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Meditations of Marcus Aurelius ~ A Capsule Book Review

Meditations of Marcus Aurelius ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Marcus Aurelius lived in the early Christian era, from the year 121 to 180. He was a Stoic philosopher and emperor of Rome from 161 until his death. He wrote his Meditations as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement. He was able “to write down what was in his heart just as it was, not obscured by any consciousness of the presence of listeners or any striving after-effect.” To put it another way, he probably never planned for Meditations to be published as a book and read by people nearly two thousand years later.

Meditations is divided into twelve books, each book representing a different period in Marcus Aurelius’ life. The books are not in chronological order. A central theme is the importance of analyzing one’s judgment of self and others, and the development of a cosmic perspective. In Marcus Aurelius’ own words, “”You have the power to strip away many superfluous troubles located wholly in your judgment, and to possess a large room for yourself embracing in thought the whole cosmos, to consider everlasting time, to think of the rapid change in the parts of each thing, of how short it is from birth until dissolution, and how the void before birth and that after dissolution are equally infinite.” Another important theme is maintaining focus and being without distraction, while maintaining strong ethical principles.

Marcus Aurelius’ Stoic philosophy advocated avoiding indulgence in sensory affections, which will free a man from the pains and pleasures of the material world. The only way a man can be harmed by others, he says, is to allow his reaction to overpower him. Order, or “logos” (the principle of divine reason and creative order) permeates existence, allowing one to rise above perceptions of “good” and “bad.”

Meditations is not exactly entertaining or breezy reading, but it’s interesting on a historical level because it was written by a Roman Emperor, it’s a product of its time, and it explains the Stoic philosophy, which is in itself quite interesting. Meditations held my interest (mostly) throughout its one hundred pages and I never once wanted to set it aside and read something else, but I was glad when I came to the end.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Hound of the Baskervilles ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Hound of the Baskervilles ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) wrote five novels and over fifty short stories featuring the most famous fictional detective in literature, Sherlock Holmes. The Hound of the Baskervilles, first published in 1902, was the second novel of the five and is the most famous and popular.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is set (mostly) on the lonely, desolate moor in England, far from civilization. The wealthy Baskerville family has been plagued by a curse since the days of the English Civil War (1642-1651). According to the curse, a hellish hound has killed every male heir in the Baskerville line. The most recent heir to be killed was Sir Charles Baskerville; the devil hound never touched him, however; he died of fright when he believed the hound was pursuing him. The new heir is Sir Henry Baskerville. After the death of Sir Charles, he moves in to take over the Baskerville estate and fortune.

Believing his life to be in danger, Sir Henry Baskerville, along with his friend Dr. James Mortimer, enlists the aid of world-renowned detective Sherlock Holmes to solve the mystery of the hound. Since Holmes is busy with other cases in London, he sends his assistant and sidekick, Dr. Watson, down to the country to help make sure that Sr. Henry Baskerville doesn’t become the next victim of the fiendish hound.

From Baskerville hall on the moor, Dr. Watson uncovers what he can about the hell hound and the characters involved in the case and forwards written reports to Sherlock Holmes in London. The case is too fascinating for Holmes to stay away, however, and soon he makes an unexpected appearance in the middle of the proceedings. With his uncanny insights, he unravels the truth behind the hound of the Baskervilles and exposes the villain and the reasons for his villainy.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is a genre novel, classic detective fiction, easy to read at under two hundred pages, for the casual reader or the student of literature. It has served as the blueprint for many stories of its kind and has been made available in many different film versions. What actor could have made a better Sherlock Holmes than Basil Rathbone in the 1939 film version of the novel? It was the part he was born to play.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Maurice ~ A Capsule Book Review

Maurice ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) was one of the best English novelists of the twentieth century. His novels are intelligent and literate, while also being entertaining and broadly appealing. He wrote the novel Maurice in 1913, but, because of its unconventional subject matter, it wasn’t published for decades, not until 1971.

The novel is set during the years before World War I. Maurice Hall is an upper middle-class youth from a conventional family; his father is dead; he has a mother and two sisters. He attends Cambridge University, where he meets and comes to know Clive Durham. These two “boys” (young men) are quite different from each other. Maurice doesn’t mind breaking the rules when it suits him, which eventually gets him “sent down” (expelled) from school. Clive is more mindful of convention.

As was common with English schoolboys living away from home, Maurice and Clive enter into a furtive homosexual relationship. For Maurice, his passion for Clive is all-consuming, all-important, and built to last a lifetime. He comes to care more for Clive than for anything else in the world.

The love affair (to others, it’s a very close friendship) between Maurice and Clive continues after school. Maurice works in the business his father worked in. Clive manages his family’s estate and gives dinner parties. Maurice spends as many evenings a week with Clive (and weekends) as he can manage.

A bad bout of influenza at age twenty-four leaves Clive weak and debilitated, but, more to the point, it leaves him preferring women. He and Maurice are finished as lovers but they can, of course, remain friends. Clive soon lands a woman named Anne, with whom he becomes besotted in a very short time. They soon marry, which is what every young man is supposed to do.

Maurice doesn’t really understand how Clive can suddenly prefer Anne over him, but he takes the news with apparent equanimity. As hurt as he is, he knows, logically, that turning to women is the exact right thing for men of his sort. He consults a medical doctor who instructs him to quit having morbid thoughts. A hypnotist advises him to move to Italy or France, where homosexuality is not recognized as a crime.

Enter Alec Scudder. He is an uncouth country lad, the gamekeeper on Clive’s estate. Even though Maurice and Alec are of separate classes, Alec recognizes in Maurice a fellow traveler. They come together when Maurice is visiting Clive’s estate and soon they are in love. As Maurice says, there is “one chance in a thousand” that he and Alec found each other. The only problem is that Alec is emigrating to the Argentine in about a week. Can Maurice persuade him to remain in England? Any kind of a longtime relationship between the two is by definition going to be fraught with difficulties. Not only are they of different classes, but they are outcasts from the world. (He was despise-ed, he was rejected, and acquainted with grief.)

The novel has a happy ending. How can that be? The happy ending is why the novel wasn’t publishable at the time it was written. Homosexuality was a criminal offense in England. Any novel, regardless of its literary merit, that allows two homosexual men to go on their merry way without destroying themselves or ending up in prison was an outrage against public morals. People wanted to see these people punished. Not happy. Never happy.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

At the Mountains of Madness ~ A Capsule Book Review

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At the Mountains of Madness ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) wrote At the Mountains of Madness in 1931. (It was first published in serialized form in a magazine in 1936). It’s a horror/fantasy/science fiction novel about an exploratory expedition to Antarctica, possibly the most inhospitable place on earth, where men go, not to get a good suntan or to meet girls, but to engage in scientific research. Besides frigid temperatures, rugged terrain, discomfort and loneliness, these explorers must also deal with something unexplained: the massive ruins of a fantastic, ancient city. (“Ancient” in this case meaning 500 million years.)

The Antarctic expedition in At the Mountains of Madness is led by a geologist named William Dyer from the fictional Miskatonic University from the fictional Arkham, Connecticut. He is relating the story in his first-person voice. After the explorers discover the remains of fourteen prehistoric life forms, previously unknown to science and also unidentifiable as either plants or animals, they find a vast, abandoned stone city, alien to any human architecture. By exploring these fantastic structures, they learn through hieroglyphic murals that the creatures (dubbed the “Elder Things”) who built the mysterious city came to earth shortly after the moon took form and built their cities with the help of “shoggoths,” biological entities created to perform any task, assume any form, and reflect any thought. There is a suggestion that life on earth evolved from cellular material left over from creation of the shoggoths.

The explorers soon realize the Elder Things have returned to life and to their ancient city. They (the explorers) are ultimately drawn towards the entrance of a tunnel, into the subterranean region depicted in murals. Here, they find evidence of various Elder Things killed in a brutal struggle and blind six-foot-tall penguins wandering placidly, apparently used as livestock. They are then confronted by a black, bubbling mass, which they identify as a shoggoth, and escape. The survivors of the expedition then make it their mission to discourage any future exploration to the region.

H. P. Lovecraft is considered the premiere American fantasy writer of the twentieth century. I think he is not an easy writer to read. His work is generally very wordy, laden with ponderous description. It’s not light or breezy reading. You have to pay particular attention to the text and if you’re reading late it night, it might put you to sleep.

Along with the short novel At the Mountains of Madness, there are three short stories in this Belle Epoque Original edition: “The White Ship,” “The Doom that Came to Sarnath,” and “Herbert West—Reanimator.” “The White Ship” and “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” are verbose fantasies set in other realms. “Herbert West—Reanimator” is the famous story about a doctor obsessed with bringing the dead back to life. He rifles cemeteries for fresh corpses, aided by his assistant and friend, also a doctor. These two “mad scientists” conduct unholy experiments with dead people, often with tragic and horrifying results. Delicious.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Sins of Jack Saul ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Sins of Jack Saul ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Who the hell is John “Jack” Saul, you might ask. He was a real-life person who lived from 1857 to 1904. He was five feet, five inches tall, well-endowed sexually, slightly effeminate, and a notorious male prostitute. He was born in Dublin, Ireland, and when he went to London he was widely known as “Dublin Jack.” He is known today for writing (or at least partly writing) a pornographic novel titled The Sins of the Cities of the Plain and for being a witness in a high-profile libel case involving an important person known as Henry James Fitzroy, Earl of Euston, who was reported to have visited a male brothel in London at 19 Cleveland Street. When the male brothel was discovered and publicized, it became the major sex scandal of the Victorian Era.

Lord Euston filed a suit and (and won) against a crusading newspaper man, Ernest Parke, who claimed that he (Lord Euston) went to the brothel to have sex with young men. Lord Euston claimed in court that he was taken to the brothel under false pretenses and that when he realized what kind of establishment he was in, he left. Jack Saul was a witness for the defense, meaning that he testified against Lord Euston. He was defiant on the witness stand and admitted he was a professional male prostitute and that Lord Euston did indeed visit the male brothel at 19 Cleveland Street to engage in forbidden sex acts with men. The court eventually decided the case in favor of Lord Euston, although his later life was plagued with blackmail and allegations of homosexuality.

In the 1880s, as now, the news media and the public love a good sex scandal, especially if it involves important or highly connected persons. Other important or notable people were implicated in the Cleveland Street brothel scandal, including Lord Arthur Somerset (equerry to the Prince of Wales) and several high-ranking army officers. (There was a persistent rumor at the time, that has never been disproved, that Prince Albert Victor, son of the Prince of Wales and grandson of Queen Victoria, second in line for the English throne, was a visitor to the brothel.) At this time in English history, any sex act between two men was illegal and punishable by imprisonment. Many of the male prostitutes working in the brothel were only about seventeen and worked as messenger boys for the post office. They became prostitutes to supplement their meager wages.

The Sins of Jack Saul by Glenn Chandler is as much about the times (Victorian era) as it is about a single person. Jack Saul had a sad, difficult, dangerous life, oftentimes picking up men on the street to have sex with them. He worked at several “legitimate” jobs from time to time, but nothing was as lucrative for him as prostitution. He could read and write, as many of his contemporaries could not. He died at age forty-six in 1904 of tuberculosis in his native Dublin. There has been a renewed interest in his life because he was a kind of symbol of gay defiance long before there was anything resembling gay rights. (He disproved the belief, widely held at the time, that homosexuality was a vice of the wealthy that corrupted the innocent.) He was what he was and if you didn’t like it, that was just too bad. He claimed to be covered in shame, but on the other hand he made no apologies and always sent money home to his mother.

Copyright 2019 by Allen Kopp

A Son of the Middle Border ~ A Capsule Book Review

A Son of the Middle Border ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Hamlin Garland was an American writer who lived from 1860 to 1940. His memoir novel, A Son of the Middle Border, was first published in 1917. It’s the story of Hamlin Garland’s farm childhood and his struggles to gain success as a writer in early adulthood.

The Garland family lived in the Wisconsin wilderness, in a deep ravine known as a “coulee.” His father, Richard Garland, came home from the Civil War in 1865. He was forever after a military man who believed in military discipline, even when dealing with his four small children. He became disenchanted with life in Wisconsin and moved his family father west to the barren plains of Iowa, where he became a wheat farmer.

Life in Iowa for the Garland family was no better than it had been in Wisconsin. The barren Iowa plains were lacking in vegetation, brutally cold in winter and blisteringly hot in summer. Every living thing, man and animal, suffered in Iowa. When the wheat crops were abundant, a farmer could make a living for himself and his family, but the trouble was that wheat farming was dependent on the whims of weather and nature. When “chinch bugs” destroyed the wheat crops two years in a row, many wheat farmers had to sell out and find an easier way to make a living.

The lure of the West was strong for many people during this time. Richard Garland once again moved his family farther west, this time to the Dakotas. He tried various enterprises but was never able to attain more than marginal success as a tiller of the soil. His long-suffering wife always went along with whatever he wanted without complaint, but anybody could see that she was fast becoming an old woman before her time. Of the Garlands’ four children, their two daughters died in young adulthood without ever escaping the farm.

Despite Hamlin Garland’s hard life as an Iowa farm boy, he was determined to get an education and not be a poor farmer all his life. Sometimes his work on the farm left him little time or energy for anything else, but he overcame many obstacles and went to school whenever and wherever he could. The third act of A Son of the Middle Border concerns how he, as a young man, left the farm, went away to Boston and established himself in the literary world. It is a particularly American story about how one man, born poor and with few advantages in life, went after what he most desired in life and succeeded.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

A House for Mr. Biswas ~ A Capsule Book Review

A House for Mr. Biswas ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Trinidad is a small island off the coast of Venezuela. Tobago is an even smaller island to the northeast of Trinidad. The two together make the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, the southernmost island country in the Caribbean. V. S. Naipaul was a Trinidadian and Tobagonian British writer of works of fiction and nonfiction in English who lived from 1932 to 2018. His 1961 novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, was the first of his many books that brought him international acclaim as a writer. It ranks number 78 on the Modern Library’s List of the Hundred Greatest Novels in English of the Twentieth Century.

Mohun Biswas is the “everyman” protagonist of A House for Mr. Biswas. He is the son of immigrant parents from India, a Hindu, living in the Caribbean country of Trinidad. Mr. Biswas (the title by which he is known throughout the novel) is a the “little man,” the “one against the world.” A House for Mr. Biswas is the story of his unspectacular life. We are told on the very first page of the novel that he dies in his mid-forties. He marries Shama, a woman from a family of many daughters. It is a strictly matriarchal family, dominated by Shama’s mother, Mrs. Tulsi. He doesn’t like being dominated by his wife’s family, but he doesn’t seem to be able to help it. He and Shama never seem to care very much for each other, never seem to share any kind of an emotional bond, but they have four children, one boy and three girls.

Not being particularly well-educated, smart or competent, Mr. Biswas seems to have trouble making a meager living for himself and his family. He manages a “rum shop,” works as a sign-painter, and works in his wife’s family’s store, which seems to be kind of “everything” store. His main ambition in life is to be independent (from his wife’s family and from anybody else) and to have his own home that belongs to him and nobody else. About midway through the novel he undertakes to have his own house built by an anything-but-reliable builder, but it doesn’t go well, and his unfinished house is destroyed in a storm. In the second half of the novel, he gets a job as a journalist for a small newspaper, where he writes a column about “deserving destitutes.” This is a step-up for him, where he makes about $150 a month, and he eventually he owns his own car, but still lives by his wife’s family’s dictates (especially his wife’s mother) in a house they own.

Despite its length (568 pages) and exotic setting, A House for Mr. Biswas isn’t difficult to read. It’s in clear, concise, easy-to-understand English. There are no tangled sentences, no tortured descriptive passages. There are lots of character names, though, sometimes difficult to remember and keep straight because many of them are similar (Shama, Sharma, Savi, Chinta, etc.). This is a minor quibble, though, and no reason not to read the book. For American readers, A House for Mr. Biswas is a glimpse at a life in another country, on another continent, in another culture. If you think life is difficult for you, consider the life of Mr. Mohun Biswas.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp