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Grendel ~ A Capsule Book Review

Grendel ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

If you majored in English in college, as I did, you will remember Beowulf, the anonymous epic poem, written in Old English almost a thousand years ago. Beowulf  is one of the first literary works in English, even though it’s an English nobody today would identify or understand.

The story of Beowulf is set in frozen Scandinavia around 1000 A.D., and it concerns a small groups of Danes (or thanes) ruled over by a king named Hrothgar. When these thanes are not fighting wars and conquering their enemies, they sit around in the Meadhall where they drink mead, swap stories, have sex, listen to music, fight and have a good time until they drink themselves to sleep. They seem to have an enjoyable life, but there is one fierce and vicious enemy that might show up at any time and spoil their good times. This enemy is the manlike monster known as Grendel.

Grendel kills as many thanes as he can by picking them up and biting off their heads and generally spreading terror and mayhem whenever and wherever he can. No matter how much the thanes fear him and do battle with him, they can’t seem to prevail over him because, early in the story, he is made invincible by a dragon. (An invincibility that, in the end, seems to wear itself out.) This background sets the stage for the 1974 novel, Grendel, by John Gardner (1933-1982).

Grendel is told in Grendel’s own first-person voice. He lives in a cave that has an underground lake with his blob of his mother who doesn’t speak. We (the reader) never learn anything about where Grendel came from or how he came to be. He just is, that’s all, like the universe.

We see that Grendel isn’t really such a bad fellow. He’s lonely, unhappy, unloved, misunderstood and an outcast. He kills because it is in his nature to kill. There are times when he could kill but doesn’t. He has a sensitive spirit and never fails to appreciate the beauty of nature. He spies on the thanes as they party in their Meadhall because, in reality, he would like to be one of them, to be accepted by them. He just can’t always resist the urge to kill them.

Grendel takes the story of Beowulf a little farther. It’s a psychological examination of a monster and an outcast. No matter how despicable a person or a thing is, we must realize that he (it) always has his (its) own story with which we might sympathize if we could but know the details. It’s been many years since I’ve read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but the astute reader will, I think, see similarities between the two monsters.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp


This Side of Paradise ~ A Capsule Book Review

1920 First Edition Cover

This Side of Paradise ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896. His reputation as a great American writer of the twentieth century rests firmly on his four novels (especially The Great Gatsby) and dozens of short stories that he wrote for magazines. More than any other writer of his generation, he was a chronicler of his age, which became known as the Jazz Age. He died in 1940, age forty-four, of a heart attack.

Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, was published in 1920, when he was only twenty-four years old. The central character in the novel is Amory Blaine, an arrogant, good-looking, heavy-drinking young man from a prosperous family. He has an indulgent mother who spoils him and a mousy father who doesn’t do much of anything except make money. Amory has what might be called a “golden” youth. He attends Princeton University where he and his friends spend a lot of time drinking, socializing, talking and intellectualizing, and having a good time.

The glory of Amory’s youth is rather tarnished by a series of unsuccessful love affairs with spoiled, vacuous debutantes. Each time he begins a new love affair, he believes it is the all-consuming passion of his life that will bring him eternal happiness and peace. None of them turn out the way he wants them to, however. He plans on marrying a girl named Rosalind Connage, but she throws him over at the last minute because she thinks he is essentially a loser who won’t ever be able to make enough money to suit her. Here we have one of the major themes of the novel: how the quest for money and social standing kill romance.

World War I is the defining event of Amory’s generation, but for him it’s no more than a blip. He enlists, as everybody else is doing, but he remains stationed on Long Island and doesn’t see any fighting before the war ends. He says later that he loathed the army.

After the war ends, Amory finds himself in a changed world. Some of his best friends from college have died in the war. His father dies and his mother discovers they don’t have nearly as much money as they thought they did. Is Amory going to be forced to go to work to earn a living?

As Amory grows older, he becomes more disillusioned. His mother dies. His college friends die or drift away. Some investments left by his family that provide a portion of his income dry up (and this is long before the Depression). He’s afraid of being poor. He wants to write but doesn’t. He sees his youth slipping away, its promise unfulfilled. The book concludes with a long philosophical conversation he has with two men he doesn’t know (one of them turns out to be the father of a college friend who was killed in the war), in which he espouses his belief that Socialism will cure all the world’s ills. After all he goes through, he ends up by saying, “I know myself, but that is all.”

