Happenstance – Carol Shields (1980)

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Another reread (and another gamble — totally not like me at all to reread titles but there you go. Life is not for sissies.) So, this was a reread kept in the TBR pile because obvs I enjoyed it the first time around. However, this time around, it’s not quite that same level of excellence (and I’m being pretty generous here in how I describe that). It was published in 1980, which means, probably, that it was written during the 1970’s and goodness me, how the time seems to have been a dreadful decade for writing novels. I don’t know what was going then that novel writing seems to have been so impacted by Free Love and all that hippy stuff during the previous two decades but when it’s viewed through the perspective of the 21st century eyes, it’s makes me cringe rather.

So this novel is very very dated in things which made it rather a challenge to pick up and enjoy. (Again, we’re back to the “why didn’t I put it down and just move on to another title” question but we’ll leave that discussion for another day.)

The novel’s structure is divided into two to reflect the two views of the two people involved in the marriage which is at the heart of the story. The husband and wife are two fairly ordinary middle class people living in Canada during the 1970’s and the book is written so that there is no wrong way to start the text. Either way (whether you start with the husband’s or the wife’s perspective) will worked in this case.

The couple involved are very “normal” – no weird sex proclivities (which seems to be a common theme in this era’s novels) but they have different views of the same events that have happened to both of them. It reminded me of a rather unsuccessful homage to the books “Mr. Bridge” and “Mrs. Bridge”  except set in the hackneyed 1970’s era. Perhaps I have become more immune to things (or the world in general has) but this whole storyline of sexual permissiveness and experimentation, of “open” marriages and free-range parenting seems rather hackneyed now. Perhaps it was really edgy and fresh when it was published 30 years ago….

So – this was a very meh book for me and one that I will happily donate to FoL for their book sale and to the next reader. (Another point to consider is that this may have suffered following the excellent read of “Brooklyn”…) I know now that I am officially done with Carol Shields’ work. (See review of “A Celibate Season” here.) Sigh. Oh, to have that time back
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Moving on, what’s up next? That, my fellow reading friends, is what we have to find out…

Indian Horse – Richard Wagamese (2012)

book316Not certain where I came across this title, but this was one of the best reads this year so far. Richard Wagamese has written “Indian Horse”, a novel that revolves around a First Nations person with a drinking problem who is trying to dry out at an inpatient facility. Part of his ongoing therapy asks him to track back down his past years to try to understand why he’s chosen the paths that he has throughout his life. “You can’t change the present if you don’t understand the past” idea…

This was one of the titles chosen as part of the Canada Reads program featured in 2013, so I knew that it had a good chance of being a good read even if I’d never heard of the title or the author. And it was, my friends. It was.

Saul Indian Horse, the protagonist, has lived a tough life. His childhood was spent in the wild bush with his extended family of the Ojibway tribe from the Wabaseemong First Nation in the northern end of Ontario. (It’s also the same tribe as the author so it makes it pretty autobiographical, I would think, at least historically speaking.) As Saul gets older, his family goes through some horrible situations, and the one constant in his unstable life is his love and talent for ice hockey.

It is the comradery of the team and also his uncanny ability to “see” the game (as the elders would see into the mystical world of old) that keeps Saul on track from self-destruction for some time, but eventually, the outside world overcomes his inside strength and things change from then on.

Richard-WagameseThis was far outside my normal reading, but I loved it. (It’s good to push the boundaries every now and then.) Wagamese is a great author who obviously knew what he was writing about, from the collective pain as a disenfranchised and abused child isolated from his family to the thrill of the game on the ice hockey rink. (And here I was surprised at just how exciting he made ice hockey games to read about. He described learning and playing the game in such great detail that even I, who have never played ice hockey, was involved with the outcome of each game his team played.)

The narrative builds up as the story progresses, and once it seems to reach its apex, I (as the reader) thought that was how life was going to stay for Saul. But then there is a huge twist at the end which brings things together and it took my breath away as, by that time, I’d fallen in love with troubled Saul. Interestedly, the story starts off with Saul being kept (willingly) in a residential treatment facility for his addiction, but that later more informal incarceration was a direct result of an earlier forcible incarceration of a kind during his childhood when he went to the school of hell. The earlier one put him in a cage – does the later prison cage (though of his own choices) set him free?

When the Indian Act of 1876 passed in Canada, it became compulsory for First Nation kids to attend a day, industrial or residential school as part of a large plan to assimilate Native Canadians into European-Canadian society (because we all know now that that’s the right thing to do. Sigh.) In fact, one of the key goals of this program was stated as “killing the Indian in the child” which affected more than 150,000 First Nation children and their families for generations.

ice_hockeyWith Canada being so large and spread out, this ruling (the Indian Act of 1876) meant that some young children were forced to attend boarding (or residential) schools run by mostly Catholic and Anglican churches where there was limited learning and excessive hard labor for the student body. The schools were funded in small part by the Canadian government, but not enough to meet all their financial needs which meant that the school children were frequently used in hard and manual labor, the products of which were income-producing for the schools. It was all a big mess (which might qualify for “Understatement 0f the Year”…)

Numerous records attest that, whilst in these residential schools, the students were forcibly removed from their families, their culture and their languages, some children were sterilized and purposely malnourished, and there were significant amounts of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of both other students and staff. There were also high mortality rates for illness (notably TB) for students with inadequate (or nonexistent) medical care from untrained staff, and numerous children went missing with their families never to hear from them again.

The schools were spread across the nation, and for tribal children far from towns or landed communities, it meant being kidnapped and forcibly removed from everything they knew to a pretty hostile environment. (Not every government school engaged in this abuse, but it was quite widespread – enough that there was a government public apology not only by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper but also the leaders of all the other parties in the Canadian House of Commons. And just nine days prior to this had been the establishment of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission to uncover the truth about this situation.)

The last residential school didn’t close until 1996. (Blimey!) They sound like a terrible idea, but par for the course in early English colonial days. (See also Australia, USA, etc.) However, kudos to Canada for developing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that provided a $1.9 billion compensation package to benefit tens of thousands of former residential school students who had been affected, both as families and through support of more and better educational opportunities for First Nation peoples.

So – a pretty serious book on serious topics, but it reads so quickly and I was so drawn into the story that it passed incredibly fast. I just loved this book on so many different levels, and you may as well.

 

As for Me and My House – Sinclair Ross (1941)

Me and my house bookAlthough referred to by Canadian critics as a “classic”, this book does not seem to receive the same love from the average reader on Good Reads and other reader-review sites. Some of the comments about it are just plain funny:

After careful consideration and a night’s sleep, I’m fairly certain that this is the worst book I have ever read in my life…

Or how about this one:

I would rather poke my eyes out with a rusty needle than read this again…

Or even this one, a reviewer who holds nothing back, it seems:

I know this is supposed to be classic Canadian literature and all, and it wasn’t bad, but good Christ, suicide really should’ve been considered as an option, what with all that tension and misery.

So, perhaps not everyone will appreciate this quiet but desperate epistolary novel from the perspective of a reluctant preacher’s wife stuck in a small town on the Canadian prairie. Although married for twelve years, Mr. Philip Bentley and Mrs. Bentley (no first name given) are unhappy – not unhappy enough to do anything drastic to change the situation, but  unhappy enough to isolate themselves from each other.

It was written in 1941 and is set during the Depression, so life is hard enough in the prairie but really hard if you’re a preacher and his family who are dependent on others for your income, your house, and everything you need. It is this sense of powerlessness that surfaces the most, I think. The husband feels powerless in that he doesn’t really want to be a preacher and is not happy in his relationship with his wife, but sees no other way to support himself (although he’s dying to be an artist). His wife, unhappy in the marriage as well, sees no other options to escape her life: she is doomed to be the supportive “preacher’s wife” out in the middle of nowhere in a community of narrow-minded people with whom she has little in common.  And everyone has secrets that they’re not telling.

And it’s this contrast between the vast openness of the prairie and the winds that sweep down from the north, and the insular life of secrecy and hidden ideas that the husband and wife maintain, both from each other and the community around them. They live in a run-down house next to the church, and both seem to be mired in the social quagmire and tangles of small-town life with its petty squabbles and lack of privacy. They have few friends and nowhere to go, so it’s a life of being trapped in many ways.  Perhaps the house mirrors their marriage and lives in some ways: run-down, uncared-for…

Compounding this is the fact that the couple has no children (although they would have liked to): they had a son early in the marriage, but he died, and since then, the two have sealed themselves from each other, both unhappy but refusing to really talk about it.

