Review coming, but for now I'll just say that I read this book many, many years ago and after rereading it, I realize a) exactly how much I missed theReview coming, but for now I'll just say that I read this book many, many years ago and after rereading it, I realize a) exactly how much I missed the first time, and b) how much better it is after the second time through. ...more
Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found caught my eye while I was reading the "Briefly Noted" book section of The New Yorker sometime back. TSevered: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found caught my eye while I was reading the "Briefly Noted" book section of The New Yorker sometime back. The idea that someone would write about the severed head's significance in the history of "the civilized West" appealed to my fascination with the strange so I knew I had to read it. After finishing the prologue about the history and fate of the head of Oliver Cromwell, I knew I'd found something deliciously different here -- and that I had to finish this book in one go.
Sadly, the spectacle of beheadings has come back into our lives full force with the public executions by radical terrorists in the Middle East after 9/11. In her chapter titled "Deposed Heads," the author notes that only a month after the beheading of Daniel Pearl in 2002, the video made by his captors started circulating on the internet, and four months later the Boston Phoenix published a link on their website. When in May, 2004, engineer Nick Berg met the same fate, it only took days for the "unedited" video to be made available -- this time by Reuters, then picked up by US news networks. The online footage of the actual beheading
"remained the most popular internet search in the United States for a week, and the second most popular throughout the month of May, runner up only to 'American Idol.' "
Even worse, the Dallas Morning News printed a photo of one of the terrorists holding Berg's severed head (although thankfully with face not visible), saying that their decision followed "interest generated in the blogosphere," and that "not one of the 87 letters" they'd received about it "called for these images not to be printed."
And now with the advent of ISIS, beheadings are once again in the public sphere, "a piece of theatre designed to create power and cause fear" with "maximum visibility, maximum resonance" as well as its power to encourage "maximum fear." The author notes that
"by searching Google for the latest execution video, the people watching also have their part to play."
As someone who didn't follow that herd, while it's hard for me to believe that in this day and age there are people who freely choose to watch someone's murder online, it is a known fact that audiences have been drawn to executions for centuries, "ready to enjoy the spectacle."
But even outside the sphere of public beheadings and executions, the author uses her book to draw the reader's attention to the very human fascination with human heads. Over the course of several chapters, she chronicles the history of shrunken heads, of heads taken as trophies, of severed heads as objects of power, about the fascination of heads used in art, the heads (and other body parts) of saints used as relics, of the study of heads and pseudoscience (phrenology, etc) and in real science (as tools for medical students), and finally, in a chapter called "Living Heads," which in part, explores the scientific (and other) attempts to determine how long the head lives after being severed, as well as the fascination people have with keeping their head alive so a body can be reattached when science has advanced beyond its current capabilities.
Ms. Larson writes very well and immerses the reader right away. Sometimes it's obvious that she's adopting a sort of tongue-in-cheek, funny attitude toward her subject, but most of the time she's quite serious. The book is easily accessible, very reader friendly and each chapter includes not just facts, but strong analysis as well. I think a chapter on "literary decapitations" to go with her chapter about art would have been a strong addition. My only complaint is that the first time she made a statement and I went to look for endnotes, there weren't any. I'm one of those readers who enjoy noting down sources as they appear -- and even though she has a sizable bibliography at the end of the book, it was incredibly frustrating not to know an exact source of information as it was given in the text. I was also a little disappointed at her disclaimer at the beginning of her section on sources where she writes that she intended the book as a "popular account" so did not cite names in the text. She also notes that "detailed notes" are available at her website, but jeez -- stopping my reading to go look online (even with Ipad next to me) is a lot to ask a person to do. Other than that not-so-minor quibble, it's definitely a book worth reading on what is to me a fascinating and sadly now relevant topic....more
One would think that a book that has only 89 pages would be a breeze, but in this case, that is not necessarily so. This book is part of my 2015 projeOne would think that a book that has only 89 pages would be a breeze, but in this case, that is not necessarily so. This book is part of my 2015 project to read a wide variety of American novels over the course of the year, starting from the earliest and moving to the present. If you're so inclined, and you want the long post about this book, you will find it here. Otherwise, here's the short edition.
We get a little taste of what's to come in the book's preface. The author bemoans the fact that the novels that "have ever met with a ready reception into the libraries of the ladies" are read for amusement but that they contain no "particular idea," and "not beneficial." He states here that his novel will counter that trend and provide something more morally meaningful -- in his book,
"the dangerous consequences of seduction are exposed, and the advantages of female education set forth and recommended."
As things play out, the dangers of seduction are made very clear, as is the message that its consequences transcend the players and carry forth into the next generation. But there is more, much more to be found in this book.
I am very sure I've missed a lot here since I feel hampered by a lack of reading its literary antecedents -- most especially A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne (I'm keeping notes on what I should read in the future) but that's okay -- I'm not a literary scholar, nor do I pretend to be. This book is for me a kind of exploratory project at a casual-reader level. And while it isn't great (often melodramatic & definitely didactic) it is quite interesting not simply because of the themes introduced in its premise, but because of all of the unannounced ideas that appear. As just one example, one of the characters touches on the need to separate "American" identity from "British" or "Transatlantic."
And then of course, if you're so inclined, there are the scandalous bits to look forward to...
before I post a review, I have to share this photo. I sliced my thumb on a fan blade, didn't realize it (I'm so accident prone I'm always doing somethbefore I post a review, I have to share this photo. I sliced my thumb on a fan blade, didn't realize it (I'm so accident prone I'm always doing something like this), and settled in to read. Before I turned the page, I looked down and saw blood. How appropriate for reading crime fiction! Review shortly.
Now, here's something entirely different -- while this book is yet another English country house murder, at least it's a new take on an old3.5 stars.
Now, here's something entirely different -- while this book is yet another English country house murder, at least it's a new take on an old theme.
This book was written by Mary Fitt, AKA Stuart Mary Wick, both pseudonyms of Kathleen Freeman (1897-1959), a classicist who, in a field that belonged more or less to men, "used her excellent brain to make the Greeks intelligible and accessible to every man and woman in the English-speaking world." When she wasn't working for the war effort, she turned her hand to writing mystery novels as well as ghost stories, some of them featured in The Second Ghost Book and The Third Ghost Book, anthologies edited by none other than Lady Cynthia Asquith, whose own ghostly tales are often featured in old ghost-story anthologies. Death and the Pleasant Voices is her tenth novel out of nineteen to feature Superintendent Mallett, who plays only a small role here.
Death and the Pleasant Voices itself starts out like a ghost story, in that the narrator of this tale is driving through a blinding rainstorm, complete with lightning. Coming to a fork in the road, he takes the wrong turn and before he can turn around, he discovers he's arrived at a mansion of "dark grey stone." The door is opened by a manservant, who seemed to expect him, not even asking his name. He is greeted by a young woman, Ursula Ullstone, who refers to him incorrectly as "Hugo," and introduces him to the others in the room. The narrator is actually Jake Seaborne, and as he proffers his real name, discovers that one of the party knows his brother. This is Sir Frederick Lawton, a "great surgeon" and Jake's brother's hero. Jake is also a medical student, now on a short holiday. As Lawton escorts Jake to another room for a little chat, Jake hears Ursula ask "But where is Hugo?" , a question that will be answered quite shortly upon Hugo's arrival. It seems that Hugo is the son (via first marriage to a high-caste Indian woman) of the late Mr. Ullstone (the father of Ursula and her twin brother Jim), and up until three weeks prior, no one in the family or in the household had even heard of him. Strangely though, Hugo is now the owner of Ullstone Hall, the now-deceased Mr. Ullstone having made him his heir after refusing to ever allow him to come into contact with the rest of the family. Obviously they've never seen Hugo, since they all mistook Jake for their half-brother. The problem, as so neatly outlined by Sir Frederick, is that
"...all these people who thought themselves securely in possession for the rest of their lives are now going to be dependent upon the caprice of this young man. And as none of them has ever had to earn a living, none of them will have the slightest idea of what to do if Hugo decides that he doesn't want their company."
In short, the Ullstone family destiny is in the hands of a complete stranger. Jim and Ursula were left an annuity of three hundred pounds a year, "a sum that to most the inhabitants of this island would seem to give freedom from financial anxiety fro the rest of their lives," but Hugo has the bulk of the estate. Lawton is there as a "sort of buffer" for Hugo against the family; he must leave and is overjoyed that Jake has arrived, and asks Jake if he wouldn't mind staying until Lawton returns to act in the same role. Because of Jake's connection to Lawton, he agrees -- and ultimately Hugo arrives. That's when the first hint of trouble raises its head -- and before long, three people will end up dead.
Death and the Pleasant Voices is a novel about people, each with their little secrets and lies they have to maintain -- while the plot is decent enough, the heart of this book exists in its characters. As an example, Jim and Ursula have "conditioned" by their upbringing to never have to bother with the mundane task of working to make ends meet; their house guests are sponges who are there for long periods of time, one of them, a physician, has more or less given up on his practice, leaving it in the hands of his locum, for a life of leisure and secret love. The author makes a critical point here that not everything one sees is the way it actually is -- and it is the characters who eventually enliven this theme as the story progresses. The book also has a lot to say between the lines -- the author writes about class, about prejudice, about family relationships, about the roles of women and the follies and foibles of love -- but considering that the book was published in 1946, there's surprisingly very little, in fact nothing, said about the effects of the war that had concluded just a scant year earlier. Frankly, to me, this is quite a surprising omission. Everyone seems to have gone about his or her business somewhat unscathed after such a horrific war -- there is no rationing, the family still employs servants, and it's almost as if the war danced around this little slice of the English countryside.
It's a good enough little read; coming in at just over 200 pages, it will definitely give a crime reader a few good hours of entertainment, and I can attest to the fact that there is a true puzzle to solve here. I thought I had guessed the culprit by page 80 and as things progressed, I realized not only was I wrong, but my choice was not even close. As usual though, if it's too easy, it's no fun. Definitely a keeper, Death and the Pleasant Voices is book #6 in my ongoing obscure women crime writers project, and I would recommend it....more