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1919 ~ A Capsule Book Review

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1919 ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

American writer John Dos Passos wrote three novels in the 1930s that is really one extended novel of 1200 pages that came to be known as the trilogy U.S.A. The three installments of the U.S.A. trilogy are The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). U.S.A. is a saga of American life as seen through the eyes of some of its more ordinary everyday people: a sailor, a set designer, a stenographer, a marketing man, a college man, a labor activist, a pampered Texas belle, a mechanic, etc. Life for these characters is at times cynical, gritty, ugly, difficult, frightening, tiresome, worrisome, unglamorous, prosaic, confusing and confounding.

The Great War (“The War to End All Wars”) was the overlying event in American life in the late teens. Woodrow Wilson ran for (and won) the presidency in 1916 with the promise to keep America out of the European war, but it was drawn in eventually, anyway. In 1919, we see some of the characters who were introduced in The 42nd Parallel living in Paris in pursuit of the war effort. It seemed it was the thing to do for stylish young women to go to Paris and volunteer their services, more in the pursuit of glamor or having a good time or finding a suitable man than out of a sense of service to mankind.

Another important topic in the novel is socialism and the impending (it was believed) worldwide workers’ revolution. With the revolution in Russia in 1917 and then with the Great War, many people believed the stage was being set for the world (and the United States) to abandon capitalism and democracy and revert to a system of government for the people (the workers) and not for a few elites to accrue wealth. (Background information reveals that John Dos Passos was himself an ardent leftist.)

The U.S.A. trilogy is a landmark of American fiction, although it’s not what we might call a people pleaser or a bestseller. It’s accessible to the modern reader and well worth the time and effort to read it, but it doesn’t have a central character that we (the reader) might root for, and there is really no plot to speak of because the story moves around from one character and one situation to another. And, then, there are the Camera Eye and Newsreel sections, which are described as “experimental” (many people are put off, including me, by the word “experimental” when it’s applied to fiction). There’s plenty here of interest, though, especially if you are a student of literature or American fiction of the twentieth century.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

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The Dirty Parts of the Bible ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Dirty Parts of the Bible ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The time is 1936. Tobias Henry is twenty years old, but sometimes he acts like he’s twelve or thirteen. He’s a Baptist preacher’s son from Michigan who has led an altogether sheltered life. (His one goal in life is to have sexual intercourse with a girl before the “Rapture.”) While Tobias’s pious father spouts scripture whenever it suits him, he skillfully avoids mention of the “dirty parts of the Bible,” namely The Song of Solomon, where breasts are openly and frequently discussed.

When Tobias’s father gets drunk and smashes his car into the church, the Baptists decide they no longer want him to be their preacher. They give him his walking papers; he has sixty days to clear out. The Henry family is about to become destitute. Wait one damn minute, though! Tobias’s father hid a bag of money—a lot of money—in a well in Texas some twenty years earlier. He draws a map where he left the money. If Tobias can go on his own to Texas and find the money and bring it back, the family will be saved.

Right away, Tobias’s trip to Texas doesn’t go as planned. He ends up in a whorehouse in St. Louis, where he has a not-very-pleasant encounter (not a sexual one) with a jaded whore, whose only interest is in stealing Tobias’s money. From that point on, things only get worse. He loses his suitcase, along with the map to find the money, and ends up living the life of a hobo, living in a “Hooverville,” eating “Hoover steaks” (sardines), and riding the rails in boxcars. An old, philosophical hobo with a hook for a hand, named Cornelius McCraw (“Craw” for short), becomes his mentor and protector and teaches him some of the tricks of survival, such as how to catch a catfish when you’re starving and how to run from the law.

Eventually Tobias and Craw make it to Texas and the home of Tobias’s uncle and aunt. The uncle gives them a place to stay and puts them to work but won’t allow Craw into the house because he’s a black man. Tobias meets Sarah, a strange girl who believes (and everybody else believes it, too) that she is under an ancient Indian curse that makes her boyfriends die young.

In a roundabout way, Tobias finds his way to the lost money in the well, but it’s not the lifesaver his family hoped it would be. There’s money forthcoming, however, from another, unexpected source that will keep the Henry family from ending up on the poor farm. More importantly, Tobias discovers love—and sex—with the Texas girl Sarah. “Where did you learn to swear?” Sarah asks Tobias. “From my mother,” he says. “I can’t wait to meet her,” Sarah says.

The Dirty Parts of the Bible, by a writer named Sam Torode, is a too-cute, coming-of-age story with a simplistic plot and predictable characters. What I’m saying is, there’s not much depth here, although it is well written and engaging. It’s light summer reading if that’s what you’re looking for. It’s pleasant, fast, easy reading that will not require you to use your brain. Try not to roll your eyes too much while you’re reading it.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Overstory ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Overstory ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Richard Powers’ novel, The Overstory, is this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. It’s a big novel, 500 dense pages, that took me almost three weeks to read. It’s a big story about big ideas. People don’t matter much where big ideas are concerned. You see, the earth has grown too overcrowded. The earth has to sustain seven billion (and counting) people. Trees are something that most people don’t ever think about. Trees play an important part in keeping the world functioning the way it’s supposed to. They replenish the air we breathe. Their roots keep the soil from coming apart. They provide food and medicine. Birds and small animals live in trees and rely on them for their livelihood. Trees are beautiful and capable of inspiring awe in insignificant humans—that is, those humans who are able to put aside their cell phones long enough to pay attention.

The world’s forests are dwindling at an alarming rate. The human race is an insatiable beast that must be fed. People must be kept happy and comfortable, oftentimes at the expense of the earth’s resources. People don’t seem to be aware of what’s going on, or, if they are aware, they don’t much care. Many species of trees in the world are extinct and more are becoming extinct every year. A few dedicated souls are establishing seed banks where seeds can be stored and replanted at a later time but, if the human race is dead, who is going to plant the seeds? Aliens from outer space?

All the characters in The Overstory come to see the importance and significance of trees, each in his or her own way and in ways that most people don’t ever imagine. Nick is a lonely Iowa boy-man. He’s a sketch artist who sketches trees. His legacy is a gigantic and unusual tree that graced his family farm for generations. His life lacks meaning until one day Olivia comes along and changes it for him. She’s a self-absorbed college girl, a self-described “bitch,” who is electrocuted in her room at school and brought back to life. After she is revived, she hears “voices” that tell her to travel across the country to California because ancient trees there are being sacrificed to “progress.” Armed with nothing but their “cause,” Olivia and Nick set out across the country to California, where they become “environmental activists.” They “tree sit” in a California redwood that is marked for destruction; it’s a thousand years old and hundreds of feet high. The idea is that the tree can’t be cut down while people are living in it. Nick and Olivia live in the tree for almost a year until they are forced out and the tree is cut down. The lesson here is simple: When you fight the law, the law always wins. From being an “environmental activist,” it isn’t a very large step to being an “environmental terrorist.” Nick and Olivia make the step easily enough, along with others.

There are also other interesting and compelling characters in The Overstory. Dr. Patricia Westerford is a tree scientist. If anybody in the novel can be called the “lone voice in the wilderness,” it is her. She advances the theory that trees communicate with each other, help each other, know how to heal themselves, and know when they are going to die. She sounds the alarm about the number of species of trees that are vanishing, but most people are not willing to listen. These environmental people are very passionate, willing to give up everything they have, to die, even, for their cause.

Neelay Mehta is an Indian-American who, from an early age, is a computer whiz. As a high school student, he falls out of a tree he is climbing and breaks his back. From that point on, he is a paraplegic. His stunted body doesn’t keep him from achieving success, however. He starts a software computer company that makes wildly successful computer games. Despite his wealth and success, happiness eludes him. He wants always to create bigger and better programs that mirror the diversity and complexity of life on earth. In this way, he is God in miniature.

The Overstory is long, involved, and mostly involving. Reading it through to the end takes a considerable amount of time and effort but, despite its environmental subject matter, it never seems preachy, condescending, or pretentious. As long as it is, it’s not difficult to grasp for the, let us say, casual or unscientific reader. I would never have read it if it hadn’t won the Pulitzer Prize. I’m glad now that I did. I learned some things and it opened my eyes on the subject of trees and forests and the few people who will do anything, go to any lengths, to protect and preserve them.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Biograph Girl ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Biograph Girl ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Back in the early days of silent movies, in the first and second decades of the twentieth century, actors in movies were not identified to the public by name. The cult of personality surrounding the larger-than-life personages on the movie screen had not yet begun. It was not until the 1910s that one movie actor became known to the public by her own name. She was the official “first” movie star. She became wildly famous and popular, mobbed by adoring fans wherever she went. She was Florence Lawrence, known as the Biograph Girl, after the movie studio where she worked.

Florence Lawrence rode the wave of popularity and stardom for a number of years but, as always happens in Hollywood, the fickle public soon turned to other darlings of the screen such as Mary Pickford, and poor Florence Lawrence became one of the first in a long line of Hollywood has-beens whose name came to mean nothing. In 1938, at about age 50, she poisoned herself in her modest Hollywood home. Try as she might, she had never been able to regain her footing in the motion picture industry and reignite her early fame and success.

The Biograph Girl by William J. Mann is an imaginative “what-if” novel about Florence Lawrence. What if she really didn’t die in 1938? What if she used another woman’s suicide to make people think it was her and then continued to live for a long, long time? Not likely, you say? Well, strange and unexpected things can and do happen.

Fast-forward to the late 1990s. Two twin brothers, Richard and Ben Sheehan, one a journalist and the other a documentary film maker, discover a very old woman, 107 years old, living in a posh Catholic old folks’ home. After talking to her and finding out about her life, they discover that she is none other than Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl. They both immediately begin to calculate how they might exploit her. The documentary film maker, Ben, wants to make a film about her life, while his brother, Richard, wants to write a book about her. Not to worry, though. Florence Lawrence has an intrepid nun, Sister Jean, to stand in the way of all interlopers and protect her from the harsh and ugly realities of the modern world.

After Florence Lawrence is “re-discovered,” she becomes famous all over again, with appearances on TV talk shows and write-ups in magazines. She is so vital and lively to be 107 years old! How does she do it? Soon questions are raised about how Florence Lawrence faked her own death. Did she kill a woman to make people think it was her? Well, as might be expected, all the fame, publicity, eventual suspicion—and the surrounding innuendo—begin to wear the old woman down.

The Biograph Girl is entirely a fictional, speculative story based on the sad life of a real person from the early days of Hollywood and not in any way to be taken for reality or any facsimile of reality. It’s pop fiction for those seeking “light” reading. It’s way too long for what it is, nearly 500 big pages, and it takes a long time to get to the “pay-off” at the end. If it wasn’t so easy to read, you might stop reading about halfway through and read something else instead.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

French Exit ~ A Capsule Book Review

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French Exit ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Patrick DeWitt is an American novelist (b. 1975), whose previous works include The Sisters Brothers and Undermajordomo Minor. His latest is French Exit, a comic novel about a feckless New York widow, Francis Price (age 65), who spends her money without regard for how much might be left. When she discovers she has spent too freely and her money is all gone, she and her grown son, Malcom (age 32), are faced with the prospect of having to alter their way of living.

Francis Price has a very old cat named Small Frank. We discover, although we suspected it beforehand, that Francis’s husband, Franklin Price, who died twenty years earlier of a heart attack, lives inside (occupies) the cat. Francis didn’t especially like her husband and doesn’t especially like Small Frank but instead seems only to tolerate him. Small Frank goes everywhere Francis and Malcolm go. As a cat, he is completely self-sufficient. He is immune even to the dangers that city streets might pose to any other cat.

When Francis’s husband died in his bedroom, there was some controversy surrounding his death. Francis discovered Franklin dead and then went on a three-day skiing trip without letting anybody know what had happened. She was, subsequently, suspected of some wrongdoing in his death and spent a short time behind bars. It was, apparently, immediately after Franklin’s death that a cat (who later came to be Small Frank), was seen hanging around Franklin and seemed to be tête-à-tête, or at least mouth-to-mouth, with him.

Being the child of rich parents, laconic Malcolm Price never prepared himself to make a living and get along in the world on his own. As a 32-year-old man, he lives with his mother and is as dependent on her for his support as he was when he was a child. He has a girlfriend named Susan but, as with most things in his life, he can take her or leave her.

With all their money gone, Francis and Malcolm are locked out of their fancy New York apartment and need a place to live. Francis’s good friend, another wealthy socialite named Joan, tells Francis that she and Malcolm can live in her apartment in Paris, which is currently unoccupied. Francis and Malcolm board a passenger ship and set sail across the Atlantic for Paris, just as wealthy people used to do long ago. They take Small Frank with them to get on the boat but are told they will have to leave him behind because they don’t have any “papers” for him. With barely a backward glance, they leave Small Frank standing there alone at the point of embarkation. Not to worry, however. Small Frank manages to make his way to Francis’s stateroom, where he makes himself quite comfortable. Francis and Malcolm even take Small Frank into the dining salon with them, where he sits on a chair at the table. When a fussy waiter ejects Small Frank, he comes right back in when the waiter has his back turned, as cats are wont to do.

Francis and Malcolm live in Paris in much the same way they lived in New York; that is, with little thought of the future and blissfully unaware of the consequences of their own actions. Francis has retained a little of her fortune from the sale of some personal items, but she seems intent on spending the last of her money any foolish way she can. It seems she has a plan in mind for the future, or at least her own future. When Small Frank leaves home and takes up residence on the streets of Paris as a homeless cat, Francis consults a “psychic” named Madeleine she and Malcolm met coming over on the boat to try to locate him. Madeleine is able to contact Small Frank through the use of a séance, even though he isn’t dead but just in a bad way living on the Paris streets.

French Exit is perfectly written, far removed from reality, entertaining, clever, droll, witty, whimsical, offbeat, and unlike anything else. If you’re looking for these qualities in a novel, they are here in abundance.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Martian Chronicles ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Martian Chronicles ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury, was first published in 1950 and is set in a future time in the early 21st century, a time that we have now exceeded and passed. It is a collection of interrelated short stories that are almost but not quite a novel. The stories are all set on the planet Mars and are about earth people traveling to Mars, living on Mars and trying to survive on Mars. Mars may be the one planet in our solar system that is most like earth but, as the people in the book discover, living on Mars is not quite the same as living on earth.

In The Martian Chronicles, tens of thousands of people from earth are traveling to Mars because—you guessed it—mankind has defiled and annihilated earth and, for people to go on living, they must find a new planetary home. Mars, as we see it, is an eerie, lonely planet, with dried-up oceans, deserts and canals, and remnants of Martian cities that are thousands of years old.

Earth people on Mars, as you might imagine, are not good for Mars. They set about destroying Mars the same way they destroy earth and there’s nobody to stop them. The once-proud Martian race has all but died by the time the bulk of earth people arrive. There may be a few Martians still living, but they keep themselves hidden in the hills and are rarely seen.

The stories in The Martian Chronicles are divided into three parts. The first part is about the attempts of men from earth to reach Mars and the methods Martians use to keep them away. In the second part, humans from earth set about colonizing Mars, having all but wiped out the Martians with earth diseases, and are preoccupied with making Mars as much like earth as they can. However, as earth is about to be destroyed in a nuclear war, most of the earth colonists on Mars pack up and return home. The third part deals with the aftermath of the destructive war on earth and the few earth people still remaining who will become the new Martians because earth is gone and they have no place to return to.

The Martian Chronicles is intelligent, inventive and engaging, with just a touch of creepiness to enlighten the proceedings, as when an inventor, whose wife and children have died on Mars, makes look-alike robots to replace them, or when the Martians eliminate one of the expeditions from earth by using telepathy to make the men of the expedition think their long-dead relatives are alive and well on Mars. It’s classic sci-fi fantasy as only Ray Bradbury can do it.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Outer Dark ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Outer Dark ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The two main characters in Cormac McCarthy’s novel Outer Dark, brother and sister Culla and Rinthy Holme, are victims of poverty and ignorance. (She has no shoes, while he wears stolen boots.) Rinthy is nineteen. Culla is some older. Rinthy has a baby and Culla is the father. Apparently because he is ashamed of impregnating his own sister, Culla takes the nameless baby, a boy, and leaves him alone in the woods to die. The baby is picked up by a ragtag, itinerant tinker who travels around with his cart. Where the tinker takes the baby or for what reason is never made quite clear, but it can’t be for any good or because he is concerned for the baby’s welfare.

Rinthy and Culla undertake separate journeys, Rinthy to find the baby (her “chap”) and Culla to find Rinthy, or maybe he’s just looking for work. Wherever Rinthy goes in her quest to find her baby, she is mostly met with kindness, with people who feed and shelter her. With Culla it is just the opposite. Death and disaster follow in his wake. The people he encounters are menacing and more than once threaten him in some way. (Does the trio of despicable desperadoes who seem to be trailing him really exist, or have they been called forth by his sin?) Even nature is unforgiving for Culla. When he is crossing a ferry on a river, the cable holding the ferry in place inexplicably breaks and Culla nearly drowns. He survives, but would have possibly been better off to have drowned, considering what happens to him afterwards.

Can we say, then, that Rinthy is a child of light and Culla a child of darkness because of his sin of engaging in incestuous relations with his sister and then trying to destroy the evidence of the relationship? His biggest sin, however, is possibly his lack of awareness of his sin and his failure to seek redemption. (At the end of the book, Rinthy finds herself in a glade and Culla in a swamp.)

Cormac McCarthy, now 85 years old, is one of America’s greatest living writers, the only writer we have comparable to William Faulkner. Outer Dark is a fascinating exploration of sin and retribution (or the absence of retribution). I’ve read it twice, years apart, and found it compelling both times. It’s an example of how good contemporary American literature can be in the hands of an undisputed master.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp