Tag Archives: Short Stories

Anything in Possible: Short Stories Are The Worst

I still don’t like short stories. And Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible is a short story collection. It helped that characters appeared in multiple stories, and that Lucy Barton shows up in lots of them. Helped because my memory is terrible and I don’t like getting to know a set of characters only to have them change 25 pages later.

All of the stories are brilliantly written with believable and raw characters. And an overarching tone of menace and melancholy (put that on your book jacket).

That’s all I have to say because it’s three days later and I’ve forgotten all of the stories in their particulars. It’s not the fault of Strout, but of the genre. I dislike Black Mirror for the same reason. Probably people who are better equipped for the world would just love the collection and be able to tell you specific moments as justification. But not me. So you’ll have to take my overarching feeling as proof. Flimsy though that may be.

(Also – what’s the name for the thing you use to steer a ship? Like does it have a particular name? I looked at once for 15 minutes and couldn’t place the name for it, getting increasingly worried that I am losing my mind.)

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Filed under American literature, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Prize Winner

Heroes of the Frontier: Preview of Dave Eggers’ New Novel (That should have been a short story; Or scrapped)


I am a Dave Eggers completist. I think because I really, really loved A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius I keep reading everything he writes hoping to recapture the joy of that first read (why did I love AHWOSG so much? Probably because it was the first thing I’d read like it. A like every first encounter aren’t we all always trying to get back to recapture that moment of intoxicating newness?).

But with Heroes of the Frontier the fierce loyalty of fresh love has faded to embarrassment to be (seen as) still attached to the overly confident novel, unaware of its lackluster performance and reliant on the coattails of previous success. But I want to love Eggers, and so I read for kernels to warrant continued affection: Eggers writes good comedy. Josie, a former-dentist, has quasi-kidnapped her children and taken them into the wilds of Alaska so that she can find meaning. Some funny scenes ensue. Some smart writing.

But given the sole source of conflict in the novel is Josie’s uncertainty about whether her life has, or could have, or ever had, meaning (and whether children might be what we all pin our hopes on for meaning, but find never live up to those expectations), Eggers has a challenge in maintaining interest. There’s only so much hand wringing, soul searching while drinking wine and staring at the stars that one reader can tolerate. (Especially when it’s a reprieve, almost entirely, of the hand wringing of Your Fathers, Where Are They?) Which is to say the psychological conflict and drama doesn’t have enough complexity or resonance to do much but bore. Loathe as I am to suggest that short stories might have any merit at all, I have to say I think this 300 page beast of different campsites and highway driving could be suitably pared down to a couple of nights in a tent and the same realization: we make meaning in what we do and who we do it with, and it’s never going to come from money or things or external validation (alas).

The book hits shelves later in July. If you, like me, can’t resist Eggers (like you can’t resist Atwood), you know you’ll read it anyway, so go, read it, and let me know if I’ve gotten it all wrong. If you can resist the siren call, then go see the movie for A Hologram for the King and let that be your Eggers fix. Plus Tom Hanks. And let me know whether the movie is any good.

Want other Eggers reviews? See Zeitoun, the Circle,  earlier novels predate the blog.

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Filed under American literature, Fiction, Worst Books

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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Filed under Book Club, Canadian Literature, Fiction, 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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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Short Stories