My Top 10 Canadian Short Stories

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.

download1. “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.

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 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.

Margaret Atwood3. “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.

small-nggid017-ngg0dyn-205x310-00f0w010c010r110f110r010t0104. “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.

Born with a tooth5. “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.

dressing-up-for-the-carnival6. “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.

Margaret Atwood7. “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.

every minute is a suicide9. “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.

HateshipFriendshipCourtshipLoveshipMarriage10. “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.

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Alice Munro’s letter to life

Reading Dear Life

downloadThere’s a feeling I associate with diving into a collection of Alice Munro stories. Her prose is unsettling, filled with the raw emotions and quiet tensions of, well, life. I often find myself flipping back after the last page and trying to understand how she managed to reach into my guts and wrench them in stories that aren’t flashy or tragic — even when nothing much really happens. Munro has described the way she builds a feeling around her stories in an interview with Geoff Hancock cited here on the blog Reading the Short Story. “What happens as event doesn’t really much matter,” she says.

The main event in question in Dear Life, at least in the last four stories which form their own section, is life itself, which matters quite a lot. But Munro succeeds, as always, in building an atmosphere that conveys far more than the family happenings — getting a little brother, an encounter with a scary neighbour — that they recount.

She begins these last stories, “The Eye,” “Night,” “Voices” and “Dear Life,” with a note:

The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.

These simple, plainly-written stories and the others in this collection left me hoping she had much more to say about everything. I’ll dedicate a few lines below to my favourite story in this collection, “Amundsen.”

Amundsen

This story about a woman named Vivien travelling to a small down north of Toronto to work as a teacher at a tuberculosis sanatorium was first published in the New Yorker and you should go read it there right now. The brusque but caring Dr. Fox gives the teacher a strange welcome, and before long the two of them are having an affair. It is a different time, when many contracted tuberculosis and train stations still had ladies waiting rooms. Vivien seems to accept whatever she’s offered, from boring dinners, to sex and a proposal phrased as a statement rather than a question: “I do intend to marry you.” There is something off about the way their relationship tumbles forward, surrounded by scenes that emphasize the divide between women and men, such as the nurses chatting away at meal times and the men at the dim pub. Vivien and Dr. Fox are two worlds, and Vivien is just passing through on the train. It’s a beautiful and symbolic story that ends with the word “love,” but isn’t really about it.

‘Dressing up for the Carnival’ is a fairground for ideas

dressing-up-for-the-carnival Carol Shields’ Dressing up for the Carnival feels more like a little game than a collection of stories. It plays with language, ideas and emotions in ways that are at once simple and wildly experimental.

In “Absence,” a writer tries to craft a story with a broken letter “I” on the keyboard. The story itself is a lipogram — it omits the letter “I” entirely — and a contemplation on the significance of erasing oneself. Symbolism plays a major role in the stories, such as “Weather,” in which characters imagine that a strike among weather-casters stops all rain and shine for days. In another, Shields ruminates on keys. The busy have many, and the dreamers have one they’ve found on the street, thinking maybe one day they’d find the mysterious matching lock.

Shields, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Stone Diaries, has said that writing short stories makes her feel more playful than writing novels. “I feel that I’m tap-dancing when I write stories. I can get both feet off the ground,” she said in this interview with Textualities.

But from dressing up to “Dressing Down” — the last story about a nudist — the book mostly isn’t gimmicky or silly. It’s a delight to dance along.

I will discuss a few of the stories below.

Dressing Up for the Carnival

We slip on our illusions as we slip on our yellow cotton skirts and tuck our hair up in smart chignons. There is no carnival for the characters in this story to dress up for but the carnival of life. And what a carousel that is! With its errands, such as walking a huge baby carriage home for your boss, and its secrets, like trying on your wife’s nightgown. This story is a parade through the minds of characters young and old and it ends too soon, leaving us wishing we knew them all better.

Mirrors

How would you feel if you spent weeks without seeing your own face? There are the practical concerns, such as shaving and putting on lipstick, but the married couple in this story have that figured out by now. They’ve banished mirrors at the cottage where they spend their summer months. This decision is presented as a sacrifice, like giving up meat, but then reconsidered. In denying themselves the pleasure of vanity, this troubled couple might be creating an opportunity to find themselves anew in each other.

New Music

The rises and falls of the family dynamics in this story match the crescendos of the classical music that move the main character, a musical scholar, through her first book about composer Thomas Tallis. She retreats into the music, huddled up at her desk writing, while the world and her family whirl around her. When the book is published, she comes up for air, and the house, with her husband and kids in it, seems to sigh with the relief of having her back. But it won’t be long before a new chorus overtakes every room and she retreats once again to her writing table. This was one of a few stories in the book that was not only clever and inviting but also complete, with fully fleshed out characters and deep-seated tension.

For the final book in my reading challenge, I’m returning to Alice Munro with her most recent collection, Dear Life.

A dad’s troubled legacy fills ‘Every Minute is a Suicide’

every minute is a suicide At the centre of Bruce McDougall’s new book, Every Minute is a Suicide, is the story of a boy coping with the loss of his father.

We learn the facts in the beginning: Mary meets Gord McDougall through her brother, Fulton. We’re told unequivocally that Gord is a grifter, a gambler and a drinker, but Mary marries him all the same. Not long afterward, she finds out that he’s violent too. Knowing these facts, we are not surprised or sad when Mary packs up her children and leaves unannounced. But good and bad becomes much more complex when scrutinized up close, especially from the eyes of a child. Gord is a bad man who loves his son, Bruce, very much. He leaves a deep mark on him, solidified through small moments such as trips to the store for cigarettes, hockey games and loitering around the neighbourhood. His absence leaves a gaping hole that Bruce struggles to fill for decades to follow.

The stories in this collection, taken together, sometimes become too repetitive from one to the next. But some of them succeed at overlapping cleverly, filling in details the last left out in a satisfying way. Some the endings tie up the insights too neatly, but it succeeds at relaying the tragedy and confusion at its core. It’s also funny in small ways, such as a sprinkling of silly excuses for the main character’s decisions. He can’t meet the woman he’s seeing because he has to read a book, or go out because he must clean the floor. In the last story, he says he must leave his writer’s retreat in the  Yukon because he has to go watch two hockey games in Montreal.

The jokes highlight a character who is drifting through life, avoiding things for no clear reason, in search of the secrets of the world he feels he just barely missed out on because his father was snatched away too soon. But we later discover the Montreal Canadiens game isn’t as meagre an excuse for leaving his retreat as it might seem. The game, as most of the relationships in this book, represents the fleeting but powerful impact people have on our lives, like the memory of a dad standing next to his son at a hockey game smoking a cigarette.

The early stories take place in my neighbourhood of Roncesvalles and elsewhere in Toronto, and it’s nice to read something set so close to home.

I’ll go over a few of the stories briefly below.

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‘Born with a Tooth’ is biting, but tender too

Born with a tooth The aboriginal characters in Joseph Boyden’s Born with a Tooth hunt, play bingo and sometimes use phrases such as “most probably.” But these are not stereotypes — beneath these familiar themes, the author layers complex characters who are struggling to overcome generations of mistreatment.

This was Boyden’s first book in a career that has chronicled northern Ontario’s First Nations with increasing depth. The novel that followed, Three Day Road, earned him widespread recognition, and the sequel, Through Black Spruce, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2008. I read both of those books and enjoyed them immensely. This first collection features the first appearance of Xavier Bird, a character from the novels, and at least one nod to Canadian aboriginal literature with an allusion to Tomson Highway’s iconic play “Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing” in the tragic story “Painted Tongue.” This collection is funny, sad and features a cast of wildly colourful characters, with the exception of a few stories that felt too forced in their messages.

I’ll review some of the stories in this collection below.

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What’s in a friend? Elizabeth Hay’s ‘Small Change’

small-nggid017-ngg0dyn-205x310-00f0w010c010r110f110r010t010In my last post, I wrote about Elizabeth Hay’s Small Change, a set of stories about the ebb and flow of friendships.

Published in 1997, this is friendship before Facebook and Twitter, held together with phone calls, impromptu visits and letters when in different cities. Although the media may have changed, the social glue that holds relationships together has not, and Hay’s ideas about intimacy, bitterness and belonging remain as meaningful now as they were more than 15 years ago.

I will review a few of the stories in this collection below.

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Friendship is rich but fickle too: Elizabeth Hay’s ‘Small Change’

small-nggid017-ngg0dyn-205x310-00f0w010c010r110f110r010t010In Small Change, Elizabeth Hay tackles her subject, friendship, head on. The former CBC radio journalist doggedly chronicles events, some pulled from her own life, and analyzes their meaning from every angle.

In 20 related stories, she picks apart a concept that’s often left unscrutinized under the assumption that friendship means one thing that remains the same forever. It doesn’t, and Hay bravely lays out the ways friendships differ but follow familiar patterns of intimacy and distance, the selfish reasons we cling to them and the myriad reasons they fall apart. It isn’t always an easy read, but it wouldn’t be honest if it were.

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Violence stirs from inside and out in ‘Stone Mattress’

Margaret AtwoodIn my last post, I reviewed the first three stories in Margaret Atwood’s collection Stone Mattress. Together they comprise a mini-saga about the lives of three women and a man they were all involved with, set around themes of aging, art, sex and love. Things turn considerably darker in the stories I will review below, with violent rumblings sometimes coming from within characters, and sometimes from the angry mobs outside.

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Rest comes uneasily in ‘Stone Mattress’

Margaret Atwood Restlessness defines the characters in Margaret Atwood’s latest collection of short stories, Stone Mattress, and it grows darker, more murderous, with each tale. But Atwood serves her horror with a shot of grim humour that makes adventures with dead bodies and decrepitude surprisingly entertaining.

Good fiction helps us relate to characters even when we have nothing in common with them, and Atwood achieves this with every introduction. As a girl with vampiric tendencies darts through the woods, I understand the rush of freedom she feels, though I’ve never been particularly bloodthirsty myself. An elderly woman who hallucinates little dancers as she goes blind is scared, but she is also detached from herself, musing at the toll of old age. We know them, these people, their worries and hopes, the grudges they’ve nurtured for decades.

I will review the first set of stories below. They are about three women whose lives are intertwined because of their involvement with one man, a moderately successful poet named Gavin Putnam. They are expertly told and the way they weave together is lovely, but I much prefer the stories in the later part of this collection, when situations begin to heat up and characters dabble in revenge, blood and fire. I will review some of those in my next post.

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Mordecai Richler’s ‘The Street’ revives a Montreal of another era

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The spiral staircase outside of my St. Urbain Street apartment in Montreal.

Mordecai Richler‘s 1969 The Street, about a Jewish boy’s upbringing on Montreal’s St. Urbain Street and the colourful characters around him, encapsulates the city during a turbulent time gripped by WWII, and later the province’s well-known political dramas.

Some of its political commentary feels inaccessible to someone who didn’t experience the tenor of life in Montreal at that time. But where it really works, and what Richler seems to care about most, is the minutiae of the lives of those inhabiting his beloved street. Tansky’s Cigar and Soda where regulars scoff at truckers who stop by on their way to Ontario or New York. The pretty girl who passes by in her clackety-clack high heels every day to whistles and shouts from the school boys and the men alike. Boys being boys, and mothers being mothers, always fretting and trying to raise their boys to be doctors.

The semi-autobiographical stories in this collection are both funny and harsh — to the many Jewish Canadians he profiles, to the French Canadians, or “pea soups,” and to the WASPS. The author spares no one. What I admire most about Richler’s writing is that he never needs to explain what is taking place. Dialogue sweeps along, filling us in without a spare word. He doesn’t need to tell us that there is fierce competition between the mothers in the community for their children to be the best; he sets the scene with two lines of dialogue:

“And who came rank one, may I ask?” Mrs. Klinger’s boy, alas. Already the phone was ringing. “Yes, yes,” my other said to Mrs. Klinger, “congratulations, and what does the eye doctor say about your Riva, poor kid, to have a complex at her age, will they be able to straighten them…”

This isn’t Richler’s most well-known work, but it’s a pleasure to observe him revisit his old neighbourhood, dusting off his memories of St. Urbain and its people for a fresh bout of his characteristic scrutiny. I lived on St. Urbain street briefly, during an internship at the Gazette, which Richler pithily describes along with the Montreal Star as a “zingy, harmlessly inane duo.” It’s a very different place than it was when the author grew up and when he returned there in 1972.

I will review two of the stories in this collection in more detail below.

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