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20th Century Ghosts ~ A Capsule Book Review


20th Century Ghosts ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

20th Century Ghosts is a collection of contemporary short stories by American writer Joe Hill.  Not all the stories in the collection are about ghosts; some are about other things, but nearly all the stories have some element about them of mystery or the unexplainable. As with any collection, there were some stories I liked and some not so much. Whether you like them or not, they are all quirky and unconventional, written in an engaging and compelling style that keeps you turning the pages to see what’s coming up on the next page.

The short story “20th Century Ghost,” from which the title of the collection is derived, is about the ghost of a nineteen-year-old girl who haunts an old movie theatre. In twenty years or so, there are around two dozen people who have had encounters with the ghost girl in the theatre, and those who do never forget the experience. The girl died violently in some way that involved the letting of blood. She was so in love with the movies and loved talking about them so much that her ghost just naturally has to haunt a movie theatre.

Many of the stories in this collection are about the loneliness and alienation of youth. “Pop Art” is about a lonely boy who has, not exactly an imaginary friend, but an inflatable one. When he loses the friend through an odd quirk of fate, he goes on to an inflatable girlfriend. Inflatable friends are so much more agreeable than real ones.

With a nod to Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” “You Will Hear the Locust Sing” is about a boy named Francis who lives in the desert and who, through exposure to radiation, turns into a giant locust. (Years ago I wrote a similar story called “Happy Trails” about a woman in the desert who turned into a giant bug that, I’m happy to say, was published in a literary magazine called Churn Thy Butter.)

“The Black Phone” is about a thirteen-year-old boy who is kidnapped by a crazed child killer. The story is told entirely from the point of view of the boy and not by the police or by the boy’s parents. The boy is locked in a windowless room that has a mysterious phone on the wall. If the phone is disconnected, why does it sometimes ring?

In “The Widow’s Breakfast,” a hobo in the 1930s travels around from place to place by snatching illegal rides on freight trains. He is rattled because his best friend and traveling companion has just died. When he comes upon a farm where a lonely widow lives, he rediscovers what it feels like to be treated with kindness. There’s something odd about her children, though.

At about fifty pages, the short story “Voluntary Committal” is the longest one in the collection and comes at the end. It’s about a teenage boy name Nolan with an idiot savant younger brother named Morris. Morris builds elaborate “forts” in the basement out of boxes and then paints and decorates them. When Nolan and a friend named Eddie do a stupid thing on a highway overpass that might have involved somebody getting killed, they are scared they will get caught. When Morris hears them talking about it, they are convinced he is too retarded to understand or to know what they are saying. Or does he know a lot more than they think? When Eddie becomes an annoyance to Nolan over his fear that Nolan will tell what happened on the overpass, Morris has an unconventional way of getting rid of Eddie in a way that nobody will ever be able to figure out.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Hollow City ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Hollow City ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs is the second novel in a fantasy trilogy, the first novel being Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and the third being Library of Souls. I’ve read the first two novels in the trilogy and will read the third one, well, someday. It is about a group of “peculiars,” children who have special talents or abilities; for instance, Millard is invisible; Bronwyn has superhuman strength; Horace is a boy-sized gentleman in monocle and top hat who has the gift of prophesy; Hugh has an army of bees at his command living inside him; Emma can produce fire at her fingertips; Olive floats because she is lighter than air; Enoch can animate the dead for brief periods of time.

Into this mix of peculiars comes Jacob Portman, an odd, sixteen-year-old American boy who ends up in Wales trying to find out what happened to his grandfather, Abraham Portman, who was peculiar in the same way that Jacob is. These peculiars live in a “loop,” meaning a time and place that are outside the real world. (Their particular loop is in 1940, during World War II.) Peculiars the world over live in loops and each loop is presided over by an “ymbryne.” Miss Peregrine is the ymbryne of the particular loop this particular set of peculiars occupy. Jacob believes there is nothing special about him, but as he becomes drawn into the group of peculiars, he discovers that he does in fact have a special talent. He can feel “wights” when they are near. Wights are the deadly enemies of the peculiars because they want to extract their souls and eat them. That’s how they become “hollowgast.”

At the end of the first novel in the trilogy, the peculiars’ home in Cairnholm, Wales, is attacked and destroyed by Wights. Their ymbryne, Miss Peregrine, has been turned into a falcon and has a good chance of not being able to switch back. The peculiars must flee their home, with Miss Peregrine (who is now a falcon), with them. They have only a short time to save Miss Peregrine or she will be a falcon forever. Hollow City is a kind of picaresque novel, as the peculiars have all kinds of quirky adventures and experience all sort sorts of dangers as they travel to London. Wait a minute! Don’t they know it’s 1940 and there’s a war on, with London under almost constant attack by German planes? It turns out that Germans are the least of their worries.

Hollow City is light, almost effortless reading. To make it even more interesting and fun to read, the text is liberally punctuated with “peculiar” vintage photographs that fit in with what’s going on in the story. In an interview at the end of the book, author Ransom Riggs says that in the first book, he wrote the story to match the pictures and in the second novel he wrote the text and then looked for pictures that were appropriate to what was going on in the story. Either way, it works, if you, the reader, are willing to suspend disbelief and be drawn into a fantasy world somewhere in the vicinity of Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, or Gregory Maguire, but not quite as far as the nightmare world of H. P. Lovecraft.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp 

Dante ~ A Capsule Book Review


Dante ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Dante Alighieri was born in the Italian city state of Florence in the year 1265. When he was nine years old, he first saw Beatrice (pronounced Be-a-TRE-che) Portinari, who was also nine. She didn’t even speak to him for nine years after that, surprising him that she knew his name. For Dante, Beatrice became his ideal of love. It was a spiritual love that transcended any earthly appetites. She died at an early age, about twenty-five, but Dante never forgot to the end of his life the effect she had on him. She figured prominently in his epic poem The Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia in Italian) and in other of his works. He went on to marry, not Beatrice but another woman, and had three sons and a daughter. (His daughter became a nun and his sons became celebrated in their own right.)

Poetry in Dante’s time was mostly being written in Latin for the educated few, but Dante wrote in Italian, thereby legitimizing and popularizing the practice of writing in one’s own dialect, which in his case was Tuscan. People at once recognized his genius. His entry into politics, however, caused him to be exiled from Florence, and he was never allowed to return. He traveled around from place to place for the rest of his life. He wrote his most famous work, The Divine Comedy, over a period of about twelve years, from 1308 to 1320, one year before his death from malaria at the age of fifty-six.

Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy, is one of the most famous and celebrated literary works in the world. It is divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. On the surface it describes Dante’s journey through hell, purgatory and heaven, but on a deeper level it is an allegory representing a soul’s journey toward God. Inferno is on one level a horror story as Dante witnesses souls in eternal torment for sins they committed while still alive, each sinner being punished according to his own sin. Virgil, the ancient Roman poet who lived from 70 B.C. to 19 B.C., serves as Dante’s guide through hell, into purgatory, and then into heaven. In Purgatorio, souls have at least a chance for redemption (which in some cases might take centuries) after they have paid their penance. Paradiso is, of course, what all aspire to (but few seem to attain), and there Dante meets his divine Beatrice and eventually sees God.

This concise (200 pages) biography by R. W. B. Lewis in the “Penguin Lives” series is an overview and introduction to the life and work of a long-ago literary figure who still packs a wallop today for a lot of people who have made it their business to know these things. If you are a student of literature or Italian or Italian literature, or a person who just likes to read biographies because they are “about” something, then Dante is an interesting figure to learn more about.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The Good Soldier ~ A Capsule Book Review


The Good Soldier – A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Appointment in Samarra ~ A Capsule Book Review


Appointment in Samarra ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

A Lesson Before Dying ~ A Capsule Book Review

A Lesson Before Dying cover

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The Magnificent Ambersons ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright ©  2016 by Allen Kopp