Jill Sexsmith’s Somewhere a Long and Happy Life Probably Awaits You (ARP Books, 2016)
“Tulip stopped at the doorway. She had grown up with the whir of a mitre saw in the background, always cutting her thoughts and sentences and songs in half. Still, the sound of the blade tearing through wood always made her nervous.
Her father sometimes invited her in. Had dreams of whittling with his daughter. But the doorway was as far as she could go. Today, when he saw her, he took his eyes off the blade for a moment and the tips of three fingers flew past Tulip’s head.”
This excerpt represents many of the qualities that I loved about these stories.
Very ordinary things, like mitre saws, are everywhere. But a tree in a Jill Sexsmith story isn’t like a tree in some other story.
Sometimes the unexpected happens: in fact, often. Like fingers flying across the room. Just when you were preoccupied by the whir, covering your ears with your hands? Thoughts and sentences and hands become casualties. And you should have put out your own hands like a shield, to block your gaze.
Also, there are thresholds. They do not look like what you might have thought that thresholds would look like. And a threshold for Tulip might be another character’s nightmare of whittling.
And even when something very dark is happening, there is something whimsical and playful about the tone. Wickedly playful. It made me want to stop and read passages aloud at frequent intervals.
Images might be poetic, but the language is straightforward. And if there is a moral to the stories, it is that one shouldn’t look for morals in stories. One should look out for flying digits instead.
Contents: “Somewhere a Long and Happy Life Probably Awaits You”, “this s an epic love story”, “The Problem with Babies”, “A Box Full of Wildebeest”, “Airplanes Couldn’t Be Happier in Turbulence”, “Downward Slump in the Prodigy Market”, “You Cry Ugly”, “The End of the World (now postponed)”, “Hybrid Vigour”, “Step on a Crack”, “Play the Dying Card”
Gianna Patriarca’s All My Fallen Angelas (Inanna, 2016)
“Vicky’s parents had no idea about feminism and the Women’s Liberation movement. Nor did they have any real idea about the American dream, or about boutiques or about women like Cheryl Tiegs. They were simply hard-working immigrant parents who wanted to create a good life for themselves and their children, and they lived by their traditions and religious beliefs. But Victoria, who wanted to be called Vicky, had begun to dream a different dream when her father brought home that first television set as a Christmas gift for the family.”
There are as many kinds of feminists in All My Fallen Angelas as there are likely to be feminist readers of this debut collection. Young girls as dreamers, older girls as ghosts: each has her place.
“I believed I could make it happen. I believed that it would all come true. It would all turn out the way it was meant to be. I could live the enchantment. I would be wife to the husband prince, daughter to the King and Queen, and mother to the noble heirs to come. I would remain the dawn of every possibility.”
The variety of perspectives (including a ghost, a child, a freshly engaged 29YO woman, and a “good daughter” who returns home to care for her aging mother) keeps the reader engaged, and beneath them all lies the author’s fascination with life stories.
Many of these stories consider (or unfold with a backdrop of) the experiences of newcomers to Canada and Gianna Patriarca is especially interested in the gap between expectations and dreams and the reality of everyday life. Often the backstory, events which played out long before the characters arrived in Toronto, is more important than present-day events, with memory shading all that follows.
As if to reflect the world beyond its pages, the epigraphs to the stories reach widely geographically, frequently to the works of poets (including Eavan Boland and Dylan Thomas, Lucille Clifton and Dionne Brand).
But Toronto sets the stage for these tales, most often Little Italy. Many historic and lasting landmarks are featured, from Union Station to Tivoli (a greasy spoon at the corner of St. Clair and Dufferin), from Kensington Market to the Piper Club (on the east side of Dufferin with its afternoon dances), from the Royal Cinema on College to the Sicilian Café (further along the strip, at the corner of Montrose).
Tivoli is filled with sensory detail as well (smelling like hormones and cigarette smoke, fries and onion rings) and there are delicious foods to tempt readers as well (rum-drenched and custard-filled brioche, almond biscotto, and maple caramel candy), along with less appealing details (a steaming and foaming waterfall of pee, or the smell of oil in soil air and plants of Petrolia).
All My Fallen Angelas feels like a community-soaked collection of stories, always character-driven and often moving and affecting.
Contents: “All My Fallen Angelas”, “A Girl Named Ascenza”, “The Apron”, “My First American Candy”, “Waiting for a Miracle”, “In My Blood”, “Painted Windows”, “My Grandmother is Normal”, “Grazia on Grace”, “Blonde Forever”, “Anna at the Window”, “Table for Two”, “A Girl Made of Lavender,” My Mother, “My Father”, “My Sins”
Jess Taylor’s Pauls (Book Thug, 2015)
Readers of All My Fallen Angelas might be suprrised to learn that there is not an excess of Angelas to be found therein; those readers will be content to learn that a plethora of Pauls peoples Jess Taylor’s debut collection.
Not, however, as the same Shell appears in all 13 Shells of Nadia Bozak’s recent book. There are ten stories in Pauls, but not ten Pauls.
First off, readers meet two Pauls, one who works at a paper mill and one who works as an academic. Immediately multiple Pauls. Then there are more. Sometimes they narrate, sometimes they are “him”s. There is a Paulina, too, who is also a Paul. And sometimes one Paul later becomes another Paul.
This Paul-ness is complicated by the fact that many of the characters in this collection – Pauls and otherwise – are caught in the act of becoming.
“What are you going to do now that you’re done your job?”
“I don’t know. Maybe just read. I wish I knew how to do something. I want people to think I have a bleeding soul, that I offer some sort of unique vision. I want topple to see what I see, and I want them to go, Wow, wow.”
Sometimes this is an active state, but often it is something quiet and sprawling.
“I read all day sometimes, when I wasn’t working. Things that had happened to me before moving to the city left me raw. And reading just like when I was a child, along with my friendships, seemed to be the way to fix it. I was learning. I could feel myself growing every day into a woman. And it was maybe not an easy thing. But it was a special thing.”
Sometimes you only notice the becoming when you look back over your shoulder and see how much of it has pooled behind you, while you were watching something else. Sometimes it is about imagining oneself as the watched one, not the one who is watching.
“The gaps made more gaps and then more gaps. She imagined him sitting by her naked body, just watching. Spending the whole night watching.”
In the process, there is talk of the weather (of sunsets, but also lightning), colours (of bruises, but also skies), textures (of tongues, but also sumac trees), and the tangible (say, the positioning of Barbie dolls’ hands) but also the intangible (lies and promises and wishes).
What happens if we take a deep breath in – what happens when we let it out? What do we hold in there? Where is the line between potential and destiny? What can we do with the gap between those states?
“Fine is a funny word. The weather can be fine. There can be fine stitching on clothes. Fine can mean small, contained, delicate. Fine can mean okay, all right. Comme ci, comme ca. When someone asks, How are you? You can say, Fine, and mean the opposite, or you can mean, I am like a careful line of stitching, how are you? You can mean, I am delicate. Be careful that I don’t get snagged and unravel.”
There is a sharp and simultaneously tender vision at the heart of Pauls. It’s fine. And it’s fine. And it is also fine. And, it’s a careful line of stitching.
Contents: “Paul”, “Claire’s Fine”, “We Want Impossible Things”, “Breakfast Curry”, “Multicoloured Lights”, “Wishweeds”, “And We Spin Like Records (and we Climb like Trees)”, “Below the Spoon-Tree”, “The Letters”, “Degenerate”
What short stories have you been reading lately?