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The Sunday Salon: a Brief Update

Oh, look at the time! It's Sunday again! It's such a busy time of year that the days just seem to fly by. Fortunately I have only 4 working days left in 2009, which will give me about a week for final Christmas preparations, unencumbered by job responsibilities. And of course, I'll have loads more reading time. Yay!

But despite nasty intrusions like work & real life, I've still found time for reading this week. I finished two books:

In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming (read my review)
I really enjoyed this mystery set in New York's Adirondacks. Because it took place during December, I felt like it was taking place in real time. And the characters were also realistic. I was worried about characters getting caught in snowstorms, and wished the main character, a transplant from the southern US, had a warmer coat. It was a perfect comfort read to follow a string of mediocre books. I zipped right through it.



The Judge, by Rebecca West (read my review)
I had abandoned this Virago Modern Classic in July but found myself thinking about it again & again, so I decided to finish it after all. It wasn't as good as I'd hoped, but it was still a well-done piece of feminist literature.

I'm now reading another VMC, Crossriggs, by Jane and Mary Findlater. This is a fine story about two sisters: one helpless, widowed, with 5 children; the other a single, strong-willed intellectual. Set in a Scottish village, the book is also full of ancillary characters, some quite comical. The Findlater sisters wrote at the turn of the 20th century, and their style strikes me as "Jane Austen meets Barbara Pym." Fun reading so far.

I'm also working on moving my blog to Wordpress. The new Musings will go live on January 1, and I've been teeing up my first posts, and have engaged my creative team (aka my husband!) to help me create a header image to replace the default. I'm also planning a fun give-away. I'll be sure to post an announcement here when I've officially moved, so those who follow via RSS can update their readers.

I hope everyone is enjoying their weekend and not getting too stressed over holiday preparations. Be sure to make time for your books!! Speaking of which, what are you reading this weekend?

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The Judge

I read half of this book in July, and wrote it off as my first "did not finish" of the year. But I kept thinking about it, and when the Women Unbound challenge came along it seemed a good time to finish it.

The Judge
Rebecca West
430 pages

This novel is primarily the story of two strong women. Ellen Melville is 17 years old, working as a typist in an Edinburgh legal office by day and participating in suffragist meetings and demonstrations nights and weekends. She is outspoken and confident, and naive enough to be surprised by hostile crowds during demonstrations. She is also completely unaware of her effect on the opposite sex. The men in the office treat her as an object, except for Richard Yaverland, a client of the firm. Richard is much older than Ellen, and more worldly, but also more liberal in his political views. When Ellen and Richard decide to marry, they journey to the south of England to meet Richard's mother, Marion.

The first half of this book is Ellen's story; the second half belongs to Marion. Richard and his mother are extremely close -- in fact, their relationship borders on the unhealthy. Marion has strong, mixed emotions about Richard and Ellen's relationship. She professes to love Ellen almost at first sight, and yet inwardly wrestles with the impact that marriage will have on Marion's relationship with her son. Just as I was asking myself, "What is this woman's problem?", Marion's "back story" was revealed in the form of one long, sleepless night filled with memories going back to Marion's youth. She had been in love with Harry, a young squire, who left for military service. Then Marion learned she was pregnant. She was subject to public shame, including an incident in which she was stoned by townspeople. For her own safety she entered into marriage with a man who offered her security and didn't even require that they live together. Marion doted on the illegitimate Richard, and found herself completely unable to love a second child borne of her marriage. As the two children came of age they were treated quite differently, and this had serious consequences when they reached adulthood. As Marion herself said, "Every mother is a judge who sentences the children for the sins of the father." (p.346)

Rebecca West was a pioneer in feminist literature who knew from personal experience what it meant to be an outspoken, strong woman. Published in 1922, The Judge portrays two such women and shows how society failed each of them. However, while the book is well-written, the prose is dense and requires concentration. The ending is abrupt and felt somewhat contrived. I would not consider this West's best work, but for those who would like to read more early 20th century novels written by women,it's worth a try. ( )

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the Bleak Midwinter
Julia Spencer-Fleming
358 pages

Clare Fergusson, an Episcopal priest in her mid-30s, has recently arrived in Millers Kill, NY to serve the congregation at St. Alban's. When a newborn baby is left on the church doorstep, she meets police chief Russ Van Alstyne, and thus begins their crime-solving partnership. In trying to find the baby's parents, they uncover a murder, which naturally leads to further investigation There are many potential suspects, and plenty of interesting developments that keep the story moving.

