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London Under ~ A Capsule Book Review

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London Under ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

London Under, written by Peter Ackroyd, tells the story what’s going on underneath the ground of one of the largest, busiest and oldest cities in the world. In two thousand years of continuous occupancy, a lot of history has happened on the site. The Romans first established the city as Londimium in 43 A.D. Its location was desirable because of its proximity to the Thames river, allowing ships access by sea. During medieval times, toilets emptied into the river, making life generally unpleasant, with diseases such as cholera, typhoid, plague, and assorted fevers. Millions of people have been buried under the ground and then forgotten, with nothing to tell succeeding generations of their existence.

London has the oldest subway system in the world, going back 150 years. It’s a system that has developed a mythology and superstition of its own. When excavations began, certain superstitious people believed that a dark world, the world of the devil, was being unleashed on the world. There are many abandoned and unused subway tunnels—mysterious passages and stairways going nowhere—that have become home to thieves and murderers, those who dwell in the darkness; not to mention rats and a whole host of unpleasant creatures that dwell in the darkness. People claim to have seen spirits in the subways, especially at sites where fatal accidents have occurred. During World War II, many Londoners used subway tunnels for shelter during air raids. This led to a kind of psychosis whereby a person does not feel safe aboveground.

Ancient underground rivers vie for space beneath London with a vast sewer system that must accommodate a city of millions. (It must take a certain kind of person to be able to work in the dark world of sewers to service and maintain them.) Also, there are vast myriads of underground fiber optic cables, pipes, conduits, etc., for communications and utilities. An entire subterranean world exists that most people, casual visitors to the city, will never know about.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Shakespeare: The Biography ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Shakespeare: The Biography ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Shakespeare: The Biography, written by Peter Ackroyd, is a long (572 pages), minutely detailed account of the life and times and of the most famous dramatist/poet who ever lived. Many of the details of Shakespeare’s life are known—where he lived, mother and father, wife and children, brothers and sisters—but much about Shakespeare, especially about his writing, is speculative and endlessly debated by scholars and historians. As Peter Ackroyd says, “Wherever we look in Shakespeare’s work, we see the impossibility of assigning purpose or unassailable meaning.”

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the small (2000 people) English town of Stratford-upon-Avon, a hundred miles from London. His father, John Shakespeare, was a glover (maker of gloves), landowner, and local official. The family, if not exactly wealthy, was affluent and had pretensions of nobility. His mother, Mary Shakespeare, was a remote member of the noble Arden family. The Shakespeares were adherents to the “old” faith (Catholic), while the “approved” and accepted religion was the Anglican (Church of England) faith. The Queen, Elizabeth I, had originally taken a middle road on religion, but when her crown was threatened by the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and her followers, she adopted a harsh tone against “recusants,” those who still practiced the old religion.

Shakespeare was educated in the grammar school near his home and never attended college or university. When he was eighteen, he married a woman several years older than he was named Anne Hathaway. She was carrying his child when they were married and she soon gave birth to a daughter, Susannah Shakespeare. Several years later, the couple had twins: a son, Hamnet, and a daughter, Judith. (Hamnet would die at age eleven.) Leaving his wife and three small children behind in his hometown, Shakespeare decamped to London where he could pursue a theatrical career (writing plays and acting on the stage).

The London of Shakespeare’s time was a busy, exciting, place—noisy, crowded, dirty and dangerous. The plague made periodic visitations upon the populace, usually during the summer months, killing thousands of people at a time. (Theatres and public gathering places were routinely shut down during plague epidemics.) Shakespeare thrived in London and soon made a name for himself in the theatre. He acted in many of the plays he wrote and also acted in plays written by other people. He and his acting troupe performed for the sovereign at court, first Queen Elizabeth I and then her successor, King James I. Unlike many great writers, Shakespeare enjoyed tremendous success and renown in his life.

There is much in this book about Shakespeare’s brilliance and his “assimilative” mind. He wasn’t as well educated or as cultured as some of his contemporaries. To write his plays, especially the histories, he always started out with some source material, making it uniquely his own. He also “borrowed” heavily from other writers, which led to jealousy and personal attacks, especially after his plays became so successful. There were other celebrated playwrights during his time, but none so inventive and with so agile a mind and facile a talent. He died on his fifty-third birthday (April 23, 1616) in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. The cause of death is not known today, but there is speculation that he died of typhoid fever. He was buried underneath the floor in the chancel of the old church near where he grew up.

Shakespeare: The Biography is everything you ever wanted to know about Shakespeare and then some. He had many friends, colleagues, relatives, business acquaintances, and rivals, and we meet them all here. There are so many names in this book that’s it’s sometimes hard to keep them straight, but it’s a wonderful, mostly fascinating biography of a great man and an evocation of a time long past.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Winesburg, Ohio ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Winesburg, Ohio ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Winesburg, Ohio by American writer Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) is a collection of short stories first published in 1919. While each story stands on its own, with different characters in each story, the stories together form a single, novel-like unit. The only character to appear, at least briefly, in most of the stories is George Willard, a young newspaper reporter on the only newspaper in the small town of Winesburg. George’s father owns the only hotel in town. George’s mother, who is the main character in one of the stories, is unhappy and dies at an early age. George longs to escape the small town of Winesburg and venture to the big city where he plans to pursue a writing career.

Each of the twenty-two stories in Winesburg, Ohio is about a specific character’s struggle to overcome the loneliness and isolation that are part of small-town life in the early twentieth century. Because of its emphasis on psychological insights over plot, Winesburg, Ohio is one of the earliest works of Modernist literature, the literary movement that was about overturning traditional modes of representation and expressing the new sensibilities of changing times.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and George’s Mother ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and George’s Mother ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

This slim volume contains two short novels by Stephen Crane: Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893) and George’s Mother (1896). Both explore the lives of lower working-class people in the section of New York known as the Bowery in the 1890s. These people speak fractured English, labor in factories and sweatshops, and most of them drink to excess to make their lives more endurable. They are contemptuous of people of wealth, refinement and education, and they have little or no hope of ever rising above their class.

The title character in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets lives with her family in a wretched tenement. Her mother is a drunken harridan and her brother a brutish lout almost devoid of human feeling. Despite her surroundings and her family, Maggie somehow manages to be attractive to men (the quality that will prove to be her downfall). Pete is a friend of Maggie’s brother who takes an interest in her. He is a bartender and Maggie believes he is sophisticated and worldly wise. She begins going around with him and they engage in sexual relations. After he gets tired of her, he discards her in favor of another girl. Maggie, at this point, is seen as “ruined” in the eyes of the world because she has given herself to a man who has rejected her. She has no chance for redemption.

The subtitle of George’s Mother is A Tragic Tale of the Bowery. George Kelcey is a laborer who lives with his mother in a Bowery tenement. Since all her other children have died, George’s mother is especially attentive to him. She harangues him to hang up his coat when he returns from work and to do all the things a mother thinks a son is supposed to do. She wants nothing more than for him to be the type of son she thinks he should be. He has an overwhelming fondness for alcohol, though, and he loves to spend evenings in the company of his male friends. After alcohol and merriment get the best of him, he loses his job and his irresponsible behavior begins to wear on his mother’s health.

Stephen Crane was one of the first, if not the first, American writers to write in a naturalistic or realistic style. His most famous work is his Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, which he wrote without ever seeing combat. His life and writing career were cut short when he died of tuberculosis in 1900 at age 28.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Theft by Finding ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Theft by Finding ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

David Sedaris is a humor writer whose work is not raunchy or cruel. I’ve read all his books (Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, When You are Engulfed in Flames, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Holidays on Ice, Naked, Barrel Fever) and I usually buy his latest book from Amazon as soon as it comes out. I stood in line for over an hour at one of his book signings to get him to sign my copies of Holidays on Ice and Me Talk Pretty One Day. Then I sat down and rested.

His books are made up of engaging stories that, since they are true and not fiction, are informal “essays.” He writes about his family, people he’s met, his travels, and things that have happened to him, good or bad. His latest book, Theft by Finding, is something of a departure for him, because it’s not these informal essays but is instead diary entries going back forty years.