On examining Fitzgerald’s life, we see that This Side of Paradise is largely autobiographical. Amory Blaine, his protagonist in the novel, is a heavy drinker, as was Fitzgerald (probably contributing to his early death). Like Amory Blaine, Fitzgerald attended Princeton University, served a brief stint in the army during the war without seeing any real action, had some unhappy love affairs with debutantes, experienced financial reverses, and was disillusioned in early middle age.

This Side of Paradise is a novel that stops rather than ends. We don’t know what Amory’s future life will be. Will he overcome his disillusionment and became a great writer? Will he find another love to fill the void left by the departure of Rosalind? Will he find the thing he wants, whatever it is, as soon as he stops looking for it? Probably not. He’ll probably die in his mid-forties of alcoholism, as unfulfilled as ever, never knowing of his literary legacy that will endure through the decades.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

The Ox-Bow Incident ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Ox-Bow Incident ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s 1940 novel, The Ox-Bow Incident, is set in the American West in 1895. While ostensibly a “western,” it’s about something more than ridin’ and shootin’ and shootin’ and ridin’. It’s about a group of mostly decent men who, following their “leader,” with nothing more to go on than hearsay,  take the law into their own hands and perform an act that is reprehensible and inexcusable.

Art Croft and Gil Carter are cowboys and best friends (not the kind in Brokeback Mountain). While the story is not about Art Croft, he is narrating; he is the “voice” of the story. Cattlemen in 1895 fear nothing more than rustlers. Word has reached town that a well-liked man named Kincaid has been murdered and his cattle stolen by three desperadoes. The cowpokes drinking in the saloon are easily riled when it comes to stealing cattle. They immediately want to set off and find the perpetrators, and they don’t intend to be gentlemen about it, either.

Calling themselves a “posse,” twenty-eight men set out from town to track down the thievin’ scum who killed one of their own and stole his cattle. A snowstorm is threatening, but these men are not to be deterred by a little inclement weather. A man named Tetley is the de facto leader—he is the unfeeling “brain” of the group. We see how decent men with a forceful, commanding leader will follow that leader and not think for themselves because they are afraid to be seen as different.

An old man named Davies has gone along with the posse, not because he has the customary “blood lust” that the others have, but because he believes he might prevail upon the more sensible of the men to desist and not do anything they’ll regret later. He is the “heart” of the group, its conscience.

The posse rides and rides through the winter night until they do, in fact, come upon three men sleeping around a campfire. This is exactly what they have been looking for. They begin bullying the three and asking them questions, with no attempt at uncovering the real truth. They have found three men who fit the description of the rustlers (any evidence against this is circumstantial), and they intend to take matters into their own hands in the only way they know how. Davies tries to get the men to take the three back to town, where they might be investigated properly, but the men ridicule him and call him names. A couple of the other men are also in favor of turning the three over to the “real” law, but that is not the will of the “mob,” so they are shouted down.

From the time the posse comes upon the three men accidentally, the outcome is inevitable. Spurred on by the leader Tetley, the mob wants a hanging and they won’t be satisfied with anything less. Of the three supposed rustlers, the young man Martin tries to argue his case and the case of the other two men with him (a Mexican and an old man named Hardwick), but it’s no use, no matter what he says.

The hanging of the three innocent men takes place at sunrise. Ironically, after the men are dead, it becomes glaringly apparent that the mob has made a mistake and, as might be expected, they need someone to blame.

The Ox-Bow Incident is scrupulously detailed, beautifully written, sometimes slow-moving (patience is required), with lots of dialogue and lots of character touches. It is a story about mob rule, the strange phenomenon known as “groupthink” that, under certain circumstances, can bring about disastrous results. When people are not willing to think for themselves and when they know that what they are being told to think is immoral or unfair, they are relinquishing their humanity to the bully or the tyrant. Only afterwards will they become aware of the little thing they have inside them known as conscience.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Darkness at Noon ~ A Capsule Book Review

Darkness at Noon ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Arthur Koestler was a Hungarian-born British writer who lived from 1909 to 1983. He was a Communist who quit the Communist party when he became disillusioned with Stalinism. This personal experience forms the basis for his most famous novel, Darkness at Noon, published in 1940.

Nicholas Rubashov is the fictional protagonist of Darkness of Noon, the “one against many.” He is a man in his fifties, once an important party figure, one of the men who built the Party (Communist) up. When he objects to the direction the Party is taking, however, he engages in “counter-revolutionary” activities. He ends up in prison to await his fate, which is certain from the outset.

In his tiny prison cell, Rubashov has plenty of time for reflection. He recounts his past life, the experiences that has brought him to his present state, and the people he betrayed along the way, including a loyal secretary named Arlova with whom he was romantically involved. He did all the things a Party member was supposed to do, until he had a change of heart and came to believe the Party was ruining the country with its philosophy of “the end justifies the means” and “the individual doesn’t matter—only the state matters.” In other words, he believed the Party was sacrificing the present for the future.

While in prison, Rubashov has many interrogations, which become increasingly brutal. At first his interrogator is Ivanov, an old friend. Ivanov doesn’t take a hard enough line with people like Rubashov, so he is killed and replaced by Gletkin, a young, ruthless, heartless, not-very-bright Party man who doesn’t believe in sentiment or in the importance of old friendships. Gletkin has only one goal in mind with people like Rubashov: to seal his fate and hasten his inevitable conclusion.

Darkness at Noon is bleak reading but only moderately difficult to read, despite its heavy subject matter. It’s not for everybody, of course, but is considered one of the great novels of the twentieth century, a story about an “individual” in a system in which the individual doesn’t matter. It is not light reading, but it moves along at a fairly rapid pace and is under 300 pages long; in the hands of another writer, I can see how it might easily have been twice as long.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

The 42nd Parallel ~ A Capsule Book Review

The 42nd Parallel ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

With the trilogy U.S.A., John Dos Passos (1896-1970) took a stab at writing the great American novel of the twentieth century. The first book in the trilogy, The 42nd Parallel, is a panorama of American life from 1900 to the First World War, told through its fictional characters. All the characters are striving, desiring, climbing, grappling with the world in one way or another, trying to overcome the circumstances of their birth and attempting to rise in the world.

The 42nd Parallel is written in an “experimental” style (but still very accessible to the reader), meaning that there is no continuous narrative, but the story moves from character to character (some of whose paths eventually converge). All the characters are fascinating American types (the handsome business tycoon with an eye for the ladies and a difficult wife; the young working man who believes in workers’ rights and the coming socialist revolution; the young woman struggling to make a place for herself in a business world dominated by men; the young auto mechanic who doesn’t have much luck with the women or with keeping a job). The characters are swept along on the wave of history, whether it’s revolution in Mexico or Russia, war, labor unrest, the loosening of nineteenth century moral standards, or the changing political landscape which seems to be tending toward socialism.

Another thing that makes The 42nd Parallel unique is that the narrative is interspersed with brief:

  • “The Camera Eye” sections, autobiographical vignettes in the stream of consciousness style, which means they don’t always make much sense.
  • “Newsreels” sections, consisting of (sometimes) relevant front-page headlines.
  • “Biography” sections, short accounts of the some of the notable people of the first two decades of the twentieth century, such as Thomas Edison, Eugene Debs and Henry Ford.

“The Camera Eye,” “Newsreels,” and “Biography” sections are not as annoying and intrusive to the story as you might think. They are thankfully short and easy to read. They serve more as a brief respite (like a scene change) to the story.

If you are an avid reader (like me) or a student of American literature, you will love The 42nd Parallel. It’s a real piece of Americana and one of the greatest and most unique literary creations of the twentieth century. I haven’t yet read the other two parts of the trilogy (1919 and The Big Money), but I intend to read them very soon.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp  

The Last Picture Show ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Last Picture Show ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Larry McMurtry’s 1966 novel, The Last Picture Show, is set in the fictional town of Thalia, Texas, in the 1950s. Thalia sits on the edge of the prairie where it’s windy and dusty and hot. There’s a Main Street with a picture show, a café, a poolhall, and not much else. In the way of small towns everywhere, the people of Thalia don’t have much to do, but there’s always gossip—everybody knows everything about everybody else—and if you happen to be different in some way from the other people in the town, you’d better watch out because they’re coming to get you.

Sonny and Duane are high schoolers and best friends. Sonny is sensitive and Duane is a brawler. They both like to drink and carouse and they don’t have to worry about what their parents think because they are both living on their own, free of family. Even though they’re both still in high school, they don’t let it bother them much. They aren’t much interested in education.

Sonny has an unattractive girlfriend named Charlene Duggs. She’s overweight and already possesses the bitchy qualities of a middle-aged shrew. Everybody who knows Sonny believes he could do better. Sonny secretly envies Duane, who dates the prettiest, most-stylish girl in school, Jacy Farrow. Jacy is self-centered, vain, manipulative, and she doesn’t care who she hurts as long as she gets what she wants. (We’ve all known people like this.)

When the good-ol’-boy football coach enlists Sonny to drive his wife, Ruth, to the clinic, Sonny sees that Ruth seems awfully lonely and unhappy. They begin a sexual affair—she’s forty and he’s seventeen—meeting afternoons in her bedroom while the coach is at school. Ruth experiences a sexual reawakening with Sonny. With the age difference, though, you know someone younger is bound to turn Sonny’s head and when it happens it’s none other than Jacy Farrow, who has broken up with Duane. Forty-year-old Ruth is easy for Sonny to put out of his mind when he can have Jacy.

There are other interesting characters in the novel, including Sam the Lion, a sort of father figure to everybody—he owns the poolhall, picture show and café; Genevieve, the world-weary waitress at the café whom the boys secretly lust after; Lois Farrow, Jacy’s smart-mouthed mother, who gave her husband so much hell he just had to go out and make a million dollars just to please her.

The Last Picture Show is a slice of small-town life and also a growing-up, coming-of-age story. It’s about change, the good kind and the bad kind that throws you for a loop and makes you wish you had never been born. It’s a breezy 245 pages that you can read without taxing your brain too much. And who can forget the 1971 movie version (two acting Oscars) of the novel, a good example of how to make a movie from a book and do it right.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp    

Memoirs of Hadrian ~ A Capsule Book Review

Memoirs of Hadrian ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Hadrian was born in 76 A.D. and became emperor of the Roman Empire in the year 117, at age 41. His reign lasted until his death in 138, at age 62. Hadrian was known as one of the five “good emperors,” meaning he was known for his peaceful reign, rather than for cruelty or for the extravagant vices that some of his predecessors were known for. Hadrian is known mainly today for three things: his love for Antinous, a Bithynian youth (Bithynia is today part of Turkey), who died at age 19 by drowning in the Nile River; for having built the famous Pantheon in Rome (or at least having it finished); and for a wall he had built in Britain (parts of which still remain) known as “Hadrian’s Wall,” which was supposed to keep the “barbarian hordes” out of territory belonging to the Roman Empire.

Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar, is a historical novel, a fictional account of Hadrian’s life and times. Although fiction, it is based on extensive historical research, which the Bibliographical Note at the end of the novel explains. It is told in Hadrian’s voice, from his point of view, as if he, from across the centuries, was writing it himself. It is an extended letter to 17-year-old Marcus Aurelius, future emperor-to-be.

Of course, as emperor of one-third of the earth’s population at the time, Hadrian had many problems, many ups and downs. The emperor was essentially a warrior, a general holding together the military factions of his empire and, as such, was often in peril of his life. There were always the greedy, the ambitious, the selfish who wanted to destroy the emperor in an effort to attain their own ends. Hadrian was by all accounts a modest man, not interested so much in being loved or admired. He believed that true love and admiration from the people must be earned, rather than automatically given just because one has fallen heir to a powerful position.

The most dramatic event in Hadrian’s life was his love for Antinous, the beautiful youth whom he watched grow into manhood. Antinous was Hadrian’s better self, his constant companion, the emotional axis of Hadrian’s life during the years they were together. Their love was a love for the ages, like that of Achilles and Patroclus centuries earlier. When Antinous committed suicide (apparently) by drowning himself in the Nile River at age 19, Hadrian was never the same again, living for about eight more years. He “deified” Antinous, building a city (Antinoopolis) in Egypt to his memory. Many statues, coins, and other works of art bore Antinous’s image. A cult was built up around his name and memory. When Hadrian died of a “dropsical” heart in 138 A.D., one can’t help but believe that the two of them were reunited in death.

Memoirs of Hadrian was first published in 1951, in French, and later translated into English. It is a glimpse into another time and place into the mind of a man who lived so long ago that it’s difficult for us to imagine. Despite its historical subject matter and its moderately dense prose, it is never very difficult reading, especially after the first fifty pages or so. Not for everybody, but if you make it through to the end, you will find it immensely rewarding and memorable.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp