Carol Shields's collection of short stories is the definitive anthology of this genre of her work. It contains all previously published stories and one entirely new: "Segue," her last work. She died of cancer in July of 2003, after fighting the good fight, for the second time. The book is introduced by Margaret Atwood, another widely read Canadian author, who was a longtime friend and admirer of Shields.
The stories are truly remarkable, combining great humor with poignant observation--an exploration of the idiosyncracies of our friends, lovers, spouses, and children, and the gift of being a true storyteller. She glories in writing about the mundane: grocery shopping, ballet lessons, mowing the lawn; and in the quirky, as in a young boy's grandfather who becomes a "naturist," a grandmother who was North America's Turkey Queen in Ramona, California, and wore a dress made completely of turkey feathers. Her writing is full of wonder and serendipity: "Roger, aged thirty, employed by the Gas Board, is coming out of a corner grocers carrying a mango in his left hand. He went in to buy an apple and came out with this." Now, what will turn out to be important here: Roger's age, his employment, why the mango instead of the apple, and, is he left-handed? Carol Shields will sort it all out for the reader, in the most enjoyable way possible. While her stories are accessible, they are never trivial. Each one is finely crafted, illuminating something about a person, a relationship, an event.
In "Segue," Max and Jane begin their Sunday morning buying bread and flowers; he, an accomplished novelist, she, a writer of sonnets. They proceed to luncheon at their daughter's house, return home to conversation, reading, roast chicken, and evening reverie. Jane reflects upon her aging body: "My aging is me too, as well as the subject of my current sonnet. Only two years ago the idea of aging belonged to the whole world. It was background. I hadn't been touched by it then. Now I am." Touched by age and encroaching illness, Carol Shields wrote one last marvelous story.
In her foreword, Margaret Atwood, who visited Shields only two months before she died, writes: "We did not speak of her illness. She preferred to be treated as a person who was living, not one who was dying." This attitude of mind is reflected in the fabric of all her work, in its clarity, its appreciation of the absurd, and in her understanding of the human condition. --Valerie Ryan
From Publishers Weekly
Shields, who died in 2003, was best known for her novels (The Stone Diaries
), though she published three collections of stories over as many decades, here elegantly gathered and introduced by fellow Canadian and friend Margaret Atwood. Appearing first is her last unpublished tale, "Segue," about an aging couple in failing health - he a famous novelist, she a writer of sonnets - who grow apart as they take "responsibility for [their] own dying bodies." The story serves as a poignant tribute. Overall, Shields's touch is gorgeously light, her tales capturing brief, evanescent moments in the busy lives of couples, mothers and lonely wives. If a few entries seem too brief or lack development, "Hazel" (from The Orange Fish
) demonstrates all the elements of Shields's mastery: an ordinary widow, perhaps too polite for her own good, finds a satisfying job as an itinerant kitchen demonstrator and discovers that her timidity and self-effacement can actually be turned to her advantage. From the same collection, the story "Collision" draws on Shields's extended travels and is set in a "small ellipsoid state in eastern Europe," where two lonely people of exotically different background and language collide on a rainy night; the story pursues a separate "biography" of each of the lovers with "every narrative scrap... equally honored." In "Edith-Esther," a story from Shields's last collection, the author prophetically portrays the eponymous protagonist, an 80-year-old novelist, as a "rare bird," pestered by her biographer for "some spiritual breeze" he can put into his book about her. She resists, but the biographer reworks her life the way he wants and in the end, to her dismay, refashions her work as uplifting - the last thing she intended it to be. Uplifting or not, this is a volume full of grace and wisdom.
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