That’s what Theft by Finding is: 512 pages of diary entries. Some of the entries are little anecdotes and some are less than that. In his introduction, he says that he imagines people not reading the whole book page for page, but instead “dipping in” the way you would with a high school yearbook. I read the whole book page for page. If you think it’s tedious, it isn’t, especially after you’ve read for a while. The most engaging diary entries are the ones where he is recounting things he’s heard people say and things he’s seen them do, as in the IHOP restaurants where he used to hang out a lot, first in his home town of Raleigh, North Carolina, and then in Chicago. When he’s not hanging out at the IHOP, he’s struggling to make a living cleaning apartments or sanding furniture. He has not had an easy life, or if he has an easy life now, it hasn’t always been that way. He is kind of an “everyman,” uncovering the absurdity of living in the world today. You easily recognize yourself in what he’s saying. That must be the key to his popularity.    

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Room 1219 ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Room 1219 ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Room 1219, by Greg Merritt, is an American success story; how one man from humble beginnings rose to the pinnacle of his profession. It’s also a true crime story showing how that same man was ruined by a press that is more interested in dishing dirt and promulgating scandal than in being fair and objective and getting at the truth.

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was the biggest movie star in the world, the first to sign a contract for a million dollars a year. His onscreen persona (a good-natured, bumbling man-child) was the most recognized in the world. He lived in a mansion (for which he paid $250,000) in the most exclusive section of Hollywood. At a time when a Model T Ford cost $370 (what most people were driving, if they drove at all), Fatty drove a custom-made, $34,000 Pierce-Arrow.

On Labor Day in 1921, Fatty Arbuckle’s world came crashing down. He drove his Pierce-Arrow the 350 miles from Los Angeles to San Francisco (the road wasn’t even paved the whole way yet), rented three adjoining suites on the twelfth floor in the exclusive St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, and hosted a little party for a handful of his friends.

A minor movie actress named Virginia Rappe with pretentions of making it into the big time was in attendance at Fatty’s Labor Day party, along with three other women and three other men, besides Fatty. Miss Rappe was 30 but was always shaving a few years off her age, so it was given variously as 23 or 25. She was a showgirl, an alcoholic, and was no stranger to men or to sex. (Later, much to Fatty’s detriment, she was characterized as pure, unsullied and virginal.)

During the course of the party, Virginia Rappe became ill, apparently (to most observers) from drinking too much liquor. She began tearing at her clothes and complaining of terrible abdominal pain. She was crying and carrying on and saying things like “He hurt me” and “I’m dying.” When a doctor was summoned, the doctor determined that she had only had too much to drink and would be all right. Four days later she was dead. An autopsy revealed she had a punctured bladder resulting in peritonitis. What caused her bladder to puncture could not be determined; the autopsy doctor could only conclude it was from an “external force.”

Immediately Fatty Arbuckle, who had since returned to his home in Hollywood believing that nothing was amiss, was accused of Miss Rappe’s death. The love the world bore for him instantly turned to hate. The press labeled him as a beast and an ogre, a gross fat man with salacious appetites. He became a symbol for excess and for all that was morally wrong in America, particularly in the motion picture industry. Conversely, Virginia Rappe became a symbol for outraged purity. Both extremes were untrue and especially unfair in Fatty’s case.

What, if anything, did Fatty Arbuckle do to Virginia Rappe in that San Francisco hotel room that contributed to her death? That was the question the whole world was asking.

Fatty’s defense team (assembled at great expense) believed he would be charged with manslaughter (the grand jury’s recommendation). Crusading San Francisco district attorney Matthew Brady, however, had other notions: he sought a murder conviction. He was courting the women’s vote (woman had just been given the right to vote in 1920) and believed that women everywhere wanted Fatty to get the maximum punishment. The charge was changed from manslaughter to murder but, in the preliminary hearing, the judge determined that a murder conviction wasn’t warranted and again reduced the charge to manslaughter.

So, with much hoopla and publicity, Fatty was tried for manslaughter in a sensational trial that was the talk of the country. The trial resulted in a hung jury (10 to 2 favoring acquittal), so the whole thing had to be done over.

In the second trial, Fatty’s defense team seemed over-confident. They didn’t bother to put Fatty on the stand to explain for himself what had happened in the hotel room, and they didn’t give closing arguments. The result was another hung jury, but this time 10 to 2 for conviction.

