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R&R 101 | Dressing Up for the Carnival

Slightly delayed posting; couldn't fit in the time to complete the review last night, posting it the next morning. I will still post R&R 102 today as well (but in the evening).

Carol Shields
Dressing Up for the Carnival
First published in: 2000
This edition: Fourth Estate, paperback, 2001
ISBN: 1-84115-165-3
Pages: 249
Genre: short story collection, fiction
Cover design by Vivid / Fourth Estate; cover image by Tony Stone


I first discovered the beautiful writing of Carol Shields when I read UNLESS (R&R 042). I quickly felt that her poetic way with words, after reading just one book, already made her one of my most beloved authors. Reading just one book seems meager, like I'm not reading enough generally by not reading enough Carol Shields, but I'm at the same time overjoyed to realize I have so many of her works left to read. THE STONE DIARIES sits in my bookshelf, waiting for the right time. Meanwhile though, I have read and thoroughly devoured her short story collection DRESSING UP FOR THE CARNIVAL.

Dressing Up bundles 22 stories, serving as character sketches (if you will) molded into original, imaginative and insightful tales. 

The book begins with its title story, wherein Shields describes (in what reminds me of the emphatic style I so admired in Woolf's MRS. DALLOWAY) what one person is accessorizing themselves with, and what the next person is wearing, and the next. Tamara's exhilaration as she picks her outfit for the day. Roger carrying a mango with him. How that mango feels to him, perfectly fitting his hand. I marveled at Shields's power of description – her vision and her ability to put it into beautifully formed sentences.

I've (personally) noticed a bit of a Virgina Woolf influence a few other times: the very descriptive and thus slightly distanced melancholy ("Dying for Love"). There's also another person-to-person 'flow' in the narrative of "Keys", which is another story I loved because the description of every person was short, but it told me so much about that one person. Carol Shields could say so much using so very little words: wise, sufficient glimpses. 

Another memorable story is "Weather", which depicts a dystopian world of sorts: what if all the meteorologists went on strike. Worse yet – what if there was no more weather? What if every day would be the same for the rest of time? We complain and moan about rain or sweaty sticky summers. But wouldn't it be so much worse if everything was always bland?
This story is applicable to so many things, for instance people. If everyone was the same, if everyone conformed to a set of criteria, wouldn't the world be one boring, mindnumbing place? It applies to art as well; where's the stimulation, the wonder, when everything is the same?

One of the most clever stories has to be "Absence", a story about a keyboard missing the 'i' key. Carol Shields wrote "Abscence", and not once did she make use of the letter 'i'.
The way I saw it, perhaps a lot of writings and thoughts could do without the whole I, I, I (as in: me, me, me) every once in a while. As I'm typing this, I have to say I'm pretty self-conscious about the fact that I've referred to myself by using the letter 'i' no less than 4 times in this sentence alone.
These stories make you think so much harder; Shields leaves room for interpretation. She has this way of writing without being obvious. She doesn't spell out the meaning of her stories to you; she lets you decide for yourself in a way. 

"Stop!" reads like a tragic fairytale: a queen who couldn't tolerate anything. The tragedy is that even her own heartbeat became unbearable: the rhythmic beating, the pounding feeling in her chest.

"Windows" impressed me to no end. Depicting another dystopic view of the world, a world where there would be no windows. A house, boarded up. Humans have a longing for views, for looking beyond and looking forward.

Finally, one of the short stories, "Scarf", is also a chapter in UNLESS. My favorite one at that. It has been a treat to read it again.

The book reads away pleasantly, without going into Fluff Territory. Of course, in most short story bundles (like with music albums), I was engrossed in a lot of stories while some passed me by. But generally, this has been a most wonderful and varied read. What makes this book a joy to read is that in a lot of these character sketches there are recognizable pieces of daily life to be found; it made me wonder about my own quirks in accessorizing, my use of 'I', or how defined I am by my exterior. Do's and don'ts. Dressing Up for the Carnival is a bundle of intelligent, "thought-encouraging" (a phrase I like a little better than thought-provoking, in this case) and especially elegant stories about the everyday.

Minor nitpick: there are two words in the English language which irk me. 'Saliva'. I just don't like it. I actually have an aversion to the sound of it. It makes me shudder. Second? 'Scarcely', especially when used often. Carol Shields uses it all the time. I cringed all the time. This is me nitpicking. I get that. But it's my blog. Sorry.

Original R&R series © Karin E. Lips 2008-2010 (and beyond)
Don't use anything without my express written permissions.
Don't be a copycat.

R&R 042 | Unless

Carol Shields
First published in 2002
This edition: Fourth Estate, 2003
Cover design: Julian Humphries, Fourth Estate
Cover photograph: Photonica

Carol Shields's last novel records the thought processes of a woman who loses her daughter in the most unimaginable way possible. Reta Winters is always doing her best to balance work life with domestic life, building a comfortable home with Tom and their daughters. A writer with increasing success, Reta is in the process of translating Danielle Westerman's memoirs when she learns of her eldest daughter Norah's decision to drop everything, only to be found spending her days on a street corner wearing a sign saying 'Goodness'. As Reta tries to make sense of her daughter's sudden withdrawal, she ponders her own life as a mother and considers her achievements as a writer, all the while trying to cope with her feelings of powerlessness.

It took me a while to appreciate this book. Reta at first seemed distant in her coping with her daughter's situation, her frustrations only evident from the rage which can be found in her sarcastic letters to male magazine editors (who always seem to shy away from mentioning female authors in their columns, something that greatly angers feministic Reta). I didn't like Reta at first; her monologue seemed self-indulgent at times, and I didn't care for her fawning over Danielle Westerman. But "Unless" quickly became about self-reflection. Reta mocks herself constantly; criticism of self made her admirable. Reta's feelings of loss were never dramatized – she would not let herself be pitied – but always humanized.

It was a particular section of writing which finally made me connect with Reta, a methaphor which brought out in myself the ability to empathize with her. The chapter 'Otherwise' (page 78 of my edition): before Norah's withdrawal, Reta sets out to find the perfect scarf for Norah's birthday. It takes her considerable effort, but endurance leads her to find the most beautiful, perfect scarf for her Norah. Only to irrevokably lose it in the silliest way, right under her nose. So much effort and love went into buying that scarf, only to end up losing it and feeling like a failure. This is when Shields captivated me, this is when I started to sense that Reta was opening up. Her situation was suddenly very real, her cool exterior fragile. She was a mother who could not reach her own child anymore.

"Unless" did not have the air of fiction. Though this book wasn't the last novel Shields was working on, it was the last she completed before she passed away [breast cancer, 2003]. As I read, it did very much feel like a final novel. One more book for Shields to say what she wanted, through Reta's voice. Perhaps she used this as an opportunity to unleash her opinions, expressing whatever was still in her mind.

This wasn't the first time I had tried to read "Unless". Several years ago I made it through some chapters. Why I couldn't finish it then perhaps has to do with feeling like I wasn't mature enough at the time. Since then, I have experienced a lot more in life, and a better understanding of what is truly important. And I think what matters most is that you can only do your best; extenuating circumstances may change things, but what does not change is that you have tried.


R&R series (and its photos, reviews) © Karin Elizabeth 2008-2009