Happenstance – Carol Shields

Last month I read Unless by Carol Shields, so I had her on my mind when I was at Powell’s a few weeks ago.  I was on a reconnaissance mission to downtown Portland and Powell’s was my reward for successfully navigating the maze that is the East to West Portland highway system.  In the paratext of Unless, it mentioned Happenstance, which is actually two novels – one story told separately from the husband’s and wife’s perspectives.  I thought the idea was interesting and made a mental note to keep an eye out for it. Happenstance was one of several Shields novels on Powell’s well-populated shelf, and since it was on sale, it’s the one I brought home. Shields is a Pulitzer-prize-winning (The Stone Diaries) Canadian novelist I first read in my undergrad North American Literature class (we read Swann). She has also been short-listed for the Booker Prize more than once and is often compared to Margaret Atwood – both being Canadian, feminists, contemporaries and accomplished authors.

I have to say that this novel will not be going in my permanent collection. Brenda is a 40-year-old mother of two who has recently stumbled onto a career in quilting. She is off to a crafter’s convention for five days and each part of the novel features those five days she spends away from her family.  It is well-written, the characters are compelling and the plot is interesting.  But this is a story for a particular time period and perspective that no longer fascinates me. It mostly suffers because I have read most of Atwood’s novels/short stories of the same time period with similar themes, as well as other feminist authors.  So the story of a woman who feels as if she missed the feminist movement and sexual revolution because she was having children and being a mom feels tired to me.  The husband’s story did not feel as familiar, but felt more like the novelization of the post-modern theme of representation.  Jack is an historian and forever examining whether history can ever be accurate since so much of the human experience is never committed to writing.  Again, it suffers because I have already read so much on this topic, so nothing new here, either. Published in 1980, it is not surprising that the time-sensitive themes suffer from over-exposure (at least, over-exposed to someone who reads a lot of novels by feminists).

Also, I was expecting the same story from two viewpoints, not just the same five days and how a couple spent their first significant separation.  I read Brenda’s story first, so I was expecting to see her husband’s viewpoint of – for instance – their early-morning lovemaking before she boarded the plane.  But there were virtually no scenes shared between the two stories, and it was the idea of seeing that kind of writing that originally peaked my interest. Obviously, Shields is not responsible for my erroneous expectations, but I was disappointed nonetheless.

Happenstance also suffers from being compared to her latest novel, Unless.  That book made my heart sing when I read it and has a place on my shelf for the foreseeable future.    So I had pretty high expectations for Happenstance, and it didn’t live up to them.  This is certainly no slam on Shields or even this book. I enjoyed reading it and I’m sure others will, too.  It just isn’t something I’m going to want to read again or tell all my friends about (however, all of you should go read Unless right now. I’ll wait).  I may send it to my quilter friend, Sheila, she is not the jaded reader I am, and I think the quilting sub-plot would interest her (in fact, it was because of her that I found the quilting discussions interesting – having lived with someone who quilts all the time, I could relate to Brenda’s work).  So, to sum up – it’s all my fault I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as I could have.

We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For- Alice Walker

It’s one of those things that reminds me that there is mystery in the universe.  One of two epigrams in We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For?  “It was the best of times , it was the worst of times, etc. ”  A Tale of Two Cities. Now, I understand that AToTC is a popular, widely quoted book. But what are the odds that a book of essays published in 2006 by an African-American woman would quote a Victorian white guy’s book from the mid-1800s that I just finished reading?  Not a scary coincidence, but still strange.

This book is a collection of essays. The title refers to a theme that runs thru this book (the line is from a poem written by June Jordan, the other epigram) that we may be the generation that has all of the skills and tools to put an end to the horrors still left on Earth – war, poverty, ignorance, discrimination and the like.  And that is where the to connection to AToTC lies.  There was war, death and upheaval all around, but it was the result of a desire to end oppression and suffering.  Alice Walker sees our generation as uniquely qualified to end them once and for all.

Alice Walker is skilled at finding unusual metaphors for common themes, mostly those dealing with race and caring for the planet.  When giving a commencement speech, she refers to the I Ching.  In a talk given to an alliance of midwives, she invokes a Vietnamese poet, Native American poetry, the work of an M.D., some of her own poetry and essays, and discussions of Osama bin Laden and the war in Iraq. And somehow everything comes together as a whole that is new and illuminating.

One of the reasons I love Walker is because she believes in things powerfully and is not afraid to express an unpopular opinion. And many of the things she believes in are things I believe in, and it seems that in each new book I find something new that we have in common.  In this collection, she talks about honoring ‘the pause’ – those times in life when something big has  been accomplished or is changing, and the need to sit still with that change rather than just reacting (my paraphrasing).  Apparently a part of the I Ching encourages this as well – so it’s not just me and her.  I used to be a very reactive person, and as a result I did things that didn’t really make me happy, and people who knew me could easily push me into doing what they wanted by telling me not to do it.  I’ve mostly gotten rid of this button in my life, but it still pops up in times of stress.  If you can’t pause and reflect on your decision, then it is difficult to figure out what all the choices are and which one is right for you at any particular moment in your life.  These are the reasons I read Walker, to remind me that the choice is always mine, and the results are mine as well.

I read her daughter’s memoir Black White Jewish, also well-written. It does not gloss over how her mother’s preoccupations were not always a good thing for her young daughter.  But I still find comfort and inspiration from Alice’s words – maybe because she doesn’t always make the right decision any more than I do.  I used to read Living By the Word regularly to help me remember that I was not the only person trying to live by the guidance of the voice in the back of her head.  My favorite novel of hers is The Temple of My Familiar, a book about people trying to live a life that feels true to themselves and the interconnected nature of human life.

When I read Walker, I have to remind myself occasionally that, when she speaks at length of the horrors visited on the underprivileged in the past and present, that she is not just speaking of displaced Africans and their descendents, but also Native Americans, women and, yes, poor Caucasians.    Her focus is often on the African-American experience – understandably so – but she was also poor, and is still a woman and has experienced discrimination because of all of them.

For me, it’s clear that her writing is as much therapy for her as anything else, and the fact that the rest of us want to read it or hear her speak about her life is just a bonus. It allows her to live a life that makes her happy and support herself at the same time. And isn’t that what we all want?

a tale that begins with two cities

I thought it might be fitting to start a blog about books with a classic.  I just finished reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  Though I am an avid reader, have a B.A. in English and considered myself reasonably well read, this was my first time reading AToTC.  Dickens has never been a favorite of mine, nor is the Victorian period one I’m drawn to.  But since I am currently between schools while working on my Master’s, I am trying to keep myself in the loop by reading some of those iconic works that have somehow slipped thru the cracks of my lifelong reading list.   And while taking a Victorian lit class last spring, I came to appreciate the period more (much thanks to the post-modern feminist focus of the course provided by one of my favorite profs, Genie).  So, with all of this as background, when I was watching Flash of Genius, and Bob Kearns (played by Greg Kinnear) reads the first paragraph of AToTC to show that new things could be made from old pieces (words, in Dickens’ case, electrical thingamajigs in the case of Kearns), the book got added to the library book list in my head.  (I have yet to make enough money to afford my reading habit, so the local library is a friend and lifesaver.  I knew that Portland was a good place to be when – on my first trip to a local library – I found five interesting books to read in under 10 minutes, only two of which were on my mental list.)

We’ve all heard those first words – “It was the best of time, it was the worst of times.” But it wasn’t until I read the introduction that I found out that the book was set during the French Revolution, and the ‘two cities’ in the title were London and Paris.  And until I read that intro, I don’t remember ever wondering which two cities the book was about.  And then, of course, I wondered what kind of idiot I must be for not being curious about that before now.

I suppose I should say here that, if you haven’t read this book either, this column contains spoilers.   The intro to the edition that I read talked about how AToTC was the Dickens novel that received the least critical acclaim, while  remaining one of his most popular with readers. And while I am certainly not widely read in the Dickens’ oeuvre, it does move along rather quickly and with less of the obsession with detail I’ve found in other works of his, as the intro suggests.  And the plot is certainly not a mystery (I don’t think many are surprised when the amazingly twin-like men who are morally and psychologically opposite love the same woman and end up switching places at the end), but, as with most great novels IMHO, it is the characters and the masterfully suspenseful writing that keeps you reading long after you should have turned out the light.  It was slow going in the beginning as I accustomed myself to the Victorian syntax and pace, but by half-way thru I was skipping my online viewings of Lost to find out what would happen next.

I knew that when Lorry was going to Paris after the revolution had broken out, that Darnay would not be far behind.  I knew that when a mysterious stranger showed up at Lorry’s flat in Paris, that it was certainly Carton.  But the appearance of Miss Pross’ brother was a complete surprise, as was the real identity of Mrs. Defarge.  Dickens wisely (yes, that’s me, passing judgment on one of the masters of the English novel) chooses to reassure the reader that Lucie will survive the horrors of the revolution, while leaving us hanging as to the fate of the rest until the very end.  We buy into the release of Darnay and are almost as devastated as she when he is re-arrested the same night.

In the end, I enjoyed the novel more than I expected to (which, in all honesty, was true of most of the novels I read in my Victorian lit class).  I’ve tried some older novels on my own in the past (Moby Dick, for instance) that I just never finished.  Maybe what I was missing was a critical perspective – which would give me something to focus on if the story or writing didn’t hold me – but A Tale of Two Cities did not need anything but a little patience to hook me all on its own.

As with everything I do in my life, but particularly in what I read, I try to find the lessons offered by the text.  I didn’t find a lot in AToTC that I didn’t already know (oppression is bad, the reaction to oppression is usually ugly, never lie about who you are, true love will save you in the end – though not usually by providing a body double to die in your place) so it won’t be going on my personal Favorite list.  But if you are looking for a book to read that will impress your cerebral friends at cocktail parties (so, basically, the gay men in your life), A Tale of Two Cities will fit the bill without boring you to tears in the process.