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Books to Activate the Brain

A recommended reading list by the author of the new book Little Fortified Stories.

Book Cover Little Fortified Stories

When I’m working on a manuscript I like to read authors who have a unique style of writing that somehow relates to the tone and style I’m cultivating in the manuscript. I read widely: literary journals featuring flash and micro, international authors in translation, whether it’s prose, poetry, or some other hybrid that activates my brain. Here is a glimpse of some of the books by Canadian writers who helped keep me on track while writing Little Fortified Stories.


Book Cover Quarrels

Quarrels, by Eve Joseph

This is a gem of a book. Sixty-six prose poems, compressed and slightly surreal, in a small format with an evocative cover. Here are a few sentences from one of my favourites: “My grandfather lay motionless beneath a chenille bedspread. His upturned hands drifting like tiny boats. He was coming and going through the open window, a little further each time.” These concise, poetic morsels of life events are very moving, quite cryptic and seem to exist on another plane somewhere just below consciousness. Prose poems are more ephemeral than flash or micro, looser in story structure but highly evocative. Some find them too fragmented, but I like their irreducibility. As Joseph says, “If you put fragments beside each other, they build a resonance.” Her work reminds me of Charles Simic’s equally expressive and strange miniatures in The World Doesn’t End. Both writers seem able to peel back the ordinary to reveal veins of the surreal, but in Joseph’s case there’s an underlying tenderness I cherish.


Book Cover The WOrld Afloat

The World Afloat, by M.A.C. Farrant

Surely among the ranks of Joseph and Simic there is the inimitable work of M.A.C.  Farrant. I’ve enjoyed many of her books (My Turquoise Years, Raw Material) but where she really shines is in miniatures. Here, In The World Afloat, a collection of seventy-five curious miniatures, her skilled deadpan tone carries a sheen of the comic, a celebration of glorious hyperbole borne out of the banal. In “How Wondering Is Essential” she writes, “I mention how moments of ecstasy leave me wondering if I have a chemical imbalance.” For Farrant, wonder is a multi-faceted emotion. And she’s one of the few writers who can make absurdity fun, not just mystifying. I can’t quite nail down what this genre is, and I needn’t. It’s prose poem, flash, tales, vignettes gone rogue, apocalypse and micro-drama all in one entertaining bundle. As we might say about the author herself: “There was a whiff of madness about things when she appeared.”


Book Cover Outline

Outline, by Rachel Cusk

Cusk has a special gift for writing what seems like “ordinary” prose but is often constructed to reveal the unknown forces in a character’s life. As readers we may attempt to try to decipher these forces but will ultimately fail to reach a full understanding. Personality is a slippery thing. And in Outline, the main character and narrator, Faye, comes off more a cipher than a fully fleshed-out person. Over the last few years Cusk has gradually abandoned the usual strictures of fiction, from plot to story arc and character. “I wanted to try and close the gap between my experience of life and truth and how those things were represented in fiction,” she says. Reading Outline made me feel as if I was living inside the character, as baffled as she is about her existence. As such, the writing is both intimate and detached. There is a creeping sense of isolation. When I read Cusk’s recent books it feels to me like the ground is always shifting. There is nothing in the traditional sense of story for the reader to cling to and yet there is a feeling of life continuously unfolding before your eyes.


Book Cover Autobiography of Red

Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson

Nothing prepared me for the vivid, raw, lyrical writing of Carson’s Autobiography of Red. Is it a poem or a novel? A play? A novel in verse? Whatever it is it packs an emotional, almost visceral punch. Carson is a classicist, and not a dry one. Her intro itself on Stesichoros is both an exercise in ironic pseudo-classicism and an engaging lesson in classic figures of speech. And what follows is what I call a “mythscape.” Somehow she gives us the scope of an epic, but with much more delineated characters and in a modern setting to boot. What I love about her writing is that she makes story come alive, become erotic, mythic. This is one of those books I keep dipping into again and again to remind me how to make words shine, how to portray character with metaphors that startle and sizzle.


Book Cover Little Fortified Stories

Learn more about Little Fortified Stories:

A spinster in love with a tobacco-smoking ghost. A lonely one-eyed monster who wanders the desert. A Medieval saint who delights in her “miraculous ruine.” In Little Fortified Stories, award-winning writer Barbara Black conjures a microcosm of characters that defy convention. In these very short stories, curious worlds are encapsulated like a series of snow globes, swirling with deep emotion and teeming with strangeness. Inspired by art, music, alcoholic spirits, and what Black calls “authentic fabrications” from her own ancestry, these eclectic tales are told with an eye to the absurd. Buzzing with hypnotic intensity, Little Fortified Stories presents a world in which everything is theatre and the regular rules don’t apply.

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