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Monday, July 03, 2006

Reader's Diary #118- John Stevens (Editor): Best Canadian Short Stories (up to "The Iron Men")

It's too bad that Best Canadian Short Stories gets off to a slow start. Sure starting off with the "comic" stories may seem like a good idea- but comedy is so unpredictable. What tickles one's person's fancy might only be slightly amusing to another. I think that's the case with Stevens' selections. Tragedy and violence on the other hand, is something that affects us more universally. I'm not saying that there aren't differences the world over in terms of how we view such events, but there are some safe generalizations. Murder and suicide have pretty negative connotations everywhere (well, almost). And thus, Stevens' sections "Men and Women: Tragic and Ironic Views" and "Violent Encounters" would have been better choices for opening the book.

But that's a small critique, because he did make some fantastic choices. In fact, my top 10 short story list might look quite different by the time I'm finished. What amazes me most is the amount of character development that most of these authors manage to pack into a relatively few pages. People often criticize sitcoms for solving major problems in 22 minutes. Maybe they should hire some of these authors- I think they'd be up to the challenge. Alice Munro, despite how I've ragged on her time and time again, has a real masterpiece here with "The Beggar Maid". I absolutely love the portrait she paints of a particular couple. It starts off with a sense of foreboding about the narrator's new boyfriend. He seems so neurotic and insecure that you almost taste danger. Yet, the narrator slowly takes on similar traits and in fact, it is she that first lashes out. Yet despite their faults, Munro has an uncanny ability to make them seem relatable! It's as if she holds up a mirror that only shows our ugly side (a la Dorian Gray?). It's ingenious. Another story, "Every Day of His Life" by Jack Hodgins has characters every bit as eccentric as those in a Robertson Davies or John Irving book.

I also love the diversity of authors. While I complained initially that the first section is entirely by male authors, he makes up for it in later sections. Not only are females represented, but different areas of the country as well. There's a superb story by French author, Yvette Naubert entitled "The Murderer" which is just about everything a short story should be. There's an interesting story by Newfoundland author Harold Horwood entitled "Some of His Best Friends" which surprisingly deals with racism and is set primarily on a Caribbean island. "The Charivari" by Susanna Moodie, while not a particularly great story in terms of plot, is very enlightening about this bizarre custom which makes Newfoundland's mummers look innocent. So many wonderful and compelling reads...I think I'm loving the short story. I definitely plan on reading more.

Finally, Stevens should also be commended for the short biographies on each author at the back. After finishing each story I go to the back and discover more about each author. Neat little reference tool that really adds to the enjoyment of the collection.

And I just can't end this post without also mentioning Hugh Garner's "The Moose and the Sparrow". It has an ending much like Dahl's "Lamb To The Slaughter", but what makes it great again is the characters. Or is it the tension? Or is it the...oh it's everything I guess. I'm gushing I know, but it's a wonderful piece of writing.

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