Carol Shields, the Pulitzer Prize-winner author of the novels Unless, The Stone Diaries and Larry’s Party was also a renowned short story writer. Now readers can enjoy all three of Carol Shields’s short story collections – Various Miracles, The Orange Fish and Dressing Up for the Carnival – in one volume, along with the previously unpublished story, “Segue,” her last.
With an eye for the smallest of telling details – a woman applying her lipstick so “the shape of pale raspberry fits perfectly the face she knows by heart” – and a willingness to explore the most fundamental relationships and the wildest of coincidences, Shields illuminates the absurdities and miracles that grace all our lives. From a couple who experiences a world without weather, to the gentle humor of an elderly widow mowing her lawn while looking back on a life of passion, to a young woman abandoned by love and clinging to a “slender handrail of hope,” Shields’s enormous sympathy for her characters permeates her fiction.
Playful, charming, acutely observed and generous of spirit, this collection of stories will delight and enchant Carol Shields fans everywhere.
Excerpt from The Collected Stories of Carol Shields
Let me say it: I am an aging woman of despairing good cheer — just look into the imaginary camera lens and watch me as I make the Sunday morning transaction over the bread, then the flowers, my straw tote from our recent holiday in Jamaica, my smile, my upturned sixty-seven-year-old voice, a voice so crying-out and clad with familiarity that, in fact, I can’t hear it anymore myself, thank God; my ears are blocked. Lately everything to do with my essence has become transparent, neutral: Good morning, Jane Sexton smiles to one and all (such a friendly, down-to-earth woman). “What a perfect fall day.” “What glorious blooms!” “Why Mr. Henning, this bread is still warm! Can this be true?”
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
Something has occurred to her – something transparently simple, something she’s always known, it seems, but never articulated. Which is that the moment of death occurs while we are still alive. Life marches right up to the wall of that final darkness, one extreme state of being butting against the other. Not even a breath separates them. Not even a blink of the eye. A person can go on and on tuned in to the daily music of food and work and weather and speech right up to the last minute, so that not a single thing gets lost.
—From The Stone Diaries
Something is always saying to me: Be plain. Be clear. But then something else interferes and unjoints my good intentions.
Max and I were out yesterday morning, Sunday, a simple enough errand in our neighborhood. We “sallied forth” to buy a loaf of good seed bread and a potted plant, chrysanthemums in our case, with the smashed little faces that our daughter so admires, that bitter bronze color, matching the tablecloth she was sure to be laying right that moment out there in Oak Park. Eleven o’clock; my husband Max and I would be expected at half past twelve. We always arrive carrying a modest gift of some sort.
There, at the market, stimulated, probably, by the hint of frost in the air, I felt a longing to register the contained, isolated instant we had manufactured and entered, the purchase of the delicious hard-crusted bread, the decision over the potted plant – this was what I wanted to preserve. But an intrusive overview camera (completely imaginary, needless to say) bumped against me, so that instead of feeling the purity of the coins leaving my hand, I found myself watching the two of us, a man and a woman of similar height, both in their middle sixties, both slightly stooped – you’d hardly notice unless you were looking – and dressed in bright colors, making a performance of paying for their rounded and finite loaf of bread and then the burst of rusty chrysanthemums.
Wait a minute. Shouldn’t there be a grandchild in this picture, a little boy or girl staying over with Nana and Poppa in downtown Chicago for the weekend? Well, no, our aging couple has not been so fortunate.
Our Sunday self-consciousness, the little mid-morning circle around Max and me, was bisected by light and dark. The day bloomed into mildness, October 7, one year and one month after the September 11 tragedy – event, spectacle, whatever you choose to call it. Max is a well-known Chicago novelist – he both loves and hates that regional designation – and he was, of course, spotted by other Sunday morning shoppers. That’s Max Sexton. Where? Over there. Really? A little buzz travels with my husband, around him and above him, which, I believe, dishes out the gold dust that keeps him alive. To be noticed, to be recognized. With his white beard, white swifts of soft hair swept backward, his old-fashioned, too-large horn-rimmed spectacles, he is a familiar enough sight in our immediate neighborhood, and – allow me to say – in the national journals too, even to the point that he has been mentioned once or twice in the same breath with the Nobel Prize (as a dark horse, the darkest of horses). Not that we ever speak of this. It does not come up, we forbid it, the two of us. He has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer – we don’t speak of that either.
There we were, yesterday morning, a fine Sunday.
Accompanying the novelist Max Sexton was his wife of forty years – me – whose name is Jane; I had my right arm crooked loosely through the great author’s blue nylon jacket sleeve. Plain Jane. Well, not quite, God be thanked. My very good scarf gives me a certain look, not just its color, but the fact that it was knotted high up on the throat. Jane, the wife, the poet and editor, soon (tomorrow) to become past president of the American Sonnet Society – now known as Sonnet Revival – she with her hair in a smooth white pageboy and her reasonably trim body, c’est moi. Notice the earrings, handmade, Mexican. Wouldn’t you just know! Oh God, yes. Yesterday, at the Andersonville market in Chicago’s near-north side, Jane Sexton was sporting an excellent cashmere poncho-thingamajig, deep rose in color, and well-fitting black pants and expensive boots, which she always keeps nicely polished.
Let me say it: I am an aging woman of despairing good cheer–just look through the imaginary camera lens and watch me as I make the Sunday morning transaction over the bread, then the flowers, my straw tote from our recent holiday in Jamaica, my smile, my upturned sixty-seven-year-old voice, a voice so crying-out and clad with familiarity that, in fact, I can’t hear it anymore myself, thank God; my ears are blocked. Lately everything to do with my essence has become transparent, neutral: Good morning, Jane Sexton smiles to one and all (such a friendly, down-to-earth woman). “What a perfect fall day.” “What glorious blooms!” “Why, Mr. Henning, this bread is still warm! Can this be true?”
Max must surely hear the scattershot of my neighborhood greetings, so fond in their expression and so traditionally patterned, exactly what healthy, seasoned, amiable women learn to say in such chapters of their lives. He has, after so many years, a certain amount of faith in my voice, if nothing else, the voice that he’s married to, but then he doesn’t believe, I suspect, that the mystery of being is as deeply manifest in women as in men. The voice, as he perfectly well knows, is a social projection, an oral accomplishment, something I’ve created and maintained along with my feminine peers. I’m just being merry – that’s how I imagine Max processing my ebullience – I’m being cordial in a way that may be slightly dishonest but that keeps life from bearing down with its solemn weight, keeps it nosing forward, and overrides the worst possible story the day might otherwise offer, his story, that is, which could quickly turn dreary and strangulated without my floating social descant riding overhead on strings of nylon. Oh, do shut up, Jane.
Yes, there we stood: the morning’s excursion to the market, which we managed to stretch out an hour longer than it should have taken, then the taxi to our daughter’s house in Oak Park, her austere three-story brick cube on East Avenue (built 1896) where she lives with her film agent husband, Ivan, with its wide front steps and shrubbery and cement cupids – where we were to have lunch, as usual on Sundays, something hot and savory in the dining room, followed by fresh fruit (on French fruit plates, each one different in design, and accompanied by knives with ceramic handles) and afterward coffee, and then the journey home. Ivan, without a word of complaint, will drive us back to our downtown apartment, silently ferrying his mother-in-law, his father-in-law (he is a man who cannot drive and talk at the same time), eastward through the light Sunday traffic, taking Chicago Avenue as usual. He will actually back his old Packard out of the Oak Park garage, slowly, down the narrow overgrown driveway with its scraping branches, wincing as he hears his beautifully restored car suffering instances of minute damage.
From the Hardcover edition.
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.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
“Segue is, as one would expect, a masterful and engaging piece of writing, and happily it works almost as well as a short story as it would have had circumstances permitted it to be the beginning of a longer, finished project…. With the arrival on the shelves of this handsomely designed and important collection, we her readers can experience once again the privilege of stepping into Carol Shields’s brilliantly rendered, many-faceted world with all its dramatic contrasts of private light and darkness.”
—The Globe and Mail
“A grand gift for a true Shields fan.”
“No writer in the English-speaking world has written more eloquent, witty and graceful sentences than Carol Shields…. If the purpose of fiction is to break up the frozen seas within us, as Kafka once said, spending a few days in the company of Shields’ stories allowed me to re-experience the poignancy of human life and, at the same time, its undeniable comedy, its sensuality and beauty.”
—Susan Swan in The National Post
Praise for Carol Shields's short stories:
"Carol Shields's short stories have given me happiness, not just pleasure. They're prismatic; they delight at first by the clear and simple elegance with which they are made, then there is something so bountiful and surprising, like beautiful broken lights."
"Every story in this collection is a small, glittering masterpiece."
"A radiant gift, a brilliant archive."
—Winnipeg Free Press
"Wry, witty, wise and fiercely intelligent."
—Janette Turner Hospital
"These poignant stories revel in the ordinary, with a few side-trips to the sublime."
"Intelligent, provocative and entertaining."
—The New York Review of Books
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel