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Dressing up for the Carnival

Dressing up for the Carnival

4.5 2
by Carol Shields

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In Dressing Up for the Carnival, Carol Shields distills her characteristic wisdom, elegance, and insouciant humor into twenty-two irresistible stories. A wealth of surprises and contrasts, this collection ranges from the lyricism of "Weather," in which a couple's life is thrown into chaos when the National Association of Meteorologists goes on strike; to the swampy


In Dressing Up for the Carnival, Carol Shields distills her characteristic wisdom, elegance, and insouciant humor into twenty-two irresistible stories. A wealth of surprises and contrasts, this collection ranges from the lyricism of "Weather," in which a couple's life is thrown into chaos when the National Association of Meteorologists goes on strike; to the swampy sexuality of "Eros," in which a room in a Parisian hotel on the verge of ruin is the catalyst for passion; to the brave confidence of "A Scarf" -- new for this collection -- which chronicles the realities of a fledging author's book tour. Playful, graceful, acutely observed, and generous of spirit, these stories are Carol Shields at her most accomplished and appealing.

Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book
[Shields is] a witty, whimsical, playful writer...a devious literary chameleon...Each step along the route is a surprise, and each character is a memorable creation whose keys unlock more than anyone may suspect.
Susan Tekulve
Dressing Up for the Carnival is a repertory show of all that short fiction can be, but it must be reread and studied to be appreciated fully. Shields is capable of holding the reader at arm's length, forcing us to examine the construction of a story through an analytical lens. Just as masterfully, she can immerse us completely in a satisfying fictional dream.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Shields infuses this enigmatic and quirky collection of 22 short stories with ingenious characterizations in heartfelt tales that are mostly character sketches capturing the gestural, kinetic truths about the lives glimpsed here, with happy results. The title story begins, "All over town people are putting on their costumes" and catalogues a dozen characters finding themselves surprised by the joy they take in their accessories: two young sisters flaunt their plastic ski passes a month after their vacation; a secretary pushes a unique English pram for her boss's new baby; an old man buys daffodils for his unfriendly daughter-in-law. In a similar fly-on-the-wall style, "Dying for Love" peeks in on three women who, unlucky in love, are considering suicide, but each finds "a handrail of hope to hang onto." Unforgettable moments include the beginning of "The Harp," when the huge concert instrument falls from an overhead window and injures a passerby; the harpist then visits the victim in the hospital. "Reportage" also is memorable for an unlikely happenstance: the discovery of Roman ruins on a Manitoba farm. When tourism supplants wheat farming, it's a boon to everyone except a retired Latin teacher. Many of the stories are light and breezy but not unsatisfying, because the characters are winning even in their mostly cameo-like appearances. Already distinctive, they could evolve into such complex or intriguing Shields characters as The Stone Diaries' Daisy Stone Goodwill or Larry Weller of Larry's Party. Some tales are slighter vignettes, but all share enough whimsy, humor and wisdom to make the collection thoroughly enjoyable and, in many instances, illuminating. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Lisa Schwarzbaum
A strike by meteorologists results in an absence of atmosphere in "Weather"; a nameless queen develops an agonizing intolerance for the sights and sounds of life in "Stop!" Such color, such hubbub, such energy—these are lithe, inventive stories by a playful writer who loves the human parade.
Entertainment Weekly
David Willis McCullough
Shields is a witty, mercurial, playful writer, a devious literary chameleon . . . A raucous celebration of the hidden qualities lurking within utterly ordinary items . . . A glittering sample case of a writer at work . . .
The New York Times Book Review
New York Daily News
Playfully and without pretension, Shields peels back her beloved layers - of clothing, language, affection - until, as one character observes, "the ordinary has become extraordinary."
San Francisco Chronicle
...revealing a fuzzy understanding with clarity and power, and bringing to the reader-as the best of fiction can-a fully comprehensible story of the human struggle to comprehend.
Daniel de Orozco
In a collection that often works a bit too hard to spell out its themes and intents, "Eros" stands as an exemplar, accomplishing something both paradoxical and daring: revealing a fuzzy understanding with clarity and power, and bringing to the reader — as the best of fiction can — a fully comprehensible story of the human struggle to comprehend.
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
From the Publisher
"Carol Shields' 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's something so bountiful and surprising, like beautiful broken light." —Alice Munro

Product Details

Gale Group
Publication date:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


All over town people are putting on their costumes.

