1984. Both novels are about the individual in a world where individuals don’t matter and survival is never certain. It’s a harrowing world and one that most of us, thank goodness, will never have to experience firsthand. You experience it, without any danger to yourself, by reading the book.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Tab Hunter Confidential ~ A Capsule Book Review

Tab Hunter Confidential ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Arthur Gelien (pronounced “ge-Leen”) was born in 1931. He grew up in a fatherless home with a struggling mother and an older brother. He was always fond of horses and for a while, in his teens, was a figure skater. When he was twenty, thanks to his blond, photogenic, all-American good looks and his pleasing personality (but no acting experience), he was on the verge of becoming a movie star. A Hollywood agent changed Arthur’s name to Tab Hunter. The same Hollywood agent, Henry Willson, also gave to the world such notable monikers as Rock Hudson, Rory Calhoun, Guy Madison and Troy Donahue. If you ever needed a made-up name, Henry Willson was the man to go to.

Tab landed roles in a few movies, but they were secondary roles that required little or no acting ability. Despite the less-than-satisfactory quality of his movie roles, he made “good copy.” Movie magazines and gossip rags loved to write about him, and he increased their circulation. Teenage girls loved him and he became a bonafide—and profitable—teen idol. Soon he was more famous for being famous than for his movies. (He made a record, although he had never sung before, of a song called “Young Love,” which became a number-one hit.) He was frequently paired with Natalie Wood or other Hollywood starlets, with whom he was photographed at movie premieres and glamorous Hollywood functions.

Most (or all) of the stuff written about Tab Hunter was as phony as his name. He was never romantically interested in Natalie Wood or any other actress because he was (is) gay. He was involved sexually with Anthony Perkins, figure skating champion Robbie Robertson, actor Scott Marlowe, Austrian actor Helmut Berger, ballet star Rudolf Nureyev, and others. The idea was to keep his sexuality hidden so that his millions of adoring female followers believed he was “available” (unmarried) and they might have a chance with him. If they had known he was gay, his viability as a male sex symbol would have been undermined.

Tab worked with big stars like Linda Darnell, Vincent Price, John Wayne, Lana Turner, Sophia Loren, Rita Hayworth and Gary Cooper, but he never achieved top-star status himself. He was typecast as the pretty boy and the parts he was offered were mostly one-dimensional crap. He landed a seven-year studio contract, but he bought his way out of the contract before it expired because nobody would take him seriously as an actor. At the age of thirty, his movie career was essentially finished. He made some television appearances and had his own TV series, The Tab Hunter Show, which failed miserably. He appeared on Broadway with Tallulah Bankhead in a revival of a Tennessee Williams play, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, but the play folded after only three performances. He then spent some time in Europe making “spaghetti” westerns and low-budget potboilers for feather-brained audiences. Today he is a Hollywood afterthought, a briefly popular fifties actor who had no substance or staying power.

If you like behind-the-scenes showbiz stories, you’ll love Tab Hunter Confidential. Tab wrote it himself, of course, with the help of a “ghost writer” named Eddie Muller. When you look at people in the movies, you don’t know what they’ve had to go through to get up there on the big screen. Tab Hunter Confidential will give you some idea of what goes on behind the scenes in the life of a movie star. It’s a fun book and it’s easy reading. Take a break from reading the weighty stuff and take a walk on the wild side with Arthur Gelien/Tab Hunter. You’ll be glad you did. You have nothing to feel guilty about.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

The Shell Collector ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Shell Collector ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

A volume of short stories by Anthony Doerr:

“The Shell Collector”: (The title of the collection is taken from the first story.) A blind marine biologist who specializes in the study of shells lives a reclusive life on the coast of Africa with his seeing-eye dog in this long (40 pages) short story. When he discovers, by accident, that the potentially deadly sting of a cone shell cures a young woman of malaria and then cures a local nine-year-old girl of a disease from which she is about to die, he is hailed as a healer and his life is turned upside down by the unwanted attention he receives. There are lots of impressive technical details about shells in this story, if you are inclined to be interested in such a thing.

“The Hunter’s Wife”: A man who hunts and fishes for a living (a modern-day Daniel Boone) meets a strange hippy girl much younger than he is. (You know she’s going to be trouble.) He marries her and they live in a rustic cabin in the woods. He continues to pursue his profession, while the hippy wife discovers that she can touch a dead animal (or, later, a dead person) and see what the animal experienced in its life and at the moment of its death and after. She begins to study witchcraft (not surprising) and she eventually leaves the hunter and goes off to pursue her own interests. Twenty years later (the hunter hasn’t seen her in all this time), she is a celebrity of sorts who has written books on the subject of communing with dead things. She invites the hunter to attend one of her public appearances and, at the end, they are reunited in a boy-girl way. There’s lots of sickening imagery here of dead and dying animals. If you find this offensive, as I do, you shouldn’t read this story.

“So Many Chances”: A fourteen-year-old Hispanic girl named Dorotea moves with her parents to the coast of Maine. She meets a sixteen-year-old boy who intrigues her and takes up fly-fishing. Over the course of a summer, she discovers some unsettling truths about herself and her father. (Yawn.)

“For a Long Time This was Griselda’s Story”: An odd, very large, volleyball-playing girl named Griselda Drown goes to a carnival and falls in love with a freak, an older, silent man who eats metal. She goes away with him on very short acquaintance, becoming the object of gossip in her hometown and making life difficult for her mother and her strange, fat sister, Rosemary, who marries a local butcher named Duck. Griselda’s mother dies of shame and frustration at the loss of her daughter. Griselda is not entirely lost, however. Years later, she returns to her hometown as assistant to the metal eater in his one-man, metal-eating freak show that draws crowds at twenty-five dollars a head.

“July Fourth”: No, this story has nothing to do with the holiday. It’s about a group of American men (we never know any of their names) who engage in a fishing competition with a group of British men that takes them all over the world, always looking for the best place to catch the best fish. They will undergo any hardship or deprivation for the sake of fishing. The thing is, the Americans aren’t very good at fishing (or at anything else, it seems) and are always outmaneuvered by their British rivals. When they end up fishing a strange river in Lithuania, they begin to discover the truth about themselves.

“The Caretaker”: At 45 pages the longest story in the collection. (Technically, a 45-page short story is a novella instead of a short story.) Joseph Saleeby is a Liberian who loses everything (family, job, home) in his war-ravaged African country and eventually ends up in Oregon, where he is hired as caretaker for a rich family, the Twymans. Joseph’s job is to tend the family’s estate while they are away, but he neglects his duties and the house and grounds suffer from lack of supervision. He is fired, of course, and his inner life is revealed. He is racked by guilt because of past deeds. While still in his home country, he stole, killed a man, and let his mother do heavy work while he slept. After Joseph is fired from the job of caretaker, the Twymans believe he has left, but he is really hiding out in the woods above the estate. He buries some enormous whale hearts from whales that have become stranded on the beach, and on that site he grows a garden from some seeds he stole. Eventually he meets the Twymans’ unhappy, deaf, fifteen-year-old daughter. She is trying to kill herself by drowning in the ocean and Joseph rescues her. They become friends and Joseph learns some sign language so he can communicate with her. Soon the Twymans discover that Joseph is hiding in the woods near their home and, after verbally abusing him, arrange to have him deported back to Africa.

“A Tangle on the Rapid River”: Mulligan is going fishing (fishing again!) in the wee hours of the morning. He stops by the post office in town where he rents a secret post office box so he can get letters from his paramour. He’s married, don’t you know, and is having an extramarital affair. There is a letter from the she with whom he is cheating on his wife and she’s making demands; she doesn’t like it when he spends too much time with his wife. He reads the letter and then sticks it in the newspaper he has with him. Hours later, after sunup, he is resting underneath a tree when two other fishermen come along. It’s a man and woman and Mulligan knows them. The mannish woman “hunts, fishes, and tracks” and is a niece of his wife. This woman wants to see his newspaper for a moment so she can check the racing results. Mulligan wants to get rid of them, so he tells her to go ahead and take the newspaper. He remembers, AFTER it is too late, that the letter from his mistress is folded up in the newspaper! Oh, my gosh! The niece of his wife is going to find it and read it. What is this philandering son of a bitch going to do now?

“Mkondo”: A man named Ward Beach who works for a museum in Ohio is sent to Africa to find a rare fossil of a prehistoric bird and bring it back with him. While in Africa, he becomes enamored of a local woman, Naima, and ends up spending a lot longer away from home than he intended. Naima’s thing is running. She runs all the time and Ward Beach can’t seem to catch her. (Symbolic. Get it?) He proposes to her and she accepts. (Mistake!) He brings her back to Ohio, where she experiences chronic and severe culture shock. She’s not used to the sky being gray all the time in the winter. It’s very difficult for her to abandon her African ways in the midst of American culture, and Ward Beach changes toward her because she’s not the same as she was in Africa. Wait a minute, though, we’re not finished. Naima discovers photography and it returns her to a love of the world. (If you are paying any attention at all, you will know halfway through this 35-page story how it is going to end.)

The short stories in The Shell Collector are beautifully written, first-rate every step of the way. Anthony Doerr displays an impressive array of knowledge on such subjects as marine biology, wildlife, fishing, African terrain and photography. Whether or not you like the stories and find them engaging, though, is another matter. A person finding himself/herself through fishing or killing animals is completely removed from my realm of experience, as Ernest Hemingway’s stories about bullfighting are. To me the stories in The Shell Collector are kind of sterile. Technically perfect though they might be, they lack feeling. I wasn’t moved by any of them.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Lincoln in the Bardo ~ A Capsule Book Review

Lincoln in the Bardo ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

I didn’t know what “bardo” meant, so I looked it up. It’s a Buddhist concept, meaning the state of being between death and rebirth. Buddhists, of course, believe in reincarnation. When you die, your spirit must go to an in-between place, the bardo, until you are born again into another body. Beings in the bardo, many of them, don’t know there are dead; they believe they only need to “revive” in order to return to the former place, the state of being alive. In the bardo, the ordinary rules of physics that govern the world are suspended. Some beings take strange forms, while others must undergo a kind of punishment before they move on.  

The Lincoln in Lincoln in the Bardo is, of course, Abraham Lincoln. In February 1862, his eleven-year-old son, Willie, dies in the White House of typhoid fever. On top of the already heaven burden Lincoln is bearing with the terrible war that is raging between the North and the South, his grief is almost insupportable.

Willie’s body is placed temporarily in a borrowed crypt in a cemetery. Lincoln has the key to the crypt and begins making nighttime visits, where he opens Willie’s coffin and takes his body out and holds it in his arms. Unknown to Lincoln, Willie, in the bardo, is observing his father while this is going on, trying to get his attention. Other people in the bardo, knowing (or being told) that Lincoln is President of the United States, believe that Willie is a prince who might be able to help them with their problems or help them get what they want.

There are three fictional (deceased) men in the bardo (Roger Bevins III, Hans Vollman, and Reverend Everly Thomas) trying to aid little Willie Lincoln, to help him to move on so he won’t be in the bardo forever. We learn the life stories of these three and how they ended up in the bardo themselves. As the novel progresses, we also pick up some interesting information about Lincoln’s life in the White House, his depression and grief, what people were saying about him at the time, and Willie’s illness and embalmment.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by a writer named George Saunders, is a historical novel and also a fantasy, combining the factual and the fictional. It’s a non-traditional novel, unlike anything I ever read before. Some might even say it’s experimental. I don’t like the designation “experimental,” because it implies that the novel is so “hip” (avant-garde) you can’t stand it and you have to be “ultra-hip” yourself (a hippie or a beatnik, at least) to be able to appreciate it. On the contrary, Lincoln in the Bardo has a sort of old-fashioned feel, a complete departure (thank goodness!) from what life is like today. When you start reading Lincoln in the Bardo, you probably won’t know what’s going on at first, but if you stick with it and don’t give up, you’ll figure it out soon enough—it’s not that difficult. You won’t be bored while you’re reading it and when you get to the end you’ll feel enriched for having had the experience.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

The Death of Ivan Ilyich ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Death of Ivan Ilyich ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Death of Ivan Ilyich, written by Russian master Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) in 1886, is a character study and a somber contemplation of death. Ivan Ilyich is a magistrate with a wife and two children, a grown daughter of marriageable age and a schoolboy son. He is ambitious and rises through the ranks of his profession. He and his wife enjoy their place in society afforded by his success.

The thing about Ivan is that, as a magistrate deciding cases in court, he isn’t always as human as he might be. He is incapable of deep feeling or self-contemplation. He has no inner life. To him, duty is more important than feeling, compassion and sympathy. Would you want to be tried by this bastard in court?

In young middle-age, Ivan is seeing to all the details of furnishing and decorating a new home when he falls off a ladder and sustains a blow to his side. He thinks little of it at the time, but this is the beginning of an illness that results in his death. Whether the blow he receives to the side has anything to do with his illness is never established.

Ivan becomes ill and believes at first he will recover. As time progresses, however, he becomes sicker and sicker, until he realizes at last that he is coasting toward a premature death. Doctors, even “celebrated” ones, are ineffectual at finding what’s wrong with him or in finding ways to make him better. All they can do is make him believe he will recover, but after a while he sees this as a lie.

In the state of illness he’s in, Ivan takes a look back on his life. Is he being punished with a horrible illness that will claim his life because he’s been bad? Wait a minute, though; he has done all the things he was supposed to do, so what might he have done differently that would have spared him his undeserved fate?

Instead of accepting what is happening to him and seeking peace within himself, Ivan rails against it. Why has God forsaken him? His mental anguish becomes as great as his physical anguish. He doesn’t get the sympathy he thinks he deserves from his wife, family and friends. They only want to be rid of him so they can get on with his lives. Only his ten-year-old son and a kindly servant named Gerasim seem truly sad to see him in the state he’s in. After a terrible illness, death claims Ivan Ilyich at the age of forty-five. There is no beauty, dignity, or redemption in his death.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is death from the point of view of the dying man. He isn’t able to find relief, comfort or sympathy in his illness as he sinks toward his inevitable fate. He is unable to look back on his life and say it’s been a life of success and fulfilment, even though it’s being cut short. It’s a simple story, universal because death touches everybody. Although set in nineteenth century Russia, it might be any place at any time.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp    

A Faithful Son ~ A Capsule Book Review

A Faithful Son ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

A Faithful Son is a novel by a writer named Michael Scott Garvin. It begins in the late 1950s with the character Zach Nance as an adolescent boy. (Zach is narrating the story in his own voice.) He lives in a small Colorado town with his parents and two sisters. They are a religious, traditional, conservative family.

Zach and his two sisters, Katie and Laura, have an idyllic childhood, doing all the things that kids of this period love to do. They climb mountains and hike in the woods and play and catch the bus every morning to go to school. They have what almost seems to be a perfect life until tragedy strikes. Zach’s younger sister, Katie, is killed in an automobile accident in which the father is driving. In his grief, he turns to the bottle and becomes an irresponsible alcoholic.

Eventually the father drifts out of the family, leaving Zach and his remaining sister Laura and their mother to fend for themselves. Zach grows up the way all boys do, but he has a secret that he knows his mother, sister and the people of his community will never understand: he is gay.

He grows to adulthood, keeping his secret to himself. He works and begins drinking a lot, just as his father and grandfather did (it’s in his genes). He has clandestine dalliances with some of the local boys (one of them serious) but they always drift away and Zach ends up alone. He dates girls but, of course, this is only for show and will never work out.

Finally Zach leaves home and ends up in Los Angeles. He becomes a professional landscaper/gardener, starting out small at first and then growing into a real business where he employs other workers. At a gay bar, he meets a handsome boy named Doug. They seem to hit it off and begin a “relationship.” All the time Zach feels insecure, though, in his sexuality, believing that Doug will find somebody he likes better and leave. In the meantime, Zach’s drunken father has died back in Colorado and his mother develops cancer. It’s just one thing after another.

A Faithful Son is a breezy novel, so easy to read you’ll almost feel like you’re not reading at all. It’s a so-so story, nothing new, a story that has been told many times before. For this reason, I was a little surprised to see the list of awards it has won. The writing contains lots of misplaced (or dangling) modifiers, and it makes you wonder why the publisher didn’t employ an editor to fix these. Since it’s told in the first-person voice of Zach Nance, I suppose the feeling is that misplaced modifiers are just part of colloquial language and are acceptable. Also, there are some troubling anachronisms in the story concerning cell phones, microwave ovens and phone answering machines. I don’t know the age of the writer, Michael Scott Garvin, but I’m guessing that a lot of young people don’t remember a time when there weren’t cell phones, microwave ovens and phone answering machines and assume those things have always been around, like electricity. It is my fervent belief that there were no microwave ovens or answering machines until the 1980s, and cell phones weren’t in widespread use until the 1990s. But, then again, what do I know?

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp