Depraved ~ A Capsule Book Review

Depraved cover
Depraved
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Herman Webster Mudgett was born in a small town in New Hampshire in 1861. In young adulthood he became a doctor and changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes (or H. H. Holmes). He then embarked on a criminal career that included kidnapping, murder, arson, bigamy, insurance fraud, swindling, check forging, theft, grave-robbing, etcetera.

Because he was attractive, well-groomed, a stylish dresser and well-educated, he could easily ingratiate himself to people, men and women alike. The victims of his crimes never saw what was coming. Do you think he’d lock you in a bank vault and let you suffocate to death? No, he would never do that. His suit was too expensive, his mustache too neatly trimmed, his English too refined.

After moving to suburban Chicago, he purchased a drug store and became a druggist, but soon moved on to other business ventures. He built a block-long building nicknamed the Castle. It was a four-story mixed-use building, with apartments on the second floor and retail spaces, including a new drugstore. Reports by the sensationist press of the day called the building “Holmes’s Murder Castle,” claiming the structure contained secret torture chambers, trap doors, gas chambers and a basement crematorium. None of these claims turned out to be true. After he became well-known for his highly publicized crimes, much of what was written about him was untrue or exaggerated. Horrific, gruesome, bloody stories sold lots of newspapers.

By his own count, Dr. Holmes murdered twenty-seven people. Others claimed the number was much higher. He murdered a former college classmate in an insurance scheme. He inadvertently killed one of his girlfriends in a botched abortion. Because of his connection with the medical profession, he provided cadavers and skeletons to medical schools. Most of the people he murdered he did so to silence them. They knew too much about him or had become inconvenient to his plans.

What finally tripped him up was an insurance-fraud scheme. He and a “business partner,” Benjamin Pietzel, set out to defraud an insurance company of $10,000 (a fortune in the 1890s.) The plan was that Dr. Holmes would insure Benjamin Pietzel’s life, fake his death, collect on the policy and then the two of them split the profits. Dr. Holmes really did murder Pietzel, however, so he could keep all the insurance money for himself. He also murdered three of Pietzel’s five children to silence them.

He was tried and found guilty of the murder of Benjamin Pietzel. The police only needed to prove one of his murders to nab him. During his trial, he vehemently professed his innocence. He had done some bad things in his life, he said, but he never killed anybody. (His “confessions” about what he did or didn’t do might change daily.) He was hanged in Philadelphia in 1896, just short of his thirty-fifth birthday.

Depraved, by Harold Schechter, is the true-life story of Dr. H. H. Holmes, a man who became famous in the late nineteenth century for unspeakable murders and other crimes. He was, probably, what later would be called a sociopath or a psychopath. He himself said that, when he was born, Satan was there beside him and guided him through his life. At times he could sweetly profess shining innocence, but right at the end he admitted he was getting exactly what he deserved. Some people claimed he had supernatural abilities. After his death, several of the people who were instrumental in his capture and conviction met with unexplainable illnesses or had other misfortunes befall them.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

The Alienist ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Alienist cover
The Alienist
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Caleb Carr’s 1996 novel, The Alienist, is set in New York City in 1896. It is about a fictitious serial killer, the hunt for him, and the people doing the hunting. Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is the unorthodox “alienist” (psychiatrist) who takes it upon himself to find the killer. (The police are not interested in pursuing the case, for whatever reasons.) Dr. Kreizler enlists the aid of long-time friend John Schuyler Moore, a fashionable police reporter and man about town. Helping them is feminist Sara Howard, one of the first women to be employed by the New York Police Department (on an experimental basis, of course). She proves herself more than capable of doing whatever the men can do. She doesn’t want any of them to think she is inferior in any way because she is a woman. Rounding out the group are the Isaacson brothers (Lucius and Marcus), a pair of detective-sergeants trained in all kinds of detection arts that the others in the group aren’t privy to. Also offering support whenever it is needed (such as a fast getaway) are Cyrus and Stevie, a couple of loyal servants of Dr. Kreizler’s that he rescued from his mental-health practice.

New York in 1896 was a city of contrasts. Rich people lived in glittering palaces on Fifth Avenue, while, just blocks away, the poor lived in rows of squalid tenements. The serial killer could be just about anybody. No matter who he is, though, he is a definitely troubled. He selects his victims from children, but not just any children: they are “boy prostitutes.” He tortures and mutilates each of his victims in a certain manner that the group of investigators must try to make sense of. They assemble a psychological profile of the killer, based on little bits of information they can glean about him as they proceed. After much work and diligent research, they emerge with the information they need to apprehend the fiend. It is a triumph of good over evil.

The Alienist is meticulously detailed, atmospheric, and well-researched. It is a story about time and place as much as anything else. If you pick up the book and hold it in your hands, probably the first thing you will notice is that it is five hundred pages long. It will keep you turning the pages, but while you are reading it, you may well think it will never end. A little too long and too detailed? You decide.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp  

Young Mungo ~ A Capsule Book Review

Young Mungo cover
Young Mungo
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Mungo Hamilton is named after a saint. He lives in a tenement in present-day Glasgow, Scotland, with his irresponsible mother, Maureen Buchanan (Mo-Maw); his sympathetic but odd sister, Jodie; and his thuggish brother, Hamish (nicknamed “Ha-Ha.”)

Mungo is sixteen. He and his brother and sister frequently have to fend for themselves because Mo-Maw isn’t any kind of a mother at all. She is frequently absent, an unrepentant alcoholic. She is a slattern who cares more about attracting men than taking care of her three children. The men she attracts, of course, are hardly worth having. Her latest boyfriend’s name is Jocko.

Mungo’s sister, Jodie, is a sort of surrogate mother to Mungo. She cuddles Mungo as if he was a baby. She despises her mother, with good reason, and tries to protect Mungo from her ignorance.

Hamish, Mungo’s brother, is eighteen and a junior-league criminal. He is the head of a gang of boys who wreak havoc in the streets. He is violent, unpredictable, unsettling. It is easy for the reader to imagine that he will soon end up dead or behind bars. He is the father of a small child with his fifteen-year-old girlfriend. Mungo is afraid of Hamish and doesn’t want to be like him.

Mo-Maw gets a couple of men from her alcoholics’ group to take Mungo on a hellish weekend fishing trip. She hardly knows the two, so she couldn’t know that they are convicted child molesters. This is just one example of her egregious parenting skills. The fishing trip turns out to be predictably traumatic for Mungo.

Mungo meets an older boy in his neighborhood named James Jamieson. James owns a “doocot” (a large pen or a small shed for keeping pigeons) and welcomes Mungo’s friendship. They begin spending a lot of time together at the doocot and make plans after a while to run off and effectively escape their unhappy lives. With James, Mungo experiences happiness for the first time in his life.

Young Mungo is a coming-of-age story that might be set anywhere, in any country, but this one happens to be set in Scotland. It features a young protagonist who is better, finer somehow, than the circumstances of his life. He has a sensitive nature but is misunderstood by all those around him, who only believe he should be more like other boys. The only person who understands Mungo is his sister Jodie, and she has problems of her own, including getting pregnant by one of her teachers.

Young Mungo is a very effective, very readable, novel by Scottish writer Douglas Stuart. One of the most remarkable things about Young Mungo is that it comes just a year or so after Douglas Stuart’s previous novel, Shuggie Bain. They are a most impressive one-two punch by a new, young writer. (My review of Shuggie Bain is here: https://literaryfictions.com/2021/12/09/shuggie-bain-a-capsule-book-review/)

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

Otherlands ~ A Capsule Book Review

Otherlands cover
Otherlands
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~ 

The earth is around four billion years old. Humans have been around, in some form or another, for about a million years. One million years (1,000,0000) compared to four billion years (4,000,000,000) is just a tiny speck of time. Humans are not really that important in the scheme of things. The earth existed for a long, long time before humans came onto the scene and will exist for a lot longer after humans are gone.

Since the human lifespan is, optimistically, only about eighty to a hundred years, the concept of a billion years, or a ten billion years, or a hundred billion years is difficult for the human mind to fathom. Yet, the history of the Earth, (without humans, of course) is told in these fantastically long periods of time. Earth’s past, going all the way back to the dawn of creation, is told in Eons, Eras, Periods, and Epochs. The Mesozoic Era, for example, is made up of the Cretaceous, Jurassic, and Triassic Periods. The Paleozoic Era contains the Permian, Carboniferous, Devonian, Silurian, Ordovician, and Cambrian Periods.

