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: Something to Answer for, by P.H. Newby

Something to Answer For takes place during the 1956 Suez Crisis.  This was one of those typically complicated political tangles, and one I knew little about.  The crisis involved military action by the British and French, in response to Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal (which in itself was a response to American actions taken when Egypt recognized the People’s Republic of China … and on and on …).

Jack Townrow walks into the middle of all this when his friend Elie Khoury’s widow writes to him requesting help to investigate her husband’s death and settle his affairs.  Against his better judgment he travels to Egypt.  En route he meets a Jewish man who accuses Townrow — or, rather, the British — of allowing the Holocaust to happen.  Townrow is aghast, certain the British government would have prevented genocide if they had known about it.  He is equally certain the British can only do good in Egypt.

Soon after his arrival, Townrow is attacked and forgets his identity, his nationality, and many other details.  He still tries hard to help Mrs. Khoury, although he questions whether Elie is really dead and sometimes goes off in search of him.  He falls for a young woman named Leah, but  evil and suspicion lurk around every corner, and it’s difficult for Townrow — and the reader — to tell who the “good guys” really are.

Townrow’s character appears to be a metaphor for the British Empire losing its colonial power, and I’m sure the events were still fresh in readers’ minds when this book was published in 1968.  But the metaphor didn’t work for me, I found the plot a bit surreal, and the book very difficult to follow.  It just wasn’t my thing.

Review: Tinkers, by Paul Harding

George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. (p. 18)

Tinkers is about George Crosby’s final days.  Lying in bed in the front room of his house, surrounded by family, he takes a mental journey through his life, as well as his father’s.  His thoughts meander in a mostly slow and meditative way.  The prose is richly descriptive and even dreamlike in places:

The afternoon became warm, and with the warmth the first bees appeared, and each little bee settled in a yellow cup and took suck like  newborn. Howard stopped Prince Edward, even though he was behind in his rounds, and gave the mule a carrot and stepped into the field full of flowers and bees, who seemed not to mind his presence in the least, who seemed, in fact, in their spring thrall, to be unaware of his presence at all.  Howard closed his eyes and inhaled. He smelled cold water and cold, intrepid green.  Those early flowers smelled like cold water. Their fragrance was not the still perfume of high summer; it was the mineral smell of cold, raw green.  (p. 60)

Throughout his adult life, George carefully concealed the scars left by his father’s abandonment.  On his deathbed it all comes back to him, but he also begins to see that paternal abandonment, while manifested in different forms, goes back at least two generations.  At 80, George has broken the cycle.  And he has inherited a more positive, useful quality:  that of a “tinker.”  George’s father sold goods to country folk and handled all manner of small repairs along the way.  George repairs clocks, and his memories are interrupted by excerpts from an 1870s clock repair manual.

I first heard about Tinkers when it won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and I couldn’t wait to read it.  This type of book is typically right up my street.  Unfortunately, I was disappointed.  I just couldn’t get into the rhythm.  Maybe it was my mood.  Or perhaps it was because I kept comparing it to two other books I loved, which explore similar themes: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home.  Whatever the reason, and despite the beautiful writing, something about Tinkers fell short for me.

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Review: Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

On August 7, 1974, French high wire artist Philippe Petit performed his most famous feat: walking a wire spanning the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.  This event, which captivated the entire city, provides a foothold for Let the Great World Spin, running over, under, and around all of the characters in this book but seldom directly touching any of them.

The large cast of characters include Corrigan, a young Irish monk working in the Bronx slums, caring for prostitutes, addicts, and senior citizens.  His brother, newly arrived from Ireland, strives both to understand Corrigan’s vocation and convince him to return home.  Two of the prostitutes, Tillie and Jazzlyn, are mother and daughter.  Then there’s Claire, a well-off woman living on Park Avenue, who would seem to have little connection to the others.  But Claire has recently joined a group of women who have all lost sons in Vietnam, and she befriended Gloria, who is well acquainted with Corrigan’s world.  And the connections don’t stop there.

As Colum McCann tells Corrigan’s story, he begins weaving an intricate fabric with strands that are revealed, little by little, through the rest of the book.  While the high wire walk serves as an underlying theme, other events touch the characters’ lives more directly.  From the stuff of everyday living to devastating tragedy, McCann shows the reader these events from multiple perspectives, and ties them all together in a complex and emotional way.

It’s difficult to say more about this book without spoilers.  I loved the writing, felt sympathetic to most of the characters, and was moved without feeling manipulated.

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Review: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you. (p. 52)

John Ames is a Congregationalist minister living in Gilead, a small Iowa town.  Late in life, he was blessed with a wife and son.  Now, aware that his heart is failing, he begins writing a long letter to his son, to be read when the son comes of age.  Gilead is that letter.  In it Ames tells his life story, shares hopes and dreams for his wife and son, and explores matters of faith.

Ames was himself the son of a preacher.  Through his writings he tries to come to terms with his strained relationship with his father, now long dead.  He mourns his first wife and child, both of whom died too soon, and he rejoices in having found love at an advanced age.  But there is one matter that weighs heavily on Ames, and his letter serves as a sort of catharsis.

Ames’ best friend is a Presbyterian minister, Robert Boughton.  The two have spent years leading Gilead’s faithful, and  developed a deep and lasting friendship.  Boughton had several children; Jack, the black sheep of the family, was named after Ames.  When Jack Boughton returns to Gilead after a long absence, Ames must face long-suppressed emotion and conflict, and accept his inability to control events after he has passed on.

This is a magnificent novel.  The pace is leisurely and conversational, initially masquerading as an amusing portrait of small-town religious life, full of little details like the bizarre Jello salad concoctions served at church suppers.  But Gilead is so much more: it is a celebration of life, love, friendship, fathers, sons, and forgiveness.

Marilynne Robinson followed Gilead with Home, which presents the same story from the Boughton family’s perspective.  Each book stands on its own, and is beautiful and moving.  But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  The richness and depth of this story become apparent on reading both books.  These are not to be missed.

Read my review of Home
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Review: Without my Cloak, by Kate O’Brien

Still, Considine or not, you were born among us and you haven’t escaped any more than the rest of us our terrible family affection, our cowardly inability to do without each other.  Why, our whole strength is simply in our instinct to be large and populous and united.  (p. 244)

The Considine family is large, prosperous and very influential.  Their presence in the Irish town of Mellick dates back to a horse thief who arrived in 1789.  Nearly a century later, the family has left that legacy behind.  Honest John, son of the horse thief, started a business dealing in hay, straw, and forage and built it into a thriving international concern.  His children are grown; his four sons have found “appropriate” careers, and his four daughters are all in marriages carefully orchestrated to preserve or enhance social standing.  Honest John appointed his youngest son Anthony to take over the family business, and went so far as to express a desire that his grandson Denis, then 4 years old, succeed his father Anthony when he comes of age.

I like to use little sticky page flags to mark especially well-written passages, but there were so many in this book that I stopped doing so after the first 100 pages.  The entire novel  was beautifully written, and very moving in so many places.  Take, for example, this passage describing the love between Anthony and his wife, Molly:

Whether Molly guessed the motive of his efforts at asceticism he could not say, but he imagined that she did. Whatever she was thinking she was very tender with his lapses from monasticism. But he and she rarely spoke of these things and never with precision. She knew that he deplored for her the discomfort of incessant childbearing and would do much to lessen it, but saw no help within the social and religious code they both upheld. He knew that childbirth frightened her, wilted and crushed her and gave her in her babies only very slender compensation, for she was by nature far more wife than mother. But it was a problem which they could never thrash out, and it was heightened by the fact that they were both on the crest of life, and if not loving each other very perfectly at all times and in all the regions of love, yet doomed to find a terrible delight, again and again, each in the other’s body. (p. 76-77)

Anthony’s sister Caroline, on the other hand, is in a lackluster marriage and powerless to escape; O’Brien brings intense emotional depth to those passages as well.  And then there’s brother Eddy — as a man, he freed himself from family & societal pressures by serving as the business’ London representative.  In describing his London lifestyle, O’Brien alludes to Eddy’s homosexuality, and drives the point home through another sister’s endless squawking about how Eddy really should get married (even as Eddy ages into his 50s)!  And finally there’s young Denis, who comes of age in Mellick feeling very ambivalent about his career with the firm.  Denis prefers gardens and design, but the bond with his father is so strong, he is unable to express his wishes.  This all comes to a head, of course.  Denis rebels, embarrassing his family and bringing considerable pain on himself.  I found the dénouement a bit too tidy, but that’s a relatively minor weakness in an otherwise wonderful book.

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Review: G, by John Berger (DNF)

I will admit up front that I did not expect to like this book.  A few years ago, a book blogger’s review led me to believe that both the style and subject matter would probably not appeal to me.  But in my quest to read all Booker Prize winners, I knew one day I’d have to give it a try.  And so I did.  Fifty pages later, the style and subject matter were not appealing to me.  Not in the least.

I’ll pad this non-review with the product description from Amazon.com:

Fascinating…an extraordinary mixture of historical detail and sexual meditation…G. belongs in the tradition of George Eliot, Tolstoy, D. H. Lawrence and Norman Mailer.” — The New York Times

In this luminous novel — winner of Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize — John Berger relates the story of “G.,” a young man forging an energetic sexual career in Europe during the early years of this century. With profound compassion, Berger explores the hearts and minds of both men and women, and what happens during sex, to reveal the conditions of the Don Juan’s success: his essential loneliness, the quiet cumulation in each of his sexual experiences of all of those that precede it, the tenderness that infuses even the briefest of his encounters, and the way women experience their own extraordinariness through their moments with him. All of this Berger sets against the turbulent backdrop of Garibaldi and the failed revolution of Milanese workers in 1898, the Boer War, and the first flight across the Alps, making G. a brilliant novel about the search for intimacy in history’s private moments.

