A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

A Severed Head

Having thoroughly enjoyed Murdoch’s Under the Net, I was expecting another grand slam, but, alas, it was not to be.  Its satirical take on wealthy Londoners sexcapades in the 1960’s  just missed the mark and instead left behind unsympathetic characters whose fates were of no concern to this reader.

Perhaps too much time on one’s hands can lead one down the road of immorality.  Such is this case here with adultery, incest, suicide with a dash of psychoanalysis, shopping and, of course, drinking.

Martin Lynch-Gibbons, the central character, is so self-absorbed that he fails to see the signs of his wife’s affairs (yes, plural) and while keeping his own mistress, fails to acknowledge his own missteps until he is found out.  He falls for the sister of his wife’s lover who is a creepy wannabe sexual enigma.  This guy needs a good slap of reality to wake  him out of his apathetic coma.

Martin’s wife, Antonia, is an annoying woman who justifies her own behavior, likely arisen from her own ennui.  An affair with her psychoanalyst and brother-in-law aren’t enough to keep her happy so she decides to dump the doc and keep the husband and his brother.  Too many spoilers?  I’m doing you a favor so you won’t have to read it through…

Honor Klein, sister to Antonia’s psychoanalyst, is a conniving sexual predator who likes to sleep with her brother and doesn’t mind getting smacked around.  Ughh…this one made my skin crawl, like however many shades of grey (no, didn’t read em).

Quotes:

In almost every marriage there is a selfish and an unselfish partner.

Violence, except on the screen, is always pathetic, ludicrous, and beastly.

Conversations relating to the sexual revolution would be off-limits for my meeting with Ms. Murdoch.  Instead, I’d turn to her view on communism and ask how she viewed today’s world.

My rating for A Severed Head is a 6 out of 10.

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Next up, Joseph Heller’s Closing TimeClosing Time

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Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

Good Morning MidnightAnother soul wrenching tale from Jean Rhys delivers the goods with such forthrightness that there’s no mistaking the intended tone right from the start.  No apologies here, so expect souls to be bared with no dignity intact.

Flashing back, we learn how a middle-aged woman has ended up in a shabby hotel in Paris attempting to drink her sorrows away with little success.

Sasha Jansen has turned to alcohol to numb the pain of her empty and passing life.  She frequents bars and spends time with other lost souls, none finding the key to happiness.  An early marriage to a neer do well has left her bitter and hopeless in love and financial woes have her at the mercy of what few friends remain to help support her.  A very sad woman who not many would want to spend time with.

Rene, a gigolo Sasha meets has the looks and charms to keep him in business.  He is fascinated with Sasha and tries to decide if perusing her would result in any financial gain.  He too is a sad person numbing himself with scheming.  Someone else to avoid.

A young Ukrainian, Nicolas Delmar, seems to enjoy Sasha’s company and philosophize on life’s quandaries.  He may have an ulterior motive and may also be another lost should searching for nirvana.

Quotes:

If you’ve got to walk around by yourself, it’s easier when the lamps are lit.

This is another lavatory that I know very well, another of the well-known mirrors…But it’s not as bad as it might be.  This is just the interval when drink makes you look nice, before it makes you look awful.  

What to discuss with Ms. Rhys…that could require lightly treading.  Not sure if a Pernod or absinthe would be appropriate so perhaps instead I’d suggest a short stroll and pray she’d open up about her troubled life and wonderful talents.

My rating for Good Morning, Midnight is an 8 out of 10.

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Next up, Iris Murdoch’s A Severed HeadA Severed Head

 

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The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

The Three MusketeersAnother book I was not looking forward to and its 700 pages were enough to discourage its perusal, HOWEVER, I loved this book so much I decided to malinger along with it and enjoy it during the sultry summer days and nights.  I wanted to ingest this work slowly and savor each word.  I imagined living back in the 1800’s and reading it in its original serial format.  What a thrill that must have been for those readers awaiting each chapter.  Let’s just say that taking my time with this book (where I usually attempt to read a book per week) was my way of trying to travel back in time.

The Three Musketeers is a bit of a misnomer, in my opinion, and would be more aptly titled The Four Musketeers, The Three Musketeers and D’Artagnan, The Three Musketeers and their Bosom Buddy….aargh.  I suppose after 170 years, a new title is out of the question.

Dumas manages to merge 16th century history, swashbuckling, intrigue, romance and adventure with such finesse that leaves the reader wanting more, yet not desiring its conclusion.  Of course, there are the three musketeers and their pal who somehow manage to shine even when they are insulting their servants or disrespecting the hallowed Cardinal.

D’Artagnan is a 20-year-old Gascon who ventures to Paris with his sights set on becoming a musketeer.  He proves his mettle early on and befriends the three musketeers who quickly transform to a foursome.  Early on, he encounters a beautiful and mysterious woman who is one he hoped to have never seen.  He falls in love with Mme. Bonacieux, but theirs is a tragic love story.  This is someone to have on your side.

Milady is the femme fatale who seems to leave her evil marks among many.  She is vengeful and unforgiving and her vengeance knows no mercy.  She uses her beauty to lure her victims, like a black widow, she weaves and twists her unsuspecting lure into traps to which there is no escape.  Stay away, far, far away from the likes of she.

The sinister Cardinal Richelieu is quite unnerving.  Manipulating the king, he does all he can to become the most powerful figure in France, even consorting with Milady.  His cunning and shrewd schemes usually put him ahead of those who see who he truly is.  Ventrebleu, do not even make eye contact with this one.

Athos, handsome, taciturn and mysterious.

Aramis, stoic, religious and brilliant.

Porthos, haughty, vain and resourceful.

Quotes:

A rogue does not laugh in the same way that an honest man does; a hypocrite does not shed the tears of a man of good faith.  All falsehood is a mask; and however well made the mask may be, with a little attention we may always succeed in distinguishing it from the true face.

Besides, we feel always a sort of mental superiority over those whose lives we know better than they suppose.  

“People in general,” he said, “only ask advice not to follow it; or if they do follow it, it is for the sake of having someone to blame for having given it.” 

Of course, the first question I would pose to M. Dumas would be why this title.  I’d love to ask him what he enjoyed reading since its said to be his source of training as a writer.  I am quite sure there would be much to glean from this fascinating man.

My rating for The Three Musketeers is a 10 out of 10.

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Next up, Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, MidnightGood Morning Midnight

 

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Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

Waiting for the BarbariansSomething about this book was mesmerizing, yet I can’t declare it to be one of the best works I’ve encountered.  I just wanted to take my time with it and allow each word to be absorbed and it took time and concentration to get through.  In the end, I wasn’t disappointed, but I wasn’t thrilled either.

A complacent magistrate living in a fictional South African colony has his world turned upside down when the Civil Guard pays a visit and are none too pleased with how he’s running things. Still not ready to open his eyes, a sadistic warrant officer finally gets his attention when he sets in motion a horrific campaign of terror.

The unnamed Magistrate is a middle-aged man whose nonchalance has allowed for a somewhat peaceful existence.  Blind to the suffering so near to him, he carries on with his comforts with little thought to those around him.  His sexual needs are met by a local prostitute and a recently kidnapped ‘barbarian’ that he truly believes he is helping.

The girl, again another unnamed character is a surviving ‘barbarian’ kidnapped and tortured in front of her father who is then killed.  She is taken in by the Magistrate and sleeps with him and then works in the kitchen by day.  She claims to be blind and says little more about her abuse, yet when the time comes to return to her roots, her decision is swift.

Warrant Officer Mandel is a stereotypical sadist who creates unthinkable tortures and seems to be completely unaffected by his acts.  He shows no emotion and seems to fit the mold for a man in such a position.

This would be a difficult meeting to arrange since rumors abound of Mr. Coetzee’s reclusiveness.  Since this portion of my review is always presented as an assumed meeting with each author, living or not, I’ll once again feign agreement by the author.  Perhaps I’d discover if there is truth to his methods or rigor and strict discipline with regards to his writing.  What I’d love to hear about would be his experience in Austin and the factors leading to his emigration to Australia.

My rating for Waiting for the Barbarians is a 7 out of 10.

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Next up, Alexandre Dumas’ The Three MusketeersThe Three Musketeers

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The Reivers by William Faulkner

The ReiversSo sad that this last work of Faulkner’s was not the gem I longed for.  I even had doubts about the authenticity of The Reivers during my read.   Perhaps I was distracted while simultaneously perusing Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, a fabulous  gift from my sister.

A turn of the century road trip gone awry when an odd trio
‘reiv’ a car and head to Memphis, each with their own agenda.  What should have been comical was not and the characters were either dull or stereotyped.

Perhaps it would be best to discuss Mr. Faulkner’s earlier works while we enjoyed a chat.  Perhaps he’d share what inspired him since he didn’t seem to prescribe to any tried and true writer’s techniques.

My rating for The Reivers is a 6 out of 10.

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Next up, J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the BarbariansWaiting for the Barbarians

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The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker

The TwinA review of The Twin I stumbled upon was intriguing enough that I jotted down the title and eventually added it to my 2nd list of 100 Books to read.

It was refreshing to find a contemporary writer who doesn’t pale among the revered early 20th century writers.  The next time I hear someone claim there are no good writers anymore, I’ll throw Bakker’s name their way.

A Dutch farmer living with his elderly father reflects on the life he was dealt after his twin brother dies unexpectedly at age 20.  Gruff and insensitive, the surviving brother has not grown at all in the 35 years since the family tragedy.

Helmer van Wonderen is the antithesis of an evolved man.  Extremely bitter about stepping into his brother’s farm boots and giving up university studies, he has trudged along and accepted his role, yet seems to have died along with his sibling.  His treatment of his ailing father was disturbing and meant to make the reader shift uncomfortably whilst perusing.  I hoped for Helmer’s salvation, however, it arrived a little bit too saccharine coated.

Neighbor to Helmer, Ada is well-intentioned, but primarily a lonely woman, mother to two young boys with a seemingly disinterested husband.  She attempts to draw Helmer out of his self-isolation and may be harboring an attraction to the man nearly two decades her senior.  When Ada and Helmer catch one another by surprise using binoculars to see into their respective homes, neither can later look one another in the eye.

The 18-year-old angst ridden son of Riet, former girlfriend to Helmer’s deceased brother, Henk is also his namesake.  His apathetic behavior troubles his mother who sends him to stay with Helmer as a farm hand.  Henk seems to be the only one honest about his feelings, quite typical for a young man of his age.  This surly, somewhat sombre teen is more grounded than the adults around him.

I’ve no doubt that any meeting with Mr. Bakker would be held in the out-of-doors.  His intensity might prove intimidating so perhaps we could weed or rake to quell the awkward silence that would hover over us.  His raw and honest prose is something perhaps he’d share the skill of with me.

My rating for The Twin is an 8 out of 10.

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Next up, William Faulkner’s The ReiversThe Reivers

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Poor White by Sherwood Anderson

Poor WhiteIt saddens me to say that I was, once again, disappointed with an admired author’s work.  Poor White felt like it was trying much too hard to be a work of historical fiction, and in doing so, had this reader losing interest.  I have read many great books within this category, however, this was not one of them.

Anderson’s commentary on the burgeoning Industrial Revolution during the early 20th century reads at times like a scholarly work, rather than a piece of fiction, and has an academically dry tone.

Born in 1866, Hugh McVey lives with his widowed drunkard of a father who leaves his young son without food or shelter while he disappears on drinking sprees.  Hugh longs for human connection, but seems destined to live without it.  He is taken in by a family for a few years who provide some education and stability, but they relocate and inexplicably, do not ask him to join them.  With no expectation of success, the 6′ 4″ loner ventures forth and somehow manages to become a successful inventor of agricultural machines.  This was a character I wanted to cheer for, but just didn’t care about in the end.

The woman who takes Hugh into her home, Sara Shepard, is taciturn and shows little affection towards Hugh although she cares for him deeply.  She puts all her efforts into educating him and plans daily lessons for him that prove successful.  When she and her husband decide to move, they leave abruptly and for some obscure reason, no invitations is extended to Hugh.

Clara Butterworth, another unsympathetic character, was the suffragette figure.  Oppressed and reviled by her widowed father, she is sent off to college, not for an education, but for a prospective spouse and to take her away from her father’s home.  Sure wish I could have something positive to say with regards to this character, but words fail me.

Quotes:

All men lead their lives behind a wall of misunderstanding they themselves have built, and most men die in silence and unnoticed behind the walls.

No discussion around Poor White would enter my conversation with Mr.  Anderson and I would intentionally focus on Winesburg, Ohio.  We could sip Martinis sans the speared olive and perhaps he’d share his methodology or some other significant writing tips.

My rating for Poor White is a 6 out of 10.

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Next up, Gerbrand Bakker’s The TwinThe Twin

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