Category Archives: Short Stories

Disappearing Earth: Why do short stories keep sneaking up and Being Great?

Man. Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth is so good. And I’m so annoyed by it because it’s effectively a collection of short stories. I’m not going to revise my opinion that short stories are impossible to love because I continue to be frustrated by getting attached to characters and then having to give them up 30 pages later, HOWEVER, this book is probably a novel? Yeah, it must be – just with really focused chapters on very different characters.

The book opens with a chapter following two young girls in a Russian sea-side town as they are kidnapped. In the following chapters, each a subsequent month in the year, the narrative microscopes on a character touching the life and investigation of the kidnapping. Together they offer a portrait of a town fractured by racial divisions between the indigenous population and those of more recent settlers, between those committed to Soviet ideals and those aiming for something different. Threads of corruption and patriarchal control weave through, but with nuanced explorations and substantial counter portraits.

If anything the ‘novel’ is an argument for community, and how we have come to imagine ourselves and live our lives in isolation from the necessary communities that surround us. (Ah – that’s an argument for the form of discrete chapters, too!) It’s incredibly strong writing and a pleasure to be immersed in.

My complaint – and I’m reluctant to call it even a complaint – is the ending. I don’t want to say too much lest I spoil, but I did find it dissatisfying. Maybe it was a lack of foreshadowing? Or probability? Or that I’m simply opposed to pat resolutions. Anyway, you read it and let me know what you think of the ending.


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Friend of My Youth: What happens if you don’t like Alice Munro?

capture1Does someone come and take away your PhD in English? Does your Canadian passport spontaneously catch on fire? Are you called before a panel to prove you still recognize what it means to be human? what constitutes beauty?

Thankfully I’ll never know, because I did like Friend of My Youth, though not as much as other members of book club, and more than M. I can’t tell you much about it because it’s a short story collection and I’ve already forgotten all of the stories. What I do remember is lots of layering of narration such that the person telling the story isn’t really the person the story is about. My wild insight for book club: can we ever really know anyone?! No, E., no we cannot. I also remember the accuracy of K.’s observation that with a Munro story you’re reading along happy as can be and then *bam* someone is an adulterous, soul-rending, murderous… housewife (re: can we ever really know anyone). My other insight: I serially underestimate how long it will take me to read a collection of short stories. My ill-founded belief that it’s ‘just’ a short story collection belies that it’s still 300 pages of reading. I should have never dropped out of maths.

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Six Books; Seven Days: The Vacation Edition


If you asked my mum I spent the entire cottage week reading and avoiding conversations about weddings, houses and jobs. To be fair I *did* avoid those conversations, but I didn’t spend the *entire* week reading. I also played a lot of hearts, chess, ticket to ride and euchre; made dinner; paddled a canoe and cuddled my nephews (though the photographic evidence suggests I did a fair bit of this cuddling while also reading). 

I should probably blog each book individually, but instead I’ll give you the highlights reel. Thanks to those who made suggestions in advance of cottage week, most of the reads here are terrific and well worth seeking out. So, in the order that I read them (and so with descending memory of what they’re about):

The Cat’s Table – Michael Ondaatje

Basic Plot: Young boy sent on his own on a three week sea voyage; meets other kids; woven passages of how the boat trip does (and does not) influence his later life. Highlights: Ondaatje does so much well here – sweet slices of poetry, characterization, atmosphere and mood. It’s a novel that takes a “small” story (a slice of one man’s life; a trip) and makes it resonate with large themes and a wide audience. Gripes/Grievances: The climax didn’t feel sufficient, not an anti-climax, but a sort of “oh, that’s it?” and a wish that it was more. Overall: Beautifully written; not my favourite plot.

Salvage the Bones  – Jesmyn Ward

Basic Plot: Never a good sign that I had to flip through the book to remember what it was about. But then it all comes back: poor family in the lead up to Hurricane Katrina; the kids in the family are (on the surface) trying to raise pit-bull puppies (to sell; to fight) and trying to conceal a pregnancy; the father in the family tries to prepare the house/kids for the coming storm. Highlights: The scenes during the storm itself are gripping, tense and well written. Gripes/grievances: The plot reads a bit “out of time and place” in that its hard to imagine (though maybe this is the point?) this family existing. But they do and their suffering reads as real and poignant. Overall: I could have done with less time obsessing over the puppies. 

Tenth of December – George Saunders

Loathe as I am to admit it: this collection moved me. Like my experience of all short story collections, I struggle to recall exact plots of the stories (though the story of the experimental drug testing and the other about the human garden gnomes linger), the overall impression of the collection is fresh: fresh narrative voices, images, plots and characters. The whole thing reads like a genius writer from the future has arrived in our present to share how writing will be: imaginative, funny, poignant and challenging. I know I’m late to the bandwagon (and that I’m hardly credible when it comes to recommending short story collections): but go get this one. It’s really, really great.

The Good Lord Bird – James McBride 

Basic Plot: Henry Shackledford (Henrietta aka “Onion”) narrates his history disguised as a girl in the company of abolitionist John Brown as he (Brown) campaigns for the end of slavery. Highlights: I suppose it was getting a sense of this aspect of American history – the raid on Harpers Ferry contributing to the beginning of the Civil War. Gripes: I just didn’t like Henrietta/Henry. At all. I found the character to be annoying, so my patience with the plot stretched. On the plot it was ploddingly paced, overburdened with description and scenes that didn’t add to character. Hard to pinpoint larger thematic questions: just seemed to be a straight-up retelling of history. Overall: It’s rare that I don’t like something N. recommends, but this one fell a bit flat. Sorry, N.

Defending Jacob  – William Landy

It’s probably a rule that you can’t go to the cottage without reading at least one pulp mystery novel. And so I did. I intended to read the first in the series by Mo Hayder (on the suggestion of A.), but couldn’t get a copy from the library (I’m now halfway through a copy – stay tuned!), so settled for this one brought to the cottage by mum. Basic Plot: District Attorney’s son is the prime suspect in the murder of another teenager. DA has to defend his son. Highlights: Pages turned quickly. Gripes: The ending  – promised by the front cover to “chill and thrill” was… disappointing. Not that I saw it coming (surprise!) but that it wasn’t a satisfying outcome to the moral questions the plot tried to ask (a much, much better answer to these questions can be found in the brilliant *We Need to Talk About Kevin*). Overall: I’m enjoying the Mo Hayder so much more. But if you’re stuck on a plane, or holding a sleeping nephew, it does make the time go by quickly.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

I love the way Neil Gaiman writes about the importance of reading and libraries. I love the idea of loving Neil Gaiman. And I did like The Ocean at the End of the Lane well enough because I love reading about other people who forget all of the things that they ought to remember. But I just don’t *swoon* the way others seem to over this book. Anyway, Basic Plot: boy returns to childhood home and remembers magical/fantastical experience when  otherwordly things wreak havoc, saved by neighbour girl, has remembered/forgotten the experience before. Highlights: I have a terrible memory; it’s comforting to be reminded that our memories alone can be tricked with, played with and held in other places by other people. Gripes: Slow getting going. I worried about the kitten. 


So there it is. The cottage week is done for 2014. I’m now returned to conversations on weddings, houses and jobs. Routines of work, play and reading in the bath with wine. I’m still very open to book suggestions – though be warned that the next six weeks rival that time I moved across the country, started a new job, ran a marathon and co-chaired a conference all at once. So send me gentle reading suggestions. Or free books. Or hugs. 




Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Book Club, Book I'll Forget I Read, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Prize Winner, Short Stories

Pardon Our Monsters: Lonely (red head?) Children

fat redI started reading Alice Munro’s *Best Stories* last night. Actually I started reading Margaret Atwood’s forward to the collection. Whatever. Atwood told me that ‘short stories’ are better called ‘short fiction.’ I suppose there’s something dismissive in calling something a ‘story’? Not as meaty as ‘fiction’? Fair enough. Henceforward I will register my complaints with “short fiction” rather than the stories.

That said, I have few complaints with Andrew Hood’s *Pardon Our Monsters*. Here are the things I enjoyed: I was impressed with the endings of the stories as they did well to provide a punch that registered with the theme of the story and those of the collection. In a few cases the endings similar work to that of *The Family Fang* in that the plot and characters were full enough that I could readily imagine what might happen next (or should happen next). There were some brilliant similes/metaphors in this collection –  utterly surprising ways of describing a sunset – that were delightful and didn’t (quite) fall into the Tom Robbins trap of being so unexpected as to be jarring. I loved many of the characters who were at home in their corporeal bodies (there is a disproportionate number of fat children and redheads in this collection, perhaps a commentary on the additional ostracization these genetic ‘monsters’ encounter in daily life?) with all the grotesque attendants of being bodily: tumours, gasses, smells, lusts and urges, itches and sweats. The everyman quality of these characters meant this reader could easily identify with aspects (that all but one protagonist is a  young(ish) man – if I remember correctly – speaks to the identify-ability of the characters beyond their gendered or aged bodies). Did I mention some gorgeous writing? Yes, there’s that, too.

The few complaints I do have: Some moments in the stories read like “this is the moment I’m going to tell you – by being oblique and Literary – what the theme or question of this story is.” It’s an odd complaint, and let me try to explain again. The stories *have* compelling questions (how do we connect with other people? can we get past our own insecurities? how can we support and care for those we love while being simultaneously selfish souls?). The stories *have* wonderful ways of revealing these questions through character thoughts and actions. The plot and let these questions surface. The stories resist telling you what they’re about, but then somehow they do: in one story there’s a moment where the reader reads something to the effect of ‘the moments/scenes you’re least expecting or the most unusual are the moments that tell you what it all means.’  The reveal happens a character’s thought process, or a paragraph break that says ‘this is important stuff.’ I suppose it’s a complaint that comes from a place of love for the stories: I love the story and I’m a good reader – trust me to figure out the question/importance on my own.

Given that it’s hardly a complaint to wish the stories gave me *less* – I’ll leave off by saying it’s a collection well worth seeking out. Oh! And it offers a terrific sense of place, too, so if you’re looking to get a sense of where I’m living these days…


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