My Year of Carol Shields in 2015

I borrowed More Writers & Company by Eleanor Wachtel, a book of essays & radio interviews from my library the other day, because it contained an interview with Carol Shields. I love Carol Shields’ writing, I’ve read all her novels & a lot of her short stories & the interview reminded me of the joy that I’ve had over the years from reading her books. I then realised that next year, 2015, would have been her 80th birthday.

It may be a little early to be making plan for next year but, I’ve decided that in 2015, I will reread all her books in order, from her first novel, Small Ceremonies, to her last, Unless. I own most of the novels as you can see & I rescued a copy of the Collected Stories from a booksale a few years ago. I’ve bought copies of Larry’s Party & A Celibate Season, which I’ve read but didn’t own, as well as Random Illuminations, a book of interviews with Shields by Eleanor Wachtel & a secondhand copy of A Memoir of Friendship : Letters between Carol Shields & Blanche Howard (the co-author of A Celibate Season).

Imagine how pleased I was when my copy of A Memoir of Friendship arrived on Friday. Not only was it in pristine condition, it was signed by the editors.

My reading tastes have been changing lately, or I should say, refining. I’ve been reading a lot more early-mid 20th century fiction (D E Stevenson, Nevil Shute) as well as 19th century writers like Trollope & the books chosen for my 19th century bookgroup. I’m finding that I’m just not interested in a lot of the contemporary writers I used to read. I’ve reserved so many of their new books through habit but taken them back to the library unread because I wasn’t in the mood. Maybe I’m also realising that I can’t possibly read everything so it’s probably best to concentrate on the books I really want to read rather than just the latest book in a series I’ve always read.

I think of Carol Shields as a writer who inherits & continues the traditions of those 19th & early 20th century writers. Her concerns are often domestic & concentrate on the everyday occurrences in her characters’ lives. This is a quote from More Writers & Company about the love story in Shields’ work,

In that novel (The Republic of Love) I was interested in what had happened to the whole idea of the love story, the great seizure of passion, the story we read from the nineteenth century. Something has happened to the love story; it’s become a little bit flabby in our century. It’s been done to death by pop-song lyrics, greeting card verse and the cynicism that’s collected along the way. Nevertheless, I still think it’s the thing that distinguishes a human life. I think it’s what makes us larger than we are, it makes us better than we are. It’s everlastingly mysterious.

 I love the themes & characters of her novels from Judith, the biographer in Small Ceremonies, to the multiple narrators, each with their own interest in a forgotten writer in Mary Swann, to my favourite of her novels, The Republic of Love, a glorious love story that takes in subjects from radio to mermaids. Some of her books (like these three) I’ve read several times. Others, I’ve only read once. Most of all, I love her humour. Her novels are wry & funny & poignant & I can’t wait to read them again.

I was lucky enough to hear Carol Shields speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival in 1993. As you can see, she signed my copy of The Stone Diaries, which funnily enough, has always been my least favourite of her novels. It was the book that won the Pulitzer Prize, so I’m looking forward to reading it again & discover what I missed the first time, especially after reading this in the interview with Eleanor Wachtel in More Writers & Company.

I have to tell you that, like most writers, I find writing hard work and what I love is having written rather than the actual writing. But I loved writing this book (The Stone Diaries). I never wrote anything with greater happiness. It seemed to me it was about something important and it seemed to be going well, and I gave myself permission to do just what you’re mentioning, to have a little fun, and to recognize the fact that tghe novel form – my favourite form, my chosen form – is a lot roomier than I’d ever thought. In fact, you can put anything in it, you can stretch it in any direction you like, and more or less get away with it.

It was also at that Festival talk that Shields spoke so movingly of the experience of reading Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Journals which sent me off on another reading trail so it was an unforgettable day. Sue Hepworth, author of But I Told You Last Year That I Loved YouPlotting for Beginners & Plotting for Grown-Ups, blogged about Carol Shields just the other day. Have a look at her post here about the lovely postcard she received from Shields when she wrote her a fan letter.

I don’t have any strict plan for the year. I’ll post a list of titles at the beginning of the year if anyone would like to read along & the books will appear On My Reading Table (on the right >>>) as I’m reading them if anyone wants to read along. I think it will be fun & I’m looking forward to reading more about Carol Shields as well as reading her books again.

There’s more information about Carol Shields at the website of the Carol Shields Literary Trust.

9 thoughts on “My Year of Carol Shields in 2015

  1. I noticed the reference to Carol Shields over at Sue Hepworth's and now here with you too..and I realised that I
    read her novels as a very young woman. Time for a return visit indeed…

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  2. Oh, what a delightful project! I am also a huge Carol Shields fan. I've read all of her books, some of them not once but several times. I've just read “Happenstance” for the second time. Shields' novels can be re-read again and again, I find. Every time her stories come to an end, I feel a little saddened. I do not want to leave her characters behind. I crave for more writing of this kind – the kind that is optimistic without being daft, which leads you so close to its “characters”, who are really just you & me. Alice Munro gives me a similar sense of belonging and well-being – which is the closest I can come to describe my feelings. Also, though differently, “The Summer without Men” by Siri Hustvedt. Can you recommend any other authors who remind you of Carol Shields? I would really appreciate your input! Thank you in advance. Jasmin

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  3. Jasmin, I don't read a lot of contemporary fiction any more so I'm not sure who to suggest. Joanna Trollope is very good but doesn't have as much humour. Barbara Pym has the humour & she's also someone I can reread. Have you read Helen Simpson? She's a short story writer who has some of the same qualities.

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