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Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts ~ A Capsule Book Review

Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts by Carolyn Chute is set in Maine. Big Lucien Letourneau is the patriarch of a large family of uneducated miscreants and malcontents. Big Lucien has had many wives and many children. Whatever else these characters may be lacking in life, they always have plenty of children. Big Lucien has a “heart of gold.” He has lots of cats and he will give a place to stay to just anybody who needs it, family or otherwise.

Big Lucien owns a salvage yard containing rows and rows of wrecked cars. He barely makes enough money to keep going, but he employs several earthy men. As one of Big Lucien’s employees says, the salvage yard is the “goddamndest hellhole I’ve ever worked in.” I’ve felt that way about some of the jobs I’ve had, so I know exactly what he’s talking about.

Blackstone Babbidge (“Gene”) is one of Big Lucien’s employees at the salvage yard. He lives in a trailer park called Miracle City. His wife, Lillian Greenlaw, is one of Big Lucien’s former wives. Lillian’s freewheeling daughter, Junie Greenlaw, is one of Big Lucien’s many children. Gene Babbidge is Junie’s stepfather. Junie has been “messing around” with her stepfather (these people don’t bother with social conventions), so she is pregnant by him. Her mother doesn’t know who the father of Junie’s baby is, only that she is pregnant with a pregnancy that makes her sick a lot of the time.

Crude, foul-mouthed Maxine Letourneau is also one of Big Lucien’s former wives. Her children by Big Lucien include Norman, who marries a hippie woman, and Little Lucien, a sullen fifteen-year-old bodybuilder.

Severin Letourneau is Big Lucien’s half-Indian nephew. When he is sixteen, he impregnates Gussie Crocker, also sixteen, and they get married. Severin is also one of Big Lucien’s employees at the salvage yard. Severin and Gussie don’t have the money to pay their rent and are evicted. Big Lucien sets them and their two small children up in a thrown-together house in the woods that doesn’t pass code. That’s another of Big Lucien’s problems: the “code man” is after him for his various code violations.

Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts is a funny and engaging exploration of the lives of people living at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap. I read this book once before and fondly remembered it enough through the years to go back and read it again. We wouldn’t want the feckless Letourneaus living in our neighborhood, but we can wallow in their lives on the printed page and come away unscathed. That’s the magic of books.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp 

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Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans ~ A Capsule Book Review

Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Thirty or so years after the American Revolutionary War, America fought the Second War of Independence with the British. This was the War of 1812. The hero of that war was Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, an Indian fighter who didn’t have much experience as a strategic war planner, but who possessed a natural instinct for defeating a mighty foe. The British army was the best equipped and best trained army in the world. They had defeated the mightiest armies of Europe (the Battle of Waterloo was yet to come, in 1815). They had their sights set on New Orleans, a city of strategic importance at the mouth of the Mississippi River. If they could conquer that city—and they were fully confident they could—they could take possession of the entire country west of the Mississippi and make it their own…or so they thought.

The British forces assembled a few miles to the east of New Orleans and prepared to move on that city. The wealth and plunder that New Orleans possessed was to be shared by all of the invading force. They expected only token resistance from the Americans, as they had when they burned the city of Washington. After all, weren’t they (the British) skilled in warfare and superior in numbers and in weaponry? The one element the British didn’t count on was General Andrew Jackson.

The area east of New Orleans known as the Chalmette Plain is where the Battle of New Orleans was fought. General Jackson pulled together a diverse amateur army of farmers, old and young, country people and city people of all nationalities, blacks, woodsmen, riverboat men, and even some pirates who pledged their support to protecting the country from British invasion. Some of them didn’t even have weapons. This “inferior” army overwhelmed the British forces through tenacity and strategic planning on the part of General Jackson. Though he was wounded and far from well, he fought side by side with his men and wouldn’t allow them to become discouraged and complacent.

The terrain—boggy swamps, marshes and bayous—was unkind to the British; they weren’t used to fighting in three feet of water. General Jackson and his army stopped them from advancing on New Orleans. British losses were heavy, while American losses were minimal. Demoralized and defeated, the British army withdrew.

Andrew Jackson was the man of the hour. He was seen as saving, not only New Orleans, but the Union. He was to this war what George Washington had been to the Revolutionary War. The unpopular war was at last redeemed in the eyes of the American people and President James Madison left office on a high note. And, of course, Andrew Jackson a few years later himself became the seventh president of the United States.

Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans, by Brian Kilmeade, is American history made entertaining. In under 270 pages, we get a glimpse of wartime America in 1812-1814 and of the resolve that won a war against overwhelming odds. The British, after two wars fought on American soil, would not come calling again.

Copyright 2017 by Allen Kopp

A Separate Peace ~ A Capsule Book Review

A Separate Peace ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

John Knowles’ 1959 novel, A Separate Peace, has become a modern classic, has sold millions of copies, and is regularly found on high school reading lists. It’s a coming-of-age story about life in a boys’ prep school in New Hampshire in 1942, focusing on two boys in particular, Gene and Phineas. Gene is an introspective intellectual with a dark side and Phineas an outgoing star athlete, liked by all. As different as they are, they are best friends and roommates.

The sixteen- and seventeen-year-old boys at the Devon School are on the threshold of adulthood, but they are also on the threshold of something else: World War II is raging, in Europe and elsewhere, and it is a given that all of the boys are preparing in some way to enter the war when they finish school. The war influences everything they do and think. Will they make it through alive? Will they be brave, or will they follow their natural instincts and preserve their own lives at any cost? These are questions that young men have been asking themselves for as long as wars have been waged.

Through Gene Forrester’s first-person voice narration, we get a sense of how different Phineas and Gene are. Phineas seems to be above rivalry or competitiveness (or any “ugly” emotion), but is there something in Gene’s nature that would force him to deliberately hurt Phineas because Phineas is always the best at any athletic endeavor and in a way insufferable? An incident involving a tree during the last fateful summer at school causes a tragedy that fuels the second part of the story and forces Gene, and others, to question his motives and his character.

A Separate Peace is a readable classic, just under 200 pages, on the universal themes of friendship and growing up. It has a feeling of truth and authenticity to it; that’s why people are still reading it sixty years after its first publication.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Hiddensee ~ A Capsule Book Review

Hiddensee ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Author Gregory Maguire takes fairy stories or well-known fantasy stories such as The Wizard of Oz and “reinterprets” them for a grown-up audience. His latest novel is Hiddensee, all about the life of the fictional character Herr Dirk Drosselmeier, woodcarver and toy maker who made from wood “the nutcracker.” Yes, it’s the same nutcracker as the one in the story popularized by Tchaikovsky’s ballet, which was taken from a short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, which was itself adapted from a story “The Nutcracker” by Alexandre Dumas. As you can see, this is a story with deep literary roots, none of which you need to know to enjoy the book.

Hiddensee is set in the 1800s in the Black Forest in Bavaria, southern Germany, a magical place even when nothing happens there. Dirk Drosselmeier is a foundling child never knowing his parents or where he came from. He is brought up in a tiny house deep in the woods by an old man and an old woman, who, we find out toward the end of the book, are really Hansel and Gretel. He never has any contact with any other person in his life besides this old man and old woman. They treat him kindly until he is about ten years old and they decide to kill him. When Hansel takes him out into the woods to kill him with his axe, the killing isn’t successful, except in the sense that Drosselmeier dies and comes back to life. It’s a fantasy story, remember.

Drosselmeier, for obvious reasons, gets away from Hansel and Gretel and spends the rest of his childhood with a minister, who takes care of him but is mostly indifferent to him. Do you see a trend here? He doesn’t have a very happy life and doesn’t seem to belong anywhere. One important plot point that must be remembered is that Drosselmeier, when he leaves Hansel and Gretel, takes a crutch with him that he made for Hansel. The crutch is of no apparent use to him, but he takes it with him everywhere he goes, anyway.

After he leaves the minister he finds himself as a sort of servant with a wealthy family, where he befriends the young musician Felix Stahlbaum. He and Felix remain friends as long as they both live. He gets into trouble when it is assumed that he impregnated a young servant girl (he didn’t) and has to leave. He ends up with a paper maker with a strange Persian wife and two small boys. He befriends the family and begins making toys and entertaining the two boys with stories he heard as a child. Eventually he falls in love with the paper maker’s wife. This, of course, does not end happily.

Anyway, the story follows Drosselmeier’s life through to the end. He makes a nutcracker from the crutch he took away from Hansel and Gretel. He sets up a shop in Munich and makes a living as a toy maker. His friend Felix Stahlbaum has two sons of his own and Drosselmeier becomes their godfather.

Felix’s family is the only family Drosselmeier has ever known. Felix dies and Drosselmeier continues being friendly with his widow and two sons. One of the sons grows up and has children of his own, including a daughter Klara. Klara is sickly and might die. The story takes us to a Christmas Eve when Klara is gravely ill and Drosselmeier presents her with the nutcracker he made years earlier and a magical castle that can be opened only with a golden key that is kept inside a walnut concealed on the Tannenbaum. What happens when Klara is alone in the room with the nutcracker, some mice, and the magical castle forms the basis for the story’s conclusion.

I’ve read all of Gregory Maguire’s books. Hiddensee is not my favorite, but it’s engaging and beautifully written throughout, if you, like me, are willing to suspend disbelief for three hundred pages. For a book by Gregory Maguire that seems truly inspired, however, read Wicked or Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Ancient Egypt: Everyday Life in the Land of the Nile ~ A Capsule Book Review

Ancient Egypt: Everyday Life in the Land of the Nile ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Ancient Egypt is one of the oldest cultures in the world, going back more than five thousand years. The Egyptians were some of the most innovative and inventive people in the world. They built the largest stone structure ever constructed anywhere in the world (Pyramids at Giza) and the largest temple of worship (Karnak Temple), using sophisticated engineering techniques but without machines and with tools that we consider primitive. They advanced art and architecture and invented writing, even though only about five percent of ancient Egyptians could read and write. They waged war, wove cloth, sported fashionable clothes, grew and irrigated abundant crops, built furniture and beautiful decorative items, practiced medicine (even though they knew nothing about germs or bacteria), and adorned their tombs with riches beyond imagining. They worshipped many gods, but the pharaoh was the supreme being, the living god. Everything the people did was in tribute to the pharaoh.

The Egyptian civilization would have never existed if it hadn’t been for the Nile. Every spring the river flooded and when the floodwaters receded, fertile soil was left behind. The raising of plentiful crops was relatively easy, giving the people plenty of time to do other things, such as wage war against their neighbors for their pharaoh and engage in massive building projects. Instead of a necessity, war was a given in ancient Egypt. The most revered pharaohs were the ones who waged the most successful military campaigns. Egypt wasn’t interested in adding to its territory but in stealing the plunder of the vanquished.

Over its thousands of years of history (the longest-lasting civilization anywhere in the world), Egypt’s fortunes rose and fell, depending a lot on whoever happened to be in charge at the time. Some pharaohs were effective leaders, while others led the country to chaos. At Egypt’s highest point, it was the richest country and the most feared superpower in the known world.

Ancient Egypt: Everyday Life in the Land of the Nile by Bob Brier and Hoyt Hobbs is an interesting and informative overview of what life was like for the three million or so souls who called Egypt their home thousands of years before Christ. Did you know there was one pharaoh who sat on the throne for ninety-four years, a record that still stands for any king or monarch in any country in the world? Did you know that, through the complex rules regarding succession, there was one woman, Hatshepsut, who was pharaoh? We know Egypt in modern times mostly through the fabulous treasures that were uncovered in Tutankhamen’s tomb in the 1920s. The truth is that Tutankhamen was a minor pharaoh as pharaohs go, a “boy king” with a misshapen body who sat on the throne for only ten years. He was considered so insignificant that, in the years after his reign, he was almost forgotten, almost erased from historical records. Most of the pharaohs’ tombs were plundered in ancient times, no matter what measures were taken to secure them, but Tutankhamen’s tomb was left untouched by robbers because, the truth was, most people didn’t even know he had existed. When his tomb was opened in the 1920s, it provided a snapshot of ancient Egypt at the apex of its glory. So much for a “minor” pharaoh.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Losing Battles ~ A Capsule Book Review

Losing Battles ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

It’s Granny Vaughn’s ninetieth birthday. Her large Mississippi family has gathered on a hot Sunday in August to mark the occasion. It’s the Depression era, 1930s, and nobody has much money, but Beulah Renfro, Granny Vaughn’s granddaughter, spreads a sumptuous meal for the hundred or so attendees. They eat like it’s going out of style.

Jack Jordan Renfro is the star of the reunion. He has plenty of aunts, uncles, cousins—besides his parents, his sisters and his granny—to fawn over him. He just got out of the penitentiary. We learn that he escaped the day before he was supposed to be released because he didn’t want to miss granny’s birthday celebration. He also has a wife named Gloria and a baby daughter, Lady May. Gloria was his schoolteacher he married before he went into the penitentiary. Gloria was an orphan child; nobody knows for sure who her parents were. One of the surprising things that’s revealed during the reunion is that she and Jack might be first cousins.

There are some surprise guests at the reunion, some old-time preaching, some arguing and much laughter, but, more than anything, there’s talk: talk about how Jack came to be sent to the penitentiary; talk of an old-maid schoolteacher, Miss Julia Mortimer, who has just died and whose funeral will be the day after the reunion; almost everybody at the reunion went to school to Miss Julia and they have stories to tell of her hardness and her dedication to teaching. There’s also talk of hard times and good times and bad times, births and deaths. Everybody likes to talk and they all have much to say.

Losing Battles is an unconventional novel because it takes place all in one day and part of the next day, which means there isn’t much story or plot. Get a hundred people from your family together for one day and then write down everything they say and do during that one day, and you’ll know what I mean. It’s an interesting book because of its setting (the South during the 1930s) and because it was written by a venerated American writer (her last novel), but it could have been more interesting if the action had been opened up a little bit, making the story less static.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

What Belongs to You ~ A Capsule Book Review

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What Belongs to You ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

He’s an American teacher living in Sofia, Bulgaria, teaching English at a prestigious American school. We never know his name. He is telling the story in his first-person voice. The story revolves around the narrator’s destructive relationship with a rent boy named Mitko, and, while their relationship is a sexual one, we never have to suffer through any explicit details.

The narrator comes to love Mitko, knowing all along that he is a user, a liar, and a self-aggrandizing manipulator; he is charming and good-looking and he knows how to use these qualities to his benefit. He can also at times be menacing and threatening when he doesn’t get his way. We see a portrait here of a mentally unbalanced young man who knows how to manipulate people to achieve his ends.

We come to see that Mitko has a terrible life, and, despite his youth, is in failing health. While the narrator tries to live a respectable life in his apartment, going to work every day, Mitko shows up periodically at his doorstep whenever he wants something. He frequently lies to get money, which makes him an extortionist, among all the other things he is. The love that the narrator feels for Mitko soon turns to pity as he sees that Mitko is falling apart. He cannot deny Mitko anything, knowing all along that lies and betrayal are a part of everything Mitko does.

While What Belongs to You is the story of a friendship, it is also a story about the nature of destructive and obsessive love. One of the best novels I’ve read in a while and unlike anything I’ve read before. Written in a unique, compelling and accessible style by a writer named Garth Greenwell. There are a lot of words in this novel, but never too many, always just right. Every word rings true.

The first-person narration is all introspective but never self-indulgent or whiny, as it could have been. On a different level, it’s a story, which I found fascinating, about life in modern-day Bulgaria, a country of 7.2 million in southeast Europe, a country that is collapsing and crumbling in many ways, a country that has lived through Soviet occupation, a country that is not what it once was. As a stranger in a strange land, the narrator navigates his way through two different health clinics, knowing only a smattering of the language, the public transportation system, and everyday life in a foreign capital. Some books are so good and so different from anything else that reading them is like being given a gift. This is one of them.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp