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The World of Carol Shields
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The World of Carol Shields

By kerryclare
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Books by, about, and evocative of Carol Shields and her literary universe.
Random Illuminations

Random Illuminations

Conversations with Carol Shields
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : literary
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Why it's on the list ...
Wonderful book of interviews and essays by Eleanor Wachtel, who was fortunate enough to call Shields a friend.
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Dropped Threads

Dropped Threads

What We Aren't Told
edition:Paperback
tagged : women
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Excerpt

Foreword

The focus for this anthology floated out one day amid soup and salad at one of those gatherings where Carol and I take the emotional pulse of our worlds – or The World, it seems to us.

“The woman’s network let me down. Nothing I’ve ever heard or read prepared me for this!” This particular yelp resulted from the plummet of energy and purpose I experienced with menopause and quickly led us to wider, more lively musings on what else had caught us unprepared, where else we had experienced gaps between female experience and expression. We were surprised by the number of topics and by the ease with which they came to mind. The image of dropped threads from the fabric of women’s talk occurred to us and the familiar, satisfying assumption that women could talk about anything unravelled as we spoke.

We included other women in our speculations: friends, colleagues and family members took up the conversation with enthusiasm and immediate revelations as though, for some, the topic was one they had wanted to discuss for years. They identified gaps in their communal talk and named life-altering surprises in their individual lives. Most spoke of serious issues, of surprise bruisings or blessings, private moments of intense connection or bewilderment. Other women reported insights that bordered on the hilarious: one friend mentioned that her greatest surprise was “sagging earlobes” and another claimed it was “a husband who flosses his teeth in front of you and then expects passion in bed.”
The idea for an anthology of writings on the topic blossomed naturally. We had obviously tapped into a rich vein of stories that touched on defining moments in women’s lives. We invited a number of acquaintances and friends to write these stories, the ones they wanted and needed to tell, recognizing, of course, there would be private spaces that everyone needs to keep beyond the claim of words. We thought women writers would have interesting observations: what subjects hadn’t they written about that needed communal airing? We also asked women of other backgrounds, academics, ranchers, politicians, homemakers, journalists, lawyers, to identify the areas of surprise and silence in their lives.

The responses were immediate and the topics wide-ranging: everything from the joys of belly dancing to the shock of gender inequities in politics. There seemed to be a general embracing of the license implicit in our invitation, but also some reticence: more than one respondant commented on the courage it would take to write on personal issues that had long been beyond the limits of acceptable expression. A few women identified experiences which they could not write on because the pain was too new or the fear of judgment still too strong. What was particularly satisfying to us was that we were contacted by women who had heard of our venture and wanted their stories included. One of these surprise offerings is among the most powerful of the anthology.

The collection of thirty-four reflective pieces is the end result of those conversations and connections started back in the spring of 1999. Many of the voices will be familiar to readers; others will be new. Some are forthright and take the reader to the heart of intense experience. Others approach distinctly personal moments with caution and then veer away, as though the walls around the silences they’ve been keeping are impenetrable. What unites all these writings is the uncommon honesty, courage and acuity of emotion these women bring to their topics – and to us.

They tell us that once life slows down enough for reflection, women uncover truths several beats away from the expected and the promised: female friendships are often more central in our lives than those we have with men and children; what we are told can be as limiting as what is never spoken; and vanity, dominance and blasts of lust that break though marriage and age barriers can be good things. From those who document the private contours of grief and shame, we learn about survival instincts and minute-by-minute coping strategies that rise up and guide people to new spaces of accommodation. Other women point to the individual colourings of common human happenings: spiritual stirrings, aging and the discovery of fundamental gender inequities continue to catch women unprepared because these experiences can never be the same for any two people.

What the stories and the essays indicate about the variety and uniqueness in women’s lives is visually reinforced by the Vinarterta Lady sketch on the cover. This stylized woman speaks to the rich rhythms and shadings of our moods and approaches to life. As well, there is a mystery about this sketch that reminds us of the impossibility of capturing in any medium of expression all of what we are and what we experience. There are still blank spaces before us, and women are still asking, as one of our young contributors does, “What shall I tell my daughter?” When we scan through the topics that even this collection has skipped over – mother-daughter relationships, lesbian experiences, life without partners or children, to mention some, we realize that women’s conversational weaving will forever be a work in progress.

In the meantime we’re reminded not to forget the joys and potential growth from the uncharted. In the afterword Carol Shields writes a characteristically wise, gentle unfolding of the central theme as it relates to her personally. She tells of meeting the “surprises of self-discovery” with “gratitude” and then nudges the reader into embracing the unexpected: “Who isn’t renewed by startling scenery or refreshed by undreamed-of freedoms? Surprise keeps us alive, liberates our senses.”

Our wish is that this anthology will be liberating for readers. It offers a community of voices that are relevant to everyone, not just women, because the experiences recounted are ultimately those that give us our jagged human dimensions of joy and sorrow. We hope readers of all ages and backgrounds will be inspired by how the contributors answered the initial question we posed and will be drawn to examine their own crevices of surprise and silence.

Marjorie Anderson
July 2000

Afterword

I was twenty-one years old, and standing in line to receive my Bachelor of Arts diploma from Hanover College. Major in English, minor in history. It was June, and the temperature was 97 degrees Fahrenheit. Under our black academic gowns my girlfriends and I wore, by previous agreement, nothing. Nothing at all. This was considered high daring in those days, 1957. The night before, seven or eight of us had gathered in the woods above the campus and conducted a ritual burning of our saddle shoes. We were utterly ignorant of what lay ahead of us, but imbued, for some reason, with a nose-thumbing rejection of the suffocating shell of convention that enclosed us.
And yet most of us were prepared to inhabit that safe place our parents had defined for us. We married the same summer we graduated, joined our lives with men no older than we were, and within a year we were buying houses, having babies and planting petunias. Hardly any of us thought of a career other than wife and mother. No one had suggested such a notion to us.
The 1957 graduation address was given by a very popular math professor at the college. He began his talk by telling us that we would remember nothing of what he would say that hot June morning. This was true; I sat dreaming of my wedding, which was just six weeks away, and of the apartment where I would live with my new husband. The charm of domesticity, its sweetness and self-containment, pulled at all my passions. But suddenly he broke through my daydreams. "I ask you to remember only two things," he said. "Remember the date, 1957, and remember the words tempus fugit."
I had studied Latin, but even if I hadn't I would have known what that phrase meant: time flies. Our convocation speaker was reminding us that our lives would speed by before we had grasped them. It was our responsibility to seize each moment and fill it with accomplishment. Otherwise our life would be wasted, worn away with the turning years, and we would grow old and disappointed in what we had made of it.
The phrase haunted me in the ensuing years. I was occupied with babies and with the hard physical work that babies involve. We moved several times and so there were always new domestic arrangements to carve out. Cleaning, cooking, coping, running errands - my days were filled with such minutiae. It was in the calmer, cooler evenings that the phrase tempus fugit would return to me, beating at the back of my brain and reminding me that time was rushing by. I was spooked, frightened by what this meant.
And then, quite suddenly, I realized it meant nothing. Tempus did not fugit. In a long and healthy life, which is what most of us have, there is plenty of time. There is time to sit on a houseboat for a month reading novels. There is time to learn another language. There is travel time and there is stay-at-home time. Shallow time and fallow time. There is time in which we are politically involved and other times when we are wilfully unengaged. We will have good years and bad years, and there will be time for both. Every moment will not be filled with accomplishment; we would explode if we tied ourselves to such a regimen. Time was not our enemy if we kept it on a loose string, allowing for rest, emptiness, reassessment, art and love. This was not a mountain we were climbing; it was closer to being a novel with a series of chapters.
My mother-of-small-children chapter seemed to go on forever, but, in fact, it didn't. It was a mere twelve years, over in a flash. Suddenly I was at a place where I had a little more time to reflect. I could think, for instance, about writing a real novel, and I did. And then another novel, and then another. I had a desk in this new chapter of my life, a typewriter and a pile of paper that belonged just to me. For the first time I needed a file cabinet and a wrist watch, something I'd done without for a decade. I remember I spent the whole of an October afternoon working on a single sentence; I was not by nature a patient person, but for this kind of work and at this time in my life, I was able to be endlessly, foolishly, patient.
In 1985 I looked up from my desk and realized that the children had gone, all five of them. The house was quieter now. The days were mine to arrange any way I wished. I wrote a novel in which, for the first time, there were no children. It was a different kind of novel than I'd written before, with a more inventive structure. The publisher was worried about this innovation, but I was insistent. The insistence was something new, and it coloured the chapter I was living in, my early-middle-age chapter. The woman I saw in the mirror looked like someone else, but I knew it was really me, relocated in time and breathing another grade of oxygen. I was given an office and a key to that office. I loaded it down with plants and pictures, a soft lamp, a carpet. It felt like a tiny apartment, offering solitude and giving a new permission, another space in which to live my ever-altering life.
Friendship took time, but luckily I had time as I entered yet another phase. My women friends provided support, amusement, ideas, pleasure, wisdom. The two-hour lunch was a luxury I could afford during this period; moreover, it was a kind of necessary music. The more words we tossed into the air the closer we felt to the tune of our own lives. We talked about what we knew and what we didn't know. Our conversations were punctuated with the joyous discovery of commonalities, the recognition that the narratives of our lives bumped along differently, but with the same change rhythms.
But one day, over a long lunch with my friend Marjorie Anderson, we spoke for the first time of all that went unspoken, even in an age of intense and open communication. There were the things our mothers hadn't voiced, the subjects our teachers had neglected, the false prophetic warnings (tempus fugit, for example) we had been given and the fatal silence surrounding particular areas of anxiety or happiness. Why weren't we told? Why weren't we warned? What contributed to the reticence between generations, between one woman and another?
We decided to ask some of our women friends to talk about the skipped discourses in their lives and how they had managed, at last, to cope with the surprise of self-discovery, stumbling on that which had been missing: an insight, a truth, an admission, a dark hole. The proposals poured in. This was an exciting time; Marjorie and I were exhilarated by the ideas that were suggested, and astonished that so few overlapped. The areas where woman had been surprised by lack of knowledge ranged from childbirth to working with men, to illness, loss, friendship and secrecy, to the power of sexual feelings, the frustrations of inherited responsibility and the recurrent patterns that haunt us.
The finished essays, which arrived like dispatches from the frontier, described these varied experiences and reported on how they were confronted or accepted. Each voice was separate, and yet each connected subtly with others, as though informed by an underground stream. The essays expressed perplexity at life's offerings: injury and outrage that could not be voiced (Woman, hold thy tongue), expectations that could not be met, fulfillment arriving in unexpected places, the need for roughness, the beginning of understanding, the beginning of being able to say what had once been unsayable. Or, in my case, the apprehension of a structure that gave fluidity and ease to a long life, the gradually (or suddenly) shifting scenes, each furnished with its own noise and movement, its particular rewards and postures.
We move through our chapters mostly with gratitude. Who isn't renewed by startling scenery or refreshed by undreamed-of freedoms? Surprise keeps us alive, liberates our senses. I thought for a while that a serious illness had interrupted my chaptered life, but no, it is a chapter on its own. Living with illness requires new balancing skills. It changes everything, and I need to listen to it, attend to it and bring to it a stern new sense of housekeeping.
But I have time for this last exercise. All the time in the world.
Carol Shields
March 2000

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Why it's on the list ...
Bestselling anthology co-edited by Shields, illuminating the darker corners of the Shieldsian universe.
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Carol Shields

Carol Shields

The art of writing life
edited by Besner Neil
edition:Paperback
tagged : canadian
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Why it's on the list ...
Great book of academic criticism.
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Memoir of Friendship

Memoir of Friendship

The Letters Between Carol Shields And Blanche Howard
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged :
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Why it's on the list ...
One of my favourite books, the story of two writers, one friendship, and the history of Canadian literature at the end of the 20th century
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The Collected Stories of Carol Shields

The Collected Stories of Carol Shields

edition:Paperback

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 fi …

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Excerpt

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

Segue

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.

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A Celibate Season
Why it's on the list ...
Blanche's Howard's novel Penelope's Way should also be on this list. A Celibate Season is the epistolary novel Shields and Howard wrote together and it's wonderful.
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Thirteen Hands And Other Plays
Why it's on the list ...
Collection of Shields' plays. I love Departures and Arrivals.
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Startle and Illuminate
Why it's on the list ...
A new Carol Shields book! What a treat. This new book is a collection of her writing advice. Could we possibly learn from anyone better?
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