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To the Lighthouse ~ A Capsule Book Review

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To the Lighthouse ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Modernist English author Virginia Woolf was born in 1882 and died in 1941, age 59, a suicide by drowning. Her acclaimed novel To the Lighthouse (number 15 on the Modern Library’s list of the greatest novels of the twentieth century) was published in 1927. There is no plot, action or story to speak of in To the Lighthouse. The narrative consists of philosophical introspection (thoughts and observations) of the characters. This was a technique pioneered by modernist writers Marcel Proust and James Joyce.

The novel is set on the Scottish island of Skye between 1910 and 1920. (We aren’t told where the story is set, or when, but we can find out by reading background information on the Internet.) The Ramsay family is “vacationing” in a seaside house on the island. Mrs. Ramsay is fifty and we are constantly told how beautiful she is (or how beautiful people think she is). Mr. Ramsay is a stuffy, grouchy philosophical professor and writer. The Ramsays have eight children, among them James, who dislikes his father. They have several “guests” staying with them, including the young painter, Lily Briscoe, who knows that her paintings will end up in the attic; Charles Tansley, who asserts that women can’t paint or write; Augustus Carmichael, a poet who riles Mr. Ramsay by asking for a second helping of soup; Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle, two acquaintances with whom Mrs. Ramsay is practicing her matchmaking skills.

The second part of the novel takes place ten years later. The Ramsays return to the house on the Island of Skye for the summer, but there have been some changes to the dramatis personae. Mrs. Ramsay has died in the interim. Prue Ramsay, the Ramsays’ daughter, has married and died in childbirth. And then there’s that awful war, the Great War, in which Andrew Ramsay has died in France, blown up by a shell.

At the end of the book, the long-awaited trip to the Lighthouse takes place, with Mr. Ramsay, James Ramsay and Cam Ramsay in attendance. Lily Briscoe remains behind on the lawn, watching the Ramsays’ boat from a distance. She is still trying to paint without much success, possibly the same picture she was painting ten years earlier. She has never married and, as she watches the boat, she decides she will marry Mr. Ramsay, now in his seventies. Good luck with that, Lily.

What can you say about Virginia Woolf? Of twentieth century English writers, she is the most cerebral. To the Lighthouse cannot be said to be light reading. It requires concentration and a dedicated effort to make it through to the end. I’ve read it twice and the second time was no easier than the first. If you like a book where absolutely nothing happens, except what goes into inside people’s heads, you’ll love To the Lighthouse.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp


Less ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Less ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Arthur Less is a writer. He is not a very good writer but has enjoyed modest success with the publication of a couple of novels. He has just turned fifty and is lamenting the loss of his youth. He is tall, blond (balding), and gay. He has had several failed relationships with men, including a nine-year stretch with a poet named Robert Brownburn, who is a generation older than Arthur. We are told frequently what a GREAT poet Robert Brownburn is. He is a Pulitzer Prize winner. Robert Brownburn’s name is rarely spoken in a sentence without the word “genius” in the same sentence. When Arthur Less was twenty-one, he met Robert Brownburn on a San Francisco beach and reputedly “stole” him from his wife.

As Arthur Less approaches his fiftieth birthday, he is alone. He broke up with his most recent boyfriend, one Freddy Pelu, the son (more like nephew) of one of his friends. To assuage the pain of being alone, turning fifty, and knowing that Freddy is marrying somebody else, Arthur embarks on a multi-phase trip (Mexico, Italy, France, Germany, India, Morocco, Japan). He has a reason to go to each country. In Italy, he picks up a literary prize (determined by high school students) for a novel he wrote. It’s not a very good novel, we’re told, but the poet who translated it into Italian made it much better than it ever was in English. In Japan, he’s writing a magazine article about Japanese cuisine, about which he knows nothing. In Berlin, he uses his execrable German to teach a five-week class. He engages in a sexual fling with a young Bavarian, while flirting with, and lusting after, every attractive man he meets in his travels, including a Spaniard his own age whom he meets at a party in Paris right before he must go to the airport to board a plane to his next destination. Don’t worry, though; this is not a “gay” novel and there are no boudoir scenes involving men. The gay stuff is only mentioned in passing and is suitable for twelve-year-olds if twelve-year-olds happen to be reading this book.

So, we see Arthur Less as something of a bumbler. His friends laugh at him and imitate him. He gets lost; his luggage gets lost. Unpleasant things happen to him. He seems to say the wrong thing, wear the wrong thing, or do the wrong thing a lot of the time. He is innocent, self-effacing and full of doubt. Smug and arrogant are two things that Arthur Less is not. We like him and identify with him because he’s not perfect and does stupid things the way we all do.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer is this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. It cleverly interweaves flashbacks from Arthur Less’s (less than wonderful) life with his foreign travels. It’s a character study that incorporates themes of getting older in a youth-obsessed culture, change and acceptance (disappointment) in life, the pretense and pomposity of the literary world, the American traveling abroad. It’s a breezy 260 pages that will not tax your brain too much and that might make you glad you can read.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Hell’s Princess ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Hell’s Princess ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

In the annals of American crime, serial killer Belle Gunness of La Porte, Indiana, stands tall. Born Brynhild Paulsdatter Størset 1859 in Norway, she emigrated to America in the 1880s, eventually settling in Chicago, where she changed her first name to the more American-sounding “Belle,” acquired herself a husband, one Mads Sorenson, and several adopted children. (Whether she gave birth to the any of the children herself is not known.) She experienced two suspicious fires in Chicago, one in her home and one in a small (unsuccessful) business she owned, and collected insurance on both fires.

Eventually she poisoned her husband without bringing suspicion to herself and collected on his life insurance. With the insurance money, she bought herself a farm in La Porte, Indiana, and from there she was on her way to a life of cruel, vicious crime. Soon she found herself another husband, a decent widower with two small children named Peter Gunness. Within a few days of her wedding, she murdered her new husband’s infant daughter. The doctor in La Porte found the death of the child to have been caused by edema of the lungs. Children dying was nothing unusual. Once again, Belle got away with murder.

The murder of her second husband, Peter Gunness, was a little more difficult for Belle to sustain. She bashed his head in with a meat grinder and said it was an accident. Many people were suspicious of her story and an inquest was held, but Belle was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing. Again she collected money on his life insurance. Peter Gunness left behind a five-year-old daughter in Belle’s care. Peter’s brother, the girl’s uncle, would eventually abduct the girl and take her away to get her away from Belle. He knew what others refused to see.

Being from Norway and herself speaking the language, Belle began advertising in Norwegian-language newspapers for a “farmhand.” She offered an easy job managing a prosperous farm with a beautiful farmhouse, lots of good food, and the potential for a bright and happy future. The only stipulation was that respondents be willing to pay $1000 to “buy in.” This was the early twentieth century and $1000 was a significant sum of money.

There were lots of Norwegian-speaking immigrant men who would jump at the chance for a good life on an Indiana farm. Some of them were alone in the world and were looking for a wife. While Belle weighed nearly three hundred pounds and had a face that might cause nightmares, there were plenty of men willing to marry her for all the advantages that such a marriage might bring them. She corresponded with a few of the men, flirted with them via letter and offered them all kinds of inducements. The most important thing to her, though, was that they convert all their assets into cash and bring the cash with them, thereby severing all ties with their old lives.

Of course, Belle was interested only in the money. She had no regard for human life, no empathy, no humanity. She was what would later come to be known as a psychopath. She generally poisoned her victims and then beat them to death. After they were dead, she mutilated their bodies, cut off their heads, arms and legs, and then buried them in her “hog yard.” She reduced her victims to a subhuman state. An exact number was never known, but it was believed she murdered as many as twenty-eight. Perhaps even worse, she killed a number of her own children, including her sixteen-year-old daughter, Jennie. She had no qualms about doing away with anybody she found inconvenient, and for a long time she got away with it. She was a master at self-preservation, at covering up her crimes and then lying and prevaricating when confronted.

There was one young farmhand, a man named Ray Lamphere, with whom Belle had an ongoing feud. They had been “close” at one time, carrying on a difficult-to-comprehend sexual relationship, but Ray, according to Belle, was jealous of her male friends and eventually took her to task for money he said she owed him. Belle had Ray arrested on several occasions for trespassing. She claimed to be afraid of him, stating that he threatened her with bodily harm and worse. (Ironic, isn’t it?) In time, Ray would be the perfect foil for Belle’s diabolical machinations.

One of Belle’s respondents was a “well-to-do” farmer from North Dakota named Andrew Helgelien. Belle cajoled him to come to her, making him all kinds of promises, assuring him the two of them would be happy together. She gave him specific instructions about converting all of his assets into cash before coming to La Porte and bringing the cash with him. When he arrived, she murdered him within a few days of his arrival, mutilated his body and buried him in the hog yard.