It’s very reminiscent (to me) of Evan Connell’s duo of Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge although both written about a decade later. Set in a different community and with options available that were not there for the unhappy Bentley couple in Canada, there is still this same sense of suffocating life, of being trapped like a fly in a jar with no hope of being released. (It also reminded me of the short story The Yellow Wallpaper and the novel The Wind by Dorothy Scarborough.)

The Bentley’s impulsively adopt a 12-year old orphan from the rougher side of town, both secretly hoping that this new arrival will be the solution for their unhappiness. However, it’s not to be. The child is Catholic, the town (and the preacher Protestant), and so this causes a rift in the community. Alongside all this is the drama of both the husband and the wife having affairs of different degrees with people in town, and as this is written from the PoV of the wife, you only read her perspective of the situation. It’s like hearing one side of a phone conversation, but there is enough info to piece the story together without frustration.

This book has been criticized for being slow-moving and boring. It’s true that there is not a lot of action actually happening, but it’s not that sort of book at all. It’s a contemplative story about domestic unhappiness and unfulfilled ambitions. It sounds terribly depressing, and it’s not a happy read, but it is a good read. Perhaps the unhappy reviewers mentioned earlier are younger and do not yet understand or empathize with goals unreached. I do think this book would be wasted on the teenager set, not because they are uneducated and idiots, but because their life experience has not allowed them to actually have these events occur to them, generally speaking. How can you understand being trapped in a relationship or a job when you still have the optimism of youth on your side?

So – good read. It did get better as I read it more and I was sucked into the narrative. I think it helps to live in a similar prairie environment and to know what the wind sounds like as it whistles across the level land in a rural world.  But I don’t think that should stop anyone from reading this. The writing is excellent at describing the seasons in such a wide open space. I enjoyed this, and the high skill level of the writing. (See below.)

It was clear and glittering today, and when the sun went down the frost-mist made the sky up nearly to the zenith red and savage like a fire. I watched it with [the dog], huddled cold against the grain elevator. A team and sleigh went past while we were there, the horses snorting at the cold and blowing little clouds of steam. The bells and creaking runners left a white cold silence for a minute, like a field of snow that no one has left a footprint on; then a coyote somewhere loped across it with its fluty howl, and [the dog] bristled up his back, and pressing close against me bayed off after it in floundering pursuit.

A Celibate Season – Carol Shields and Blanche Howard (1991)

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This was an epistolary novel whose title popped up somewhere on one of the blogs I crossed by the other day. You know that I can’t resist an epistolary book so, of course, I had to get this. This Canadian novel focuses on the letters sent between a married couple when the wife (who is a newly minted lawyer after having been a stay-at-home mum for years) is given a temporary posting as legal counsel for a government commission on the other side of the country.

As the weeks of the assignment turn into months and the couple continue to correspond through letters, the relationship sours for a variety of reasons. One of the big reasons (clued in by the title) is that both individuals decide to remain celibate whilst they are separated (which they sorta should since they’re, like, you know, married and apart…) and this turns into a BIG deal for the couple.

When she leaves home, the house goes to he** — why? Because the husband can’t cope as he is a caveman. This book is soooo dated even though it was only written in 1991.  He doesn’t pay the phone bill so the phone is disconnected for weeks making it difficult for the wife to call home when a letter won’t do. He can’t cook properly and won’t clean…

He’s unemployed so moons around doing nothing in particular (although he does sign up for a poetry class). Even though he has all this spare time, he has to hire a (female) cleaner and then go on about her in his letters to the wife – none of which she is happy about. Additionally, there are two adolescent kids who seem to have secret lives going on which the husband/father doesn’t address despite the mother’s request to do so. (And with the phone disconnected, she can’t do anything about it.)

The format of letter-writing really helped to emphasize the slow speed at which their whole world changed and how they reacted (or didn’t, as the case may be). (I imagine it would be a different set-up with communication as it is now.)

It sounds like it was rather an annoying read (and it was at times), but then I put some thought into it and realized that, generally, this is how small incremental changes become life-changing events – very gradually – so it was effective in the end.

However, the book is soooooooooooooo dated. (It reminded me of Atwood’s Surfacing (novel) which was written in 1971 and was all about swinging hippies etc.) The characters in this book also engage in weird sexual parties on occasion and both end up having sexual flings. I was in my 30’s during the 1990’s, but I don’t remember being invited to any weird sex parties or anything (which is fine), but was Canada like this back then? Additionally, the book was set in Vancouver which Shields refers to as Lotus-land presumably because of the hippie connection.

So – this was an OK read. Good strong epistolary set up – rather dated characters who do rather dated things. I’ve read stronger work by Shields.

TBR Reading List Update – January 2013 edition.

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My Fall 2012 TBR suggested reading pile (updated). Blue arrows point to books read. 🙂

 

Way back in September-ish, I developed a list of potential TBR titles that I thought I might put into the reading spotlight and see how that went. (See this post here.)

I had a mixed result, but all good because even though I might not have actually read these exact titles, I did read something equivalent off the TBR pile so I can argue that it still counts. 🙂

  • The Ring of Bright Water trilogy – Gavin Maxwell. Non-fiction about a guy who lives alongside a family of otters in Scotland (I think). Supposed to be funny and sad. NOPE.
  • The Emperor of all Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee  (A continuation of the summer TBR pile.) NOPE.
  • Death at the Priory – James Ruddick. YUP.
  • Short Stories by O. Henry (or another book of essays or similar) NOPE. But did read other essays.
  • Cadillac Desert – Marc Reisner. NF about the ongoing water shortage in the American West. NOPE.
  • The Go-Between – L. P. Hartley. YUP.
  • Couple of books about Queen Victoria and hubby… YUP. Read one of these.
  • Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood – IN PROCESS Update: DNF.
  • Mrs. Hargreaves – Frank Baker.  HAD A GO. DNF.
  • How to be a Woman – Caitlin Moran (NF about modern-day feminism which has had good reviews) – YUP (although I would like to take back this time if possible)
  • The Worst Hard Time – Dust Bowl history – Timothy Egan – SORT OF DID THIS. Didn’t read the book, but did go to a lecture by him and see his PBS series about the Dust Bowl. That counts, doesn’t it?
  • Some odd bits and pieces of fiction that have been on the shelves for a while…  YUP. Read two of these.  (May Sarton and Annie Proulx.)

So – to continue with this format of book title rotation on the nightstand, I have chosen the following for the next quarter or so. Will update on progress as warranted.

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My Fall 2012 TBR suggested reading pile (updated). Blue arrows point to books read. 🙂

 

It’s a large selection, but not intended for me as a list of Have-to-Reads. More of a “Here are some titles you haven’t looked at lately if you’re interested” type of list…. Titles are as follows:

  • Logavina Street – Barbara Demick (NF) – pick this up where I stopped prior to Christmas. READ. (updated 02/13)
  • Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism  – Natasha Walter (NF)
  • The Campaign for Domestic Happiness – Isabel Beeton (NF)
  • The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton – Kathryn Hughes (NF bio)
  • Neverland: J. M. Barrie, the du Mauriers, and the Dark Side of Peter Pan – Piers Dudgeon (NF)
  • Time was Soft There (book about the Shakespeare Co. book shop in Paris) – Jeremy Mercer (NF)
  • Helen Keller: The Story of my Life – Helen Keller (NF autobio)
  • Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC – Joseph McCormick and Susan Fisher-Hoch (NF)
  • The Devil’s Highway – Luis Alberto Urea (NF)
  • As For Me and My House – Sinclair Ross (Canadian F)
  • Be the Pack Leader – Cesar Milan (NF)
  • Methland – The Death and Life of an American Small Town – Nick Reding (NF)
  • Becoming Queen Victoria – Kate Williams (you know Victoria would slip in there somewhere…) (NF)
  • Charles Dickens (bio) – Clare Tomalin (NF)
  • Chasing the Monsoon – Alexander Frater (NF)
  • Going to Extremes – Joe McGinnis (NF)
  • The Secret Life of Bletchley Park – Sinclair Mckay (NF)
  • The Grandmothers – Doris Lessing (F)
  • Strength in What Remains – Tracy Kidder (NF)
  • The Marie Curie Complex – Julie des Jardins
  • The Best American Sci and Nature Writing 2006 – Brian Greene (ed.) (NF)
  • Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood (F) READ (updated 02/13)

Not too many fiction titles there, so we’ll see. I try to have one F and one NF going at the same time, so we’ll see what pops up fiction-wise.  <Rubs hands with glee at new selection of books>