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The Hessian ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Hessian ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Hessian by Howard Fast is set in 1781, in Colonial America during the Revolutionary War. A group of Hessians (German mercenaries fighting for the British) has landed in Connecticut. There are only sixteen of them, plus a drummer boy and a commander, but they are up to no good and the Colonials are rightly afraid of them. Hessians have been terrorizing the Colonials all during the war. They are highly skilled warriors who soldier for pay; the mostly untrained American soldiers are no match for them.

The Hessians come upon a halfwit named Saul Clamberham. Because he has a slate in his possession with some marks on it, they deduce he is a spy, so they hang him from a tree. A twelve-year-old boy named Jacob Heather witnesses the hanging from a distance. He, of course, runs and tells everybody what he has seen. A citizen militia, armed with any kind of guns they can lay their hands on, lays in wait behind a fence and ambushes the Hessians. All the Hessians are killed, except for the drummer boy, a teen named Hans Pohl who drops his drum and runs off into the hills. He has a bullet wound in his shoulder and doesn’t get far. He ends up at the home of a Quaker family named Heather. At their peril, the Heather family hides Hans Pohl in an upstairs room of their house and cares for his wound. He might die because the wound has become infected. Sally Heather, the sixteen-year-old daughter of the Heathers, sits by his bed and falls in love with him, not caring that he is one of the enemy.

A local doctor named Evan Feversham treats Hans Pohl at the Heather house, secretly, of course. Dr. Feversham is something of an outcast in the neighborhood because he is an Englishman who has come over to the American cause. The Heather family are also outcasts because they are Quakers, so they have something in common with Dr. Feversham. They all know they will be in serious trouble for hiding and taking care of Hans Pohl, the Hessian.

Authorities soon discover that the Heather family is hiding Hans Pohl. The Heathers are forced to give him up, with the promise he will be tried before he is hanged. The trial, when it is held, is a farce. Hans Pohl is tried for the murder of Saul Clamberham because he was present when it happened. It doesn’t matter how young Hans Pohl is or how innocent he appears. Because he is a Hessian, one of the enemy during wartime, he can’t be anything other than guilty.

The Hessian is told in the first-person voice of Dr. Feversham, the man who doesn’t quite belong. He is a battle-hardened veteran who believes in the American cause but also believes that anybody deserves to be treated for his wounds. He is cynical and realistic and knows that in wartime people don’t behave rationally. It’s a story that won’t have, can’t have, a happy ending. You never really learn what life is about. When you die, you don’t understand it any better than you did when you were born.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

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The Flatiron ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Flatiron ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

New York’s iconic Flatiron Building stands at the intersection of Broadway, Fifth Avenue and Twenty-third Street. It’s a triangular-shaped building twenty-two stories tall, completed in 1902. Art critics and arbiters of good taste hated it from the moment it was completed, while the public loved it. The photographer Alfred Stieglitz said the Flatiron is to New York what the Parthenon is to Athens.

The Flatiron was one of the first skyscrapers in New York. Thanks to the use of the steel framework, skyscrapers could be built taller and taller because the lower walls were no longer supporting the weight of the structure. George Allon Fuller (1851-1900) was credited with the invention of the skyscraper. Tall buildings became the trademark of New York. Real estate prices were exorbitant and, the higher the building, the more money investors could get on their investments. It was, and is, all about money. Somebody figured out that a skyscraper doesn’t become profitable until the thirteenth floor.

George Allon Fuller had a daughter named Allon. She married a man named Harry Black and he eventually took over the Fuller Company started by his father-in-law and became a powerful force in the building trades in New York. (The Fuller Company became known as the “Skyscraper Trust.”)

Harry Black wasn’t an architect or an engineer but a businessman, a builder and a wheeler-dealer. He was responsible for many of the landmark buildings that still stand today, including the New York Public Library and the lavish Plaza Hotel. He figures prominently in the story of the Flatiron. He and his wife Allon were divorced after ten years of marriage. She remarried and died at age 37 of pneumonia. He also remarried and committed suicide in 1930 at age 68.

The Flatiron, by Alice Sparberg Alexiou, is a fascinating nonfiction account of the Flatiron Building and the times in which it was built. It was a time of great excitement and growth in New York City, punctuated, of course, by periodic economic “downturns.” Many things were going on during this time. The steal industry flourished with the increased demand for steal used in skyscrapers. Moving pictures were in their infancy; the public was fascinated by this newest—and potentially profitable—form of entertainment. President William McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist; his vice-president, Theodore Roosevelt, then became president. The labor movement was becoming more and more powerful, causing headaches for employers and builders. In the basement of the Flatiron Building was a restaurant that seated 1500 people. It eventually became known for its jazz, another new form of American entertainment. Of course, the good times couldn’t last. They never do. The United States entered the “Great War” in 1917. Prohibition soon after closed down a lot of popular nightspots that served liquor. In 1929, the Great Depression wiped out the fortunes of a lot of the fabulously wealthy. Millionaires became paupers overnight. Nothing ever stays the same. Everything is always in a state of flux. Here today, gone tomorrow. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

The Way West ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Way West ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

For decades now, we’ve been able to get on a jet plane and fly from the middle of the country, Missouri, all the way to Oregon in the Pacific Northwest in a few hours. In the 1850s it wasn’t so easy. Back then, people traveled the distance in the most difficult way imaginable: in wagon trains of ten, fifteen or twenty wagons, usually one family to a wagon. The trains moved about ten to twelve miles a day, so the trip lasted for months. And the way was fraught with dangers and hardships, including canyons, wild rivers, mountains, vast distances without rest or water; extremes of heat, wind and cold; illness, disease and death; hostile, sometimes murderous, Indians; wild animals including buffalo and rattlesnakes (not to mention mosquitoes and other insects); the inevitable clash of personalities and all the jealousies and ugliness engendered by a group of human beings thrown together. The train comprises a microcosm, a world in miniature, the bad along with the good.

The Way West by A.B. Guthrie Jr. is the simple story of one such wagon train that sets out from Independence, Missouri, with its sites set on the storied land of Oregon. These wagon trains always had a “pilot,” an experienced man who usually knew what most of the travelers didn’t: the way was hard and dangerous and some of them weren’t going to make it. Dick Summers is the pilot in The Way West. He’s forty-nine years old, a widower, a mountain man who has traveled over the terrain before and knows what to expect. He always knows the best route to take, how to deal with the indigents, how to ford raging rivers, etc. Without him, the travelers would be doomed. Think of John Wayne.

Lije Evans was a farmer back in Missouri. Now he’s the captain of the wagon train. He tells the train when to stop and when to get a-goin’ again, but he relies heavily on Dick Summers for practical advice in all matters. Lije is traveling with his wife, Rebecca, his son, Brownie, and his faithful old dog, Rock. Lije is the central character in the novel. We see things through his eyes. His must deal with the usual collection of misfits and egocentric individuals who think they know more than he does. Thrown into the mix is a teenage temptress named Mercy McBee who—innocently enough, it seems—falls under the spell of a handsome married man, Curtis Mack, and ends up pregnant by him. Uh-oh! The leaders already said at the outset that they wouldn’t countenance adultery and fornication and would horsewhip any offenders.

The Way West is a solid, readable classic that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1950. It’s an American story about westward expansion and the search for a better life in the nineteenth century when the country just wasn’t big enough and people wanted to make it bigger. Now people are much softer. When I’m with a group of people and somebody is complaining about being cold in a stifling room or they want to have all the windows closed in an airless room because they’re afraid of bees getting in, I say, sarcastically, “That’s the pioneering spirit that made this country what it is today.” People today are whiny-assed crybabies who would never be able to suffer the hardship and discomfort of traveling across a continent in a covered wagon to live in an unknown place they’ve never seen before. Does everybody have their cell phones, and how on earth are we going to charge them? How about anti-anxiety pills? Does everybody have theirs? You’re certainly going to need them when an Indian tries to scalp you.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Herman Melville ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Herman Melville ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Herman Melville, by brainy Melville scholar Elizabeth Hardwick, is a short (158 pages) biography in the “Penguin Lives” series. It is an overview of Melville’s life and a dissection of each of his major works, beginning with Redburn, Omoo, Mardi, Typee, and on to Moby Dick and later works such as the short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” and the short novel Billy Budd.    

In a nineteenth century American novel class in college, they had us read Herman Melville’s massive and difficult novel Moby Dick. We had a week to read it, study it, and uncover its secrets. The next week we were to move on to Henry James’ The Ambassadors, which is also a very difficult novel to read. (What is wrong with these people?)

