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The Underground Railroad ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Underground Railroad ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and, finally, the winner is once again about American life. It’s set in pre-Civil War America, when Southern plantation owners were allowed by law to own slaves as property, while sympathizers in the North and elsewhere viewed slavery as an abomination and were willing to do all they could to aid black slaves in their quest for freedom. In these dangerous times, the “underground railroad” sprang up, a series of rails, sometimes crude, constructed under the ground, to give slaves a means of escape from their sometimes-cruel owners. The people who built and maintained the underground railroad, the “station masters,” were often white men. They risked their lives every minute they aided slaves in escaping.

The main character of The Underground Railroad is a young slave girl named Cora. At the beginning of the book, she lives on the Randall plantation in Georgia, where vicious cruelty toward the slaves is the order of the day. Running away, is, of course, a terrible offense in the eyes of the plantation owners. Slaves who run away are caught and when they are brought back they are tortured and killed as an example to the other slaves.

A young man named Caesar gives Cora the idea of running away. At first she doesn’t want to risk it or even think about it, but when she gets a terrible beating for coming to the aid of a small boy, she decides she must run or die. Her mother before her, Mabel, ran away when Cora was only about ten and they never heard from her again. Everybody on the Randall plantation holds Mabel up as an example of what is possible. Cora has feelings of resentment toward her mother for abandoning her at such a young age. (We learn at the end of the book the ironic truth of what really happened to Mabel.)

After Cora’s harrowing escape from the Randall plantation, she is living in a black community in South Carolina under the name of Bessie Carpenter. She lives in a dormitory with lots of other runaway slaves, but there are no beatings and the living conditions are much better than on the plantation. A “slave catcher” by the name of Ridgeway is after her, though, especially determined to catch her and return her to the plantation because it is believed that her mother, Mabel, got away from him; he can’t let Cora humiliate him in the same way. In trying to escape from Ridgeway, Cora spends months in a stifling attic space in the home of a sympathizer.

After years of running and living in fear that she will finally be caught, Cora ends up on the Valentine farm in Indiana, home to a hundred or so runaways. She has books to read and sympathetic friends here, and life and is not so cruel and hard. Everybody who lives on the farm knows, though, that they live a fragile existence and that hostile forces are aligned against them. The slave catcher Ridgeway, though temporarily sidelined, is not about to give up the search for Cora as long as he is alive. The two of them will have a final fateful encounter before the story ends.

There have been lots of books and movies about slavery days and about how slaves were beaten and generally mistreated and sold at the whim of their owners. The Underground Railroad is a familiar story, but it’s a story that never ceases to be interesting in the same way that stories of World War II are interesting and compelling. No matter how terrible Cora’s life is as a slave and then as a runaway, she never loses hope that she can have a better life and live free. It’s a story, then, about hope and never giving up.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Napoleon ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Napoleon ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the tiny island of Corsica in 1769 to a minor aristocratic family. Corsica is closer to Italy but was a French possession, so Napoleon was born a French citizen and will forever be identified as French, although he didn’t have high regard for France. As he grew into adulthood (he was only five feet, five inches tall), he became interested in all things military. At a young age he became a military man and was found to have an uncanny instinct for military strategy. He rose through the ranks and soon was in command of a mighty military force.

Napoleon filled the leadership vacuum left by the French Revolution and can be said to have ended the Revolution. When France was struggling to find a foothold after years of turmoil, he stepped in and filled the void, declaring himself Emperor. His ego and ambition knew no bounds. His goal was to conquer all of Europe, from Spain in the west to Russia in the east. His military venturing even led him to Egypt and North Africa. He saw himself as a conqueror in the mold of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.

He engaged in almost constant war. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives in Napoleonic wars, not to mention the vast sums of money spent to finance the war machine. People began to consider him an opportunistic lunatic who would sacrifice anything or anybody on earth to satisfy his ambitious goals. He was a man without sentiment, loyalty or religion. He had nothing to hold him back.

Of course, he was not without his shortcomings. (Every tyrant, dictator or despot has his downfall built in.) He was impatient, impulsive, lacking in subtlety, refinement or social graces, incapable of deliberative thought or action. Though a master military strategist, he was not a politician and knew nothing of tact and diplomacy. He was all about force, taking the enemy by surprise and gaining the upper hand through superior strategy and cunning. When he sold what became known as the “Louisiana Purchase” to the United States (an enormous area that became thirteen states) for fifteen million dollars (about four cents an acre) to continue to finance his war machine, it was seen (in retrospect) as one of his biggest blunders. He might have extended his empire to the North American continent but wasn’t visionary enough to do so.

