Book: Unless - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Book: Unless
Tuesday, 25 January 2005 at 08:27 pm
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Author: Carol Shields

Details: (c) Carol Shields 2002; Pub 2003 Fourth Estate; ISBN 0-00-713769-9

Verdict: Unless is a generally good light character novel spoilt by trying to be too literary.

Reasons for reading it: I wanted something thoroughly realist to follow The Dragon Waiting, and this was on my to-read pile.

How it came into my hands: My mother lent it to me, originally for the journey home but I ended up being so tired that I only got through one (short) book in the 8-hour trip.

My mother and I have got into the habit of lending eachother books about how painful parenting is. Anyway, Unless is about an apparently perfect daughter of a middle-class family suddenly deciding to run away from home and university and become a beggar. It's mostly the account of the pain this causes, particularly to Norah's mother, to the extent that the happy ending feels rather tacked on.

In this respect it's very reminscent of Philip Roth's American Pastoral, though the major difference is that Reta Winters, the mother who is the narrator of Unless, is a much more likeable character than Roth's protagonist. Not that that's saying much, since just about every protagonist I've ever come across (barring possibly Thomas Covenant) is more likeable than Roth's narrator. However, Winters shares with the Roth character the feature of having an enormous chip on her shoulder about how much she's been discrimated against. Roth is convinced that all his problems stem from the fact that he Jewish rather than "athletic, blond and Aryan", and Winters is convinced that her problem (unlike Roth's boorish, self-obsessed narrator, she really only has one, namely her daughter's desperate behaviour) is caused by sexism. And not any actual sexist discrimination against either her or her daughter, but the trivial sexism of people who make lists of the great and good which are mainly or entirely male.

As a character portrait Unless works quite well. I got a strong impression of Reta as a person and really did feel a lot of sympathy with her. Her relationships with her daughters, her husband, her mentor, her husband, her mother-in-law and her friends are really vividly drawn. However, Unless is let down by trying to be too clever. The language is overblown; sometimes it works, there are one or two good lines, but mostly it's just too mannered to rank as really excellent prose. There's absolutely no need to use prepositions as chapter headings; it's nothing but pretentious. The clever-clever self-referential stuff is quite cute, but overdone to the point where it's just irritating: ooh look, it's a book written by a midlist Canadian feminist writer about a midlist Canadian feminist writer, isn't that clever and original!

Not only is Reta constantly griping about how unfair life is to women, but the narrative is constructed to support her viewpoint. As a result Unless feels like a heavy-handed morality tale; the polemic badly gets in the way of the story, and it's not even direct polemic, but dropping really blatant hints. The self-referential bit comes up again; there's a whole swathe of stuff about people making certain judgements about Winters' novels simply because she's female, with the very strong undertone that if you make similar judgements about Unless itself you're an evil misogynist. The trouble is, the unfair criticisms people make about Winters' writing do in fact apply to Unless: it has the elements of a very good if largely frothy relationship novel of the sort whose readership is entirely made up of women from similar backgrounds to its protagonist. But it's trying to be Serious Literature, and tackle Issues like the meaning of suffering and feminist politics. I couldn't disagree more with the view that women can't write Serious Literature, but the fact of the matter is that Carol Shields can't. Or at least she hasn't succeeded in doing so in this book.

As a description of human lives being shattered by random misfortune, Unless is moving despite being relatively superficial. However, the political point that it is trying to make was made much better by papersky in a hundred word LJ post. And frankly, Unless would be a lot better if it didn't bother with the point it labours so badly.


Moooood: bitchybitchy
Tuuuuune: Sisters of Mercy: Vision Thing
Discussion: 10 contributions | Contribute something
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doseybat: default
From:doseybat
Date:January 25th, 2005 08:30 pm (UTC)
3 minutes after journal entry, 11:30 pm (doseybat's time)
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how do you manage to get so many things done *and* remain productive for the future? *boggles*
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livredor: teeeeeeeeea
From:livredor
Date:January 25th, 2005 09:22 pm (UTC)
55 minutes after journal entry, 10:22 pm (livredor's time)
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how do you manage to get so many things done *and* remain productive for the future?
Umm. If by 'things' you mean LJ posts, I write them usually at the end of the day when my brain's too tired for useful thesising. Admittedly it's quite scary that I can write 1000 words of LJ post in an hour or so and it takes me most of a day to write 1000 words of thesis, but hey. As for the reading, I read on the bus, which is about 40 minutes a day on days I'm going in to the lab, and while I'm getting dressed or cooking, which is probably another 20 minutes a day.

And as for productive, I'm not sure I really am, given I'm like 6 months behind on my thesis and kind of panicked about finishing in time. Cutting out LJ might help, but I'm not sure it would help enough to justify how bereft I'd be without it.
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doseybat: default
From:doseybat
Date:January 25th, 2005 09:28 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, January 26th, 2005 12:28 am (doseybat's time)
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i suppose that book reviews seem like "beneficial activity", as opposed to what i do after work which is reading other people's entries!

do you really manage to read while getting dressed? wow! i have to concentrate so hard in my early morning daze to make sure i have remembered to brush my hair *and* teeth *and* make it for the train.. i do have friend who always used to read while he walked, it looked fantastic in the street.

good luck on the thesis.
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rysmiel: can't rain all the time
From:rysmiel
Date:January 26th, 2005 03:19 pm (UTC)
18 hours after journal entry, 11:19 am (rysmiel's time)
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i do have friend who always used to read while he walked, it looked fantastic in the street.

If one can do it without walking into things, people, and/or falling over, I can see the benefit.
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doseybat: default
From:doseybat
Date:January 28th, 2005 05:22 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 08:22 pm (doseybat's time)
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how are the misty and distant lands of the furthest east? no collsions with the lamposts of Kyoto yet?
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:January 28th, 2005 09:14 pm (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 05:14 pm (rysmiel's time)
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Unless this is some form of ellipticality which is passing over my head, I fear you may be under some misapprehension, as I have not come within a thousand miles of Kyoto in my life; I'm not in the Far East, but the True North Strong And Free. [ The True North is a state of mind, as Montreal's about level with Turin in mere pettifogging numerical measurements of "north". ] And the impediments to reading while walking here at the moment are not so much in mist - the air is if anything shockingly clear, -24 is quite enough to remove most of the inconvenient water vapour - but the presence of packed-down snow and ise, reasonably well-cleared but distinctly rough and slippery; reading on it would be an invitation to falling over.
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doseybat: default
From:doseybat
Date:February 3rd, 2005 11:46 pm (UTC)
9 days after journal entry, February 4th, 2005 02:46 am (doseybat's time)
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oh dear, i must apologise, i cant have been paying attention when reading my comment replies - the friend i was referring to (who *is* i believe in Kyoto but is quite unlikely to be reading this, and i remember being surprised to see him on this journal) has a lj username qute similar to yours. *hides*
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livredor: teapot
From:livredor
Date:January 26th, 2005 03:47 pm (UTC)
19 hours after journal entry, 04:47 pm (livredor's time)
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book reviews seem like "beneficial activity"
Well, I'd be most delighted if people found my book reviews beneficial.

as opposed to what i do after work which is reading other people's entries!
Oh, I do that too. I read other people's entries first thing in the morning and usually start work half an hour later than I plan because of it. And I read other people's entries while I'm supposed to be working (which I suppose is one advantage of working from home), and I read other people's entries when I need a break from work. I can't believe how much entertainment value I get from LJ!

do you really manage to read while getting dressed?
Not if I'm in a desperate hurry, no. But if I don't mind taking half an hour over my morning routine instead of 10 minutes, then yes.

i have to concentrate so hard in my early morning daze to make sure i have remembered to brush my hair *and* teeth *and* make it for the train..
I'm usually fairly awake in the morning, I'm a morning person. I have trouble with remembering my night-time routine, especially things like turning the heating off before I go to bed. When I'm really tired I sometimes forget to go to bed, which is not very clever.

i do have friend who always used to read while he walked
I really can't do that. I sometimes try, if my book is very gripping and I have to get off the bus in the middle of an exciting scene, but it doesn't work at all well, so I usually finish the chapter standing in the bus-stop. (I can't really even speak on a mobile while I'm walking, so it's not surprising I'm so pathetic!) And it means that I'm very bad about walking into work as often as I should for my health, because it takes away my reading time!

good luck on the thesis.
Thank you. I need all the luck I can get, and I appreciate good thoughts from friends!
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rysmiel: vacant and in pensive mood
From:rysmiel
Date:January 26th, 2005 03:18 pm (UTC)
18 hours after journal entry, 11:18 am (rysmiel's time)
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Different kinds of writing take very different kinds of energy. My PhD thesis came out at 25,000 words, and I was eight months writing that up essentially full time; when I'm not at work, I can write 25,000 words of first-draft fiction in five days. I don't have any idea what my wordcount on livejournal and personal mail; is, and I'm not sure I'd want to because I suspect it would be high enough to make me feel guilty. To a first approximation conversational typing is something I do about the same speend, or slightly faster, than I talk.
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livredor: p53
From:livredor
Date:January 26th, 2005 03:34 pm (UTC)
19 hours after journal entry, 04:34 pm (livredor's time)
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Different kinds of writing take very different kinds of energy.
Thank you, I'm really very comforted to hear that.

I don't have any idea what my wordcount on livejournal and personal mail; is, and I'm not sure I'd want to because I suspect it would be high enough to make me feel guilty.
Yeah, I think this is largely my problem: I'm feeling guilty because I've written so much more volume in LJ posts and comments and in personal email than I have on my thesis recently. The thing is, if I hadn't written all these non-thesis words, I doubt I would have made enormously more progress on my thesis, I'd just be more bored and lonely.

To a first approximation conversational typing is something I do about the same speend, or slightly faster, than I talk.
That sounds fast to me, but then I've never directly timed myself either typing or speaking. Guessing at figures it doesn't sound horribly implausible either.
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