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The Good Soldier ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Good Soldier – A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The English writer with the humorously redundant name, Ford Madox Ford (real name Ford Hermann Hueffer), wrote the famous and highly regarded twentieth century novel, The Good Soldier, around 1915 (that’s when it was first published). The novel’s subtitle, A Tale of Passion, suggests that there is more drama and tragedy in the novel than there is. While there are suicide, infidelity and madness, to be sure, the whole thing is narrated in a humorous fashion in the first-person voice of John Dowell, one of the four major characters. John Dowell is an American millionaire and his wife’s name is Florence. The Dowells are gadding about in Europe, seeking curative waters in Germany, where they make the acquaintance of one Edward Ashburnham and his wife, Leonora. (Edward Ashburnham is the soldier referred to in the title.) While the Ashburnhams appear to be “good people” on the surface, John Dowell and his wife soon discover, as they are drawn into the Ashburnhams’ world, that all is not as it seems.

Edward Ashburnham is good-looking and rich. Since he is of the “idle” class (he doesn’t have to work for a living), his main preoccupation is having affairs with inappropriate women. It doesn’t seem to concern him that the women are already married or underage; no matter the circumstances, he is swept away by passion. His wife, Leonora, who is possibly insane, doesn’t approve of her husband’s many love affairs. She is a Catholic and Catholics don’t believe in divorce, so she will have to stay married to him, no matter how many women he has on the side. She turns out to be a reprehensible shrew and, ironically, is the only character in the novel who ends up happy and satisfied.

Mild-mannered and seemingly innocent John Dowell (the novel’s narrator) seems to have missed something when it comes to his wife, Florence. (They had a sort of arranged marriage in the first place and really don’t like each other very much.) John is surprised to discover that Florence fakes a heart condition so she can stay put to continue her clandestine affair with a repulsive young man named Jimmy. Later on, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to John to learn that Florence has become one of Edward Ashburnham’s female “conquests.” Edward just can’t seem to help himself when it comes to women. Late in the novel he develops an attachment to an innocent (knows absolutely nothing about life) young girl named Nancy Rufford, and it is this attachment that proves his undoing, as his wife schemes in the background to keep him from having what he wants.

The Good Soldier is an unconventional novel in that it is told mostly in flashbacks and moves around from one time period to another. It’s set in the early 1900s over a period of nine years or so. Being a product of its time, there is no sexual content, even though one of its main themes is infidelity. If marital relationships and infidelity are not your cup of tea (they certainly aren’t mine), the novel is diverting enough, short enough, and easy to read enough to make it worthwhile. It’s easy to pick up and easy to put down. If you are making your way through the best-known, best-loved and most famous novels in English of the twentieth century, then you could do a lot worse. You could take a stab at James Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, or Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, which to me is all but unreadable.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Appointment in Samarra ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Appointment in Samarra ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

American author John O’Hara lived from 1905 to 1970. His 1934 novel, Appointment in Samarra, is his best-known and most important work. It’s set in 1930 in the small (under 25,000) town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. It chronicles three days in the lives of Julian English, 29, and his lovely wife, Caroline Walker English, 31. Julian owns a Cadillac dealership; Caroline is a society matron and gadabout. They are looked upon as “quality” in the town, meaning they have plenty of money (they both come from a background of prosperity) and have lots of time to drink and socialize with the country club set.

Julian English has everything a person might want and is, of course, good-looking and polished, but he has plenty of problems, not the least of which is that he is an alcoholic, although that word is never used in the novel. While the Depression still hasn’t taken its toll on Gibbsville (it’s 1930, remember), it’s bound to get a whole lot worse and Julian is worried about his Cadillac dealership going bankrupt. Certain things are expected of a man like Julian, and failure isn’t one of them. (If he fails, he’ll have to account to his snooty, physician father.) Also, Julian has a fidelity problem; although he has an attractive wife, he can’t seem to stay away from the other women. (Casual infidelity does seem to be a hallmark of this group of people.)

At a Christmas dance at the country club, a very drunk Julian has a set-to with a “friend” named Harry Reilly and throws a drink in his face, blacking his eye with ice in the drink. Word spreads quickly about the impulsive act, and the sad truth for Julian is that most people are sympathetic to Harry Reilly and consider him (Julian) an ass. This is just the first step in a brief downward spiral for Julian that culminates in a surprising (for those unfamiliar with the ending) act of desperation.

