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October 11, 2013

On Alice Munro, Short Stories, and Gossip

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Alice Munro display at Book City in the Annex

Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize win was the perfect answer to the David Gilmour tomfoolery of a few weeks back. Such a wonderful affirmation of a brilliant career, and of short stories, a form which is dear to my heart. My favourite Alice Munro book is Who Do You Think You Are?, though I read her best-of a few years ago, and discovered that her terrain is deeper and richer than I’d previously suspected. I am fortunate to have so much of her work left to explore.

If the Munro win gets you on a short story kick, may I suggest you check out Shaena Lambert’s Oh, My Darling and Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat, which are two of the best books I’ve read this year. And also The Journey Prize Stories, which I purchased this morning, inspired by short story fever, and a rather fetching window display.

In further news, 49thShelf got a shout-out from Lainey Gossip today. So that was a little exciting!!

January 10, 2013

Short fiction joy, news, and reviews.

the-stamp-collectorWe received the most enormous pile of packages on Tuesday, including a magazine each for Harriet and I. Mine was Canadian Notes and Queries, featuring a new short story by Caroline Adderson, and Harriet’s was Chirp, with a fabulous short story by Sara O’Leary (!!), and I loved that both of us were experiencing the joy and goodness of short fiction in fine Canadian magazines, and that Harriet gets to appreciate this fine thing from the age of 3. What a lucky girl.

In other news, I was quoted in this excellent piece by Anne Chudobiak in the Montreal Gazette about the CWILA count and lack of female reviewers in Canadian journals and newspapers. And my review of The Stamp Collector by Jennifer Lanthier and Francois Thisdale is now up at Quill & Quire.

March 11, 2012

"A Sister and a Brother" by Elizabeth Hay

“The snow had gone lacy, its surface melted and worked into very fine patterns like old leaves on a forest floor. In places broken twigs had slowly descended through the snow so that when a few feet away you saw what appeared to be a twig-print, then looking straight down you saw the beautiful black twig itself.”

There is something about the intimacy of Elizabeth Hay’s narrative voice and the specificity of her details that makes it difficult to really understand that her stories are imagined. In her short story “A Sister and a Brother”, which appeared in Issue 34.4 of Room Magazine, this point is underlined by her story’s structure, which moves between past and present with such fluidity, and is presented in a casual tone of reportage (“I am laying this out, because of what happened next…”) that at first glace suggests that the story has very little structure at all. Similarly with the story’s final sentences: “My brother is downstairs in the kitchen while I am up here at my desk. All is well between us.” What kind of story would you want to read that delivered you to that point? What is a story at all?

What a story is not is tidy, beginning, middle and end. Ruth narrates from a vantage point of now, able to pick and choose scenes from her past to create the effect she is intending. There are the explosive moments from her childhood (with undertones of wider violence), and the peaceful ones, and each of these is situated within its own particular contexts, which Hay alludes to (“It’s the Easter before our family comes apart in ways that I long for…”). And in the present day, in her relationship with her brother and the dynamic between them, she notes tracks of past resentments, long simmering outbursts. And then peering down into those tracks, as in the scene with twigs in the snow, the past is still there, vivid and real, just fallen down beneath the surface and out of sight.

Ruth never really liked her brother as much as she liked the idea of him, the ideal of him, and he never had any regard for her at all. She is self-aware enough: “And no doubt I am genuinely annoying as is anyone who is hesitant, bothersome, unsure of herself.” And theirs is a perpetual motion machine of Ruth provoking Peter’s ire by simply being, Peter’s ire diminishing her, Ruth resenting this diminishing and thus provoking his ire further. Driven by the hope of reaching him, which once in a while he lets her do, only to push her away again as soon as she lets her guard down.

It’s a complicated, precarious dynamic, and Hay has created in Ruth a character who mulls these things over and over, analysing questions of character and motivation in a way that it would never occur to her brother to do. She tries to see things from her brother’s point of view, sees herself from the perspective of an outsider through a friend’s story about her own detested sister, understands that it’s possible that she just doesn’t understand Peter’s sense of humour, as her parents tell her. That she has that put-upon-ness that so many women take on in middle age in their relations with their families, and her problems with Peter are no perhaps more complex than that. Not that she’ll leave it at that, because she wants something specific, and she’ll keep unpacking her baggage over and over: “How do we build a love out of the dark timber of the past?”

She says, “To hear an honest something, that’s what I live for.” But even as she’s listening, she’s pleading her case.

March 16, 2011

Three remarkable things

1) I’m quite excited about the YOSS Manifesto, which went live today on a spiffy new website rigged up by my favourite outfit, Create Me This. It’s a wonderful celebration of the short story form, and I couldn’t think of a better year to dedicate to short stories with so many stellar collections coming out.

2) My course is starting in a few weeks! Sign up for The Art and Business of Blogging at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. I am in the midst of planning, and things are turning out marvelously.

3) We’ve got a tie for the Canada Reads Independently popular poll. Somebody break it, please? Email me your top pick of this year’s selections (even if you haven’t read them all…).

January 31, 2011

Found Press: Stories Everywhere

I am terribly impressed and very excited about Found Press which produces a quarterly digital literary journal whose contents can be purchased individually. They initially caught my attention because their first issue contains “Addresses”, a new short story by Cynthia Flood, whose The English Stories was one of my favourite books of 2009.

But they impressed me also because their issue is for sale at a price that makes sense for e-publications– short stories for 99 cents each. Seriously, it’s the next best thing to an actual book, and maybe it’s even better. And I love their treatment of the individual short story, each one with gorgeous cover art and an intriguing blurb. Cynthia Flood’s story was terrific, and I look forward to reading the other three by Danny Goodman, Kirsty Logan, and Lana Storey.

Downloads come from kindle or kobo, best-suited to one’s e-reader, but for those of us without such devices, a short story is still perfectly readable on a computer screen. And it’s such a good model, because we get to get what we pay for and pay for what we get, and then everybody wins. I love it.

If this is the future of e-pub, then definitely, sign me up.

December 13, 2010

On "discovering" Bronwen Wallace

I read Bronwen Wallace’s People You’d Trust Your Life To this weekend, and I’m still a bit overwhelmed by the experience. As a first book, it reminded me of Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting (an anchronistic reference, I realize, but humour me)– a writer who has been saving up the goods, writing that is remarkably assured, and doesn’t have to even try. A collection of short stories and not a dud in the bunch. I suppose if one had to publish just one book of fiction in one’s life, it would be tremendous for it to be this one. But then how tragic for a reader to get to the end and realize it’s all there is. (Wallace died shortly before the book’s publication in 1990.)

Not that there is not enough, no. There is everything here, a web of characters and relationships, and the stories become illuminated by moments of connection, between characters, and between the reader and the work. These connections so acute that, for example, you will be reading this book in line at the crowded supermarket on a Sunday afternoon and the cashier closes her till and you’re left standing there with your groceries, and you won’t even notice and, moreover, you won’t even care.

Funny, these are stories of their time (references to Michael J. Fox on television, girls with bright green hair clips, when Swiss Chalet waitresses had to dress like Swiss milkmaids [which I'd forgotten]), which serves to locate them but not to date them. Probably due to the universality to the experiences they depict– mother/daughter relationships, the anguish of having a child with food allergies, negotiating terrain with a new partner, processing nostalgia and what we’re to do with memories we’re holding on to.

I loved the stories of Lee Stewart, which recur throughout the collections, and whose whole life we come to understand, her childhood, early motherhood, life post-divorce. I loved the recurring image of her enormously pregnant, floating in an inflatable pool and sipping a beer. I loved the Carol Shieldsian illuminations of the lives of ordinary people. I loved the multitudinousness and contradiction the collection embraced, and once I got to the end, I reread the epigraph, and I completely understood, and I was stunned by the solidity and coherence of Wallace’s message and this collection.

From Adrienne Rich’s “Integrity”: Anger and tenderness: my selves./ And now I can believe they breathe in me/ as angels, not polarities.

October 18, 2010

The Journey Prize Stories 22

In the Canadian literary circles I tune into, everybody bitches about everything. It’s sort of a standard rule. Which makes it notable, I think, that I’ve never heard anybody complain about the dearth of a thriving literary magazine culture in this country. That I’ve never heard a writer tell me that they’d had it with Canadian lit. mags, and now they’re sending everything to some address in New York City or London. That L.A. is where the bucks are. Though no one ever says that here is where the bucks are either, but the bucks are not the point. Though they should be. Why aren’t they? And probably we could all start bitching about that.

We take these magazines for granted, however. These little outfits all over the country, often driven by volunteers, undersubscribed but over submitted to. Whose funding was cut by the Federal Government a while back, remember? These magazines that have provided stellar platforms from which our best writers have launched their careers. Magazines that readers like me have fallen in love with, and thrill to see in my mail box about four times a year.

