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Over the Edge of the World ~ A Capsule Book Review

Over the Edge of the World ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

In the 1500s, many people still believed the earth was flat and that if you sailed far enough, you’d fall over the edge, even though the Bible states (around 800 B.C.) in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah that the world is an orb suspended in nothing. Around 1520, Portuguese explorer and navigator Ferdinand Magellan proved the world was round by sailing west to get to the East. Although Portuguese by nationality, Magellan was employed by Spain for the simple reason that the King of Portugal wouldn’t finance an expedition for him. Magellan set out to find the Spice Islands on the other side of the world to bring back treasure for Spain (all-important spices) that was to be found there.

Spain and Portugal, side-by-side European countries, were both world powers and were involved in a fierce struggle to be the first to the Spice (Molucca) Islands. Spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, etc.) were more valuable than gold and were playing an ever-important role in the world’s economy. Whichever country claimed the Spice Islands for its own was going to have an enormous economic and political advantage.

In 1519, Magellan set out with 260 men in five ships. This fleet of ships was called the “Armada de Molucca.” Over the next three years or so, the men of these five ships would experience untold danger, hardship and deprivation. Magellan was a good administrator and manager, but he was driven by ambition and seemed to lack the human element to make him popular with this men. Most of his men despised him for his hardness and cruelty and for his steadfast adherence to rules. He refused at times to give his men as much food as they needed, even when supplies were plentiful.

Magellan’s voyage to find the Spice Islands was only marginally successful, but he has taken his place in the history books because he was the first person to circumnavigate (go all the way around) the earth, a voyage of 60,000 miles. His men believed that, if they were just able to survive the hardships (hunger, danger, extremes of weather, loneliness, fear, discomfort, disease) of the voyage, they’d have enough money at the end of it to live the rest of their lives in financial security. Sadly, their dreams were never to be realized.

Magellan met a bloody end in the Philippine Islands when he overplayed his hand in trying to convert some of the natives to Christianity; some were compliant while others were not. (The irony is that Magellan wasn’t supposed to be trying to convert the natives; he was only there to claim the Spice Islands for Spain.) After Magellan’s death, his men continued on to the Spice Islands, but they knew, even the ones who despised him, that they were at a loss without his guiding hand and managerial skills.

Over the Edge of the World, by Laurence Bergreen, is a fascinating and detailed account of the life and times of Ferdinand Magellan and his daring voyage all the way around the world. It’s a true-life story with an ironic and bitter ending. Once again, we see how truth is stranger than fiction. People play only a small part in controlling their own destinies.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp


Boulevard of Broken Dreams ~ A Capsule Book Review

Boulevard of Broken Dreams ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Paul Alexander’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams—The Life, Times and Legend of James Dean is a fascinating and compulsively readable biography of bad-boy 1950s movie actor James Dean.

There has never been anybody else quite like James Dean. He was born in 1931, an Indiana farm boy. His mother died when he was nine years old, causing him lifelong emotional insecurity. (He was always looking for a surrogate mother.) His father never really wanted him (or even liked him), so he was raised by an uncle and aunt. Despite his unlikely environment, he wanted to be an actor from an early age. He was always artistic and temperamental, the kind of boy that most people don’t even try to understand. As he grew to manhood, he was extraordinarily good-looking (though slight, weighing only about 135 pounds) and was discovered to be an exceptionally gifted and unique actor. Overcoming many obstacles, including lack of money, he ended up in Hollywood after appearing in a couple of Broadway plays and studying acting at the prestigious Actors’ Studio in New York City.

James Dean was a rebel in the 1950s, an age of clean-cut, cookie-cutter conformity. He was homosexual but never in a fey, obvious, or stereotypical way. (He played basketball in high school and was a racing-car enthusiast, for Christ’s sake.) His manner and style of dress put off most traditional-minded people. When he dated young “starlets” in Hollywood (as part of the Hollywood image-making machine), he was any mothers’ worst nightmare.

In Hollywood, James Dean traded on his good looks to get acting jobs in exchange for sex from gay male producers and casting agents (the other side of the “casting couch”). When he landed his first part in an important movie, a film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, directed by the most important director of the day, Elia Kazan, he was still only twenty-three years old but had struggled to “make it” in the difficult profession of acting for a long time. He was still an unknown, of course, but anybody who knew him believed he was destined for movie stardom.

When East of Eden was released, James Dean was found to be a sensation. He connected with audiences (and not just teenage girls) in a visceral, emotional, unique way. He had a style of acting that was new and mostly his own. People went crazy over him. His next move, Rebel Without a Cause, seemed tailor-made for him. He played a sensitive, moody, misunderstood, spectacularly good-looking boy named Jim Stark. His self-absorbed parents mostly ignored him. He didn’t fit in at school. It wasn’t until he became friends with Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo) that he seemed like a person, a real human being.

After Rebel Without a Cause was Giant, a movie about Texans based on a best-selling novel by Edna Ferber. Two of the biggest stars in Hollywood, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, played opposite James Dean. He was Jett Rink, the Texas outsider, the counterpoint to Rock Hudson’s character, the “nobody” who becomes a big man in his own right. Again, the rebel.

Sadly, after those three movies (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, Giant), there would be no more for James Dean. On September 30, 1955, at age 24, he was killed in a gruesome, two-car crash on a California highway. He was driving his sportscar, a Spyder Porsche (which he had just recently had the money to buy), to a racing competition in Salinas, California, when he collided with another car. (Nobody’s fault, just an accident.) The wreck was so violent that he had no way of surviving. On that day, the day of his death, the myth of James Dean was born.

East of Eden was the only one of James Dean’s three movies to be released during his lifetime. Rebel Without a Cause and Giant were released posthumously, to great acclaim and increasing sorrow over his tragic and unexpected death. People went to see his movies to cry over what was lost and what “might have been” if he had lived. Is there anything any sadder to contemplate?

When he died, James Dean was still mostly an unknown actor. In the year following his death, after the release of Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, he became as famous as any movie actor of the 1950s. Not since the death of Rudolph Valentino in 1926 had the death of a Hollywood figure caused such a stir, in America and around the world. Today the cult of James Dean lives on, the myth of the tragic young hero who was too good for this world.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Crowned Heads ~ A Capsule Book Review

Crowned Heads ~ A Capsule Book Review

Thomas Tryon (1926-1991) was a movie actor turned fiction writer who had several successful and best-selling books in the 1970s and ‘80s. Crowned Heads is a 1976 collection of four novellas (each about a hundred pages) in one book about (fictional) movie people who, after they have become as famous as they’re ever going to be, are on the down-side of movie fame. Though these characters are fictional inventions, we assume that they are all based, at least in part, on real people.

The four novellas in Crowned Heads are “Fedora,” “Lorna,” “Bobbitt” and “Willie.”

“Fedora” is a Garbo-like movie star, reclusive and mysterious. She is described as being one of the biggest movie stars ever. She has an alluring European accent and when she gets in front of a movie camera, she generates movie magic. People love her and flock to her movies. One of the amazing things about her is that, even well into her seventies, she still looks young and can play characters much younger than her actual years. Just what is her secret? (No, she hasn’t made a pact with the devil and, no, she doesn’t have a magic youth potion like the one Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn had in Death Becomes Her.)

“Lorna” is one Lorna Doone, a middle-aged, one-time movie actress better known for TV commercials she has appeared in. She has tons of personal problems, including a shoplifting charge and an insurance investigation into a fire she supposedly set in her home, and she needs a “rest.” She takes her rest at a remote, seaside Mexican resort, where she alienates all the guests, sleeps with as many men as she can, drinks lots of booze, takes pills, and has the kind of breakdown that only a woman can have in a tropical paradise. She only goes downhill from there, setting fire to her cabana, inflaming the local riffraff to passion, and having an encounter with a snake god in an ancient jungle temple. If you like stories about a woman coming “undone,” you’ll love this one.

“Bobbitt” is a character in a series of popular movies for children. The name of the child actor who plays Bobbitt is Bobby Ransome. Decades after Bobby Ransome’s star has fallen, he reappears to the people who knew him and worked with him. He is now an adult, of course, and, except for being “older,” he seems much the same as the kid actor who played the part in the movies. In fact, he hasn’t changed at all. As he adult, he lives in a world of fantasy, make-believe and illusion. Will a little sky-writing help to straighten him out?

“Willie” is Willie Marsh, a has-been movie star who seems to have nothing better to do than sit around his lavish Hollywood home and remember the glory days when his star was at its pinnacle. His home is a kind of museum, but, alas, he is alone and has no one to enjoy it with him. His “mate,” Bee Marsh, has died and left him alone. (We believe, of course, that Bee Marsh was Willie’s wife until it is revealed to us, bizarrely, that she was his mother.) With the obvious Hollywood “treasures” that Willie has in his home, he is certain to attract a criminal element (the “have-nots”) who resents him because he is one of the “haves” and is obviously rich. When a trio of “have-nots” make their way into Willie’s home (under false pretenses), he at first welcomes them because he is lonely but soon discovers what a mistake he has made. The leader of the trio, whose name is Arco, is a lunatic and will resort to any means to get his hands on a certain priceless artifact that Willie is rumored to own. (This novella is based on the infamous 1968 Hollywood murder of silent-screen idol Ramon Navarro.)

Crowned Heads is a “dark” book, engaging, breezy to read, somewhere about halfway between pop fiction and contemporary American literature. It has become a kind of minor classic of the crime/Hollywood lore genre. Thomas Tryon was a talented writer who knew how to deliver a chilling story. He probably made the right decision to give up acting for writing. I first read all of his books years ago and was reading Crowned Heads for the second time.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Greatest Story Ever Told ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Greatest Story Ever Told ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The subtitle of The Greatest Story Ever Told is A Tale of the Greatest Life Ever Lived. It is, of course, the life of Jesus Christ and is essentially a retelling of the first four books (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) of the Bible in the form of an accessible, 300-page novel by a writer named Fulton Oursler. It’s a story that most people, Christians and non-Christians, believers and non-believers, will be at least partly familiar with.

What can you say about Jesus Christ that hasn’t been said millions of times before? He was a teacher, philosopher and prophet who came into the world as the living embodiment of God to live life on earth as a human being for 33-1/3 years, to experience human pain, hunger, thirst, despair, disappointment, and persecution, and to die a slow, painful and horribly cruel death at the hands of his persecutors and be resurrected three days later.

Jesus Christ’s message was one of peace, not to overthrow the government by violence, but to change men’s hearts and make them see things in a different way. Kings and magistrates and public officials hated and feared Him because He was an existential threat to their power. What if He decided to set himself up as king and ruler with the backing of most (many) of the “common” people. When asked if He was a king, His reply was: “My kingdom is not of this world.” How was the status quo to deal with Him? The answer was simple: They would deal with Him by wiping him out, destroying Him, removing Him from the world, and in a short time people would forget He ever existed.

The life of Jesus Christ has been called the most influential life ever lived. Do you believe He healed lepers, gave blind people the power to see, lame people the power to walk, brought the dead back to life, changed water into wine, turned a small amount of fish and bread into enough food to feed the multitudes, walked on water, and, after His life on earth, was resurrected into eternal life in heaven? Whether you choose to believe or not in this cynical age is up to you. As always, we are all given the choice of deciding for ourselves.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp          

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea ~ A Capsule Book Review

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Jules Verne’s 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is an imaginative science fiction/fantasy adventure set in the 1860s aboard the Nautilus, the electrically powered, fabulously futuristic submarine designed and built by the enigmatic and misanthropic Captain Nemo. Captain Nemo (he knows no other name) remains something of a one-dimensional character throughout the book because we never learn much about him other than that he has cut himself off from his fellow man and prefers to live under the sea. Like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, Captain Nemo is out for vengeance, but we never learn exactly what happened to him to make him so bitter. Captain Ahab was seeking to destroy the whale that cost him his leg, while Captain Nemo seems to want to kill as many people in the world as he can. His small, uncommunicative crew (if they speak at all, they don’t speak in any identifiable language) of ten or so men on the Nautilus seem to share his disdain for the people of the world.

The American ship Abraham Lincoln was seeking a destructive “narwhal” (an enormous, apparently very cantankerous, whale-like animal) that was known to have destroyed and sunk several unoffending vessels for no apparent reason when it is rammed by the Nautilus and three men are thrown overboard: A French naturalist named Pierre Aronnax (he narrates the story in his first-person voice), his faithful manservant named Conseil, and Canadian harpooner Ned Land. Captain Nemo rescues these three from the sea and takes them on board the Nautilus, where they are essentially held prisoner only in the sense that they are not allowed to leave. Otherwise, they are treated well, with comfortable accommodations, shelter, comfort and plenty of good food. (I’d like a ten-month vacation like this where I can see all the wonders and splendors underneath the sea with minimal danger or discomfort.)

The Nautilus goes all over the world under the sea, witnessing wonders never before seen by man, including the lost continent of Atlantis, the inside of an extinct volcano, wrecked vessels, an attack by monstrous squids, an undersea cemetery, the South Pole, and myriad fish, plants, animals and undersea creatures that most people never have a chance to see in their lives unless they are passengers on the Nautilus. (Captain Nemo, on more than one occasion, takes them on a “walk” on the bottom of the sea.) As a scientist, Pierre Aronnax is fascinated by all he sees, while the Canadian harpooner Ned Land is unhappy and resents not being able to leave the Nautilus. Pierre Aronnax’s faithful manservant, Conseil, just seems to be happy to be able to go along for the ride.

The submarine can go to fantastic depths in the ocean because it is so solidly built by Captain Nemo. It is also equipped with sliding panels in the outside walls so passengers can get a closeup view of all the strange and wondrous sights in the undersea world (illuminated by powerful electric outside lights). The three captives, no matter how diverted they are by all they see, cannot help asking themselves exactly where the Nautilus is going and what is Captain Nemo’s end game? As cordial as he is to his guests (prisoners), he doesn’t reveal anything to them.

The Nautilus is like a character in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, as is the sea itself.  Background information tells us that Jules Verne studied submarines (which, in the 1860s, were still unsophisticated) before he wrote the novel and that a lot of the information he “fabricates” for the story later came to pass. In this way he was a visionary. Also the technical knowledge he displays in describing fish, animals, plants and undersea topography is impressive. He apparently had more than just a passing interest in his subject matter.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Grendel ~ A Capsule Book Review

Grendel ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

If you majored in English in college, as I did, you will remember Beowulf, the anonymous epic poem, written in Old English almost a thousand years ago. Beowulf  is one of the first literary works in English, even though it’s an English nobody today would identify or understand.

The story of Beowulf is set in frozen Scandinavia around 1000 A.D., and it concerns a small groups of Danes (or thanes) ruled over by a king named Hrothgar. When these thanes are not fighting wars and conquering their enemies, they sit around in the Meadhall where they drink mead, swap stories, have sex, listen to music, fight and have a good time until they drink themselves to sleep. They seem to have an enjoyable life, but there is one fierce and vicious enemy that might show up at any time and spoil their good times. This enemy is the manlike monster known as Grendel.

Grendel kills as many thanes as he can by picking them up and biting off their heads and generally spreading terror and mayhem whenever and wherever he can. No matter how much the thanes fear him and do battle with him, they can’t seem to prevail over him because, early in the story, he is made invincible by a dragon. (An invincibility that, in the end, seems to wear itself out.) This background sets the stage for the 1974 novel, Grendel, by John Gardner (1933-1982).

Grendel is told in Grendel’s own first-person voice. He lives in a cave that has an underground lake with his blob of his mother who doesn’t speak. We (the reader) never learn anything about where Grendel came from or how he came to be. He just is, that’s all, like the universe.

We see that Grendel isn’t really such a bad fellow. He’s lonely, unhappy, unloved, misunderstood and an outcast. He kills because it is in his nature to kill. There are times when he could kill but doesn’t. He has a sensitive spirit and never fails to appreciate the beauty of nature. He spies on the thanes as they party in their Meadhall because, in reality, he would like to be one of them, to be accepted by them. He just can’t always resist the urge to kill them.

Grendel takes the story of Beowulf a little farther. It’s a psychological examination of a monster and an outcast. No matter how despicable a person or a thing is, we must realize that he (it) always has his (its) own story with which we might sympathize if we could but know the details. It’s been many years since I’ve read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but the astute reader will, I think, see similarities between the two monsters.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

This Side of Paradise ~ A Capsule Book Review

1920 First Edition Cover

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

Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896. His reputation as a great American writer of the twentieth century rests firmly on his four novels (especially The Great Gatsby) and dozens of short stories that he wrote for magazines. More than any other writer of his generation, he was a chronicler of his age, which became known as the Jazz Age. He died in 1940, age forty-four, of a heart attack.

Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, was published in 1920, when he was only twenty-four years old. The central character in the novel is Amory Blaine, an arrogant, good-looking, heavy-drinking young man from a prosperous family. He has an indulgent mother who spoils him and a mousy father who doesn’t do much of anything except make money. Amory has what might be called a “golden” youth. He attends Princeton University where he and his friends spend a lot of time drinking, socializing, talking and intellectualizing, and having a good time.

The glory of Amory’s youth is rather tarnished by a series of unsuccessful love affairs with spoiled, vacuous debutantes. Each time he begins a new love affair, he believes it is the all-consuming passion of his life that will bring him eternal happiness and peace. None of them turn out the way he wants them to, however. He plans on marrying a girl named Rosalind Connage, but she throws him over at the last minute because she thinks he is essentially a loser who won’t ever be able to make enough money to suit her. Here we have one of the major themes of the novel: how the quest for money and social standing kill romance.

World War I is the defining event of Amory’s generation, but for him it’s no more than a blip. He enlists, as everybody else is doing, but he remains stationed on Long Island and doesn’t see any fighting before the war ends. He says later that he loathed the army.

After the war ends, Amory finds himself in a changed world. Some of his best friends from college have died in the war. His father dies and his mother discovers they don’t have nearly as much money as they thought they did. Is Amory going to be forced to go to work to earn a living?

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

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

This Side of Paradise is a novel that stops rather than ends. We don’t know what Amory’s future life will be. Will he overcome his disillusionment and became a great writer? Will he find another love to fill the void left by the departure of Rosalind? Will he find the thing he wants, whatever it is, as soon as he stops looking for it? Probably not. He’ll probably die in his mid-forties of alcoholism, as unfulfilled as ever, never knowing of his literary legacy that will endure through the decades.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp