Category Archives: Short Fiction

Hellgoing by Lynn Coady

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Winner of the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Shortlisted for the 2013 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize

An Amazon.ca Best Book ~ 2013

A Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2013

A book of short fiction is an interesting experience. There are several universes and characters that you start to love and then you almost instantly have to abandon them. I had a severe aversion to short stories when I first began my post-secondary study of English literature well over a decade ago. I can’t put my finger on why, but I just wasn’t a fan. Even reading classic stories like “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”, “A Rose for Emily”, or “Bartleby, the Scrivener” didn’t thrill me. Over the years though, I’ve developed a fondness for the genre. Canada is incredibly fortunate to have such talented writers of short stories – Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Alistair MacLeod, Mavis Gallant, and of course Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro. That being said though, I have real difficult reviewing collections of stories. I don’t like writing up a bit on each story and it’s sometimes hard to find thematic threads to pull on that run through the whole book. After I finish a book of short fiction I always ask myself if I even want to bother writing a blog post. But, with a book as good as this one was, I felt I had no choice.

Lynn Coady has been steadily rising as one of the most prominent literary writers in Canada. The Nova Scotia-born author has been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award, two Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize nominations, four Globe and Mail Best Book mentions, and two Giller Prize nominations with the win going her way in 2013. Coady is known for her sharp prose – beautiful yet not flowery or even poetic, her razor-sharp witty humour, and being merciless with her characters. The Giller winner Hellgoing is Coady’s second book of short stories and sixth book overall. I have to be honest, while I’ve owned this book since its Giller win, I read this book now because of Jian Ghomeshi’s mention of it in his now infamous Facebook post after CBC fired him.

This book was fantastic. Coady’s book was very reminiscent of collections by Munro and Atwood in that, while the stories are in no way linked by plot, character, or specific setting, they are bound together thematically. While character types, writing styles, and points-of-view all change, there are various common themes throughout the whole volume – most notably that linear personal influence of past to present self. But, what really made this book for me were the characters. Like a lot of literary short fiction, the stories of Hellgoing are very character driven as opposed to plot driven, so Coady made sure that her nine main characters were highly developed and very three-dimensional. The protagonists were a venerable motley crew of mostly women; a mix of the pathetic, misanthropic, pitiful, hopeful, and mysterious and were, quite often, ironically unlikable.

The quality of writing in the nine stories was absolutely above reproach. While not poetic, the prose was elevated and very literary. In a way, Coady’s writing was a throwback to older modernist authors with solid, punchy lines. In most of the stories, she integrated the dialogue into the general narration to increase the staccato effect. If I had to guess, the writing style was what tipped the Giller Jury over the top in awarding the prize to this book. Short Story volumes do not often win this award – only three previous collections have won, two of them were by Alice Munro and one was a highly connected cycle of stories that could be read as a novel.

“Dogs in Clothes”, “Clear Skies”, “The Natural Elements”, and “Body Condom” were my favorite stories while “Wireless” and “Mr. Hope” were my least favorite. This was a very emotional collection with very memorable characters and accessible themes. One of the best books of 2013, Hellgoing is a very literary volume best suited to the advanced and discerning reader.

Island: The Collected Stories by Alistair MacLeod

As promised, my first book review of 2013! Alistair MacLeod. Just his name evokes images of the Cape Breton landscape. I really think that there are no Canadian writers whose worldwide reputation is built on such little writing; that is a testament to just how good his books are. MacLeod has five books published, three of which are completely original works: The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, and his only novel, No Great Mischief. He also has two books where existing writing was essentially repackaged: the story “To Every Thing There is a Season,” from his second collection, was reworked into an illustrated Christmas book and, the book I am reviewing here, Island, is all of the stories from his two previously published collections plus two unpublished stories. On the back cover of Island, Michael Ondaatje compares MacLeod to Faulkner and Chekhov in his use of regionalism to tell universal stories. This is the essence of Alistair MacLeod’s short stories. In his writing, Cape Breton Island acts as living laboratory to examine the larger changing world.