Clare and Russ, on the surface, appear to be an improbable partnership. However, prior to joining the clergy Clare served in the Army, and was trained in survival skills. Russ is a Vietnam veteran and has lived in Millers Kill for years. He feels a strong sense of ownership over the town and its inhabitants. As a minister, Clare has unique access to members of her congregation, which is both a blessing and a curse. Oh, and there's a little frisson of attraction between Clare and Russ, which adds an element of "will they or won't they" to the novel. They make a good pair.

And Spencer-Fleming kept me guessing all the way to the end. The last 100 pages or so were filled with suspense, as all the pieces began to fall into place. This was a very well-written, character-driven mystery and I'm looking forward to reading the next in the series. ( )

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Yesterday we had our first snowfall -- fat, wet flakes that covered the grass but fortunately left the roads quite passable. It was a perfect day to spend indoors with a fire, which I was happy to do once I'd stocked up on groceries for the week ahead. The weather has also made it a nice weekend for reading, especially since I'm currently immersed in a "comfort read." I desperately needed this after a string of mediocre books. Last week I was well into David Storey's Saville, which, as a coming-of-age story set in a Yorkshire mining village, had potential. But I was continually reminded me of the Monty Python "Vocational Guidance Counselor" sketch. Saville was much like chartered accountancy:

Exciting? No it's not. It's dull. Dull. Dull. My God it's dull, it's so desperately dull and tedious and stuffy and boring and des-per-ate-ly DULL.

I'm not even sure how I finished it. I kept waiting for a surprising twist, or some tension, but it just wasn't to be. I reached the end of my tether after 400 pages and realized the book was making me grumpy, so I decided to very lightly skim the remaining 100 pages. For more about Saville, read my review.

Fortunately, it looks like the entire month of December will be filled with fun comfort reads. Let's look at what lies ahead:

In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming: this is the first in a series of mysteries, which has been highly recommended by some dear friends. This is a genre I don't read often, but I have to say I'm enjoying this book a great deal. The protagonists are a police chief and a female Episcopal priest, who make for one of those odd-couple pairings that I've enjoyed in television mystery dramatizations like The Inspector Lynley Mysteries. These books take place in the New York mountains, and this particular novel is set in December, so it sort of feels like I'm there. Just the thing for a snowy weekend. I've even requested the next one from Paperbackswap.

I'm also planning to read two Virago Modern Classics: The Judge, by Rebecca West and Crossriggs, by Jane & Mary Findlater. I started The Judge earlier this year and set it aside, because it didn't suit my mood at the time. I thought I might return to it later and since it's well suited to the Women Unbound Challenge, now seems like the right time. I'm also reading Crossriggs for that challenge.


The Hunger Games
, by Suzanne Collins: this is a very popular YA novel. I gave it to my younger daughter for Christmas last year; she loved it and is clamoring for the sequel, Catching Fire. She's convinced me I really need to read this book.


The Hiding Place, by Corrie ten Boom: Calling holocaust literature a "comfort read" is a real stretch. I'm not sure if this will make my list in December; however, it's been on my shelves forever and I've heard such good things about this true story of faith. Maybe the Christmas season is a good time to read it. If you've read this book I'd love to hear your thoughts about it.

Finally, time permitting, I might read a bit of E.M. Forster as part of a LibraryThing monthly author read. I have a copy of A Room with a View lying around here somewhere and, as much as I loved the film with Helen Bonham-Carter, I'm sure I'd love this book.

So that's what December holds in store. Having finished all of my 2009 timed challenges and pegged a lot of my other reading goals, I'm looking forward to a relaxing month of reading.

What reading do you have in store for December?

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Saville

Saville
David Storey
506 pages

This book reads like a student's report of "What I did on my Summer Vacation": a chronology of events told in a factual style with absolutely no drama whatsoever. The student essay has a distinct advantage: it's short. Saville, on the other hand, is a 500-page tome that plods through the life of Colin Saville. The story opens with his parents moving into a squalid home in a Yorkshire mining village. They soon have a child -- Colin's older brother, Andrew, who died before Colin was born. And then Colin comes into the world, grows up, and is awarded a scholarship to go to a decent grammar school. He has various friends, some from his village and others from his school. He works summer jobs. He decides to attend a 2-year college instead of university. He meets various young ladies. He tries hard to overcome his humble origins.

And I'm sorry, but it's all dreadfully dull. There's not a single moment of suspense, tension, or emotion. There were several occasions where I thought a subplot might actually be going somewhere: perhaps a character would turn out to be evil, or some tragedy would befall the Saville family. But no -- even Andrew's death was treated matter-of-factly, and was not mentioned again until Colin was about 20 years old. When he told his girlfriend that his brother's death had a profound impact on his life, all I could say was, "huh?" I'm not sure how I finished it, and I confess to skimming the last 100 pages.

This book suffered significantly from an overdone theme ("dreary English mining village"), coupled with a semi-autobiographical story that was definitely of more interest to the author than it would be to anyone else. ( )

The Sunday Salon: November Wrap-up

This has been a leisurely week; because of the Thanksgiving holiday, the office was closed Thursday & Friday. And then I decided to take Monday through Wednesday off as well, so I've had a luxurious week at home. I started Christmas and birthday shopping (my daughters were each born on either side of Christmas!), took care of a few chores around the house that had been begging for my attention, cooked a nice Thanksgiving meal, walked the dog, and ... let's see, what else? Oh yes! I read books! And now November is coming to a close. Let's look back on the month's reading:

  • 6 books (72 YTD)
  • 1,894 pages (21,786 YTD)
  • 4 written by women
  • 1 Booker Prize winner
  • 1 Pulitzer Prize winner
  • 1 Orange Prize nominee
  • 1 Virago Modern Classics
  • 1 from the "1001 Books you Must Read Before you Die" list

More specifically, here's what I read this month:

Kind of a so-so month, really, although Angle of Repose will definitely make my 2010 Top 10 (possibly even Top 5). I was incredibly moved and inspired by this book and even now, two weeks later, Lyman Ward and his amazing grandparents continue to occupy my thoughts. I made the most of my week off from work by finishing two books: A Short History of Tractors... and The Emperor's Children. Although neither of these really knocked my socks off, I still felt some sense of accomplishment. Go figure. In November I also finished the last of my timed challenges for 2009: (Another) 1-percent Well-Read Challenge, in which I read 10 books from the "1001 Books you Must Read Before you Die" list.

'Tis the season for announcing 2010 challenges, and while I've definitely learned not to over-commit myself, I'm sure I'll participate in a few. I've already blogged about Women Unbound. If there's another 1-percent Well-Read Challenge, I'm in. And then there's Book Awards, which is scheduled to begin in February. And I've also spice up The Complete Booker perpetual challenge, by hosting a 2010 timed challenge with several ways enjoy Booker Prize winners & nominees.. Information and signups can be found here.

Also this week, after helping my husband start his own blog devoted to furniture building, I was possessed with a fit of creative inspiration, and decided to move my blog to Wordpress at the end of the year. This has provided endless opportunity for time-wasting tinkering over this holiday week, and I've found the work oddly satisfying. My current plan is to close the year at this location with all the usual "year in review" content, and "go live" at my new address on January 1. Look for more details about the move closer to the end of the year.

Today I'll be working a morning shift at the local bird rescue, and putting up Christmas decorations in the afternoon. By evening I should start to wrap my mind around returning to work on Monday, but I may just live in denial for a few more hours, and instead continue with my current read. David Storey's Saville is a coming-of-age story set in a British coal mining town during World War II. This is one of those books where you can escape into a different time, and a different world view, and kind of forget the present for a while.

I hope you've had a nice weekend filled with good reading. I'd love to hear about it; leave me a comment!

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The Emperor's Children

The Emperor's Children
Claire Messud
431 pages

Marina, Danielle, and Julius were classmates at Brown University and are all now approaching 30, and making their way in New York City. Marina is the daughter of Murray Thwaite, a famous journalist. She has been working on her first book for many years, and has never held a "real job." She lives with her parents, having recently moved back home after ending a long-term relationship. Julius is a gay freelance writer who lives lives in a squalid apartment and finds work through a temp agency while waiting for his next writing assignments. Danielle produces television programs, and is the only one with a steady income. The Emperor's Children follows these three over the course of a year. While they rarely cross paths in their day-to-day lives, the bonds of friendship are strong and they do call on each other for help and support. Another key figure in this story is Frederick "Bootie" Tubb, Murray's nephew, who has dropped out of university, and came to New York hoping to find himself and make a living. Murray provides Bootie a place to live, and takes him on as his secretary. Danielle is instrumental in finding Marina a job with a magazine startup, and Marina offers both Julius and Bootie the chance to write an article for the inaugural issue. Julius meets romantic interest David through one of his temp jobs, and begins to move in very different social circles. All of the young people look up to Murray as a role model of the successful and wealthy writer. Meanwhile, Murray is dealing with a bit of a mid-life crisis, and struggles to control everyone around him.

Messud draws an intriguing portrait of a certain social class. The characters in this novel are are shallow, superficial, and materialistic. It was difficult to care much about any of them, but I still found myself oddly drawn to their stories -- like watching an impending train wreck. But this book takes place in 2001 (and remember, in New York City). So of course September 11 was like the elephant in the room the entire time I was reading this book. On several instances, characters discussed events planned for September, which I just knew wouldn't turn out as planned. I was curious how Messud would address this pivotal event in the novel. After finishing the book I was left wondering if setting the novel in 2001 was just an afterthought, a convenient way to tie up the plot. The year is casually thrown into the text about 50 pages in. September 11 occurs 60 pages from the end of the book, and while it understandably changes the characters' lives, it was an all-too-easy way to catalyze certain events and bring the novel to a close. While this was a light read and somewhat pleasurable, it wasn't quite my thing. ( )

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For this challenge, I read 10 titles from the new "1001" list (with links to reviews):
  1. The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (review)
  2. Schindler's Ark, by Thomas Kenneally (review)
  3. The Siege of Krishnapur, by J.G. Farrell (review)
  4. The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton (review)
  5. Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons (review)
  6. Vernon God Little, by D.B.C. Pierre (review)
  7. The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler (review)
  8. Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee (review)
  9. To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf (review)
  10. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka (review)
Favorite Book of the Challenge: The Remains of the Day. This 5-star read will make my 2009 Top 5.

Least Favorite Book: The Long Goodbye. I couldn't get into the characters or the plot.

What I Learned: I was able to learn more about Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf. The "1001 list" continued to be a good source of reading ideas, even after its revision in 2008. I'll be reading more of these titles in 2010.

Thanks to Michelle for hosting this challenge!

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
Marina Lewycka
294 pages

Oh, puh-leeze. This book annoyed me; let me count the ways.

First, we have two middle-aged sisters, Vera and Nadia, who emigrated from Ukraine to UK as children. They don't get along. And they have much angst about this but seem powerless to change their relationship.

Second, we have their father, Nikolai, an elderly widower also living in the UK. He's lonely and a bit naive. And he's writing a history of tractors, and relates the development of the tractor to other events in history. Actually, Nikolai didn't annoy me. I felt sorry for him. Let's move on.

Third, there's Valentina, a 30-something Ukrainian blond bombshell. She has a young son and very large breasts. Valentina convinces Nikolai to marry her in order to provide legal residency and an education for her son. As I mentioned, Nikolai is lonely and naive. And he likes her breasts. So he agrees.

Back to Vera and Nadia. Their father's marriage causes them even more angst. This, I could understand because Valentina turns out to be after Nikolai's money. And she spends it like there's no tomorrow. But Vera and Nadia? They whine, and talk, and fight with one another. Then they whine, and talk some more. Eventually they do something about the situation.

There were some interesting elements to this book, like gaining some understanding of Ukrainian political events that led to the family's relocation in the 1940s. And there was a great deal of humor in the book, especially the portrayal of Valentina who was really over the top. But almost from the beginning, I felt like I knew where the story would go. And the dynamics between the sisters bored me. When the "big reveal" came, which explained why the two were so different in a way that was supposed to be oh so emotional, it just left me flat. ( )

The Sunday Salon: The Classics Circuit

I'm really excited about The Classics Circuit. The brainchild of Rebecca, The Classics Circuit "encourages the reading of classic works by celebrating them through book blogs," and is currently focused on older classics. The "celebrating" happens through blog tours focused on a specific author. I really enjoy reading classics, from "things you should have read in school," like Jane Austen and John Steinbeck, to 1001 Books You Must Read Before you Die, to the lesser-known but equally wonderful Virago Modern Classics. And the first two tours are going on right now!!!

Well, I joined the circuit the minute I found out about it. I've been sitting on the sidelines for the current tours, visiting the tour stops, reading reviews, and reconnecting with books I've enjoyed, like Collins' The Woman in White and Gaskell's North and South. But when Edith Wharton was voted to visit The Classics Circuit in January, I knew I had to be actively involved. I've read and enjoyed Wharton's The Age of Innocence, Roman Fever and Other Stories, and House of Mirth. Looking over Wharton's books on LibraryThing, I thought The Reef looked good. And guess what, it's been published as a Virago Modern Classic! So of course I had to have it, and of course Amazon was more than willing to help me. The Virago edition has a beautiful cover, and the back cover description reads:
Anna Leath is a young widow, an American living in France. Behind her lies an arid marriage and a life deeply influenced by the rigid code of Old New York. The novel opens as Anna awaits a new and fuller life: a chance encounter with George Darrow, the first love of her youth, has left her awakended, disturbed, filled with new hope. Anna returns to her beautiful country chateau, Givré, to await her future: between two short distances can anything happen to disrupt such promise? But the charming Sophie Viner, governess to Anna's young daughter, holds the key to a secret which comes to reveal that Anna's future - and the very foundation of her life - is fragile where it appears most strong.

This sounds like it will be highly autobiographical, and I'm really looking forward to reading it. The Classics Circuit committee assigned me a "tour stop" on January 12, and I'm already very excited about it!


Be sure to stop by the current tours. You may discover a new favorite author!

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Join The Sunday Salon here.