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: When Everything Changed, by Gail Collins

This book is a modern history of women in the United States from 1960 through the 2008 US Presidential campaign.  Gail Collins, the first woman to serve as editor of the New York Times editorial page, begins with a detailed review of the role of women, and societal attitudes towards women, in 1960.  There were virtually no women doctors or lawyers.  Television had taken the nation by storm, with 90% of American families owning a TV, and most programs portrayed the men in lead roles and women as subservient.   Housework was very time-consuming, with labor-saving devices only just beginning to enter homes.  Most women did not feel poorly treated; it was just the way things were.  Surprisingly (at least to me), the civil rights movement was a trigger event that set waves of change in motion.  Collins takes the reader decade by decade up to the present time, showing how women gradually earned rights, both legally and informally, and celebrated the early pioneers who made it all possible.

The book effectively covers my entire life (I was born in 1962).  And while I had some idea that we’d “come a long way baby,” (as the ad used to say), I didn’t realize how much radical change had occurred until reading this book.  I also found it very interesting to reflect on my personal experience during each decade.  In that regard, the most meaningful chapters were those covering the 1980s and early 1990s: the time in which I came of age, went to university, got married, started a career, and had a family.  But the chapters covering the 1960s and 1970s were compelling, because they put into perspective events that were somewhat of a mystery when seen through a child’s eyes (Roe vs. Wade is one notable example).

I recommend this book for all American women who would like to better understand the key people and events that shaped the society in which we live today.

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Review: Mary Olivier: A Life, by May Sinclair

Mary Olivier was the youngest of four, and the only daughter born to a Victorian family in 1865.  She was treated exactly as you’d expect of girls in that era:  where her brothers were given education and opportunity, Mary’s intellectual and personal ambitions were thwarted.  She questioned the Bible and refused to participate in prayer and other religious practices.  Family and friends ridiculed her attempts at self-education; her mother constantly nagged her about her faith. Meanwhile, Mary’s brothers went off to serve their country in foreign lands, or learn a trade, leaving their mother pining at home, and leaving Mary to look after her:

Her thoughts about her mother went up and down. Mamma was not helpless. She was not gentle. She was not really like a wounded bird.  She was powerful and rather cruel. You could only appease her with piles of hemmed sheets and darned stockings. If you didn’t take care she would get hold of you and never rest till she had broken you, or turned and twisted you to her own will.  She would say it was God’s will. She would think it was God’s will.  (p. 124)

Well that’s pretty heavy, isn’t it?  The back cover of this book includes this description: “This is one of the finest novels ever written depicting the mother-daughter relationship and the eternal conflict engendered by that deepest of ties.”  And in fact, about halfway through I had to take a break from this book — the intensity of the “eternal conflict” was a bit much for me.

In the second half, things picked up a bit as Mary continued to forge her independence, undaunted by societal pressure.  She began writing poetry, and continued to study the philosophers and new scientific topics of the era, such as heredity.  However, her sense of duty called her to care for her mother in her decline, which required Mary to set aside certain professional and romantic aims.  She reached middle age a strong, independent woman, but achieved this at no small personal cost.

I found this book difficult going, and very depressing.  It’s a fairly accurate portrayal of the conditions women faced 100-150 years ago, and the situation was indeed bleak.  The novel’s autobiographical nature also created a problem, described well in Jean Radford’s introduction to my Virago Modern Classic edition: “the pull of the autobiographical impulse makes itself felt within the text. The novel is too long; there are too many lovers lost, too much detail about her philosophical reading, too many scenes in which mother and daughter enact the same painful conflicts.”  This is a powerful book in many ways, but by the end I just wanted to say, “enough already, Mary!”

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Review: A History of Their Own, by Anderson & Zinsser

In A History of Their Own Volume I, authors Bonnie Anderson and Judith Zinsser serve up a richly detailed history of the lives of women in Europe, from the ninth to seventeenth centuries.  Traditional history texts structure the narrative around events central to the development and accomplishments of men (the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, etc.)  In their research, Anderson and Zinsser discovered that women were affected by very different forces, and organize their narrative accordingly.  Then they set out to explain:

Why had laws, economic systems, religion, and politics excluded European women from the most valued areas and activities of life? How had cultural attitudes evolved which defined women as innately inferior and placed them in a subordinate relationship to men? (p. xiv)

Volume I provides an in-depth analysis of women in several walks of life:  women of the fields, churches, castles and manors, and walled towns.  In each case, the authors show how over the centuries women gained power, and were subsequently subordinated to men.  Sometimes this occurred as the side effect of some technological advancement that changed the role of women.  In other cases their loss of power was the result of deeply held beliefs regarding woman’s physical inferiority.  In all cases, gender was the single greatest factor affecting the lives of women.

Anderson and Zinsser present a compelling thesis, meticulously researched.  At times I felt there was almost too much detail, with so many facts and examples that I wanted to say, “all right already!  I get it!”  And with so many stories of oppression, this book can be rather depressing.  And yet it’s important for women to understand their history, and this is a very good way to learn it.

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Review: My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin

Sybylla Melvyn is a young girl growing up in the Australian bush.  Her father squanders his hard-earned income on speculative investments and alcohol.  Sybylla dreams of grandeur and independence, but is relegated to traditional female roles on her family farm.  She jumps at the opportunity of an extended stay at her grandmother’s country house, Caddagat.  There she meets the handsome and charismatic Harry Beecham, and romance ensues.  But Sybylla is reluctant to commit to the relationship, valuing her independence and dreams above all else.  Tongue firmly in cheek, she writes:

Those of you who have hearts, and therefore a wish for happiness, homes, and husbands by and by, never develop a reputation of being clever. It will put you out of the matrimonial running as effectually as though it had been circulated that you had leprosy. So, if you feel that you are afflicted with more than ordinary intelligence, and especially if you are plain with it, hide your brains, cramp your mind, study to appear unintellectual — it is your only chance.  (p. 34)

With such a promising premise and witty prose, I wish I could say I liked this book.  Unfortunately, it was predictable and not all that interesting.  To be fair, this was Miles Franklin’s first novel, written when she was only sixteen.  Carmen Callil’s introduction to this Virago Modern Classic was far more intriguing, as it provided a mini-biography of this famous Australian novelist, best known to me as the namesake of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, sustaining her commitment to Australian literature.

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Review: Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Alison Weir

Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most powerful women in 12th-century Europe. Heiress to a vast region of what is now France, she was first married to Louis VII of France and, later, to Henry II of England.  As Queen of England, she founded a long line of monarchs who ruled England and many other European countries for centuries to come.  As Alison Weir writes in this biography:

There were then, as now, women of strong character who ruled feudal states and kingdoms, as Eleanor did; who made decisions, ran farms and businesses, fought lawsuits, and even, by sheer force of personality, dominated their husbands. … The fact remained that the social constraints upon women were so rigidly enforced by both Church and state that few women ever thought to question them. Eleanor herself caused ripples in twelfth-century society because she was a spirited woman who was determined to do as she pleased. (p. 4)

The unfortunate reality is that most written history is focused on men and their achievements. Weir pieced together evidence from contemporary sources in an attempt to illuminate the life of this “spirited woman,” but this book was much more about Eleanor’s actions as they related to her husbands and sons, and their quest for dominance of feudal society.  Weir portrays Eleanor as strong and intelligent, and the men as violent, power-hungry philanderers.  She fails to explain why Eleanor would work so hard to preserve their power.  Reading this book increased my knowledge of Henry II, his sons Richard and John, and the constant power-brokering of that age.  Eleanor was present throughout, always on the scene and sometimes playing a role in negotiations.  But who was she, really?  What motivated her?  How did she feel about being separated from her children, sometimes for years at a time?  I was hoping for more insight to Eleanor as a person, but I suspect there just isn’t enough evidence to produce a comprehensive portrait.

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Women Unbound Challenge (November 2009 – November 2010)

For this challenge, participants are encouraged to read nonfiction and fiction books related to the rather broad idea of “women’s studies.”  According to Merriam-Webster, this is defined as “the multidisciplinary study of the social status and societal contributions of women and the relationship between power and gender.”  Ooh la la, this is right up my street!
Details, including challenge rules, are posted here on a beautifully-designed challenge blog.  There are three levels of participation:

  • Philogynist: read at least two books, including at least one nonfiction one.
  • Bluestocking: read at least five books, including at least two nonfiction ones.
  • Suffragist: read at least eight books, including at least three nonfiction ones.

Eligible fiction books should take “a thoughtful look at the place of women in society.” Right — I have about 100 Virago Modern Classics that I haven’t read yet (and I’m still collecting!).  So this challenge is a nice overlap with my perpetual Virago challenge.  The non-fiction category includes “books on feminism, history books focused on women, biographies of women, memoirs (or travelogues) by women, essays by women and cultural books focused on women (body image, motherhood, etc.).”  I have been reading far less non-fiction lately so while this initially sounded more difficult, as I wrote this I realized I had qualifying books already sitting right on my shelves!

So, I’ll join the Suffragists.  Here’s my list, which is most definitely subject to change (links to reviews included as books are completed):


  1. The Sugar House, by Antonia White (review)
  2. The Judge, by Rebecca West (review)
  3. Crossriggs, by Jane & Mary Findlater (review)
  4. My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin (review)
  5. Mary Olivier: A Life, by May Sinclair (review)


  1. Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Alison Weir  (review)
  2. A History of Their Own: Women in Europe from Prehistory to the Present Vol. I, by Bonnie S. Anderson & Judith P. Zinsser (review)
  3. When Everything Changed, by Gail Collins (review)

Extra Credit (books I’ve read that weren’t on my “official” list, but are great for this challenge)

  1. A Woman, by Sibilla Aleramo (review)