If you were to sit through an Island Studies class, you would learn the four primary characteristics of island life: totality, intimacy, monopoly, and exile. MacLeod’s stories embody all of these elements. They show the insularity of island life and some of the common challenges of isolation in the North Atlantic. But, more universally, they take on the ramifications of monumental social change on small traditional communities. MacLeod’s stories are set in a time when choosing to attend university instead of work the fishing boats is an insult to the family; where reading is considered a waste of time; where tourists are seen as threatening; and where living off the land is simply a way of life. The magic of MacLeod’s writing though is its exploration on what happens when these traditional beliefs get turned upside down.

Most of the stories in Island are framed. By that, for those of you who haven’t toiled away in English classes for years and years, I mean they are told through a series of flashbacks. This provides an interesting contrast and juxtaposition to the “then” and “now.” Typically, the “present” in the narrative centers on a middle-aged man looking back on important events that took place anywhere from childhood to young adulthood. The range of events is as diverse as the population of Cape Breton: abandoning the traditional family trade (fishing, mining, etc), leaving the island, or even finding out Santa is not real (sorry folks). While the immediate conflict is “local” to Cape Breton, the sense of place that emerges from the themes is universal. With a few modifications, these stories could take place anywhere.

The highlights of the collection are “The Boat” (a highly anthologized classic around the world), “The Road to Rankin’s Point,” “As Birds Bring forth the Sun,” “To Every Thing There is a Season,” “Clearances” and “Island.” If you just want to pick away at a few of the stories, these are definitely the ones to tackle.

Island and MacLeod’s only novel, No Great Mischief, are absolute masterpieces of not just Atlantic or Canadian fiction, but of English literature. The quality of writing is flawless. The characters are incredibly well developed. And MacLeod tells a story in only a few pages that would take lesser writers entire books. Thematically, Island feels like over 20 small novels and should be read by everyone.

Riptides: New Island Fiction by Richard Lemm (editor)

Shortlisted for the 2013 APMA Best Atlantic-Published Book Award

PEI has probably the most nationalistic sense of identity in Canada, but yet our literature has had trouble getting past that annoying little red headed girl from Avonlea. What is PEI literature? The answer to this question can be applied to the wider world of Canadian literature. PEI literature is simply writing by someone with a “connection” to the Island – be it growing up here, moving here, studying here, or spending any significant amount of time here.

The real father of contemporary PEI literature is Milton Acorn, the People’s Poet – almost everyone has at some point read or heard “I’ve Tasted My Blood.” In the decades after Acorn appeared on the scene, PEI underwent a poetry renaissance. Native born and “from-away” writers like Richard Lemm, Brent MacLaine, John Smith, Frank Ledwell, David Helwig, Hugh MacDonald, Steve McOrmond, David Hickey, John MacKenzie, Anne Compton, Dianne Morrow, and Joseph Sherman among others have given PEI a rich, deep, and colourful  poetic canon. But, there has been a dearth of fiction from the province. Only in recent years have novels and story collections from Island writers started to take up significant shelf space.  Some of PEI’s poets and local playwrights have produced fiction, Hennessey and Lemm for instance; plus many new fiction writers have immerged – Steven Mayoff, Hilary MacLeod, Orysia Dawydiak, Finley Martin, and Valerie Compton to name a few. Riptides is an anthology of short stories from new writers on PEI, some of whom had never been published prior to this. This anthology represents a turning point in PEI literature – it is a collective cry of over 20 new fiction writers saying “there is more to our writing than Anne.”

It is very difficult to review a book with so many writers, in so many genres, and so many styles. Many stories in this book are very memorable and will give outsiders a great glimpse into Island life. There are many highlights though, so here’s a brief recap of my favorites.  “The Nothing” by Melissa Carroll is a gritty comedic story of life in small town west Prince County.  “The Candle Party” by Orysia Dawydiak, probably my favorite now looking back, is a heart-breaking story of illness complicating a marriage.  “Dust” by Shirley Limbert tells the story of a woman trapped in an abusive relationship.  “Final Farewell” by Helen Pretulak is a reflective story of family set in Chernobyl several years after the tragedy. And, the last one I’ll point out, “Watermelon” by Island poet Beth E. Janzen, is the story of the everyday foibles of family life as seen through the eyes of a young girl at a lake side picnic. This is not an exhaustive list. I adored at least 15 of the 23 stories.

Riptides is edited by one of the elder statesmen of PEI literature, Richard Lemm. He instructed the PEI literature seminar I just completed where we read this collection. What impressed me most about this book was just how “real” the stories were. There were no pretensions, no writers trying to imitate Ralph Waldo Emerson, and no writers trying to find the mystical in the mundane (which as you all know, really pisses me off). The stories go from Alberton to Charlottetown to Toronto to Poland to Ukraine. This first anthology of “new” Island fiction is just as diverse as the “new” Prince Edward Island and is a must read for any Islander or anyone who has wondered what makes us tick.

Riptides is published by Acorn Press and can be found at most independent bookstores or online at Indigo and Amazon.

The Iron Bridge by Anton Piatigorsky

My two great loves in life, and my academic interests, are Canadian literature and political history. When I saw The Iron Bridge by Anton Piatigorsky in Goose Lane’s fall catalog I knew this was a book I had to read. A collection of six short stories, Piatigorsky fictionalizes the youth of six of the world’s most notoriously brutal despotic tyrants: Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Mao Tse-Tung, Josef Stalin, Rafael Trujillo, and Adolf Hitler. Each and every one of these stories are masterful examples of historic fiction that, while reading, produces conflicted and confusing feelings.

What is most fascinating about Piatigorsky’s stories is that they humanize these evil men who were responsible for a over 100 million combined deaths. With some of these future dictators, Mao Tse-Tung in particular, the author actually crafts a very sympathetic character. This is done in part by Piatigorsky using the characters’ native language names (e.g. Ioseb Besarionis Jughashvili rather than Josef Stalin) so you form a bond with the protagonist before you are completely certain who he is.

Something that I was initially worried about with this book was that the author would try to pinpoint the moment that these men were driven mad. He didn’t. All of these stories are very episodic; they delve into potentially important moments, but not necessarily tipping-point moments. I am not 100% certain of the historical veracity of these stories,  but the acknowledgements seem to indicate this book was extremely well researched.

The biggest strength in Anton Piatigorsky’s writing is his dialogue. This is not surprising since he is a highly decorated playwright. His characters’ idioms and speech patterns closely resemble what one sees in recordings of their public speeches. Stalin’s dialogue is full of reserved anger, Mao’s is full of hyperbole, and Hitler’s is full of lengthy and lofty rhetoric.

The Iron Bridge lived up to my expectations; it is complex, highly readable, the characters are three-dimensional, and the stories are all long enough to allow for real depth but not so long that they can’t be completed in one sitting. Also worth mentioning is the cover image. This is probably the most provocative and eye catching cover of any work of fiction released in the last number years. The Iron Bridge is available September 14; details about ordering and the author are available from Goose Lane Editions.

Murder in the Dark by Margaret Atwood

Murder in the dark

Margaret Atwood has written a number of books that break through traditional notions of short stories and poetry. These books, Good Bones, Murder in the Dark, and most recently The Tent, all blur the lines. This short volume, only coming in at 70 pages, contains pieces that range from short prose poems, mini-literary criticism manifestos, speculative pieces, metaphysical musings, and mini-romances. Murder in the Dark was Atwood’s first collection like this, and in my opinion, the best of the three. Every page of this book pushes you like no other writer can.

