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Short Stories We Love

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The 2010 Giller shortlist shone a light on short story collections. Across the country, people reading Alexander MacLeod's Light Lifting and Sarah Selecky's This Cake Is for the Party at the end of long, hectic days were struck by the beauty of devouring a story a night. We basked in the sense of completion, thought about the characters through the next day, and eagerly anticipated the next installment. On the "In" list for 2010-2011: the Canadian short story.
Simple Recipes

Simple Recipes

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback

Winner of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and the City of Vancouver Book Award, and a Regional Finalist for the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book

Longing, familiarity, and hope suffuse these stories as they mine the charged territory of relationships – subtly weaving in conflicts between generations and cultures. Madeleine Thien’s characters in some way want to make amends, to understand the events that have shaped their lives. A young woman searches back in time for the pivotal m …

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As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories

As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories

edition:Paperback

The superbly crafted stories collected in Alistair MacLeod’s As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories depict men and women acting out their “own peculiar mortality” against the haunting landscape of Cape Breton Island. In a voice at once elegiac and life-affirming, MacLeod describes a vital present inhabited by the unquiet spirits of a Highland past, invoking memory and myth to celebrate the continuity of the generations even in the midst of unremitting change.

His second collection, …

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Alice Munro's Best

Alice Munro's Best

Selected Stories
by Alice Munro
introduction by Margaret Atwood
edition:Hardcover

In her lengthy and fascinating introduction Margaret Atwood says “Alice Munro is among the major writers of English fiction of our time. . . . Among writers themselves, her name is spoken in hushed tones.”

This splendid gift edition is sure to delight Alice Munro’s growing body of admirers, what Atwood calls her “devoted international readership.” Long-time fans of her stories will enjoy meeting old favourites, where their new setting in this book may reveal new sides to what once seeme …

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Excerpt

From “Differently”

Georgia got a part-time job in a bookstore, working several evenings a week. Ben went away on his yearly cruise. The summer turned out to be unusually hot and sunny for the West Coast. Georgia combed her hair out and stopped using most of her makeup and bought a couple of short halter dresses. Sitting on her stool at the front of the store, showing her bare brown shoulders and sturdy brown legs, she looked like a college girl — clever but full of energy and bold opinions. The people who came into the store liked the look of a girl — a woman — like Georgia. They liked to talk to her. Most of them came in alone. They were not exactly lonely people, but they were lonely for somebody to talk to about books. Georgia plugged in the kettle behind the desk and made mugs of raspberry tea. Some favored customers brought in their own mugs. Maya came to visit and lurked about in the background, amused and envious.

“You know what you’ve got?” she said to Georgia. “You’ve got a salon! Oh, I’d like to have a job like that! I’d even like an ordinary job in an ordinary store, where you fold things up and find things for people and make change and say thank you very much, and colder out today, will it rain?”

“You could get a job like that,” said Georgia.

“No, I couldn’t. I don’t have the discipline. I was too badly brought up. I can’t even keep house without Mrs. Hanna and Mrs. Cheng and Sadie.”

It was true. Maya had a lot of servants, for a modern woman, though they came at different times and did separate things and were nothing like an old-fashioned household staff. Even the food at her dinner parties, which seemed to show her own indifferent touch, had been prepared by someone else.

Usually, Maya was busy in the evenings. Georgia was just as glad, because she didn’t really want Maya coming into the store, asking for crazy titles that she had made up, making Georgia’s employment there a kind of joke. Georgia took the store seriously. She had a serious, secret liking for it that she could not explain. It was a long, narrow store with an old-fashioned funnelled entryway between two angled display windows. From her stool behind the desk Georgia was able to see the reflections in one window reflected in the other. This street was not one of those decked out to receive tourists. It was a wide east-west street filled in the early evening with a faintly yellow light, a light reflected off pale stucco buildings that were not very high, plain storefronts, nearly empty sidewalks. Georgia found this plainness liberating after the winding shady streets, the flowery yards and vine-framed windows of Oak Bay. Here the books could come into their own, as they never could in a more artful and enticing suburban bookshop. Straight long rows of paperbacks. (Most of the Penguins then still had their orange-and-white or blue-and-white covers, with no designs or pictures, just the unadorned, unexplained titles.) The store was a straight avenue of bounty, of plausible promises. Certain books that Georgia had never read, and probably never would read, were important to her, because of the stateliness or mystery of their titles. In Praise of Folly. The Roots of Coincidence. The Flowering of New England. Ideas and Integrities.
Sometimes she got up and put the books in stricter order. The fiction was shelved alphabetically, by author, which was sensible but not very interesting. The history books, however, and the philosophy and psychology and other science books were arranged according to certain intricate and delightful rules — having to do with chronology and content — that Georgia grasped immediately and even elaborated on. She did not need to read much of a book to know about it. She got a sense of it easily, almost at once, as if by smell.

At times the store was empty, and she felt an abundant calm. It was not even the books that mattered then. She sat on the stool and watched the street — patient, expectant, by herself, in a finely balanced and suspended state.

She saw Miles’ reflection — his helmeted ghost parking his motorcycle at the curb — before she saw him. She believed that she had noted his valiant profile, his pallor, his dusty red hair (he took off his helmet and shook out his hair before coming into the store), and his quick, slouching, insolent, invading way of moving, even in the glass.

It was no surprise that he soon began to talk to her, as others did. He told her that he was a diver. He looked for wrecks, and lost airplanes, and dead bodies. He had been hired by a rich couple in Victoria who were planning a treasure-hunting cruise, getting it together at the moment. Their names, the destination were all secrets. Treasure-hunting was a lunatic business. He had done it before. His home was in Seattle, where he had a wife and a little daughter.

Everything he told her could easily have been a lie.

He showed her pictures in books — photographs and drawings, of mollusks, jellyfish, the Portuguese man-of-war, sargasso weed, the Caribbean flying fish, the girdle of Venus. He pointed out which pictures were accurate, which were fakes. Then he went away and paid no more attention to her, even slipping out of the store while she was busy with a customer. Not a hint of a goodbye. But he came in another evening, and told her about a drowned man wedged into the cabin of a boat, looking out the watery window in an interested way. By attention and avoidance, impersonal conversations in close proximity, by his oblivious prowling, and unsmiling, lengthy, gray-eyed looks, he soon had Georgia in a disturbed and not disagreeable state. He stayed away two nights in a row, then came in and asked her, abruptly, if she would like a ride home on his motorcycle.

Georgia said yes. She had never ridden on a motorcycle in her life. Her car was in the parking lot; she knew what was bound to happen.

She told him where she lived. “Just a few blocks up from the beach,” she said.

“We’ll go to the beach, then. We’ll go and sit on the logs.”

That was what they did. They sat for a while on the logs. Then, though the beach was not quite dark or completely deserted, they made love in the imperfect shelter of some broom bushes. Georgia walked home, a strengthened and lightened woman, not in the least in love, favored by the universe.

“My car wouldn’t start,” she told the baby-sitter, a grandmother from down the street. “I walked all the way home. It was lovely, walking. Lovely. I enjoyed it so much.”

Her hair was wild, her lips were swollen, her clothes were full of sand.

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Paris Stories

Paris Stories

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback

Internationally celebrated, award-winning author Mavis Gallant is a contemporary legend: an undisputed master of the short story whose peerless prose captures the range of human experience while evoking time and place with unequalled skill. This new selection of Gallant’s stories, edited by novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje, gathers the best of her many stories set in Paris, where Gallant has long lived. Here she writes of expatriates and locals, exile and homecoming, and of the illusions of …

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Barnacle Love

Barnacle Love

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover

Shortlisted for the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Like Wayson Choy and David Bezmozgis before him, Anthony De Sa captures, in stories brimming with life, the innocent dreams and bitter disappointments of the immigrant experience.

At the heart of this collection of intimately linked stories is the relationship between a father and his son. A young fisherman washes up nearly dead on the shores of Newfoundland. It is Manuel Rebelo who has tried to escape the suffocating smallness of his Portuguese vil …

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Excerpt

TERRA NOVA
For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes ­out.

James Baldwin

~ OF GOD AND COD ~

there is nothing he can do. He is lifted high into the air by the swells that roll, break, and crash upon themselves. His dory is smashed, the flotsam scattered: pieces of white jagged wood afloat, tangled in knotted rope, nothing much to grab hold of before the ocean lifts him higher, only to drop him into its turbulent waters, catching him in the current. Again, he pierces the surface, the biting cold filling his lungs as he coughs and sputters. It is the moment he needs. He reaches into his sweater and draws out the crucifix, which glistens in the moon’s light. He twirls it between puckered fingers, places it in his ­mouth–­between his clicking teeth. He feels its weight and shape cushioned on his tongue, closes his blue lips and allows himself to let go, to sink beneath the foaming surface into the dark molasses ­sea.

Big Lips. Are you ­here?
~

The Portuguese call it saudade: a longing for something so indefinite as to be indefinable. Love affairs, miseries of life, the way things were, people already dead, those who left and the ocean that tossed them on the shores of a different ­land–­all things born of the soul that can only be ­felt.

Manuel Antonio Rebelo was a product of this passion. He grew up with the tales of his father, a man who held two things most sacred, God and ­cod–­bacalhau–­and not always in that order. His father’s words formed vivid pictures of grizzled brave fishermen and whale hunters who left their families for months to fish the great waters off Terra Nova, the new land. Visions of mothers shrouded in black, of confused ­wives–­the pregnant ones feeling alone, the others glad for the respite from ­pregnancy–­spun in his mind. And then there were the scoured children, waving in their Sunday finery. The small boys bound in worn but neatly pressed blazers and creased shorts. The little girls scattered like popcorn in their outgrown Communion dresses as they watched their fathers’ ascents onto magnificent ships. In his dreams Manuel saw the men with their torn and calloused hands, faces worn, dark and toughened by the salted mist. As a child he would sit by the cliffs for hours, dangling his bare feet over the side of the ­hundred-­foot drop to the shore, kicking the rock with his pink heels, placing his hands over his eyes to shield the sunlight, already yearning for the fading figures of the White ­Fleet.

“One day I’ll disappear,” he’d say ­aloud.

He could make out the faint shadow of a large fish that circled just under the skinned surface of the ­water.

“Did you hear that, Big Lips?” he ­shouted.

As if in response, the large grouper seemed to stop. Manuel could see the fish’s fins fanning against the mottled blue and green of the ocean’s rocky shallows. He had once befriended one of these gentle giants. The villagers believed that these fish could live for up to one hundred years. This was in part due to the story of Eduarda Ramos, one of the village midwives, who insisted she had reclaimed her wedding band from the belly of a large grouper her son had caught–­fifty-­three years after she had lost the ring while cleaning some fish by the ­shore.

As the large fish swam away and disappeared into the ocean’s darker depths, Manuel couldn’t help but wonder if the fish he had named was still alive. If the fish he had just seen was Big ­Lips.

Manuel’s yearning became a palpable ache. The Azores held nothing for him. The tiny island of São Miguel was suffocating, lost as it was in the middle of the Atlantic. Early in life he knew the world his mother had formed for him was too small, too predictable. He was the oldest boy. But it wasn’t for this reason alone that Manuel carried the burden of his mother’s dreams. He bore a close resemblance to his father: the liquid steel colour of his eyes, his thick stubborn mound of blond hair, and the round angelic features of his face. The blunt noses, darker skin, and almost black, ­shrimp-­like eyes that adorned his siblings had been borrowed from his mother’s side. Manuel thought they were all pretty and he loved them, but he also knew that in his mother’s mind they held no ­promise.

“You are your father’s son. He lives in you,” she’d sigh. “You possess his greatness.” Manuel felt her breasts pressed flat against his back, her sharp chin digging into his head. “I can smell it in your breath’s sweetness.”

Maria had plucked Manuel out of her brood and he became the chosen one. Her ambitions for her son were firm rather than clear: Manuel would become a man of importance, learned and respected in the village and beyond. He would have the advantage of private tutors, which meant his siblings would need to keep the bottoms of their shoes stuffed with corn husks to clog the holes and keep their feet dry. Manuel was often ashamed of himself as he walked up Rua Nova with his brothers and sisters, his polished shoes shining like the ­blue-­black of a mussel. He would be taught a rigorous catechism by the village priest, Padre Carlos. The teachings of God would make him fair and ­virtuous.

“It’s all for you, filho,” she’d say, often in front of her other children as they went about, cowering, in their daily chores. It was only because they loved Manuel and never once blamed him for anything they were denied that he began to resent his mother’s ­cruelty.

His ­ten-­year-­old brother Jose came home one day with a sick calf that he walked through the front door and into their narrow dark hallway. Everyone smiled and watched as the brother who loved animals above anything else tugged at the sickly calf, urged it out the back door toward a patch of tall grass. But the pastoral calm was interrupted by the sharp crack of dry wood. Manuel saw his young brother fall to the ­packed-­earth floor like a ball of dough. His cheek lay pressed against the floor, he was afraid to lift his head. He licked the blood that trickled from the corner of his mouth. Manuel looked to his mother, who held the splintered end of the broom over her shoulder. She picked the boy up by the scruff of his collar and he dangled from her clenched ­fist.

“You get this filthy beast out of here. This is our home, not a barn,” her voice ­shook.

Jose turned the nervous animal around and, still in a daze, directed the reluctant calf back out the front door. Albina and the others continued their work. Maria Theresa da Conceição Rebelo sat back down on the chair and poured the beans into the sagging lap of her apron. Manuel picked up the broom. Looking straight at his mother, he flung the broken handle across the kitchen. The stoneware bowls that had been carefully set on the barnboard table smashed. He heard the drawn breaths of his sisters. His mother stood and the beans sprung from her apron across the floor. She cocked her hand over her shoulder. He stood still for what seemed like an eternity, challenging her with his glare. She lowered her arm as he stormed after his ­brother.

He was twelve then. Manuel vowed that somehow he would make it all better. Freedom would provide opportunities for his siblings. But first, he would have to save ­himself.

Now, at the age of twenty, Manuel maintained an indifference to Maria’s ambitions. Every spring he would venture to the same spot and perch himself on the overhang. He would look out to the sea, feel the warming winds against his pale smooth skin. His ­still-­boyish cowlick pressed against his forehead. He’d carefully roll each of his socks into a ball, stuff them into his new leather shoes, to kick his now yellowed heels against the cliff wall with a vigour that had only intensified during the months he had spent in the mildewed Banco Micaelense, counting out escudos with a vacant smile, throwing open all windows to breathe in the sea, hearing Amalia’s despair on the radio, her riveting outbursts of emotion. He knew it was time to tell his ­mother.

Mãe, I’m going away for a while,” he ­said.

She continued to hang the laundry on the line, the stubborn stains facing the house, the cleaner sides billowing toward the neighbours. She held wooden clothespins in her ­mouth–­sometimes three at a ­time–­securely between her crowded ­teeth.

Mãe, look at me,” he urged. “I need to go. I need to be part of a bigger world. I need to know if there’s room out there for me.”

Her job was only interrupted for a fraction of a second. Manuel realized she had been waiting for this. Only yesterday she had walked into the bank, and he had noticed a disguised sadness in her step as she approached him in his white shirt and tie; she had pressed the shirt that morning and was pleased that the crease in his cuff had held. She continued hanging the clothes as if she hadn’t heard. But Manuel could sense her anger, the disappointment in allowing herself to believe it was possible for her children to want for themselves the same things she did. Maria Theresa da Conceição Rebelo stopped. Manuel looked away for a moment to catch the silhouettes of his brothers and sisters behind the muslin curtains of the house. Albina was ­twenty-­two and the oldest child. Her hands rested on their young brothers, Mariano and Jose. They were eighteen, only ten months apart. Candida was fifteen and sat on the sill with her back leaning against the drapes. He had expected them to be there, listening from inside their shared bedrooms. He chose to move his blurred vision back toward his mother. His eyes travelled up to her hair, to the wisps that looped up, barely held by her hair comb. When did her hair turn grey? he ­thought.

Mãe–”

“You look like your father.”

She walked toward the house wiping her hands on a torn apron, kicking with her bare feet the feeding hens that got in her way. As she reached the door, she bent down and scooped one of the hens up and under her freckled arm. Turning to face her son, she stroked the chicken’s head with her free hand before her swollen, red fingers closed around its thin neck and tugged; just one quick yank before the bird’s head fell, still ­jerking.

“Your supper will be ready soon,” and she slammed the ­door.

They had not spoken. The night before he left, his mother had locked herself in her room. He found a package, brown folded paper tied neatly with trussing string, outside her bedroom door. He knew she wouldn’t come out. It had been too painful the first time, fifteen years back, when she had wrapped some cheese, bread, chouriço, and a few loose sheets of paper and bundled them all together with an embroidered dishtowel before she embraced her husband Antonio for the last ­time.

Manuel untied the knots, their whorls flicking against the parcel. He stood in front of her door, hoping she’d hear the rustling of paper. He was mindful of refolding the paper and rolling the string into a ­ball–­his mother could use it again. In the parcel, Manuel found a yellowed fisherman’s sweater smelling of ocean, and in a tiny envelope made of tin wrap, his father’s gold crucifix and chain. They were the only things that she had left of her husband; his body had been buried at sea. There were no words written on the paper or in the folds. He checked. He tried knocking, then stopped after three soft raps and put his lips to the door, touching the ­grain.

Adeus, Mãe,” he ­whispered.

He couldn’t recall exactly what his father looked like, only his ­blue-­grey eyes and warm smile. But he did remember sitting on his father’s knee and looking for the gleaming crucifix buried in his father’s chest hair. This was the same chain that he now placed around his neck. He swung the sweater under his arm and tossed his duffle bag over his shoulder, his fingers whitened by the strain. Later, tucked in his socks or wrapped in his underwear, Manuel would discover the gifts secretly offered, for fear of their mother’s disapproval, by his siblings: Albina’s embroidered M handkerchief, the copper whistle Jose used to herd cattle, and Mariano’s pocket knife. Also in his bag, pressed between his cotton undershirts, was a ­black-­and-­white photograph of Candida, lips pursed like a Hollywood actress caught in a hazy cloud of smoke. Manuel walked down the silent corridor and out the front ­door.

He arrived in the cobbled square of Ponte Delgada before daybreak. The rigged ships waited, tethered to the docks; their white sails reflected the morning moon but barely rippled in the early breeze behind the makeshift altar. The altar had been constructed on the docks and bore the symbol of an intertwined cross and anchor. The sails would form the backdrop for the traditional farewell mass. Soon the square would be filled with crowds pushing their way up to the front, wanting to be touched by the priest, blessed by his ­hand.

Manuel once understood that desire and need. He had reached out as a young boy when faced with the loss of his father. But his trust had been betrayed and his want silenced. He hadn’t thought of Padre Carlos for a while. Some things were best pushed far back into the dark places of the mind. But the impending voyage, his mother’s inability to understand his decision, had awakened the loneliness he had felt as a ­boy.

“Those who serve me, serve God,” Padre Carlos had ­whispered.

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Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures

Stories
edition:Paperback

An astonishing literary debut centred around four students as they apply to medical school, qualify as doctors and face the realities of working in medicine, from a powerful voice in fiction.

Following the interlinked stories of a group of medical students and the unique challenges they face, from the med school to the intense world of emergency rooms, evac missions, and terrifying new viruses. Riveting, convincing and precise, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures looks with rigorous honesty at the li …

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Excerpt

How to Get into Medical School, Part I
Desperate stragglers arrived late for the molecular biology final examination, their feet wet from tramping through snowbanks and their faces damp from running. Some still wore coats, and rummaged in the pockets for pens. Entering the exam hall, a borrowed gymnasium, from the whipping chaos of the snowstorm was to be faced with a void. Eyeglasses fogged, xenon lamps burned their blue-tinged light, and the air was calm with its perpetual fragrance of old paint. The lamps buzzed, and their constant static was like a sheet pulled out from under the snowstorm, though low enough that the noise vanished quickly. Invigilators led latecomers to vacant seats among the hundreds of desks, each evenly spaced at the University of Ottawa’s minimum requisite distance.

The invigilators allowed them to sit the exam but, toward the end of the allotted period, ignored their pleas for extra time on account of the storm. Ming, who had finished early, centred her closed exam booklet in front of her. Fitzgerald was still hunched over his paper. She didn’t want to wait outside for him, preferring it to be very coincidental that she would leave the room at the same time he did. Hopefully he would suggest they go for lunch together. If he did not ask, she would be forced to, perhaps using a little joke. Ming tended to stumble over humour. She could ask what he planned to do this afternoon – was that the kind of thing people said? On scrap paper, she wrote several possible ways to phrase the question, and in doing so almost failed to notice when Fitzgerald stood up, handed in his exam, and left the room. She expected to rush after him, but he stood outside the exam hall.

“Are you waiting for someone?” she asked.

Shortly after they arrived at the Thai-Laotian café half a block from campus, Ming said deliberately, “Fitz, I simply wanted to wish you the best in your future endeavours. You are obviously intelligent, and I’m sure you will be a great success.”

The restaurant was overly warm, and Fitz struggled out of his coat, wrestled his sweater over his head, leaving his hair in a wild, electrified state. He ran his hands over his head, and instead of smoothing his hair this resulted in random clumps jutting straight up.

“Same to you,” he said, smiling at her almost excitedly.

She watched him scan the bar menu. When she asked for water, he followed suit. She liked that.
She said, “Also, thank you for explaining the Krebs cycle to me.”

“Any time,” said Fitz.

“I feel guilty that I haven’t been completely open,” said Ming. She considered her prepared phrases and selected one, saying, “It didn’t seem like the right time in the middle of exams.”

“Nothing in real life makes sense during exams,” said Fitzgerald. He tilted in the chair but kept a straight back. Ming reassured herself that he had also been anticipating “a talk,” and so–she concluded with an administrative type of resolution–it was appropriate that she had raised the topic of “them.”

She leaned forward and almost whispered, “This is awkward, but I have strong emotional suspicions. Such suspicions are not quite the same as emotions. I’m sure you can understand that distinction. I have this inkling that you have an interest in me.” She didn’t blurt it out, instead forced herself to pace these phrases. “The thing of it is that I can’t have a romantic relationship with you. Not that I want to.” Now she was off the path of her rehearsed lines. “Not that I wouldn’t want to, because there’s no specific reason that I wouldn’t, but I– Well, what I’m trying to say is that even though I don’t especially want to, if I did, then I couldn’t.” The waiter brought shrimp chips and peanut sauce. “So that’s that.”

“All right,” said Fitzgerald.

“I should have told you earlier, when I first got that feeling.”

“You’ve given the issue some thought.”

“Not much. I just wanted to clarify.”

Fitz picked up a shrimp chip by its edge, dipped it in the peanut sauce with red pepper flakes, and crunched. His face became sweaty and bloomed red as he chewed, then coughed. He grasped the water glass and took a quick gulp.

Ming said, “Are you upset?”

He coughed to his right side, and had difficulty stopping. He reminded himself to sit up straight while coughing, realized that he wasn’t covering his mouth, covered his mouth, was embarrassed that his fair skin burned hot and red, wondered in a panicky blur if this redness would be seen to portray most keenly his injured emotional state, his physical vulnerability in choking, his Anglocentric intolerance to chili, his embarrassment at not initially covering his mouth, his obvious infatuation with Ming, or–worst of all–could be interpreted as a feeble attempt to mask or distract from his discomfort at her pre-emptive romantic rejection.

Ming was grateful for this interlude, for she had now entirely forgotten her rehearsed stock of diplomatically distant but consoling though slightly superior phrases.

“Hot sauce. I’m fine,” he gasped, coughing.

There was a long restaurant pause, in which Ming was aware of the other diners talking, although she could not perceive what their conversations were about.

She said, “I’ve embarrassed us both.”

“I’m glad you mentioned it.”

“So you are interested,” she said. “Or you were interested until a moment ago. Is that why you’re glad that I mentioned it?”

“It doesn’t matter, does it? What you’ve just said has made it irrelevant. Or, it would be irrelevant if it were previously relevant, but I’m glad you brought up your feelings,” said Fitzgerald. He picked up the menu.

“Don’t feel obliged to tell me whether I needed to say what I just said.”

“It was great to study together. You’ve got a great handle on . . . on mitochondria.”

The waiter came. Ming felt unable to read the menu, and pointed at a lunch item in the middle of the page. She got up to use the bathroom, and wondered in the mirror why she had not worn lipstick – not taken a minute this morning to look good. Then, she reminded herself that she should have actually taken measures to appear unattractive. Nonetheless, Ming examined her purse for lipstick, finding only extra pens and a crumpled exam schedule. When she returned, they smiled politely at each other for a little while. They ate, and the noodles fell persistently from Fitzgerald’s chopsticks onto the plate, resisting consumption. Ming asked if he wanted a fork, and he refused. After a while, as Fitzgerald’s pad thai continued to slither from his grasp, Ming caught the waiter’s eye, who noticed Fitzgerald’s barely eaten plate and brought a fork without Ming having to ask.

Fitzgerald ate with the fork, and craved a beer.

“We’re great study partners,” said Ming, still holding her chopsticks. “I want to clarify that it’s not because of you.” She had to get into medical school this year, and therefore couldn’t allow distraction. Her family, she said, was modern in what they wanted for her education, and old-fashioned in what they imagined for her husband. They would disapprove of Fitzgerald, a non-Chinese. They would be upset with Ming, and she couldn’t take these risks while she prepared to apply for medical school. The delicate nature of this goal, upon which one must be crucially focused, superseded everything else, Ming reminded Fitzgerald. He stopped eating while she talked. She looked down, stabbed her chopsticks into the noodles, and twisted them around.

He asked, “What about you?”

“What do you mean, me?” she said.

“Telling me this. Did you feel . . . interested?”

“I thought you might be.”

“You might say that I’ve noticed you, but I accept the situation. Priorities.” The imperative of medical school applications carried the unassailable weight of a religious edict.

“Very well,” she said, as if they had clarified a business arrangement.

The bill came. Fitzgerald tried to pay and Ming protested. He said that she could get the bill next time and she insisted that they should share.

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Moral Disorder

Moral Disorder

And Other Stories
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback

Atwood triumphs with these dazzling, personal stories in her first collection since Wilderness Tips.

In these ten interrelated stories Atwood traces the course of a life and also the lives intertwined with it, while evoking the drama and the humour that colour common experiences — the birth of a baby, divorce and remarriage, old age and death. With settings ranging from Toronto, northern Quebec, and rural Ontario, the stories begin in the present, as a couple no longer young situate themselves …

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An excerpt from “The Art of Cooking and Serving,” from Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorder
I'd been told about the expectant state of my mother in May, by my father. It had made me very anxious, partly because I'd also been told that until my new baby brother or sister had arrived safely my mother would be in a dangerous condition. Something terrible might happen to her -- something that might make her very ill -- and it was all the more likely to happen if I myself did not pay proper attention. My father did not say what this thing was, but his gravity and terseness meant that it was a serious business.

My mother -- said my father -- was not supposed to sweep the floor, or carry anything heavy such as pails of water, or bend down much, or lift bulky objects. We would all have to pitch in, said my father, and do extra tasks. It would be my brother's job to mow the lawn, from now until June, when we would go up north. (Up north there was no lawn. In any case my brother wouldn't be there: he was heading off to a camp for boys, to do things with axes in the woods.) As for me, I would just have to be generally helpful. More helpful than usual, my father added in a manner that was meant to be encouraging. He himself would be helpful too, of course. But he couldn't be there all the time. He had some work to do, when we would be at what other people called the cottage but we called the island. (Cottages had iceboxes and gas generators and waterskiing, all of which we lacked.) It was necessary for him to be away, which was unfortunate, he continued. But he would not be gone for very long, and he was sure I would be up to it.

I myself was not so sure. He always thought I knew more than I knew, and that I was bigger than I was, and older, and hardier. What he mistook for calmness and competence was actually fright: that was why I stared at him in silence, nodding my head. The danger that loomed was so vague, and therefore so large -- how could I even prepare for it? At the back of my mind, my feat of knitting was a sort of charm, like the fairy-tale suits of nettles mute princesses were supposed to make for their swan-shaped brothers, to turn them back into human beings. If I could only complete the full set of baby garments, the baby that was supposed to fit inside them would be conjured into the world, and thus out of my mother. Once outside, where I could see it -- once it had a face -- it could be dealt with. As it was, the thing was a menace.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Dead Girls

Dead Girls

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged : literary

Infused with eroticism, poignancy, and insight that cuts to the bone, these stories lead us into a tipping world of emotional wagers, loss and discovery, power and impulse. A marriage is tested as a mother struggles to cope with the disappearance of her prostitute daughter. Two angry women in a minivan act out their frustrations as they rampage through the night. A pill-dependent nurse juggles neuroses, infatuation, and exhaustion while supervising a high school dance-a-thon. A quiet tattoo arti …

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Excerpt

At the edge of the parking lot, a group of skate kids sat huddled on a low railing, hunched over cigarettes, their feet on their boards. Scrawny junior–high boys with long hair and baggy jackets, drawn like insects to the glow of the gym. I loitered near the doorway, gripped the metal bars of the emergency doors, indecisive. The open night pushed gently at my back, reminded me of cool sheets and the limitlessness of sleep, while waves of indoor heat, heavy with cologne and sweat, rolled against my face. The bass beat of dance music shook the wood floor, made the painted red and blue lines jump like pick–up sticks. The walls were alive with swirling coloured lights. My equipment bag felt full of bowling balls and rocks.

The centre of the gym was a dense and elastic mass of moving bodies, each back flagged by a thick black number on white paper. Small groups of teens gathered around the perimeter, their frames slouched and curved into apathetic question marks. Girls and boys sipped water from an array of containers: sports bottles, spigotted strap–on reservoirs, spring water bottles, thrift store canteens. It was almost too much, the relentless beat of the music, the careful attention to water fashion. I had just finished another double shift at the hospital, my ears trained to the quiet moans and requests of patients, my eyes on the keys to the pharmacy cabinet.

Up in the bleachers, the supervisory fathers stuck out like a herd of buffalo, sturdy ungulates in cotton pants and expensive sweaters. They were gathered together, mouths yawned wide in over–enunciation, heads nodding slowly.

I spotted Janet barrelling down the bleachers. Tonight she wore a rippling silk creation, a tent of a thing, with flowing, trailing pieces, all in a kaleidoscope of blues and greens; around her neck, a massive garland of seashells. It was either the pills or the lights playing off her fabric, but she looked like a giant tidal pool moving across the room. She opened her arms and splashed against me. The seashells scratched my collarbone, dug into my chest. She wiggled my paper hat, “This is great!”

Janet took my hand and dragged me across the gym floor. The heels of my duty shoes stuttered along the wood as I tried to keep step. She hauled me up the bleachers and I watched my feet as they dipped in and out of the alternating slats in a haphazard pattern. I was sure I would fall, take a header into the bleachers and be the first to require medical attention. Things like that happened to me. Things that made my face burn red, my saliva taste like lighter fluid.

The parents stood as we approached. Janet introduced me as “Mary, the single nurse who lives next door.” The pills kicked in and for a second the world tilted away, the entire row of parents tipping back so that I overshot a handshake and poked a rotund father in the stomach. I apologized and said something about cholesterol; he flushed with embarrassment.

I said hello to a petite woman with short, black hair and Scottie dogs on her sweater and my peripheral vision flared, a huge spotlight turned on behind me, my throat pulsed. I talked myself through the usual fears, I will not have a heart attack, I will not stop breathing, any moment now this will feel good. And even as I said it, the high broke out across my body like a prickly white sweat. Everything around me looked suddenly brighter. I held it together, except for the sweating – I had no control over that. I shook hands with my arm pressed firmly to my side and silently cursed polyester.

I had struggled out of my unit scrubs and into the white tights and traditional white uniform in the front seat of my car. A conversation piece, an ice-­breaker. The uniform was snug; I hadn’t worn it since the Halloween before nursing school, back when a stranger told me I looked good as a nurse, a compliment that led me to consider the profession. The costume included an old–fashioned paper hat and a “Florence Nightingale” name tag.

“Do you wear that to work?” the woman beside Janet asked, her finger waving in the air.

I shook my head.

I could tell the mothers hated the outfit. They gave me that disapproving mother look, the look that said, I was once spread–eagled in front of strangers with piss and blood and amniotic filth squirting out of my body, but this, this offends me. The fathers seemed somewhat more appreciative, though none of them appeared to be the skirt chasing, sports car driving type. These were men who had reached the fork of middle age and taken the high road. They were fact collecting types, men in comfortable sweaters and cushioned shoes whose lust for information, statistics, and useless trivia replaced a waning libido. These men were history buffs.

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