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: Adam’s Breed, by Radclyffe Hall

Gian-Luca’s mother died in childbirth, leaving her illegitimate son to be raised by his grandparents.  Fabio and Teresa live in an Italian community in London; Fabio is a naturalized citizen.  Gian-Luca is “English in the eyes of the law.” He’s different from all the boys in school both because of his ethnic background, and because he has no father.  And worse yet, Teresa sees Gian-Luca as the cause of her daughter’s death, and is unable to show him any affection.  He grows up lonely and searching for love.

Fabio’s salumeria is the one source of beauty in Gian-Luca’s early life:

The shop! All his life Gian-Luca remembered those first impressions of the shop; the size of it, the smell of it, the dim, mysterious gloom of it — a gloom from which strange objects would continually jump out and try to hit you in the face– but above all the smell, that wonderful smell that belongs to the Salumeria.  The shop smelt of sawdust and cheeses and pickles and olives and sausages and garlic; the shop smelt of oil and cans and Chianti and a little of split peas and lentils; the shop smelt of coffee and sour brown bread and very faintly of vanilla; the shop smelt of people, of Fabio’s boot blacking, and of all the boots that went in and out unblacked; it also smelt of Old Compton Street, a dusty, adventurous smell.  (p. 27)

When Gian-Luca leaves school, he begins a career as a waiter, and eventually becomes head waiter in The Doric, London’s finest restaurant.  Gian-Luca is talented and driven, but empty, lacking the emotional and spiritual connections so important to  personal well-being.  His life is a quest for identity, and for love.

Radclyffe Hall brings the Italian immigrant community to life, with delicious food and a rich supporting cast.  I enjoyed getting to know the characters and the early 20th-century restaurant business.  But Adam’s Breed is a melancholy book that explores themes of love, God, and human nature.  By the end it had evolved beyond its initial premise to a moving story of one man’s search for self, and meaning.

Review: Postcards, by Annie Proulx

In 1944, Loyal Blood abruptly leaves his family’s farm in Vermont, under circumstances that are only vaguely described.  He heads west, working a variety of jobs: mining, archaeology, trapping, farming, and so on.  His parents Mink and Jewell continue working the farm with help from Loyal’s brother, Dub.  Life is grim.  Dub’s employment options are limited since he lost his arm in an accident.  Loyal and Dub’s teenage sister, Mernelle, longs for the day she can escape.  And Loyal’s self-imposed exile is no better.

Postcards is a portrait of a family, of farming, and of the American west in the mid-twentieth century.  Each of the Blood family members finds their path, but it’s not always a happy one. Some chapters were riveting, like when men became trapped in a mine, or when farmers banded together to fight a brush fire that threatened their livestock.  Most chapters open with the image of a postcard:  sometimes it’s a short note from Loyal to his family; at other times the correspondence is between unknown parties, but provides context or related plot details.  It’s an interesting device.

But while this book started strong, my interest flagged in the last 100 pages or so.  The events precipitating Loyal’s departure were never fully explained, making it difficult for me to understand why he refused to return home or even let his family know his current address.  Loyal’s endless roaming across the country bored me after a while.  Dub, Mernelle, and even Jewell had more interesting stories, which were not as fully developed.

Postcards was Annie Proulx’s debut novel; there are glimpses of the talent that later brought us The Shipping News, but a few flaws as well.

Review: Tirra Lirra by the River, by Jessica Anderson

Nora Porteous returns to her childhood home after being away nearly 40 years.  Well into in her 70s, Nora is  somewhat frail.  The long journey from London to Sydney to northern Australia wears her out; she becomes ill and is cared for by neighbors who were children when she left.  As she moves in and out of sleep, she is flooded with memories:  first of her failed marriage, which was the impetus for leaving the country, and then of her childhood.  Her reminiscences are a way for the reader to get to know Nora.  As the story progresses, Nora retrieves bits and pieces that have long been suppressed, and a more complex portrait emerges.

Nora is the only surviving member of her family, and most of the people she knew as a child have either died or moved away.  She’s a bit crotchety and resents her need for caregivers, even though they also help fill her in on happenings during her absence.  She is treated by one of the town doctors, the son of a woman Nora had admired, but Nora discovers some shocking news about her death.  Nora’s convalescence is also an opportunity for healing and self-discovery, and eventually Nora accepts that she has entered another new phase in her life.

First published in 1978, this 140-page novella is quiet and contemplative, similar to more recent works like Tinkers and Gilead.

Review: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna is a brilliantly crafted novel, part historical fiction and part political statement.   Its protagonist is Harrison Shepherd, an American-born author who spent his childhood in Mexico, and most of his adult life in the United States.  As a young boy in Mexico, Harrison spent hours in the sea, exploring underwater wildlife and la lacuna:  “Not a cave exactly but an opening, like a mouth, that swallows things. … It goes into the belly of the world. (p. 35)”  He later found work as a secretary and cook for the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and became acquainted with Leon Trotsky who lived with them during part of his exile.

The book is presented as a compilation of Shepherd’s diaries, kept religiously almost since he could write.  Shepherd’s stenographer Violet Brown transcribed the diaries after his death.  And in this labor of love the English definition of lacuna applies:

The notebook that burned, then. People who make a study of old documents have a name for this very kind of thing, a missing piece. A lacuna, it’s called.  The hole in the story, and this one is truly missing still … (p. 112)

Shepherd became a famous author, writing adventure and romance novels set in Mexico.  He was unmarried, and somewhat of a recluse, emotionally scarred by certain events in his life.  In the late 1940s he found himself under FBI scrutiny, after they discovered his previous association with Trotsky.   Kingsolver writes convincingly about the growing hysteria in the country during the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee:

“Whenever I hear this kind of thing,” he said, “a person speaking about constitutional rights, free speech, and so forth, I think, ‘How can he be such a sap?  Now I can be sure that man is a Red.’  A word to the wise, Mr. Shepherd. We just do not hear a real American speaking in that manner.” (p. 443)

While the story dealt directly with McCarthyism, I don’t think Kingsolver was only writing about that era, over half a century ago.  The second half of The Lacuna reminded me of the years immediately following September 11, 2001: the prevailing American public opinion, and resulting public policy.  This was a clever way for Kingsolver to express her own political views.   And at the same time, she wrote a complex story with likable characters and a conclusion that tied a number of elements together in a most satisfying way.

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The Sunday Salon Review: Runaway, by Alice Munro

Good morning, and Happy Mother’s Day to those who are celebrating today.  I just finished a book last night, so this will be a combination Sunday Salon / Book Review post.  It was a pretty good week for reading, coming as I did off my first total clunker 0f 2010.  I finished two books, both very good.  The first was Let the Great World Spin, winner of the 2009 National Book Award.  Several days and another book later, I’m still thinking about the characters and their relationships with one another.  This was a very moving book, and yet I had difficulty writing a review that effectively conveyed the range of emotions inside (my review of Let the Great World Spin). All I can say is, read this book!

I also read Runaway, a collection of short stories by Alice Munro.  I’d intended to read it concurrent with Let the Great World Spin.  While I’m generally a “one book at a time reader,” I often enjoy reading short stories and/or essays alongside another book.  I find I enjoy them more if I allow time to digest and reflect on each one.  But I couldn’t tear myself away from Let the Great World Spin.  No problem, Runaway was still waiting for me when I was ready, and I made a point of setting the book aside, at least for a few hours, at the end of each story.  This book was on my list for the Book Awards Challenge (it won the Giller Prize), and it’s been sitting on my shelves forever.  Why did I wait so long?  My review follows.

Have you read any of Munro’s other short story collections?  Are they all this good?


In this collection of short fiction, Alice Munro writes of love, betrayal, and missed opportunities. Runaway is comprised of eight stories, all with female protagonists.  Three of the stories are connected, focused on one woman’s relationships at three points in her life, several years apart.  In fact, unlike most short fiction I’ve read, nearly all of these stories take place over a very long period of time.  And yet they are taut and focused.  Munro has the short story down to an art form:  she develops characters, explores themes, and serves up well-crafted plots, all in about 40 pages.

I especially liked these two stories:

  • Silence:  Juliet, the main character in two previous stories, is now a middle-aged woman.  She has lost touch with her adult daughter Penelope, and feels betrayed by her silence.  In this story Munro also fills in details from the two previous stories, serving as a kind of dénouement for the trilogy.
  • Tricks:  When the story opens, Robin is a young nurse living in a rural area, with caregiver responsibilities for an older sister.  Every summer she travels to a nearby town to see a Shakespeare play.  One year she met a man, Daniel, who had immigrated to Canada from Montenegro.  They agreed to meet again the following year, but things did not go as planned.  The story then “fast forwards” to many years later, when both Robin and the reader learn what really happened.

Any of these stories would be much easier to write as a novel, where the author has seemingly unlimited words and pages at their disposal.  Munro’s ability to create such tension and emotion in short form sets her apart.

Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

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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: 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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Review: Haweswater, by Sarah Hall

Set in the mid-1930s, Haweswater is the story of a village tragically affected by construction of the Haweswater Reservoir.  According to the Wikipedia article:

The controversial construction of the Haweswater dam started in 1929, after Parliament passed an Act giving the Manchester Corporation permission to build the reservoir to supply water for the urban conurbations of north-west England. At the time, there was public outcry about the decision, as the valley of Mardale was populated by the farming villages of Measand and Mardale Green and the construction of the reservoir would mean that these villages would be flooded and lost and the population would have to be moved.

Sarah Hall shows the searing emotional impact through the lives of the Lightburn family.  Sam and Ella Lightburn breed sheep, and have lived in the valley all their lives.  Their daughter Janet has just reached adulthood and played an active role in lambing and other farm labor all her life.  Her much-younger brother , Isaac, is known for his love of the water and wildlife.  Into their lives comes Jack Liggett, a representative of Manchester City Waterworks, who breaks the news of pending construction to the stunned villagers.  Janet is a very strong woman and not about to sit idly by while her homeland is destroyed.  But she hadn’t bargained on the feelings that Jack would stir up within her.  And he hadn’t expected to become so immersed in the life of the village, nor in its beauty.  Their romance unfolds even as villagers begin to move away, and crews of engineers begin construction on the dam.

Hall’s prose is magnificent and filled with rich description.  I felt immersed in the countryside:

In July and August the farmers in the valley sweltered under the dry sun as they worked, rolling and collecting hay, and transporting it in carts to barns and out-sheds, tying the bales down under tarpaulin for storage.  Chaff and pollen-dust filled the warm air and floated around on the summer currents, and the smell of dry scorching grass was heavy and sweet in their nostrils.  It was a good time of year. … Around dawn the air was fresh and soft, the temperature rose during the day with the sun’s ascension and passage between the fells. The men took off their shirts and their backs reddened, skin peeled and finally became tanned. Their forearms were burned a deep brown, masking the veins which had previously been seen easily, bluely, under their pale, northern-English skin. (p. 124)

And yet in the midst of such beauty, this is a classic literary tragedy, in the manner of Hamlet or other more famous works.  The prologue makes it clear the villagers were powerless against Manchester City Waterworks.   But the impact was more extensive, and deeper, than I had ever imagined.  And Hall plays out the tragedy with drama and suspense.  Each character plays a vital role as both a character and a symbol.  I’m amazed this was a debut novel.  Haweswater won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best First Book Award in 2003, and is most deserving of such an honor.

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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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