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With this story I reach the end of my Canadian tour (you can find links to all the stories I’ve reviewed here).  Yukon is another territory for which I have had difficulties to find a story, but John at The Book Mine Set came to the rescue and suggested “Vegas Wedding” by Ivan Coyote (1969-), which he had previously reviewed and is available online here

John warned me that it is a personal essay, but said that it reads like a story, and it does!  This made me think about an essay by Douglas Hesse I read a while ago, “A Boundary Zone: First-Person Short Stories and Narrative Essays”.  According to Hesse, “a precise boundary line between essays and short stories does not exist”, thus leading many works to belong to the “boundary zone”.  At the heart of his essay if the issue of labelling and expectations.  One of the expectations we have in reading each genre is that one relates to fact, the other to fiction: “Reading a work as key to some more general truth involves a different set of perceptions than reading it as representing some action, however meaning laden.  We expect an essay story to show the way things are, a short story the way things happen.”  Furthermore, he states that “[t]he fundamental issue is reference.  Essays are supposed to refer to a real world beyond the page; short stories are not.”

Although “Vegas Wedding” reads more like a story than an essay, especially because of the extensive use of dialogue, presenting it as a personal essay implies that the piece is a true story, not a fiction.  This seems relevant considering the seriousness of this piece’s topic: same-sex marriage.  This is not fiction, such intolerance really happens in our world.

As it is told in the first person, the reader who is not familiar with Ivan Coyote only becomes aware that the narrator is a woman quite late in the narrative, Ivan being a name most often used for men.  This is when the story starts to become more challenging.  At first, it just seems to be the story of a couple deciding to get married in Vegas on impulse during a road trip to the death valley.  However, as you might have guessed from my previous remark, this is more difficult than it might seem at first, even in Vegas where anybody can get married in the space of a few hours.  Indeed, they are denied a license at the court-house because gay-marriage is not legal.  The narrator highlights the unfairness of the situation by claiming that there is more love between the two of them than between many of the heterosexual couples in the queue.

They still decide to try to get married at the chapel, but are refused because they do not have a license.  However, the narrator is now determined to get married to her girlfriend, Karen.  The irony of the situation reaches its peak when a priest watching porn also backs down when he is told they are lesbians because he finds it immoral, but would however accept to perform the ceremony against a fee of 500 dollars.  Finally,it is the photographer who offers to marry them and gives them a lovely ceremony.  Even though he is not prejudiced, we can still feel how he represents a majority of the population when he says “life partners” instead of “man and wife”.  In the end, the two brides are married happily ever after…

The story is entertaining and told in a light tone, but also problematises a serious issue of our contemporary society.  Not only does it show the incongruity of the legal system regarding same-sex marriage, but it also highlights the prejudice still existent in our society.

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As a way to celebrate Canada Day, which was on Friday, I have been posting a few reviews of Canadian short stories during the week, and will keep doing so during the weekend in an attempt to finish my tour of Canada through short stories (you can find links to all the stories I have reviewed here).

I had been looking forward to reading a story by Audrey Thomas because I have read a few essay comparing her to Atwood.  I can see how they might be compared, not only in the themes and techniques of their stories, but also in their sarcastic humour.  Thomas was born only four years before Atwood, in 1935, and currently lives in British Columbia.  However, the story I consider today is not set in British Columbia, but in Montreal, although the character comes from Vancouver.

There is a story behind the story “Bear Country”, but I had never heard of it.  Feminism is at the heart of this narrative, but was also the reason why Marc Lépine shot six women at the Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal, before killing himself in 1989.  The “massacre” is still present in the mind of Wilma, the main character of “Bear Country”.

Wilma has moved from Vancouver to Montreal, where she works as a secretary in Concordia university, writes plays for a small theatre company and learns French at the YMCA.  The gender of French words is something that intrigues Wilma and her plays have a strong feminist agenda.  For instance, she wrote a skit that caricatures a comment she had overheard from a professor saying that “Canada was putrid with feminism”.  In her play, she created a feminism Pollution Scoreboard similar to the one in McGill metro station.

She is obviously affected by attacks against feminism, so her anguish grows when the French course for which she has just applied is relocated to the Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal.  As she takes the bus to go up there, she cannot help thinking about the “massacre”.  She worries about going up that staircase when the evenings will be dark in December.  During the class, she is lost thinking in French about how it would be if a man with a rifle walked in.

The story ends with another play Wilma wrote during the summer.  The play is another feminist take.  She uses the French word for “bear”, “ours”, to make a statement on gender imbalance.  The women in the audience pronounced the famous leaflet advertisement “We are in Bear Country”, while the men are supposed to respond with “This country is ours”.

The story is an overt critique of patriarchal discourses and a social commentary on feminism and anti-feminist sentiments.  It is humourous and shocking at once, especially since it is a response to a dramatic real event.

As I was saying on Monday, yesterday was Canada Day.   As a way to celebrate, I have posted a few reviews of Canadian short stories during the week, and will keep doing so during the weekend in an attempt to finish my tour of Canada through short stories (you can find links to all the stories I have reviewed here).

 (1963-) is a good author to make the transition between Alberta, where she was born, and British Columbia, where she lives.  She is also the youngest author in the anthology I own and I was eager to read her story, especially after reading an excellent review of her novel The Sky is Falling (great title!).  “The Chmarnyk” is also a story about the sky. 

I found this story difficult to read, but I will try to do my best at reviewing it.  It is told by a first-person female narrator who recounts her family’s story, or should I say disasters?  The story opens with the death of a dog in 1906, which led the family to move from Dakota to Manitoba “into safety”.  However, there, Mama’s baby is impaled.  The family moves again to escape the curse, but the death of the father makes them realised that it was him who was cursed.  When Teo, the narrator’s brother, dies, the mother exclaims that he has inherited his father’s curse.  There are many religious references and superstition can be seen as one of the main themes of the story.

Yet, we can tie these superstitions and religious references to the family’s origin.  From the term “Baba”, used to designate the grandmother, I would deduce that they are possibly Eastern European immigrants.  The family is depicted as always on the move, fleeing the curse of the land, but maybe also trying to find a place where they will be accepted as the narrator mentions that “they said we were worse than Jews” and that “Baba said she could smell hatred”.  It seems therefore that the family and their superstitions are not understood by the other inhabitants (in the same way the reader might be confused by these beliefs), but, and most importantly, are not accepted because of them.  The curse on the family might then act as a metaphor for the way the family is rejected.

The story is set during the depression, at a time when the Prairies were experiencing a drought (as in Ross’s “The Lamp at Noon”).  Most the story revolves around this lack of water and the efforts made by the inhabitants to survive.  The narrator even says that she was afraid to cry for fear that people would lick her face.  The title of the story is also a reference to the rain.  “Chmarnyk” refers to the narrator’s brother and is the name given to a rain-man in Galicia, the narrator explains.  In the story, the brother tries to find ingenious ways to survive despite the dryness.  When he dies, there is a thunderstorm: he has finally managed to make it rain.  The mother decides then that he has inherited his father’s curse.  The inhabitants claim that he has been struck by lightning; however, the story clearly suggests that he was shot by a farmer.

I find this story complicated and I believe each new reading will reveal more meanings and subtleties.  By reading on Caroline Adderson, I discovered that she writes about various historical periods and in the voice of various characters; she is not actually of Eastern European origin herself.  This story is well-crafted and I believe she must have done some careful research for it.  I think that knowing more about the context, but also about Eastern European customs would be enlightening.  However, the story can still be appreciated without prior knowledge.

As I was saying on Monday, today is Canada Day.  As a way to celebrate, I will post a few reviews of Canadian short stories during the week and attempt to finish my tour of Canada through short stories (you can find links to all the stories I have reviewed here).

Choosing Thomas King (1943-) to illustrate Alberta is quite arbitrary as he was born in California and currently resides in Ontario.  However, when he initially moved to Canada, in 1980, it was to teach in Alberta.  King is of Cherokee and Greek origins and is considered as a spoke-man for indigenous populations.  “One Good Story, That One” reflects these concerns.

The story is told in the voice of an Indian who sets to narrate a story to three white anthropologists.  At first, he begins to tell them anecdotes about his friends, but his friend, Napiao, insists that he recount a good old story, a story of origins, “how the world was put together”.  And so the narrator begins in a typically white-man fashion: “Once upon a time…”

The story he tells is no other than his own version of the Genesis.  He has God creating the world, including a television and a grocery story, and a “not so smart” Ah-damn and a clever Evening, “she be Indian woman”.  In his version, Ah-damn and Evening are also expelled from the garden of “Evening” – “just like Indian today” – by an angered God because they ate the “mee-so” and Ah-damn lied about the number he ate.  He nearly forgets the snake in the story, but remembers to add it at the end, hissing because Evening has stuck an apple in its mouth.  His version also includes coyote, the trickster, to whom the white men are compared at the end of the story.  However, in this story, it is them who have been made fun of.  They wanted a traditional indian story, but all they got was a subversion of their own myth of origin. 

This parody of the biblical myth is hilarious and the story as a whole is funny and clever.  King denounces the way white men appropriate Indian tales and properties in a humourous manner.  The first thing that struck me was the rhythm, probably reminiscent of the way native storyteller would narrate a story.  The English is broken and interspersed by numerous Indian words, but this only adds to the pleasure this story gives.

As I was saying on Monday, this Friday is Canada Day.  As a way to celebrate, I will post a few reviews of Canadian short stories during the week and attempt to finish my tour of Canada through short stories (you can find links to all the stories I have reviewed here).

“Where Is the Voice Coming From?” is my second story from Saskatchewan and was written by Rudy Wiebe and published in 1974.  It is probably one of the most famous Canadian stories and I had meant to read it for a long time.  I have seen it so many times mentioned in essays that I consider it as an essential Canadian read.

I am sorry to report that I did not enjoy reading it.  I started it about three times and read it in two sittings, something I avoid doing with short stories.  I cannot figure why it did not appeal to me.  I enjoy reading about this story, but not reading it.  I found the writing quite alienating.  Maybe is it because of the longish descriptions? or the fact that it seems to oscillate between essay, history and fiction?

In this story, the narrator begins by stating that “[t]he problem is to make the story”.  He then discusses some historical facts about the Indians and how they were hunted down by the police.  He insists on the difficulty to represent history through language.  He also highlights the vagueness of the facts provided by the records, as well as the discrepancy between the photo and the official descriptions provided as a search warrant for “Almighty Voice”.  Therefore, the story highlights the difficulty in recording history, but also emphasises the fact that the history we are offered is provided by the voices of white dominant group, thus not allowing for the Indians to give their own version. 

These are themes I would usually enjoy considering in stories.  However, I could not get into this story and I know that I will have forgotten about it very soon.  I will probably give it another try at another time, and maybe I will then be able to appreciate it.  Have you read it?  What did you think of it?

 

As I was saying on Monday, this Friday is Canada Day.  As a way to celebrate, I will post a few reviews of Canadian short stories during the week and attempt to finish my tour of Canada through short stories (you can find links to all the stories I have reviewed here).  Today, I have reached Saskatchewan with a story by Sinclair Ross (1908-96).

“The Lamp at Noon”, which is the title story of a collection published in 1968, is a typical Prairie story in which the setting becomes a kind of character in the story.  The dust and wind o the dry Prairie landscape during the Depression are leitmotifs in this story and they literally drive the characters mad.

“She wanted him now, the assurance of his strength and nearness, but he would stand aloof, wary, remembering the words she had flung at him in her anger, unable to understand it was only the dust and wind that had driven her.”

The story is set during a period of dryness and the land has not produced food for a few years.  The atmosphere is suffocating because of all the dust that gathers on the furniture and Ellen cannot leave the house because there is nowhere to go.  The infant has problems breathing and keeps crying.  However, Paul does not want to move to the city.  He is too attached to the land and too proud to receive what he calls “charity” from Ellen’s family.  The couple is torn by the situation created by the landscape.  Eventually, Paul begins to understand Ellen’s position, although he finds it difficult to admit it.  However, it is too late and when he gets home, Ellen has left, taking the child with her.  He organises a search and is finally the one to find her.

“The child was quite cold.  It had been her arms, perhaps, too frantic to protect him, or the smother of dust upon his throat and lungs.  ‘Hold him,’ she said as he knelt beside her.  ‘So – with his face away from the wind.  Hold him until I tidy my hair.'”

This is a very evocative and poignant story.  One can feel the love Ellen and Paul have for each other, but the landscape stands between them.  Space is often mentioned when discussing Canadian literature and I think this story is a perfect example of its importance.

 

When I decided to do this Canadian tour through short stories, I was stuck for a few provinces / territories, but John at The Book Mine Set came to the rescue.  For the Northwest Territories, he suggested “Show my Yours” by native writer Richard Van Camp, which you can actually find online (you can also read John’s review here).

At the heart of this story is a call for peace amongst people despite their differences.  The narrator explains how by wearing a leather necklace with a picture of himself as a baby he escaped bullying.  Following the incident, his aggressors began wearing a similar necklace with their own baby picture and shook hand with him.  Everybody then started following this trend.  The baby pictures become peace symbols reminding us of our innocence when we were born.

“Whites, Natives, Inuit — oh we all laughed together when we saw each other and there are just so many beautiful babies inside us all.”

The story is framed by an episode in which the narrator and Shawna look at the Northern Lights.  Shawna mentions that customs regarding Northern Lights are different in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, thus again emphasising that we are all the same even though we have different beliefs.  We are still all humans in front of this mystery that is nature, no matter how we interpret it.

There is also an elusive love story between the narrator and Shawna packed in this very short story.  They seem to have been in love for a long time, but have always been separated either by other relationships or by location; however, their relationship seems to be strong and lasting and transcends their separation.  It reinforces this feeling of love amongst people.

The story is thus at once universal in its emphasis on our common humanity and equality in the face of nature, while at the same time retaining some strong native characteristics.  The prose is quite poetic and I liked the evocation of the northern lights.  It is a peaceful story which screams for happiness.  However, a shadow still hangs in the possibility that Shawna might leave again. Yet, I believe that this possibility highlights the strong bond between the two characters even in the face of spatial separation, thus stressing once more the fact that no matter where we are on earth we are all part of the same human community.

Canada Day being next friday, I have decided to post more Canadian short story reviews during the week in order to celebrate and to finish my tour.

Short Story Monday is hosted by John at The Book Mine Set.

In an interview for The Paris Review in 1958, Ernest Hemingway pronounced what has now become famous in short story theory: the principle of the iceberg.

“Surely.  If a writer stops observing he is finished.  But he does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful.  Perhaps that would be true at the beginning.  But later everything he sees goes into the great reserve of things he knows or has seen.  If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg.  There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.  Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.  It is the part that doesn’t show.  If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.”

Although Hemingway was referring to the art of writing in general, his statement appears as particularly appropriate when considering the short story genre.  Indeed, with this metaphor, Hemingway expressed a technique central to the art of the short story, that of suggestiveness.  Because of its shortness, the short story often relies on this principle and is often characterised by ellipsis.  As a result, the reader becomes an active agent in the creation of the story.  This might leave interpretation more open, but might also result in misinterpretation or a less rich interpretation.

I had been curious to read the short stories written by the man who enunciated this principle for a while and to see how he put it into practice.  I finally managed to read a couple of his short stories this week and I must admit that they have left me perplexed (not in a bad way).  They seem at first to resist the notion of unity characteristic of many short stories following Edgar Allan Poe’s predicament, thus, perhaps, opening the path to a new generation of writers who have tended to experiment and even subvert the genre and its conventions.  I do not believe that Hemingway’s and Poe’s principles are mutually exclusive, on the contrary, but I find that Hemingway’s stories open too many doors to be actually characterised by Poe’s notion of unity.  This is my initial reaction to Hemingway’s stories and I think it could be because they appear as an expression of existentialist, somewhat abstract, reflections.

“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, which you can read here, is the first story I ever read by Hemingway.  It was published in 1933 in Winner Take Nothing.  Let me tell you something, if you find Beckett depressing, then do not go near Hemingway. 

The story is set in a café, in Spain, where two waiters are waiting for an old man to finish drinking so that they can close up and go home.  As they wait, the waiters discuss the old man’s suicide attempt the previous week and this prompt them to consider why he would rather sit there alone in a café rather than drink at home.  Significantly, the two waiters are differentiated by their age and the older one empathises with the old man.  He points out that the young waiter cannot understand:

“‘You have youth, confidence, and a job,’ the older waiter said.  ‘You have everything.’

‘And what do you lack?’

‘Everything but work.'”

The story points to the emptiness of life, particularly for those who lack “everything but work”.  This is also suggested by the repetitive prose and the extensive use of “and”, thus resulting in an enumerative style, which reflects the repetitiveness and mundanity of daily life.  Indeed, as the older waiter is on his way to a bar, his thoughts are about nothingness:

“It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too.  It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.  Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada.  Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada.”

Thus, modern life is characterised by nothingness and things like “a clean and pleasant café . . . well lighted” become important as they seem to restore a certain order in a chaotic world.

Sobrino de Botin, restaurant frequented by Hemingway in Madrid

“A Very Short Story”, which can be read here, might be short in length but covers a few year relationship and how it ended.  It was published in 1925 in In Our Time.  In the space of a few lines, Hemingway recounts the love affair between a soldier and a nurse.  They meet during the war but never get married, not even after the end of the war when the soldier returns and goes home to find a job so that Luz can later join him.  However, Luz discovers that there is more than one man on earth and she breaks up the relationship.  Although she changes her mind later, the soldier never replies to her letter but we learn that “[a] short time after he contracted gonorrhea from a sales girl in a loop department store while riding in a taxicab through Lincoln Park.”

This story offers a grim but realistic view on relationships, particularly when one is young and during a time of war when there are fewer opportunities to meet someone.  It also challenges this idea of everlasting love and suggests that promises might be empty and result in nothing. 

I would have liked to spend more time reflecting on these stories, read more of them and read more about Hemingway as I was only familiar with the “iceberg principle” and The Old Man and the Sea, which I read so long ago I cannot remember it in detail.  However, I have promised to put this post up today and I would not like to have made an empty promise and offer you nothing, nada.

This post is part of The Classics Circuit tour on the Lost Generation held by Rebecca.  You can find links to all the posts presented as part of this tour here and read more on Hemingway and other Lost Generation writers.

This post is part of the America Lost Generation tour held at The Classic Circuits.  Visit the site to read more post on Hemingway and other lost generation writers.

St Patrick’s day has come and gone and I haven’t yet reviewed an Irish short story as I had planned.

The story I read this week is “Irish Revel” by Edna O’Brien.  O’Brien was born in 1930 in county Clare.  Books were not well viewed in her family, especially if read by girls.  Although O’Brien trained as a pharmacist, she pursued her dream and became a writer.  O’Brien went against the path prescribed by her family and has often been banned in Ireland.  Since her first publication in 1960, O’Brien has become a respected and well-established writer. 

“Irish Revel” was originally published in 1969 in her first short story collection, The Love Object.  The story is that of Mary, 17, a country girl who lives up in the mountain.  For the first time, Mary is allowed to go to a party.  There, she is hoping to meet John Roland, a married English painter who stayed with her family two summers before and with whom she became enamoured.  However, once she arrives at the party, Mary is disillusioned as she is treated as barely more than a maid and is made fun of by the town girls.  As the small party gets going, the men there get increasingly drunk and boisterous.  Soon, Mary’s hopes and wishes are shattered and she realises she would have been better staying at home.

This story is typically Irish in its themes, but also evokes universal feelings of exclusion and alienation.  I found it painful: I felt for Mary, whose dreams of love and freedom are destroyed.  Mary has to face the reality of her world and maybe her illusions were preferable to that. 

O’Brien’s story reminds me of Joyce’s Dubliners with its painful epiphany and its description of Irish society as small-minded and driven by drink.  From what I have read about O’Brien’s life, it is reflective of the atmosphere in which she grew up, a suffocating atmosphere in which day-dreaming was the only means of escapism.

If you would like to read about more Irish short stories, visit The Reading Life where Mel U is holding an Irish Short Story Week.

I have talked about Nightjar press before, when I reviewed Alison Moore’s “When the Door Closed, It Was Dark” and “The Beautiful Room” by RB Russell.  Nightjar is dedicated to the short story and publishes signed and numbered chapbooks every six months.  They are now ready to launch their spring titles: “Field” by Tom Fletcher and “Lexicon” by Christopher Burns.  I have never heard of them, but I trust Nicholas Royle’s tastes.  You can find details to order your copies on Nightjar’s blog.

Nicholas Royle is also the editor of the forthcoming Best British Short Stories 2011, which is published by Salt Publishing and is the first anthology of a new annual series.

I also discovered yesterday that another collection edited by Royle will come out in October: Murmurations: An Antholgy of Uncanny Stories about Birds, published by Two Ravens Press.  This particularly caught my attention because I was mentioning not too long about how often birds are present in short stories and how eerie their presence can be.  This is another collection I would like to check out!

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