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The Sympathizer ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Sympathizer cover

The Sympathizer ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Sympathizer by first-time novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen is this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. It’s about the Vietnam War, the Vietnam era and, in particular, one man’s role in the whole mess. (What ever happened to the rule about novels having to be about American life to be considered for a Pulitzer Prize?) It’s 400 (almost) densely packed pages (no quotation marks; the dialogue is blended in here and there wherever it occurs). The Vietnam War and the Vietnam era would not be on my list of favorite subjects for fiction, but, for me, the saving grace of The Sympathizer is that it’s so good and such accessible, interesting reading.

The story of The Sympathizer is being told in the first-person by a narrator whose name we never know. We learn toward the end of the book that he is writing this whole thing as a confession while in solitary confinement as part of his “re-education” (another word for torture) at the hands of the communists. He is the bastard son of an illiterate Vietnamese woman and a French priest. Since he has spent part of his youth in America, he is “Americanized” and knows English well, but, in spite of that, he never feels like an American but always a bastard, the unwanted foreigner. After the fall of Vietnam and his narrow escape, along with many others, to America, he and many of his fellow countrymen want only to return to help liberate their country. What is more important that freedom and independence? The answer is nothing. (Nothing becomes a very important word to him at the end of the book.) Wait a minute, though! There’s something funny about this man. He claims to be on the side of the anticommunists, but the truth is he’s a secret communist agent. Where is he going with that? Is it safe to say he is conflicted? In the interview at the end of the novel, the author of the book, Viet Thanh Nguyen, says he deliberately wants to rattle the reader. I wouldn’t exactly say I was rattled, but only a little mystified.

For me the best parts of the book are the harrowing escape (by the narrator and his friends) from Saigon on the day it falls and the long section in the middle of the book where the narrator travels to the Philippines with an American movie crew to work as consultant on a movie that is being shot about the Vietnam War. (Ostensibly the movie is Apocalypse Now.) He wants to ensure that Vietnamese people are treated fairly in the movie but falls far short of that goal. There are a few lighter moments in The Sympathizer, as when the narrator is “dating” a much older Japanese woman who doesn’t care for him as much as he cares for her and, later, his infatuation with a beautiful Vietnamese girl named Lana (Lan); but there are also some horrible things, such as a couple of murders, a gang rape, people being dismembered by land mines, torture and other terrible things humans do to other humans in the name of some noble cause. This is a book, after all, about war. Did I need to read a book about Vietnam? Probably not, but now that I’ve read it through to the end, I’m glad to be done with it. If anybody ever asks me, I may be the only person in the room to have read it.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp 

Nausea ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Nausea ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Jean-Paul Sartre, French writer and philosopher, lived from 1905 to 1980. His philosophical novel Nausea, first published in 1938, is one of the landmark works of twentieth century French literature and Sartre’s most famous work. In it, the fictional character Antoine Roquetin (Sartre himself?) is a Parisian writer who is in the medium-sized French city that he calls “Bouville” (means “Mudtown” and is probably Le Havre), researching the life of—and writing a historical book about—an eighteenth-century aristocrat and political figure, the Marquis de Rollebon. The novel is set in 1932 when Antoine Roquetin is thirty years old.

There is really not much of a story or plot to Nausea. It is told in the form of diary entries and is mostly the stream of consciousness impressions of Roquetin as he goes about living from day to day. He observes the people around him and the things they say and do, whether he’s in a café, his hotel, the library or some other place. He anticipates reuniting with an old girlfriend from his past named Anny. He has a superficial dalliance with a waitress. He takes long walks in the fog. He contemplates, at great length, portraits hanging in the library of the city’s founding fathers. He befriends a man whom he calls the Self-Taught Man, who is reading all the books in the library in alphabetical order.

Roquetin is afflicted with a sort of moral paralysis that he calls “nausea.” It’s not a physical malady but a degeneration of the spirit. Human life to him is unnecessary. Existence is pointless and there is no God, which is the essence of the philosophy known as “existentialism.” He eventually gives up his writing and research in Bouville to return to Paris to—what?—probably just waste away. Aren’t we all going through the paces of living just so we can die? Seems that way, doesn’t it? But, wait a minute! If we were to write a song that will be remembered long after we die, or to sing that song on a recording that will be listened to for a long time to come, maybe that (or something like it) is enough is rescue us from the awful pointlessness of existence. What do you think?

Nausea is philosophical treatise disguised as fiction. It’s fitfully interesting, fascinating at times and tedious at other times. If you’re a student of French literature or a student of Sartre, it’s going to be essential reading. If you are just looking for a good “story” because you enjoy reading, Nausea probably isn’t it. Not exactly painful reading, but you’ll almost certainly be glad when you reach the last page. I think I’ll take my diary and turn it into a depressing philosophical novel. It won’t matter that it doesn’t have a story, a beginning, a middle or an end, will it? Everything is pointless, anyway.   

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Beyond Paradise ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Beyond Paradise

Beyond Paradise ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Most people today will not have heard of Ramon Navarro, or, if they’ve heard of him at all, it’s because of his vicious murder at the hands of two “male hustlers,” Paul and Tom Ferguson, in 1968, and the sensational trial that followed. With his death, Navarro’s closely guarded, decades-long secret was out: he was a Hollywood homosexual and, in his later years, was in the habit of inviting “male escorts” to his home and paying them for sex. With his sexual predilections and his uncontrolled alcoholism (many run-ins with the law for drunk driving), he was, as one of the lawyers said at his murder trial, an “accident waiting to happen.”

Ramon Novarro (née Ramon Gil Samiengo), was born in Durango, Mexico, in 1899, into a large, devoutly Catholic family. As a teen, he made his way to Hollywood and, after a series of lucky breaks (bit parts and dancing stints), he became the protégé of Rex Ingram, an influential director of silent movies. Ingram used Navarro to great effect in some of the popular movies he directed in the 1920s and—if not overnight, at least pretty fast—Navarro became a bona fide “star,” with a loyal and devoted legion of fans at home and abroad. Between 1925 and 1932, he was THE top male movie star in the world. In 1925, he starred in Ben-Hur, the biggest and most expensive movie made during the silent era.

When movies switched to sound in the late 1920s, it was with his pleasant (though heavily accented) speaking and singing voice that Ramon Navarro segued into sound movies, while many of his contemporaries in silent films were not able to make the transition. Though small of stature (5 feet, six inches) and slightly pudgy, he had other assets that made him a favorite of audiences: a handsome face, an undeniable charm and appeal, coupled with a genuine talent for screen acting. Women loved him and men did not feel threatened by him.

Every star that rises, however, must fall. After 1932, his bosses at MGM (Mayer and Thalberg) began putting him in movies that were not only unsuitable for him (at age 32, he played a college football player in a movie called Huddle) but were almost destined from the start to fail. After a series of box office flops, the studio dumped him in 1935 and, at age 36, he was washed up. He tried for decades to recapture his box office magic, but nobody wanted him anymore and he was relegated to playing small parts in cheap productions. He was successful for a while on the concert circuit and in summer stock, but soon his heavy drinking began to undermine everything he attempted. From the age of 36 to the end of his life at 69, he was merely a “once-was” or a “has-been.” Many of the once-great stars of his generation shared the same fate.

Beyond Paradise by André Soares is the fascinating and unforgettable story of a likeable star (to some a hero) who, in the end, became a tragic figure. Ramon Navarro’s story is a story of the twentieth century and of one of the defining industries of that century. Beyond Paradise reads like a novel, is never boring and is never bogged down in extraneous detail the way some nonfiction books are. The final chapters that cover Navarro’s murder and the subsequent trial are gripping. Highly recommended for those interested in Hollywood biography and lore from the golden age of movie making. A time and place that are no more and will never be again.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Versailles ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Versailles: A Biography of a Palace ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

The Palace of Versailles is possibly the most famous structure of its kind in the world. Situated about twelve miles outside of Paris, it was built in the 1680s by Louis XIV. For the next roughly hundred years it served as the seat of French government and home for the royal families and royal courts under three kings: Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI. Versailles: A Biography of a Palace, by Tony Spawforth, is a history of the Palace of Versailles, a history of the people who lived there, good and bad, the court intrigues, the adulterous affairs, the arrogance, the corruption, the extravagance and the bad press that eventually brought down the monarchy and replaced it with a republic. After Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, were deposed and eventually guillotined in the 1790s, the Palace of Versailles came to represent tyranny and extravagance to the French people. There were calls for it to be demolished as a hated symbol of the repressive past, but it still stands today, a monument to what once was and never will be again.

Louis XIV, who built Versailles and made it what it would be for about the next hundred years, was a monarch down to his fingertips. He believed in the divine right of the French king, that the kind should live extravagantly and luxuriously. Up until the time of Louis XIV, the seat of French government had been the Louvre in Paris, but Louis wanted something different. He moved to the French countryside outside of Paris, to a little town known as Versailles. He destroyed three small villages to build what would become the sprawling palace that housed thousands of people at one time: courtiers and aristocrats, family of the king and queen, office holders, ministers and functionaries, appointees, cooks and lackeys, servants and attendants. Many of the people who lived in the palace were essentially leeches and served no real purpose, but were part of the elaborate system that comprised the king’s court.

After Louis XIV’s death, the reputation of the king and royalty in general began to deteriorate with the public and the press. Whereas Louis XIV was beloved and an inspiration to his people, Louis XV, his successor, was less punctilious in his kingly duties. He wasn’t so particular about his public image and openly engaged in adulterous affairs with many women, including the infamous Madame de Pompadour and Comtesse du Barry. He would flaunt his affairs of the heart to the world and didn’t seem to care about the ramifications. The image of the monarchy began to suffer.

Upon Louis XV’s death from smallpox in the year 1774, his grandson Louis XVI became king. Louis XVI resembled a pudgy schoolboy and wasn’t much interested in being king. He seemed feckless and completely bereft of the attributes necessary to run a great country. The worst thing that ever happened to him was being married off to an Austrian princess, who would later become known as Marie Antoinette. After her function of providing a male heir to the king was fulfilled, she indulged in her whims and mostly locked herself away from court functions and her role as queen. She wanted her own privacy and a good time and she didn’t care who knew it. She developed a terrible reputation with the public and in the press, which only became worse as her extravagances were revealed, and this while many “regular” people were starving because economic conditions were so bad in the country. Fairly or not, she came to represent the excesses of the monarchy at their worst. She and her husband, Louis XVI, were eventually beheaded in a cruel public spectacle. She was hated and reviled for years after her death but  remains a compelling figure to this day, around whom a cult of admiration has developed.

If you’ve ever visited the Palace of Versailles, as I have, Versailles: The Biography of a Palace will make compelling reading, but it will even if you haven’t been there. It’s a readable history for the “casual” historical reader, never dull or academic; full of anecdotes and the “small” moments that history is made of. If you are a fan of the 1938 MGM movie, Marie Antoinette, you can’t help imagining Robert Morley and Norma Shearer as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and Tyrone Power as the queen’s would-be boyfriend, Count de Fersen, who remained sympathetic to the end. As Count de Fersen hears the cheers of the crowd as the queen is beheaded, tears fill his eyes and he looks off into the middle distance, filled for the moment with thoughts of what might have been.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Undermajordomo Minor ~ A Capsule Book Review

Undermajordomo Minor

Undermajordomo Minor ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Undermajordomo Minor is a novel by Patrick DeWitt set in an unidentified and unidentifiable time and place. It might be a European country and it might not. The characters travel by train, but there is no mention of cars, electricity or any other modern convenience, so it’s a story that could have or might have taken place a long time ago. It’s set almost entirely in a castle, Castle Von Aux, that is owned by the absentee (at first) Baron and Baroness Von Aux. A seventeen-year-old boy, Lucien “Lucy” Minor, has left his not-very-loving home and traveled by train to Castle Von Aux to take up a position there as a servant. Since his job will entail many and multifarious duties, his title is to be “undermajordomo.” The “majordomo” (if there is one) under which Lucy will be employed is an odd gentleman named Mr. Olderglough, who has been at the castle for many years. Lucy finds out that his predecessor, a Mr. Broom, met an untimely end, but he doesn’t find out for the longest kind of time exactly what happened to Mr. Broom because nobody wants to talk about it.

In the squalid village down the mountain from Castle Von Aux, Lucy meets an odd old man (everybody in this book is odd) named Memel. Memel is a pickpocket and thief of sorts and he has a daughter named Klara, with whom Lucy falls in love. There’s just one problem with Klara, though. She has a boyfriend, an “exceptionally handsome” man named Adolphus. In the inexplicable war that rages in the hills around Castle Von Aux, Adolphus is an important player, a general or something. Adolphus is forceful and is everything that Lucy is not. He claims to love Klara and doesn’t like it that Lucy loves her, too.

At Castle Von Aux, Lucy becomes aware of an oddly deranged man who skulks about the castle at night, filthy and practically naked. Lucy believes at first that this might be the mysterious Mr. Broom but discovers in time that it is Baron Von Aux. When Mr. Olderglough receives word that the long-gone Baroness Von Aux is returning for a visit, it’s up to him and Lucy to take Baron Von Aux in hand, get him cleaned up, and make him seem as “normal” as possible. (This isn’t going to be easy.)

Baroness Von Aux arrives with much fanfare and Lucy sees that she is very beautiful. He learns, then, that Mr. Broom was in love with Baroness Von Aux and took his own life by throwing himself into the “Very Large Hole” up the mountain from the castle. Much to Lucy’s surprise, though, Baron Von Aux has undergone a transformation and is ever so much more presentable than he expected him to be. He can even speak and wear clothes. When Baron and Baroness Von Aux entertain out-of-town guests, the Duke and Duchess and the Count and Countess, Lucy witnesses the strange goings-on of the three couples in the ballroom, which includes a sort of free-for-all sex orgy. Considering what Lucy already knows about Baron and Baroness Von Aux, he can’t be too surprised at their behavior.

Eventually Lucy’s jealousy for Adolphus leads him to the thought of murder. He attempts to kill Adolphus by pushing him into the Very Large Hole, but Adolphus sidesteps him and Lucy falls in himself. He falls for a very long way but, since he lands in water, the fall doesn’t kill him. What he finds in the Very Large Hole is unexpected but makes absolute sense in light of what has gone before.

Undermajordomo Minor is quirky and thoroughly engaging reading. It takes us where we hadn’t expected to go, but when we’re there we find it’s a good place to be. Like The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt’s earlier novel, it is breezy, almost effortless, reading and goes down like Rocky Road ice cream.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The Sisters Brothers ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt is a novel set in the American West in the 1850s. Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired guns (glorified errand boys) working for a powerful man in Oregon City known simply as “the Commodore.” The story is related in the first-person voice of Eli Sisters. Eli is more passive and inward-directed than his brother Charlie. He is sympathetic toward animals and doesn’t take very well to killing. Charlie, on the other hand, is an expert marksman and doesn’t mind killing whenever the occasion calls for it. Eli is on the fat side and has freckles. Although we aren’t told much about the way he looks, we get the impression that Charlie is better looking and has better luck with the ladies than Eli. Charlie is the leader and Eli the follower.

The Commodore has his panties in a bunch over what he refers to simply as “the formula,” which he doesn’t bother to explain to Eli and Charlie. He only tells them he wants the formula and he sends them to San Francisco to get it. He has previously sent a hireling known as Morris to get it, but Morris has apparently defected to the other side, as represented by one Hermann Kermit Warm, the inventor of the formula. Eli and Charlie have picaresque adventures as they travel from Oregon to California and, once they are in San Francisco and find Morris and Warm, they discover, through a “journal” left behind by Morris (how convenient!), what the formula is all about.

California has recently been gripped by gold rush fever. Thousands of people are flocking to the West with the hope of becoming rich. The prospectors who don’t extract the gold from the ground pan for it in mountain streams, a tedious pursuit, at best. The formula is a toxic mix of chemicals that, when poured into the river, cause the gold nuggets to “light up” in such a way that they can be easily extracted from the dirt and rock. There are some problems with the formula, however. The gold lights up for only about fifteen minutes, and the formula, when it comes into contact with human skin, is highly corrosive, causing painful, oozing blisters and serious injury.

Morris and Hermann Kermit Warm have a story of their own. When Morris was back in “civilization,” he was a perfumed “dandy,” rather effeminate and obviously gay, although that word is never used. He and Warm have discovered they are simpatico and have allied themselves with each other. It is an unusual “friendship” for the time and place. Although Eli and Charlie are supposed to kill Morris for the Commodore, they join up with Morris and Warm in an alliance that they believe will make them rich and independent of the Commodore.

The Sisters Brothers is a “noir western,” definitely on the dark side but with a touch of “gallows” humor. What happens to Eli’s horse, Tub, is not in the least funny; nor is the fate that befalls Morris and Warm or Charlie’s shooting hand. All in all, though, it’s a breezy and entertaining 325 pages. For the compulsive reader like me, it’s a compulsively readable novel.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Android Karenina ~ A Capsule Book Review

Android Karenina

Android Karenina ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Android Karenina is set in Russia, but it’s not the Russia that exists or that ever existed at any time in history. It’s a “steampunk” world, an “alternate universe” where every person over eighteen has a “beloved-companion” Class III robot that is a combination pet, servant, confidante, counselor and alter-ego; where ill people are put into orbit around Venus to help them recover; where people vacation on the moon; where robot technology has become so sophisticated, thanks to the discovery of a metal called “groznium,” that every task is performed by a robot and robots have advanced to the stage where they are unidentifiable from humans. The Tsars are gone, the horse and carriage are gone, old-fashioned steam-engine trains are gone; people travel on a conveyance called the Grav that runs on a magnetic bed. A group of lizard-like aliens erroneously called the “Honored Guests” threaten the world and the human race while incubating inside the bodies of sick people. This is the “Age of Groznium,” the world of Android Karenina.

Of course, proper credit must be given to Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina. A writer named Ben H. Winters has taken this masterpiece of Russian literature and cleverly transformed it into a steampunk, sci-fi adventure, using Tolstoy’s characters and situations but making them original enough to claim a lot of credit on his own. Beautiful society lady Anna Karenina is married to the cold, mechanical Alexei Karenin, an important official in the government. Karenin doesn’t appreciate Anna and can’t love her the way she wishes to be loved. When Anna meets dashing Count Vronsky, she enters into an illicit love affair with him that shocks society and humiliates her husband. She finds out then just how villainous her husband can be. His bitterness toward his wife makes him take revenge on the entire country by trying to nullify the Age of Groznium and returning to the old ways of doing things: steam-driven trains, telegrams as a means of communicating, horses and buggies for getting around in, real people doing the menial jobs that heretofore had been done by robots. Most cruel of all, he takes away everybody’s Class III “beloved-companion” robots, including Anna’s beloved Android Karenina, because he believes that robots are antithetical to the direction he wants the country to move in. Instead of moving forward, he wants to revert to the past. Wait a minute, though. Maybe Anna Karenina has a higher purpose in life than just being an unfaithful wife. Maybe she has been chosen, because of who her husband is, to render a service to her country and to the human race. We must read through to the end to find out what is really going on.

Like Anna Karenina on which it is based, Android Karenina is a pleasure to read. A little bit on the long side, at 538 pages, but well worth it. It’s a clever hybrid (a combination of two worlds), not for everybody, but certainly engaging, especially if you are a fan of the original novel and also an aficionado of the offbeat, the unusual, the quirky and the imaginative. You might end up envying the Class III robots and wishing you had one of your own to always agree with you, sympathize with you and do anything you want without complaint.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp   


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