Tag Archives: short stories

‘Anything is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout

This is a must-read for Elizabeth Strout fans who have read My Name is Lucy Barton. As with Olive Kitteridge, it is a collection of linked short stories featuring characters from Lucy Barton’s home town. It’s not a sequel per se, more of a companion novel, but nevertheless an amazing back story giving portraits of people living in this fictional small town. I guess she wasn’t quite done with them yet! Because it isn’t a sequel, either book could be read first. Anything is possible when one human makes an authentic connection to another. One reviewer called this book a requiem to small town pain!

“Here, among others, are the ‘Pretty Nicely Girls,’ now adults: One trades self-respect for a wealthy husband, the other finds in the pages of a book a kindred spirit who changes her life. Tommy, the janitor at the local high school, has his faith tested in an encounter with an emotionally isolated man he has come to help; a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD discovers unexpected solace in the company of a lonely innkeeper; and Lucy Barton’s sister, Vicky, struggling with feelings of abandonment and jealousy, nonetheless comes to Lucy’s aid, ratifying the deepest bonds of family.”

Strout is one of my favourite authors just because her stories are so real and unsentimental yet evoke such feeling and conflict. I’m not thrilled about investing in short stories, so I do expect to be drawn into a story immediately and completely, and in this Strout does not disappoint. If you are an Alice Munro fan, you’ll love Strout. They both have a way of capturing deep nuance and hope in everyday life: love and loss, reconciliation, complicated family bonds, resentments big and small, indignities, disappointments, grace, kindness, etc. and there is not necessarily a happily-ever-after or a definitive ending involved. Strout respects the reader enough to allow them to fill in some of the blanks.

‘Chance Developments: Unexpected Love Stories’ by Alexander McCall Smith

Chance DevelopmentsstarstarstarstarIn this unique collection, Alexander McCall Smith takes several anonymous old black-and-white photographs, and imagines the stories behind them. Who were these people and what was interesting about them? Why is that man sitting on that woman’s lap? Why is the little boy scowling on his tricycle? Who is changing the tire on that old car for the woman in the posh white coat? One reviewer aptly described it as ‘people watching’ in book form!

PhotographPhotoSmith’s talented imagination produces poignant tales of love and friendship in a variety of settings including an estate in Scotland, a travelling circus in Canada, an Australian gold-mining town, and a village in Ireland. The key to the entertainment of this simple prose is Smith’s beguiling story-telling and the immediate curiosity that the pictures evoke. These are marvellous little inventive pieces, quick to get into and inevitably ending way too soon.

This beautiful little volume makes a lovely gift because it is also an attractive book as object–a red hardcover, complete with glossy photographs, old-fashioned photo album corners, and a silk red ribbon bookmark. Since this is a stand alone novel, not part of any of his series, it would be a great introduction to Smith’s writing style for those who do not know him and a tasty treat for those who do.

‘A Snow Garden and other stories’ by Rachel Joyce

A Snow Gardenstarstarstarstar“Compelling and rewarding, tender and funny, it portrays family relationships at a time of year that should be joyous but is so often tangled and painful, reminding us that there is always a bigger story behind the one we first see.”

Rachel Joyce has become one of my favourite authors in recent years. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, and Perfect were all a pleasure to read. So I was excited to see a new collection of modern day Christmas stories by her in the bookstore! I had to buy it and gobble it up like turkey. In the foreword she said that some of the characters and situations  were built from bits and pieces cut from her novels. Happily these are not saccharine sweet Christmas stories. They are freshly funny and human–no perfection in sight!

The collection has seven separate stories, but they are all loosely connected with characters from one story randomly popping up in others. I love it when authors do that! (Maeve Binchy did the same thing in The Lilac Bus many years ago – if you know of others, please let me know).

These stories are so easy to get into (something I appreciate in a short story!) and showcase Joyce’s skill for conveying great things in simple everyday situations…a woman finds a cure for a broken heart where she least expects it; a husband and wife build their son a bicycle and, in the process, deconstruct their happy marriage; freak weather brings the airport to a standstill on Christmas Day.

‘Dear Life’ by Alice Munro

Dear LifestarstarstarThis is likely Alice Munro’s last book of short stories. It includes a Finale of autobiographical memories. I haven’t read much Munro, not being much of a short story fan, but I’m sure I’ve read at least one other of her collections. I’m trying to read more short story because I want to appreciate it more, and the endeavour has been instructive. I love using short story as a “palette cleanser” between novels. I always read each story twice in a row and then search online for others’ comments about it, that way I learn more and realize things I’ve missed. (Goodreads is a good source to see what others have said–sort of like the “blind men and the elephant tale”–everyone describes something different so all together a range of truth and ideas is provided).

Compared to a novel, a short story is a nugget, a bullet, with all of the parts of a longer work condensed into a complete unit that packs a powerful punch. Though not my favourite, I can see the beauty and skill displayed by a short story writer like Munro. What I liked most about Dear Life was the ‘Finale’ where she talks more about her own life. The writing is looser reflections, less complete, and not quite so self-contained–a rare glimpse into Munro’s own childhood, but is it so rare? I think her personal life has already been hinted at through the themes in her short stories.

Blind Men and ElephantMunro is known worldwide for her brilliance as a writer of short stories. She has won, among many other awards, a Nobel Prize in Literature. And yet she tells everyday stories of people living everyday lives. I do like that about her writing, it is very approachable. Her characters are flawed and human and she loves to explore how one event can be the fulcrum around which someone’s life can turn on a dime. From her stories we discover that she is highly critical of men, often characterizing them as thoughtless, selfish, and unpredictable. The women are capable of great love, but are often powerless and weak. I suppose these may have been things she grew up with, or perhaps typical of her parents’ generation in small town Ontario. There really doesn’t need to be an answer. Like the blind men, we can all take away from the stories whatever we like, and enjoy our own observations and interpretations.

Are you a short story fan? Do you have any advice for short story reluctant readers like me? Do you have a favourite Alice Munro collection?

‘Catch Me When I Fall’ by Patricia Westerhof

‘Catch Me When I Fall’ is a collection of short stories, all set in  a fictitious town called Poplar Grove, Alberta. The stories are about separate families but loosely connected in the Dutch immigrant community. Westerhof includes many details which would feel familiar to anyone who grew up in that sub-culture: peppermints in church, meatball soup with Maggi, African violets watered from the bottom only! There is thriftiness, tidiness, a devotional called Today, and shepherd’s pie. Westerhof knows her characters well, in all their braveness and brokenness. Why were these immigrants so stubborn and strong willed when they were the ones with the gumption to move to a foreign land? Would they not be more flexible and tolerant of inevitable change?

The middle word in the title of her book is important. It is not a matter of “If”, but “When”. In our humanity we are broken and in need of redemption. We don’t always get it right and though the Potter has crafted us and loves us, we are broken pots. Stories don’t always end happily, cultures and generations collide. But this is where Westerhof brings God’s love and redemption in. God’s grace shines through those cracks, it’s how the light gets in. And He will catch us when we fall, hopefully and sometimes with the help of His people in community.