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Losing Battles ~ A Capsule Book Review

Losing Battles ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

It’s Granny Vaughn’s ninetieth birthday. Her large Mississippi family has gathered on a hot Sunday in August to mark the occasion. It’s the Depression era, 1930s, and nobody has much money, but Beulah Renfro, Granny Vaughn’s granddaughter, spreads a sumptuous meal for the hundred or so attendees. They eat like it’s going out of style.

Jack Jordan Renfro is the star of the reunion. He has plenty of aunts, uncles, cousins—besides his parents, his sisters and his granny—to fawn over him. He just got out of the penitentiary. We learn that he escaped the day before he was supposed to be released because he didn’t want to miss granny’s birthday celebration. He also has a wife named Gloria and a baby daughter, Lady May. Gloria was his schoolteacher he married before he went into the penitentiary. Gloria was an orphan child; nobody knows for sure who her parents were. One of the surprising things that’s revealed during the reunion is that she and Jack might be first cousins.

There are some surprise guests at the reunion, some old-time preaching, some arguing and much laughter, but, more than anything, there’s talk: talk about how Jack came to be sent to the penitentiary; talk of an old-maid schoolteacher, Miss Julia Mortimer, who has just died and whose funeral will be the day after the reunion; almost everybody at the reunion went to school to Miss Julia and they have stories to tell of her hardness and her dedication to teaching. There’s also talk of hard times and good times and bad times, births and deaths. Everybody likes to talk and they all have much to say.

Losing Battles is an unconventional novel because it takes place all in one day and part of the next day, which means there isn’t much story or plot. Get a hundred people from your family together for one day and then write down everything they say and do during that one day, and you’ll know what I mean. It’s an interesting book because of its setting (the South during the 1930s) and because it was written by a venerated American writer (her last novel), but it could have been more interesting if the action had been opened up a little bit, making the story less static.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

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What Belongs to You ~ A Capsule Book Review

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What Belongs to You ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

He’s an American teacher living in Sofia, Bulgaria, teaching English at a prestigious American school. We never know his name. He is telling the story in his first-person voice. The story revolves around the narrator’s destructive relationship with a rent boy named Mitko, and, while their relationship is a sexual one, we never have to suffer through any explicit details.

The narrator comes to love Mitko, knowing all along that he is a user, a liar, and a self-aggrandizing manipulator; he is charming and good-looking and he knows how to use these qualities to his benefit. He can also at times be menacing and threatening when he doesn’t get his way. We see a portrait here of a mentally unbalanced young man who knows how to manipulate people to achieve his ends.

We come to see that Mitko has a terrible life, and, despite his youth, is in failing health. While the narrator tries to live a respectable life in his apartment, going to work every day, Mitko shows up periodically at his doorstep whenever he wants something. He frequently lies to get money, which makes him an extortionist, among all the other things he is. The love that the narrator feels for Mitko soon turns to pity as he sees that Mitko is falling apart. He cannot deny Mitko anything, knowing all along that lies and betrayal are a part of everything Mitko does.

While What Belongs to You is the story of a friendship, it is also a story about the nature of destructive and obsessive love. One of the best novels I’ve read in a while and unlike anything I’ve read before. Written in a unique, compelling and accessible style by a writer named Garth Greenwell. There are a lot of words in this novel, but never too many, always just right. Every word rings true.

The first-person narration is all introspective but never self-indulgent or whiny, as it could have been. On a different level, it’s a story, which I found fascinating, about life in modern-day Bulgaria, a country of 7.2 million in southeast Europe, a country that is collapsing and crumbling in many ways, a country that has lived through Soviet occupation, a country that is not what it once was. As a stranger in a strange land, the narrator navigates his way through two different health clinics, knowing only a smattering of the language, the public transportation system, and everyday life in a foreign capital. Some books are so good and so different from anything else that reading them is like being given a gift. This is one of them.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp 

Jesus, a Biography from a Believer ~ A Capsule Book Review

Jesus, A Biography from a Believer ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Jesus, A Biography from a Believer by Paul Johnson is exactly what it says it is: a concise, reverent chronicle of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, the most influential person who ever lived. He was without politics or national identity. He was a revolutionary, a threat to the status quo because they didn’t understand him. They didn’t understand that his kingdom was not of the world, but a kingdom of heaven. He didn’t come to the earth to lay down a set of rules for people to follow. He came to prepare people, anyone who believed in him, for the next world. He extolled the lowly and the powerless among men, the weak and the poor. Whoever is last shall be first, he said. He loved people from all strata of society and would always take the time to talk to anybody who wanted to speak to him. He spoke in a way that was easy for people to understand. His speech was poetic but never lofty or scholarly. People were drawn to him because of his easy and open manner. And then there were the miracles. He performed miracles sparingly and only when he thought the occasion warranted it. He didn’t want to be thought of as a wizard or a magician. Those who saw him perform miracles became easy believers, but he knew that most people would never have the benefit of seeing the miracles firsthand. In people, what he most admired were humility, sincerity, but, above all, faith.

If there’s nothing much new in this book that we didn’t already know, we at least get a feeling of what Jesus was really like as a man. He knew that people were weak and flawed and corrupt—he lived in a corrupt world—but he forgave those who could believe in him. If you already have faith, reading this book will strengthen your faith.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp    

Boy Erased ~ A Capsule Book Review

Boy Erased ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Boy Erased is a nonfiction book, a “memoir,” by a writer named Garrard Conley. It is a first-hand account of a Christian-based therapy program whose goal is to turn homosexual people (male and female) into heterosexual people.

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness. However, that didn’t stop the formation of Love in Action (LIA), a nondenominational fundamentalist Christian organization that promised to cure all LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) congregants of their “sexual addictions.”

Garrard Conley is the “boy” in question. He is from a strictly religious, Missionary Baptist family in Arkansas. His father is a fundamentalist minister who believes in a strict interpretation of God’s word. When Garrard realizes he’s gay, he has to keep it a secret because he knows his parents will never understand or accept his sexuality. They discover the truth about him when he is a college student. They view homosexuality as a “condition” or an “addiction” like alcoholism that can be “cured” through prayer and counseling. (LIA uses some of the techniques of Alcoholics Anonymous.) Garrard’s father tells him he will not continue to finance his education unless he submits to “ex-gay” therapy and becomes “cured.”

The therapy consists of first writing about and then talking through one’s sexual feelings in front of a group of strangers, feeling contrite and ashamed, and praying that God will make you “pure.” The idea is to remove all temptation and sinful thoughts that lead to sinful acts that will assure the practitioner will spend eternity burning in the fires of hell. It is a kind of brainwashing that sometimes leaves participants suicidal. There is no evidence, from a scientific point of view, that a person’s sexual orientation can be changed in this way.

Boy Erased is an interesting story about what one young man went through in an effort to please his parents and make himself acceptable in the eyes of the world. A better idea might have been to provide “re-orientation” therapy and counseling to the parents to get them to accept their son and his sexuality. The upshot of the book is that ex-gay therapy doesn’t work and apparently does more harm than good.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp  

Rabbit is Rich ~ A Capsule Book Review

Rabbit is Rich ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

John Updike (1933-2009) was an American writer who wrote compellingly about ordinary people. He was a chronicler of his age, in much the same way that F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O’Hara were of their age.

Updike’s series of four “Rabbit” novels (Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest) are about the different stages in the life of one Harold (Harry) “Rabbit” Angstrom: high school basketball star, linotype operator, husband, son, father, brother, lover, and Toyota dealer.

Rabbit Angstrom is a sort of contemporary antihero. He is flawed. He is less than admirable. He is sentimental. He is sex-obsessed (as Updike male characters always are). In Rabbit is Rich, he is forty-six years old and overweight, in what you might call the third quarter of his life. He has reached the stage of his life where he knows affluence for the first time, thanks to his father-in-law, Fred Springer, who brought him into his Toyota dealership in Brewer, Pennsylvania, and then conveniently died, leaving Rabbit in charge. Rabbit and his ditzy wife Janice live with his crabby, Charlie’s Angels-loving mother-in-law, Bessie, in her stately house.

Rabbit and Janice have a son, Nelson, a confused and rebellious young man who dropped out of Kent State one year short of graduating. Nelson has just married pregnant Pru (whose real name is Teresa). Pru and Nelson seem mismatched. We know it’s a union that isn’t going to last. Rabbit is sexually drawn to Pru. (When it comes to sex, nothing is off limits with these people.) Nelson doesn’t want to return to college but instead wants to work at the not-very-successful-these-days Toyota lot with his father. Rabbit will have to let one of his long-term employees go to make a place for Nelson and he doesn’t want to do that. The women in his life (his mother-in-law and his wife) are pressuring him to bring Nelson on. He knows that Nelson will mess it up, as he has messed up everything else in his life.

Rabbit thinks a lot about death. He can’t stop thinking about his deceased working-class parents and about the other people in his life who have died. He and Janice had an infant daughter named Becky who Janice accidentally drowned in the bathtub when she was drunk. Rabbit has, or believes he has, an illegitimate daughter from an affair he had twenty years ago. He is sentimental about his supposed illegitimate daughter; he fantasizes about encountering her and introducing himself to her as her father, even though she believes another man holds that title.

Rabbit is Rich is a slice of late-1970s life. It’s a rich reading experience about marriage, disillusionment, mortality, fatherhood and success. It shows us how good contemporary American literature (after Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald) can be in the hands of a master. If you are a reader, you owe it to yourself to read all four of the Rabbit novels in order.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

The Other ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Other ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Other is a gothic horror novel by actor-turned-writer Thomas Tryon (1926-1991) that has become something of an American classic and has sold millions of copies. It is set in 1935 in a small Connecticut town.

The Perry family has had more than its share of tragedy. The father died accidentally when a trap door fell on him as he was going down stairs to a cellar. His widow, Alexandra, is fluttery and nervous and can’t leave her room. A visiting cousin, named Russell, falls on a pitchfork concealed in hay while playing in the barn and dies. A neighbor woman dies mysteriously and her body isn’t discovered for a week. A newborn baby disappears and a frantic search is underway to find her. Alexandra is badly injured when she falls down the stairs. What is going on here?

Niles and Holland are twins, age thirteen. Alexandra is their mother and Ada, Alexandra’s mother, is their grandmother. Ada is the matriarch of the family. She is a Russian immigrant and speaks with an accent. She brings superstitions with her from the old country. She teaches Holland and Niles a game of transference in which they imagine they are something or someone other than themselves. This game of transference is an important plot point.

Even though Holland and Niles shared the same womb for nine months, they are very different. Holland is cruel and sadistic. He enjoys hurting and killing people and animals. Niles is just the opposite. He is a ray of sunshine and a help to his shut-in mother and his elderly Russian grandmother. Niles worships Holland. The good drawn to the bad. A moth to flame.

The Other is a breezy and clever (you might say, gimmicky) 288 pages and full of atmosphere. Can you guess the secret of The Others? If you can’t, the secret is revealed about three-quarter of the way through the novel. It has to do with twins Holland and Niles and the game of transference their grandmother teaches them. Holland gets what he deserves, but does angelic Niles deserve what he gets? It is, in a way, a story about mental illness.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

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