The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Stone Diaries and Larry's Party wields her pen again and turns the mundane into the magical. In Dressing Up for the Carnival, Shields offers us a collection of stories, at turns wise and droll, that explore the question of identity, the very nature of our public and private selves.

In the title story, Shields places an average street scene under her microscope, looking into the lives of various people whirling about any given town on any given day. She picks up one strand, then the next, creating a living portrait of life's rich pageantry. We meet a man who impulsively buys a mango having never tasted one, another who carries a bouquet of flowers to his unappreciative daughter-in-law, and a woman who imagines for herself a different life as she pushes an empty stroller.

Not surprisingly, artists (especially writers) and academics appear throughout the collection. In A Scarf, Shields turns a light silken object into a weighty image as she relates the story of a struggling author's book tour. On a more playful note, The Next Best Kiss pokes fun at the bombast of academic discourse.

These are not stories with startling revelations, but with quiet discoveries. Mirrors, one of the best in the collection, involves a husband who marvels at how he and his wife can remain strangers to one another after years of marriage, while Eros explores a cancer survivor who remembers a lover from long ago. Other stories, like Flatties and Ilk are just downright whimsical and show Shields stretching her wings at her absurdist best. In Absence Carol Shields says of one of her characters, an author, . . . she wanted only to make, as she had done before, sentences that melted at the center and branched at the ends, that threatened to grow unruly and run away, but that clause for clause adhered to one another as though stuck down by velcro tabs. In this superb collection, Shields does just this with her unique, elegant prose. She is a master of the small detail, of the way it can offer a window into a life. And Dressing Up for the Carnival is a window worth looking into. ¦ Katherine Wyrick lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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