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The Medici Boy ~ A Capsule Book Review


The Medici Boy ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (better known as Donatello) was one of the most gifted sculptors and artisans of Renaissance Italy. He lived from 1386 to 1466 in the politically volatile city state of Florence. His bronze statue of David is among his greatest works and one of the most famous works of the Italian Renaissance. He shows David as a beautiful, delicately nude youth, a shepherd boy who has just slain the giant Goliath. We see David’s foot resting on Goliath’s head, a sword in his right hand, his left hand on his left hip and his left knee canted out. He is an almost androgynous figure with long, curling hair and a slight frame. He looks like anything other than a slayer of giants.

In The Medici Boy, John L’Heureux has written a purely fictional account of Donatello’s creation of his bronze statue of David and his obsessive and destructive love for the model, one Agnolo Mattei. Agnolo is a male whore, a bardassa. He prowls the streets at night, looking for men who will pay him to perform sex acts. (Donatello is, of course, a real person, while Agnolo is a fictional construct.) For all his physical appeal (some people don’t see it at all), Agnolo is a trouble-maker. He exerts a kind of spell over Donatello, a physical attraction that develops (for Donatello) into an all-consuming passion. Sodomy is, of course, a terrible sin and a crime in Florence, referred to as the “Florentine vice.” Men who engage in the forbidden practice are subject to severe punishment, including imprisonment, fines, or even death. (The penalty for each conviction is more severe than the one before.)

The Medici Boy is told in the first-person voice of one Luka Matteo, a worker in Donatello’s workshop (bottega). He is himself an artisan, but he also keeps the account books for the enterprise and handles other details that Donatello is too busy to handle himself. He has a wife, a former prostitute, and four children, two of whom are “carried off” by the Black Pest, a terrible disease that seems always to be lurking in the background in fifteenth century Italy.

Luka is a sort of step-brother to Agnolo, the male whore who has stolen Donatello’s heart, but he hates Agnolo for all the trouble he causes. (He is also a little bit jealous of Agnolo because he ingratiates himself with both men and woman.) When a political conflict erupts between the different factions in Florence, the opposing side hopes to use Agnolo to inform on Donatello, in an attempt to bring down the powerful Cosimo di Medici, a long-time associate and patron of Donatello.

For a speculative story about a real person (Donatello) in a real place (Florence, Italy), The Medici Boy is convincing and believable. We can easily believe that this is what “might have happened.” It’s obvious that the author has done a lot of research to render the time and place just right, although he has filled in the details of the lives of the characters with fictional details. It’s an easy and fascinating book to read, especially if you like historical fiction that removes you from your distasteful surroundings and transports you to another time and place. The sexual content is never graphic or offensive (after all, it was not written by Jacqueline Susann) and is handled in good taste and never sensationalized. Now that we have that out of the way, go and get the book and read it.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

This Side of Paradise ~ A Capsule Book Review

1920 First Edition cover

1920 First Edition cover

This Side of Paradise ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

F. Scott Fitzgerald had his first novel, This Side of Paradise, published in 1920, when he was only twenty-four years old. The central character in the novel is Amory Blaine, an arrogant, good-looking, heavy-drinking young man from a prosperous family. He has an indulgent mother who spoils him and a mousy father who doesn’t do much besides make money. Amory has what might be called a “golden” youth. He attends Princeton University where he and his friends spend a lot of time drinking, socializing, talking and intellectualizing, and having a good time. The glory of his youth is rather tarnished (it seems) by a series of unsuccessful love affairs with pretty but vapid girls. Each time he begins a new love affair, he believes it is the all-consuming passion of his life that will bring him eternal happiness and peace. None of them turn out the way he wants them to, however. He plans on marrying a girl named Rosalind Connage, but she throws him over at the last minute because she thinks he is essentially a loser who won’t ever be able to make enough money to suit her. Here we have one of the major themes of the novel: how the quest for money and social standing kill romance.

In his second year of college, the Great War (WWI) obtrudes. Amory enlists in the army because he believes it’s what he’s supposed to do (and because everybody else is doing it) and finds himself in France. While some of his best friends from college die in the war, Amory returns home (later he says he hated the army) to find a changed world. His father dies and his mother discovers they don’t have nearly as much money as they thought they did. (Is Amory going to be forced to go to work to earn a living?)

As Amory grows older, he becomes more disillusioned. His mother dies. His college friends die or drift away. Some investments left by his family that provide a portion of his income dry up (and this is long before the Depression). He’s afraid of being poor. He wants to write but doesn’t. He sees his youth slipping away, its promise unfulfilled. The book concludes with a long philosophical conversation he has with two men he doesn’t know (one of them turns out to be the father of a college friend who was killed in the war), in which he espouses his belief that Socialism will cure all the world’s ills. After all he goes through, he ends up by saying, “I know myself, but that is all.”

If we examine Fitzgerald’s life, we see that This Side of Paradise is largely autobiographical. Amory Blaine, his protagonist in the novel, is a heavy drinker, as was Fitzgerald (which probably contributed to his early death at age forty-four in 1940). Like Amory Blaine, Fitzgerald attended Princeton University, served a brief stint in the army during the war without seeing any real action, had some unhappy love affairs with debutantes, experienced financial reverses, and was disillusioned in early middle age.

This Side of Paradise is a novel that stops rather than ends. We imagine Amory Blaine going on for years to come, but we don’t know whether he’ll find happiness or not. He concludes, cynically, that if he finds someone to fall in love with and gets married, it will ruin him and keep him from being anything or doing anything. Romance is not the answer to anything. Will he find whatever he needs to make his life worth living? Probably not. He’ll more likely than not drink himself to death in a squalid hotel room with fly specks on the curtains and questionable stains on the carpet around the bed.  

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

This House is Haunted ~ A Capsule Book Review


This House is Haunted ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

This House is Haunted by John Boyne is a gothic ghost story set in Norfolk, England, in 1867. Eliza Caine is a plain, twenty-one-year-old teacher at a girls’ school in London. When she and her father, her only living relative, go to hear Charles Dickens do a reading from his work on a cold, rainy night, her father, already ill, catches a chill and dies. Now alone in the world, Eliza applies for, and gets, the position of governess to the Westerley family at Gaudlin Hall in Norfolk, England. (She doesn’t know the family’s name until later.) From the beginning, she knows almost nothing about the job; how many children there are or what the family is like. Her feeling of mystery only intensifies when she arrives at the crumbling old family mansion to begin her duties anew and finds nobody there except the two children, Isabella and Eustace. Isabella is older and seems to know things that nobody else knows; Eustace, at eight, is sweet and innocent.

Miss Caine discovers, to her horror, that she is just the most recent in a string of governesses. Only the governess right before her got away. All the others died mysterious deaths. Is she going to be next? As if several dead governesses before her isn’t bad enough, she soon feels a mysteriously malevolent and unseen force in the house that wants to get rid of her, to kill her if necessary. Slowly and bit by bit she learns the secret of Gaudlin Hall and the mysterious Westerley family for whom she works. Why doesn’t she just leave and go back to her old teaching job in London? She has grown attached to Isabella and Eustace, especially Eustace, and doesn’t want to leave them alone in the house. And she isn’t thinking only of the children, but also of herself; she is beginning to feel a growing romantic attachment to Mr. Raisin, the Westerley family lawyer, even though he is in his late thirties and already has a wife.

This House is Haunted seeks to emulate the Victorian writing style of Charles Dickens, but in its tone is more like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. A young, plain woman, educated and alone in the world, strikes out on her own to take a job in an unknown place far away from what she knows and there encounters mystery and unexpected romance. Unlike the works of Charles Dickens, though, or Charlotte Bronte, This House is Haunted is quick, breezy, light-weight reading. There’s nothing too surprising here. The horror is very mild, unlike the recent trend in movies and books of horrific, shocking, grisly horror.  The story is so familiar that it almost seems clichéd but is still thoughtful, entertaining, and well worth the time and effort to read it.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp  

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