Appointment in Samarra was considered “frank” when it was published in the 1930s, but is, of course, mild by the trashy standards of today and even by the Peyton Place standards of the 1950s. In the 1930s John O’Hara was chronicling his own times, as John Updike did (with much more sexual explicitness) thirty or forty years later with novels like Couples and Rabbit, Run. It’s a fascinating piece of Americana (easy to read at 240 pages) and is still so highly regarded more than eighty years after its publication that it’s on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred best novels of the twentieth century.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

A Lesson Before Dying ~ A Capsule Book Review

A Lesson Before Dying cover

A Lesson Before Dying — A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

A Lesson Before Dying, a novel written by Ernest J. Gaines (born 1933), was first published in 1993. The setting is a poor, black, farming community in Louisiana in the late 1940s. A young black man, named Jefferson, is wrongly convicted of a murder, when his only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because Jefferson is uneducated and poor, he doesn’t stand a chance in the white courts, with a white jury. The white, court-appointed attorney, whose job it is to defend Jefferson, compares him to an animal, saying that he has no more awareness of what is going on than a hog would and should not be executed any more than a hog should be. Jefferson is, of course, found guilty and sentenced to die in the electric chair. (We know at the outset that he is going to die and nothing is going to change that.) All this happens in the first few pages of the novel. The rest of the story is taken up with how the people who know and love him help him to die with dignity and grace. Jefferson, in no sense a hero, becomes almost a Christ-like symbol to his people.

The story is told in the first-person voice of Grant Wiggins, teacher at the plantation school, which is held in a room in the church. Grant Wiggins is a conflicted character. He has been away to the university to learn how to become a teacher and, instead of heading for greener pastures the way most educated, young, black men would do in the South, he returns to the place of his birth to teach the poor children there and to try to make a difference in people’s lives. He lives with an old aunt, Tante Lou, who raised him because his parents went off and left him. Tante Lou is outspoken and holds a grudge against Grant because he has stopped going to church. He believes in God, he says, but he can’t believe in heaven or a lot of the other things the church teaches. He says he hates teaching and he hates the way he lives, but still he stays. He has a girlfriend named Vivian who has a couple of kids and a husband from whom she is trying to get a divorce. Grant talks all the time about going away with Vivian to a better place, but, for complicated reasons, he can’t bring himself to leave.

Jefferson’s godmother, or “nannan” (Tante Lou’s best friend) calls on Grant Wiggins to visit Jefferson in the jail over the course of the time he has left and get him—force him if necessary—to go to the electric chair as a man, with dignity, and not as a “hog.” She and her friend Reverend Ambrose also want Grant to help Jefferson accept Jesus into his life, because they believe he will go to hell if he doesn’t. Grant very reluctantly agrees to try to help Jefferson over the two months or so that Jefferson has left to live, but he isn’t sure that anything he can do will make a difference. It isn’t just for Jefferson’s sake that Grant wants him to die with dignity, but also for Jefferson’s nannan, for Tante Lou, Reverend Ambrose, the children in the school, and all the people in the “quarter.”

A Lesson Before Dying is not so much about race relations in the South after World War II—although that is an element in the story—as it is about the difference that one unlikely person can make in the world. The ending is touching and completely believable without being maudlin or melodramatic. It is a novel so beautifully written, so succinct and spare in its 256 pages, that it’s a pleasure to read, even for the second time.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The Magnificent Ambersons ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

It’s the fin de siècle (end of the nineteenth century) in Midwestern America. The Ambersons are the wealthiest family in a town that is about to become a city, thanks to industrialization. The patriarch of the family, Major Amberson, a veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War, has made a fortune and then sits back and watches as his family spends his money. He has a son, George Amberson, who makes bad business investments while being a gentleman of leisure. Major Amberson’s daughter, Isabel, is the prettiest girl in town. Eugene Morgan, a friend of George Amberson, is interested in Isabel but, for her own complicated reasons, she chooses to marry dull and steady Wilbur Minafer. Wilbur and Isabel have one son, George Amberson Minafer, who is spoiled terribly by his doting mother, his Aunt Fanny (his father’s sister) and the rest of the family. He grows up with an astounding sense of entitlement; he is brash, arrogant, condescending and not very likeable, although he is admired for his good looks and aristocratic bearing.

When Eugene Morgan again comes into the lives of the Ambersons (he left after Isabel jilted him), he is an up-and-coming inventor of automobiles (“horseless carriages”) and a widower, with a pretty post-adolescent daughter named Lucy. When young George Amberson Minafer meets Lucy at a “ball” given at the Amberson mansion on New Year’s Eve, he is drawn to her in a way that he doesn’t quite understand. When he learns that his own mother and Lucy’s father, Eugene Morgan, were once romantically involved, he takes an immediate dislike to Morgan. He believes that “horseless carriages” are only a silly passing fad and will never take the place of the reliable old horse. He never passes up a chance to insult Morgan and his profession.

George’s father dies fairly young (he was never very healthy, anyway, and he worked too hard) and the way seems open for Eugene and Isabel to resume their courtship of old. George is not going to stand for it, however. Despite his interest in (and growing love for) Eugene Morgan’s daughter, Lucy, he will do anything in his power to keep his mother and Eugene Morgan from getting together again. He is appalled at the prospect that they might marry. When he realizes that the “riffraff” of the town is openly gossiping about his mother and Morgan, suggesting that they were “carrying on” while his father was still alive, he takes matters into his own hands and makes a complete fool of himself. As his uncle George tells him afterwards, the worst way to deal with gossip is to acknowledge it or try to set it right.

Despite all that’s happened, Isabel still believes her son Georgie is an “angel”; she worships and adores him unquestioningly. When he insists that he take her on a “tour of the world” for an indefinite period of time to remove her from the grasp of Eugene Morgan and from the gossiping in their home town, she has no other choice but to comply. George believes he is doing the right thing for his mother but, blinded by his own narrow-mindedness and sense of outraged morality, he is doing more harm than good.

While George and Isabel are busy gallivanting around Italy and other foreign places, things are not going well back home for the Ambersons. Their once-lovely little town is growing into a thriving, industrialized—not to mention dirty and grimy—city. All the people they knew are either dead or moved away, replaced by hordes of foreigners and immigrants. Amberson is not such an important or well-recognized name as it once was. The once-pretty vistas of their hometown are replaced by sordidness and squalor, boarding houses and cheap apartment buildings. More importantly for the Ambersons, their great wealth is dwindling, through unwise investments and negligence. (When Major Amberson builds a beautiful mansion for Isabel to live in upon her marriage, he just happens to omit the important detail of providing her with a deed to the property, which nobody realizes they don’t have until it’s too late.) The Ambersons are not able to keep up with the times; they make the mistake of not foreseeing the societal and economic changes that are going on around them. They seem to believe their insular world will last forever.

More than anything else, The Magnificent Ambersons is about change. While the Ambersons are unable or unwilling to adapt to their changing world, Eugene Morgan becomes successful and makes a fortune at manufacturing and improving the automobile. He is the antithesis of the Ambersons. His name, Morgan, becomes as important in its own way as the Amberson name was in their own high-flying time. He possesses the important attribute of adaptability, which the Ambersons lack.

Indiana native Booth Tarkington wrote The Magnificent Ambersons in 1918. It has the distinction of being on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred best books in English of the twentieth century. It’s a readable and accessible American classic, one of my all-time favorite novels. I’ve read it twice in my life, the first time decades ago; the second time I read it I liked it just as much as the first time. The memorable movie version, made in 1942, is one of those rare film adaptations that does justice to the book on which it’s based. Most of the dialogue in the movie is lifted word-for-word from the book.

Copyright ©  2016 by Allen Kopp

The Charioteer ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Charioteer ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

English writer Mary Renault (1905-1983) is known mostly for her historical fiction set in ancient Greece. Her 1953 novel The Charioteer, however, is set in a much different time period: World War II. Young British soldier Laurie (Laurence) Odell sustains a severe leg injury (his kneecap is blown off) in the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940. While recuperating in an army hospital from a series of operations on his leg, he meets Andrew Raynes, a Quaker and a conscientious objector. (These “COs” are very unpopular with most people.) Andrew doesn’t fight in the war because of his religion, but he’s doing “war work” as a hospital orderly. Andrew and Laurie Odell become friends, they begin to meet secretly every day and, after a time, they become more than friends.

Years earlier, when Laurie was in school, he was drawn to an older boy named Ralph Lanyon. Ralph was a “Head” (sort of a student leader) at the school. After Ralph is “sent down” at school (expelled), Laurie never sees him again but never stops thinking of him. Fast forward years later to the war: Laurie and Ralph meet again; it turns out that Ralph rescued Laurie at Dunkirk, even though Laurie was barely conscious at the time and wasn’t aware of what was going on. Not surprisingly, he still is drawn to Ralph in a sexual way and he discovers that Ralph feels the same way about him. Since Laurie has already committed himself in a way to loving Andrew, he is faced with a dilemma. Who needs him more, Andrew or Ralph?

Meantime, Laurie has family problems. His mother, who has been a widow since Laurie was five, is planning on marrying a vicar named Mr. Straike. Laurie and Mr. Straike don’t like each other very much and are at pains to keep it hidden.  Mr. Straike was instrumental in having Laurie’s eleven-year-old dog, Gyp, euthanized while Laurie was away and his mother didn’t bother to tell Laurie about it until he comes home for her wedding. He swallows his grief over losing Gyp and ends up giving his mother away in her wedding to Mr. Straike. Whenever Laurie is alone with his mother, he wants to tell her of his homosexuality and of his feelings for Andrew, but he is never able to get the words out; he knows that Mr. Straike would violently disapprove.

The more Laurie sees Ralph on his leaves from the hospital for treatment, the more he sees him a different light. Ralph is a member of an insular group of gay men, whom Laurie doesn’t like very much. (They’re plenty bitchy and one of them attempts suicide while Laurie is present.) Although Ralph is talking about him and Laurie being together forever, Laurie isn’t sure that’s what he wants, especially since Andrew has come into his life.

The Charioteer is interesting fiction for its time, the early 1950s. If the plot creaks at times (especially for the American reader) in the long, long conversations in the second half and we’re not always sure what the characters are saying, we can overlook the plodding and the occasional flaws. (Who doesn’t have them?) On the whole, it’s a rather conventional wartime love story made unconventional because all the participants are men. Despite its theme, however, it’s easy on the ears and eyes for those who might be offended by descriptions of an “alternative lifestyle.” The sections dealing with any kind of love or sexual activity are very chaste. For all we know, Laurie and Ralph or Laurie and Andrew might be playing chess when they are alone together. We know what’s going on here, but we’re not hammered over the head with it. This is what is known as subtlety and artistry, two qualities sorely lacking in today’s tell-all, anything-goes culture.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Dracula ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Dracula ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Irish author Bram Stoker lived from 1847 to 1912. He is known today for his famous Gothic novel Dracula, published in 1897. It’s a story of good versus evil that has inspired countless stage plays, books, movies and TV shows. It popularized the ancient legend of vampires and made it part of mainstream culture. Who doesn’t know that vampires are repelled by garlic, cast no reflection in a mirror, and can only be killed by a stake driven through the heart and the cutting off of the head?

From the first page we are immersed in atmosphere. Englishman Jonathan Harker is a solicitor working for a London real estate agent. Count Dracula, living in a crumbling, isolated castle in the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania, has purchased a piece of property in London known as Carfax Abbey. (Why anybody would want to buy the creepy old Carfax Abbey is never questioned.) Harker travels to Castle Dracula in Transylvania to handle the business end of the sale. Right away he sees that Count Dracula is beyond eccentric. He is never seen during daylight hours, he doesn’t eat food or drink wine, and his eyes and mouth are red and his teeth are sharp. (“Listen to them!” Dracula says about the wolves howling in the hills. “Children of the Night! What music they make!”) When Harker is confined to his room and not allowed to go home when expected, he begins to wonder if he will ever make it out alive. When he looks out the window, there is a thousand-foot drop-off, offering no means of escape. At night he witnesses Dracula leaving the castle by climbing down the wall like a fly. To make matters worse, some of Dracula’s “brides” are awfully interested in getting their hooks into Harker. (“He’s young and strong!” they coo.) “Leave him alone!” Count Dracula says. “He is mine!” No matter what evil he is engaged in, he is always suave and courteous.

When Dracula departs his home in Transylvania to take up residence in England, he goes aboard a ship call the Demeter. He’s not your ordinary commercial traveler, though. He has fifty coffin-sized boxes of dirt containing soil from his native Transylvania in the ship’s hold. When the Demeter docks in England, all the crew are dead, mysteriously drained of blood. Nobody can figure out exactly what happened during the trip. We, the reader, have a pretty good idea, however.

Jonathan returns to England, physically and emotionally ill. (Either he escaped, or Count Dracula released him.) Once back home, he finds that all is not well with his fiancée (later his wife), named Mina, and his circle of friends. Mina’s best friend, named Lucy Westenra, has a mysterious illness and nobody can figure out what is wrong with her. Enter Dr. Van Helsing of Amsterdam to try to solve the riddle. He knows right away that what is wrong with Lucy isn’t in the usual run of illnesses.

Dr. Seward is also interested in the case. He was romantically interested in Lucy Westenra (as was American Quincey Morris), but she rejected him in favor of Arthur Holmwood. (When Arthur’s father dies, he becomes Lord Godalming.) Lucy and Arthur are in love and plan to be married. Lucy, however, becomes increasingly ill. Dr. Seward and Quincey Morris, even though Lucy rejected them (politely), seem to hang around to see if they might be of assistance. As these characters gradually realize the type of foe they face in Count Dracula, they vow to band together to fight evil and do all they can to defend English womanhood.

Dracula is told in “journal” entries and correspondence of the various characters, giving it a first-person sense of drama and immediacy. There is also the occasional newspaper article (as with the account of the docking in England of the Demeter), further lending verisimilitude to the story.  It is fleet in its 326 pages and is never ponderous or wordy. Though it may be considered a “pulp” novel not on a literary scale with Poe, Oscar Wilde or other purveyors of the “Gothic” genre, it’s well-written and engaging. It won’t give you a headache and it will keep you turning the pages, even though it’s a story that is familiar to almost everybody by now.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Since Yesterday ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Since Yesterday ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The 1920s were a time of economic prosperity and optimism in America. Ordinary people—factory workers, store clerks, school teachers—were able to turn a profit in the stock market. Everybody seemed to think the good times would last forever, but they didn’t. Too many people were investing in the markets “on margin,” meaning they were borrowing the money they were investing and didn’t necessarily have a way to pay it back if their investments didn’t turn out well for them. The big bubble burst in 1929 and the economic structure in America and just about every other country in the world came crashing down, ushering in the Big D: the Depression. No matter what else happened in the 1930s, the entire decade was marked by depression and a painful realignment of the economies of the world. In retrospect, people saw that things just couldn’t go on the way they had been since the end of the First World War.

Herbert Hoover of Iowa occupied the White House at the time of the stock market crash of 1929. He was more of an administrator than a politician and, no matter how hard he tried, he wasn’t able to stop the economic decline or do much of anything to improve it. He was defeated for re-election in 1932 by Franklin Roosevelt, former governor of New York. Roosevelt had a very big job on his hands going forward. One of the things he did right away was to repeal Prohibition (the Volstead Act), which, by almost any standard, was a failure and had led to a rise in crime.

Repealing Prohibition, though, was easy compared to solving the country’s economic problems. Roosevelt instituted what was called the New Deal, which turned out to be a huge expansion of the power of the federal government. Millions of unemployed people were put to work as essentially employees of the government in “public works” projects. And, for the first time, the United States government became an enormous distributor of assistance to the needy.

Of course, during the 1930s, there were other things that happened besides the Depression, the repeal of Prohibition and the New Deal. In the plains states, millions of acres of topsoil blew away in epic dust storms caused by over-cultivation of the land. The region became known as the “dust bowl” and tens of thousands of farmers and their families were displaced and forced out of their homes. The Ohio River flooded, laying waste to Louisville and Cincinnati and destroying thousands of acres of crop lands. A freak tropical hurricane blew through New England, creating much destruction and killing 647 people. (I think there’s a pattern here.) “Lighter than air” transatlantic transport received its deathblow when the Hindenburg caught fire and crashed in Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. In the “crime of the decade,” aviation hero Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped from his New Jersey home and later found dead. One Bruno Richard Hauptman, a German immigrant, was convicted of the crime and executed, proclaiming his innocence to his final breath. The 1930s also saw the rise of labor unions and sometimes bitter strikes between labor and management. To ease the pain of all the terrible things that were happening, Americans flocked to the movies. There were Mickey Mouse, Mae West, the Marx brothers, Shirley Temple, Clark Gable in It Happened One Night and Mutiny on the Bounty, Greta Garbo making a triumphant transition to talking pictures in Anna Christie, Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express and The Garden of Allah, Ronald Colman in Lost Horizon, and countless others to help people relieve the pain of living during such difficult times. There were tremendous strides also being made in the arts: music, painting, theatre, and literature. Unemployed painters were being put to work by the government painting murals in post offices and other public buildings. Classical music became popularized on the radio with regular programs by famed conductor Arturo Toscanini and other concert artists. “Swing” music with performers like Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and the Dorsey brothers became all the rage. In 1939, the New York World’s Fair opened. Called “The World of Tomorrow,” it called on people to look forward to the future with hope and optimism and set aside, as least for a time, the troubled past.

The 1930s were not to end on a very happy note, though. Whereas the beginning of the decade arrived with great economic uncertainty, it would end with fear of another war and foreign dictators: Mussolini but most particularly Hitler. He seemed to be gobbling up all the countries around him. What would the United States do if Hitler invaded its allies Britain and France? Most Americans were against getting involved in another European war. It was a time of great unease in the country.

Since Yesterday: The 1930s in America is an informal (meaning easy to read, not academic and not scientific) account of the 1930s—from September 3, 1929 to September 3, 1939—by a person who lived through it and was there, historian Frederick Lewis Allen. He writes on nearly every aspect of American life during the 1930s. If you remember the 1930s, and even if you don’t, this is a very entertaining and informative journey down memory lane. Now it’s on the 1940s. If you lived in the 1930s, you were probably better off not knowing what awaited you just around the corner.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp