I have been reading more short stories than usual during the pandemic. I’ve found them both comforting and easier to concentrate on. But I’m also so far behind on my blogging that I’m going to lump them all together into one post, even though they all deserve their own. Please forgive me short story writers!
We’re starting off with a bang with A Dark House and Other Stories. The first story, Stone Temple, is absolutely devastating. First line: “As day breaks a man appears holding the hand of a small boy, leading him across the frozen waste of an empty field.”
There is not a dud in this book. And, having loved his latest novel Perfect World, I am not surprised.
In The Comfort of Knowing, the narrator struggles with the ethics of calling his sister to account for something going on in her private life: “I believed I had lowered myself. I could almost feel my downhill progress quickened by a layer of slime on the bottom of my shoes.”
The idea of ethics and being able to live with oneself is carried out through many of the stories, and can be summed up pretty well in this image from The Ugly Girl: “A cold drizzly shadow cast itself over the city and lingered there, spreading the sort of gloom that causes damage and ruins lives. I was spending more and more time alone, treading an aimless path here and there, my steps upon the damp pavement echoing back to me a strange and disquieting message of spiritual destitution and moral decay.”
A good example of Colford’s imagery is in this passage from On the Beach: “Rachel’s car was a subcompact white Toyota with no hubcaps and patches of scaly rust that looked like a skin disease, and one headlight missing. The inside was dirty and the upholstery was gashed and the foamy yellow stuffing leaked out through the holes. It smelled like cigarettes and the floor was littered with old butts.”
Looking back on my notes from this book has made me want to re-visit the stories in more detail. Highly recommended.
Also reviewed at The Miramichi Reader.
Although I enjoyed all the stories in this collection, I’m going to focus on the titular story, which is considered a novella.
At the beginning of the story, Lily is dreaming about showing God her body so He can see that she is skinny and, therefore, allowed into Heaven.
One time, at Sunday Lunch, she had heard that skinny people get into heaven quicker than plump people, and this being the truth, for it had come out of her uncle’s mouth and he was a minister in the church, she studies herself in the mirror in the evening, before bed, making sure that she was still trim.
Lily grows up in a Mennonite community in which the men wore boughten clothes while the women wore clothes of their own making; “… and for this they were grateful, for what is more sacred than that which is created by hand, the same hands created by the Maker.”
Lily questions things. “Lily frightened folks. She frightened her own parents. She frightened herself. Though, cleverly, and with a certain feeling in her chest, she liked the idea and feeling of being frightened by her own thoughts.” Just as telling a lie “filled her with some trepidation” yet “excited her” at the same time.
Her life at the Brethren Church was defined by the word ‘no’. No long hair on men. No voting. No education beyond grade 8. No short hair on women. No military involvement. No political involvement. No divorce. No insurance. No parties. No dances. No trade unions. No hanging out at gas stations. No tobacco. No alcohol. No Santa Claus. No Easter bunnies. No snow mobiles. No birth control. No politics. No adult sports. No chrome on cars. No four-part singing. No bright colours. No cosmetics. No jewellry. No newspapers. No radios. No television. No novels.
Lily had access to books through her cousin Marcie, who lived in town and was not part of the community. They gave her “ideas” that made her feel conflicted about her life, and eventually caused trouble between Lily, her husband, and her community.
… I’ve decided that reading is a waste of time. What good is t? Does it make jam? Does it hoe the beets? Does it wash the clothes? Does it make babies? Does it get you to heaven? It just makes you unhappy.
Thoughtful and compelling, I loved this story.
See my review of Stranger.
The stories in Dig are short, contemporary snapshots of ordinary people’s lives. And what a wide and interesting variety of lives people have: A man whose leg was crushed at work is trying to pay the bills by buying and selling puppies; two friends ‘shoot the shit’ as they shovel driveways after a snowstorm; a man in town for a conference keeps putting off his departure day after meeting a woman he likes; a man seen panhandling on the street shows up later at a wedding all dressed up; a man patrols the streets at night after work looking for inconsiderately parked cars.
In Kid’s Special, Kingsley is moving to Newfoundland with his parents and is feeling apprehensive. His mother convinces him to see it as an adventure, but his first impression isn’t great: “The airport though, was kind of sad. Decay is a word that comes to mind. That’s okay, I thought, just part of the first act. But when we stepped through the doors and into the sideways-ripping rain, into the bone-chilling, wet-down-the-collar-of-your-shirt winds, my playing along came to a halt, and my perma-scowl was born. This was mid-September. Why was it already so cold?”
While Kingsley is put off by the cold, the narrator in Hammerhead prefers it over the warmth: “I can’t work in summer warmth. I don’t function well in all that sweat and exposed skin, in the long daylight. I just can’t be myself until it’s cold. Until it’s dark and the streets are empty.”
The last story in the book, John, is a nice example of male friendship in literature, something I rarely see in the books I read: “People made toasts, proclaiming Clem to be a great buddy, a good drummer, and an overall cool guy. It was painful how little they knew him. The real Clem. No one there had met John. No one knew about Joel King’s dented fender. And I sincerely doubted any of them had ever held Clem while he cried. Not like I had. I hated them for not loving him the same way I did.”
After Many Years is made up of twenty-one “long-lost” stories published from between 1900 and 1939. Several of the earliest published stories were originally published in the Western Christian Advocate, and have very clear moral messages for children that you could see coming a mile away. (Yet still enjoyable!) The later stories get more complex, and it’s interesting to see them change shape without changing the character of her writing.
One of my favourite stories in the book, Our Neighbours at the Tansy Patch, is unique among her stories. Carolyn Strom Collins says of it, ““Our Neighbors at the Tansy Patch” (Canadian Home Journal, Aug 1918), was published as The Great War was ending. It is perhaps one of the most unusual of Montgomery’s stories… Two families — one very traditional and circumspect, the other wildly eccentric — are close neighbors. The Conways are described as “a curious assortment,” “them lunatics in the bush,” “every one of them crazier than the others,” and more. Old Granny Conway sits on her porch and hollers at the people in passing cars with such comments as “Get out of this with your demon machine” and “May ye never have a night without a bad dream.” The father is a dreamer and spends a good bit of time searching for Capt. Kidd’s treasure he thinks is buried nearby. This little aside helps to identify Montgomery’s possible setting for the story. There is a rumour or legend that Capt. Kidd came ashore PEI near Bay Fortune (east of Charlottetown) and buried some of his pirated gold there.”
For the Good of Anthony is also unusual in that it is set in Halifax and told entirely through letters written to “Coz” from “Eve”. But it also includes some of what LMM is known for – stubborn pride, mistaken identity, and well-intentioned intervention.
The Bloom of May is told from the point of view of an old apple tree.
A few of my favourite bits and pieces:
“A feud’s a respectable thing and should be kept up like all the other family customs.” (From Hill O’ the Winds, about a woman named Dorcas who worries about “horrible, slimy things at the bottom” of the pond – among other things.)
“Friend cat, sitting on a stool beside Jim, blinked his topaz eyes a trifle insolently and then looked bored. He never condescended to get excited.” and “It was a little gray house that looked as if it had never been built, but had just grown up in that wild, ferny, woodsy corner like a toadstool.” (Both from Jim’s House, featuring friendly cats and old houses in the woods. And which, incidentally, I thought was the most romantic of the stories — woo me with a cozy cabin in the woods, and a cat, any day.)
I was a little surprised (and amused) to read the comment “And he’s real good-looking with such a nice flat stomach.” as an attempt to get Amanda to give the guy who likes her a chance in The Use of Her Legs. It’s good to know L.M. Montgomery can still surprise me!
I loved Best Canadian Stories 2018 so much that I was excited to read this year’s publication. I worried I wouldn’t find the time to write about it as extensively as I did last year, so as I read through these stories, I tweeted a quotation from each. (That was several weeks ago now.)
How am I going to sum up these 15 stories in one fifth of a blog post? By telling you to just read it cuz it’s good!
There’s a wide variety of stories and styles, and a nice sampling of Canadian authors – some that have become household names and others that are up-and-coming: Richard Van Camp, Lisa Moore, Mireille Silcoff, Zsuzsi Gartner, Shashi Bhat, Troy Sebastian, Frankie Barnet, Cathy Stonehouse, Kai Conradi, Adam Dickinson, Christy Ann Conlin, Zalika Reid-Benta, Elisa Levine, Camilla Grudova, and Alex Pugsley.
In these stories you will come across: a young man in love; plants who want control of their own reproduction process; teen girls on a band trip; a woman on an art retreat; a girl who told her friends she killed a pig; women who must own dogs to protect them from men; and the eccentric Wheeler family who I recommend that you listen to here.
I can’t leave this without mentioning the stories that have stuck with me most since reading the book: The Second Coming of the Plants by Zsuzsi Gartner and Alice & Charles by Camilla Grudova. These stories are original and unpredictable.
Who could forget the boldness of this passage…
Believe us, dear sprout, when we tell you how fickle, how self-obsessed, they were. Spurning some of us for small reason, bestowing special favours on others. The things we had to do to attract them to ensure our survival – our pride swallowed and swallowed until we were engorged with it, obscenely bloated like the corpse of a right whale festering on the shoreline of the Bay of Fundy… Our flesh-hungry kind in the swamplands and fens did short work of them, but the rest of us? What recourse did we have? When the bees began their dying, falling from the air in rigor mortis, we agreed it served them right.
They munched their popcorn drizzled with soluble petroleum product, a snack made possible only by converting cornstalks into junkies. The most pious among them, forgoing the flesh of beasts, fish and fowl altogether, even the saliva of the bees and the progeny of the hens, went home to stuff their mouths with rice cakes and baby (baby!) spinach. They fretted about what the lobster felt while being boiled alive. Well, try being a beet! They flinched at the idea of skinning a hare but thought nothing of severing nugget potatoes from their mother plant and flaying them alive!
And the creepiness of this…
The state gave us free kibble and biscuit for the dogs. Often, we ate a porridge made out of smashed dog biscuits and milk and sugar or margarine spread on the dog biscuits to have with our tea. The biscuits were alright. The kibble made us smell bad if we ate it as it was full of nasty meat. Some girls soaked it then mixed it with mayonnaise for sandwiches, you could always smell which girls ate kibble.
Have you been reading any memorable short story collections recently?