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Past BOTM discussions > Unless - Carol Shields - Kelly hosting

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message 1: by Kristel (new)

Kristel (kristelh) | 4256 comments Mod
Unless by Carol Shields published 2002, Man Booker Prize Finalist, Giller Prize Finalist, Governor General's Literary Award Finalist. Thanks to Kelly, our hostess.


Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ... | 894 comments These are DIscussion Questions from the publisher. (I will read this book in the next couple of days and will join the discussion then.)

Goodness:
1. Many definitions for goodness are raised in the novel. Do you think that Reta ever comes to a conclusion about what goodness is? If not, do you think she has realized anything about the nature of goodness?

2. What do you think Norah means when she talks to her mother about not being able to love anyone enough because she loves the world more? Do you think that Reta understands what Norah is saying?

3. How would you characterize Norah's relationship with her mother? How do you feel about Tom and Reta's response to Norah's leaving? Would you describe them as 'good' parents?

4. Why do you think Norah decides to abandon her life and stand on a street corner? What do you think that "goodness" means to her? Does it matter that we never learn why the woman on the Toronto street corner set herself on fire?

Distraction:
5. Why do you think Reta spends so much time thinking about Mrs. McGinn and the envelope she found behind the radiator, even after she realizes that it's just a baby shower invitation? How much of what we know about Norah comes from Reta's imagination?

6. Why do you think it's so important for Reta to buy the perfect scarf for Norah? Do you think the scarf matters?

Men and women:
7. Do you think there's any significance to the fact that Tom and Reta aren't married?

8. Consider the scene when Reta has the theory of relativity explained to her by Colin Glass. Do you think that Reta understands what Colin is saying? How would you describe the nature of Reta's tone in this exchange?

Work:
9. Compare Reta and Danielle Westerman. Name the attributes you do and don't admirein each of them.

10. How serious do you think Reta is about her work? What do you think about the fact that she writes (but does not send) various letters about woman writers not being taken seriously?

11. What's the impact of Reta Winters being introduced through a list of her literary achievements?

Writers writing about writers writing about writers:
12. Are there ever times when you feel like Carol Shields is narrating the book? If so, can you identify particular moments when this happens? Do you consider this mixed narrative style effective? Why or why not?

Silence:
13. Do you have any ideas about why Lois is silent for most of the novel? What do you think about the fact that she basically tells her entire life to Arthur Springer?

14. The novel's epigraph reads: "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrels heartbeat and we should die of that roar that lies on the other side of that silence". What do you think of this quote? Do you think it's an appropriate introduction to the novel?


Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ... | 894 comments My copy is still in transit, but I am here to interact with anyone who is reading.


message 4: by Gail (new)

Gail (gailifer) | 1534 comments I am also just waiting for my name to come to the top of the library check out list


message 5: by Jen (new)

Jen | 1608 comments Mod
I'm probably going to start this one in about a week so will join in the discussion then


message 6: by Dree (new)

Dree | 243 comments I have a copy but this is 3rd in line in my July 1001 books stack!


message 7: by Diane (new)

Diane  | 2051 comments The questions are a bit much. I will ponder them and come back later.

Rating: 4 Stars

It took me a while to warm up to this one. I realized that authors writing about characters who are also authors bores me. Also, the events in the beginning seemed a bit disjointed and random. This changed however, and these seemingly unconnected bits became cohesive. It is interesting to note that Shields was experiencing some grieving of her own in real life, as she was coming to terms with potentially dying from breast cancer (she died shortly after the book was published). This real life grief I am sure helped to make the grief in the book more believable. This is a great example (for me) of how a book I didn't care for in the beginning developed into one I ended up liking a lot.


Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ... | 894 comments Diane wrote: "The questions are a bit much. I will ponder them and come back later.

Rating: 4 Stars

It took me a while to warm up to this one. I realized that authors writing about characters who are also auth..."


Sorry Diane. I found the questions from the Publisher. Just go at them in whatever way you want.


message 9: by Diane (new)

Diane  | 2051 comments Kelly wrote: "Diane wrote: "The questions are a bit much. I will ponder them and come back later.

Rating: 4 Stars

It took me a while to warm up to this one. I realized that authors writing about characters who..."


No apologies! I'm just too lazy to tackle them right now. ;)


message 10: by Gail (new)

Gail (gailifer) | 1534 comments I finished Unless and am inconclusive about my rating. I think I will wait a bit to decide. Definitely at least a 4 star for me but maybe only a 4 star. It is a very unique little book tackling a large subject through a small lens. The main character Reta even talks about miniaturization in the context of women painters as a way of characterizing how history has seen women's artistic achievements. The book balances in a very interesting way the terror of not having control over a huge life changing event and the day to day life one lives regardless of the terror, all in a sweet charming way that is not embarrassed to be sweet and charming. It isn't even embarrassed to have a completely satirical encounter with a publishing editor in the middle of the terror. I am not sure Shields actually pulled this satire off. It was a bit much but it did offset the drama and worked to move the narration ahead.

I am only answering #12 for now. Will get back to the other questions a bit later.

Writers writing about writers writing about writers:
12. Are there ever times when you feel like Carol Shields is narrating the book? If so, can you identify particular moments when this happens? Do you consider this mixed narrative style effective? Why or why not?

Yes, there are times when it sounds as if Carol Shields is talking about a review of one of her other books. There are times when Unless is a book about a writer (Carol Shields the author of "women's books") who is writing about an author (Reta or Danielle Westerman representing light comedy and hard core academic feminism respectively) who are writing about writers. Reta is writing about a fashion writer and Danielle about herself in her memoirs in which she has edited out anything that happened to her before she was 18. In this layered way, I think the book is able to seem deceptively simple while being amazingly complex without ever being difficult to read or understand. I thought it was an effective.


message 11: by Tatjana (new)

Tatjana JP | 294 comments I read the book two weeks ago and will try to answer some of the questions.

Goodness:
1. Reta is trying to find answer to goodness, because of Norah, but is unable. Maybe she is not able to understand her daughter motives to live on the street in the same way as her message to people.
3. I cannot say whether Tom and Reta are good or bad in handling the situation with their daughter - but I think that they did their best, letting her stay but don't letting her go.
4. and 5 and 6. Norah's decision is still unclear to me. Maybe she couldn't handle what happened on the street, maybe she wanted her parents attention, maybe that was the result of her relationship with her mother, who never bothered to ask "tell me everything about yourself" her daughter, her mother in law. Reta seems to me so focused on form, but not the essence - cleaning the house, thinking what Danielle is thinking, cooking, buying perfect scarf...
10 and 11. Reta is all the time focused on her work, but I don't think that she is truly believing in herself. She adores Danielle, understands her novels and characters to be "easy read" unlike Atwood, for example. Still, she is insisting all the time on her fiction character, like being substitute for her empty life.
What I like the best was the title and this introduction of unless - "unless you're lucky, unless you're healthy, unless you're loved...".
Unless is the shadow of the mind - which for me is the heart of this novel.
Overall, my rating would be 3 stars.


message 12: by Gail (new)

Gail (gailifer) | 1534 comments This is helpful to me Tatiana. Thank you.
In answer to #1 question, reflecting your insights, Reta is trying to understand the form of goodness, what one does, how one acts and her daughter is just “being” good in her own quiet passive way. Perhaps Norah understands the essence better than her mother. However, I don’t think that Reta ever comes to understand what goodness is, one can be demonstrating good without doing it out of the goodness of one’s heart. She is always questioning in her mind but, as you reflect, she doesn’t voice the questions to others because it would break some important silent constraints that she needs to hold herself together.


message 13: by Tatjana (new)

Tatjana JP | 294 comments Gail wrote: "This is helpful to me Tatiana. Thank you.
In answer to #1 question, reflecting your insights, Reta is trying to understand the form of goodness, what one does, how one acts and her daughter is just..."


Yes, thank you Gail. It is true that Norah is more aware of what really matters than her mother. At the end Reta is the most superficial person of all, thinking of herself instead of others, including her daughter. The most striking to me was this "cleaning of the house all the time" attitude, instead of true conversation with anybody...


message 14: by Gail (new)

Gail (gailifer) | 1534 comments 2. What do you think Norah means when she talks to her mother about not being able to love anyone enough because she loves the world more? Do you think that Reta understands what Norah is saying?

I do think that Reta does grasp a bit of what Norah is saying but because her own internal dialogue often strays to larger issues and not being able to comprehend the world, especially when young, while she does smaller things such as obsessing about her characters in her book and cleaning the house. I think Norah believes that loving one person or one small subset of people is a very pitiful exercise when set against the amount of beauty and horror there is in the world.

3. How would you characterize Norah's relationship with her mother? How do you feel about Tom and Reta's response to Norah's leaving? Would you describe them as 'good' parents?

I would think that most parents would react more actively to this situation and drag her off the streets. Would that have been better for Norah? For the character in this book you get the feeling that it would not have made anything better to do that. They do seem like they are good parents, constantly watching, worrying and attempting to take care of their daughter while also allowing Norah to do what she feels like she has to do.

4. Why do you think Norah decides to abandon her life and stand on a street corner? What do you think that "goodness" means to her? Does it matter that we never learn why the woman on the Toronto street corner set herself on fire?

No, it is not important why the woman on the street corner sets herself on fire for the book. I think it is just meant to be the horrific trigger for Norah to have to shut down and regroup in the middle of the flow of humanity and just be.

5. Why do you think Reta spends so much time thinking about Mrs. McGinn and the envelope she found behind the radiator, even after she realizes that it's just a baby shower invitation? How much of what we know about Norah comes from Reta's imagination?

I think the invitation represents what we can not know about another person and how even the tiny details of a life viewed from the outside can be meaningful to the person living that life. Of course, in this book, it is all inverted because we don't know Mrs. McGinn, we only have Reta making up a inner life for her the way she makes up the inner life of her characters.

6. Why do you think it's so important for Reta to buy the perfect scarf for Norah? Do you think the scarf matters?

Reta wants the scarf to represent her understanding of Norah's needs and desires. Giving a small gift that a person really wants is a way to tell that person that they truly see them. However, when she ends up giving it away to her friend, Reta turns it into nothing in her mind, so I was left thinking that the beautiful scarf had little to do with Norah and a lot to do with Reta.

Jumping down to #13

13. Do you have any ideas about why Lois is silent for most of the novel? What do you think about the fact that she basically tells her entire life to Arthur Springer?

I think the novel plays with the nature of inner voices and the voice of characters within characters. As Tatjana reflects above, Reta's inner voice tends to be totally self absorbed. No one asks Lois about her life because they have been living with her or next door to her so long they assume they know it. Even with Reta's other children we are given little about what they are going through internally. Reta just says that their attempting to live a normal life (in order to keep their parent's life somewhat normal), is all a "bluff". When asked Lois unleashes a torrent of facts about her life to the relative safety of a stranger.


message 15: by Kristel (new)

Kristel (kristelh) | 4256 comments Mod
I've started the book; I haven't or am unable to really respond to the questions yet but have been doing some initial responding.

Reta seems a person who really has very little awareness of herself. We are really only privy to Reta's thoughts as Reta is the POV. Reta slowly reveals bits and pieces of what is going on. Even the continuity of the story is questionable as this is stream of conscious (soc). Like most first person narrations the narrator is unreliable. A bit of insight is revealed when Reta discusses finding the cigarette in her daughter Christine's pocket and gives her the lecture about how hard she (Reta) worked to give her daughter the best environment. Christine responds with a statement that she understood why Norah left.

The bit about marriage. It is almost as if Reta feels Tom is the reason they never married. That he is the one trying so hard to be anti-establishment. pg 72. "he lives the life of a married mad but balks at the idea of a marriage ceremony".


Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ... | 894 comments I am so sorry that I haven't been as active as I would have liked. My library has not obtained a copy for me!


message 17: by Dree (new)

Dree | 243 comments Here is my review:
[quick summary not needed here]

It took me a long time to get into this book. It's choppy and vague, stilted and disjointed. But that is also Reta's life--worried about too many things, trying to hold it all together and support her other two teen daughters. Wondering where she and Tom went wrong, or if there is mental illness involved, or if the problems of being a woman in the world (ignored, talked over, seen as and valued as less) are just too much for Norah. Or is Reta projecting her own frustrations?
----
I want to address my last sentence in that review, but I am afraid of introducing spoilers. I'm not sure what question it is related to, if any.

But oh the scarf!! I was so mad she let the scarf go. I think that story was there because it reflects Reta's guilt in what she did wrong in raising Norah (as she sees it before finding out what's really going on). As though she felt Norah would not have dropped out of school and be living in a hostel if she, Reta, had given her the perfect scarf.


message 18: by Kristel (last edited Jul 30, 2018 04:48AM) (new)

Kristel (kristelh) | 4256 comments Mod
I finished Unless last night. I liked the book a lot.
I think the book is interesting and like books where the person is writing about writing which I think Shield’s does in this book but she is also writing about being a woman ina world dominated by men.
In this book we have Tom. He really does seems to just be the husband of Reta and they have 3 girls but then we find that they are not married because that is the way Tom wanted it.
Reta uses writing of her book as a distraction. Tom uses his Trilabita as his distraction. The girls just go visit and spend time but have their own lives too.
In Reta’s writing of her comic fantasy, light fiction, and her friendship with Danielle Westerman, we have an insight into the inner thoughts of Reta and Reta’s exploration of her feminism.

I think the book is purposely choppy as it is reflecting the anguish of Reta over her daughter Norah. Her inner life is revolving around the duaghter’s disappearance and ending up on a street corner with a sign that says GOODNESS. I think when life hands a person something like this, the thought life takes over. I think Reta is at first blaming self and probably always will blames self because early on she said she wished she would have “listened” when Norah came home and was trying to talk with her mother. A lot of this book is about “listening”. The epilogue by Eliot talks about hearing grass grow, squirrel hearts beat and the roar on the other side of silence. Reta silent when Gwen takes the scarf that she bought for Norah (do we let others steal from us what we need to give to our children), the silence of Danielle about her early childhood (Reta never asks), the fact that the new editor never listens to Reta and is always cutting her off. So I think the book is about writing, relationships, feminism’s but it is most about silence. The silence of writing (that quiet activity filled with so much noise), the silence of relationships (holding hands walking, sitting beside), the silence of unsent letters, the silence of women being constantly omitted or talked over. Love Shield’s writing. 4.3 stars


Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ... | 894 comments I am so bummed to have missed out! My library still shows it as "in transit". I think it is lost.


message 20: by Chinook (new)

Chinook | 282 comments So, I think I took a slightly different view to many others. I didn’t think that Norah had any idea of what goodness is. Begging on the street, withdrawing from family and friends - this struck me as more of a mental health issue that came from trauma, perhaps even some PTSD, not any actual goodness. I think she was so traumatized that she shut down.

I didn’t see Reta as being self-involved or anything because of her active imaginative life. I just read that as her being a bit of an introvert, perhaps, and creative.

The scarf I thought was imagery of a mother trying, rushing around, searching desperately for what her child needs from her. And her analysis of Norah as someone who doesn’t really demand from others what she needs, easily satisfied etc seemed to me to be her inability to see how to fix that problem.

I really liked the emphasis on women writers overlooked as it went on and I thought that while she wouldn’t come out and say it, she was starting to value her own work as being just as important as her translations when she kept focusing on one over the other. I think in her early career she was overawed by the serious author, who became her mentor and mother figure and she was growing in her own confidence as time went on.

The MIL who is quiet and doesn’t get much attention, I thought that was sort of addressing that we can often overlook the older people around us, especially older women.


message 21: by Kristel (new)

Kristel (kristelh) | 4256 comments Mod
Chinook wrote: "So, I think I took a slightly different view to many others. I didn’t think that Norah had any idea of what goodness is. Begging on the street, withdrawing from family and friends - this struck me ..."
I like your review. Very good observations.


message 22: by Book (new)

Book Wormy | 2078 comments Mod
Only a few months late but here we go....

Goodness:
1. I think she realises the goodness is a concept that has different meanings to different people there is no one standard you can apply to goodness.

2.I think Norah is saying there is so much going on how can you limit yourself to one person or one place. Reta who has essentially limited herself to her family & Orangetown can't really relate but she understands that Norah wants more.

3. I think they have a good relationship it is Reta that Norah turns to when she wants to give up university and embrace the world. Events do change this relationship but I think that is because Norah suffers a trauma and has some form of breakdown. Tom & Reta are good parents they hold things together for their remaining daughters while making sure from a distance that Norah is safe.

4. Why is this question phrased as standing on a street corner when she is actually sitting most of the time? Oversight by the publisher? My interpretation is Norah is punishing herself for not saving the burning woman, she tried what she thought was right and ending up hurting herself. The fact she is giving all her money away shows that she is trying to make amends by helping those who are genuinely worse of than herself. The fact we don't why the woman sets herself on fire means the reader can read what they want into the action.


message 23: by Book (new)

Book Wormy | 2078 comments Mod
Distraction:
5. Reta is a writer and imagining lives for other people is what she does. I love the story she makes up about how not being invited to the baby shower will affect Mrs McGinn. Reta provides her own reasons for what Norah is doing normally through her protest letters. Everything we know about everyone in the story is from Reta's imagination as she is the only one who speaks to us.

6. The scarf is symbolic she wants to give Norah something that will make her realise how special she is and that she doesn't just have to settle for being given things that are just ok.


message 24: by Book (new)

Book Wormy | 2078 comments Mod
Men and women:
7. Not really they are in a loving relationship that has lasted longer that a lot of marriages do, it shows they are confident and happy that they don't need to justify their relationship.

8. No Reta doesn't understand what he is telling her but she wants to. Reta is self depreciating by admitting that there are things she doesn't understand I think it could also be an example of mansplaining.


message 25: by Book (new)

Book Wormy | 2078 comments Mod
Work:
9. I would say there is not anything I don't admire in either of them, they are both hardworking, both putting themselves on public view for criticism or praise, both have a passion for what they are doing.

10. I think Reta sees her writing as a hobby but her translations as work, she takes both seriously but balances that with her own "real life" I love the letters she doesn't send they make valid points and her reason for not sending them is also valid she would open herself up for attack from those who don't agree and it is possible the oversights are not deliberate.

11. The reader sees her as a woman with a successful career first and then as a person second.


message 26: by Book (new)

Book Wormy | 2078 comments Mod
Writers writing about writers writing about writers:
12. I loved the mixed narrative style and with every book you read the writer is hidden in there somewhere with their opinions of turn of phrase.

Silence:
13. Lois is being silent because she knows the truth about Norah but doesn't know how to break it to the family. Arthur is an interested stranger and it can be easier to speak to someone you are unlikely to see again than someone you see everyday.

14. This quote basically explains Norah and how she feels so yes it is appropriate.

I really enjoyed this powerful story and would rate it 4 stars. I enjoyed the switching narrative technique and I really felt connected to Reta which is good as she is the soul of the novel.


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