Review: A Dry White Season, by André Brink

Ben DuToit is a white teacher in South Africa, whose peaceful existence is shaken by the arrest of his black friend, Gordon.  When Gordon dies in prison, Ben challenges the police report ruling his death a suicide.  He begins his own investigation, and as he gathers facts a picture of lies and corruption emerges.  Even when the court upholds the police ruling, Ben is undaunted.  His family can’t understand his passion for justice.  Here’s Ben discussing the inquest with his wife, Susan:

“They killed Gordon,” he said.  “First they killed Jonathan, then him.  How can they get away with it?”

“If they’d been guilty the court would have said so.  I was just as shocked as you were when we heard about Gordon’s death, Ben.  But it’s no use dwelling on it.”  She pressed his hand more urgently.  “It’s all over and done with now.  You’re home again. Now you can settle down like before.” (p. 137)

But Ben can’t settle down, and his search for truth has far-reaching consequences.  He is shunned by his family, friends, and colleagues.   The experience causes him to question long-held beliefs about race, dating back to his time growing up in the South African veld:

The boys who tended sheep with me, and stole apricots with me, and scared the people at the huts with pumpkin ghosts, and who were punished with me, and yet were different. We lived in a house, they in mud huts with rocks on the roof. They took over our discarded clothes. They had to knock on the kitchen door. They laid our table, brought up our children, emptied our chamber pots, called us Baas and Miesies.  … It was a good and comfortable division; it was right that people shouldn’t mix, that everyone should be allotted his own portion of land where he could act and live among his own. If it hadn’t been ordained explicitly in the Scriptures, then certainly it was implied by the variegated creation of an omniscient Father, and it didn’t behove us to intefere with his handiwork or try and improve on His ways by bringing forth impossible hybrids. That was the way it had always been.  (p. 162)

André Brink has written a powerful portrayal of an ordinary man, caught up in a situation beyond his control, but intensely motivated by his beliefs.  But Ben is only human, and unable to turn the tide of apartheid on his own.  In working for justice Ben is transformed, but pays a huge price.


Midweek @ Musings: 2010 Challenge Wrap-up


This year I signed up for only 4 reading challenges, so I thought I’d write a single wrap-up post.

Women Unbound (completed 6/20/2010)

For this challenge, participants were encouraged to read nonfiction and fiction books related to the rather broad idea of “women’s studies.”  I read 8 books (5 fiction and 3 non-fiction).  This challenge provided the perfect excuse to read Virago Modern Classics.  But my favorite book was non-fiction: When Everything Changed, by Gail Collins (read my review).  This book was so good, I found myself foisting it on unsuspecting business colleagues, sometimes people I’d only just met!

Battle of the Prizes (completed 10/10/2010)

I participated in both the British and American versions of this challenge, which sought to answer the questions:  Does one prize have higher standards than the other? Pick better winners? Provide more reading entertainment or educational value? I read three British prize winners and four American prize winners.  My favorites were Without my Cloak, by Irish novelist Kate O’Brien (review), and Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (review), which will be one of my top reads of 2010.

Book Awards IV (completed 10/21/2010)

I’ve participated in all four Book Awards challenges.  I don’t find it at all difficult to read prize winners, but this year’s challenge required reading 10 books from 10 different awards.  I enjoyed scouring my shelves for award-winners I already owned, and reading from prizes I’d never read before, like the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais. I read some really great books for this challenge, including Haweswater, by Sarah Hall (review) and The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver (review).

1% Well-Read

I abandoned this challenge when I launched my “un-project.” I was about halfway through my list at the time.  The funny thing is, I’ll probably read all 13 selections sometime in the next year.  I just decided to free myself from the obligation of reading them all by next April!

So that’s it: four challenges, done and dusted.

Did you participate in reading challenges this year?

Review: Life & Times of Michael K, by J. M. Coetzee

Michael K was always a bit of an outcast.  He was born with a hare lip, and sent to a sort of institution during his school-age years.  His mother Anna worked as a domestic for a wealthy family, but when she became ill, Michael left his job as a gardener to care for her.  And when Anna expressed a desire to visit her birthplace in the countryside, Michael attempted to make her dream come true.  Government beaurocracy conspired against them, and they attempted to make the journey on foot.  Anna’s illness prevented her from completing the trip, leaving Michael to go it alone.

Much of this book describes Michael’s solitary journey, his attempts to live off the land, his experiences in various interment camps, and his difficulty dealing with mainstream society.  Michael’s appearance keeps people at a distance,  his naivete makes him vulnerable, and he is unable to function as part of a group.  He continually shuns food and shelter, preferring to live alone out in the open, surviving only on plants and grubs.

Coetzee’s spare prose often delivered compelling messages that made me stop and think:

He thought of the pumpkin leaves pushing through the earth. Tomorrow will be their last day, he thought: the day after that they will wilt, and the day after that they will die, while I am out here in the mountains. Perhaps if I started at sunrise and ran all day I would not be too late to save them, them and the other seeds that are going to die underground, though they do not know it, that are never going to see the light of day. There was a cord of tenderness that stretched from him to the patch of earth beside the dam and must be cut. It seemed to him that one could cut a cord like that only so many times before it would not grow again. (p. 65-66)

Even though it was all rather bleak, I was fascinated by Michael’s journey.

Review: Faceless Killers, by Henning Mankell

Kurt Wallander is a middle-aged Swedish police detective working in the town of Ystad.  He’s recently divorced, and estranged from his only daughter.  In the midst of these emotional struggles he suddenly finds himself investigating the brutal murder of an elderly farmer and his wife. Before her death, the wife repeatedly uttered a single word:  “foreign.”  Shortly after the double murder, a Somali man is killed at a refugee camp.  It’s up to the police team to determine whether the murders are linked, and the significance of the dead woman’s last words.

Wallander and his crew conduct a thorough investigation, learning more about the elderly farmer’s life and some personal secrets that offer clues.  There’s a fair amount of criminal-stalking, chase scenes, and drama.  But about 2/3 of the way through this novel, the story’s pace flags and the investigative team seems to wander about aimlessly.  And then, just as suddenly, everything is solved and neatly tied up in a bow.

This novel is the first in a series of Wallander mysteries.  I enjoyed the 2008 Wallander dramatizations starring Kenneth Branagh, which are adaptations of later books.  I wanted to read this book before more episodes — including Faceless Killers — air on PBS this autumn.  It might just be this particular storyline, but this book did not live up to the drama and excitement of the TV series.

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Review: The Master, by Colm Tóibín

In The Master, Colm Tóibín paints a fascinating portrait of the author Henry James (1843-1916).  James was an American who spent most of his life in Europe — moving around the continent with his family during childhood, and then settling in England permanently as an adult.  The book is set in the 1890s, when James’ reputation was already well established, although the English found it difficult to place him in their class structure.  As one woman said to James at a party, “But you have an advantage.  You are an American and nobody knows who your father was or who your grandfather was. You could be anybody.”  (p. 24) James’ New England pedigree was neither understood nor valued, but his literary talent allowed him to move freely in English society.

The story unfolds through James’ point of view, and in recounting events of the 1890s his mind often wandered back to earlier times.  In this way, the reader learns a great deal about James’ relationships with his parents and siblings, his cousin Minny Temple, and the American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson.  The reader also experiences James’ joy in finding the perfect place to live and work:  Lamb House in Rye.  The setting is idyllic, he takes great enjoyment in decorating his new home with all the right sort of furnishings, and he is struck by a certain sense of predestination:

when he walked into the upstairs room of Lamb House, and into the room where he himself would sleep, he believed he had come into the room where he would die. As he studied the lease, he knew that its twenty-one years would take him to the tomb. The walls of the house had witnessed men and women come and go for almost three hundred years; now it had invited him to sample briefly its charm, it had enticed him here and offered him its unlasting hospitality.  It would welcome him and then see him out, as it had seen others out. He would lie stricken in one of those rooms; he would lie cold in that house.  The idea both froze his blood and comforted him at the same time. (p. 125)

Tóibín also exposes James’ sexual ambiguity and repression, and does so in a manner consistent with the time period.  It’s evident that his relationships with women are platonic.  His interactions with certain men are described with allusions to homosexuality, but these are never explicitly stated in the text, just as James would have needed to keep these feelings to himself.  I found this aspect of James’ life rather sad.  He was unable to be truly intimate with anyone, and was seen by some as a bit of a cold fish.  But I also found James an endearing character, and The Master has piqued my interest in reading James’ work.

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Review: How Late it Was, how Late by James Kelman

This Booker Prize-winning novel is unusual, to say the least.  Sammy is a small-time shoplifter who gets busted one morning after a weekend drinking binge, most of which he doesn’t remember.  And somehow he’s completely lost his sight.  The story is told entirely in a lower-class Scottish dialect, and it takes a while to get into the language and the cadence:

There wasnay much he could do, there wasnay really much he could do at all. No the now anyway. Nayn of it was down to him. It would be soon enough but no the fucking now. So fuck it, get on with yer life. Sammy had turned back onto his side, he wished he could fall asleep.  But the trouble with sleep is ya cannay just fucking.  (p. 29)

Got that?  How about 374 pages of it, with no chapter breaks?  When I started reading, I thought I would really dislike this book because of the dialect and the almost continuous use of the f-word.  But after a while, I realized that Sammy sounded just like Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, and he had kind of grown on me.  Sammy first finds himself first in jail, and when he is let go and returns home, discovers his girlfriend has left him.  Because of his new disability, everything about daily living is a challenge.  But there’s humor in his story, too, most notably in the ridiculous bureaucracy he encounters when attempting to register for disability benefits.  Sammy’s life has been a hard one, lived mostly on the streets and in pubs, and it becomes clear that he is his own worst enemy, remaining just a step away from complete self-destruction.

I’m not sure I would recommend this book, but in an odd way it wasn’t bad.

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The Sunday Salon Review: What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt

Good morning, Saloners!  It’s a gray, overcast morning in eastern Pennsylvania and the weather forecast isn’t very promising.  I guess that means I will have to face that pile of laundry. I made a batch of banana muffins to help me face this onerous task!  Later today we’re having lunch at our favorite Indian restaurant to celebrate my husband’s birthday, which is actually tomorrow.  We’ll have cake and presents back home, and because we will be completely stuffed, our evening meal will be a very casual affair indeed.  Like maybe more banana muffins.  🙂

I’ve had two books on the go this past week, and just finished one of them (Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved) last night, so I’m including my review in today’s post.  More on that in a moment.  I’m also reading At Large and at Small, by Anne Fadiman, a delightful collection of essays.  I’ve been taking it to work with me this past week for lunchtime reading.  As I’ve mentioned, lunchtime reading is an important part of my day.  While last week was pretty busy and lunch was often abbreviated, I found I could easily read one essay during my lunch break, recharging my batteries for the rest of the day.  And as an added bonus, several of the essays have inspired blog post ideas, so I’ve been keeping notes.  Look for my review of this book later in the week.

Next I’ll be reading Josephine Tey’s A Shilling for Candles, which I’m reading for The Classics Circuit Golden Age of Detective Fiction tour.  I don’t read many mysteries, but this presented another opportunity to discover a new woman author, so how could I resist?  My tour stop is June 6, so I’m getting a bit of a head start on what is actually a short book.  But I don’t like to feel pressured to write my Classics Circuit reviews, so you’ll just have to wait a while to read my thoughts!

OK, so, now let me tell you a bit about What I Loved. And enjoy your day!


Leo Hertzberg, an art history professor in New York City, narrates this story, reflecting on a quarter century of friendship with artist Bill Wechsler and his wife Violet.  Leo first met Bill after discovering one of his paintings.  At the time, Bill was married to another woman, Lucille.  Leo and his wife Erica befriended Bill and Lucille, and each woman gave birth to a son within weeks of each other.  When Bill’s marriage to Lucille broke up over Violet, Leo and Erica quickly accepted the new arrangement, and the two families were nearly inseparable for just over a decade.  Then tragedy struck, and Leo & Erica’s relationship foundered.  Bill and Violet remained their steadfast friends, even as they began to experience problems with their own son Mark, who was hanging out with questionable characters from New York’s art and club scene.  Leo became even closer to Bill and Violet as they struggled to understand what was happening to their son.

I had a three main problems with this book.  First, I’m not “into” the whole art scene:  artists, openings, controversy over artistic methods and interpretation, and so on.  The first 130 pages (Book One) is full of this stuff — what a good friend called, “a lot of big city academic masturbation.”  I really wondered if anything was ever going to happen.  Book Two promised more action and plot development, and even introduced an element of suspense around Mark.  I found myself guessing outcomes, trying to find the twisted truth behind the written word.

Then my second problem arose: the suspense completely fell flat.  There were no surprise twists, no skeletons that suddenly leapt from closets to show me how I’d been deceived all along.  It was just a classic case of a troubled kid, corrupted by seedy characters, enmeshed in situations that escalated out of control.  And finally — my third problem — I couldn’t get close to the principal characters.  At one point, after the aforementioned tragedy, I felt extremely sorry for Leo and Erica.  But the rest of the emotional highs and lows fell flat for me, as if I were watching the story unfold from a great distance.  All in all, this book was a disappointment.

Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

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Review: The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker

The third book in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy continues the story of Billy Prior, a British officer in World War I.  In the first book, Prior was treated for shell-shock at Craiglockhart, a hospital in Scotland.  In the second book, he struggled to find his way in civilian society and battle personal demons, with the help of Dr. William Rivers.  In The Ghost Road, Prior is approved to return to service at the front.  In the first part of the book, Prior puts his affairs in order, visiting his ailing sister, his fiancée, and Rivers. Prior is keen to prove he is one of Rivers’ success stories, by being able to keep his nerves steady even as he returns to the source of his troubles.

Prior also starts a diary.  The reader is able to experience his eagerness to return, and his world-weary view of both the conditions and the new recruits.  Meanwhile, Rivers remains in London, treating injured soldiers.  Prior’s diary entries alternate with Rivers’ memories of working with native people in Melanesia, work that was set aside when the war began.  Through the lives of both men, Barker continues her theme of war protest, while exploring and exposing a number of truths about individuals and society.

Having now read the complete Regeneration Trilogy, I agree with a comment on one of my January blog posts:

It seems to me that the Booker for “The Ghost Road” was something akin to the Oscar for the last Lord of the Rings film – it was really a recognition of the whole trilogy.

The Ghost Road was a powerful book, especially as Prior’s diary unfolds.  But the strength of this book comes from taking it as a whole with its predecessors, immersing yourself in the lives of these characters, and reflecting on the realities of war.

Previous books in this trilogy (click to read my review):

  1. Regeneration
  2. The Eye in the Door

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1% Well-Read III (April, 2010 – April, 2011)

Once again, it’s time for the 1% Well-Read Challenge, hosted by 3M at  In this challenge, participants read from the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list.  There has been yet another update to the list in 2010, so this time the challenge has only one option:

Read 13 titles from the combined list (of 1294 titles) from April 1, 2010 through April 30, 2011.

I’ve been a regular participant in this challenge, and my 2010 Reading Goals included 10 books from the 2008 list.  So I’ll start with those and add to the list as needed:

  1. The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker (review)
  2. What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt (review)
  3. How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman (review)
  4. The Master, by Colm Toibin (review)
  5. Faceless Killers, by Henning Mankell (review)
  6. Life & Times of Michael K, by J.M. Coetzee (review)
  7. The Bell, by Iris Murdoch (review)
  8. A Dry White Season, by Andre Brink
  9. The Man who Loved Children, by Christina Stead
  10. Remembering Babylon, by David Malouf
  11. An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  12. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
  13. The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James