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Stunning Short Story Collections in 2020

By kileyturner
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With our attention so divided this year as we juggle ... everything ... a perfect story, over breakfast, at the coffee shop, or in a room hiding from our kids can make a day ever so much more rewarding.
Swimmers in Winter

Swimmers in Winter

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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Certain Women meets The Mars Room in this debut collection featuring three pairs of stories.

Sharp and stylistic, the trifecta of diptychs that is Swimmers in Winter swirls between real and imagined pasts and futures to delve into our present cultural moment: conflicts between queer people and the police; the impact of homophobia, bullying, and PTSD; the dynamics of women’s friendships; life for queer women in Toronto during WWII and after; the intersections between class identities and queer i …

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Pallbearing

Pallbearing

Stories
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback

An honest and unaffected collection of human experiences that deftly tackles themes of grief, loss, missed opportunities, and the pain of letting go.

The stories in Michael Melgaard’s poignant debut collection, Pallbearing, offer candid snapshots of life in a small town, where the struggle to make ends meet forces people into desperate choices. In “Little to Lose,” a son confronts his mother over the crushing prison of debt created by her gambling addiction. The aging divorcee in “Coming …

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Excerpt

The coffin was awkward to carry; the weight threw off the pallbearers’ balance, and their closeness to each other caused them to walk in a short, shuffle step. Jonathan was surprised by the weight; it seemed heavy, at first, but a few steps later, he wondered if maybe it was actually lighter than it should be. The wood was, after all, quite dense. But by the end she had been so thin, something he then tried not to think about. He decided that he had no basis for comparison. There was no reason to think the coffin was either heavy or light; experientially, it was exactly the weight all coffins he had ever handled weighed.

Jonathan tried to counterbalance by throwing one arm out to the side, but then thought having one arm flapping maybe looked disrespectful. Instead, he put it across his body and used it to help with the weight. The others struggled too. The natural burial field was riddled with little holes and clods of dirt. He wondered again why they hadn’t lifted it up on their shoulders. He was sure that’s what they should have done, but it was too late to do anything about it.

Then they were coming up on the hole in the ground. There were wide, canvas straps across it, the straps wrapped around a metal frame so the coffin could rest over the grave. The pallbearers walked on either side and stopped. A pallbearer opposite Jonathan shifted his grip, the coffin rocked and when it stopped, something inside kept moving for a moment. Jonathan tried not to think about that while they lowered the coffin into place.

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A Dark House

A Dark House

& Other Stories
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

In Ian Colford's latest collection, people get themselves and those they love into situations awkward and sometimes dangerous, doing what they think is best for all. A man kidnaps his young son from his ex-wife and the road trip west quickly spirals out of control; a destitute mother makes a risky alliance with a neighbour; an almost comically wrong-headed older brother has a detective follow his sister; a retired shop-owner in north end Halifax reflects on his life before making a snap decision …

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Stoop City

Stoop City

edition:Paperback
tagged : literary

A sea witch, a bossy Virgin Mary, and a lesbian widow’s wife—in ghost form—walk into a short story collection ...

Welcome to Stoop City, where your neighbours include a condo-destroying cat, a teen queen beset by Catholic guilt, and an emergency clinic staffed entirely by lovelorn skeptics. Couples counseling with Marzana, her girlfriend's ghost, might not be enough to resolve past indiscretions; our heroine could need a death goddess ritual or two. Plus, Hoofy’s not sure if his missing …

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Excerpt

Now is the Time to Light Fires

 

It’s like last winter when she took that girl Lena on a road trip and left me to finish my thesis in the sub-zero gloom. Marzana is gone but her chattels prevail and everything, even the Weeping Fig she lugged from Ikea, evokes her. My Lorazepam shuffle wears a triangle from couch to bed to toilet back to couch, where I curl in her threadbare sweater.

Sleepless, dreamless, I up my dose.

The department offers bereavement leave and contracts my replacement, a kindness that permits me to stay home, forever pantless. I stack my research and drape it with cloth. Now who will argue the importance of historical processualism with archaeological data from pre-literate cultures? I draw the blinds. Stop changing, stop bathing. I eat cereal dry out of the box by the handful.

I’m not me anymore; I’m husk, shucked and forgotten.

After the truck hits, that’s grief. Hydraulic pistons fire and the open-box bed lifts at its hinges: a dumping, a burial.

Nobody calls.

Nobody visits.

Every day is Sunday.

I light a candle. “You can come home now,” I say to webbing that ghosts the empty corners of our room. I say to the drunkspun moths, “Come home!”

One day she does.

Marzana’s lingerie drawer slides open and her garter dangles like a question mark. My spine zings with apprehension. Her perfume spritzes, infusing the room with her scent. The bed sheet turns down on her side.

I whisper, “Is that you?”

There’s an indentation on pillow and mattress, a definite presence.

“You’re here,” I say.

She shimmers when I kick off bunched socks, toss my T-shirt, join her on the bed. I trail fingertips down my throat, collarbones, my scarred solar plexus. I falter—shy at last.

She hurled herself at me the night we met, a hastily-bought rose between her teeth. I relive our drunken tango at last call, the halting, zigzag lurch back to my old place, necking against darkened storefronts, groping under clothes. Now, lying in our dusty bed my hand works alone, intent and sorrowful, but a censoring pall hovers. Perhaps in her transformed state—nebulous, ethereal—she feels sexually inadequate? What allure does the primal realm hold for her now? I rest sheepish palms above the comforter and, suckling close, she spoons me instead. It’s not warm flesh, but it’s something. Old soup comes to mind, some kind of gelatinous substance, and I can hardly breathe for fear of crushing her in the night. Like she’s a newborn or a kitten and not the crystalline essence of herself—her Soul infused with her distinctly flawed personality—that has transcended time and space, travelled countless unknown dimensions, returning against all odds.

All summer long we bump around the condo, relearning how to share this space. Nights, she settles against me and I contemplate an eternity of abstention. Sex with Marzana used to be like shouldering an oversize grain bag, pouring, pouring an endless pile. The thinning rush over time, a lessening stream, the pitter and pat to empty. In her After Life she prefers not-quite sisterly camaraderie—cuddling, hugging, holding hands.

I am pent. I simmer. But at least I’m not alone.

Marzana still roots through dresser drawers and abandons chucked clothing in piles on the floor. She stacks DVDs in towers by order of preference, her massive rom-com collection mocking me with sunny Hollywood covers. I survey her mess, mark a Cartesian coordinate system grid to impose order, and begin to excavate her cultural materials. I cradle and brush each item, starting in the southwest corner. I tag and label, jot notes.

This becomes my Stonehenge, my very own Pompeii.

Artefact 1.1: tucked in an overdue library book, I discover a black and white photo of Marzana at Hanlan’s Point, a nudist beach I refuse to visit on principle. Who took this portrait? Marzana turned just as the shutter opened and her hair caught the wind, obliterating most of her face. But her mouth is open. Sensual, teasing. The lines of her body echo in the pines behind her, in the boardwalk strips and faded pier: she was disappearing even then, waving goodbye.

Other things surface. Things I do not especially wish to see. Phone numbers on tiny scraps of paper, some with lipstick imprints from hungry mouths. Love notes, an entire incriminating series spanning more than a year from Lena, her so-called art-friend. Each piece of evidence spontaneously combusts in my hand or else Marzana ferries it out of reach. Those letters dance upon the ceiling, taunting. I string up clothesline and peg each charred, surviving remnant in chronological order, then cross-reference dates with my personal calendar.

An alleged out-of-town softball tournament occurred the same weekend as a particularly amorous getaway, recounted in gory detail by Lena.

Liars!

Marzana skulks behind her green recliner and, righteous, I fume for days.

It’s bad enough she died. She had to cheat, too?

Marzana’s mother calls. I stare at the phone but don’t pick up and naturally she refuses to leave a message. Marzana retaliates by not coming to bed which is fine because frankly, I prefer to starfish the mattress, face planted, and I sleep better than I have since before it happened.

Artefact 4.6: a card from her family filled with their slanted, foreign cursive—squiggles and so many consonants. Jare Swieto. It depicts old world children parading from a small village to the river, carrying ghoulish dollies that they beat with sticks and set alight. Another incomprehensible springtime ritual that bears examination. An uncashed cheque floats out when I open the card. Marzana snatches it mid-air. I wonder, can we still deposit it? Nobody’s haunting the electricity bill.

Soon the place is a booby-trapped eyesore. Dishes pile by the sink. Spills congeal in the fridge. Milk sours. A meagre harvest comes and goes. October bequeaths a snowstorm that eats November and I become almost as much a ghost as Marzana, padding barefoot on the frigid floor, confounded. If I could only assemble the clues correctly, I’d finally know: who was she, really? What has she become?

Our bickering escalates to dorm-room levels. Someone removes grid notes from the excavated artefacts; I find them taped to a box of maxi pads in the bathroom cupboard. Someone dims the lights while I work causing eyestrain and mental fragility. She feigns ignorance but I catch her twinkling with mirth. I crank the Gregorian chants she hates and my stereo disintegrates completely, leaving a blank square on the dusty shelf. Instead, her favourite song by that shitty Canadian band blasts the air, sourceless. Marzana’s peace offering—finger-painted hearts boasting our initials—dribble condensation in the frosted windowpanes. I wipe them with an angry palm.

Caroline, department administrative assistant, says she has to meet with me. “Paperwork, you know?” She offers to do this off-campus. “It must be so hard,” she purrs in the Tim Horton’s. The release agreement sits before me, its tiny font devouring the page like so many ants.

“They’re firing me?”

“You don’t have to sign now,” she says. Sotto voce, she adds, “You might want to consult a lawyer.”

Caroline smells sympathetic, like lilies, like gardenia. Her face is impossible: pink cheeks, lavender eyelids, perfectly groomed brows. Her skin is soft and powdered. I consider stabbing it with the plastic stir-stick.

“Marzana eats all the groceries, she won’t do dishes. I can’t even re-decorate,” I confide.

She pats my arm. “I know you miss her, sweetheart.”

Caroline’s pretty face is a curtain, drawn.

“You think I’m making this up?”

Mortified, I abandon my green tea.

“Don’t you want your donut,” she calls after me.

My throat sticks when I imagine opening the front door to our suite, breathing in that musty bog. Terminated. How will we live without my disability pittance?

Outside, I pace in front of our building. Snowflakes nip my face. They convene on my hair, my clothes. I have sneakers, not boots, and my feet slide on black ice hidden by the heron-coloured silt. Winter is coma-quiet and, just like Marzana’s life, virulent secrets lurk.

It may never end, this bone-clacking cold.

Wind rakes my flesh, pulls my nerves taut. It wakens something in my reptile brain, the part guarding ancient history, and I remember things weren’t always terrific. This profound loneliness, this disappointment, had arrived long before she died. All those stay-home Saturday nights—too much dinner, bloated on the couch watching some anaesthetizing bullshit from her dread movie collection. But mostly, mostly, it was just me waiting for her to call or to finally come home: hammered, incoherent and utterly blameless. She’d simply pass out, shoes still tied, forearms X’d on her chest, shut up like a pharaoh’s tomb, mysteries sealed intact.

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Here the Dark

Here the Dark

edition:Paperback

SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2020 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE | A NEW YORK TIMES NEW & NOTEWORTHY BOOK | "His third appearance on the Giller shortlist ... affirms Bergen among Canada's most powerful writers. His pages light up; all around falls into darkness."—2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize Jury | “David Bergen’s command is breathtaking … His work belongs to the world, and to all time. He is one of our living greats.”—Matthew Thomas, New York Times-bestselling author of We Are Not Ourselves

From the …

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Excerpt

April in Snow Lake

1.

The summer I turned nineteen my girlfriend went to Italy to work as a cook for a crew that was rebuilding houses in the aftermath of the earthquake in Udine Province. She wrote me long letters on thin sheets of paper. The letters arrived two weeks after she wrote them and as I read her words I was aware that what I was reading had already passed, she had moved on to some new experience, and so I felt as if I was following her from some great distance, catching a brief glimpse of her, only to have her disappear into a future that I would hear about fourteen days later. She had met a wonderful group of people from Belgium and Holland and France. There was Paul, who was six and half feet tall and played the banjo and admired Woody Guthrie. He wore a bandana. And there was Lillian, who was German Swiss, and was teaching her French. Lillian had taken her to Venice one Sunday, on their day off, and they had stayed overnight in a tiny villa. They had shared a bed and woken in the morning and made coffee on a hotplate and then had leaned out the window of their room and watched the lovers pass by below. It is all so romantic, she wrote. When I read this I was forlorn and I wondered how I would last the rest of the summer without her. I had found a job driving a truck for the local feed company, a job that required a lot of sitting and waiting, usually in the lot of an abattoir where I had been sent to pick up several tons of meat meal. Every evening I showered and scrubbed myself in order to remove the smell of dead animals from my hair and skin.

A year earlier I had decided to become a novelist, or a writer of short stories, or a poet, though I did not truly understand poetry and was more attached to narrative crescendo. I would write in a frenzy over the weekend and show my stories to my girlfriend on Monday evening. Of course we talked about my lack of life experience and my lack of voice and my lack of worldliness. She thought that my religious background, my faith in God, how I saw the world, would be a detriment to my writing. She said that Ernest Hemingway’s father had been religious like my father was, but that Hemingway had managed quite nicely to walk away from all the baggage. I said that I had no desire to walk away. There was room for grace as well as sin in the world of novels.

One morning, before I left for work, my girlfriend telephoned from Italy. At first I didn’t know it was her because I had not expected the call, and then when I finally recognized her voice I told her that I missed her horribly and I couldn’t wait for her to come home. She said that that she knew that but she planned to travel after finishing at the work camp. She might visit Lillian in Basel and then hitchhike up to Amsterdam where Paul lived. I’ll be home at the end of the summer, she said. Then we’ll get married.

This had been our plan, to marry in the fall. It had been my idea, my wish. She would just as happily have moved in together, but I had convinced her that we should marry. She agreed. But first, she said, she wanted to spend time traveling. She was quite willing for me to join her but the offer felt too easy. She knew that I could not afford it.

Her voice on the line faded in and out, and there was a delay, so that our conversation overlapped. At times we were speaking simultaneously and then we had to repeat ourselves and this led to long silences while we waited for the other to speak, and then it started all over again. Finally I just let her talk and as I did so I was aware of the tremendous physical distance between us and that her heart seemed smaller. And then the line went dead. I sat beside the phone for half an hour but she never called back.

That week a letter arrived in which she informed me that she wasn’t sure anymore if we should get married, in fact she wasn’t clear about her love for me. She claimed that the world was a big place and that she had one life and was she ready to spend that life with me? She wasn’t sure. I knew, as I read the letter, that the words had been written before her phone call, and this fact made our conversation irrelevant. She had been talking to me on the phone, promising that she missed me, and that she would return in the autumn and we would marry, while all along she knew that this wasn’t true. The space, the geographical distance, and the gap between what she wrote and what took place after she wrote it, all of this depressed me. Why had she not told me the truth? What was she afraid of? Was there something about me that she feared?

2.

Two weeks later I quit my job driving truck at the feed mill and I rode a bus five hundred miles north to Snow Lake where I worked construction for an old friend of my father who was pouring basements. The crew worked long hours, getting up at five in the morning and working till nine or ten in the evening. The summer nights were short and the light was forever blue and then white and then briefly yellow, and again blue. We did not sleep much and this did not seem to matter. Because darkness barely existed it felt as if sleep was something that other people might require. Not us. Perhaps it was a madness to behave this way, and perhaps this is why the summer lacked a moral focus. The lack of sleep, the wild dreams when I finally did sleep, the anguished poetry I wrote to my girlfriend, my predilection for feverish musings, an inclination to save the world from sin—all of this might have been the result of a lack of sleep.

I was not a drinker, and at nights, when the men were finally free, they went to the local bar while I stayed in my motel room, or sat out on a chair on a rock and read John Steinbeck. And the Bible. The other men on the crew, mostly older than me, kept trying to drag me down to the bar for some pussy. This was their way of putting it. I told them that I was engaged to be married in the fall. Shit, they said, that’s exactly why you need to get laid. I smiled and humored them and shook my head. They went off to get drunk and find a woman, or at least to imagine that possibility, and I read. They had taken to calling me Preacher, because I had let them know that I was a Christian. That fact amused them.

On Sundays, our day off, I was lonely and so I wandered through the town. I noticed that the children on the streets and in the yards were aimless and, my nature being inclined towards industry, I decided to organize a Sunday Day Camp for youth. The ages would be 14 to 17. I didn’t want any small children. I planned to do some hiking and orienteering and I planned to tell these kids stories that were mature and I planned to save their souls. I knew that a sixteen-year-old was able to think along the lines of metaphor more easily. At the local hardware store I purchased several compasses, a filleting knife, a hatchet, and two fishing rods. I canvassed the town, knocked on doors, and asked if there were teenagers living there who might be interested in joining my Day Camp. We would meet under the shelter at the town park. Some folks said no and closed the door, others were willing to listen, and one older woman who had no children asked me in and brewed tea and we sat in her dark living room and listened to the clock tick on the mantle as she cautioned me against presumption.

The first Sunday, three kids appeared. Two sisters, Beverly and April, and a boy named Rodney. I told them a little about myself—I was nineteen, I came from a small town in the south, I liked to read, I wrote poetry and songs, and I believed in God. I asked them to tell about their lives. They looked at each other and giggled. Finally April said that she was there because her younger sister Beverly wanted to come. She shrugged. April had long dark hair that she wore in a single braid and, unlike the other two, she looked right at me when she spoke. She was seventeen. I found her very attractive and so I concentrated on Beverly and Rodney, sneaking looks at April when I thought she didn’t notice.

That afternoon I taught them how to build a lean to, and how to use the compasses, and we caught two fish and filleted them by the lake. These were all things that my father, who considered himself a bit of an outdoorsman, had taught me. We built a fire using the log cabin method and we fried the fish and ate it with our hands, right from the frying pan. Later, I played a few songs and I sang and then I told them the story of how I had become a Christian. I had asked Jesus into my heart. Everyone needs to do that, I said. Would you like to do that? I asked. They looked at me and then April said, Maybe. Someday.

That’s good, I said. Really good.

That night I went to bed imagining that I might fall in love with April, or if not that, we would walk in the park at the edge of town and hold hands. At that time in my life I was full of ego and pride and I could not imagine April liking anyone more than me, in fact I thought that if I were to be with her, I would be the gentlest and kindest person she had ever known. These were similar to the thoughts I used to have about my girlfriend who was in Udine.

I had not heard from her since the last letter, and though I had asked my parents to forward my mail, no letter had arrived. I believed at the time that she would come to regret her decision.

#

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