Adichie, Colford, Ez-Eldin, Gallant, and Hurst

Short Stories in April, May, June

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.

Fannie Hurst wrote eighteen novels, five plays, an autobiography, a memoir, and more than 300 short stories: 63 of these were published in eight volumes, the remainder in popular magazines and exclusively in Cosmopolitan Magazine after 1919.

One of the most popular and highly paid writers in the United States, she tackled themes that many others left untouched: sexism and discrimination that women faced in the working world, racism and prejudice, sexuality and prostitution, addiction and immigration.

The 2004 reissue of The Stories of Fannie Hurst by The Feminist Press in New York begins with an informative and insightful introduction by Susan Koppelman. If you didn’t already want to read Hurst, this introduction will convince you.

In one story, Hattie is concerned about her roommate Sara because “ten years in the arc-lighted subcellar of the titanic Department Store can do much to muffle the ring in a laugh” and she’s looking as “pale and skinny as a goop”. Hattie goes home to make a stew but Sara meets up with Charley Chubb, who takes her dancing and complains about her questions as to whether they’re engaged. When the crowd and the temperature overwhelms her, Sara faints; when Charley walks with her, up Sixth Avenue, they munch on roasted chestnuts, sip strawberry ice-cream soda, admire a store-window display of furniture to purchase on monthly installments, and eventually they wander into an educational exhibit about tuberculosis.

Ten thousand people died from it in NYC the year prior and the health department declares 31,631 living cases currently exist there. And Sara’s concern about her chronic cough increase when a young man pushes a pamphlet into her hand. She returns the next day, without Charley, and Eddie recognizes her and shares part of his story. “T.B.” was first published in The Saturday Evening Post on January 9, 1915 and was included in the following year’s collection Every Soul Hath Its Song.

In another, set on the “lowly lands of the East Side” in the Bowery, the Kantors’ oilcloth-covered table has a centerpiece of heavy Russian lace. Russian spoons with worn-away gilt are set alongside thick lipped china and there is black bread ready to be torn into chunks and eaten with a rich black soup. With a pink-frosted birthday cake to follow, for Leon’s fifth birthday. Mamma Kantor wants Mannie to buy his son a fiddle because she’s convinced he’s a musical genius. The other children are grumpy because their birthdays are not happening. In one part of the story, the strain is how to afford a birthday present. Later, it’s “human hayricks of battle-fields” and “Belgium disemboweled, her very entrails dragging”. This story covers a lot of time and space, but the swaths of dialogue and human detail make it something of a page-turner. “Humoresque” was first published in Cosmopolitan in March 1919, collected with other stories in a volume with the same title later the same year, filmed in 1920 (directed by Frank Borzage) and again in 1946 (directed by Jean Negulesco).

And, in another, the Bon Ton Hotel is a family-owned, 14-story-tall business, which rents rooms for $60/week and forbids dogs and cooking. The men have “Wall Street eyes and blood pressure”, the boys have patent-leather hair, and the girls have their “traditions of demure sixteen hanging by one-inch shoulder straps”. There, Carrie Samstag agrees to marry Louis Latz, but only if he accepts her daughter, Alma, too. At eighteen, this is hardly a prerequisite, but Carrie considers Alma her “shadow”, so dependent on her has Carrie become. Louis is willing—but Alma is not. Is she a “regular girl”? or a “she-devil”? And what of Leo Friedlander, Alma’s fine suitor? Mother-daughter relationships are important in Hurst’s writing and even though this story is 30 pages long, the dialogue and plot keep the reader engaged. “She Walks in Beauty” was first published in Cosmopolitan in August 1921 and collected in the volume, The Vertical City, the following year, along with a few “Best Short Story” collections in that decade.

What a discovery. (Made while browsing the DVD shelves in a neighbourhood library branch and stumbling upon John Stahl’s 1934 film, Imitation of Life, based on Hurst’s writing.)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Arrangers of Marriage” is from The Thing Around Your Neck (2009).

I love stories about arranged marriages (like Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake and Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds), about navigating the distance between strangers and intimates.

Chinaza enters the scene as she enters her new home, in a Flatbush brownstone with her new doctor-husband, Ofodile. Except it’s only a rental, he’s only an intern, and he goes by Dave.

There are no “cucumber-colored lawns” and the arrangers of marriage also left out the “offensive snoring, [with] no mention of houses that turned out to be furniture-challenged flats”.

In a series of swift scenes, rich with dialogue and detail, Chinaza becomes Agatha, but even more importantly, she realizes that it’s not only the arrangers of marriage who cannot be trusted.

I had planned to read this collection in 2020, but wasn’t able to access it via the public library due to the protective measures for Covid-19. Fortunately, this single story appeared in the Granta Collection of African Stories, as does the Ex-Eldin story discussed below.

Because I so enjoyed Ian Colford’s 2016 novel Perfect World, I was keen to read this collection of eight stories. Only one has not been previously published, “McGowan on the Mount”, the others having appeared in Canadian literary journals between 1996 and 2012.

A Dark House and Other Stories (2019) opens with this epigraph from John Cheever’s Oh What a Paradise It Seems: “But that is another tale and, as I said in the beginning, this is just a story mean to be read in bed in an old house on a rainy night.”

The first story, also seemingly the oldest story of the bunch, “Stone Temple” is perfect reading for just such a night. Its somewhat shocking development suggests to me that it’s probably the story that I’ll most likely remember from this collection but, overall, I prefer the more open-ended stories. (Like “The Music Lover”, which does offer a sort of explanation near the end but is not so tightly sprung, whether an outcome is for better or worse.)

Each story has either a quiet simmering tension or an outright in-your-face conflict, which ratchets up the pace of page turning.

A brother struggles with the knowledge that his younger sister appears to be in an adulterous relationship and yearns to expose her infidelity (and possibly correct a lifetime of having gotten less attention than she).

A longtime store owner sells out to a developer, only to find the project cancelled years down the road, and his view of the building from his nearby apartment haunted by might-have-beens.

A teacher wrestles with his memories of young love on campus when he observes one of his students travelling similar routes (literally and figuratively).

A president and a dictator and a prisoner walk into a bar—oops, no they don’t, they walk into a story and each tells his own perspective on a series of dramatic events.

The variety of circumstances will appeal to readers who dislike collections characterized by regimented curation, when they’re all-of-a-piece and the stories begin to blur (I kind of like those, too, but I tend to leave a few days between each story). Here each story feels distinct, their (mostly) Atlantic Canadian settings on display, and a clear resolution to satisfy readers who crave something-like-certainty.

Mansoura Ez-Eldin is an Egyptian writer, whose first collection of stories, Shaken Light, was published in 2001.

“Faeries of the Nile” (translated from the Arabic by Raphael Cohen) is told from the perspective of Zeenat, who knows about river fairies “as well as she knows that the sun is the sun, the moon the moon and the night the night”.

She is an authority but neither her husband nor readers can fully grasp the relationship she establishes with these spirits. What we do understand is the intensity of that relationship, the force with which it disrupts every aspect of her being.

The use of perspective in this story is intricate and deliberately disorienting; we both inhabit and observe Zeenat’s world, a few paragraphs in roman type followed by a few in italic text to differentiate the source.

These shifts contribute to a slow build in tension and a violent event ratchets up the ante further. A gradual understanding of the circumstances surrounding this strange pleating of realities leads to something-like-a-resolution, which is more satisfying than seemed possible in such an unsettling narrative.

Kelley Aitken’s Canadian Shield (2016) is a collection of nine stories. Her first collection, Love in a Warm Climate, was published in 1998 and nominated for the Commonwealth First Book Award. That “warm climate” was Ecuador, but in her latest collection Aitken is back in Canada (almost entirely).

There are ravens and cedars, camping trips and hiking expeditions, dinner parties and hunting trips, dogs and bears, Legos and ice sculpture, along with donkey p*rn and a grandfather’s birthday (in the same story!).

Nature is sometimes a threat and sometimes a balm, often a catalyst for change (psychological or otherwise). “Meromixis” could be my favourite, for the surprise at the heart of it all. But I’m very fond of “White Crow” and will pull a passage from it to illustrate Aitken’s way of embodying brutal and beautiful and sometimes-slightly mystical elements in her stories:

“After a minute, the ghostly bird swooped down to peck at a ball joint protruding from the abandoned carcass then circled, rising, singing one rough note before she disappeared into silver sky.”

(The circling also reminds me that the strongest stories have a gentle recall at their finish to an image or encounter from the story’s opening that leaves readers feeling the “rightness” of it all, even when the ending thoroughly upends your expectations.)

And you? Any short stories lately?