Andrew Helgelien had a brother named Asle. When Asle tried to find out what happened to Andrew in Indiana, he was met with Belle’s lies, but he refused to believe her and was not going to let the matter rest. His determination to get answers threatened Belle’s entire criminal enterprise.

In late April 1908, in the middle of the night, a fire completely destroyed Belle’s house. In the charred rubble of the house were found four bodies, those of a headless adult female and three small children. The children were almost certainly the bodies of Belle’s children, aged five, seven and nine, but the identity of the female body was never fully established.

The fire had the marks of Belle’s unfettered cruelty. For all the people who believed the headless female corpse was Belle, there were just as many who fervently believed she had staged the whole thing and escaped, placing the body of a female acquaintance inside the house to make people think it was her own body. She had, of course, over weeks or months, “set up” Ray Lamphere to make people think he had sufficient motive for setting the fire and wanting to exact revenge upon her.

In a sensational, headline-grabbing trial, Belle’s former farmhand Ray Lamphere was tried for the murder of the four victims of the fire. He was found guilty of arson but not murder and sentenced to two to twenty years in prison. After serving only a small portion of his sentence, he died in prison of tuberculosis.

The Gunness “murder farm,” of LaPorte, Indiana, was the most sensational case of the day, eliciting slavering interest on the part of the public, not only in the U.S. but also abroad. And, after the fire that apparently brought the case to a close, everybody had an opinion as to whether Belle was still alive and performing her foul deeds in some other location. As late as the 1930s, there were regular Belle Gunness “sightings” coming from every part of the country, but authorities investigating “leads” always came up with nothing.

Hell’s Princess by Harold Schechter is a fascinating true-life crime story, a real page turner. Sadly, the Belle Gunness case is one that was never solved, a case that left many unanswered questions. It’s not an exaggeration to say that millions of people wanted to know what really happened to Belle Gunness after the fire that destroyed her home. Why was the body of the woman found in the fire without a head, when it’s an established fact that the head is the last portion of the body to be consumed in a fire? Did Ray Lamphere really set the fire or did Belle set it herself to fake her own death? If the body of the woman found in the fire was really Belle, did she kill herself and her children because she believed she would eventually be caught and brought to justice? Or did she escape after setting the fire and continue her killing ways in some other location under another name? Only God knows the answers to these questions and he’s not telling.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

The Song of Achilles ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Song of Achilles ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

In Greek mythology, Achilles was a blond-haired perfect youth, the “best of the Greeks,” the most capable warrior who ever lived. (His opponents would run screaming from the battlefield when they saw he was fighting against them.) His father was a mortal, King Peleus, and his mother a very unpleasant goddess sea nymph named Thetis. Achilles is the central character in Homer’s epic poem about the Trojan War, The Iliad.

The Trojan War, according to mythology, occurred approximately twelve hundred years before Christ. It was fought between Greece and the city of Troy and came about when Paris of Troy kidnapped Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. Helen was thought to be the most beautiful woman in the world (or at least the most beautiful woman in Greece) and was so prized the Greeks were willing to go to war to get her back. They assembled a huge fighting force and traveled in boats to the city of Troy, in what is now Turkey. They set up an encampment near Troy with the intention of staying there until Helen was returned unharmed. It was not to be a brief military engagement, as some predicted. It ended up lasting all of ten years or more. Homer’s The Iliad is about the Trojan War and The Odyssey about the Greek soldiers’ struggles to get home again after the war was over.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is a retelling in novel form of the Trojan War and the exploits of Achilles. It is told in the first-person voice of Patroclus, Achilles’ lover and companion. Patroclus is not a warrior but just goes along to Troy for the ride with Achilles, the person he loves most in the world. He is Achilles’ confidant, advisor and sometimes his conscience when Achilles is just about to be undone by his hubris (a Greek word meaning pride). Patroclus is aware of the prophesy that says Achilles will die and never return to Greece. Their union is such that when one of them dies, the other will die.

The Song of Achilles lies somewhere in the borderland between pop fiction and contemporary literature. It brings the ancient world to life and makes the story of the Trojan War accessible, if you, like me, don’t think you could ever read through the six hundred pages of Homer’s The Iliad. It’s an epic poem, for heaven’s sake, and I’m not one for poetry.

The book lags in the third quarter, as the Greeks are encamped outside of Troy for such a long time and there isn’t much going on except the blood feud between Agamemnon and Achilles over the slave girl Briseis. Agamemnon and Achilles have resented each other since the beginning and the matter of Briseis only brings things to a head. The pace picks up in the last thirty pages or so, and the conclusion is satisfying and moving. Achilles’ mother Thetis, who has disliked Patroclus from the beginning, makes an uncharacteristic gesture at the end that makes us think she wasn’t so bad after all.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

1984 ~ A Capsule Book Review

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1984 ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

George Orwell’s celebrated novel about a bleak dystopian future, 1984, was first published in 1949. It’s set in London, but it’s not called London anymore; it’s now called Airstrip One and it’s part of the landmass known as Oceania. There are three superpowers in the world: Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia. A constant state of warfare exists between Oceania and either Eastasia or Eurasia (first one and then the other). We learn later in the book the cruel reason that warfare—or at least the idea of warfare—is perpetuated. As long as the subjugated people believe their country is at war, they have somebody to hate and hate is what drives them and ensures absolute loyalty to the Party.

The Party is all and everything in 1984. The slogans of the party are: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, AND IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. There are no laws and no religion and no government to speak of. Owning property of any kind is not allowed. People live in cheerless “flats,” each of which has its own “telescreen” that can’t be turned off. Everything a person does or says is heard and seen by the telescreen: BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU!

Winston Smith is the “every man” main character in 1984 who puts the story on a personal level for the reader. He’s thirty-nine years old and works in what is called the Ministry of Truth. His job is to change the historical record (books, magazines, newspapers, etc.) to conform to the current propaganda. There is no historical record of any past event that the Party doesn’t control: what is now has always been and will always be. The Party believes that whoever controls the past controls the future and whoever controls the future controls the past.

On the surface, Winston Smith tries to be a good Party member. He does what he’s told, but inside he’s rebelling. Inside, he hates the Party, Big Brother and everything they stand for. He knows these thoughts could get him killed, so he must keep them to himself at all cost. He hears about a resistance movement called the Brotherhood. He isn’t sure if the Brotherhood really exists or if it’s just hearsay. If it really exists, it might be a way to overthrow the Party. Does he dare hope that such a thing is possible?

He meets Julia, younger than him by almost fifteen years. She is more of a “free spirit” than he is, if such a thing is possible in this world. When he discovers that Julia shares his loathing of the way things are, they begin a secret love affair. They rent a room in the proletarian section of the city where they might be alone (they think) and discuss their subversive views.

A man named O’Brien comes to play an important part in the story and in Winston Smith’s life. Without words being spoken, Winston feels a connection to O’Brien that he can’t explain. Is O’Brien what he seems to be or is he something else? Might he lead Winston and Julia into the resistance movement (the Brotherhood) or might he lead them in another direction? Is it safe to trust anybody in this world?

The brilliance of 1984 is that it’s wholly believable and still so relevant. As our freedoms are slowly being eroded, we come closer and closer to the kind of world we see in 1984. In high levels of the U.S. government, there are enemies of the right to bear arms, of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, who would gladly remove those cornerstones of the Constitution if only they could find a way. There are also many people who would remove God and religion from public discourse and change the historical record to make it conform to today’s standards of political correctness. That’s what removal of Civil War monuments is all about: WE will change the past to make it what WE think it should be. The all-important WE, embodying Groupspeak and Groupthink. You think as we think or you die. This is exactly what happens in 1984.

And then there’s video surveillance. If you are in a clothing or a hardware store, at the library or at a gas station, or sometimes just walking along the street or crossing a parking lot, you are being watched in case you decide to do something you shouldn’t do. And if the cameras don’t catch you, there are always the snitchers, the do-gooders with their cell phones at the ready who will inform on you, whether there’s any reason to or not. “I just saw this man walking down the street wearing a long-sleeved shirt in July! That’s awfully suspicious if you ask me. I think he’s planning an attack of some kind.” BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU!

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Annihilation ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Annihilation ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Jeff Vandermeer’s science fiction novel, Annihilation (the first installment of the Southern Reach Trilogy), is about a nether place on earth known as Area X, an uninhabitable region in which nature has gone awry, a place very dangerous to humans. Several expeditions have gone to Area X to try to ascertain what is going on and, also, to try to figure out why Area X is getting bigger, with the potential of encompassing the entire earth. Is it the work of an alien intelligence or is it just nature gone crazy? Many questions remain unanswered.

The main character of Annihilation is without a name. We only know her as “the biologist.” She is telling the story in her first-person voice. Her husband, also nameless, went on the most recent expedition. He was “lost” for almost a year but one day miraculously turned up again and then died right away (or did he?). The biologist is a solitary, brooding person. She signs up to go on the twelfth expedition, realizing that it is almost certainly a decision that will result in her death. She is willing to die, one supposes, for the sake of knowledge.

All the other members of the twelfth expedition are women and they are all without names. We only know them as “the psychologist,” “the anthropologist” and “the surveyor.” They are all business with no bonding or camaraderie among them. Soon they all die freakishly and the biologist is left on her own to try to learn the secrets of Area X, starting with what she calls “the Tower,” a massive cylinder (apparently) implanted in the earth that might be, in fact, a living organism. Stairs lead downward in the Tower and along the wall on the stairs is a peculiar kind of writing that is composed of tiny, hand-shaped living organisms that write words, which the biologist comes to call “the Crawler.” What do the words mean and what intelligence is behind them? The biologist inhales a spore from the writing on the wall that changes her. After the spore, she glows from within and seems impervious to things that might otherwise kill her. Is the alien intelligence (if that’s what it is) protecting her so she might learn the secrets of Area X?

And then there is the lighthouse that is the epicenter of Area X. The biologist journeys to the lighthouse and there discovers the notebooks of all the previous expeditions, including the notebook of her (lost or dead) husband. She comes to a fundamental understanding of what Area X is about and is able to formulate some theories, but still there are many unanswered questions, which will, it is presumed, be answered in books two and three of the Southern Reach Trilogy.

Annihilation is an imaginative excursion into the unknown in just under two hundred pages. While it’s a little overly descriptive at times for my taste and the middle section seems to drag on a little too long, we can overlook those things in view of the overall fine quality of the writing and of the story itself, which is unlike anything I’ve ever seen or heard of before. We do appreciate originality wherever we can find it.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

The Catcher in the Rye ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Catcher in the Rye ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

J. D. Salinger pulled off something of a miracle when he wrote his 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye. It’s a book that’s almost universally loved or at least admired. It’s thoroughly readable, undeniably engaging, absolutely compelling, and completely original. Every writer wishes he had written it. It has often been imitated—the sincerest form of flattery—but never duplicated. It has to be one of the best American books of the twentieth century. It’s a small book but it manages, in its scant 235 pages, to create more of an impression with the reader than much more ambitious books of two or three times its length.

One of the remarkable things about The Catcher in the Rye is that it’s not wholesome (there’s plenty of swearing and references to sex) or life-affirming. It’s about angst, alienation and loneliness. It’s protagonist (or anti-hero, if you prefer), Holden Caulfield, is plenty messed up. His observations on life are cynical, funny, dark, and oftentimes cruel and misanthropic. It’s no surprise that Catcher in the Rye is often the book of choice among killers and criminals. Do you know the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley? The poem is saying that no matter what I’ve done and no matter what is done to me because of what I’ve done, I stand before you bloody—but unbowed—because I am the master of my fate and captain of my soul. For me, Catcher in the Rye embodies the same spirit.

The Catcher in the Rye is being told in the first-person voice of Holden Caulfield. He’s seventeen years old and a student at a boys’ boarding school, Pencey, from which he’s being expelled because he’s failing all his subjects except English. Pencey is one of several schools that he’s been expelled from. It’s Saturday and the action of the book takes place over three days, from Saturday to Monday. The time is in December, right before Christmas.

Holden is an interesting character, full of contradictions. He has an outer appearance of confidence and bluster but is in reality terribly insecure. He’s confused and alienated by the world and by most of the people in it. People he believes are his friends he finds out are not. And, in spite of his dislike and his distrust of most people, he’s lonely and is always seeking somebody out to spend time with. The only people in the world he seems to truly like are his brother DB, a writer who has gone to Hollywood to write for the movies, his fourth-grade sister, Phoebe, and his deceased younger brother, Allie.

As much as Holden is preoccupied with sex, he has never indulged. His encounter with a whore in a hotel room is one of the best parts of the book. He gets the whore to his room at “five bucks a throw” but then can’t go through with it. He gives her the money, anyway, but then has an ugly, frightening encounter with her pimp, the elevator boy, who insists the price was not “five bucks a throw” but “ten bucks a throw.”

Even though it’s right before Christmas and Holden has been expelled, he can’t go home right away. He wants to wait a few days, until Wednesday, before going home, because that’s the day his parents are supposed to get the letter from Pencey telling them he’s been expelled. The action of the book takes place between the time he leaves Pencey on Saturday and the following Monday. A lot happens to him over those three days and that’s what the book is about.

Of all the books that you might have read in high school or college (or been forced to read), The Catcher in the Rye is one that is worth another look. Even people who don’t care about “good” books will find plenty to like in The Catcher in the Rye.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp