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Richard Cumyn: Good Stories in Small Packages

Richard Cumyn's latest book is The Sign for Migrant Soul, and in this list he spotlights other great story collections and novellas. 

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Whenever I can, I try to shine a light on the short form in this country, to give the slim but sinewy book its due. Canadians have always written outstanding short and long stories. Women and LGBTQ writers are leading the way, expanding the form stylistically and exploring the literary potential of a structure that demands precision, efficiency, original expression and an uncanny third eye for the way people can be complex, unpredictable beings. You have to pay attention when you’re reading a well-written short-story or novella. The effect can be long lasting and transformative.

This is by no means a best-of list or anything close to comprehensive. It’s an idiosyncratic compilation of ten recent short-story collections and novellas I think deserve attention. It’s guilty of bias, favouritism, myopia, relative illiteracy—you name it. It’s exclusive out of ignorance and serendipity rather than malice. Some of these titles are books I’ve reviewed, liked and hung on to. Some were written by friends.  We tend to find and recognize each other; it’s still a small community. 

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Afterall, by Lee Kvern

Imagine if the artist Laurie Anderson relocated from NYC to southern Alberta and you might get Lee Kvern, a brave, compassionate, no-bullshit and self-described “wild” (rather than “cultivated”) writer.  Her novella Afterall examines homelessness in downtown Vancouver through the eyes of Beth, 36, and her precocious child-of-friends, Mason, who is 9.  For a first book, it’s a keenly observed gem of a story about recklessness and the limits of social activism.

*

Crisp, by R.W. Gray

Another debut, R.W. Gray’s vivid collection, Crisp, moves fluidly like a series of lucid dreams.  The stories draw on the familiar but by way of sometimes ominous transmutations.  One of my favourites is “Wabi Sabi,” in which a potter, Alice, goes to work reshaping her “gristle and bone” husband as though he were a lump of clay.

*

Perfect World, by Ian Colford

Ian Colford’s Perfect World should be required reading, first as a primer in how to construct the perfect short novel and second as a close hard look at domestic abuse and its consequence. We are continually told that a damaged child will grow into a damaging adult, but until we experience it as we do in harrowing fiction like this, that fact remains academic. 

*

Jane and the Whales, by Andrea Routley

I love to read fiction that teaches me something new about the natural world.  Andrea Routley’s first collection, Jane and the Whales, is replete with fascinating information about the non-humans who let us share the planet with them.  Animals often appear nobler than humans in these unpretentious stories that let natural wisdom bubble up through apparently naive narrative voices.  Here’s evidence of a writing talent that probably can’t be taught.

*

Keeping the Peace, by Colette Maitland

Colette Maitland is a writer of note among CanLit up-and-comers. Praised by the likes of Antanas Sileika, Diane Schoemperlen and Charlotte Gill, her first collection, Keeping the Peace, spills over with the busy-ness of life.  If they were paintings these stories might be by Kreighoff or Bosch, hyperkinetic and full of those peculiar, precise details we tend to miss as we hurry through our days. 

*

Canary, by Nancy Jo Cullen

Also from Biblioasis in 2013, Canary by Nancy Jo Cullen is a John Metcalf edition that should be in everyone’s permanent collection. The book’s back-cover tag line, “What has to die before you force yourself to change?” lets us know what’s at stake in these smart, funny, accomplished stories. I remember thinking after finishing the book that these characters were people I’d want to hang out with.  

*

Squishy, by Arjun Basu

I got to hang out with Arjun Basu a couple of years ago when we were on an arts-granting jury together.  Arjun is so in touch with the zeitgeist that I don’t even try to stay abreast. Just read his epigrammatic Twitter stories or the ones collected in Squishy.  I mean, presented with opening lines like, “The smell of deep fried seafood is one of those things that makes me doubt my atheism,” you know you’re in the hands of a master stand-up raconteur who doesn't waste a drop. Wry, delivered in snappy jabs, his sentences sparkle with wit but never sputter into silliness.

*

Jewels and Other Stories, by Dawn Promislow

Dawn Promislow’s beautiful collection, Jewels and Other Stories, was deservedly long-listed for the now discontinued Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize the year it was published. Canadian by way of Johannesburg, South Africa, Promislow writes the kind of story that at first glance seems unsophisticated and mannered but which encompasses complex layers through which the reader glimpses those subtle alterations that memory can make to one’s personal history.

*

Whirl Away, by Russell Wangersky

Russell Wangersky's collection, Whirl Away, made the Giller long-list the year it was published. Wangersky is no stranger to award lists, but he still should be better known in Canada than he is. I think he de-codes and re-sensitizes the masculine in much needed ways, helping to validate the male perspective without resorting to outdated, sexist, patriarchic modes. Pace, Philip Roth! 

*

Book of Gaza

I’ll end this list with The Book of Gaza: a city in short fiction (Comma Press, UK, 2014), a timely collection edited by Atef Abu Saif. My friend Nasser Saleh, a librarian at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, gave me the book. Although it’s not a Canadian publication, we should all be reading it.  Each story, rendered into English by a different translator, reminds us that Gaza, desperate, pinned down between Israel and the sea, and suffering unimaginable deprivation, is peopled by those who love, pray, curse, celebrate and mourn the same as you and I. 

*

About Song for the Migrant Soul: In nine memorable new stories and with tragicomic flair, acclaimed master of the short form Richard Cumyn dramatizes lives in tumult and transition. If the sign for migrant soul is an enigma, this remarkably upbeat and innovative collection is anything but.

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Richard Cumyn is the author of nine books of fiction. A past fiction editor of The Antigonish Review, he has been published widely in Canada in such literary journals as The New Quarterly, The FiddleheadPrairie Fire, Grain, PRISM International and Event.  He has been shortlisted twice for the ReLit Award, was a finalist for a National Magazine Award (essay), and was long-listed for the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short  Story Award. His screen adaptation of Susan Kerslake’s novel, Penumbra won a 1998  Linda Joy Media Arts Award. He has taught fiction at the Maritime Writers’ Workshop, read his work in the Dalhousie University, St. Jerome’s (Waterloo) and Lorenzo (UNBSJ) reading series and been short-term writer in residence at St. Mary’s University. He lives in Edmonton. 

June 7, 2018

Books mentioned in this post

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Afterall

by Lee Kvern
edition: Hardcover
also available: eBook
tagged: literary

At a dinner party, Beth — thirty-six, single, and working as much overtime as she can get her hands on — impulsively announces that she's going to spend a night on Vancouver's mean streets in commiseration of the homeless. Unexpectedly, her hosts' son Mason — nine years old, small for his age, intense, intellectual and so shy he can't speak i …

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Crisp

by R.W. Gray
edition: eBook
also available: Paperback
tagged: gay, short stories (single author)

 

Shortlisted for the 2010 Danuta Gleed Award for Short Fiction!

Crisp confronts the unspeakable parts of memory, meditating on characters caught in isolation and struggling to make sense of grief, disappointment, and the occasional dinner party gone wrong. Along the way, these characters don’t always make sound decisions: a grieving widow pursues …

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Perfect World

by Ian Colford
edition: Paperback
also available: Audiobook (CD) eBook
tagged: literary

Tom Brackett has created the perfect world for himself: he has a good job, a perpetually supportive wife, two kids, a mini-van, and even a golden retriever.

But then, his mental instability causes him to commit a terrifying act of violence.

Tom's story, which is at once tragic and hopeful, shows how quickly familiar structures can crumble and raise …

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Jane and the Whales

Short Stories

by Andrea Routley
edition: Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged: short stories (single author)

In this playful yet poignant debut collection, Andrea Routley muddies the line between the physical and emotional worlds: reality becomes not simply what is in front of us, but a mutable, fragile place in the imagination. On the verge of divorce, and in a pot-induced haze, Tom Douglas prepares to roast a pork shank in his new-and contentious-Authen …

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Keeping the Peace

by Colette Maitland
edition: Paperback
tagged: literary

A soldier's wife struggles to reconnect with her daughter after her husband is killed overseas. A prostitute refuses the help of the enigmatic and evangelical Jared. A heart attack survivor perplexes his family with his newfound religious euphoria. Character-driven, exploring grief and insularity, Colette Maitland''s short fiction debut shows us th …

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Canary

by Nancy Jo Cullen
edition: Paperback
tagged: literary

An AMAZON.CA Top 100 Book of 2013

"Gas, grass, or ass: No one rides for free". So begins this cheeky and chirpy short story debut by Nancy Jo Cullen. Working-class, a little queer, and a lot funny, Cullen''s characters-from the hymn-singing Catholic merch salesman to the young lez, hitching rides beside a born-again pile of ashes-encounter the kill …

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Squishy

by Arjun Basu
edition: Hardcover
also available: Paperback
tagged: short stories (single author)

Arjun Basu’s fiction collection is a wry and consistently provocative book which exposes the realities beneath social conventions. Squishy asks: Do you still love me? Do you want fries with that? Do I look fat?

Life is full of small moments that define us, tangents that lead us to unexpected places, bad decisions and no decisions with repercussio …

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Jewels and Other Stories

by Dawn Promislow
edition: Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged: short stories (single author)

The landscape of 1970s South Africa lives and breathes in these stories. This debut collection is populated by a wide and surprising range of unforgettable characters: an artist who finds his power in the dusty earth; a mother who waits for a letter; a collector of cacti who seeks her own kind of freedom; a shopkeeper in trouble in an outpost count …

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Whirl Away

Stories

by Russell Wangersky
edition: eBook
also available: Paperback
tagged: short stories (single author), literary

2013 Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award — Winner
2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize — Shortlisted
2012 BMO Winterset Award — Finalist

From critically acclaimed and award-winning writer, Russell Wangersky, comes a new collection of short fiction.

Everyone has something they’re good at: one particular personal skill that they use to keep the …

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