The earth’s history is one of violent change. Mountains come and go. Oceans dry up. Rivers change their course or disappear altogether. Lush rainforests become frozen wastelands or deserts. What’s here today is gone tomorrow, or, if not gone, then radically changed. All the continents of the earth used to be clustered together in a supercontinent called Pangea. Every feature on earth has always been subject to the forces of nature. Change is constant and inevitable, although so slow that it might take tens of millions of years, or hundreds of millions.

The first animal life on earth was one-celled organisms in the water. After a fantastically long period of time, one-celled animals because multi-cellular. Each step was a building block of a fantastic master plan, conceived and orchestrated by a Super Being or God Spirit. There are many names for the Creator of all Things, whether it’s God or Ancient of Days or any one of dozens of other names. Every thinking person recognizes that there had to be some kind of creative force or plan. The world and every living thing in it did not come about by accident.  

As fascinating (and complex) as the history of animal life (and man) is on earth, the nonfiction book, Otherlands, by Thomas Halliday, is about the history of Planet Earth. Each chapter in the book examines a certain time and place:

  • Northern Plain, Alaska ~ 20,000 years ago
  • Kanapoi, Kenya ~ 4 million years ago
  • Gargano, Italy ~ 5.33 million years ago
  • Tinguiririca, Chile ~ 32 million years ago
  • Seymour Island, Antarctica ~ 41 million years ago
  • Hell Creek, Montana ~ 66 million years ago
  • Yixian, Liaoning, China ~ 125 million years ago
  • Swabia, Germany ~ 155 million years ago
  • Madygen, Kyrgyzstan ~ 225 million years ago
  • Moradi, Nigeria ~ 253 million years ago
  • Mazon Creek, Illinois ~ 309 million years ago
  • Rhynie, Scotland ~ 407 million years ago
  • Yaman-Kasy, Russia ~ 435 million years ago
  • Soom, South Africa ~ 444 million years ago
  • Chengjiang, Yunnan, China ~ 520 million years ago
  • Ediacara Hills, Australia ~ 555 million years ago

Otherlands is not an easy book to read. It’s full of technical and scientific words that the general reader will not be familiar with. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and read every word, even if I didn’t always know what I was reading. I found it helpful to just forge ahead and not be too concerned about the parts I don’t grasp (including metric measurements). Full steam ahead.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp  

 

Death Valley Superstars ~ A Capsule Book Review

Death Valley Superstars cover
Death Valley Superstars
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~ 

I was looking for a book about Steve Cochran, who died at age forty-eight in 1965 on his yacht with an all-girl (and inexperienced) crew somewhere around Tahiti. The non-English speaking girls didn’t know how to navigate the yacht. They drifted until they were rescued, by which time Steve Cochran had been dead for ten days. His body was badly decomposed in the tropical heat; positive identification was difficult.

In case you’re wondering who Steve Cochran is, he was a movie actor in the forties and fifties who specialized in tough-guy roles.  He was in a few good movies, such as White Heat and The Best Years of Our Lives, and plenty of bad ones. If you had ever seen Steve Cochran, you would remember him. He was dark, swarthy and dangerous-looking. He almost always wore a dark suit. He had thick black hair and smoldering eyes. If you messed with him, it would be at your own peril.   

Nobody has ever written a book about Steve Cochran, though. The closest thing I found was a book of “essays” entitled Death Valley Superstars by a writer named Daryl “Duke” Haney. He is a writer and actor, born in 1963. The thing is, you have to read all the way to the end of Death Valley Superstars to get to the part about Steve Cochran. The essay about him is the last chapter in the book.

The subtitle of Death Valley Superstars is Occasional Fatal Adventures in Filmland. On the front cover we are told that it’s “A kaleidoscopic investigation of American pop culture and cinema; at turns dark, intimate and hilarious.” I was never once moved to hilarity in reading Death Valley Superstars. My interest was engaged by most of the essays in the book, even if I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know before. If you don’t find Jim Morrison wildly fascinating, as so many people do, you can skip the chapter on the séance conducted in a Hollywood motel room where he was known to have stayed. If you just barely remember (or maybe not at all) a movie from the late 1960s called Zabriskie Point, starring a little-known actor named Mark Frechette, you can probably skip over the essay entitled “Pluto in the Twelfth House.” It’s the longest essay in the book and I thought it would never end. The most interesting thing about Mark Frechette (in my humble opinion) is that he robbed a bank to finance a proposed movie and died in prison bench-pressing weights at age twenty-seven.

The essay about actor Christopher Jones, “Catch Me,” is a glimpse at a would-be “star,” an “almost-star,” who quit acting just as he was solidifying his reputation as the “Next James Dean.” He was in a handful of movies, including Ryan’s Daughter and Wild in the Streets. He died at age seventy-two in 2014.

In between sections on Marilyn Monroe, which kicks off the book, and Steve Cochran, ending the book, are sections on:

  • Hugh Hefner, a polarizing figure from the mid-twentieth century who revolutionized girlie magazine publishing while promoting the swinging lifestyle of a voraciously sexual bachelor.
  • Errol Flynn’s son, Sean Flynn, born into show business, disappeared mysteriously in Vietnam in the 1960s.
  • Lee Harvey Oswald, the “patsy” who (supposedly) assassinated President John Kennedy, was influenced by politically themed movies. (Does anybody really believe that Oswald acted alone? He was murdered to shut him up. What a story!)
  • The author’s brief encounter as a child with Elizabeth Taylor at a public appearance event and then recounting her brief (and probably unhappy) marriage to a U.S. Senator from Virginia.
  • William Desmond Taylor, a shadowy movie director murdered in Hollywood a hundred years ago. A whole list of suspects was assembled, but the murder has never been solved.

Books on Hollywood lore can make for interesting reading. Death Valley Superstars is not quite like any of the others. Don’t I have anything better to do that read books like this? Probably not, as I am a compulsive reader. Whenever I see a book online that interests me, I have to get my hands on it. Sometimes it’s a mistake but most of the time it turns out all right.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

 

  

    

Calypso ~ A Capsule Book Review

Calypso cover
Calypso
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~ 

David Sedaris (born 1956) is a well-known American humor writer. He has written a dozen or so books of “essays,” which in reality are first-person short stories that he writes about his own life and experiences, his large family, and his “long-time companion,” a “handsome” man named Hugh. (Yes, David is gay, but he’s more a writer “who happens to be gay” than a “gay writer.”)

I first became of fan of David Sedaris’s books back in the nineties and even, at one time, spent over an hour standing in line at a book-signing in St. Louis to get him to autograph my copy of his book—copies of two of his books, in fact, both of which I still have. In David’s own pointed brand of humor, he admits that he does so many book-readings and book-signings all over the world because he makes money from them—enough money, I would imagine, to sustain an opulent lifestyle. More power to him.

David Sedaris comes from a family that provides much of the material for his writing. He had four sisters (one of whom committed suicide) and one brother, who is five feet two and sounds like a lady on the phone. David also, he admits, is taken for a woman on the phone and is frequently called “ma’am.” David’s mother died of cancer of age sixty-two; his father, at the writing of Calypso, was still living and in his nineties.

Among the topics David Sedaris writes about in Calypso are:

  • His family’s vacation home at Emerald Isle, North Carolina.
  • A large snapping turtle with a tumor on his head.
  • A wild fox near his home in rural England that he bonds with.
  • Buying unusual clothes in Tokyo, including culottes for men.
  • Having an abdominal tumor removed by a stranger after one of his book-signings.
  • Having a stomach virus.
  • Being on a plane with a fellow passenger who craps his pants.
  • Flying in first-class with an obnoxious woman with a loud voice.

David Sedaris’s books are breezy reading and entertaining. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t read every new one that comes out. They’re not for everybody, of course, which might be said about anything. I wouldn’t, for example, recommend his books to a person who has no sense of humor and is unable to laugh at the absurdity of life.

My one complaint about Calypso is when the author discusses politics and certain political figures. He stands to offend a large segment of the reading public who doesn’t agree with him politically. Not everybody is of the same political stripe. And besides which, I hate politics. The best politics is no politics.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp     

Heart of Darkness ~ A Capsule Book Review

Heart of Darkness cover

Heart of Darkness
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

While reading the novel Heart of Darkness, I discovered the word “tenebrous.” It’s an adjective, meaning dark, shadowy or obscure. That word is a perfect, one-word description for the novel.

Heart of Darkness was written in 1899 by Polish-English writer Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). It is a highly regarded, much-studied novel. It’s number 67 on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred best books in English of the twentieth century.

The story is being narrated in the first-person voice of a character named Charles Marlow. He is on a boat on the Thames River in England, but he’s relating to his boatmates his experiences in what used to be called Darkest Africa.

Charles Marlow, an Englishman, takes a job as a riverboat captain with a Belgian company that trades in the Congo. As he makes his way up the Congo River, he encounters widespread inefficiency in management of the company’s affairs and mistreatment of the natives at the company’s stations. This is part of the book’s indictment of European colonial affairs in places like Africa. One of the novel’s themes is that there is little difference between civilized people and savages.

As he progresses in his journey, Marlow hears people speak highly of a man named Kurtz, a first-class agent and ivory hunter far up the river. He is told that Kurtz has “gone native” and that the natives worship him. From the information he gleans, Marlow deduces that Kurtz is insane.

Marlow and the passengers on board his ship face terrible difficulties. The steamer has sunk and it will take months to wait for the parts to fix it. During this period, Marlow’s interest in Kurtz grows. Kurtz is rumored to be ill. Marlow eventually gets the parts he needs to repair his ship, and he and his crew set out (agents and a crew of cannibals) on a long, difficult voyage up the river. The jungle is dark, silent, and impenetrable, making everybody on board the ship a little nervous. They are surrounded by a thick fog. When a bunch of natives attack the ship with arrows, Marlow scares them away by sounding the steamer’s whistle.

When Marlow and his crew finally arrive at Kurtz’s Inner Station, they expect to find him dead, but are greeted by a Russian trader, who informs them that everything is fine. The Russian claims that Kurtz has enlarged his mind and can’t be subjected to the same moral judgments as other people.

Kurtz has apparently established himself as a god with the natives and has gone on brutal raids in the surrounding territory in search of ivory. The collection of severed heads adorning the fence posts around the station attests to his “methods.” The agents bring Kurtz out of the station-house on a stretcher, and a large group of native warriors emerges from the jungle and surrounds them. Kurtz speaks to them, and the natives disappear into the woods.

The manager of Marlow’s party brings Kurtz, who is quite ill, aboard the steamer. A beautiful native woman, apparently Kurtz’s mistress, appears on the shore and stares out at the ship. The Russian reveals to Marlow, after swearing him to secrecy, that Kurtz had ordered the attack on the steamer to make them believe he was dead so they would turn back and leave him to his plans. Kurtz disappears in the night. When Marlow goes out looking for him, he finds him crawling on all fours toward the native camp. Marlow convinces him to return to the ship. They set off down the river the next morning, but Kurtz is failing fast.

While they travel downriver, Marlow listens to Kurtz talk. Kurtz entrusts Marlow with a packet of personal documents, including a pamphlet he has written on civilizing the savages, at the end of which he declaims: “Exterminate all the brutes!”

When the steamer breaks down and they stop for repairs. Kurtz dies. His last words are: “The horror! The horror!” Marlow himself becomes ill soon after and barely survives. Eventually when he returns to Europe, he goes to meet with Kurtz’s fiancée. She is still in mourning, even though a years has passed since Kurtz’s death. She praises Kurtz as a paragon of virtue and achievement. She asks Marlow what Kurtz’s last words were. Marlow lies and tells her that Kurtz spoke her name right before he died.

We are told that Joseph Conrad didn’t speak fluent English until he was in his twenties (he was Polish). He went on to become a great writer of novels in English. He wrote Heart of Darkness in his early forties, basing it on his own experiences when he was in Africa.

My favorite part of Heart of Darkness is the last few pages of the book when Charles Marlow goes to see Kurtz’s fluttery, naïve girlfriend after he gets back home to England. The dialogue between the two characters in this scene is transcendent.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes ~ A Capsule Book Review

Boxes cover
Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

As a young man, Howard Hughes (born 1905) inherited the Hughes Tool Company from his father, using it as the starting point to build a vast business empire. He was a pioneer of aviation design and a daring test pilot (in 1946 he was nearly killed when the aircraft he was testing crash-landed and burned). In the 1930s and ‘40s, he was a movie maker in Hollywood, having become enamored of the movies as a child. He owned an airline and then another one, getting into trouble with the U.S. government for violating antitrust laws. At one time he owned almost all the gambling casinos in Last Vegas, lending an air of respectability to an unsavory industry. For a while, he was not only the richest man in America, but the richest in the world. He was a playboy, an escort for some of the most beautiful and well-known ladies in Hollywood. He had ties with organized crime and rubbed elbows with some of the most famous political leaders of his time. More than anything else, though, he was known for being extravagantly eccentric, reclusive, and mysterious.

This following quote from the nonfiction book, Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes (by Douglas Wellman and Mark Musick), tells us a lot about the real Howard Hughes:

“The world of Howard Hughes is sometimes unfathomable. Between the things he did do, the things he didn’t do but was accused of, and the things he did but covered up, his life is a bewildering series of conflicting stories. He was a master of secrecy, intrigue, and diversion, which is apparent from the abundance of books and articles on the man, many of which are contradictory.”

At the height of Howard Hughes’ fame, the world knew him as a rich eccentric. People loved to talk about him and write about him, but much of what was spoken and written was exaggeration or blatantly untrue. Nobody could know Howard Hughes, so people fabricated stories about him to sell books, newspapers and magazines. He was “hot” copy.

The world believes that Howard Hughes died a broken old man at age 71 in April 1976. He had been living in a Las Vegas hotel room, barely kept alive by his uncaring custodians. He was filthy, malnourished, emaciated and addicted to Codeine, Valium, and other drugs that he didn’t need. He left behind a fortune in excess of two billion dollars. At the time of his supposed death, he had at least forty pending lawsuits against him and was being hounded all the time by the U.S. government for non-payment of taxes. Great wealth has its own unique problems.

The premise of the nonfiction book Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes is that Hughes didn’t really die in 1976. A decoy died in his place, a Howard Hughes stand-in, presumably a Las Vegas derelict of about the same age, with similar physical characteristics. Why would a man like Howard Hughes fake his own death? The answer should be obvious. He wanted to be left alone, to live the rest of his life in peace and seclusion. The forfeiting of his great wealth was the price he was willing to pay.

We hear all the time about people faking their own deaths, but if anybody could do it, it was Howard Hughes. He had the means to do it and the “enablers” to carry out his wishes and keep their mouths shut. He assumed the name and identity of Verner “Nik” Nicely. He married a woman named Eva McClelland. He died in 2001 at the age of 95.

The book presents plenty of compelling evidence that the mysterious and eccentric old man named Verner “Nik” Nicely was in reality Howard Hughes. Mr. Nicely had burn scars on his body, consistent with the scars that Howard Hughes sustained in a crash in his test pilot days. He was the same height as Howard Hughes, had the same physical characteristics, and was in possession of encyclopedic knowledge of aviation and mechanics. His wife, Eva, who died a few years after he died, was certain that she was married to the once-famous Howard Hughes. Read the book and decide for yourself if she was telling the truth.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp    

The Confessions of Nat Turner ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Confessions of Nat Turner book cover 2

The Confessions of Nat Turner
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

In 1831, about thirty years before the Civil War, in the state of Virginia, a slave uprising resulted in the deaths of 59 white people and significant destruction of property over the course of two days. A slave named Nat Turner (he heard voices and had visions) planned the methodical attack for years, believing he was following the will of God. He saw himself as an avenging angel. He didn’t act alone in the uprising; he recruited followers from among his fellow slaves who were more than willing to wreak havoc against the establishment.

American author William Styron (1925-2006) published his historical novel The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1967. It is a fictional account (historical accuracy not verified) of the only slave uprising of its kind in the Southern United States. The mastermind of the uprising, Nat Turner, narrates the story in his first-person voice. Through the character of Nat Turner, William Styron gives an articulate voice to the enslaved.

The irony of Nat Turner, according to this novel, is that he was favored among slaves. He was intelligent, he could read, he was a skilled carpenter and he possessed mechanical abilities beyond his station in life. He possessed an uncanny knowledge of the Bible, better than most preachers, as one character in the book observes. He passed through several owners, some of them cruel and callous, but, for the most part, he was with people who cared for him, valued his abilities and wanted only the best for him. Already we see the irony of this situation. Why would such a man plan and carry out a bloody and violent attack of vengeance?

Nat Turner spent years planning the bloody insurrection, working out every small detail, even drawing maps. He thought of it as a military operation. He shared his plans with his group of loyal core followers, swearing them to secrecy. They were all willing to give up everything to make the undertaking a success. They hoped that, as they made their bloody way across the landscape, hundreds of other slaves would join them and their numbers would grow into an invincible army. Their plan was to kill every white person in their reach (eventually numbering in the hundreds or thousands), and when they were finished with their march of death and destruction, they would escape into the swamp and never be seen or heard from again.

The operation fell far short of Nat Turner’s expectations. The group of renegade slaves killed 59 white people, including at least one small child, and attracted about two dozen additional slaves to their ranks. The problem with most of these “recruits” was that they were undisciplined and wanted only to drink whiskey and run wild. Ironically, Nat Turner killed only one victim, a young white woman named Margaret Whitehead. She had shared her views of the Bible with him and had only ever been kind to him; he had no reason to want to kill her except for her whiteness. Most of the white people killed were not known for their cruelty or mistreatment of slaves.

The Confessions of Nat Turner is the psychological portrait of a subjugated man and the cruel times in which he lived. It is a fascinating glimpse into a chapter of our long-ago history. It is a thoughtful, intelligent book, beautifully written, filled with bitter irony. If you read no other “serious” book this year, you will have made a wise choice.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp    

Ramses, the Son of Light ~ A Capsule Book Review

Ramses, The Son of Light Book Cover
Ramses, The Son of Light
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II (also known as Ramses the Great) lived an astonishing ninety years, from 1303 BCE to 1213 BCE, about twelve hundred years before Christ. As Pharaoh, he was a builder of mighty monuments and an effective administrator. His father, Seti, was Pharaoh before him. Seti made Ramses his regent when Ramses was only fourteen years old, meaning he would be Pharaoh after Seti.

French writer Christian Jacq has written a series of six fictional books about the long-ago life of Ramses. The first book in the series is Ramses, the Son of Light. It’s about the early life of Ramses, from childhood into young adulthood. Though he was born into privilege, he did not have an easy life. There were always those who wanted to destroy him or marginalize him. His older brother, Shaanar, was his biggest rival and his greatest enemy. Shaanar saw himself as the future Pharaoh and would have done anything to remove Ramses from the scene, especially after it became clear that Seti wanted Ramses to succeed him.

Being regent meant that Ramses had to undergo many tests to prove that he could be an effective Pharaoh when the time came for him to ascend the throne. Not only would he have to deal with treachery and opposition in his own sphere, he would have to keep Egypt’s enemies at bay and do what needed to be done to avoid war.

Ramses was precocious, as one might expect, and manly in his teen years. He had a girlfriend, Iset the Fair, with whom he shared many passionate embraces, beginning when they were barely out of their teens. When it came time to marry, though, Ramses chose Nefertari as his blushing bride. A Pharaoh wasn’t limited to only one wife, so Iset the Fair became his number-two wife after Nefertari. With Nefertari he felt love, while with Iset the Fair he felt passion.

Ramses, the Son of Light is lightweight reading. It’s not a serious examination of a long-ago monarch or the time in which he lived. It’s what is called pop fiction instead of serious literature. Book two in the series, which I haven’t read, will be sure to pick up at the beginning of Ramses’ long and successful reign as Pharoah. There will be wars, there will be rivals, there will be intrigue, there will be dishonesty, there will be plenty of ugly and destructive human nature to go around.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp