Since beginning a reading challenge several weeks ago, I’ve read about 100 Canadian short stories from 10 collections. I’ve read them on trains, I’ve read them on planes, I’ve read them while standing in elevators and walking down the street. I did not read them while eating green eggs and ham, but I did read them while eating dinner.
Based on this experience, I’ve compiled a list of my favourite stories with a brief note about why I liked them best. This doesn’t include a great number of Canadian short story collections that deserve recognition but that I did not read here (mostly because I had already read them), including Mavis Gallant’s The Pegnitz Junction and Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro.
But it’s a list within my reading list, showcasing those that touched me most.
1. “Amundsen,” from Dear Life by Alice Munro
This quietly powerful story about a woman’s brief affair with the doctor at a tuberculosis sanatorium constructs a deep divide between men and women that opens like a chasm between the two lovers.
2. “The Banks of the Vistula,” from Bobcat by Rebecca Lee
As a reader, it is easy to appreciate this story’s lesson about the power of words, delivered through a student’s experience plagiarizing Soviet propaganda for an assignment and then blundering her way through a series of lies to get away with it. It escalates to a hilarious but meaningful final scene.
3. “Torching the Dusties,” from Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
Whimsical and terrifying at the same time, this story about an angry mob gathering outside an upscale seniors home tackles life and societal tensions all at once. The elderly residents face certain doom, but 75-year-old Atwood still titles her story in a way that makes it sound like spring cleaning.
4. “Hand Games,” from Small Change by Elizabeth Hay
We don’t often talk about how stressful childhood can be, but Elizabeth Hay does it boldly and eloquently in this story about a daughter’s on-again-off-again friendship with a girl who treats her poorly.
5. “Old Man,” from Born With a Tooth by Joseph Boyden
Telling this story from the perspective of an elderly aboriginal man in northern Ontario provides Boyden with an opportunity to delve into First Nations history and mythology through the fun-house mirror of memory and old age. He uses that opportunity to great effect.
6. “New Music,” from Dressing up for the Carnival by Carol Shields
You can almost hear the music rise and fall as the writer in this story, a mom and a wife, delves into writing one book, and then another on classical composers. And I don’t even listen to classical music.
7. “Stone Mattress,” from Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
Murder is only the final straw on the Arctic cruise that culminates a lifetime of suffering from one act of violence. It’s dark, suspenseful and it tackles the theme of violence against women with force.
8. “Take This and Eat It,” from Hellgoing by Lynn Coady
A quirky take on religion and disillusionment from a nun who can’t swallow her religious patient’s refusal to eat.
9. “Mom takes a husband,” Every Minute is a Suicide by Bruce McDougall
What if you could go back in time to when your parents met? The first story in this new collection takes us there, pointing to the moment when their romance began with the hindsight of knowing how badly it would all turn out.
10. “Floating Bridge,” Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
It isn’t certain death that looms over the woman with cancer at the centre of this story, but a glimmer of hope, and the chance of being let down by a relationship and a life that leave something more to be desired.