Sunday, December 11, 2011

BOOK: Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields

Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields, 179 pages

Canadian Book Challenge

 This is the first of Carol Shields published books. Box Garden, her second, is a companion book, as each book is narrated by a sister. Here, Judith Gill is a biographer in Canada in the 1970s. Biographer is the key idea here - how do you ever know a subject? or even anyone else? Each person views the same event or life from their own perspective, so we all see everything differently. Even comparing the mother from both books is interesting, as Judith (Small Ceremonies)  and Charleen (Box Garden) see her from different views. Judith is writing about Susanna Moodie, the Canadian pioneer. (Note, Carol Shields went on to write a criticism on Moodie, Voice and Vision, in 1976. Did she write the Moodie book after doing research for this book, or did the research she did for the Moodie book give her background for this book?) Judith also tends to look at everyone, trying to find that biographer view of people.

Like in Box Garden, the little things, the small ceremonies of day to day life, are the main story. I was thinking jokingly that Shields was the original Seinfeld, writing about nothing. It's just that her nothing is about everyone, which is what makes Shields, and Seinfeld, resonate. Instead of looking through the telescope to the wide open skies, she turns it around and details the tiny things in a life. And while the characters are going along, with not much happening, there are events in the book that are not clear, a bit of a mystery. Often, as in life, they are not a big deal, but you keep turning the pages. It's the writing - Shields didn't win the Pulitzer (and the Orange) for nothing.

The Staircase Letters: An Extraordinary Friendship at the End of Life by Arthur Motyer, with Elma Gerwin and Carol Shields
149 pages

Canadian Reading Challenge

Arthur Motyer was a professor of Elma Gerwin's, who was a friend of Carol Shields. They all share a love of literature, and all worked with writing all their lives. Elma discovered she was facing cancer, as she knew Carol was, and cc'd Arthur and Carol, thinking they would all share in the writing of emails during their mutual fight with, what would become, their terminal illness.

Motyer writes the in-between and fills in much of the background for the emails - they lived all across Canada. The book felt a little awkward to start, a little Arthur-centered, but that fell away gradually, and the dignity and strength of the two women takes over the book. It could have turned into a bit of watching a train-wreck, but Motyer wisely focuses on each person's (i,e, your own) view of death and dying, referencing many literary allusions and poems. Eventually, it is all about your own perspective of life, and death, and happiness, and sharing Elma and Carol's letters felt like being bestowed with a little bit of grace.