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Alice Petersen's Short Story Playlist

Created by 49thShelf on July 7, 2012
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New Zealander-Canadian Alice Petersen was the 2009 winner of the David Adams Richards Award, offered by the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick. Her stories, published in Geist, The Fiddlehead, Room, and Takahe, have variously been shortlisted for the Journey Prize, the Writers’ Union of Canada competition, the CBC Literary awards, and the Metcalf Rooke Award. Petersen lives in Montreal with her husband and two daughters. All the Voices Cry is her first collection.
The Collected Stories of Carol Shields
Excerpt

Something has occurred to her – something transparently simple, something she’s always known, it seems, but never articulated. Which is that the moment of death occurs while we are still alive. Life marches right up to the wall of that final darkness, one extreme state of being butting against the other. Not even a breath separates them. Not even a blink of the eye. A person can go on and on tuned in to the daily music of food and work and weather and speech right up to the last minute, so that not a single thing gets lost.
—From The Stone Diaries

Segue

Something is always saying to me: Be plain. Be clear. But then something else interferes and unjoints my good intentions.

Max and I were out yesterday morning, Sunday, a simple enough errand in our neighborhood. We “sallied forth” to buy a loaf of good seed bread and a potted plant, chrysanthemums in our case, with the smashed little faces that our daughter so admires, that bitter bronze color, matching the tablecloth she was sure to be laying right that moment out there in Oak Park. Eleven o’clock; my husband Max and I would be expected at half past twelve. We always arrive carrying a modest gift of some sort.

There, at the market, stimulated, probably, by the hint of frost in the air, I felt a longing to register the contained, isolated instant we had manufactured and entered, the purchase of the delicious hard-crusted bread, the decision over the potted plant – this was what I wanted to preserve. But an intrusive overview camera (completely imaginary, needless to say) bumped against me, so that instead of feeling the purity of the coins leaving my hand, I found myself watching the two of us, a man and a woman of similar height, both in their middle sixties, both slightly stooped – you’d hardly notice unless you were looking – and dressed in bright colors, making a performance of paying for their rounded and finite loaf of bread and then the burst of rusty chrysanthemums.

Wait a minute. Shouldn’t there be a grandchild in this picture, a little boy or girl staying over with Nana and Poppa in downtown Chicago for the weekend? Well, no, our aging couple has not been so fortunate.

Our Sunday self-consciousness, the little mid-morning circle around Max and me, was bisected by light and dark. The day bloomed into mildness, October 7, one year and one month after the September 11 tragedy – event, spectacle, whatever you choose to call it. Max is a well-known Chicago novelist – he both loves and hates that regional designation – and he was, of course, spotted by other Sunday morning shoppers. That’s Max Sexton. Where? Over there. Really? A little buzz travels with my husband, around him and above him, which, I believe, dishes out the gold dust that keeps him alive. To be noticed, to be recognized. With his white beard, white swifts of soft hair swept backward, his old-fashioned, too-large horn-rimmed spectacles, he is a familiar enough sight in our immediate neighborhood, and – allow me to say – in the national journals too, even to the point that he has been mentioned once or twice in the same breath with the Nobel Prize (as a dark horse, the darkest of horses). Not that we ever speak of this. It does not come up, we forbid it, the two of us. He has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer – we don’t speak of that either.

There we were, yesterday morning, a fine Sunday.

Accompanying the novelist Max Sexton was his wife of forty years – me – whose name is Jane; I had my right arm crooked loosely through the great author’s blue nylon jacket sleeve. Plain Jane. Well, not quite, God be thanked. My very good scarf gives me a certain look, not just its color, but the fact that it was knotted high up on the throat. Jane, the wife, the poet and editor, soon (tomorrow) to become past president of the American Sonnet Society – now known as Sonnet Revival – she with her hair in a smooth white pageboy and her reasonably trim body, c’est moi. Notice the earrings, handmade, Mexican. Wouldn’t you just know! Oh God, yes. Yesterday, at the Andersonville market in Chicago’s near-north side, Jane Sexton was sporting an excellent cashmere poncho-thingamajig, deep rose in color, and well-fitting black pants and expensive boots, which she always keeps nicely polished.

Let me say it: I am an aging woman of despairing good cheer–just look through the imaginary camera lens and watch me as I make the Sunday morning transaction over the bread, then the flowers, my straw tote from our recent holiday in Jamaica, my smile, my upturned sixty-seven-year-old voice, a voice so crying-out and clad with familiarity that, in fact, I can’t hear it anymore myself, thank God; my ears are blocked. Lately everything to do with my essence has become transparent, neutral: Good morning, Jane Sexton smiles to one and all (such a friendly, down-to-earth woman). “What a perfect fall day.” “What glorious blooms!” “Why, Mr. Henning, this bread is still warm! Can this be true?”

Max must surely hear the scattershot of my neighborhood greetings, so fond in their expression and so traditionally patterned, exactly what healthy, seasoned, amiable women learn to say in such chapters of their lives. He has, after so many years, a certain amount of faith in my voice, if nothing else, the voice that he’s married to, but then he doesn’t believe, I suspect, that the mystery of being is as deeply manifest in women as in men. The voice, as he perfectly well knows, is a social projection, an oral accomplishment, something I’ve created and maintained along with my feminine peers. I’m just being merry – that’s how I imagine Max processing my ebullience – I’m being cordial in a way that may be slightly dishonest but that keeps life from bearing down with its solemn weight, keeps it nosing forward, and overrides the worst possible story the day might otherwise offer, his story, that is, which could quickly turn dreary and strangulated without my floating social descant riding overhead on strings of nylon. Oh, do shut up, Jane.

Yes, there we stood: the morning’s excursion to the market, which we managed to stretch out an hour longer than it should have taken, then the taxi to our daughter’s house in Oak Park, her austere three-story brick cube on East Avenue (built 1896) where she lives with her film agent husband, Ivan, with its wide front steps and shrubbery and cement cupids – where we were to have lunch, as usual on Sundays, something hot and savory in the dining room, followed by fresh fruit (on French fruit plates, each one different in design, and accompanied by knives with ceramic handles) and afterward coffee, and then the journey home. Ivan, without a word of complaint, will drive us back to our downtown apartment, silently ferrying his mother-in-law, his father-in-law (he is a man who cannot drive and talk at the same time), eastward through the light Sunday traffic, taking Chicago Avenue as usual. He will actually back his old Packard out of the Oak Park garage, slowly, down the narrow overgrown driveway with its scraping branches, wincing as he hears his beautifully restored car suffering instances of minute damage.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Why it's on the list ...
"Scarf". This story gets me every time, the kind of oh man quality of response when the perfect scarf is taken away. The writer loses the gift through her own need to placate, to be loved and recognized, not just by her daughter, but also by the former leader of the writing group. She wants to give the gift twice – as an object, and as a story of how she acquired it. She ought to have been more careful. I like the self-remonstrance with which the narrator in her low-heeled shoes finishes: a quiet feminist reminder to be firmer, more definite about what we want, because even if we get it, we may not be able to hold it.
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My White Planet
Why it's on the list ...
"Night March in the Territory" Here is Jarman’s inspiring signature toothsome style, the language that resists, where each word insists on its weight: “Somehow we must carry the mammering wounded men to the honey-coloured river where the hissing boat awaits us, awaits our bad news.” My guess is that Jarman is the only person alive who uses the word mammering, and it works; the buzzing onomatopoeia sets us up for the honey-coloured river, the hissing of the steam-powered boat. This sentence, and so many others, is all about sound, and yet they do the task of moving the narrative ahead. Every gesture is massive, but beautifully articulated.
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Painting the Dog

Painting the Dog

The Best Stories of Leon Rooke
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
Why it's on the list ...
"Art". I love the sparse quality of this tale; the way the central characters are as simple as claymation characters, but endowed with such feeling that the end feels like a true tragedy. Each time I read this story I am so touched by the horror and the tenderness expressed by the couple. He knows that his wife is hurting, but he cannot touch her for fear of contamination. He begs her not to cry, since that will only make matters worse. Here is life within the frame, as all happy married life is, falsely buoyed up by the feeling that disaster happens to other people: “You get confident, you get to thinking what a good life you have, so you go out and buy yourself flowers and a goddamn cow.” I can’t take my eyes off this water-based couple, beautifully strange, beautifully minimal, beautifully believable.
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The Love of a Good Woman
Why it's on the list ...
"Cortes Island": I always enjoy this story because it deals with being young, and with beginnings of all kinds. There is a rich intensity in way that the struggle to write stories and the urgency of sex in early marriage are combined with the mangy decayed animal power of old Mr Gorrie and the fiery, mysterious start of the Gorries’ relationship as a much younger couple. Here, did the young narrator but realize it, is a real story. And of course, switching the telescope around, as she so often does, Munro permits the same woman, older, wiser, to reveal her appreciation for this story, only much later.
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Standing Stones

Standing Stones

The Best Stories of John Metcalf
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
Why it's on the list ...
"Girl in a Gingham Dress" The first time I read this story I got very angry. I could not believe that a character could exist with so little self-knowledge as to have a seafood allergy and not know it. After some research I discovered that anaphylaxis can come on suddenly, without a known allergy. Okay, fair enough. So why was I still angry? I was angry because I cared about these characters. I wanted the fairy tale to continue to its appointed end, but instead, like life, the structured romance frays out, leaving us with a waitress whose only interest is in taking the dessert order. The little lives of others have moved already, the ideal of the gingham dress has come and gone. I still hope that the central character found some happiness in another story. I still feel badly for him, and that’s pretty powerful characterization.
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Ruins & Relics
Why it's on the list ...
"Black Peter 1990" I always like to be shown scenes that are new to me and there can be few short stories that deal with the world of European church restoration. The details here feel very accurate. I also like the feeling of prickly antagonism between the different characters: the implicit sexism expressed by the closed group of the church restorers, the trainee caught between his girlfriend and the group, the local priest resisting the influence of the outsiders. Power plays and a large amount of determined lying are evident at every level. This is a tale with a moral question at its core. The story has an authority that appeals to me.
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Welcome to Canada
Why it's on the list ...
"Turkle" Some stories end with the cymbal flourish of a standup comedian’s joke, but this story comes at you from a distance, like a bell ringing, getting louder and stronger, until it swings off at the end with a grand barn scene where the proud farmer is rebirthed from the depths of the disemboweled Turkle, the nameless cow. The arc of this story follows right through to the final line: “Oh the sight of his clotted head when he first smelled he air of the barn and he opened his mouth to howl and cry in mother’s arms.” There’s a quality about this story that reminds me of the great writer from the South, Flannery O’Connor.
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