In collection reading, since Quarterly Stories: Winter 2013 I’ve read Susie Moloney’s Things Withered, the latest installment of the Alice Munro reading project, B.J. Novak’s One More Thing, and the most recent volume of Journey Prize stories. Spring Quarterly Stories 2014

But mostly I’ve been dipping into single stories in recent months. Partly this was inspired by random samplings of the latest ReLit nominees (more on that project soon) and partly by the desire to reconnect with some favourite writers’ works.

To offer some shape to the randomness, I now turn to the fourth story in each collection.*

Bridget’s wintry drive in Elisabeth Harvor’s “The Student’s Soirée”  reminds me of Roslyn’s snowy walk in Rosemary Nixon’s collection.

“The sleet and wind have dislodged dozens of ice-splinters from the second-story window mouldings and poplar branches; they’re littering the ice-path like fish bones.”

But though its Ottawa setting is atmospheric, the story revolves around Bridget’s “too-agitated heart”, her evening out in which she will meet her French teacher, with whom she converses weekly. There is a peculiar intimacy engendered by this arrangement, speaking regularly with this man (she is his last student of the evening) in an unfamiliar tongue, and Elisabeth Harvor astutely captures the nuances of this relationship alongside an element of surprise and hesitant optimism.

Bonnie Burnard’s “Figurines” in Casino and Other Stories contains many of the same themes as her Giller-Prize-winning novel, A Good House.

“Joan’s father often conjured up these scatted segments of history, composing as much for himself as for anyone else his own interpretation of distant events, pulling details forward to give the past a present shape. It was like a hobby.”

One could posit that that is a writer’s responsibility, too, and certainly Bonnie Burnard assembles a series of details which are expected to hold the past in this story. The figurines are described specifically, but as I read about them, some of the details begin to shift, as they do for Joan’s father, so that the boy is now holding a fishing rod and not an oar, so that they might be the figurines that once sat on my grandmother’s shelves rather than Joan’s aunt’s. What we inherit from those who came before: a familiar theme, explored here with delicacy and without sentimentality. The matter-of-fact tone only makes the heart of the story more tender.

The tone of Barbara Kingsolver’s “Quality Time” reminds me of Cordelia Strube’s Teaching Pigs to Sing, one of my favourite novels about a single-mom navigating the world with a young child in tow.

Bonnie Burnard Casino“Miriam is faithful about the business of getting each thing done in its turn, and could no more abandon her orderly plan than a priest could swig down the transubstantiated wine and toss out wafers like Frisbees over the heads of those waiting to be blessed.”

In a playful tone with just a hint of edge, this story is the sort which leaves you wanting to scribble down lines: “On the Disney Channel parents come in even numbers”; “Parenting is something that happens mostly when you’re thinking of something else”. There is an easy cadence to the author’s early works, fiction and essays alike. Readers slip into a scene, watch it quietly unfold, the rather ordinary events settling on the page. But there is a moment at the very end of the piece which cinches the emotional resonance of the seemingly innocuous events, and the story (it happens with the essays, too) echoes beyond the scene. This one is about banana splits and pot pies, but it’s also about the fragility of innocence and faith.

Ursula Hegi’s “Props for Faith” is one piece in Floating in My Mother’s Palm (1990), which is marketed as a novel. I think of it as stories, however, largely because of its episodic construction. (I’m not sure marketers had conceived of the novel-in-stories yet, and this was before the author had an Oprah sticker to convince hesitant short fiction readers.)

“I’ve always had an enormous capacity to believe. Stories, miracles, lies – with the right details, I can be convinced of the authenticity of nearly anything, even Hasenbrot, rabbit bread, which my father brought me many evenings when he had returned from working on people’s teeth.”

The characters in this story appear throughout the collection but their connections fade and intensify depending on the focus of a given narrative. Hanna’s voice affords the opportunity for uncomplicated descriptions of the relationships which pass beneath the storyteller’s magnifying glass, allowing readers to connect the literary dots in this 1950s German village. The war lurks beneath the story, erupting on occasion in the children’s unanswered questions about those years, quietly oppressive as the roots of recovery take hold. Just as a child longs to be restored after a devastating illness, a nation and its inhabitants long for earlier times before so many baby boys were named Adolf and then named again; Ursula Hegi writes assuredly about uncertain times.

Though one of the shortest stories in Sandra Cisneros’ in Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, Mexican Movies” is a vivid and lively sketch.

“It’s the one with Pedro Armendáriz in love with his boss’ wife, only she’s nothing but trouble and his problem is he’s just plain dumb. I like it when the man starts undressing the lady because that’s when Papa gives us the quarters and sends us to the lobby, hurry, until they put their clothes back on.”

The sensory detail creates the scene: lush red red [sic] carpets, velvet rope blocking the stairs, the candy counter, the jujubes, horses and sombreros on the screen, popcorn (eating it, yes, but the squeak against the teeth too), mother sandwiched in her seat like an accordion, and the feel of the armrest against one’s head. One almost wants to squint and cover one’s ears at times. Known for her economy with words and her capacity to pin girlhood to the page, Sandra Cisneros’ collection is an excellent introduction to her work.

If one suspects there is a certain disappointment inherent in the story which follows the title story in a collection, one might feel sorry for Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Real Durwan” in Interpreter of Maladies (1999), but the stories in this collection are consistently strong.

“In fact, the only thing that appeared three-dimensional about Boori Ma was her voice: brittle with sorrows, as tart as curds, and shrill enough to grate meat from a coconut. It was with this voice that she enumerated, twice a day as she swept the stariwell, the details of her plight and losses suffered since her deportation to Calcutta after Partition.”

“A Real Durwan” showcases Lahiri’s artistry with language, metaphors and similes so striking that one wants to slow to savour each one in passing. Each adds to readers’ experience of the story, whether one has slept on a bed of newspapers or cooked with mustard oil. And yet there is a broader arc of narrative which demands attention: there is substance to this story, and readers are gradually and determinedly engaged in the travails of Boori Ma. Originally published in the “Harvard Review” and awarded the Pulitzer Prize as part of this collection, this story is rather short (a dozen pages, whereas most in this collection are more than twenty) but there is enough time to be immersed in setting and invested in characters.

Barbara Gowdy’s “Ninety-three Million Miles Away” is only one of several unsettling stories in We So Seldom Look on Love. Her capacity to pull readers into uncomfortable places has won her critical acclaim and readers’ admiration (and, sometimes, revulsion).

“Once, he said that there were days he got so horny at the office, his pencil turned him on. (She felt it should have been his pencil sharpener.)”

There are many more striking and evocative passages to quote from this story, but the narrative takes an unexpected turn (an occurrence almost expected, for readers familiar with her work) and quoting otherwise would be spoilerish. Nonetheless, the story subtly and openly contemplates desire. What makes us want. (Even a pencil.) What makes us think that we know what someone else should want. (If it’s not a pencil sharpener, it’s not a pencil sharpener.) But this is not a smutty story about a plastic surgeon who spends all day remaking and reshaping women’s bodies literally. This is a sexy story about the ways in which women can remake themselves. With references to Samuel Butler and William Wordsworth along the way. A class act.

Like many readers, I discovered Z. Z. Packer’s fiction via “The New Yorker” with “Brownies”, but “The Ant of the Self” also considers the intricacies of coming-of-age in America. In thirty-five pages, Z.Z. Packer manages to insert backstories for Ray Bivens Jr, a father with his Black Panther days behind him, and Lupita, who had a rooster when she was five-years-old in Guatemala but, even more impressively, also shade a dazzlingly complex relationship that could have spun into a novel in another writer’s hands. It’s a fine line between waiting and dying, and Z. Z. Packer has no problem picking up her readers and smearing them back and forth across that line right alongside her narrator in this story. Unpleasant. Powerful.

What was the last short story you’ve read? Does any of these tempt you?

*Elisabeth Harvor’s “The Student’s Soirée” in If Only We Could Drive Like This Forever (1988), Bonnie Burnard’s “Figurines” in Casino and Other Stories (1994), “Quality Time” in Barbara Kingsolver’s Homeland and Other Stories (1989), Ursula Hegi’s “Props for Faith” in Floating in My Mother’s Palm (1990), Sandra Cisneros’ “Mexican Movies” in Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991), Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Real Durwan” in Interpreter of Maladies (1999), Barbara Gowdy’s “Ninety-three Million Miles Away” in We So Seldom Look on Love (1992), and Z. Z. Packer’s “The Ant of the Self” in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003)