The Orange Fish

Overview


In each of these twelve tales Carol Shields exhibits her extraordinary ability to find meaning and mystery in the chaos of ordinary life. In the title story, an unhappily married couple find their print of an orange fish brings them newfound harmony as they join other owner of the print who gather to extol the miraculous powers of “fishness.” “Chemistry” describes a group of young musicians drawn briefly into an impenetrable circle of love. And in “Hazel,” a middle-aged woman finally comes into her own as a ...
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Overview


In each of these twelve tales Carol Shields exhibits her extraordinary ability to find meaning and mystery in the chaos of ordinary life. In the title story, an unhappily married couple find their print of an orange fish brings them newfound harmony as they join other owner of the print who gather to extol the miraculous powers of “fishness.” “Chemistry” describes a group of young musicians drawn briefly into an impenetrable circle of love. And in “Hazel,” a middle-aged woman finally comes into her own as a sales rep for a line of kitchen products. The Orange Fish is a collection full of wit and compassion, a series of stories to be read and reread and savored.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Although a variety of well-realized voices animate the 12 stories in Shields's fine collection, they are all plainspoken and direct--the hallmarks of her sturdy prose. All stories except three are set in her native Canada; most have as protagonists people locked into themselves, suffused with nostalgia, regret, incommunicable longing--and sometimes fulfilled by flashes of communication and tentative hope. In several stories, ordinary people undergo metamorphosis: in the title piece, a couple who acquires a lithograph of an orange fish is suddenly accepted into a charmed circle; in ``Chemistry'' another group is bonded in a magical way by a shared interest; ``Hazel'' is a widow who acquires job skills and confidence and expects to take control of her destiny--only to discover that ``her life is an accident and she has blundered into the heart of it.'' The most distinctive story is ``Collision,'' which hinges upon the notion that the earth's atmosphere is composed of the ``biographical debris'' of everyone who has ever lived. Shields's narrative method is suggested in one tale as ``the way a human life drains toward one revealing scene.'' The author of the accomplished novel Swann should widen her audience with these perceptive tales. (July)
Library Journal
In this collection of 12 short stories, Shields focuses on ordinary men and women and the everyday events of their lives: travel, holidays, work, relationships. The first story, ``The Orange Fish,'' concerns a couple whose stale marriage is revived by the purchase of a lithograph of an orange fish. There is a certain magic to this tale, which sets up an expectation that is not fulfilled by the remainder of the stories. In these stories, which fail to ignite the imagination or present a fresh perspective, none of the characters is memorable or even sympathetic and plots are virtually nonexistent. Shields pays far too much attention to detail, expressed in florid language; one can almost imagine her at work, Roget's in hand. The reader is often left wondering, ``What was the motivation behind this story? Why should I care?'' A disappointing work.-- Kimberly G. Allen, National Assn. of Home Builders, Washington, D.C.
From the Publisher
"Snatching profundity from the jaws of the banal is Shields' specialty...[her] extraordinary ability to find both mystery and meaning in the chaos of everyday life..."
Maclean's

"These are wonderful stories."
Books in Canada

"Shields is able to give some of the most complex accounts of human nature I've read in a short story."
San Francisco Chronicle

"Infused with a sly humour, these poignant stories revel in the ordinary, with a few side trips to the sublime… both moving and wry."
Washington Post

"Reading [these stories] gives you a sense of art spilling over into life… Even the briefest and apparently arbitrary details of life seem incandescent."
Toronto Star

"Shields is a sympathetic storyteller who brings her quirky, touching characters to exuberant life."
New York Newsday

"A wise, expansive voice… the author turns normal everyday memories and events into poetic prophecy."
Newsday

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140152821
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 3/15/1992
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 7.72 (h) x 0.59 (d)

Meet the Author

Carol Shields
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.

Biography

Carol Shields's characters are often on the road less traveled, and the trip is never boring. She has written about a folklorist, a poet, a maze designer, a translator, even other writers -- appropriate professions in novels in which characters struggle to find their own paths in life.

Shields often focused on female characters, most notably in The Stone Diaries, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel documenting the birth, death, and everything in between of Daisy Goodwill. Goodwill's story is told over a century, in various voices, featuring Shields's wry humor and her ability to convey what she has called "the arc of human life."

But don't pigeonhole Shields as a "women's writer." "I have directed a fair amount of energy and rather a lot of rage into that particular corner [of the] problem of men and women, particularly men and women who write and how women's novels are perceived differently from men's," Shields said in a 2001 interview. In 1997's Larry's Party, she swapped genders, writing from the perspective of a male floral designer who discovers a passion for mazes.

Unafraid to experiment with genres, Shields wrote an epistolary novel (A Celibate Season, coauthored with Blanche Howard), a sort of "literary mystery" about the posthumous discovery of a murdered poet's genius (Swann), and short stories (collected in Dressing for the Carnival and other titles). Though she often covered serious topics, she rarely did so without humor. Her novel of mid-life romance, Republic of Love, was called by The New York Times a "touching, elegantly funny, luscious work of fiction," an assessment that could be applied to the bulk of her work.

Shields changed her viewpoint yet again for Unless, but the circumstance was a tragic one. The book, which resurrects the main character from Dressing Up for the Carnival's "A Scarf," was written during the author's battle with breast cancer. "I never want to sound at all mystical about writing,'' she said in a 2002 interview, ''but this book -- it just came out." Though not touching on her own illness, Shields did what she had always done -- took her own questions and lessons, then used them to produce a story that speaks its own truth.

Shields passed away on July 16, 2003; she was 68.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Carol Ann Warner
    2. Hometown:
      Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 2, 1935
    2. Place of Birth:
      Oak Park, Illinois
    1. Date of Death:
      July 16, 2003
    2. Place of Death:
      Toronto, Canada

Read an Excerpt

The Orange Fish

Like others of my generation I am devoted to food, money, and sex; but I have an ulcer and have been unhappily married to Lois-Ann, a lawyer, for twelve years. As you might guess, we are both fearful of aging. Recently, Lois-Ann showed me an article she had clipped from the newspaper, a profile of a well-known television actress who was described as being “deep in her thirties.”

She looked at me from behind a lens of tears.

Despite our incompatibility, the two of us understand each other, and I knew more or less what it was she was thinking: that some years ago, when she was twenty-five, she made up her mind to go to Vancouver Island and raise dahlias, but on the very day she bought her air ticket, she got a letter in the mail saying she’d been accepted at law school. “None of us writes our own script,” she said to me once, and of course she’s right. I still toy — I confess this to you freely — with my old fantasy of running a dude ranch, with the thought of well-rubbed saddles and harnesses and the whole sweet leather tip of possibility, even though I know the dude market’s been depressed for a decade, dead in fact.

Not long ago, on a Saturday morning, Lois-Ann and I had one of our long talks about values, about goals. The mood as we sat over breakfast was sternly analytical.

“Maybe we’ve become trapped in the cult of consumerism and youth worship,” I suggested.

“Trapped by our zeitgeist,” said Lois-Ann, who has a way of capping a point, especially my point.

A long silence followed, twenty seconds, thirty seconds. I glanced up from an emptied coffee cup, remembered that my fortieth birthday was only weeks away, and felt a flare of panic in my upper colon. The pain was hideous and familiar. I took a deep breath as I’d been told to do. Breathe in, then out. Repeat. The trick is to visualize the pain, its substance and color, and then transfer it to a point outside the body. I concentrated on a small spot above our breakfast table, a random patch on the white wall. Often this does the trick, but this morning the blank space, the smooth drywall expanse of it, seemed distinctly accusing.

At one time Lois-Ann and I had talked about wallpapering the kitchen or at least putting up an electric clock shaped like a sunflower. We also considered a ceramic bas-relief of cauliflowers and carrots, and after that a little heart-shaped mirror bordered with rattan, and, more recently, a primitive map of the world with a practical acrylic surface. We have never been able to agree, never been able to arrive at a decision.

I felt Lois-Ann watching me, her eyes as neat and neutral as birds’ eggs. “What we need,” I said, gesturing at the void, “is a picture.”

“Or possibly a print,” said Lois-Ann, and immediately went to get her coat.

Three hours later we were the owners of a cheerful lithograph titled The Orange Fish. It was unframed, but enclosed in a sandwich of twinkling glass, its corners secured by a set of neat metal clips. The mat surrounding the picture was a generous three inches in width — we liked that — and the background was a shimmer of green; within this space the orange fish was suspended.

I wish somehow you might see this fish. He is boldly drawn, and just as boldly colored. He occupies approximately eighty per cent of the surface and has about him a wet, dense look of health. To me, at least, he appears to have stopped moving, to be resting against the wall of green water. A stream of bubbles, each one separate and tear-shaped, floats above him, binding him to his element. Of course he is seen in side profile, as fish always are, and this classic posture underlines the tranquility of the whole. He possesses, too, a Buddha-like sense of being in the right place, the only place. His center, that is, where you might imagine his heart to be, is sweetly orange in color, and this color diminishes slightly as it flows toward the semi-transparency of fins and the round, ridged, non-appraising mouth. But it was his eye I most appreciated, the kind of wide, ungreedy eye I would like to be able to turn onto the world.

We made up our minds quickly; he would fit nicely over the breakfast table. Lois-Ann mentioned that the orange tones would pick up the colors of the seat covers. We were in a state of rare agreement. And the price was right.

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Foreword

1. Carol Shields spoke of becoming a writer because there weren’t enough books that examined women’s friendships and women’s inner lives — or, as she put it, “the kind of book I wanted to read but couldn’t find.” In what ways does Shields’s fiction bring the lives of women to the surface, or into our understanding? What sorts of female experiences does she illuminate?

2. In her novels and stories, Shields often experiments with using different voices. The Stone Diaries shifts between first-, second-, and third-person narrative; one section of Larry’s Party is recorded almost entirely in dialogue; Happenstance is a novel in two parts, one narrated by the husband, one by the wife; the stories in Various Miracles come from a wide variety of narrative standpoints. Discuss point-of-view in Shields’s works, and the importance of telling one’s own stories — as characters or in real life. Also, what is the role of the writer in telling other people’s stories for them?

3. Though she’s lauded as a writer who brought the lives of ordinary people to the page and made them extraordinary, Carol Shields took some exception to the idea in one interview: “I have never known what ‘ordinary’ people means! I don’t think I quite believe in the concept…. There’s no one who isn’t complicated, who doesn’t have areas of cowardice or courage, who isn’t incapable of some things and capable of great acts. I think everyone has that capability. Either we’re all ordinary or else none of us is ordinary.” Discuss therole of ordinary life in Shields’s fiction. How do her above views come across in her writing? Is there a respect for the everyday that you don’t see in works by other writers?

4. Shields once commented that she’d often set up the structure of a novel, determining such elements as how many chapters there would be, and how long they’d be, before she even set out to write. “I need that kind of structure,” she explained. “[S]ometimes I change it. But mostly I don’t.… I love structures, and I love making new structures for novels.” Discuss the overall structures of different novels and how they relate to the content. For example, does Larry Weller’s love of garden mazes say anything about the twenty years of his life covered by Larry’s Party? What meaning can be found in the one-word chapter titles of Unless? How does Shields use, or even undermine, the biography format in The Stone Diaries?

5. “I'm concerned about the unknowability of other people,” Shields once said. “That's why I love biography and the idea of the human life told or shown. Of course, this is why I love novels, too. In novels, you get to hear how people are thinking. That’s why I read fiction.” How does Shields expose and often celebrate the inner lives of her characters? Can you find examples of characters who aren’t really known to those around them? How do their relationships suffer, or thrive, or even just survive, in the face of such distance?

6. How does what you know about Carol Shields as a person affect your reading of her books? Are you able to separate the author from her work? Do you feel the need to? What parallels can you draw between her approach to life and those of her characters? For instance, most of her main characters are women at mid-life, and many of her characters are writers or work in other areas of book publishing (translators, editors, etc.).

7. In interviews about Larry’s Party, Carol Shields commented more than once that men were “the ultimate mystery” to her. Discuss the male characters in Shields’s fiction — both those in prominent roles, like Larry Weller in Larry’s Party or Tom Avery in The Republic of Love, and the many husbands and lovers that seem to populate the sidelines of other stories and novels. How successfully does Shields portray the world of men in her work? Are there common characteristics you can trace between books? Are some of her male characters defined by the women they love? Or is it more often the other way around?

8. Many of Carol Shields’s works explore the ways individuals interact with their communities. Some characters are defined by their loneliness, while others struggle with their responsibilities to the people around them, whether it’s their family or a larger group. Discuss the roles of family and community in Shields’s fiction.

9. Carol Shields has always been well-known for her love of language, and its slipperiness. In what ways does her writing call attention to itself as writing? Are there particular stories or novels that you find playful? Or linguistically complex?

10. Author and literary journalist James Atlas, who edited the series for which Shields wrote her Austen biography, once said about Carol Shields, “she is our Jane Austen.” Compare Shields’s fiction to that of Austen — are there common themes or techniques? What other major authors would you compare Shields to, and why? Where does her work fit into our literary canon?

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Reading Group Guide

1. Carol Shields spoke of becoming a writer because there weren’t enough books that examined women’s friendships and women’s inner lives — or, as she put it, “the kind of book I wanted to read but couldn’t find.” In what ways does Shields’s fiction bring the lives of women to the surface, or into our understanding? What sorts of female experiences does she illuminate?

2. In her novels and stories, Shields often experiments with using different voices. The Stone Diaries shifts between first-, second-, and third-person narrative; one section of Larry’s Party is recorded almost entirely in dialogue; Happenstance is a novel in two parts, one narrated by the husband, one by the wife; the stories in Various Miracles come from a wide variety of narrative standpoints. Discuss point-of-view in Shields’s works, and the importance of telling one’s own stories — as characters or in real life. Also, what is the role of the writer in telling other people’s stories for them?

3. Though she’s lauded as a writer who brought the lives of ordinary people to the page and made them extraordinary, Carol Shields took some exception to the idea in one interview: “I have never known what ‘ordinary’ people means! I don’t think I quite believe in the concept…. There’s no one who isn’t complicated, who doesn’t have areas of cowardice or courage, who isn’t incapable of some things and capable of great acts. I think everyone has that capability. Either we’re all ordinary or else none of us is ordinary.” Discuss the role of ordinary life in Shields’s fiction. How do her above views come across in her writing? Is there a respect for the everyday that you don’t see in works by other writers?

4. Shields once commented that she’d often set up the structure of a novel, determining such elements as how many chapters there would be, and how long they’d be, before she even set out to write. “I need that kind of structure,” she explained. “[S]ometimes I change it. But mostly I don’t.… I love structures, and I love making new structures for novels.” Discuss the overall structures of different novels and how they relate to the content. For example, does Larry Weller’s love of garden mazes say anything about the twenty years of his life covered by Larry’s Party? What meaning can be found in the one-word chapter titles of Unless? How does Shields use, or even undermine, the biography format in The Stone Diaries?

5. “I'm concerned about the unknowability of other people,” Shields once said. “That's why I love biography and the idea of the human life told or shown. Of course, this is why I love novels, too. In novels, you get to hear how people are thinking. That’s why I read fiction.” How does Shields expose and often celebrate the inner lives of her characters? Can you find examples of characters who aren’t really known to those around them? How do their relationships suffer, or thrive, or even just survive, in the face of such distance?

6. How does what you know about Carol Shields as a person affect your reading of her books? Are you able to separate the author from her work? Do you feel the need to? What parallels can you draw between her approach to life and those of her characters? For instance, most of her main characters are women at mid-life, and many of her characters are writers or work in other areas of book publishing (translators, editors, etc.).

7. In interviews about Larry’s Party, Carol Shields commented more than once that men were “the ultimate mystery” to her. Discuss the male characters in Shields’s fiction — both those in prominent roles, like Larry Weller in Larry’s Party or Tom Avery in The Republic of Love, and the many husbands and lovers that seem to populate the sidelines of other stories and novels. How successfully does Shields portray the world of men in her work? Are there common characteristics you can trace between books? Are some of her male characters defined by the women they love? Or is it more often the other way around?

8. Many of Carol Shields’s works explore the ways individuals interact with their communities. Some characters are defined by their loneliness, while others struggle with their responsibilities to the people around them, whether it’s their family or a larger group. Discuss the roles of family and community in Shields’s fiction.

9. Carol Shields has always been well-known for her love of language, and its slipperiness. In what ways does her writing call attention to itself as writing? Are there particular stories or novels that you find playful? Or linguistically complex?

10. Author and literary journalist James Atlas, who edited the series for which Shields wrote her Austen biography, once said about Carol Shields, “she is our Jane Austen.” Compare Shields’s fiction to that of Austen — are there common themes or techniques? What other major authors would you compare Shields to, and why? Where does her work fit into our literary canon?

Read More Show Less

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