#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”

Short Story #32. Gooseberries (Anton Chekhov)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the six of hearts.

Story: Gooseberries, by Anton Chekhov (available online here)

Comments: According to a dream dictionary, “To see or eat gooseberries in your dream suggests that you are enjoying your time of leisure.”  Is that a universal meaning which Chekhov drew on, or is the dream dictionary basing itself on this story?  In either case, that’s exactly what Nicholai Ivanich does in the tale-within-the-tale here.  He has dreamed all his life of owning a country house with land and all that goes with it, including a gooseberry bush.  And though he starts out as a city-dwelling civil servant, he saves and scrimps and eventually marries a rich widow and makes her too live so frugally that she dies, and then in middle age he is able to buy his longed-for estate, and plant his gooseberry bushes, and act the part of the squire.  Ivan, his brother and the teller of the tale-within-the-tale, visits him when the gooseberries are served at dinner.  Nicholai relishes them, though to Ivan they are bitter.

Ivan tells this tale when he and his travelling companion Bourkin are sheltering from winter rain as unexpected guests at the house of Aliokhin.  He then launches into a tirade about how life should be lived, doing good while one is young and able; about the injustice of poverty and ignorance; about dreams unfulfilled… his idealism does not really inspire or engage his hearers.

So – what are we to think?  Nicholai attains his life’s dream, and is happy, but according to his brother his happiness must be feigned or illusory because the gooseberries are, in fact, sour.  But perhaps to Nicholai they really are sweet?  Whose perception is right?  How can one say that someone else’s perception is illusory (or even that he is lying) simply because it is different to one’s own experience?  And the impassioned speech of Ivan – is it all a refusal of responsibility, this cry “If I were young…” Why does one have to be young to start living the good life?

The most remarkable thing for me in this story is the absence of any explicit reference to a source of morality.  By what standard is Ivan judging what is good?  What is at the basis of his belief system?  Is there some allegedly objective set of norms for guiding human behaviour, or can each one make it up as s/he goes along?

Most of all, perhaps, after reading this story, I really want to go and swim outdoors in the rain!  The description sounded wonderful!


#43. The Italian Mission (Alan Champorcher)

Book: The Italian Mission, by Alan Champorcher

Genre and Year of Publication: Spy/thriller, 2013 (read in August; reviewed in November)

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 218 pages

Briefly, it’s an action-packed spy drama, mostly set in Italy, involving an ex-CIA agent, now working (unhappily) in the diplomatic service, who is called on to help a Tibetan monk who is on the run in Italy, to escape from the agents of the Chinese government.

Comments: This is a bit outside my comfort zone – spy thrillers are not my favourite genre.  But this one wasn’t bad.  The large cast includes Chinese, Tibetans, Israelis, South Africans, Italians, and Americans.  There are the usual car chases, dramatic escapes, double-crossing agents, governments about to topple based on the success or failure of our hero’s next move, and at the end James Bond, sorry, John Adams Conti, gets his woman.

Part of the story is set on the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrimage path from Canterbury to Rome.  I’ve already blogged about three pilgrimage books this year [two relating to the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain and one to St Declan’s Way in Ireland], so the theme interests me more than a little.  I had only just heard of the Via Francigena for the first time a couple of weeks before getting this book, and was amazed to find it referenced here, particularly in the context of a spy story!  I’d like to walk part of this route some time (can’t imagine that I’ll ever do the whole thing).  I expect that my journey would be a little less dramatic than the events recounted in this book, but the beautiful Tuscan countryside would surely be at least as good…

Challenges: Full House Challenge for the category “Setting you’d like to visit”; ebook reading challenge

#39. The Murder at Sissingham Hall (Clara Benson)

Book: The Murder at Sissingham Hall, by Clara Benson (Angela Marchmont Mystery #1)

Genre and Year of Publication: Cozy Murder Mystery, written prior to 1965 but not published till 2013 (it seems?)

Where I got it: Free Kindle download (read in August; reviewed in October)

Length: 212 pages

Briefly, it’s a traditional English country house whodunnit.

Comments: Clara Benson, the author, lived from 1890 to 1965.  She wrote several books, but considered writing to be a hobby so did not have them published (according to Goodreads.  I wonder if there’s a deeper story there?)  After her death, her family had the books published. 

The Murder at Sissingham Hall  is the first in a series featuring Angela Marchmont, a woman who just happens to find herself in circumstances which cause her to play the role of detective.  Here, she is one of the guests at the country weekend when the rich owner of the house is murdered… Everyone has a motive… things are not what they seem… her powers of deduction and observation lead to the truth being unveiled at the end…

If you like this genre, you’ll like this.  Personally I will be looking out for more Angela Marchmont books.

Challenges: Full House Challenge for the category “Book from a series”; ebook reading challenge

#37. The Best Way: El Camino de Santiago (Bill Walker)

Book: The Best Way: El Camino de Santiago, by Bill Walker

Genre and Year of Publication: Travel/pilgrimage; 2011

Where I got it: Free Kindle download (read in July; reviewed in October)

Length: 328 pages

Briefly, it’s another account of an American’s trek along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain

Comments: This is the second “Compostela” book that I’ve read in a couple of months, so obviously it’s a theme that interests me!  (My review of the other one is here).  Walker travelled this route in 2010, together with his 18-year old nephew.  His book follows the traditional day-by-day journal format, recounting the towns he passed through, the hostels he stayed in, the friends he made, the things he discovered about himself and others, and the final, triumphant arrival in Compostela.  I loved it.

A friend of mine is planning to undertake this pilgrimage next year.  The way Walker describes the daily battle for a place to sleep in the hostels along the way makes me realise that I will never do it myself.  The camino won’t cease to fascinate me, though.

Challenges: Non-fiction challenge, ebook reading challenge

#27. A Million Steps (Kurt Koontz)

Book: A Million Steps, by Kurt Koontz

Genre: Travel

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 212 pages

Briefly, it’s an account of the author’s pilgrimage on the Camino to Santiago di Compostela in Spain.

Comments: In 2012, American Kurt Koontz hiked about 500 miles of the ancient – and recently re-popularised – pilgrimage route to Santiago di Compostela, which he calculates comes to a million steps.  This book is not a day-by-day journal account of his pilgrimage as much as a series of reflections on various themes which formed part of his exterior and interior pilgrimage.  He writes of the people he met, the camaraderie, the various kinds of hostels, the scenery, the challenges and joys of the hike, and he shares with us his personal struggles, reflections on where he’s at in his life, and his hopes and fears for the most significant relationship in his life.  I enjoyed this book very much. 

Challenges: Non-fiction reading challenge; ebook reading challenge.