    Tamara has flung open her closet door; just to see her standing there is to feel a squeeze of the heart. She loves her clothes. She knows her clothes. Her favorite moment of the day is this moment, standing at the closet door, still a little dizzy from her long night of tumbled sleep, biting her lip, thinking hard, moving the busy hangers along the rod, about to make up her mind.

    Yes! The yellow cotton skirt with the big patch pockets and the hand detail around the hem. How fortunate to own such a skirt. And the white blouse. What a blouse! Those sleeves, that neckline with its buttoned flap, the fullness in the yoke that reminds her of the morris dancers she and her boyfriend Bruce saw at the Exhibition last year.

    Next she adds her new straw belt; perfect. A string of yellow beads. Earrings of course. Her bone sandals. And bare legs, why not?

    She never checks the weather before she dresses; her clothes are the weather, as powerful in their sunniness as the strong, muzzy early morning light pouring into the narrow street by the bus stop, warming the combed crown of her hair and fueling her with imagination. She taps a sandaled foot lightly on the pavement, waiting for the number 4 bus, no longer just Tamara, clerk-receptionist for the Youth Employment Bureau, but a woman in a yellow skirt. A passionate woman dressed in yellow. A Passionate, Vibrant Woman About To Begin Her Day. Her Life.

    Roger, aged thirty, employed by the Gas Board, is coming out of a corner grocer's carrying a mango in his left hand. He went in to buy an apple and came out with this. At the cash register he refused a bag, preferring to carry this thing, this object, in his bare hand. The price was $1.29. He's a little surprised at how heavy it is, a tight seamless leather skin enclosing soft pulp, or so he imagines. He has never bought a mango before, never eaten one, doesn't know what a mango tastes like or how it's prepared. Cooked like a squash? Sliced and sugared like a peach? He has no intention of eating it, not now anyway, maybe never. Its weight reminds him of a first-class league ball, but larger, longer, smooth skinned, and ripely green. Mango, mango. An elliptical purse, juice-filled, curved for the palm of the human hand, his hand.

    He is a man of medium height, burly, divorced, wearing an open-necked shirt, hurrying back to work after his coffee break. But at this moment he freezes and sees himself freshly: a man carrying a mango in his left hand. Already he's accustomed to it; in fact, it's starting to feel lighter and drier, like a set of castanets which has somehow attached itself to his left arm. Any minute now he'll break out into a cha-cha-cha right here in front of the Gas Board. The shriveled fate he sometimes sees for himself can be postponed if only he puts his mind to it. Who would have thought it of him? Not his ex-wife Lucile, not his co-workers, not his boss, not even himself.

    And the Borden sisters are back from their ski week in Happy Valley. They've been back for a month now, in fact, so why are they still wearing those little plastic ski passes on the zipper tabs of their jackets? A good question. I SKIED HAPPY MOUNTAIN these passes say. The Bordens wear them all over town, at the shopping center, in the parking lot. It's spring, the leaves are unfolding on the hedges in front of the post office, but the Borden girls, Karen and Sue, still carry on their bodies, and in their faces too, the fresh wintry cold of the slopes, the thrill of powder snow and stinging sky. (The air up there chimes with echoes, a bromide of blue.) It would be an exaggeration to say the Borden sisters swagger; it would be going too far. They move like young ponies, quivery and thoughtful, with the memory of expended effort and banked curves. They speak to each other in voices that are loud and musical, and their skin, so clear, pink, bright, and healthy, traps the sunshine beneath its surface. With one hand, walking along, they stroke the feathering-out tops of hedges in front of the post office, and with the other they pull and tug on those little plasticized tags—I SKIED HAPPY MOUNTAIN. You might say it's a kind of compulsion, as though they can't help themselves.

    And then there's 'Wanda from the bank who has been sent on the strangest of errands. It happened in this way: Mr. Wishcourt, the bank manager where Wanda works, has just bought a new baby carriage for his wife, or rather, for their new baby son, Samuel James. The baby carriage was an impulsive lunch-hour purchase, he explains to Wanda, looking shamefaced but exuberant: an English pram, high-wheeled, majestically hooded, tires like a Rolls-Royce, a beauty, but the fool thing, even when folded up, refuses to fit in the back of his Volvo. Would she object? It would take perhaps three-quarters of an hour. It's a fine day. He'll draw her a plan on a sheet of paper, put an X where his house is. He knows how she loves walking, that she gets restless in the afternoon sometimes, sitting in her little airless cage. He would appreciate it so much. And so would his wife and little Sam. Would she mind? He's never before asked her to make coffee or do personal errands. It's against his policy, treating his employees like that. But just this once?

    Wanda sets off awkwardly. She is, after all, an awkward woman, who was formerly an awkward girl with big girlish teeth and clumsy shoulders. The pram's swaying body seems to steer her at first, instead of her steering it. Such a chunky rolling oblong, black and British with its wambling, bossy, outsized keel. "Excuse me," she says, and "Sorry." Without meaning to, she forces people over to the edge of the sidewalks, crowds them at the street corners, even rubs up against them with the big soft tires.

    All she gets back are smiles. Or kindly little nods that say: "It's not your fault" or "How marvelous" or "What a picture!" After a bit she gets the hang of steering. This is a technical marvel she's pushing along, the way it takes the curbs, soundlessly, with scarcely any effort at all. Engineering at its most refined and comical. Her hands rest lightly on the wide white handlebar. It might be made of ivory or alabaster or something equally precious, it's so smooth and cool to the touch.

    By the time Wanda reaches Pine Street she feels herself fully in charge. Beneath the leafy poplars, she and the carriage have become a single entity. Gliding, melding, a silvery hum of wheels and a faint, pleasing adhesive resistance as the tires roll along suburban asphalt. The weight of her fingertips is enough to keep it in motion, in control, and she takes the final corners with grace. Little Sam is going to love his new rolling home, so roomy and rhythmic, like a dark boat sailing forward in tune with his infant breathing and the bump-dee-bump of his baby heart.

    She stops, leans over, and reaches inside. There's no one about; no one sees her, only the eyes inside her head that have rehearsed this small gesture in dreams. She straightens the blanket, pulling it smooth, pats it into place. "Shhh," she murmurs, smiling. "There, there, now."

    Mr. Gilman is smiling too. His daughter-in-law, who considers him a prehistoric bore, has invited him to dinner. This happens perhaps once a month; the telephone rings early in the morning. "We'd love to have you over tonight," she says. "Just family fare, I'm afraid, leftovers."

    "I'd be delighted," he always says, even though the word leftovers gives him, every time she says it, a little ping of injury.

    At age eighty he can be observed in his obverse infancy, metaphorically sucking and tonguing the missing tooth of his life. He knows what he looks like: the mirror tells all—eyes like water sacks, crimson arcs around the ears, a chin that betrays him, the way it mooches and wobbles while he thrashes around in his head for one of those rumpled anecdotes that seem only to madden his daughter-in-law. Better to keep still and chew. "Scrumptious," he always says, hoping to win her inhospitable heart, but knowing he can't.

    Today he decides to buy her flowers. Why-oh-why has he never thought of this before! Daffodils are selling for $1.99 a half dozen. A bargain. It must be spring, he thinks, looking around. Why not buy two bunches, or three? Why not indeed? Or four?

    They form a blaze of yellow in his arms, a sweet propitiating little fire. He knows he should take them home immediately and put them in water for tonight, but he's reluctant to remove the green paper wrapping which lends a certain legitimacy; these aren't flowers randomly snatched from the garden; these are florist's flowers, purchased as an offering, an oblation.

    There seems nothing to do but carry them about with him all day. He takes them along to the bank, the drugstore, to his appointment with the foot specialist, his afternoon card club at the Sunset Lodge. Never has he received more courteous attention, such quick service. The eyes of strangers appear friendlier than usual. "I am no worse off than the average person," he announces to himself. He loses, gracefully, at canasta, then gets a seat on the bus, a seat by the window. The pale flowers in his arms spell evanescence, gaiety. "Hello there," a number of people call out to him. He is clearly a man who is expected somewhere, anticipated. A charming gent, elegant and dapper, propounding serious questions, bearing gifts, flowers. A man in disguise.

    Ralph Eliot, seventeen years old, six feet tall, killingly handsome, and the best halfback the school team has seen in years, has carelessly left his football helmet hanging on a hook on the back of his bedroom door. An emergency of the first order; his ten-year-old sister Mandy is summoned to bring it to the playing field.

    She runs all the way up Second Avenue; at the traffic light she strikes a pose, panting, then pounds furiously the whole length of Sargent Street, making it in four minutes flat. She carries the helmet by its tough plastic chin strap and as she runs along, it bangs against her bare leg. She feels her breath blazing into a spray of heroic pain, and as her foot rounds on the pavement, a filament of recognition is touched. The exactitude of the gesture doubles and divides inside her head, and for the first time she comprehends who her brother is, that deep-voiced stranger whose bedroom is next to her own. Today, for a minute, she is her brother. She is Ralph Eliot, age seventeen, six feet tall, who later this afternoon will make a dazzling, lazy touchdown, bringing reward and honor to his name, and hers.

    Susan Gourley, first-year arts student, has been assigned Beckett's Waiting for Godot. She carries it under her arm so that the title is plainly visible. She is a girl with a look of lusterless inattention and a reputation for drowsiness, but she's always known this to be a false assessment. She's biding her time, waiting; today she strides along, strides, her book flashing under her arm. She is a young woman who is reading a great classic. Vistas of possibility unfold like money.

    Molly Beale's briny old body has been propelled downtown by her cheerful new pacemaker, and there she bumps into Bert Lessing, the city councillor, whose navy blue beret, complete with military insignia, rides pertly over his left ear. They converse like lovers. They bristle with wit. They chitter like birds.

    Jeanette Foster is sporting a smart chignon. Who does she think she is! Who does she think she is?

    A young woman, recently arrived in town and rather lonely, carries her sandwiches to work in an old violin case. This is only temporary. Tomorrow she may use an ordinary paper bag or eat in the cafeteria.

    We cannot live without our illusions, thinks X, an anonymous middle-aged citizen who, sometimes, in the privacy of his own bedroom, in the embrace of happiness, waltzes about in his wife's lace-trimmed nightgown. His wife is at bingo, not expected home for an hour. He lifts the blind an inch and sees the sun setting boldly behind his pear tree, its mingled coarseness and refinement giving an air of confusion. Everywhere he looks he observes cycles of consolation and enhancement, and now it seems as though the evening itself is about to alter its dimensions, becoming more (and also less) than what it really is.

Meet the Author

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.

Brief Biography

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Date of Birth:
June 2, 1935
Date of Death:
July 16, 2003
Place of Birth:
Oak Park, Illinois
Place of Death:
Toronto, Canada
B.A., Hanover College, Indiana; M.A. (English), Ottawa University, 1975

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Dressing Up for the Carnival 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book by carol shields (dressing up for the carnival) is a number one hit, i used it for my class seminar and i strictly recommend it....i loved the way she brings up pieces of clothes and colors in her stories! Carol shields is one of the best canadian writter!!!!!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book was outstanding i recomend it to anyone who reads this review