My last short story post was in Autumn 2013 and focussed on recently published collections (Rosemary Nixon’s Are You Ready to be Lucky? Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s How to Get Along with Women, and Shaena Lambert’s Oh, My Darling).
In recent weeks I have been dabbling in some volumes on my shelves, so the short story reading has been more backlist inspired, beginning with Jan Thornhill’s Drought and Other Stories (2000).
This is a book that I bought for its cover (you do that too, right?); its contents did not disappoint. Jan Thornhill’s stories are sometimes wise and sometimes funny (sometimes both) and always perceptive.
The imagery is often incisive and frequently straddles the line between the wild and the domestic details that surround the characters therein.
“Every day, somewhere around four o’clock, the clouds start rolling up like credits from the west horizon. For a few minutes they hang over Etobicoke, silently churning there, while above me the sun still shines. The tar on the rooftop outside my back door is so hot that the gravel strewn on it sinks of its own accord.”
“Many more worms came out. When the ground was bruised pink and squirming with them, I jumped off the top step of the porch and landed with a thud in the grass. There were so many worms that I could hear them suck themselves back into their holes, fast as switchblades, only backwards.”
With a tension between the states that illuminates the themes and preoccupations of the works.
“It definitely began the winter the mice became our roommates. They’d snuck in somehow, whittled a skeleton key probably, from an old chicken rib found in the alleyway, waltzed in and, with no discretion, made themselves at home. In the evenings, we’d hear them in the kitchen while the two of us sat glaring at each other in the living room, annoyed at the noise.”
One of my favourites is “Saint Francis and the Birds”, though I enjoyed the collection consistently; this consistency was due, I think, to the quiet sense of observation and rumination that invites questions where another write might be compelled to press answers upon the reader.
“She knows she will become used to it eventually, will become inured to the flatness, to the banality. And when that happens, she will be able to climb down. One-eyed and lacking perspective, she waits for that moment to come.”
Contents: Drought; Violation; Not for Meat, but for Love; Goldfish; Pinned; Saint Francis and the Birds; Waiting; Action; Life in the Country; Simple Solutions; Females are Green, Stupid; Extremes; Worms in the Back Garden; Dirt-Eater
Cynthia Flood’s Red Girl, Rat Boy (2013)
This collection is one I anticipated because I so enjoyed The English Stories. It made my list of favourites that reading year. My expectations went awry because The English Stories is a linked collection, whereas the stories in Red Girl, Rat Boy are not only standalones but often startlingly distinct in voice and theme.
What is immediately apparent, however, is the quality of the work. Whether biting or tender, the stories resonate with the reader dramatically.
Brutality is twined with vulnerability. The sensory detail is remarkable.
“Safe, in a jungle of salal, salmonberry, morning-glory all wound through with tunnels, she went eastwards. Rats and mice stopped heart-still, sensing her amid dirty diapers, syringes, beer bottles, toasters, pop cans, condoms, rotting mattresses, rusted cylinders of hairspray and Lysol. She glided on.”
Connections and fractures nestle together. Characters are searching and reaching.
“She refused or excused herself from more love-making, left whatever bed she’d got herself into and went off elsewhere, over the hills and far away and still with that hollow inside.”
Memory is important. Characters look behind and ahead.
“Getting the machine was my idea, of course. Play, Replay, Erase, Rewind, Stop. Under the translucent cover, the brown plastic ribbon swelled and shrank in its orbits.”
There is an expectation, a sense of to-come-ness which pulls the reader closer.
“Excluded from this nostalgia, not even born, I waited in darkness for my brother to step down the years to me.”
And push away once more.
“Thus they spoke, helplessly wound in and wounded by these early attempts to manage, make a meal of it, articulate the bones, marry.”
There is a startling sharpness to some of the stories. One of my favourites is “Eggs and Bones” but the expanse of material is remarkable indeed, and choosing a favourite says more about me as a reader than about the crafting of the individual stories in the collection.
Contents: To Be Queen, Eggs and Bones, Blue Clouds, Red Girl Rat Boy, The Sister-in-Law, Care, Such Language, Addresses, One Two Three Two One, Dirty Work, The Hunter
Nancy Jo Cullen’s Canary (2013)
For all that the prose appears artless, as though it has tumbled from the mouths of characters, I suspect there is a great deal of attention to detail behind-the-scenes of Canary.
The pace is swift: the stories sometimes poignant, always astute.
“They are interrupted by the sound of footsteps on the other side of the lilacs. JD rolls on top of Bethany and they both lie perfectly still, holding their breath. Bethany can feel his hard penis pushing against her thigh. Or should she say dick? What do you call a dick during sex – pecker? All the words seem embarrassing when you stop to think about it. The footsteps move across the yard.”
My favourite story was “Passenger” and its opening also reveals the author’s talent for succinct characterizations.
“The road stretched out before Harvey, black, faded and lined with cracks. Tracy sat beside him with her arms folded across her chest and a sour look on her face. She had a lot of her mother in her, and no one would ever have charged Ruth with being too soft.”
Even a single line can contain a multitude of detail.
For sketching a person.
“Jane Shaw didn’t have to wear a bra.”
For illuminating a theme.
“I have spent too much time wanting people to like me.”
Some tragic events are observed and remarked upon with sombre hilarity.
“Two of my sisters, Patty and Jane, were convinced that now we had to treat each event with our mom as though it was her last. ‘And she’ll be treating each one like it’s her first,’ Marg, my third sister, said.”
“After my second marriage, my cervix was declared incompetent. I had hoped for a child to fortify my attachment to the folk singer, whose star was rapidly rising, but I’ve never had much drive.”
Many times, an observation in this collection provoked a loud “hah” punctuated by a wince-grin.
Contents: Ashes, Bet Your Boots, The 14th Week in Ordinary Time, Regina, Valerie’s Bush, Canary, Passenger, Happy Birthday, This Cold War, Eddie Truman, Big Fat Beautiful You
In the current stack of stories? The anthology edited by Andrew Atkinson and Mark Harris: Running the Whale’s Back: Stories of Faith and Doubt from Atlantic Canada (2013); Thomas King’s A Short History of Indians in Canada (2005)
In the stack of stories to come? All the tempting newer collections have been set aside temporarily, with read-o-lutions for the new reading year in mind, as I try, once again, to look to the lingering shelf-occupants and pick up the books that have been too-long a-sitting. (You do that too, right?)
Have you been reading short stories lately? Or, planning to?