Kaplan, McKay, Puntí, Rosenfarb and Shapton

Short Stories in July, August, and September

Whether in a dedicated collection or a magazine, these stories capture a variety of reading moods.

This quarter, I returned to two favourite writers and also explored three new-to-me story writers.

Hester Kaplan’s Unravished (2014)

This landed on my stack because I’ve been exploring IG Publishing’s catalogue: their fiction seems centred on voice and craft. The stories feel a little like something Elizabeth Strout might write, but with more words (more detail, more descriptors, more dialogue).

This collection feels like it swings on this kind of hinge: “Our union was simple math; what he loved about me was that I loved him back. Neither of us had had much of that in our lives, and we knew its worth.”

There are a lot of lives contained between these covers: even though I didn’t read all of the stories, I wouldn’t say this is a collection to be rushed. More one to read periodically, while waiting for a bus on a long commute or settling into a morning with a cup of tea when you’ve risen early enough to allow for unexpected leisure, because these are engaging stories with epiphanies that need time to unfurl in your mind afterwards.

Contents: Unravished, The School of Politics, The Aerialist, Companion Animal, Natural Wonder, Lovesick, Cold-cocked, This is Your Last Swim

Leo McKay Jr’s Like This (1995)

There are lots of outside words in these stories, scenes in gardens and rivers, but other characters watch “The Flintstones” and the CBC in living rooms, eat homemade muffins at the kitchen table, and read Macleans magazine on the bus.

McKay Jr. isn’t afraid of repetition in thought and dialogue and it adds credibility, quickly and cleanly. He’s also unafraid to enter painful places, so a raw kind of vulnerability echoes in the space between story and reader.

“You call this a new start,” she said to Daddy. “I know what kind of start it’ll be.”

Canadian readers who have enjoyed collections by Russell Wangersky, Shaena Lambert and Nancy Lee would also enjoy this classic volume and early nominee for the Giller Prize.

Contents: Angus Fell, Like This, The Ball, Gold Wings, Fidelity, A New Start, Oil, The Name Everybody Calls Me, A Thing Like Snow, The Transformed Sky, In My Heart

Jordi Puntí’s This Is Not America: Stories (2019)

This collection caught my eye because I read and enjoyed Lost Luggage (also translated by Julie Wark). The pieces were commissioned for individual publications, but the voice and energy are consistent, along with a wry sort of sadness against a backdrop that might have seemed more playful in the hands of another writer.

For instance, there is a story about a man who dresses as a clown for work and does not own a vehicle so he must rely on hitchhiking to travel to his gigs.

It’s actually a perfect window into the art of storytelling: “The art of hitchhiking only lets you need normal, ordinary folk. Or so they seem. You open the door, get superficially involved in their lives for a while, then you get out of the car, and they forget you and you forget them. That’s the theory, anyway, because reality changes the plan and puts you to the test.”

And it’s playful, is it not? (He could have been a musician – much more common, surely.) But it’s not fun. Because readers learn too much about Gori, who suffers from attacks of loneliness: “infrequent, mostly benign, but they came without warning and swamped him all day long with false nostalgia for the past, springing not from memory but imagination”.

The man who has not spoken to his brother for many years and receives a note requesting a kidney, a detailed account of infidelity on holiday, a couple who alternates kisses with chips, a man who orders a sandwich and a Coke at the Luxembourg railway station and later meets an author named Jordi Puntí (who’s described as being “almost smarmy”.

Contents: Vertical, Blinker, Kidney, Consolation Prize, My Best Friend’s Mother, Seven Days on the Love Boat, Matter, The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes, Patience

Chava Rosenfarb’s Survivors (2004; Trans. Goldie Morgentaler)

It feels shabby to select a favourite story from this volume because there are so many powerful situations illuminated in this volume. “The Greenhorn”, for instance, considers the workplace and emotional experiences of a man who spent some time in Europe following WWII as a Displaced Person before coming to Montreal, Canada.

The way in which he is introduced to the procedure for operating an industrial sized clothing press aligns with his capacity to adjust to life in this new country. His exchanges with other employees reveal complex emotional truths: a wrinkle in fabric is evidence of a pleat pressed much more deeply into his way of being in the world. This is the first story in this collection, but it also was the first I wanted to read, because I remembered it was recommended by Mel at The Reading Life.

Another of Mel’s favourites, however, is the longest story in the collection, “Edgia’s Revenge”, which deals more overtly with the concentration camp experience in WWII, specifically about the way in which a relationship between two women, which begins in the camp when one of them is a Capo and the other is a prisoner, evolves over time, after they have moved to Montreal. The wartime stories are impressive, but just as remarkable for its quiet simplicity, is “A Friday in the Life of Sarah Zonabend”. I’ll be thinking of Sarah this Friday.

This is another recommendation from Mel at The Reading Life, who is a regular source of short-story-reading inspiration (for reading projects too)!

Contents: The Greenhorn, Last Love, A Friday in the Life of Sarah Zonabend, Edgia’s Revenge, Little Red Bird, Francois, Serengeti

Leanne Shapton’s Guest Book: Ghost Stories (2019)

It was her Swimming Studies that won me, but I also appreciated Important Artifacts. Leanne Shapton’s Guest Book: Ghost Stories (2019) is a collection to keep close at hand, to dabble in, not power through.

These are stories which require some investment on the part of readers. Shapton provides the frameworks for narratives, but there is some assembly required. In some instances, it’s as though you are actually writing the story yourself, as in “The Dream” which presents a series of images, of transitory spaces (hallways and staircases) on a spread of pages.

Others, like “At the Foot of the Bed” wash over you, with less of a sense of curiosity and more of a sense of observation: all these beds, mostly made, only one rumpled. Afterwards, a page of endnotes, a sentence or two for each image: all bed-related.

In “Peele House”, one is reminded of those memoirs of houses (like Penelope Lively’s or Rumer Godden’s) and also that lovely and timeful comic Here by Richard McGuire: these photographs are more populated and atmospheric, so that the narrative almost writes itself.

With “Christmas Eve”, I could practically smell the rum in the eggnog and fruitcake: these images of vintage wrapping paper felt so familiar.

This collection will not suit every reader, but some will fall hard and fast for it.

33 Stories in about 300 pages: from “S as in Sam, H, A, P as in Peter, T as in Tom, O, N as in Nancy” to “Causeth Sath”

And you? Any short stories lately?