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Small Ceremonies
     

Small Ceremonies

3.0 1
by Carol Shields
 

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What is the matter with me, I wonder. Why am I always the one who watches?

Judith Gill lives with her husband, son, and daughter in a nice house in the suburbs of Ontario. She has carved out a niche as a respected biographer. Her universe is shaped and bounded by the lives around her, from her family to the subjects of her books. She finds

Overview

What is the matter with me, I wonder. Why am I always the one who watches?

Judith Gill lives with her husband, son, and daughter in a nice house in the suburbs of Ontario. She has carved out a niche as a respected biographer. Her universe is shaped and bounded by the lives around her, from her family to the subjects of her books. She finds herself in the background of her life, but she hungers to tell stories of her own. In this witty, nuanced novel about art, life, love, and fiction, Carol Shields reveals Judith to readers and to herself—a woman with bold emotions, powerful instincts, and a knack for observing the small ceremonies that give our lives meaning.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a writer, this is the book to read.” —Women’s Journal

“A deft and tightly woven book . . . a delight.” —The Times (London)

“Simply stunning . . . a modern classic.” —Literary Review

“Fascinating reading.” —Good Housekeeping

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781480459564
Publisher:
Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date:
12/17/2013
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
210
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

September

Sunday night. And the thought strikes me that I ought to be happier than I am.

We have high tea on Sunday, very Englishy, the four of us gathered in the dining ell of our cream-coloured living room at half-past five for cold pressed ham, a platter of tomatoes and sliced radishes. Slivers of hardboiled egg. A plate of pickles.

The salad vegetables vary with the season. In the summer they're larger and more varied, cut into thick peasant slices and drenched with vinegar and oil. And in the winter, in the pale Ontario winter, they are thin, watery, and tasteless, though their exotic pallor gives them a patrician presence. Now, since it is September, we are eating tomatoes from our own suburban garden, brilliant red under a scatter of parsley. Delicious, we all agree.

"Don't we have any mustard?" my husband Martin asks. He is an affectionate and forgetful man, and on weekends made awkward by leisure.

"We're all out," I tell him, "but there's chutney. And a little of that green relish."

"Never mind, Judith. It doesn't matter."

"I'll get the chutney for you," Meredith offers.

"No, really. It doesn't matter."

"Well, I'd like some," Richard says.

"In that case you can just go and get it yourself," Meredith tells him. She is sixteen; he is twelve. The bitterness between them is variable but always present.

Meredith makes a sweep for the basket in the middle of the table. "Oh," she says happily, "fresh rolls."

"I like garlic bread better," Richard says. He is sour with love and cannot, will not, be civil.

"We had that last Sunday," Meredith says, helping herself to butter. Always methodical, shekeeps track of small ceremonies.

For us, Sunday high tea is a fairly recent ceremony, a ritual brought back from England where we spent Martin's sabbatical year. We are infected, all four of us, with a surrealistic nostalgia for our cold, filthy flat in Birmingham, actually homesick for fog and made edgy by the thought of swerving red buses.

And high tea. A strange hybrid meal, a curiosity at first, it was what we were most often invited out to during our year in England. We visited Martin's colleagues far out in the endless bricked-up suburbs, and drank cups and cups of milky tea and ate ham and cold beef, so thin on the platter it looked almost spiritual. the chirpy wives and their tranquil pipe-sucking husbands, acting out of some irrational good will, drew us into cozy sitting rooms hung with water colours, rows of Penguins framing the gasfires, night pressing in at the windows, so that snugness made us peaceful and generous. Always afterward, driving back to the flat in our little green Austin, we spoke to each other with unaccustomed charity, Martin humming and Meredith exclaiming again and again from the back seat how lovely the Blackstones were and wasn't she, Mrs. Blackstone, a pet.

So we carry on the high tea ritual. But we've never managed to capture that essential shut-in coziness, that safe-from-the-storm solidarity. We fly off in midair. Our house, perhaps, is too open, too airy, and then again we are not the same people we were then; but still we persist.

After lemon cake and ice cream, we move into the family room to watch television. September is the real beginning of the year; even the media know, for the new fall television series are beginning this week.

I know it is the the beginning because I feel the wall of energy, which I have allowed to soften with the mercury, toughen up. Get moving, Judith, it says. Martin knows it. All children know it. The first of January is bogus, frosty hung-over weather, a red herring in mindless snow. Winter is the middle of the year; spring the finale, and summer is free; in this climate, at least, summer is a special dispensation; a wave of weather, timeless and tax-free, when heat piles up in corners, sending us sandalled and half-bare to improbable beaches.

September is the real beginning and, settling into our favourite places, Martin and I on the sofa, Meredith in the old yellow chair and Richard stretched on the rug, we sit back to see what's new.

Six-thirty. A nature program is beginning, something called "This Feathered World." The life cycle of a bird is painstakingly described; eggs crack open emitting wet, untidy wings and feet; background music swells. There are fantastic migrations and speeds beyond imagining. Nesting and courtship practices are performed. Two storks are seen clacking their beaks together, bang, slash, bang, deranged in their private frenzy. Richard wants to know what they are doing.

"Courting." Martin explains shortly.

"What's that?" Richard asks. Surely he knows, I think.

"Getting acquainted," Martin answers. "Now be quiet and watch."

We see an insane rush of feathers. A windmill of wings. A beating of air.

"Was that it?" Richard asks. "That was courting?"

"Idiot," Meredith addresses him. "And I can't see. Will you kindly remove your feet, Richard."

"It's a dumb program anyway," Richard says and, rolling his head back, he awaits confirmation.