Of course, I go on about small magazines all the time. I also spend a lot of time celebrating the short story, and the fantastic work being created in the genre by new Canadians writers. And I realize that this all can be a bit overwhelming– what magazine to read? What writers? What stories? How to get a feel for any of this? So I am very happy to answer all these questions with The Journey Prize Stories 22.

Each year, Canadian literary magazines submit their best short fiction for The Journey Prize, which was founded in 1988 when writer James Michener donated the Canadian royalties of his novel Journey.  This year’s judges were Pasha Malla, Joan Thomas and Alissa York, and they culled the list down to 12 stories which appear here. The collection was a pleasure to read, an exciting sampling of the diverse forces at work in Canadian short fiction, and an example of the amazing talent being spotted and fostered by our smaller magazines.

The three stories selected for the shortlist were all deserving– Krista Foss’ “The Longitude of Okay” is a gripping story of a school shooting incident and its aftermath, fiercely plotted, and sparsely drawn with perfect detail. Devon Code’s “Uncle Oscar” is told from the perspective of a young boy who is privy to disorder all around him, and orders that disorder in his own way. That young boy’s perspective never falters. And finally, Lynne Katsukake’s “Mating” takes place in Japan, where a husband is reluctantly supporting his wife in a an effort to find a wife for their son, and the narrative is a subtle meditation on family, love and parenthood.

For me, other standouts in the bunch were Laura Boudreau’s “The Dead Dad Game”, which is also a young person’s perspective on a broken world, and that world is realized with such humour, poignancy and quirky charm. Ben Lof’s “When In the Field With Her at His Back” is a disorienting story with all of itself encapsulated within its very first sentence, and yet it manages to be surprising. I loved Andrew McDonald’s “Eat Fist”, in which a young Ukrainian-Canadian math prodigy’s language lessons from a female weight lifter blossoms into her very first love affair. Eliza Robertson’s “Ship’s Log” is the story of a young boy who’s digging a hole to China, perhaps to escape from a home where everything has gone awry, and the gaps in this playful narrative are particularly devastating to great effect. Mike Spry’s “Five Pounds Short With Apologies to Nelsen Algren” begins, “No one ever tells you not to fuck the monkey…” and goes from there, and never falls over its feet with its furious pace.

As I read this collection, I tried to think of a way to link the stories, to find a way to talk about them all together in a review, but they each read so differently, and I never figured out how. But now I see that the small magazine thing was the underlining factor all along anyway– incredible stuff is happening here. And if you want to add your support to a really thriving culture, The Journey Prize Stories is a good place to start.

July 25, 2010

To pick just one

Last week, I offered up the chance to win my spare copy of CNQ to anyone who’d just tell me their favourite short story. Short stories, of course, being a most underappreciated form, but then what of the responses I received? Which were lists of short stories, because many couldn’t bear to pick just one. And magazines too, aren’t they supposed to be obsolete? But then everybody wants a copy of this one, perhaps for the keepsake inside, or its gorgeous redesign, or the wonderful articles and stories from cover to shining cover. One person emailed me the following a few days after entering: “Take me out of the CNQ draw.  I bought the issue today.  Couldn’t help myself.  I’m hauling 100 lbs of books and magazines across the country, but I still needed to have this issue.”

The bad news: if you’re reading this and haven’t heard from me, you didn’t win.

The good news: CNQ is on sale at your local independent bookshop (and probably elsewhere too…). You won’t be sorry.

Also, favourite short stories include:

  • Alice Munro’s “Red Dress”
  • (can’t remember title but) from Hilary Sharper’s collection Dream Dresses
  • L.M. Montgomery’s “The Quarantine”
  • entirety of Olive Kitterage by Elizabeth Strout
  • “My Husband’s Jump” by Jessica Grant
  • “Coyote Columbus Story” by Thomas King
  • Munro’s “Jack Randa Hotel”
  • William Trevor’s “Three People”
  • Michael Chabon’s “A Model World”

August 25, 2009

Thinking is not a performance

I’ve just started reading The Wife’s Tale by Lori Lansens, whose novel The Girls I loved so very much a while back. And I’m starting Amy Jones’ fiction in The New Quarterly, which makes me look forward to her forthcoming book What Boys Like. Online, Lawrence Hill discusses his problem with the overuse of To Kill a Mockingbird in schools. Writer Laurel Snyder on overcoming her Twitter addiction: ” It’s the idea that thinking is not a performance, hard as that can be for someone like me to accept.”

April 8, 2009

On loving the "humble" cupcake

While I like short stories a lot, I do spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to articulate exactly why this is. Perhaps because the form is under-bought and under-read (or merely under-marketed?), and because lately also there have been so many reasons to celebrate it. And perhaps further because I come up against a lot of people who flat out don’t like short stories, so then I start to get a bit zealous about conversion.

I’ve been thinking about short stories even more than usual, ever since coming across Craig Boyko’s cupcake metaphor. “[Liking novels over short stories is] like preferring chocolate cake to chocolate cupcakes. Aren’t they the same thing?” I actually like cupcakes even more than I like short stories, which I don’t bother spending time trying to articulate because it’s obvious. But I do take issue with Boyko’s suggestion that cakes and cupcakes are the same thing. Just like novels and short stories, I love cakes and cupcakes very much, but each in different ways. And I wonder if perhaps an exploration of why exactly I love cupcakes as I do could clarify my relationship with short fiction.

The usefulness of this metaphor occurred to me on Sunday morning as I realized that cupcakes aren’t as dainty as they look. I was watching a small child trying to eat one at the time, which mainly consisted of said child licking frosting off the top. The cupcake was too big to fit in her mouth properly, and a smaller bite would send the cake into a mess of bits and crumbs. Further, how to get the paper peeled off? The cupcake was delectable to look at, but eating it would be a daunting task. The cake’s delicacy does indeed end with the first bite, even for an adult mouth, and the crumbs would fall, anyone would long for the service of a fork instead of clumsy fingers, and would end up unaware of a spot of frosting on the nose.

It is intimidating to consider penetrating anything so pretty. Substance could well be all or nothing. The frosting might be the highlight, or even decorative sprinkles. What if the cake is too dense, or undercooked? Perhaps cupcakes are best admired from afar.

A slice of cake, of course, is a less troubling prospect. They’re usually sloppier-looking affairs to begin with, and the damage is done as soon as a knife is pressed through its layers. (I hate cutting cake, the pressure, plus I have no eye for symmetry). You’re handed a slab of slice, with a plate and fork even, the cake’s strata submitted for examination. You don’t like jam filling, for example? Well, just eat around it, and no one will be any the wiser. Cake is certainly a safer bet.

So why then do I love cupcakes as I do? Well, however intimidating, I do admire the prettiness, the containment, the same way as a child who once had a dollhouse, I get a kick out of all things minature. The whole cakey universe in a tiny paper wrapper. I also love the aesthetics of their collection, displayed on a pedestal or just on a special plate. That they can be assorted or near-identical, and what a different offering each grouping is.

I like the portion control very very much, but moreso I like that the portion control is just an illusion. I’d feel a bit guilty having a second slice of cake for example, but would think nothing of devouring three cupcakes in a row. Or four, if they were manageable (and I’d always find a way to manage). Unlike a whole cake, which is usually too much or too little, I like that a cupcake’s very essence is that of being just enough. I like that you’re never sure what you’ll get inside it until you’re through. Not knowing what to make of the entire thing until you’re done.

The cupcake’s littleness is really deceiving. How can anything that is “just enough” be little, particularly when you can have two? And they’re bold cakes anyway, cupcakes are, on display, so photogenic. They’re stylish, decorated with edible matching accessories, urban as you like in adorable store windows. But then they can be homey too, when rendered by a different kind of hand. Or cupcake brutalism? I can imagine it.

I suppose one more reason I now love cupcakes as I do is that I’m old enough to eat them properly. It’s taken years of practice and figuring out to get that first bite quite right, and to learn to contain crumbs in my napkin or wrapper. I was once that little child facing a cupcake the size of my head, and that I am no longer means I’ve learned to have my cupcake and eat it too (or that I’ve at least learned how to have my cake and eat it afterwards). It also means that my head has grown, which is something to be pleased about after all this time.

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The M Word

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Coming April 2014

The M Word Events
Waterloo: April 14 Indie Lit Night at Starlight Social Club, 8pm (w. Carrie Snyder)
Toronto: April 15 at Ben McNally Books, 6pm
Kingston: April 16 at Novel Idea, 7:30pm
Burlington: April 29 at Different Drummer's Book and Author Series, 9am
Calgary: May 4 at 3pm, Shelf Life, 3pm (w. Susan Olding, Fiona Lam & Myrl Coulter)
Winnipeg: May 6 at McNally Robinson, 7pm
Hamilton: May 7 at Bryan Prince Bookseller, 7pm
Toronto: May 15 at Another Story Book Shop, 7pm
Toronto: June 19 at Parent Books, 7pm
Everywhere Via Twitter Livechat: TBA


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