Many of the pieces in this collection explore themes of seeing what is in front of you and absorbing the world around you; she does this through matters of love, literature, growing up, and gender roles. Many of the prose poems twist your mind and attempt to demystify life’s little mysteries. Atwood’s flair for language is on display in this book like very few of her works that came before it; she shows why she is considered a master of the English language.

This book is a very quick read and a great example of Atwood’s style. Traditional literary genres and constraints are of no concern to the author; she creates her own genres and her own traditions to tell stories and express thoughts that are topically simple but thematically complex. Atwood attempts to answers basic human questions in 70 pages but forces you to open your mind, and ask new questions.

Mennonites Don’t Dance by Darcie Friesen Hossack

Shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Canada and Caribbean Region

Whenever I think about literature about Mennonites, I, like most people I’m sure, think of Miriam Toews and her book A Complicated Kindness. When I came across Mennonites Don’t Dance, the debut collection of stories by Darcie Friesen Hossack, I was interested in reading another book by a different author about this piece of the Canadian identity that is really foreign to me as a Maritimer. These stories revolve around the family dynamics of rural Saskatchewan Mennonites, focusing on the differences between generations. While only a few of the stories are actually connected, all of the stories have a real sense of community. As I read the stories, it felt like I was walking down the street from one family to another, sitting in their living room, and watching a brief episode of their lives. I loved this collection of stories. I didn’t really have any expectations either way as this is a debut collection and I hadn’t read any of the stories in journals. All I knew was the cover art was very nice. Darcie Hossack writes with a maturity that is way beyond a first book. Her prose are sparse and punchy but have a poetic quality, the characters are developed quickly and deeply, and the stories vary from short episodes of only a couple pages to longer 40+ page stories that feel like miniature novels.

The highest compliment that I can pay this book is that it reminded me of the best work of Mavis Gallant. Both writers share many qualities in terms of style of writing and treatment of characters. The cast of the stories are developed on a deep level within a couple paragraphs, as they should be in short stories; there are many characters that are very likable and sympathetic but there are also many characters that are very brash and hard to handle, typically the older generation characters in the stories. Hossack is merciless with her characters. Their experiences and hardships are not sugar-coated. There is death. There is suffering. Through it all though the beauty of the prose reveals a mysterious world unknown to many people.

I read a lot of short story collections. 2010 seemed to be the year of the story with a lot of collections receiving high praise. I’d say this is the best of that crowd. The great thing about a collection of stories is that there are multiple sets of characters, multiple plots, multiple opportunities to leave an impression on the reader. My favorite stories in the book are the title story, “Mennonites Don’t Dance”, and the second story, “Ashes”. A lot of these stories will leave you feeling sad, but many will also leave you feeling hopeful. The Praries have produced so many great writers: Laurence, Vanderhaeghe, Toews, and Kroetsch just to name a few; I think with a few more books under her belt, Darcie Friesen Hossack will join this group. Hopefully we don’t have to wait to long for book number 2.

This Cake is for the Party by Sarah Selecky

Shortlisted for the 2010 Giller Prize

Shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Canada and Caribbean Region

Longlisted for the 2010 Frank O’Connor Award

A Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2010

When this book was longlisted for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize it immediately caught my attention; a debut collection of stories published by Thomas Allen, the same folks who brought us A Perfect Night to go to China and The Polished HoeThis Cake is for the Party was definitely a worthy contender. Many of the ten stories are very memorable; they can range from heartwarming to haunting. Is this a perfect book? no, absolutely not; there are some serious flaws with it, but, that being said, I did really enjoy most of the stories and I do believe that Sarah Selecky, along with her Giller co-nominee Alexander MacLeod, is going to be one of the major voices of the new wave of Canadian short fiction.

These stories took me back to the writing style of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant early in their careers. Each story is very episodic, representing a snapshot in a character’s life. A lot of the pieces have very little forward momentum; the conflicts and resolutions in these stories come from average people dealing with whatever fate has been dealt to them. What I really liked about this book is that each story contains some of the mundane and somewhat more dull details that many writers simply ignore; Selecky understands how important these small details are in life’s daily battles. This book looks at relationships, marriage, and family dynamics in great depth. Issues of infidelity, parenthood, the decision to have children, depression and mental illness and it’s effect on a relationship, and friendship, among others, are examined through a microscopic lens.

This book is not without it’s flaws. The first two stories in the book reeked of what I call “MFA disorder”. These stories, while technically perfect, lacked heart and passion. They had the overwritten pretension of someone taking a first year creative writing course. This has become a trend in American literature and has been celebrated by many critics south of the border. Writers like Annie Proulx and Michael Chabon are perfect examples. Had this not been the only book I brought along with me on my Christmas vacation travels I would have likely put it down after the second story. While the collection doesn’t completely shake the MFA feeling, as the book progressed the stories got better, with the final one, “One Thousand Wax Buddhas”, being my hands-down favorite.

Collections of short fiction are published less and less. I think this is more so a business issue rather than a talent issue. Publishing a book is very expensive and companies want to make sure they make money on their product; the fact is short stories do not sell well. This has always amazed me. I think that stories are one of the greatest literary genres in existence today. A 20 page story examines the human condition in such a unique way; it combines the brevity of poetry with the thematic complexities of a novel. This Cake is for the Party is a great debut collection and I will not be surprised if we hear the name Sarah Selecky attached to many other notable books.

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood

Nobody does short stories better than Canadians. When you think of the great CanLit short fiction creators usually a few choice names come to mind: Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Alistair MacLeod, but very often Margaret Atwood’s name does not get grouped in this particular list, which, in my humble opinion, is a great omission. Ms. Atwood is definitely a master of the story genre. Her story collections generally fall into two categories: traditional stories, collections such as Dancing Girls or Wilderness Tips, and her flash fiction/prose poetry, such as Good Bones or The Tent. Moral Disorder, Atwood’s 2006 book, is a hybrid between a novel and a short story collection. It is a story sequence in the same Canadian tradition as Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town or more recently, Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. Each of these stories could easily stand on their own but collected together they weave a beautifully crafted portrait of these rich living characters.

I am a huge Margaret Atwood fan; when I pick up one of her books I do so with very high expectations, and, thus far, have never been disappointed (although I still have trouble wrapping my head around Lady Oracle). Of the eleven stories, nine of them lay out a chronological tale of Nell, and eventually, her partner Tig. The first and last stories are the odd two out that do not follow this chain; although these are both well written they didn’t have the same affect on me as the other nine. What has always impressed me about Margaret Atwood’s short stories is how they are snapshots in the extraordinary lives of seemingly ordinary people. Every story has very intense imagery but one in particular really stuck with me: the title story “Moral Disorder.” Nell and Tig’s beheading of their first hen, the death of the peahen and mental decay of the peacock, the aggressive lamb that was eventually processed into dinner, and the scene where the defective chicks are born and euthanized with a shovel. Vivid writing as only someone of Margaret Atwood’s caliber can pull off.

As I read this book I felt a strong sense of family, more specifically the trials and tribulations that go along with the word “family.” So many everyday yet major occurances are tackled: the birth of a younger sibling, dealing with aging parents that are falling further away as each day goes by, the relationship between adult sisters, dating the divorced man and handling the inherited children, having children of your own, and death. The stories set on the farm examine these themes through heavy, yet accessible, use of metaphors, namely the animals that Nell and Tig are charged with. These animals become characters in their own right in stories like “Moral Disorder” and “White Horse.”

My favorite stories are the ones from when the central character, Nell, is young. “The Art of Cooking and Serving” and “My Last Duchess” are not only the two best stories in the book, but, I believe, two of the best stories Margaret Atwood has published. Moral Disorder slipped under the radar, for me anyway, when it was first released. It didn’t receive the same kind of fanfare here in Charlottetown that both The Door and Year of the Flood received. I hope this was simply an oversight of the local booksellers here and not a nationwide problem. This is the first book of fiction by Ms. Atwood that I have read in about two years (I have read a ton of her poetry and criticism in this time) and this book was a marvelous way to rekindle my love affair with the Queen of CanLit.

The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro

Winner of the 1998 Giller Prize

Winner of the 1998 National Book Critics’ Circle Top Fiction Award

Winner of the 1998 Trillium Award

Winner of the 1999 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Fiction Book of the Year

New York Times Book Review Best Book – 1998

Shortlisted for the 1998 Roger’s Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize

Selected for Canada Reads 2004

Alice Munro is almost universally known as one of, if not the single, greatest living writer(s) in English and a true master of the short story. She has won countless awards, 3 Governor-Generals, 2 Gillers, numerous O. Henry awards, Commonwealth prizes, Trillium prizes, and the Man Booker International Prize. The only prize missing from her resume is the Nobel Prize which will hopefully one day be bestowed upon Ms. Munro if the Nobel committee ever gets past its Eurocentric mindset. I have read several Munro books and I can say without any hesitation that The Love of a Good Woman is the best of what I have seen. Like many of Munro’s later works, this book’s stories has a wide  array of characters ranging in age from young adolescence to old age. We are taken deep into Munro county (also known as Huron County) in her typical and magical Southern Ontario Gothic style. This collection, perhaps more than any of her others, showcases Alice Munro’s ability to write so subtly that without even realizing, you as a reader are drawn into the lives of these seemingly ordinary people experiencing extraordinary circumstances.

The Love of a Good Woman is a very fitting title for this collection. While it is the first story, or arguably, novella,  in the book, the title describes the overall themes of almost all of the stories. Whether it is a widow loving memories of her dead husband, a daughter loving her parents, a nurse caring for her patient, or a caretaker loving someone else’s child, the idea of a woman’s love permeates this collection down to its epicenter.

The stories themselves are filled with Munro’s classic reserved style. She never gives you all the details; like many great classic story tellers Munro does not lay all of her cards out on the table at once. Little pieces are given and all of the details unfold before your eyes in a natural course of events. Often times the narration is not completely linear and the characters lives are revealed in bits and pieces while the story’s endings quietly approach.

My favorite story in the collection is the second-to-last one, “Before the Change.” Like many of Munro’s stories following this collection, this piece looks at what happens when old world values meet new world sensibilities at at time when society is not ready to accept this change. “Before the Change” centres on a young woman who comes home from college and stays with her father. Through a series of letters to her professor boyfriend it is revealed that her doctor father is performing abortions which are illegal at the time this is set. This story best demonstrates my previous point about the subtle narration guiding you. At first we are led to believe that the father has a cold disregard for his daughter but as we learn more and more details and additional graphic details are revealed we see what is really going on; and, like all of the other pieces, when you finish this story you will see why the “love of a good woman” is the underlying theme. Other stories, notably, “Cortes Island”, “Rich as Stink”, “My Mother’s Dream”, and the title story, exemplify Munro’s ability to topically look at relationships but brutally dissect them with the understated tone of a master writer.

This book was an absolute pleasure to read. The amount of critical acclaim this book has received is without a doubt well deserved. The Love of a Good Woman exemplifies what makes Canadian Literature unique in the wider canon of English literature. This book looks at the family, relationships, and of course being the eternal Northrop Frye apologist that I am, this book exposes our insular need to play the victim and survive in the Canadian societal vacuum. I was always amazed at the lack of attention that Hollywood has paid to Alice Munro. This of course changed slightly when Sarah Polley adapted “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” into the Oscar nominated film Away From Her. From what I have read the story “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” is being adapted into a film to be released next year starring Julianne Moore. There are at least 3 stories in this collection that could easily be made into great films. The Love of a Good Woman has earned a place in my Top 10 favorite list; not an easy feat.

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