Thursday, September 19, 2013

Reading Journal: Coming Attractions 09, ed. Mark Anthony Jarman (2009)

Oberon Press’s annual three-by-three – three short stories from three up-and-coming writers – includes Nicholas Ruddock, who has since published the novel The Parabolist; Alex Leslie, whose collection People Who Disappear emerged from Freehand Books in April, 2012; and Jeff Park, from whom no book has come out yet but who had all three of these featured stories published in The Fiddlehead. From Ruddock, I had already read (and liked) “How Eunice Got Her Baby,” a crash-and-burn account of a woman adopting her sister’s child, in Journey Prize Stories 19, and I also quite enjoyed “Sebald,” a story that was stylistically completely different from "Eunice" and told of a bizarre, time-bending encounter. Leslie’s stories all have a theme of loss, from an environmental, sociological or anthropological standpoint, taking us from a logging road in “Ghost Stories” to a night club in “Swimmers” and a domestic scenario in “Preservation” in which the protagonist’s dreams of being an archaeologist bubble to the surface. Finally, from Park, we get two great stories – the National Magazine Award Honourable Mention (2010), “Back to Disney,” about a graduate student who gets mixed-up in a grow-op, and the surprising “A Boat in Still Water,” about a sudden-onset love triangle after a visit to a military submarine launch – and one that was, unfortunately, the least enjoyable in the collection, “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Dog,” an account of a dinner with some serious “dog people” that ends in a (seemingly unfounded, by the characters and by the elements of the story) accusation of adultery. That said, one story had to finish last; Coming Attractions's 2009 edition, and this series in general, never fails to introduce three talented and interesting voices in Canadian short fiction.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Reading Journal: The Journey Prize Stories 16 (2004)

Selected by a trio of writers who have since become CanLit royalty - Elizabeth Hay, Lisa Moore and Michael Redhill - I might have anticipated that I wouldn't love these stories; I despised Late Nights on Air (Hay), was lukewarm to Consolation (Redhill) and I'm kind of dreading my upcoming Lisa Moore introduction (I've owned Alligator for at least a year but can't make myself crack it - I really didn't like her calling Dave Bidini a "lazy reader" during Canada Reads...). The best story here is probably "Isolettes," by Neil Smith, about coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy, but I had already read and raved about it when I read his collection (Bang Crunch). I also quite liked the incredibly long "The Uses of the Neckerchief" by Lesley Millard - it tried to shoehorn in a bit too much in places, (an extra image here, an overwrought flourish there), but it really evokes the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder on a friendship and it's easy to get caught up in. In general, though, I found these stories overwritten and in many cases so focused on style that the reason to continue reading - the "what happens next?" - was lost in the smokescreen. The prime offender here is the winner, "The Last Spark" by Devin Krukoff, which uses great images but doesn't make me care about the characters and the mundane party they're having - in fact, I wasn't convinced Krukoff was too concerned with them, either. The stories by Adam Lewis Schroeder ("Burning the Cattle at Both Ends") and Patricia Young ("Up the Clyde on a Bike") felt the same. But the collection wasn't without some realist hits: I thought Michael V. Smith's "What We Wanted" was an excellently-told story about a (gay) sexual awakening, even if the writing itself was clunky, and the final two stories - "Nice Big Car, Rap Music Coming Out the Window" by William Metcalfe, about who really owns land (and a young man interested in a young woman, too), and Elaine McCluskey's "The Watermelon Social" - were stories that I could actually be taken away by. McCluskey's, at the end, left me saying "I don't really know what to say that was about," but it reminded me of "Half a Grapefruit" by Alice Munro in the way that the disparate pieces all seemed to somehow fit together. In sum, though, every contest is only as good as its judges, and every anthology only as good as its curators; I'm sure these are among the best short stories by new writers in 2004, but overall, it just wasn't my year.