I read widely as I was constructing Music from a Strange Planet, many short story collections, but also essays and genre-crossing works. I wanted sentences like music, a voice speaking to me as if it were from a strange planet, lyricism when called for and concision as necessary. A writer with a scalpel, a writer with a microscope. Humour, humanity, intelligence, irreverence. These books, some treasures I revisited, some new, have many of these qualities.
When We Were Birds, by Maria Mutch
This short story collection wowed me with its originality, in terms of both the subject matter and the author’s writing style. Mutch is a truly captivating storyteller whose intense, dreamlike prose sweeps you into worlds where reality slips seamlessly into the absurd or magical, where a peregrine falcon transforms into a woman or a modern-day Bluebeard exhibits terrifying artistic proclivities. Vivid, sometimes touching and consistently unsettling. Recommended.
We So Seldom Look on Love, by Barbara Gowdy
Many moons ago, I was a young journalist with a gnawing desire to move beyond the factual world. I found it in Barbara Gowdy’s short story collection, We So Seldom Look On Love, a book (and a literary voice) that astounded me with its dark quirkiness and characters more than bordering on the bizarre, from necrophiliacs to Siamese twins. Gowdy creates a strangeness that somehow allows us insight into how others’ minds and bodies operate beyond the norm. Still, despite the morbid tone, she never loses her humanity in how she engages these characters. Her writing gave me permission to take fiction just a little further than the real.
Zolitude, by Paige Cooper
Another winner from Biblioasis, who seem to have a talent for finding new voices in the short story genre. As a reader, you have to work a little to navigate Zolitude’s not always forthcoming plots and settings and marvellously unexpected twists. But the rewards are great. Her prose can be deliciously dense at times, but her imagination is fecund (a word I hardly ever get to use!) and her style daringly elusive.
The Baudelaire Fractal, by Lisa Robertson
Lisa Robertson has the skills, the knowledge and the guts to write a book that defies genre. The Baudelaire Fractal (whose front cover aptly illustrates this genre-defiance) is part pseudo-memoir, part Baudelaire biography, part philosophy, wrapped in an ars poetica package, unfolding flaneur-like in a 1980s Paris. Its leading fictional voice is Hazel Brown, “penniless neopophyte,” “newly Baudelairean, repetition of a stain animated with consciousness, pigment awash in ectoplasm.” One day she wakes up in a hotel room to discover she’s the author of Baudelaire’s works. Yes. There is much to learn about art, reality, personal ontology, voice, writing and thinking in this sui generis work.
The Two of Us, by Kathy Page
I loved this short story collection structured around pairs and duos. Page lays out intimate narratives exploring duality in relatable and true-to-life scenarios.
There is a gentle precision at work in her writing and a lyric economy that creates a lovely envelope for the reader. The emotional context seems to sneak up on you and blossom in your mind. Her writing is perceptive and considered, exhibiting an almost invisible craft that I wholeheartedly respect.
Savage Love, by Douglas Glover
Glover is a witty, brilliant stylist. His writing in this short story collection is a deadly concoction of gravity, irony and irreverence. What is love? Let Glover don his hyper-imaginative comic gloves and blast your preconceptions into smithereens with unorthodox and original tales of the vagaries of all types of love, from obsession and thwarted desire to adultery. Glover’s writing is energized and deft. He’s a master of the high and low register, a skill I deeply admire.
I’m also going to squeeze an extra Glover recommendation in here: Attack of the Copula Spiders.
Best title ever for what is essentially an analysis of the short story with a deep-dive focus on narrative structure, rhetorical devices and sentence-level writing craft using examples from the work of several authors, including Alice Munro and Mark Anthony Jarman. One line that I especially took to heart when writing my story collection: “The diction and figurative language are drawn straight from the heart of the perceiving subject.”
Life Is About Losing Everything, by Lynn Crosbie
Reading Crosbie’s writing feels like getting whacked in the solar plexus, then electrified—in a good way. This is my bible for how to write fearlessly, yet somehow tenderly, with prose that’s never boring or pretentious, and in this case, hard to nail down as fiction or non-fiction. Throughout my writing process, Crosbie was my guide for how to keep it real and engaging. And how to jump slam-bam into the crucial moment.
Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
Atwood is a Canadian literary icon whose works have been made into films, TV series, operas and god knows what else. She’s given Canadian literature a voice that’s sharp, inventive, wry. There’s this edginess she excels at, and it worked like a charm in the nine warpy stories of Stone Mattress. These stories have the bite of dark fairy tales (and one can parse which ones are echoed here) combined with the shrewd observances of human nature in its fine array of grotesqueries.
A striking and genre-bending debut short story collection from writer and musician Barbara Black.
Off-beat, provocative, philosophical, Music from a Strange Planet traces the fault lines of identity and emotional attachment. Grief, tenderness, and longing soak the pages, admitting the reader into the intimate places of the heart: An awkward child envisions herself as a darkling beetle; an unemployed business analyst prefers water-walking over “rebranding” himself; a biogenetically-altered couple visits an attic to observe a large cocoon. With a masterfully crafted tone and a register that ranges from contemplative to comic, the subversive, immersive stories in this collection brim with humanity. Expect your planet to tilt a little to the strange.
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