Stories that Excavate the Underworld

Some books reveal layers. Dizzying layers about characters, and why they are reckless, why they fall in love, why they wear basketball shorts in the rain, or lay down in the pond with the koi fish. There is a layer of topsoil over a layer of subsoil, over sand, silt and clay all with its own colour and texture. I have an insatiable desire to know about who and why. In my book, The Crooked Thing, I keep going down to the underworld, excavating, trying to scoop up the dark into the light. For my list I have chosen writers and stories that build worlds that reveal character. Who they are and what they want.

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The Love of a Good Woman, by Alice Munro 

Nobody does it better to my mind than Alice Munro. She makes it look so easy. “The Love of a Good Woman,” would become the title story of her story collection that would go on to win the Giller Prize and National Book Critics Circle Prize. The story is one of Munro’s most famous works, one written about endlessly, because it is so masterful. With her literary lens focused on small towns and seemingly "ordinary" people, she writes delicately layered, subtle and precise stories often forcing us, the reader, to confront something that ultimately cannot be known. Which is really the hallmark of the short story. The ambiguity of the ending. 

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Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories, by Mavis Gallant  

I first discovered Mavis Gallant’s short stories in the New Yorker magazine. She was not taught when I was in school. Gallant lived largely in Paris and published in the United States. So, she is not known nearly well enough in Canada. To me, her work is uniquely "Gallant." Her stories are wonderfully layered with what is said, what cannot be said but is alluded to, and what simply cannot be said. "The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street,” I have read again and again, and wondered, how does she do it? It is the complex characters that drive her stories which have the appeal for me.

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How to Pronounce Knife, by Souvankham Thammavongsa

In the title story of Souvankham Thammavongsa's debut collection, a young girl brings a book home from school and asks her father to help her pronounce a tricky word, a simple exchange with unforgettable consequences. Thammavongsa is a master at unpeeling moments like this—moments of exposure, dislocation, and messy feelings that push us right up against the limits of language. Her stories are spare and rigorous and told with compassion. They look small but go deep. Written so beautifully, one is aware at every turn that she is also a poet. 

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Island, by Alistair MacLeod

Beautifully constructed. Precise stories crafted like gemstones. How did he do it? His stories are about history, tradition, our ancestors. And they are heartbreakingly beautiful. The characters live tough hard lives with many struggles and tragedies. Because I’m from down east and my relatives are from Cape Breton—the landscape, the people, the smells and sounds—are all of my people. And because, one evening, not so long ago, I sat beside MacLeod at dinner and was smitten.

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This Cake is For the Party, by Sarah Selecky

Human, hip, and a little quirky these stories are about character, relationships, and they are effused with sadness. Each character wants something. There are hidden truths and betrayals. And the stories leave you wanting more. Which is what the short story is meant to do. The final story in the collection, “One Thousand Wax Buddhas”, is told with grace, beauty, and a breaking heart.

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Oh, My Darling, by Shaena Lambert

Perfect stories about the complexity and layers of human relationships. Real, emotionally stark and tearful stories of everyday life acutely observed. In one of the stories a couple plan an environmental protest by placing the husband inside a cage in front of the Vancouver Aquarium. I could not get over Lambert’s powerful storytelling and the guts she had to take the story in the direction it goes. Brilliant.

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The Moon of Letting Go, by Richard Van Camp

Show me yours—Van Camp is a tremendously prolific writer and he can write in any genre. He’s also a lovely man and funny writer. I could also have chosen Moccasin Square Gardens. But I chose The Moon of Letting Go for the story, "Show Me Yours." This is a character driven collection, unafraid of tough subjects like bullying, mental illness and suicide. They are also, human, healing, love stories, that call for solutions to differences and forgiveness. That we are more alike than we are different.

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Frying Plantain, by Zalika Reid-Benta

It’s a book about mothers and daughters and the tension between the generations. The closely linked stories take place in Little Jamaica in Toronto, and she juxtaposes the Canadian and Jamaican experience. This is a collection of coming of age stories. I loved the voice of Kara, a teenager, who grows up in these stories. Her voice is absolutely marvellous. Reid-Benta is masterful with dialogue and voice.

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More about The Crooked Thing:

The English poet, William Blake said, "joy and woe are woven fine." So it is in The Crooked Thing. A collection of intense and emotional stories, there are traumas and betrayals, loves and losses, missed opportunities and discoveries, and above all, hope. In tales delicate and steely, a troubled young ferryman finds himself with an unexpected passenger, a songbird finds its voice, a mother learns to let go of her son and, after a chance encounter, an aging ballerina dances again. In her debut story collection, Mary MacDonald brings each narrator to face their own existence, taking the reader into darkness, passing through fear and resistance, to seek redemption and freedom. At their core these are love stories; they move us, disturb us, and upend our beliefs, to show us characters not all that different from ourselves.

November 5, 2020
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