While Moby Dick is notoriously difficult to read, most people in the know agree that it is the greatest American novel ever written. Its central character, Captain Ahab, is a driven megalomaniac. In an earlier encounter with the monster white whale, Captain Ahab lost a leg. Now, spurred onward by vengeance, he will risk his ship, The Pequod, and all the men on it for another chance to bring down the whale that has come to be known as Moby Dick. The whale is a symbol for something. Just what it is a symbol for has never quite been established. Of course, the question has sparked endless speculation.

By all accounts, Herman Melville (1819- 1891) did not have a happy life. When he was young, he worked on a whaling ship, abandoning ship once in Liverpool. This shipboard experience gave him the experience he needed for his books. He lived with his family in New York in shabby gentility. He always had money worries and was frequently on the verge of bankruptcy. He met the by-then established writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was fifteen years older than Melville; the two of them became acquaintances, if not the best of friends. He was unhappily married, while his sexual interests seemed to lie elsewhere. (His writing is full of “homoerotic yearnings.”) He was the prolific (and fast) writer of many books, but he was never commercially successful during his lifetime. Of his four children (two boys and two girls), one of his sons committed suicide at age eighteen and the other died in faraway California at age thirty-five. Of his two daughters, one was debilitated by rheumatoid arthritis.

When Herman Melville died at age seventy-two, he was mostly forgotten, spending the last nineteen or so years of his life working as a clerk for a meager salary. It wasn’t until the 1920s that there was a great revival of interest in him and his work, particularly the novel Moby Dick and two shorter works, “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Billy Budd.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Intruder in the Dust ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Intruder in the Dust ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

In the small town of Oxford, Mississippi, a white man named Vinson Gowrie is murdered, while a black man named Lucas Beauchamp stands accused and is put in jail. The Gowries (from “Beat Four”) are sure to want revenge. They can get enough of their redneck friends together to storm the jail and remove Lucas Beauchamp and lynch him. The law is conceivably helpless against such a mob.

A sixteen-year-old boy name Charles “Chick” Mallison is convinced of Lucas’s innocence, while everybody else believes he is guilty. When he was twelve years old, out hunting in the woods, Chick fell into the river and was pulled out by Lucas Beauchamp. Lucas took him home with him, gave him dry clothes and half his dinner. Chick tried to pay him for his kindness with some coins he had, but Lucas didn’t take well to being given money by a white child. Chick never forgot Lucas’s kindness, his dignity, and how much he was unlike other black people of his acquaintance.

With little more than a hunch to go on, Chick wants to prove that Lucas is innocent. He gets his friend, Aleck Sander (a black youth his own age), to go along with him to the cemetery where Vincent Gowrie is buried, miles outside of town. But, wait a minute, there’s at least one adult who also believes Lucas is innocent. A seventy-year-old spinster named Miss Habersham grew up with Lucas’s now-deceased wife, so she has a personal interest in the matter. She goes along on the nighttime visit to the cemetery to dig up Vinson Gowrie’s body and take it back to town so it can be examined by an expert to prove that Lucas’s gun didn’t fire the fatal bullet.

Well, wouldn’t you know it? There’s a body in Vincent Gowrie’s grave all right, but it’s not Vincent Gowrie. Now it becomes a murder mystery. While everybody else is waiting around for the Gowries to lynch Lucas Beauchamp, a handful of people (Chick Mallison, his lawyer uncle, Miss Habersham) are willing to miss sleep and put themselves out to prove that something more sinister is going on that a black man murdering a white man in a small Southern town.

Intruder in the Dust was first published in 1948. It is, we are told, William Faulkner’s answer to race relations in the South. It’s written in a stream of consciousness style, making it wordy and at times difficult to read. Some of the sentences are hundreds of words long and some of the paragraphs go on for two pages or more. A thought will obtrude on a thought and then another thought will obtrude on that thought. Faulkner was the supreme literary stylist of American literature. Nobody else even comes close.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

The Truce ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Truce ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Mario Benedetti was a Uruguayan writer who lived from 1920 to 2009. Although not well known in the English-speaking world, he is considered one of the most important Latin American writers of the second half of the twentieth century. His novel, The Truce, was first published in 1960. The 2015 Penguin Classics edition was translated from Spanish to English by Harry Morales.