Fatty was called to the stand to testify in his third trial. The jury believed him (the truth has a sound of its own) and, after about five minutes of deliberation, voted to acquit him. Finally, the ordeal was over. He was free to return home and resume his shattered motion picture (acting/writing/directing) career.

Not so fast, though! Six days after Fatty’s acquittal, all his movies were banned from American movie screens by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). (Studio heads wanted a clean slate, with Fatty gone.) So, after the terrible ordeal he had been through, he was not going to be given a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of the public. His career was effectively over. At thirty-five years of age, with possibly many more years of productivity ahead of him, he was ruined.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

In the Garden of Beasts ~ A Capsule Book Review

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In the Garden of Beasts ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

In 1933, a new U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, appoints a new ambassador, William E. Dodd, to Germany. He is sixty-four years old, a history professor, scholar and writer. With his wife and adult children (Bill and Martha), he moves to Berlin to take up his duties. It is a tumultuous and transitional time in German history. The elderly president, Paul von Hindenburg, has recently appointed Adolf Hitler as chancellor, more as a move of appeasement than anything else. People feel uneasy about Hitler, with good reason. He rants and raves in his speeches. He is quietly and systematically arming Germany for war, in spite of protestations to the contrary. Hitler and his Nazi regime favor suppression of Jews, which manifests itself in beatings, intimidation, banishment to prison camps, and laws that forbid Jews from marrying non-Jews and from working in journalism and other jobs. Anybody, Jew or Aryan, who opposes Hitler and his government is subject to intimidation and professional ruin or, at worst, imprisonment or death.

Into this maelstrom, the innocent, well-meaning Dodd family is dropped. Ambassador Dodd’s twenty-three-year-old daughter, Martha, is a recent divorcee. Her favorite thing is men. In Berlin she gradually gains a reputation as something of a tramp. She goes from man to man, some of them Nazis and even a Russian communist, with whom is she is so much in love that she wants to tour Russia for a month to gain an understanding of his country. She is also an idealist who is slow at seeing things as they really are. When she first arrives in Berlin, she believes the Nazis are doing good things and improving life for all German people. Gradually she begins to see things in a different, more realistic way.

According to many observers, William E. Dodd is not a successful or effective ambassador. Being the American ambassador to Germany during the rise of Nazism is no easy task. Not only must he deal with radical Nazis, he must also deal with people from his own government who don’t like him and believe he was the wrong choice for the ambassadorial post in the first place. He seems to believe, wrongly and naively, that all he has to do is advocate moderation and common sense and the Nazis will “tone down” just because he thinks it is the right thing for them to do. This, of course, is not the way the world works. Secretary of state Cordell Hull and others in the U.S. government are mainly interested in getting Dodd to press for repayment of German debt, which Dodd does not consider as important as other matters.

During the early years of Nazism (early 1930s), many believed that Hitler and his inner circle (Goebbels, Goring, Himmler) were so radical that it was just a matter of time before rational people would see them for what they were and force them out of office. We know in retrospect, however, that this is not what happened. When President Paul von Hindenburg died in August 1934, Hitler assumed absolute control over Germany and proclaimed himself “Fuhrer and Reich Chancellor.” If it had ever been possible for anybody, any foreign power, to stop the Hitler juggernaut, now it was too late. The next ten years or so were going to be a very difficult time for the entire world. 

Ambassador Dodd proved to be more right about the threat that Germany posed to the world than a lot of people, during his lifetime, were willing to give him credit for. He and his family were in the unique position of viewing the rise of Nazism as outsiders. After Ambassador Dodd’s death, he was mostly vindicated as the lone voice who saw what was really happening in Germany, while most Americans were still hoping to remain uninvolved.   

In the Garden of Beasts is “nonfiction narrative” written by Erik Larson. It’s a chronical of true events, written in such a way that it seems to be a novel, a fictional story, but it’s all true and it really happened. If a fiction writer had written the story of Hitler, it would have been too fantastic and far-fetched to be plausible. What story of the twentieth century is more compelling and at the same time more frightening than the story of the small, mustachioed man who aspired to conquer the entire world and would stop at nothing to achieve his goals?

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp