Last Update 11/30/23

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch, Penguin, 1976 (originally published in 1961) 

My first try at Murdoch was not a happy one. It involves a romantic triangle that becomes a square, then a pentagon, and ends up as a hexagon. Not one of the characters is remotely likeable. They are self absorbed, whiney, egotistic, and frustrating, not to mention largely inept. There is some mild violence, an incestuous affair, lots of finger pointing and breast beating, but I didnít care in the least what happened to any of them and the story didnít show me anything interesting about interpersonal relationships. 11/30/23

After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima, Berkley, 1963 

An older woman who runs a kind of banquet hall/restaurant becomes interested in a recent guest. The guest was formerly an ambassador and quite well known, but his career has largely evaporated. The two of them become romantically involved and she decides to help him revive his political career, even if he is somewhat dubious about what he wants. The subsequent tensions disrupt their romance. An interesting though not engrossing novel that provides an unusual look at one aspect of Japanese society. Mishima, an outspoken nationalist, eventually committed suicide. 11/22/23

Abominable by Dan Simmons, Back Bay, 2014 

This is a long, very detailed story of mountain climbing in Tibet during the 1920s. Three experts decide to try to recover the remains of another man who was presumed to have died in an avalanche. They meet several unsavory characters along the way and hear rumors of a tribe of yeti who periodically attack and kill local villagers. Their own effort seems doomed to failure, particularly when their support team is wiped out in a violent assault. But despite the hints, there is nothing fantastic in the novel, which involves sinister villains posing as yeti. If you are interested in a relentless series of descriptions of the mechanics of mountaineering, this might be a book for you, but I found it incredibly slow and uninteresting. Simmons'  last several novels have approached unreadable. 11/17/23

The Claverings by Anthony Trollope, 1867 

The chief protagonist is frustrated when the woman he loves marries for money, so he is in a quandary a couple of years later when her husband dies. In the interim, he has become engaged and finds himself in ďloveĒ with both women. The widow is feuding with her brother-in-law, is being courted by a featherbrain who is clearly after her money, and is estranged from her sister. The gyrations that the various characters go through are both interesting and frustrating. There were numerous occasions when they could have solved their problems by a simple conversation and other times when I wanted to shake them violently to bring them to their senses. But thatís how romance went in this setting, I suppose, though it seems more trouble than it was worth. 11/16/23

Chernobyl by Frederik Pohl, Bantam, 1987

This was Pohl's fictional retelling of the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in what is now Ukraine, and its effects on the people who were working and living in the area. It is told primarily from the points of view of three characters, including a highly placed official, an engineer, and a doctor. He skillfully captures the sense of emergency and panic that resulted from the unexpected malfunction, although the novel does not cover a long enough period of time to address the aftermath. This was probably Pohl's longest novel, and in some ways the most ambitious, but it does not seem to have had much of an audience because it has been largely forgotten. 7/24/23

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsey Gresham, NYRB, 2020 (originally published in 1946)

This is an impressive if depressing novel of life in the world of carnivals, side shows, and confidence tricks disguised as entertainment. Stan joins a carnival as a young boy, supplementing his income by shortchanging customers. He acquires more dubious skills and has a reasonably successful career as a mentalist and magician. Eventually he decides upon a more ambitious swindle, but at the last minute one of his confederates blows the deal. He begins to deteriorate after that, becomes an alcoholic, cannot find work, and eventually rejoins the carnival as a geek. Very impressive novel. Gresham wrote a lot of nonfiction but never wrote anything else to rival this first novel. 7/5/23

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