The subtitle of The Truce is The Diary of Martín Santomé. Martín Santomé is the common man protagonist of The Truce and, as such, he is subject to all the ills and foibles of being alive. He doesn’t have a lot of money and isn’t especially smart or well educated. He has spent his life toiling in a tedious accounting job (“…that sentence of being ensnared in something unimportant for eight hours, something which inflates the bank account of those useless people who sin by the mere fact of being alive…”). At forty-nine, he is a few months away from retirement, but, instead of looking forward to retirement, he doesn’t know how well he is going to take to it.

Martín’s private life is no more exemplary than his professional one. He has been a widower since age twenty-eight. (His wife, Isabel, was twenty-five when she died of complications of childbirth.) He has had perfunctory affairs with women, one-night stands, but nothing that lasts. His three grown children (Esteban, Blanca and Jaime) live with him but he is not good at understanding them or communicating with them. When his son Jaime confesses to him that he is gay, he writes: “My son is a queer. A queer…I would have preferred that he turn out to be a thief, a morphine addict or an imbecile. I would like to feel pity for him, but I can’t.”

There is a young woman half his age with whom he works in his office. Her first name is Laura, but he refers to her always by her last name, Avellaneda. He is drawn to her in a way that is new for him. When he discovers the attraction he feels for her is reciprocated, the two of them begin a tentative affair. It is this affair that forms the emotional core of the novel.

Avellaneda and Martín rent an apartment together, but their happiness seems as fragile as a helium balloon. He knows he is not the man he once was. The difference in their ages bothers him more than it does her. If they remain together for any length of time, will she end up dumping him for a younger man? Adding to his anxieties is the feeling that his own children, especially Esteban, disapprove of his seeing a woman other than their mother.

Instead of chapters, The Truce is divided into diary entries, making it very easy to read in Martín Santomé’s first-person voice. And, although set in the exotic (to us) locale of Montevideo, Uruguay, it could be anywhere. Its themes of loneliness, love and loss are universal.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

From the Earth to the Moon ~ A Capsule Book Review

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From the Earth to the Moon ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

From the Earth to the Moon is an 1865 science fiction/fantasy novel by Jules Verne. Even though Jules Verne was a Frenchman and wrote in French, the novel is set in America because that is where people think big and accomplish the impossible.

The Civil War has ended and American military men are unhappy that there’s nobody else to fight. But, wait a minute, there’s some other way for these people to expend their excess energy. The president of the Baltimore Gun Club, one Impey Barbicane (with a name like that, we know we’re not being serious), comes up with the interesting idea of shooting a projectile all the way to the moon out of a cannon. It won’t be easy, of course, but these are Americans, and they don’t know the meaning of “impossible.”

Soon people all over the world are fascinated by the idea of sending a vessel to the moon. Most think it’s a good idea whose time has come, but there are always the naysayers who are sure it’s a disaster in the making. Donations come pouring in from every part of the globe, in the millions, to finance the expensive project.

It’s going to take a very large cannon to shoot a projectile with enough force to traverse the quarter-of-a-million miles between the earth and the moon. It is decided, after much thought and research, that the cannon will have to be nine hundred feet long, buried in the ground, and will be ignited with something known as guncotton. The place chosen for the cannon is Florida because it’s part of the United States proper and is below the twenty-eighth parallel, which is necessary to allow for the best shot at the moon. And, since the moon and the earth are constantly moving, the projectile must be launched at a certain time to be capable of reaching the moon. Many thousands of people, from all over the world, are fascinated by the prospect of a vessel traveling to the moon and converge on Florida, making a city out of a wasteland.

Many chapters are devoted to the construction of the cannon and the logistical problems that must be overcome to send a vessel to the moon. In the spirit of American adventurism, no problem is too difficult. As the date for the launch approaches, Impey Barbicane and two other of his associates decide they will make the trip more interesting by placing themselves in the projectile and riding along to the moon. After they figure out problems of food, water and air, there isn’t anything that will stop them. Are there people on the moon and, if so, how will they receive men from earth? Are there fearsome animals that might be dangerous? The intrepid trio take along firearms just in case.

From the Earth to the Moon is interesting because it’s written by a master of the fantasy/fantastic genre and is a nineteenth century Frenchman’s view of America, complete with boastful characters who love to fight and never shrink from a challenge. There’s lots of humor in the novel and a lightness to the proceedings. We never once think that Impey Barbicane and his two compatriots will die in the vessel or that they won’t be able to return safely to earth. There is no death in a book like this. Death is not part of the equation.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp