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The 42nd Parallel ~ A Capsule Book Review

The 42nd Parallel ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

With the trilogy U.S.A., John Dos Passos (1896-1970) took a stab at writing the great American novel of the twentieth century. The first book in the trilogy, The 42nd Parallel, is a panorama of American life from 1900 to the First World War, told through its fictional characters. All the characters are striving, desiring, climbing, grappling with the world in one way or another, trying to overcome the circumstances of their birth and attempting to rise in the world.

The 42nd Parallel is written in an “experimental” style (but still very accessible to the reader), meaning that there is no continuous narrative, but the story moves from character to character (some of whose paths eventually converge). All the characters are fascinating American types (the handsome business tycoon with an eye for the ladies and a difficult wife; the young working man who believes in workers’ rights and the coming socialist revolution; the young woman struggling to make a place for herself in a business world dominated by men; the young auto mechanic who doesn’t have much luck with the women or with keeping a job). The characters are swept along on the wave of history, whether it’s revolution in Mexico or Russia, war, labor unrest, the loosening of nineteenth century moral standards, or the changing political landscape which seems to be tending toward socialism.

Another thing that makes The 42nd Parallel unique is that the narrative is interspersed with brief:

  • “The Camera Eye” sections, autobiographical vignettes in the stream of consciousness style, which means they don’t always make much sense.
  • “Newsreels” sections, consisting of (sometimes) relevant front-page headlines.
  • “Biography” sections, short accounts of the some of the notable people of the first two decades of the twentieth century, such as Thomas Edison, Eugene Debs and Henry Ford.

“The Camera Eye,” “Newsreels,” and “Biography” sections are not as annoying and intrusive to the story as you might think. They are thankfully short and easy to read. They serve more as a brief respite (like a scene change) to the story.

If you are an avid reader (like me) or a student of American literature, you will love The 42nd Parallel. It’s a real piece of Americana and one of the greatest and most unique literary creations of the twentieth century. I haven’t yet read the other two parts of the trilogy (1919 and The Big Money), but I intend to read them very soon.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp  

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The Last Picture Show ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Last Picture Show ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Larry McMurtry’s 1966 novel, The Last Picture Show, is set in the fictional town of Thalia, Texas, in the 1950s. Thalia sits on the edge of the prairie where it’s windy and dusty and hot. There’s a Main Street with a picture show, a café, a poolhall, and not much else. In the way of small towns everywhere, the people of Thalia don’t have much to do, but there’s always gossip—everybody knows everything about everybody else—and if you happen to be different in some way from the other people in the town, you’d better watch out because they’re coming to get you.

Sonny and Duane are high schoolers and best friends. Sonny is sensitive and Duane is a brawler. They both like to drink and carouse and they don’t have to worry about what their parents think because they are both living on their own, free of family. Even though they’re both still in high school, they don’t let it bother them much. They aren’t much interested in education.

Sonny has an unattractive girlfriend named Charlene Duggs. She’s overweight and already possesses the bitchy qualities of a middle-aged shrew. Everybody who knows Sonny believes he could do better. Sonny secretly envies Duane, who dates the prettiest, most-stylish girl in school, Jacy Farrow. Jacy is self-centered, vain, manipulative, and she doesn’t care who she hurts as long as she gets what she wants. (We’ve all known people like this.)

When the good-ol’-boy football coach enlists Sonny to drive his wife, Ruth, to the clinic, Sonny sees that Ruth seems awfully lonely and unhappy. They begin a sexual affair—she’s forty and he’s seventeen—meeting afternoons in her bedroom while the coach is at school. Ruth experiences a sexual reawakening with Sonny. With the age difference, though, you know someone younger is bound to turn Sonny’s head and when it happens it’s none other than Jacy Farrow, who has broken up with Duane. Forty-year-old Ruth is easy for Sonny to put out of his mind when he can have Jacy.

There are other interesting characters in the novel, including Sam the Lion, a sort of father figure to everybody—he owns the poolhall, picture show and café; Genevieve, the world-weary waitress at the café whom the boys secretly lust after; Lois Farrow, Jacy’s smart-mouthed mother, who gave her husband so much hell he just had to go out and make a million dollars just to please her.

The Last Picture Show is a slice of small-town life and also a growing-up, coming-of-age story. It’s about change, the good kind and the bad kind that throws you for a loop and makes you wish you had never been born. It’s a breezy 245 pages that you can read without taxing your brain too much. And who can forget the 1971 movie version (two acting Oscars) of the novel, a good example of how to make a movie from a book and do it right.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp    

Memoirs of Hadrian ~ A Capsule Book Review

Memoirs of Hadrian ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Hadrian was born in 76 A.D. and became emperor of the Roman Empire in the year 117, at age 41. His reign lasted until his death in 138, at age 62. Hadrian was known as one of the five “good emperors,” meaning he was known for his peaceful reign, rather than for cruelty or for the extravagant vices that some of his predecessors were known for. Hadrian is known mainly today for three things: his love for Antinous, a Bithynian youth (Bithynia is today part of Turkey), who died at age 19 by drowning in the Nile River; for having built the famous Pantheon in Rome (or at least having it finished); and for a wall he had built in Britain (parts of which still remain) known as “Hadrian’s Wall,” which was supposed to keep the “barbarian hordes” out of territory belonging to the Roman Empire.

Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar, is a historical novel, a fictional account of Hadrian’s life and times. Although fiction, it is based on extensive historical research, which the Bibliographical Note at the end of the novel explains. It is told in Hadrian’s voice, from his point of view, as if he, from across the centuries, was writing it himself. It is an extended letter to 17-year-old Marcus Aurelius, future emperor-to-be.

Of course, as emperor of one-third of the earth’s population at the time, Hadrian had many problems, many ups and downs. The emperor was essentially a warrior, a general holding together the military factions of his empire and, as such, was often in peril of his life. There were always the greedy, the ambitious, the selfish who wanted to destroy the emperor in an effort to attain their own ends. Hadrian was by all accounts a modest man, not interested so much in being loved or admired. He believed that true love and admiration from the people must be earned, rather than automatically given just because one has fallen heir to a powerful position.

The most dramatic event in Hadrian’s life was his love for Antinous, the beautiful youth whom he watched grow into manhood. Antinous was Hadrian’s better self, his constant companion, the emotional axis of Hadrian’s life during the years they were together. Their love was a love for the ages, like that of Achilles and Patroclus centuries earlier. When Antinous committed suicide (apparently) by drowning himself in the Nile River at age 19, Hadrian was never the same again, living for about eight more years. He “deified” Antinous, building a city (Antinoopolis) in Egypt to his memory. Many statues, coins, and other works of art bore Antinous’s image. A cult was built up around his name and memory. When Hadrian died of a “dropsical” heart in 138 A.D., one can’t help but believe that the two of them were reunited in death.

Memoirs of Hadrian was first published in 1951, in French, and later translated into English. It is a glimpse into another time and place into the mind of a man who lived so long ago that it’s difficult for us to imagine. Despite its historical subject matter and its moderately dense prose, it is never very difficult reading, especially after the first fifty pages or so. Not for everybody, but if you make it through to the end, you will find it immensely rewarding and memorable.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp 

A Clockwork Orange ~ A Capsule Book Review

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A Clockwork Orange ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Besides classical music (especially Ludwig van Beethoven and Johann Sebastian Bach), Alex loves ultra-violence. He is only fifteen, but every evening he meets his three “droogs” (Pete, Georgie and Dim) to go out and terrorize anybody unfortunate enough to fall into their clutches on the streets. They especially target the elderly and those incapable of defending themselves. The “millicents” (police) are not very effective against these roving bands of predatory thugs, so most people, if they are able to reason things out, do not go out at night.

Alex lives with his “pee and em” (parents) on the tenth floor of a building of flats. The pee and em think Alex is a good boy who has an evening job that brings in a little money. He is good at making them think whatever he wants them to think. They don’t know that he gets his money from stealing and from robbing innocent victims. (When his father asks him just exactly what his evening job is, he politely sidesteps the issue.)

After a while things start to go bad for Alex, oh my brothers! His droogs turn on him and challenge his authority as their leader. What’s even worse, a “baboochka” (old woman) he beats up during a home burglary dies of her injuries and the millicents, finally, catch him and sentence him to twenty years behind bars. Well, conditions are terrible in prison, with six to a cell, and after a few months Alex kills another prisoner. Because he is young, authorities believe he is worth reclaiming, so they put him in a special treatment program (the Ludovico technique), whereby he will be “cured” of his violent criminal tendencies and released back into society in a fortnight. He doesn’t know, of course, that the treatment is the worst thing he will ever experience in his life.

The treatment consists of, besides drugs, “associative conditioning” in which Alex is forced (strapped to a table, eyes forcibly kept open) to watch films set to music of tortures, rapes, stabbings, murders and assorted acts of violence. The violence he is forced to witness in the films makes Alex so ill that, presumably, he will never be able to commit such acts again himself. But, wait a minute, isn’t the government going too far with this treatment? By taking away Alex’s free will to decide for himself, aren’t they turning him into a “clockwork orange,” a being that is organic and mechanical at the same time? After Alex is cured, maybe he will need a “cure” for the cure.

A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, was first published in 1963. It is set in Britain, in a frightening distant future. It is Alex’s story, told in his voice, so it’s what he thinks and what he feels. The slang the characters in the novel use is called “nadsat” (teenage) language. If you are a new reader, approaching A Clockwork Orange for the first time, don’t be put off by the slang. You can almost always tell, by word association, what the word is supposed to be. In the paperback edition I read (two times now), there’s a glossary in the back of the book to translate the slang into recognizable English words.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp 

True Grit ~ A Capsule Book Review

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True Grit ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Mattie Ross is the first-person narrator of Charles Portis’s novel, True Grit. She is a fourteen-year-old Arkansas girl whose father is murdered by a drunken hooligan named Tom Chaney (an alias) in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in 1870. Mattie is old beyond her years and knows how to take care of herself in a man’s world. She sets out to seek justice, to avenge the murder of her father, but she’s going to need some help.

When Mattie is advised that a man named Rooster Cogburn is the toughest of the U.S. marshals, she decides he is the right man for the job. She will pay him one hundred dollars, a formidable sum for 1870, to go into the Navajo Nation (Kansas) to bring Tom Chaney back to Fort Smith so she can have the satisfaction of seeing him hang. She will not back down for any reason until she gets what she wants. Danger on the trail, hardship and discomfort, mean nothing to her.

Rooster Cogburn is a crusty old soul who loves his liquor and has been known, on occasion, to be on the wrong side of the law, but he has a streak of decency, which Mattie soon discovers. He will do what’s right, even if he has to resort to extreme measures. He is the perfect complement to Mattie’s character.

In Fort Smith, before departing on their quest, Mattie and Rooster meet LaBoeuf, a swaggering Texas ranger who is also on the trail of Tom Chaney. He and Rooster try to leave Mattie behind, but they soon discover they are no match for her determination.

Mattie, Rooster and LaBoeuf have their setbacks on the trail of Tom Chaney, including winter weather, but Rooster, even in a drunken stupor, knows what he’s doing, knows the land, and knows how to get what, or who, he’s after. Tom Chaney is, after all, a little man and not very bright. He has joined up with a band of outlaws known as the Ned Pepper Gang, notorious for having recently robbed a train.

True Grit is an American classic Western adventure that might be read and appreciated by all age groups. I first read it when I was in college and, since my copy had long-ago fallen by the wayside, I bought it from Amazon and read it again (considerably more expensive the second time I bought it). It was first published in 1968 and was soon after made into a movie with John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn. It was again made into a movie in 2010, in a version by the Coen brothers that more closely follows the novel.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Slaughterhouse-Five ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Slaughterhouse-Five ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Billy Pilgrim is the main character in Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war satire, Slaughterhouse-Five. He “comes unstuck in time” and moves all around in his life, from his childhood, to his experiences in World War II, to his wedding night, to a plane crash in Vermont in which he is only one of two survivors, to his time held captive on an alien planet called Tralfamadore millions of light years from earth.

In World War II, Billy Pilgrim is an indifferent warrior. He doesn’t like war and “won’t do anything to protect himself.” He is captured by the Germans (in Germany, no less) and held with a hundred other American soldiers as a prisoner of war. He is present at the horrible firebombing by the Allies (the U.S. and Britain) of the charming German city of Dresden in the closing days of the war. Everybody in Dresden is incinerated, but Billy and the other American POWs survive because they are in a slaughterhouse deep under the earth (“Slaughterhouse-Five”). Everything in Billy’s life happens by chance. He is either very lucky or very unlucky.

After the war Billy becomes an optometrist and manages to be successful in terms of how much money he has. He marries the boss’s unattractive daughter, Valencia Merble, and the two of them eventually have two children: Robert, who is troubled and misguided as a youth but gets himself straightened out and becomes a Green Beret in Vietnam; and Barbara, an authoritative girl who treats Billy in middle-age as if he is helpless and feebleminded. Billy isn’t a very effective or attentive father or husband.

The creatures on Tralfamadore have eyes in their hands. They perceive the world in four dimensions instead of the usual three that earthlings use. This allows them to see all time at once. Maybe this is why Billy Pilgrim moves all around in his life, backward and forward, instead of living a day at a time in progression the way earthlings do. When he is held captive on Tralfamadore, he is treated humanely but held in a sort of zoo where Tralfamadorians look at him all day long. He is “mated” with another captive from earth, a porn actress named Montana Wildhack, and the two of them have a child together.

Slaughterhouse-Five is not a serious novel, even though the pivotal event in the book is the hellish World War II firebombing of Dresden. It is, we are told in the background information, American writer Kurt Vonnegut’s most popular and influential novel. It ranks number 18 on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred best books in English of the twentieth century. During the fifty years of its publishing history, it has been banned by certain schools and libraries because of its language and depiction of sex acts, but it seems very mild by today’s standards. It is not a very long novel and is easy to read, despite its nonlinear structure. If you are confused at first by what his going on, just keep reading and it will all become clear. It’s art and it pushes the boundaries, a little bit but not too much.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

The Sheltering Sky ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Sheltering Sky ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Porter “Port” Moresby and his wife Katherine “Kit” Moresby are affluent Americans traveling in Northern Africa in the 1940s, in the years following World War II. They are “travelers” rather than “tourists,” the difference being that tourists have a destination in mind and a designated time to return home. As we see as the novel unfolds, the region of the Sahara Desert is a not a hospitable place for Americans to travel in; it’s hot and dusty, travel is uncomfortable and unreliable, hotel accommodations are substandard at best, and there’s nothing really to see or do in the Sahara once you’ve taken in the mystery and vastness of the desert, which you can do in one day or less. (All right, let’s go home now.) Why Port and Kit are putting themselves through such torture is never really explained, except that they seem to be trying to get away from something (themselves?) and, also, in choosing where to go, they are interested in parts of the world that haven’t been affected by the war.

Kit Moresby is attractive, which turns out to be her undoing. We’re never told anything about what Port looks like, except that he’s young, so I think it’s probably safe to assume that he’s nothing special in the looks department. They’ve invited along a friend, a man named Tunner, who, though he is handsome, is shallow and something of a nuisance at times. Port doesn’t especially like Tunner but instead tolerates him. Kit is unfaithful with Tunner for at least one night, for which she feels guilty. She wonders if she should confess her infidelity to Port.

In their travels through the cities and towns of the Sahara, Port and Kit encounter fellow travelers Eric Lyle (think Peter Lorre) and his loudmouth mother (think Florence Bates). Eric is cloying and supercilious, dominated by his boorish, petty mother. He asks Port for money and ends up stealing his passport (which can be exchanged for ready cash), causing no end of trouble. These are brilliant and immediately identifiable secondary characters.

After a continual moving about from place to place (with each new place worse than the one before), Port becomes ill with (we learn later) typhoid. There are no doctors to speak of and no hospitals, so he has only a bottle of pills that somebody gives him to help him with his illness. Kit stays by his side while he is sick but after he dies she goes off on her own, not even staying behind to see that he is buried properly. This is where the novel takes on a different aspect with Kit the dominant character.

After all Kit has been through (poor puss), she has a “breakdown” in the desert and doesn’t even seem to know where she is or what she is doing. She is picked up by some Arab men traveling in a caravan and becomes the sex slave of at least two of them. She believes she is in love with the younger of the two Arabs, Belqassim, and submits to him willingly on a daily basis (he “visits” her in the afternoons in the room where she is kept locked up). She becomes his “wife,” even though he already has several wives who are jealous of this odd American lady, whom they believe at first to be a man because that is what Belqassim wants them to believe.

The Sheltering Sky, written by Paul Bowles, was first published in 1947. It is a unique kind of twentieth century American novel, in that its principal characters are American but it doesn’t take place in America and doesn’t deal with the American way of life. It might just as easily have written by an Englishman or a person of any other nationality who knows the Sahara region of North Africa. I’ve read The Sheltering Sky two times in my life, the first time over twenty years ago, and found it just as compulsively readable the second time as the first. If you are a reader, you will love The Sheltering Sky. Of the thousands of books I’ve read in my life, it is one of my favorites and highly recommended.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp