Short Story Playlist as Selected by a Crack Team

May is Short Story Month. To celebrate, Andrea Routley (who knows something about fine short stories herself, and who is one of the forces behind Caitlin Press in BC) lined up a crack team of short story writers to put together a short story playlist. Get ready for great picks by Janine Alyson Young, Eliza Robertson, and John Gould. 

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Book Cover Hideout Hotel

Born to backpacking ski-bums in the eighties, Janine Alyson Young lives on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia with her husband and little son. Her debut story collection, Hideout Hotel, is out now.  

Janine Alyson Young's Picks: 

Book Cover Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

“Better Living Through Plastic Explosives” by Zsuzsi Gartner from Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

The story: The protagonist of this one is Lucy: seemingly average North Vancouver mom who seethes with rage as a delinquent teen takes to speeding through her quiet street where her seven year old plays. Lucy is also secretly a “recovered terrorist” with a dark past and a weekly support group her husband knows nothing about. When navigating the hallways for city permits with a neighbourhood petition for a “traffic calming” circle fails, Lucy can’t help but want to take matters into her own hands. She spends her days grappling with her inner nature, fear and love for her son, and the pressure to fulfill her reformed role as mother and wife.

Why it’s on the list:Of all the delightfully satirical and funny stories in the collection, this one stood out because of the depth of Lucy’s character. While some of the protagonists almost seem like mere satirical devices, Lucy comes with a sympathetic and complex inner world. Gartner pairs a depth of emotion with passages like, “every night at a certain hour the recovering terrorist can feel her fear rising like a reeking tidal backwash, and here it comes now, lugging kelp and dead crabs onto the shore. At night she is never alone,” with her signature wit and cheekiness, “the waiter comes by and tells them the coffee of the day is a Brazilian Go-go Carnival, but organic, fair-trade, shade-grown Brazilian, not rainforest-stripping, parrot-habitat-destroying, barefoot-peasant-exploiting Brazilian, therefore explaining its $5.95-a-cup prince tag.” It’s funny, intelligent and touching.

Once You Break a Knuckle

“The Persistence” by D.W. Wilson from Once You Break A Knuckle

The story: Nothing fancy here, just a straight-forward story about a down-and-out electrician returning to Invermere to rebuild his life after burning all his bridges. The story begins simply: “The morning he decided to put things back together, Ray walked five kilometers along the highway in the hours when everything was grey except the mountains lightening in the east.” From there, Ray finds himself in the humbling, if not degrading, position of working for a friend who used to be his own employee, and living in the guy’s half-finished basement suite. He slowly faces his past troubles, and takes the pained steps towards putting his life back together.

Why it’s on the list: I adore this book, and this story stood out because it’s simple and steady. No word is out of place, and the landscape of Invermere (the collection’s setting throughout) is especially poignant with brief yet striking mentions such as, “it was darkening; the sky over the Purcells had turned a milky red.” It isn’t common to read fiction about electricians and painters and I loved seeing the blue-collar world through a well-controlled literary lens.

Book Cover Wallflowers

Eliza Robertson was the winner of the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and was a finalist for the CBC Short Story Prize. Her debut story collection, Wallflowers, is out in August.

Eliza Robertson's Picks: 

Book Cover Open

“Craving” by Lisa Moore from Open

The story: Three childhood friends reunite for a dinner party with their significant others. They sip mushroom soup. A joint or three circulate. They bask in the heady recall of their youth. They are the same as they always were, but now they have husbands and babysitters. They love their husbands. The narrator finds that wonderful, but also it’s a bit humdrum.

Why it’s on the list:I love how this story wobbles between past and present, dialogue and thought. The narration is energetic and hazy, which mirrors the characters’ intoxication. Moore captures that euphoria of insobriety— the luxurious selfishness where you desire to be desired by your neighbour across the table, even though your husband sits beside you. The dialogue is sharp and witty, as in every story in Open. The narrative entwines this banter with reflection of the past. I am a sucker for the friendships of adolescent girls. Moore captures their tensions with humour and precision: “They don’t have bras, but they have braces on their teeth, and that makes them a club.” The writing is funny, but also honest and unapologetic. This story does not sidestep life’s anticlimaxes, but spotlights them—reveals how they are worthwhile and remarkable.

Book Cover My WHite Planet

“Bad Men Who Love Buzz Lightyear” by Mark Anthony Jarman from My White Planet

The story: A man flies home in a floatplane over flat, glowing ocean. The narration begins here but soon tips into his domestic life—a wife who feels under-appreciated, their son who plays Buzz Lightyear, chomps on stone wheat crackers, treads on the family’s budgie. The story offers a keyhole into someone else’s projectile-vacuum-cleaner suburbia. There is another detail here, which we learn at the end—it shadows and thickens what came before. But I won’t give that away.

Why it’s on the list: I have been a loyal reader of Mark Anthony Jarman since I encountered him in a coursepack at the University of Victoria. His prose is radiant—I think he’s one of the finest stylists in Canada. Any snippet from this story evidences that—“lives lit on sunny gold water,” “blizzard light,” “their two tanned arms working as one, like Russian social realism, like good sex.” But the dialogue grounds the writing in real emotional sediment—in those moments inevitable between two who share their lives together.

Book Cover Kilter

John Gould is the author of two books of very short stories­—including Kilter, a finalist for the Giller prize—and the novel Seven Good Reasons Not to Be Good. He teaches at the University of Victoria, and is completing a third collection of sudden fiction.

John Gould's Picks:

Book Cover Darwin Alone in the Universe

“Down the Road to Eternity” by M.A.C. Farrant from Darwin Alone in the Universe and Down the Road to Eternity: New and Selected Fiction

The story: A young woman, Willow, decides that when she dies (which may be sooner than folks think) she’ll have her brain frozen so it can be thawed sometime in the future, granting her a better life in a thinner body. She reveals this plan to her elderly pothead of a mother, who’s dismayed that her daughter would want to be born again. “What’s the big deal about eternal?” she wonders. Willow also reveals the plan to her 40-year-old boyfriend, whose idea of enlightenment is “watching plane crash marathons on TV.” She reveals it, too, to her crystal meth-dealing supervisor at Video Madness, and to her internet lover who, between bouts of “brain sex,” is clearly fleecing her with this whole brain-freezing gimmick. Scam? What scam? It’s “the ultimate makeover.”

Why it’s on the list: I admire the iterative structure Farrant employs in this story: we move forward while staying put. The piece derives its energy from this kind of friction, between motion and stasis, between the concrete and the metaphysical, between the finite trappings of the narrator’s life and her boundless longing to get free. This is Farrant at her darkly playful best, pushing up against fiction’s “realistic” conventions, its addiction to decidedly unrealistic notions of continuity and coherence. Smart, funny, sad.

Book Cover Oh My Darling

“Oh, My Darling” by Shaena Lambert from Oh, My Darling

The story: A woman, Vanessa, is addressed by a voice which is gradually revealed to be that of the lump in her breast. The lump reflects back on the day Vanessa discovered it. She wakes up beside her husband, who claims to have located some hidden aboriginal roots—this as rationale for his excessive interest in a young articling student who’s come to him from the Eagle Clan. Vanessa goes to awaken her daughter, her perfect beautiful teenage daughter who tells her, “I can’t stand you.” At work she’s able to hide out in Story World, escaping with her elementary school students into a “monster-free” tale about a mouse who joins the circus. At lunch she slips off to the washroom and makes her distressing discovery. Her lump then flashes swiftly forward through the ordeal that awaits her.

Why it’s on the list: The narrative perspective—a carcinoma which speaks like “a combination,” as it observes, “of Humbert Humbert and Jack the Ripper”—is daring and effective. What sticks with me most, though, is the brutal clarity with which the story observes Vanessa’s relationship with her daughter. What the daughter can’t stand is what Vanessa herself can’t stand: the way she’s failed to be eternally young, the way she’s being obscured by the drag of time and decay. The story’s trajectory is from alienation to reunion. Vanessa has been exiled from her body by age and self-disgust, and it is illness that will drag her back inside—inside her family, inside herself.

May 16, 2014
Books mentioned in this post
Hideout Hotel

Hideout Hotel

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
Darwin Alone in the Universe

Darwin Alone in the Universe

edition:Paperback
tagged : literary
More Info
Down the Road to Eternity

Down the Road to Eternity

New & Selected Fiction
edition:Paperback
More Info
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