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Tulip Fever ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Tulip Fever ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Tulip Fever is a novel by Deborah Moggach set in picturesque Amsterdam, Holland, in the year 1636. Cornelis Sandvoort is a wealthy merchant. At sixty-one, he is in the twilight of his years. His young wife, Sophia, is only twenty-six. Cornelis lost his first wife and child to disease; he wants nothing more than for Sophia to give him another child to carry on his name and his business after he is gone. Sophia honors and respects Cornelis—after all, he saved her family from poverty—but she doesn’t love him. She finds his physical presence repellant.

When Cornelis commissions a young painter, Jan Van Loos, to paint his and Sophia’s portrait, Sophia quickly becomes enamored of the painter. She falls so easily. She sneaks out of the house at odd times to meet the painter. They become lovers. She goes to great pains to make sure her husband doesn’t find out.

Sophia has a maid named Maria. Maria has a lover named Willem. Maria and Willem are intimate together and plan on being married. Maria finds herself expecting Willem’s child. Willem, through a misunderstanding, believes that Maria has been unfaithful to him with another man. Heartbroken, he runs off and joins the navy, not even knowing that Maria is going to have his baby.

Sophia tells Maria she will soon have to leave the household since she is going to have a baby and isn’t married. With nothing to lose, Maria threatens to expose Sophia for carrying on a clandestine love affair with the painter Jan Van Loos. Rather than part on bitter terms, Sophia and Maria together devise a plan whereby Sophia will pretend to be pregnant (by her husband, of course), while concealing Maria’s pregnancy. Then, when Maria’s baby is born, they will pretend it is Sophia’s and that Sophia died during the delivery. Pretending to be dead, Sophia will then be free to run off with her lover, Jan Van Loos, to Batavia in the East Indies and start a new life.

While Sophia and Jan’s elaborate deception plays out, the city (Amsterdam) and the country (Holland) are in the grip of “tulip fever.” Fortunes are being made and lost in tulip bulb speculation. Some bulbs are worth a fortune. Never has the adage “a thing is worth what somebody is willing to pay for it” been more appropriate. Jan is counting on one fabulously expensive bulb (which he plans on selling for much more than he paid for it) to get him out of debt and pay for his and Sophia’s passage to a new country and a new life. Their plot to trick Sophia’s husband—and the world—has worked so far. All they need is a bit more luck and for Jan’s bumbling servant, Gerrit, to pick up the bulb and bring it to Jan.

Tulip Fever is a tautly written 280 pages. The themes of infidelity, greed, self-delusion and human failing that we see here are universal. Jan and Sophia’s illicit love affair was one thing, but their plan to fool Sophia’s husband with Maria’s baby and then to run away to another country was something else. Failure was built in from the beginning. A strong story about the extraordinary lengths to which people will go to achieve their own version of happiness.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Call Me by Your Name ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Call Me by Your Name ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Call Me by Your Name, a novel by a writer named Andre Aciman, is set on the Italian Riviera during a summer in the mid-1980s. Elio is seventeen, very astute and with more depth than most people have at three times his age. He plays the piano, knows several languages, and his work for the summer is transcribing Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ. When was the last time you knew a seventeen-year-old boy who could boast of such splendid accomplishments?

Elio’s father is an American college professor and his mother Italian. They are what are called “ex-pats.” They live on the beautiful Italian Riviera near the spot where Percy Shelley drowned in 1822 at the age of twenty-nine. Every summer Elio’s family hosts an academic to stay with them for about six weeks or so. During the summer in which the story takes place, a twenty-four-year-old man named Oliver is chosen from among other applicants. Despite his young age, Oliver is also an academic and is busy working on a book on an esoteric, scholarly subject. That doesn’t mean, however, that during his summer with Elio’s family he doesn’t have plenty of time for nightlife, tennis, swimming and lying around naked, or practically naked, in the sun. Oh, and he’s also very good looking with a fabulous body. And, when it comes to sex, he is absolutely freewheeling, not bound up in rigidity and Puritanism the way most American men are.

So, the story of this summer in the mid-1980s is being told to us in the first-person voice of Elio, about thirty years or so after it occurred. In a way, it is a coming-of-age story, but with a twist. Most adolescent boys living on the Italian Riviera with their well-to-do and sophisticated parents are going to become infatuated and obsessed with a dark-eyed Italian woman with large breasts. In Elio’s case, however, the object of his lust and affection is Oliver, the young American man who came for the summer and changed Elio’s emotional landscape and the way he would forever view the world.

The words “homosexual” or “gay” are never used in Call Me by Your Name, but that’s what we’re talking about here. There is absolutely a blasé attitude toward sex and gender identity that is very European and that most Americans would find offensive. Americans separate “gay” and “straight” like they separate cars and motorcycles. The European attitude toward sex is that it is more of a continuum. If today you are with a woman and tomorrow a man, who cares? It’s just different branches of the same tree.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp  

The Heavenly Table ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Heavenly Table ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock is set in the year 1917. Three brothers—Cane, Cob and Chimney Jewett—are dirt poor. They live in a shack with a dirt floor and barely have enough food to eat to go on living. Cane, at twenty-one is the oldest, the most sensible of the three and the only one who might be considered handsome (if he could get himself clean). The middle brother is Cob, who is fat and a simpleton. The youngest brother, Chimney, is only seventeen. He’s reckless, impulsive, foul-mouthed and obsessed with sex. When the Jewett brothers’ father, Pearl, dies suddenly one day during his labors, the three boys decide their life is going to be different from that moment on. They kill Mr. Tardweller, the landowner for whom they work for pennies, and after they’ve done that, they go on a spree robbing banks.

Of course, a life of crime requires keeping on the move. As the Jewetts move around, being pursued, of course, by law enforcement officials, they develop a reputation that is bigger than they are. Crimes that they never dreamed of committing are attributed to them. They become, in a way, folk heroes among a downtrodden people who believe the little man will never get a break in life. And, as bad as the Jewett boys are, they really aren’t all that bad. As they immerse themselves in a life of crime, we begin to see little pieces of their decency, even from Chimney, the roughest of the three. They want to make it to Canada, where they believe they can live a peaceful life and eventually partake of the Heavenly Table with the money they have stolen. You and I know, though, that criminals, after committing violent crimes, rarely have their fondest wishes realized.

There is a host of secondary characters in The Heavenly Table. Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler are a poor farm couple whose no-account son, Eddie, causes them plenty of heartache. They believe that Eddie has gone off to fight in the Great War, until they learn what really happened to him. Lieutenant Bovard is an officer in an Ohio army camp where men are being prepared to fight. He is self-loathing because he is secretly a homosexual. He longs to die on the front in the war with a handsome young recruit by his side named Frank Waller. Jasper Cone is a much-maligned outhouse inspector in the little town of Meade, Ohio. His job is to go around the town checking the level in outhouses to make sure they are not in danger of overflowing. A young black man named Sugar lives off a woman in Detroit until she takes up with a younger man and kicks Sugar out of the house. Homeless, Sugar is penniless and mean. He begins rambling to find his way in the world (another woman to support him?). Eventually the paths of all these characters intersect.

The Heavenly Table is full of dark humor and violence. Despite its gothic tone, it is breezy, one might almost say, light, reading. It’s full of folksy anecdotes about things that happened in people’s lives to make them what they are. It’s set in a much quainter, simpler time (1917), and its evocation of that time makes us feel we’re there. Imagine every house in town having an outhouse, while the city council is putting out calls for indoor plumbing. Imagine having a “Whore Barn” on the edge of your town that caters mostly to young soldiers at the nearby training camp, while the “clap doctor” is railing at them about the dangers of venereal disease. Imagine trying to get a 1917 car going and running while you tool around the countryside. The next thing you know, they’ll be converting the livery stable into an auto repair shop.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Gospel Hour ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Gospel Hour ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Southern writer T. R. Pearson (born 1956 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina) has a writing style all his own, as you will know if you’ve ever read any of his books. It’s a style that might discourage a lot of readers, but if you persevere and don’t give up after a few pages, you get into the rhythm of the writing and find that it’s fun and not all that difficult to read. Some writers, such as William Faulkner, write such long, esoteric, cerebral sentences that it’s sometimes hard to understand what the man is saying; you might have to go back and break the sentence down into its separate clauses before you know what’s going on. While T. R. Pearson writes some very long sentences, he’s not as challenging to read as William Faulkner and you should be able to extract the meaning of his sentences at the first reading, as long as you are paying attention and don’t have too many distractions. Here is an example of one of T. R. Pearson’s sentences, from his novel Gospel Hour:

But she failed unaccountably to disclose to him just what precisely had transpired there in the sanctuary between the doxology and the bi-weekly prayer for the shut-ins which left Donnie Huff quite unable to anticipate the visit he received come Tuesday evening from a Laurel Fork delegation, the call he entertained from Mrs. Troy Haven and Mrs. Norma Baines and the Reverend Mr. Worrell’s wife Louise in addition to Miss Cindy Womble who’d seen fit herself to tote with her her sizeable hooters that Donnie Huff commenced straightaway to appreciate and know in his heart such gladness about that he left the ladies to stand for a time on the front slab while he simple gazed enchantedly through the screenwire until Opal Criner prevailed upon him to admit please the pack of them into the house.

And this is just one sentence!

Gospel Hour is a comic Southern novel about good-old-boy Donnie Huff who lives in a small house with his wife, Marie; his mother-in-law, Opal Criner; and his small son, Delmon. Donnie Huff is not very smart or ambitious. He swills beer and spends his evenings in front of the TV. He works as a lumberjack with a crew of other men just like him. One day when these men are poaching lumber (stealing lumber that doesn’t belong to them), Donnie Huff has an accident with a skidder (whatever that is) and ends up in the river upside down underneath the skidder. When his co-workers pull him out of the river, they believe he’s dead. After a couple of minutes, though, he revives. He has had, they believe, the rare experience of dying and being brought back to life.

Donnie goes on about his business and doesn’t think much about what happened to him in the river. All he saw, he says, were green spots. Nothing much to rave about. When his devoutly religious mother-in-law Opal Criner and other ladies of the church find out that he has had a dying-and-brought-back-to-life episode, they make it into a transformative religious experience. Egged on principally by his religious mother-in-law, Opal Criner, Donnie becomes convinced that he saw Jesus at the portal of heaven and that Jesus touched a “downy patch” on his arm. Suddenly Donnie, who never attracted much positive attention before in his life, becomes a celebrity. People begin donating money to his “ministry.” Donnie knows a good thing when he sees it. He’s tired of scratching out a living as a lumberjack. There’s real dough to be made as a minister. People want to be healed of their afflictions and they believe that touching the “downy spot” on Donnie’s arm that Jesus touched will do it for them. Donnie’s biggest sceptic is his droll wife, Marie. She’s mainly interested in decoupage and she’s not buying into Donnie’s sudden religious conversion.

Religion, as we see in Gospel Hour, is, in some (but not all) instances, a “business” whose main goal is reaping profits. When Donnie sees people in a tent revival who are sincerely crushed by grief, disappointment, and the general nastiness of life, his true conversion begins. He can’t really help these people by letting them touch the “downy spot” on his arm, he realizes, and he can’t fool them into believing he’s something he’s not. Even though he’s not very smart, he sees the phoniness in what he’s doing, and this, at the end of the novel, is his real moment of triumph.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

The Gap of Time ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Gap of Time ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s later plays and is less well-known than many of his other plays. It’s about King Leontes, King of a country known as Sicilia, who has a wife, Hermione, and a best friend, Polixenes. Hermione is about to give birth to a baby. With no proof at all, Leontes gets the idea into his head that Hermione and Polixenes have been having an affair and that Polixenes is the father of the baby that Hermione is about to have. When the baby is born, it’s a girl and Hermione names her Perdita. Leontes can’t stand to look upon the baby and threatens to dash its brains out. Rather than killing it, however, he agrees to let a character known as Antigonus take the baby away and “cast it to fortune.”

Antigonus takes the baby to the country of New Bohemia. A terrible storm at sea kills Antigonus, but Perdita is delivered safely to land. A poor shepherd and his dimwitted son named Clown, played by Jerry Lewis (just kidding), find Perdita and raise her as their own. Fast-forward sixteen years. Perdita is now about seventeen years old and has fallen in love with Florizel, the son of Polixenes, the one-time best friend of King Leontes of Sicilia. (Coincidence plays a very large part in this narrative, as you can see.) Polixenes apparently knows who Perdita is and is violently opposed to the match. Florizel and Perdita escape from New Bohemia and end up in good old Sicilia.

When Leontes meets Perdita, he is attracted to her, not knowing she is really his own daughter. (Yuck!) The shepherd who raised her and his son, Clown, show up (just when needed) with proof of who Perdita is (apparently articles that were left with her when they found her as an infant). Everybody is reconciled and Leontes admits that he wronged his wife Hemione and treated her unfairly. When he sees a statue of Hermione in a friend’s home, it is so lifelike that he wants to kiss it.

The Gap of Time is a novel by the English writer Jeanette Winterson. It is a “re-imagining” of Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale. All of Shakespeare’s characters are now hip contemporary characters. Leontes is now an unlikable jerk with a foul mouth known as Leo, head of a big company known as Sicilia. Hermione is a singer (wouldn’t you just know she’d be something like that?) named MiMi. Polixenes is now Xeno and he’s gay. Just to keep things contemporarily politically correct, the shepherd is now black and is known as Shep. His son Clown is now Clo and he and Perdita consider themselves brother and sister, even though he’s white and she’s black.

So, The Gap of Time is a Shakespeare play with the Shakespeare part removed. I’m not sure what the point is here. Did the world really need to have The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare “re-imagined” by a contemporary writer?  Does Jeanette Winterson add something that Shakespeare left out? Do Shakespeare’s characters need to be updated and made to sound groovy and hip like characters in a Sylvester Stallone movie? Do we really need to have any of Shakespeare’s plays “dumbed down” for a contemporary reading public? (The vast majority of the public never reads a book.)

The Gap of Time is engaging at times with some good dialogue, especially in the first half. There’s a lot of claptrap interspersed throughout the novel about time, about how time affects its players, and about how time…I’m not sure what time is supposed to do here, and I’m not sure exactly the point that Jeanette Winterson is trying to make about time, but I do know that time is of immense importance to this story.  Am I to conclude that time heals all wounds and wounds all heels? If you think you want to read The Gap of Time, don’t. Instead get a copy of Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale, and read it. You’ll feel a lot smarter for it.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Perfidia ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Perfidia ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Writer James Ellroy is unapologetically politically un-correct. If you are offended by racial slurs and blunt sex talk, he is not the writer you should be reading. He manages to insult almost every ethnic and niche group. He gets away with it, it is assumed, because all his novels are set in the not-too-distant American past, where racial prejudice and racial slurs were much more a part of everyday discourse than they are now. “If you’re looking for political correctness,” Mr. Ellroy says, “go someplace else.”

His big (almost 700 pages) novel Perfidia (a Spanish word meaning betrayal or treachery) is set in Los Angeles in the days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. With all those Americans dead in Hawaii and with the country now at war, fear and unease—and in some cases, hysteria—are the order of the day. The west coast of California seems the logical place that the frighteningly aggressive “Japs” will attack next. And those mandatory blackouts don’t do anything to ease peoples’ fears, either. (Imagine moving through a big city at night with all the lights turned off.)

The Japanese people in the Los Angeles area are being rounded up, no matter how innocent or blameless they are. Their property is being confiscated and they are being housed in “internment” camps. Americans are so anti-Japanese because of Pearl Harbor that they want to kill or at least defile almost every Asian they see. (Most people can’t tell the Japanese from other Asians). It’s in this atmosphere of fear and distrust that Perfidia is set.

Dr. Hideo Ashida is an Americanized Japanese. He is a brilliant forensic chemist employed by the Los Angeles Police Department. When all the Japanese people on the city payroll are canned just because of their ethnic background, Dr. Ashida manages to hold onto his job because he is so good at solving crimes. (He is, of course, called Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto, but he seems impervious to insult.) When he is out in public in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, people call him names, spit on him and, in some cases, threaten him. The police department assigns bodyguards to keep him safe.

Dr. Ashida has what he believes is a “shameful” secret. In the world that he inhabits of hyper-masculine, crime-fighting alpha-males, he is secretly gay. The lone object of his desire is one Bucky Bleichert, a boxer with whom he has been friends since high school. He sets up a hidden movie camera in the shower room to capture footage of Bucky naked. The one femme fatale in Perfidia, one Katherine “Kay” Lake, offers Dr. Ashida a roll in the hay but he, of course, isn’t interested.

On the day before the Pearl Harbor attack, a Japanese family of four, the Watanabes, are brutally murdered in their home. It appears to be a sort of ritualized killing, maybe a suicide, but the police just can’t figure it out. There’s an apparent suicide note written in Japanese that speaks of the “coming apocalypse,” but it’s too ambiguous. On examining the background of the Watanabes, the police discover they are “Fifth Column,” meaning they are part of the non-fighting branch of the Japanese military whose job it is to create disorder on the civilian front. The Los Angeles police are hoping to find a Japanese suspect to pin the Watanabe murders on, to somehow mitigate the internment of the Japanese people. If it turns out that a white person committed the murders, it will be a public relations nightmare.

If you read Perfidia and some of the other novels of James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, American Tabloid, among others) you know that the Los Angeles Police Department of the past was unspeakably corrupt, or at least it is that way in the Ellroy universe. Most of the upper tier of the police department are on the “make” in some way or other. They have no allegiance to anything other than themselves. They take drugs, cheat on their wives, kill without compunction whenever it suits them, cover up evidence, and involve themselves with gangsters and shady characters that will advance their own interests. They don’t account to anybody but themselves. These crime fighters are in some ways worse than the criminals they pursue.

Some real-life people (Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, J. Edgar Hoover) appear as minor characters in Perfidia, and James Ellroy paints a very unflattering portrait of them. It’s probably a good thing they’re all dead or they might be initiating some legal action. Bette Davis having a torrid affair with police sergeant Dudley Smith? It somehow doesn’t fit in with the idea we have of Bette Davis. (Bette’s husband, we are told, is a “chains-and-leather queen.”) Joan Crawford seducing a young police officer half her age? Maybe so, but it’s an odious thought. J. Edgar Hoover with pomaded hair and buffed fingernails developing “crushes” on handsome L.A. police officers? I somehow doubt it. It’s all part of the badly damaged world of James Ellroy.

However you look at it, Perfidia is fun to read for its portrayal of a time and place. Very few of us alive now were alive seventy-five years ago at the start of World War II; this is a vivid “re-imagining” of those days. As long as the novel is, the chapters are short, the paragraphs are short, the sentences are short and punchy, and we never get bored. Keep turning those pages and eventually you’ll come to the end and want more.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Gulliver’s Travels ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Gulliver’s Travels ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Irish writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift lived from 1667 to 1745. His most famous work, Gulliver’s Travels (complete title: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships) was first published in 1726. It’s an account, in four sections, of the seafaring adventures of one Lemuel Gulliver, ship’s surgeon, and his sometimes-bizarre adventures among the strange inhabitants of strange lands that nobody in Europe ever heard of or knew about. It’s always through misfortune that Gulliver has his adventures. First he is shipwrecked and finds himself in the land of Lilliput, where the people are about six inches (according to Gulliver’s measurement) tall. The tiny people don’t trust him, of course, because he is so big and might take it into his head to smash them to pieces. It takes many hundreds of them to tie him down, including by the hair of his head. Eventually they come to trust him, though, and let him roam freely. He falls out of favor with the King and Queen, though, because he puts out a fire in the tiny Queen’s chambers in the castle by urinating on it.

He returns home to his wife and children in England after his adventures in Lilliput, but he is a seafaring man and just can’t stay away from the sea. He is only home for a few months before he sets out again. This time misfortune brings him to Brobdingnag, a land where all the inhabitants are giants compared to him. He is kept as a pet or a curiosity in a “traveling box” and eventually ends up in the royal court, where he spends many hours conversing with the king in the king’s native language, which Gulliver quickly learns.  On a trip to the seaside, the box in which he is traveling is snatched up by an eagle and dropped into the sea, where Gulliver is rescued by sailors and returned to his native England.

On his next seafaring adventure, Gulliver’s ship is attacked by pirates; he is marooned and soon picked up by the “flying island” of Laputa. The people of Laputa aren’t overly big or small, but they are strange. They blindly pursue science without any practical results. They use great resources and manpower to research preposterous schemes such as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, softening marbles for pillows, mixing paint by smell, and uncovering political conspiracies by examining the excrement of suspicious persons. After his sojourn in (or on) Laputa, Gulliver is awaiting passage to Japan when he visits the island of Glubbdubdrib, where he visits a magician’s dwelling and discusses history with the ghosts of historical figures, including Julius Caesar, Brutus, Homer, and Aristotle, among others. On the island of Luggnagg, he discovers the immortal race of people known as the struldbrugs. They don’t have the gift of eternal youth, though; they get old and stay old forever.

On his fourth and final adventure, Gulliver returns to sea as captain of a merchantman. His crew mutinies and keep him tied up below deck for weeks, after which they leave him on the first piece of land they come to and then continue as pirates. He comes across a race of hideous humanoid creatures, which he finds out later, are known as Yahoos. The Yahoos are filthy and savage, human beings in their basest form. We learn that Yahoos are merely what pass for people back home. This is Swift’s statement about the human race and his not-very-high opinion of it.

Soon he meets the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent talking horses. He finds them to be everything humans are not: kind, caring, thoughtful, considerate, selfless, and completely alien to the idea of lying, war and warfare. In short, they lack all the qualities that make human beings so odious.

Gulliver is treated well by the Houyhnhnms and comes to admire them among all creatures he has ever encountered. He comes to want to be like them and live as they do. Much to his dismay, however, an Assembly of Houyhnhnms decides that Gulliver, as a Yahoo, has too much reasoning ability for his own good and poses a threat to the Houyhnhnms. They expel him, even though he would like to live among them forever, and he thereby returns to England. He is unable to reconcile himself to living again among the Yahoos, even though he is one of them, and remains a recluse in his own home in England, avoiding his family and all other people, and spends his time in the company of his horses in the stable.

Gulliver’s Travels exists on several levels. It is a satire, a science fiction story, a fantasy, an adventure story, and a forerunner to the modern novel; strangely accessible and readable, almost three hundred years after its first publication. Jonathan Swift stated that one of his purposes in writing the story was to write it for all, the high-born and the low, and to vex the world rather than divert it. It became an instant classic upon its publication and a huge literary success.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp