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?

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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.

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Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

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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: The Old Devils, by Kingsley Amis

Oh my god, what a horrible book.  The Old Devils revolves around several 60-something Welsh couples who have known each other for years.  Alun and Rhiannon Weaver cause a stir when they return to Wales after several years in England.  Alun has become somewhat famous for his writing.  But Alan has a bit of a past with the ladies in this social group, causing a certain anxiety for both the women and their husbands.  And Alun’s wife Rhiannon has slept with a couple of these men herself.  In fact, it seems as if everyone has slept with everyone else at some point.  That is, when they’re not drinking themselves into a stupor before noon.

The book presents a series of interactions between the characters, usually musing over their gin, or wine, or scotch, or whatever else they can find.  I lost track of all the cocktail parties and pub crawls, and the endless chattiness about each other, their health problems, and various social issues of the day.

How or why this won the Booker Prize, I’ll never know.


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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: Holiday, by Stanley Middleton

After his marriage breakup, Edwin Fisher decides to spend a week at an English seaside resort, to clear his head and lick his wounds.  He returns to Bealthorpe, a familiar venue after years of childhood holidays.  Edwin moves aimlessly through his first day or so, stretching the most simple tasks just to fill the time.  He bumps into his in-laws, astonished to find they are also on holiday in Bealthorpe, and as they begin to meddle in his affairs, he strives to maintain appropriate yet minimal contact.  Edwin finds a social life through some of the other lodgers in his hotel.  They all gather for drinks and dinner at the hotel, and finish their evening in the pub.  Edwin experiments with a flirtation, soothing himself with the knowledge that he is still attractive to someone.

Alone most of the time, Edwin has plenty of opportunity to reflect on his marriage.  The novel takes place almost entirely in Edwin’s head:  taking in the sights, observing other tourists, and then, more often than not, recalling an incident between he and his wife, Meg.  Through his reminiscences the reader gradually pieces together the puzzle of Edwin’s marriage, and details of the critical emotional event that was just too much for them to bear.

Middleton writes wonderfully descriptive scenes which bring the holiday resort to life:

In the dining-room this evening, silence blossomed once the families began to eat. Fisher enjoyed the activity, the tucking of bibs, the wiping of mouths, the tipping of plates for the last spoonful, the pause between courses where one put on a small show for the other tables or angled for the correct snippet of conversation which would set the rest to chatter or laughing.  These people worked hard, holding their fingers correctly, not marking the tablecloths and this ceremony pleased him.  In this room decorated with dolls and paper flowers it was proper to act the gentleman, ape the lady. When the standard was judged, by Monday evening at the latest, there’d be a relaxation, a few aitches would topple, salacious asides allowed, confidences would be exchanged, but at this the first dinner after a complete day’s holiday matters were formal.  (p. 52)

Middleton’s style reminded me a bit of Virginia Woolf’s To the LighthouseHoliday had a similar dreamy, “day in the life” feeling, accompanied by the imagery of long, slow summer days.  And as in Woolf’s novel, many small incidents are used to paint a big picture of a character and his relationships, making for a very enjoyable read.



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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: 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: 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: The Famished Road, by Ben Okri (DNF)

OK, listen carefully people.  The next time I pick up a book written in the magical realism style, please stop me!

Magical realism just doesn’t do anything for me.  And The Famished Road is 500 pages of dreams, ghosts, cats that appear out of nowhere, and unusual people who behave in strange and mystical ways.  It’s the story of Azaro, a “spirit child,” who remains in contact with the spirit world after his birth.  Azaro’s family is clearly struggling to earn a living, make ends meet, feed and clothe themselves, etc.

The book started off strong with this opening sentence:

In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world.  And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.  (p. 3)

Well, that’s just beautiful.  And there are many passages like that.  But, as I mentioned, there are also dreams, ghosts, cats that appear out of nowhere, and unusual people who behave in strange and mystical ways.  This book is full of allegory and cultural references that I just couldn’t grasp.  Some reviews (notably Trevor’s on The Complete Booker) cited the value of facilitated classroom discussion.  That might have helped me overcome the whole magical realism thing.  As it was, I read only the first 71 pages and decided there were better ways to spend my time.

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