His disastrous military campaigns in Spain and Russia—with staggering loss of life and destruction of property—signaled his end. People were sick and tired of almost constant warfare and chaos. Even his most ardent admirers were beginning to turn against him. He was forced to abdicate his title of emperor—leading to a restoration of the monarchy—and was exiled to the tiny island of Elba, seven miles off the coast of Italy. He was not to be contained, however; he was still burning with desire and ambition. He was bored and wasn’t given as much money as he thought he needed. He returned to France, where he once again established himself as emperor and marshaled a huge army.

He met in battle the Duke of Wellington, an Anglo-Irish soldier and statesman, at a place called Waterloo in present-day Belgium. After a bloody and horrific battle, he was defeated. This was to be his final battle and his final defeat. The Napoleonic age was at an end.

Napoleon Bonaparte was this time exiled to the tiny island of Saint Helena, located in the South Atlantic. While not exactly a prisoner or under house arrest, he was closely guarded and would not again be allowed to return to France of his own volition. As long as he was alive, he was viewed as a threat, especially since he still had many admirers and adherents all over the world who would have gladly helped him to escape. He was kept on the island for about six years until he died at the age of fifty-one in 1821.

Napoleon by English historian Paul Johnson is a concise (187 pages) overview of Napoleon’s life and times. While it’s a historical biography, it’s also a fascinating story. A small, pale, young man from humble beginnings becomes the leader of the army of a great nation and, after declaring himself Emperor of that nation, sets out to conquer an entire continent. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

The Mill on the Floss ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Mill on the Floss ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

English country life in the nineteenth century: Mr. Tulliver is a miller and landowner. He owns a picturesque little mill on the River Floss. He has a not-very-bright wife named Bessie and a son, Tom, and a daughter, Maggie. The Tullivers are simple country folk who live modestly but comfortably. Tom is four years older than Maggie. They have a happy childhood until tragedy intervenes and the family is faced with financial ruin.

Mr. Tulliver is involved in a lawsuit with the wealthy Mr. Wakem involving water rights on the river where the mill is situated. Mr. Tulliver believes he will win his case, but he doesn’t and the family loses everything. Mr. Tulliver, blinded by his feelings of hatred for Mr. Waken, is unreasonable and refuses to seek a middle ground with the man he sees as the devil incarnate. We see subsequently that Mr. Wakem isn’t as bad as Mr. Tulliver makes him out to be. At the urging of Tom Tulliver, Mr. Wakem buys the mill and agrees and pay Mr. Tulliver wages to continue to run it. It galls Mr. Tulliver to have to work for Mr. Wakem, but he agrees to the arrangement for the sake of his wife and Tom and Maggie. Although the Tullivers can go on living in the same house at the mill, they have lost all their furniture and household possessions but, more importantly, they have lost their standing in the world, a thing that is very important to people of their class.

The years pass. Tom and Maggie are now young adults. Maggie devotes her life to her ill father—the loss of his lawsuit is what made him ill—and her feckless mother. She has adopted a philosopher of selflessness that she has taken from a medieval monk. Her dearest friend in the world is none other than Philip Wakem, son of the dreaded Mr. Wakem. Philip has a deformity, a hump on his back, that makes him something of an outcast in society. Maggie has to keep her friendship with Philip a secret from her father and brother. Mr. Tulliver believes that anybody by the name of Wakem is to be despised.

Tom, now grown to manhood, is ambitious. He becomes obsessed with the idea that he will work to pay back the money his father owes and restore the family to its former social standing. He begins working as a sort of apprentice for one of his uncles; he rises in the business and soon he begins to make money on his own, all of which he turns over to his father to help repay the family debt.

Taking his cue from his father, Tom believes that Mr. Wakem was the cause of the downfall of the family and that anybody by the name of Wakem is poison. He makes Maggie promise that she will have nothing to do with Philip Wakem, although Philip is innocent of any wrongdoing in the case with the Tullivers. Ever obedient to Tom and to the family honor, Maggie agrees to never see Philip again, even though Philip has told Maggie he loves her and she thinks she might love him with a love that is more than pity for his deformity.

The day that Tom, age twenty-three, finally makes enough money to restore the family to its former social standing is a happy occasion until Mr. Tulliver has a chance meeting with Mr. Wakem. They have a violent argument and Mr. Tulliver knocks Mr. Wakem off his horse and physically attacks him. Mr. Wakem is unhurt, but Mr. Tulliver, from the effects of violent feeling, experiences a kind of apoplexy and dies in a few days. With Mr. Tulliver dead, Tom carries on his hatred of the Wakem family. He makes Maggie promise that she will have nothing to do with Philip Wakem or with anybody named Wakem. Meanwhile, Maggie, now age nineteen and a stunning, raven-haired beauty, has a new gentleman admirer, one Stephen Guest, who is ostensibly the beau of her cousin Lucy. Maggie is not the usual Victorian coquette, though. She has experienced too much heartache in the world to be shallow and self-possessed.

Mary Anne Evans, who lived from 1819 to 1880, wrote under the name George Eliot because she believed that women writers were not taken seriously. She wrote seven novels, including Silas Marner, Middlemarch, Adam Bede, and Daniel Deronda. She published Mill on the Floss in 1860.

I started reading Mill on the Floss as a senior in high school and didn’t finish it at the time because I was too preoccupied with other things. I always meant to go back and read it in its entirety and now I have done that very thing. With its long wordy sentences and long paragraphs, it’s a product of its time, meaning it’s not an easy book to read. It’s of moderate length (424 pages), though, and the story of a mid-nineteenth century English family, if not gripping, is compelling and interesting enough to carry us through to the end without too much in the way of pain.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Tulip Fever ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Tulip Fever ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Tulip Fever is a novel by Deborah Moggach set in picturesque Amsterdam, Holland, in the year 1636. Cornelis Sandvoort is a wealthy merchant. At sixty-one, he is in the twilight of his years. His young wife, Sophia, is only twenty-six. Cornelis lost his first wife and child to disease; he wants nothing more than for Sophia to give him another child to carry on his name and his business after he is gone. Sophia honors and respects Cornelis—after all, he saved her family from poverty—but she doesn’t love him. She finds his physical presence repellant.

When Cornelis commissions a young painter, Jan Van Loos, to paint his and Sophia’s portrait, Sophia quickly becomes enamored of the painter. She falls so easily. She sneaks out of the house at odd times to meet the painter. They become lovers. She goes to great pains to make sure her husband doesn’t find out.

Sophia has a maid named Maria. Maria has a lover named Willem. Maria and Willem are intimate together and plan on being married. Maria finds herself expecting Willem’s child. Willem, through a misunderstanding, believes that Maria has been unfaithful to him with another man. Heartbroken, he runs off and joins the navy, not even knowing that Maria is going to have his baby.

Sophia tells Maria she will soon have to leave the household since she is going to have a baby and isn’t married. With nothing to lose, Maria threatens to expose Sophia for carrying on a clandestine love affair with the painter Jan Van Loos. Rather than part on bitter terms, Sophia and Maria together devise a plan whereby Sophia will pretend to be pregnant (by her husband, of course), while concealing Maria’s pregnancy. Then, when Maria’s baby is born, they will pretend it is Sophia’s and that Sophia died during the delivery. Pretending to be dead, Sophia will then be free to run off with her lover, Jan Van Loos, to Batavia in the East Indies and start a new life.

While Sophia and Jan’s elaborate deception plays out, the city (Amsterdam) and the country (Holland) are in the grip of “tulip fever.” Fortunes are being made and lost in tulip bulb speculation. Some bulbs are worth a fortune. Never has the adage “a thing is worth what somebody is willing to pay for it” been more appropriate. Jan is counting on one fabulously expensive bulb (which he plans on selling for much more than he paid for it) to get him out of debt and pay for his and Sophia’s passage to a new country and a new life. Their plot to trick Sophia’s husband—and the world—has worked so far. All they need is a bit more luck and for Jan’s bumbling servant, Gerrit, to pick up the bulb and bring it to Jan.

Tulip Fever is a tautly written 280 pages. The themes of infidelity, greed, self-delusion and human failing that we see here are universal. Jan and Sophia’s illicit love affair was one thing, but their plan to fool Sophia’s husband with Maria’s baby and then to run away to another country was something else. Failure was built in from the beginning. A strong story about the extraordinary lengths to which people will go to achieve their own version of happiness.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Call Me by Your Name ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Call Me by Your Name ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Call Me by Your Name, a novel by a writer named Andre Aciman, is set on the Italian Riviera during a summer in the mid-1980s. Elio is seventeen, very astute and with more depth than most people have at three times his age. He plays the piano, knows several languages, and his work for the summer is transcribing Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ. When was the last time you knew a seventeen-year-old boy who could boast of such splendid accomplishments?

Elio’s father is an American college professor and his mother Italian. They are what are called “ex-pats.” They live on the beautiful Italian Riviera near the spot where Percy Shelley drowned in 1822 at the age of twenty-nine. Every summer Elio’s family hosts an academic to stay with them for about six weeks or so. During the summer in which the story takes place, a twenty-four-year-old man named Oliver is chosen from among other applicants. Despite his young age, Oliver is also an academic and is busy working on a book on an esoteric, scholarly subject. That doesn’t mean, however, that during his summer with Elio’s family he doesn’t have plenty of time for nightlife, tennis, swimming and lying around naked, or practically naked, in the sun. Oh, and he’s also very good looking with a fabulous body. And, when it comes to sex, he is absolutely freewheeling, not bound up in rigidity and Puritanism the way most American men are.

So, the story of this summer in the mid-1980s is being told to us in the first-person voice of Elio, about thirty years or so after it occurred. In a way, it is a coming-of-age story, but with a twist. Most adolescent boys living on the Italian Riviera with their well-to-do and sophisticated parents are going to become infatuated and obsessed with a dark-eyed Italian woman with large breasts. In Elio’s case, however, the object of his lust and affection is Oliver, the young American man who came for the summer and changed Elio’s emotional landscape and the way he would forever view the world.

The words “homosexual” or “gay” are never used in Call Me by Your Name, but that’s what we’re talking about here. There is absolutely a blasé attitude toward sex and gender identity that is very European and that most Americans would find offensive. Americans separate “gay” and “straight” like they separate cars and motorcycles. The European attitude toward sex is that it is more of a continuum. If today you are with a woman and tomorrow a man, who cares? It’s just different branches of the same tree.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp  

The Heavenly Table ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Heavenly Table ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock is set in the year 1917. Three brothers—Cane, Cob and Chimney Jewett—are dirt poor. They live in a shack with a dirt floor and barely have enough food to eat to go on living. Cane, at twenty-one is the oldest, the most sensible of the three and the only one who might be considered handsome (if he could get himself clean). The middle brother is Cob, who is fat and a simpleton. The youngest brother, Chimney, is only seventeen. He’s reckless, impulsive, foul-mouthed and obsessed with sex. When the Jewett brothers’ father, Pearl, dies suddenly one day during his labors, the three boys decide their life is going to be different from that moment on. They kill Mr. Tardweller, the landowner for whom they work for pennies, and after they’ve done that, they go on a spree robbing banks.

Of course, a life of crime requires keeping on the move. As the Jewetts move around, being pursued, of course, by law enforcement officials, they develop a reputation that is bigger than they are. Crimes that they never dreamed of committing are attributed to them. They become, in a way, folk heroes among a downtrodden people who believe the little man will never get a break in life. And, as bad as the Jewett boys are, they really aren’t all that bad. As they immerse themselves in a life of crime, we begin to see little pieces of their decency, even from Chimney, the roughest of the three. They want to make it to Canada, where they believe they can live a peaceful life and eventually partake of the Heavenly Table with the money they have stolen. You and I know, though, that criminals, after committing violent crimes, rarely have their fondest wishes realized.

There is a host of secondary characters in The Heavenly Table. Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler are a poor farm couple whose no-account son, Eddie, causes them plenty of heartache. They believe that Eddie has gone off to fight in the Great War, until they learn what really happened to him. Lieutenant Bovard is an officer in an Ohio army camp where men are being prepared to fight. He is self-loathing because he is secretly a homosexual. He longs to die on the front in the war with a handsome young recruit by his side named Frank Waller. Jasper Cone is a much-maligned outhouse inspector in the little town of Meade, Ohio. His job is to go around the town checking the level in outhouses to make sure they are not in danger of overflowing. A young black man named Sugar lives off a woman in Detroit until she takes up with a younger man and kicks Sugar out of the house. Homeless, Sugar is penniless and mean. He begins rambling to find his way in the world (another woman to support him?). Eventually the paths of all these characters intersect.

The Heavenly Table is full of dark humor and violence. Despite its gothic tone, it is breezy, one might almost say, light, reading. It’s full of folksy anecdotes about things that happened in people’s lives to make them what they are. It’s set in a much quainter, simpler time (1917), and its evocation of that time makes us feel we’re there. Imagine every house in town having an outhouse, while the city council is putting out calls for indoor plumbing. Imagine having a “Whore Barn” on the edge of your town that caters mostly to young soldiers at the nearby training camp, while the “clap doctor” is railing at them about the dangers of venereal disease. Imagine trying to get a 1917 car going and running while you tool around the countryside. The next thing you know, they’ll be converting the livery stable into an auto repair shop.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Gospel Hour ~ A Capsule Book Review

gospel-hour

Gospel Hour ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Southern writer T. R. Pearson (born 1956 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina) has a writing style all his own, as you will know if you’ve ever read any of his books. It’s a style that might discourage a lot of readers, but if you persevere and don’t give up after a few pages, you get into the rhythm of the writing and find that it’s fun and not all that difficult to read. Some writers, such as William Faulkner, write such long, esoteric, cerebral sentences that it’s sometimes hard to understand what the man is saying; you might have to go back and break the sentence down into its separate clauses before you know what’s going on. While T. R. Pearson writes some very long sentences, he’s not as challenging to read as William Faulkner and you should be able to extract the meaning of his sentences at the first reading, as long as you are paying attention and don’t have too many distractions. Here is an example of one of T. R. Pearson’s sentences, from his novel Gospel Hour:

But she failed unaccountably to disclose to him just what precisely had transpired there in the sanctuary between the doxology and the bi-weekly prayer for the shut-ins which left Donnie Huff quite unable to anticipate the visit he received come Tuesday evening from a Laurel Fork delegation, the call he entertained from Mrs. Troy Haven and Mrs. Norma Baines and the Reverend Mr. Worrell’s wife Louise in addition to Miss Cindy Womble who’d seen fit herself to tote with her her sizeable hooters that Donnie Huff commenced straightaway to appreciate and know in his heart such gladness about that he left the ladies to stand for a time on the front slab while he simple gazed enchantedly through the screenwire until Opal Criner prevailed upon him to admit please the pack of them into the house.

And this is just one sentence!

Gospel Hour is a comic Southern novel about good-old-boy Donnie Huff who lives in a small house with his wife, Marie; his mother-in-law, Opal Criner; and his small son, Delmon. Donnie Huff is not very smart or ambitious. He swills beer and spends his evenings in front of the TV. He works as a lumberjack with a crew of other men just like him. One day when these men are poaching lumber (stealing lumber that doesn’t belong to them), Donnie Huff has an accident with a skidder (whatever that is) and ends up in the river upside down underneath the skidder. When his co-workers pull him out of the river, they believe he’s dead. After a couple of minutes, though, he revives. He has had, they believe, the rare experience of dying and being brought back to life.

Donnie goes on about his business and doesn’t think much about what happened to him in the river. All he saw, he says, were green spots. Nothing much to rave about. When his devoutly religious mother-in-law Opal Criner and other ladies of the church find out that he has had a dying-and-brought-back-to-life episode, they make it into a transformative religious experience. Egged on principally by his religious mother-in-law, Opal Criner, Donnie becomes convinced that he saw Jesus at the portal of heaven and that Jesus touched a “downy patch” on his arm. Suddenly Donnie, who never attracted much positive attention before in his life, becomes a celebrity. People begin donating money to his “ministry.” Donnie knows a good thing when he sees it. He’s tired of scratching out a living as a lumberjack. There’s real dough to be made as a minister. People want to be healed of their afflictions and they believe that touching the “downy spot” on Donnie’s arm that Jesus touched will do it for them. Donnie’s biggest sceptic is his droll wife, Marie. She’s mainly interested in decoupage and she’s not buying into Donnie’s sudden religious conversion.

Religion, as we see in Gospel Hour, is, in some (but not all) instances, a “business” whose main goal is reaping profits. When Donnie sees people in a tent revival who are sincerely crushed by grief, disappointment, and the general nastiness of life, his true conversion begins. He can’t really help these people by letting them touch the “downy spot” on his arm, he realizes, and he can’t fool them into believing he’s something he’s not. Even though he’s not very smart, he sees the phoniness in what he’s doing, and this, at the end of the novel, is his real moment of triumph.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp