#53. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Anita Loos)

Book: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos

Genre and Year of Publication: Vintage chick-lit, 1925

Where I got it: Chapters second-hand book store

Length: 156 pages

Briefly, it’s the book behind the Marilyn Monroe movie of the same name; a satirical send-up of the “flappers” culture of the 1920s.

Comments: Written in a diary style, complete with grammar and spelling mistakes, this could be seen as a precursor of certain types of contemporary chic-lit, such as Sophie Kinsella’s “I Love Shopping” books.  It may have been ground-breaking in its day.  Lorelei is an airheaded diamond-seeking user of men – men who seem to be totally happy to be so used.  I found it mildly amusing.

ChallengesBack to the Classics challenge for the category “A 20th century classic”


#52. A Severed Head (Iris Murdoch)

Book: A Severed Head, by Iris Murdoch

Genre and Year of Publication: Fiction, 1961

Where I got it: The Open Door second hand book shop

Length: 205 pages

Briefly, it’s not a murder mystery, despite the title!  It’s a look at marriage, adultery, incest, and “love” amongst a group of people who keep forming and re-forming liaisons.

Comments: I first encountered Iris Murdoch’s work in a philosophy undergrad class, and did not realise for some time that the novelist of the same name is in fact the same person.  But Murdoch’s novels – this one at any rate – are highly philosophical.  What is love?  Can relationships be permanent?  Where does one draw the fine line between use and abuse of people?  Why do we strain to keep others in our possession?  This novel starts out with a classic and rather simple situation of a man, his wife, and his mistress, but quickly becomes very complex as they break up with each other and realign in new relationships, which in turn break up and the same people form yet new liaisons, or return to previous ones… who will “love” whom next?  What is “true” love, if such a thing exists?

I found this novel gripping, but was glad that it ended when it did, as much more would have been too sordid.

Challenges: Back to the Classics challenge for the category “A Classic by a Woman Author”

#51. Men at Arms (Evelyn Waugh)

Book: Men at Arms, by Evelyn Waugh

Genre and Year of Publication: WW II Fiction, 1952

Where I got it: Lent to me by a friend (VA)

Length: 246 pages

Briefly, it follows the military career of Guy Crouchback, a 35-year-old Englishman, who enlists for the army at the outbreak of World War II, through his training period and initial posting to Senegal.

Comments: This book is full of dry wit.  Allegedly based loosely on Waugh’s own war-time experience, it describes an army which is confused, chaotic, unclear about its objectives and largely operating with very, very limited information about what is going on elsewhere.  Most of Crouchback’s time with his division is spent awaiting orders to move elsewhere.  There is an element of boarding school to some of the adventures, and to the whole tone of upholding the ancient traditions of the regiment.  Waugh’s makes his point about the pointlessness of the war with humour and lightness of touch.  Crouchback is a likeable character, and the reader is on his side when his time in West Africa ends in his being sent home in disgrace. 

This is the first book of a trilogy, and I would certainly read the two subsequent volumes, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender.

There are many reviews online; I like the one at  http://brothersjudd.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/reviews.detail/book_id/1251/Men%20at%20Arms.htm

Challenges: Back to the Classics Challenge for the category “A Wartime Classic”

#48. The Imitation of Christ (Thomas à Kempis)

Book: The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis

Genre and Year of Publication: Spiritual exhortation; written in the 1420s, in Latin

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 220 pages approx.

Briefly, it’s a series of reflections on growing in the spiritual life and in union with God, by a monk and (seemingly) intended for monks, though it has influenced many others down the centuries.  Alleged to be the second most widely read Christian book of all time, and generally hailed as a Christian (Catholic) classic.

Comments: It took me many months to read this book, from the beginning of March to the very last days of October.  That is not because, as some find, its wisdom is so rich that it can be ingested only a little at a time, but because I found it quite heavy and wearisome.  I wanted to like this book.  I was open to receiving it positively.  I know that many holy people have found it to be a treasure.  But I just couldn’t find much in it to make me want to pick it up again whenever I left it down.  Yes, I was impressed by the 100% dedication which the author expects us to give to following the Gospel and loving Jesus Christ.  But I was really turned off by the constant harping on our own vileness, filth, worthlessness, etc.  Here is just one example picked at random:

What shall I think upon in this Communion in approaching my Lord, whom I am not able worthily to honour, and nevertheless whom I long devoutly to receive?  What shall be better and more healthful meditation for me, than utter humiliation of myself before Thee, and exaltation of Thine infinite goodness towards me? I praise Thee, O my God, and exalt Thee for evermore. I despise myself, and cast myself down before Thee into the deep of my vileness.  Book IV, Chapter II, par 2

It also promotes a very individualistic spirituality; there is little sense of being on a spiritual journey with others, and little about working with others or for others in our following of the Gospel.  I suppose it is of its era.  It has a very different tone to, for example, Pope Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel.

Challenges: Back to the Classics challenge, for the category “A Classic in translation”; ebook reading challenge; non-fiction challenge


#8. Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)

Book: Heart of Darkness , by Joseph Conrad

Genre: Classic fiction

Where I got it: Audio download from http://www.booksshouldbefree.com

Length: 4 hours 38 mins playing time

Briefly, it’s a narrative about a journey up an unnamed river in an unnamed African country, generally understood to be the Congo River when that area was claimed as the Belgian Congo.  The story considers the relationship between coloniser and “native”, the effects of greed and brutality, and how we all chase after dreams.

Comments: This was hard going.  I’m not a lover of the sea, or boats, or of fiction about boats and ships, seas and rivers.  But apart from that, the story just didn’t engage me at all. It was only about half-way through, when the Africans launch an attack on the boat, that it became anyway interesting – and that bit of liveliness didn’t last for long.  I never could fathom why Marlowe was so fascinated by Mr Kurtz, who seemed a total jerk from the outset.  The narrative was hard to follow, boring, obscure in some places, and very obvious in others.  But at least I persevered, and now it’s no longer on my TBR list!

Challenges: Back to the Classics Challenge, for the category A Nineteenth Century Classic (1899); Audiobooks challenge.

#6 Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell)

Book: Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Genre: Classic fiction (Pulitzer Prize winner 1937)

Where I got it: I borrowed a copy from the library and began with that.  But at over 1,000 pages the volume is huge; I found it uncomfortable for reading in bed and impractical for my commute.  So I downloaded a Kindle copy and read most of it on that.

Length: 1,472 pages

Briefly, it’s set in Georgia during and after the American Civil War, and follows in particular the ups and downs of Scarlett O’Hara, her journey from riches to poverty and back to riches again, her loves and hates, her strengths and weaknesses, and her growth in self-

Comments: I had neither read the book nor seen the movie before.  Goodness!  How did I get to this point of my life without exposure to this work?  It’s marvellous!  It’s a book that could be discussed and studied for a very, very long time.  Commentaries on it abound.  I’m glad I read the preface by Pat Conroy in my library edition (Pocket Books Fiction – you’d need a fairly big pocket!) for an understanding of the significance of a book written from the perspective of the women on the losing side of the Civil War.  But don’t bother too much with the commentaries, just read the book.

Challenges: Back to the Classics Challenge, for the (optional) category A Classic That’s Been Adapted Into a Movie or TV Series.  I’m now looking forward to watching the movie, even though I hadn’t initially planned to!

Back to the Classics 2014 Challenge


Okay, I can’t resist it.

This challenge is hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate; the sign-up post is here.

“Classics” here means books more than 50 years old, i.e. published no later than 1964.

There are six required categories, four optional categories, and an extra fun challenge.  Participants are encouraged to list their proposed books in advance, so here are mine:


  1. A 20th Century Classic – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Anita Loos (1925).  Just so that the list won’t be too heavy! 
  2. A 19th Century Classic – Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899).  I made two attempts at this on my Kindle earlier this year, and gave up pretty quickly.  Perhaps I’ll go for the audio version this time.
  3. A Classic by a Woman Author – Castle Rackrent, Maria Edgeworth (1800).
  4. A Classic in Translation  – Eugene Onedin, Alexander Pushkin (1825).  (I know there’s a readalong happening somewhere soon, but I don’t expect to participate – I won’t get to this until later in the year).  [Alternative: Peig, Peig Sayers (1931), an Irish-language classic from my schooldays.]
  5. A Wartime Classic  – China Sky, Pearl S. Buck (1941).  [Alternative: Rags of Glory, Stuart Boete (1963)]
  6. A Classic by an Author Who Is New To You – The Wild Irish Girl, Lady Sydney Morgan (1806).  Not only is she completely new to me, I’ve just learned that this book was written in response to Castle Rackrent, my #3 above, which is a neat link-up
Optional Categories:
  1. An American Classic – Little Women, Louisa M. Alcott (1868)
  2. A Classic Mystery, Suspense or Thriller – Something from the Maigret series, Georges Simenon
  3. A Historical Fiction Classic – one of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, possibly Regency Buck
  4. A Classic That’s Been Adapted Into a Movie or TV Series – Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1936)
  5. Extra Fun Category:  Write a Review of the Movie or TV Series adapted from Optional Category #4 – not sure if I’ll do this, but we’ll see!