That sounds pretty juicy, but by the time I gave up on this book “the principal protagonist” (as he is often referred to) was still a little child.  Yet he had already been  aroused by the feeling of his head leaning back against his governess’ dress.  Um, yeah.

The description led me to believe this would be a character-driven novel, but it quickly became apparent this would be a novel of ideas.  That’s not a bad thing, but combined with the choppy writing style, this book really didn’t work for me.

I feel a bit guilty not sticking with this longer, but it simply didn’t hold my interest and, after all, reading should be fun.

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Review: Morte d’Urban, by J.F. Powers

Father Urban is a priest in the fictitious Order of St. Clement.  Based in 1950s Chicago, Fr Urban travels extensively, preaching at missions on the religious circuit throughout the mid-western United States.  He lives somewhat of a high life for a priest, traveling by first class rail and dining in fine restaurants.   He considers himself above the petty squabbles and politics of the Order, but one day he is transferred to a remote outpost in Duesterhaus, Minnesota (in fact, when I located Duesterhaus on Yahoo Maps, it literally placed me in the middle of nowhere).

Fr Urban arrives by train and, finding no taxi available, walks over a mile from the station to St Clement’s Hill.  Ostensibly a retreat center, the rector (Father Wilfrid) and a lay assistant (Brother Harold) spend most of their time refurbishing the facilities, always at the lowest possible cost.  Their only transportation is a run-down pickup truck.  Signs are hand-painted by Brother Harold.  Winters are bitter cold; most of the rooms are left unheated.  The Hill is largely ignored by the Order — out of sight, out of mind.

During the week the men work on the property, and on weekends they have pastoral duties in churches nearby.  Fr Urban begins making contacts in the community, building relationships that can benefit St. Clement’s Hill and the Order.  Fr Urban settles in reluctantly, but over time the place begins to grow on him.  When he is called to fill in for a pastor who is taking extended leave, he throws himself into the work:  church attendance goes up, he mentors a curate, and cultivates support for a building campaign.  Fr Urban’s Midas touch served him well on the circuit, and begins to pay dividends for The Hill as well.

Throughout his time at St. Clement’s, Fr Urban remains in contact with Billy Cosgrove, a wealthy benefactor in Chicago.  Billy gives freely to The Hill, beginning with a television set at Christmas.  Later his gifts become more substantial, and while Urban appreciates Billy’s generosity, he also begins to see another side of his friend’s character.  Billy makes his generosity very public, expecting recognition and instant service.  Urban is just as flamboyant as Billy in his own way, but performs innumerable acts of kindness towards others, almost always behind the scenes.

This book is filled with dry wit, as J.F. Powers pokes fun at the Catholic Church, the priesthood, and small-town life.  The emotional side of the story — told through Urban’s relationships with fellow clergy, Billy, and various townspeople — sneaks up on you.  When I began this novel, Father Urban struck me as something of a blowhard, but by the end of the novel he was a “real” person worthy of admiration.

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The Battle of the Prizes Challenge (February 1, 2010 – January 31, 2011)

This challenge, hosted by Rose City Reader, looks like a lot of fun, and overlaps nicely with Book Awards IV, The Complete Booker, and The Pulitzer Project.  I’m going to take part in both Battle of the Prizes challenges, which seek to answer the questions:  Does one prize have higher standards than the other? Pick better winners? Provide more reading entertainment or educational value?  Maybe challenge participants will be able to answer these and more questions – maybe they will simply read three great books!

First, the The Battle of the Prizes, British Version:

This challenge pits winners of the English Man Booker Prize against winners of the Scottish James Tait Black Memorial Prize in a British Version of the Battle of the Prizes.

For this challenge, I’m doing Option One, and will read three books:

  1. One that won both the Booker and the James Tait Black prizes:  G, by John Berger (review)
  2. One that won the Booker but not the James Tait Black Prize:  Something to Answer For, by P.H. Newby (review)
  3. One that won the James Tait Black but not the Booker: Without my Cloak, by Kate O’Brien (review)

And then there’s The Battle of the Prizes, American Version:

This challenge pits winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction against the winners of the National Book Award.

For this challenge, I’m doing Option Two, and will read four books:

  • Two that won the Pulitzer but not the National Book Award
    • Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (review)
    • The Hours, by Michael Cunningham
    • Tinkers, by Paul Harding (review)
  • Two that won the National Book Award but not the Pulitzer
    • Morte d’Urban, by J.F. Powers (review)
    • Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann (review)

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