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Where Angels Fear to Tread ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Where Angels Fear to Tread ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) was one of the best and most readable English writers of the twentieth century. His first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, was published in 1905. It’s a story of a clash of cultures, in this case English and Italian. Stodgy, conventional, keeping-up-appearances, English middle-class morality goes head to head with emotional, hot-blooded Italian effusiveness. The English characters in Where Angels Fear to Tread are all fools who can’t see farther than the ends of their noses. The principal Italian character, Gino, is forgiving, kind and generous. Which would you rather be?

Lilia Herriton is an English widow, thirty-three years old. She lives with and is dominated by her late husband’s narrow-minded family in a small English town. She has a small daughter named Irma, who seems to prefer her grandmother and her aunt over her mother. When Lilia travels to Italy, she is captivated by its romance and beauty. Rebelling against the middle-class English morality to which she has long been captive, she meets, falls in love with, and marries a charming Italian fellow named Gino, ten years younger than she is. He has a handsome face and not much else in the way of prospects. When Lilia, early in her marriage, has a child, a boy, she dies in childbirth. Her first husband’s (the dead husband, if you will recall) family back in England believes they must go to Italy and “rescue” Lilia’s child and bring it back to England to give it a proper (English) upbringing.

Philip and Harriet Herriton, brother and sister of Lilia’s late husband, go to the little town of Monteriano, along with family friend, Caroline Abbott, ostensibly to get Lilia’s baby and bring it back to England. They fail to consider the father’s (Gino’s) feelings in the matter. Harriet is an unpleasant, bossy spinster who believes she can bully and bluff Gino into giving up the baby because it is the “right” thing to do. Philip is also of the same mind as Harriet, but when the trio arrives in Italy, Philip once again falls under Italy’s spell (partly as a result of the opera Lucia di Lammermoor) and is charmed by Gino into believing that he, Gino, is a loving and caring father and the baby is better off remaining where it is.

The Herritons don’t really give a hoot about Gino and Lilia’s baby. They want it only so they can assert their English superiority, keep up appearances, and make a point. They will do anything, including kidnapping, to get what they want. With pig-headed Harriet leading the way, they screw up monumentally, with tragic and unforeseen consequences.

Where Angels Fear to Tread was published when the author was only twenty-six. It is a meticulously written, intelligent English classic, accessible and easy to read, well worth another look. A faithful and memorable movie adaptation of the novel was made in 1991.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

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Alexander the Fabulous ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Alexander the Fabulous ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) certainly made his mark on the ancient world. He lived about three-hundred-and-fifty years before Christ. He was born son of a king, one-eyed King Philip of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia and a strange woman named Olympias. While both of his parents were mere mortals, he was really believed to be the son of the god Zeus.

From an early age, Alexander showed a talent for military strategy and winning battles against the enemy. When King Philip died, Alexander became king (although he had been regent before that, which is almost the same as king). While still in his teens, he set about conquering the known world. He commanded the allegiance and love of a huge army. Within ten years, he had conquered the known world. He was the first and only “king of the world,” although others have aspired to that title since then.

Alexander’s role model was Achilles from Homer’s The Iliad. He patterned his life after Achilles, right down to the lifelong boyfriend (Achille’s boyfriend was Patroklos, Alexander’s was Hephaestion). As with Achilles, Alexander was a fierce adversary in warfare and he had a talent for winning battles when the odds were against him and he went against far bigger fighting forces. He was so good that Julius Caesar is known to have wept because he knew he would never be as good as Alexander.

Alexander never lost a battle, but his constant campaigning and warfare took their toll. He always went into the battle at the front line along with is men, never hanging back to give orders. He was wounded many times, including his lung being pierced by a crossbow. He wouldn’t rest or eat or take a drink of water until his men had been taken care of; this is one of the reasons why he was so loved and respected.

He was grief-stricken at the unexpected death of his boyfriend Hephaestion. The two of them had been inseparable since Alexander was fourteen. Just eight months after Hephaestion’s death, in 323 BCE, Alexander himself died at the age of thirty-two, either from pneumonia, typhoid, malaria, or infection. His heavy use of alcohol was believed to have been a contributing factor in his early death.

Alexander the Fabulous by Michael Alvear is an entertaining, campy, not-always-serious account of the life of one of the most interesting and influential men in history. If you like your ancient history entertaining and peppered with gay jokes and snarky and funny comments, this is it. A quote from the first paragraph of chapter eight reads: “The ancient world had crow’s feet, sagging tits, and a loose box. Then Alexander gave it the kind of makeover that inspires Cher to dedicate songs to her plastic surgeons. Alexander didn’t just inject a little botox; he radically transformed the face of the earth with a unique surgical tool known as Hellenism, which spread Greek language, ideas, arts, politics, architecture, science, and philosophy to the rest of the known world. Don’t confuse Hellenism with equally important “Nellyism,” which spread Greek musical theatre, flowing robes, Doric columns, rich Corinthian leather, and floral appliques.”

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Querelle ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Querelle ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The notion of murder often brings to mind the notion of sailors and the sea.” This is the opening sentence of the novel Querelle by French author Jean Genet (1910-1986). Querelle (also known as Querelle de Brest) was written in 1945 and published anonymously in 1947. It was controversial for the 1940s (thus the anonymous publication), involving, as it does, homosexuality, murder, romantic obsession and prostitution.

Georges Querelle is a young, muscular, good-looking French sailor, in the French seaport town of Brest where the action of the novel takes place. His good looks make him a sort of magnet for almost anyone who sees him. His being a sailor and moving around from place to place makes him able to escape detection for the murders and thefts he commits. He has a look-alike brother, Robert, who is a gigolo in the local brothel in Brest called La Feria. There is this persistent theme running throughout the novel of the two brothers, Querelle and Robert, being so much alike that the love they have for each other is self-love, and the two brothers are, in fact, one and the same person.

The only female character in the book is Madame Lysiane. She is the madame of the Brest brothel, La Feria; Robert, Querelle’s brother, is her lover. Madame Lysiane is married to the owner of the brothel, whose name is Nono. Nono likes to roll dice with the young sailors who frequent his establishment. If Nono wins the throw of the dice, he takes the sailor into the back room and has sex with him. In this way, Querelle becomes Nono’s lover.

Lieutenant Seblon is an officer on the ship that Querelle serves on. He keeps to himself as much as he can and confides to his diary how much he loves, and lusts after, Querelle. Querelle figures out that Lieutenant Seblon loves him and, with this knowledge, exercises a sort of control over him. Lieutenant Seblon imagines scenes in which he and Querelle are in love and live together always.

Gilbert Turko is a young mason in Brest and an acquaintance of Querelle’s. He murders a coworker who taunts him and flees to an abandoned prison. Querelle helps him by bringing him food and encouraging him. In the meantime, Querelle has murdered a fellow sailor and left his body in the weeds to be found later. Querelle is able to make it appear that Gilbert Turko murdered the sailor that Querelle himself murdered, since Gilbert Turko is already known to have murdered a coworker. Querelle helps Gilbert Turko to get away by train but notifies police where he can be found before the train pulls out of the station.

Querelle is a walk on the wild side, a dark excursion down a fog-enshrouded alleyway. There’s nothing romantic about it, or charming or uplifting; it’s the dark side of human nature. Querelle might be thought of an agent of the devil with the face of an angel and the body of a god. People are drawn to him for his beauty, often at their own peril. He’s pretty poison. He has no equal in twentieth century literature.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Car Thief ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Car Thief ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Theodore Weesner’s 1972 novel, The Car Thief, is a slice-of-life, coming-of-age story about a troubled sixteen-year-old named Alex Housman and his (what is now called) dysfunctional family. It is set in Detroit, Michigan, in the early 1960s. Alex has a younger brother named Howard, a well-intentioned but alcoholic father who works in a car factory, and a mother who is, at best, a flighty floozie who has other things on her mind than being a good mother. She leaves home, presumably to be with another man, and leaves her two sons to the questionable care of their father.

Alex Housman is plenty smart enough, but he is what you might call an underachiever and, if that isn’t bad enough, he skips school and steals cars. He doesn’t try to make money from the cars he steals; he just drives them around for a while and then ditches them. When asked why he steals cars, he doesn’t have an answer, except to say that maybe he’s only showing off. The law eventually catches up with him and he ends up in a detention home. It will be determined later in court whether or not he will be sent on to boys’ vocational school instead of being allowed to go back home.

It’s while Alex is in the detention home that he finds a kind of peace he hasn’t known before. He finds satisfaction in the menial work he is given to do, and he develops a camaraderie of sorts with some of the other inmates. When he goes back home and returns to school, he finds that nothing has changed, but only worsened. He has missed so much school that he fails all of his classes except one. He feels alienated and excluded at school. He is drawn to a girl or two but scares them away with his unexplainable behavior. He decides to steal another car.

In the meantime, Alex’s younger brother Howard has gone to live with their mother, leaving Alex alone with his father. It’s when Alex goes to visit Howard on a summer weekend that he uncovers some painful truths about his family, not only his mother and father but also about Howard.

Car Thief is a serious and well-written portrait of teenage “acting out.” Alex Housman is not a devilishly clever teen like Holden Caulfield or a privileged brat like so many teens we have seen in movies and books but a troubled boy of the working class. What is really at the root of all his problems? What will it take to free him from his compulsion to steal cars? What will it take him to keep him from ruining his life and ending up in the penitentiary? Will the decent in him prevail in the end?

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

1919 ~ A Capsule Book Review

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1919 ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

American writer John Dos Passos wrote three novels in the 1930s that is really one extended novel of 1200 pages that came to be known as the trilogy U.S.A. The three installments of the U.S.A. trilogy are The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). U.S.A. is a saga of American life as seen through the eyes of some of its more ordinary everyday people: a sailor, a set designer, a stenographer, a marketing man, a college man, a labor activist, a pampered Texas belle, a mechanic, etc. Life for these characters is at times cynical, gritty, ugly, difficult, frightening, tiresome, worrisome, unglamorous, prosaic, confusing and confounding.

The Great War (“The War to End All Wars”) was the overlying event in American life in the late teens. Woodrow Wilson ran for (and won) the presidency in 1916 with the promise to keep America out of the European war, but it was drawn in eventually, anyway. In 1919, we see some of the characters who were introduced in The 42nd Parallel living in Paris in pursuit of the war effort. It seemed it was the thing to do for stylish young women to go to Paris and volunteer their services, more in the pursuit of glamor or having a good time or finding a suitable man than out of a sense of service to mankind.

Another important topic in the novel is socialism and the impending (it was believed) worldwide workers’ revolution. With the revolution in Russia in 1917 and then with the Great War, many people believed the stage was being set for the world (and the United States) to abandon capitalism and democracy and revert to a system of government for the people (the workers) and not for a few elites to accrue wealth. (Background information reveals that John Dos Passos was himself an ardent leftist.)

The U.S.A. trilogy is a landmark of American fiction, although it’s not what we might call a people pleaser or a bestseller. It’s accessible to the modern reader and well worth the time and effort to read it, but it doesn’t have a central character that we (the reader) might root for, and there is really no plot to speak of because the story moves around from one character and one situation to another. And, then, there are the Camera Eye and Newsreel sections, which are described as “experimental” (many people are put off, including me, by the word “experimental” when it’s applied to fiction). There’s plenty here of interest, though, especially if you are a student of literature or American fiction of the twentieth century.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Dirty Parts of the Bible ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Dirty Parts of the Bible ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The time is 1936. Tobias Henry is twenty years old, but sometimes he acts like he’s twelve or thirteen. He’s a Baptist preacher’s son from Michigan who has led an altogether sheltered life. (His one goal in life is to have sexual intercourse with a girl before the “Rapture.”) While Tobias’s pious father spouts scripture whenever it suits him, he skillfully avoids mention of the “dirty parts of the Bible,” namely The Song of Solomon, where breasts are openly and frequently discussed.

When Tobias’s father gets drunk and smashes his car into the church, the Baptists decide they no longer want him to be their preacher. They give him his walking papers; he has sixty days to clear out. The Henry family is about to become destitute. Wait one damn minute, though! Tobias’s father hid a bag of money—a lot of money—in a well in Texas some twenty years earlier. He draws a map where he left the money. If Tobias can go on his own to Texas and find the money and bring it back, the family will be saved.

Right away, Tobias’s trip to Texas doesn’t go as planned. He ends up in a whorehouse in St. Louis, where he has a not-very-pleasant encounter (not a sexual one) with a jaded whore, whose only interest is in stealing Tobias’s money. From that point on, things only get worse. He loses his suitcase, along with the map to find the money, and ends up living the life of a hobo, living in a “Hooverville,” eating “Hoover steaks” (sardines), and riding the rails in boxcars. An old, philosophical hobo with a hook for a hand, named Cornelius McCraw (“Craw” for short), becomes his mentor and protector and teaches him some of the tricks of survival, such as how to catch a catfish when you’re starving and how to run from the law.

Eventually Tobias and Craw make it to Texas and the home of Tobias’s uncle and aunt. The uncle gives them a place to stay and puts them to work but won’t allow Craw into the house because he’s a black man. Tobias meets Sarah, a strange girl who believes (and everybody else believes it, too) that she is under an ancient Indian curse that makes her boyfriends die young.

In a roundabout way, Tobias finds his way to the lost money in the well, but it’s not the lifesaver his family hoped it would be. There’s money forthcoming, however, from another, unexpected source that will keep the Henry family from ending up on the poor farm. More importantly, Tobias discovers love—and sex—with the Texas girl Sarah. “Where did you learn to swear?” Sarah asks Tobias. “From my mother,” he says. “I can’t wait to meet her,” Sarah says.

The Dirty Parts of the Bible, by a writer named Sam Torode, is a too-cute, coming-of-age story with a simplistic plot and predictable characters. What I’m saying is, there’s not much depth here, although it is well written and engaging. It’s light summer reading if that’s what you’re looking for. It’s pleasant, fast, easy reading that will not require you to use your brain. Try not to roll your eyes too much while you’re reading it.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Overstory ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Overstory ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Richard Powers’ novel, The Overstory, is this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. It’s a big novel, 500 dense pages, that took me almost three weeks to read. It’s a big story about big ideas. People don’t matter much where big ideas are concerned. You see, the earth has grown too overcrowded. The earth has to sustain seven billion (and counting) people. Trees are something that most people don’t ever think about. Trees play an important part in keeping the world functioning the way it’s supposed to. They replenish the air we breathe. Their roots keep the soil from coming apart. They provide food and medicine. Birds and small animals live in trees and rely on them for their livelihood. Trees are beautiful and capable of inspiring awe in insignificant humans—that is, those humans who are able to put aside their cell phones long enough to pay attention.

The world’s forests are dwindling at an alarming rate. The human race is an insatiable beast that must be fed. People must be kept happy and comfortable, oftentimes at the expense of the earth’s resources. People don’t seem to be aware of what’s going on, or, if they are aware, they don’t much care. Many species of trees in the world are extinct and more are becoming extinct every year. A few dedicated souls are establishing seed banks where seeds can be stored and replanted at a later time but, if the human race is dead, who is going to plant the seeds? Aliens from outer space?

All the characters in The Overstory come to see the importance and significance of trees, each in his or her own way and in ways that most people don’t ever imagine. Nick is a lonely Iowa boy-man. He’s a sketch artist who sketches trees. His legacy is a gigantic and unusual tree that graced his family farm for generations. His life lacks meaning until one day Olivia comes along and changes it for him. She’s a self-absorbed college girl, a self-described “bitch,” who is electrocuted in her room at school and brought back to life. After she is revived, she hears “voices” that tell her to travel across the country to California because ancient trees there are being sacrificed to “progress.” Armed with nothing but their “cause,” Olivia and Nick set out across the country to California, where they become “environmental activists.” They “tree sit” in a California redwood that is marked for destruction; it’s a thousand years old and hundreds of feet high. The idea is that the tree can’t be cut down while people are living in it. Nick and Olivia live in the tree for almost a year until they are forced out and the tree is cut down. The lesson here is simple: When you fight the law, the law always wins. From being an “environmental activist,” it isn’t a very large step to being an “environmental terrorist.” Nick and Olivia make the step easily enough, along with others.

There are also other interesting and compelling characters in The Overstory. Dr. Patricia Westerford is a tree scientist. If anybody in the novel can be called the “lone voice in the wilderness,” it is her. She advances the theory that trees communicate with each other, help each other, know how to heal themselves, and know when they are going to die. She sounds the alarm about the number of species of trees that are vanishing, but most people are not willing to listen. These environmental people are very passionate, willing to give up everything they have, to die, even, for their cause.

Neelay Mehta is an Indian-American who, from an early age, is a computer whiz. As a high school student, he falls out of a tree he is climbing and breaks his back. From that point on, he is a paraplegic. His stunted body doesn’t keep him from achieving success, however. He starts a software computer company that makes wildly successful computer games. Despite his wealth and success, happiness eludes him. He wants always to create bigger and better programs that mirror the diversity and complexity of life on earth. In this way, he is God in miniature.

The Overstory is long, involved, and mostly involving. Reading it through to the end takes a considerable amount of time and effort but, despite its environmental subject matter, it never seems preachy, condescending, or pretentious. As long as it is, it’s not difficult to grasp for the, let us say, casual or unscientific reader. I would never have read it if it hadn’t won the Pulitzer Prize. I’m glad now that I did. I learned some things and it opened my eyes on the subject of trees and forests and the few people who will do anything, go to any lengths, to protect and preserve them.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp