Nine Evocative Reads

In my stories, I try to recreate a time and place and mood as honestly as I can. I’m most drawn to story collections that do the same—ones that that feel like they could only have been written by someone from a certain time and place that are then brought back to life each time you read them. The collections below are the best examples of this I know.

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Natasha and Other Stories, by David Bezmozgis

It seems silly to say now, but I didn’t read much CanLit until well into my twenties; it wasn’t taught in high school, and I didn’t pick up much after, except for an intense dislike of Robertson Davies, who I took to represent all of CanLit. Released in 2004, Natasha was the first Canadian short story collection that showed me there was good, contemporary, Canadian writing that was up to par with the British and American stuff I’d grown up reading. Set in Toronto and the suburbs in the '70s and '80s, the stories follow a young man growing up with his immigrant family. The setting and characters were as far from my experiences as they could be, but the emotion in the stories is universal. It’s a collection I go back to often, all these years later.

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Indians Don’t Cry, by George Kenny

George Kenny is an Anishinaabe writer whose only story collection, Indians Don’t Cry, has characters from northern reserves dropped into cities to face the difficulties of being away from home, alone, in a place where open racism is the norm. The book was originally released in 1982, but so little has changed that they could very well have been written today—it’s a sad testament that the a nearly 40-year-old book can still be called “timely.” The stories are tense reads—hard, but necessary. It’s now back in print (republished by the University of Manitoba Press in 2014), so there’s a chance to make the title story the required reading it should always have been.

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Bad Endings, by Carleigh Baker

Vancouver is a tough town. I lived there twice and could never make it work. It’s one of the most expensive places to live in the country and it also has the poorest neighbourhood in the country. The divide is stark—if you’re not wealthy, you’re always very close to being in a tough spot. The harshness of the town comes through in Carleigh Baker’s stories. In the first, a woman gets a job to prepare to leave her husband and her comfortable life. She hands out newspapers at the SkyTrain—not a job that can get you much, but she’s ready to try even though it’s not enough. It’s a bleak testament to the choices you have to make in that city. The whole collection captures the feel of Vancouver better than any other I’ve read.

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Fidelity, by Michael Redhill

Michael Redhill is one of those authors who has done so much it’s easy to forget how good he is at the different forms he’s worked in. He started as a poet, but then stopped publishing poetry for 20 years while working on novels. His first novel was nominated for the Giller, and he won it 15 years later for Bellevue Square. In the middle of that stretch, he wrote three mystery novels as Igner Ash Wolfe. On top of which he has three plays and is the long-time publisher of the nonfiction journal Brick. Amidst all this varied accomplishment, it’s maybe not a shock that you don’t hear much about his short story collection Fidelity, but it’s well worth your time. There is one story ("Orchards") that is a master class on implied stories—it’s five pages long, but has so much going on, a half-dozen implied stories interwoven. The whole collection is masterful, like all of Redhill’s work.

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Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, by Norma Dunning

Norma Dunning did not publish her stories for a very long time. As she said in her excellent post for Aerogramme Writers Studio, “I would dream of publishing my writing, but it was easier and safer not to. I kept all of it in a drawer. I would think about publishing, and then I would think about the process of publishing. As an Indigenous, female writer I didn’t want to take it.[…] I didn’t want my work re-colonized.” She found the right editor, the right publishing house, and we are all lucky for that. Stories of humour, wisdom, heartbreak, all told in a unique voice that was hidden too long. It’s easily my favourite debuts of the last decade.

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Dance of the Happy Shades, by Alice Munro

I was late to Munro—I first read her when I was an editorial assistant at her publisher. I had been asked to do a printer-proof check of Dear Life. This is normally a very simple job—you check the final design pages against the printer proofs and make sure they match, no more than skimming the book. But I kept getting caught up by it and read the whole book before going back and doing the actual job I had been asked to do. I’ve since been working my way through her entire body of work. My favourite, so far, has been the first: published when she was 37, a half a lifetime of wisdom going into a single collection makes for a strong debut—something that a younger writer could never achieve (see also: Norma Dunning).

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I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well, by Norman Levine

There are plenty of authors I like as much, but none I like more, than Norman Levine. There’s no author who creates mood like him. Melancholic, bleak, claustrophobic. I love the complete collection, but it’s more a thing you dip into from time to time, reading it back to back is overwhelming as there is a certain sameness to the plots—a broke author goes out into the world and has an unpleasant time. But they’re all great—he didn’t really ever write any bad stories—and do more to sum up the feelings of being a writer or artist in Canada in the era before there was much hope of making a career of it than any other.

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A Safe Girl to Love, by Casey Plett

Casey Plett’s first novel, Little Fish, was a favourite of mine when it came out in 2017. After reading it, I went back to her first book, a short story collection released by Topside Press in 2014, which is now out of print but which Plett has generously released for free on her website. The stories are all from the perspective of 20-something trans women, they deal with sex, discrimination, and a good amount of problem drinking, all written in precise prose that can swing from discomfort to hilarity from sentence to sentence. It’s a debut that should have got more attention at the time.

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About Pallbearing:

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 divorcée in “Coming and Going” spends her days in paranoid pursuit of evidence to incriminate her neighbours in the derelict trailer park where she lives. And in “Clarence and Rose,” lifelong friends find love after their respective partners die, and then face loss all over again. With deceptively spare prose that carries outsized emotional weight and pathos, Melgaard brings his characters to life in sharp-edged portraits and all-too-human dilemmas, creating engaging stories that resonate with honesty and depth, and linger in the imagination.

February 13, 2020
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