"It's beautifully done, for your information," Meredith tells him. She sits forward, groaning at the beauty of the birds' outstretched wings.

A man appears on the screen, extraordinarily intense, speaking in a low voice about ecology and the doomed species. He is leaning over, and his hands, very gentle, very sensitive, attach a slender identification tag to the leg of a tiny bird. the bird shudders in his hand, and unexpectedly its ruby throat puffs up to make an improbably balloon. "I'd like to stick a pin in that," Richard murmurs softly.

The man talks quietly all the time he strokes the little bird. This species is rare, he explains, and becoming more rare each year. It is a bird of fixed habits, he tells us; each year if finds a new mate.

Martin, his arm loose around my shoulder, scratches my neck. I lean back into a nest of corduroy. A muscle somewhere inside me tightens. Why?

Every year a new mate; it is beyond imagining. New feathers to rustle, new beaks to bang, new dense twiggy nests to construct and agree upon. But then birds are different from human beings, less individual. Scared little bundles of bones with instinct blurring their small differences; for all their clever facility they are really rather stupid things.

I can hear Meredith breathing from her perch on the yellow chair. She has drawn up her knees and is sitting with her arms circled round them. I can see the delicate arch of her neck. "Beautiful. Beautiful," she says.

I look at Martin, at his biscuity hair and slightly sandy skin, and it strikes me that he is no longer a young man. Martin Gill. Doctor Gill. Associate Professor of English, a Milton specialist. He is not, in fact, in any of the categories normally set aside for the young intellectual or a young professor or a young socialist or a young father.

And we, I notice with a lazy loop of alarm, we are no longer what is called a young couple.

Meet the Author

Born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1935, Carol Shields moved to Canada at the age of twenty-two, after studying at the University of Exeter in England, and then obtained her M.A. at the University of Ottawa. She started publishing poetry in her thirties, and wrote her first novel, Small Ceremonies, in 1976. Over the next three decades, Shields would become the author of over twenty books, including plays, poetry, essays, short fiction, novels, a book of criticism on Susanna Moodie and a biography of Jane Austen. Her work has been translated into twenty-two languages.

In addition to her writing, Carol Shields worked as an academic, teaching at the University of Ottawa, the University of British Columbia and the University of Manitoba. In 1996, she became chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. She lived for fifteen years in Winnipeg and often used it as a backdrop to her fiction, perhaps most notably in Republic of Love. Shields also raised five children — a son and four daughters — with her husband Don, and often spoke of juggling early motherhood with her nascent writing career. When asked in one interview whether being a mother changed her as a writer, she replied, “Oh, completely. I couldn’t have been a novelist without being a mother. It gives you a unique witness point of the growth of personality. It was a kind of biological component for me that had to come first. And my children give me this other window on the world.”

The Stone Diaries, her fictional biography of Daisy Goodwill, a woman who drifts through her life as child, wife, mother and widow, bewildered by her inability to understand any of these roles, received excellent reviews. The book won a Governor General’s Literary Award and a Pulitzer Prize, and was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, bringing Shields an international following. Her novel Swann was made into a film (1996), as was The Republic of Love (2003; directed by Deepa Mehta). Larry’s Party, published in several countries and adapted into a musical stage play, won England’s Orange Prize, given to the best book by a woman writer in the English-speaking world. And Shields’s final novel, Unless, was shortlisted for the Booker, Orange and Giller prizes and the Governor General’s Literary Award, and won the Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction.

Shields’s novels are shrewdly observed portrayals of everyday life. Reviewers praised her for exploring such universal themes as loneliness and lost opportunities, though she also celebrated the beauty and small rewards that are so often central to our happiness yet missing from our fiction. In an eloquent afterword to Dropped Threads, Shields says her own experience taught her that life is not a mountain to be climbed, but more like a novel with a series of chapters.

Carol Shields was always passionate about biography, both in her writing and her reading, and in 2001 she published a biography of Jane Austen. For Shields, Austen was among the greatest of novelists and served as a model: “Jane Austen has figured out the strategies of fiction for us and made them plain.” In 2002, Jane Austen won the coveted Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction. A similar biographical impulse lay behind the two Dropped Threads anthologies Carol Shields edited with Marjorie Anderson; their contributors were encouraged to write about those experiences that women are normally not able to talk about. “Our feeling was that women are so busy protecting themselves and other people that they still feel they have to keep quiet about some subjects,” Shields explained in an interview.

Shields spoke often of redeeming the lives of people by recording them in her own works, “especially that group of women who came between the two great women's movements…. I think those women’s lives were often thought of as worthless because they only kept house and played bridge. But I think they had value.”

In 1998, Shields was diagnosed with breast cancer. Speaking on her illness, Shields once said, “It’s made me value time in a way that I suppose I hadn’t before. I’m spending my time listening, listening to what's going around, what's happening around me instead of trying to get it all down.” In 2000, Shields and her husband Don moved from Winnipeg to Victoria, where they lived until her passing on July 16, 2003, from complications of breast cancer, at age 68.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Date of Birth:
June 2, 1935
Date of Death:
July 16, 2003
Place of Birth:
Oak Park, Illinois
Place of Death:
Toronto, Canada
Education:
B.A., Hanover College, Indiana; M.A. (English), Ottawa University, 1975
Website:
http://www.carolshields.com

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Small Ceremonies 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The excessive details tend to drift the reader off into a direction the author might not have intended. Though the writing is excellent, when the book is looked at as a whole, there isn't anything greatly fascinating about it. Judith Gill's character isn't anything extraordinary - just another woman in need of therapy in a short, no target storyline. It was a somewhat satisfactory read, though Shield's following work is much better delivered.