book reviews

Daydreams of Angels, short stories, by Heather O'Neill, HarperCollinsCA, 2015, trade paper, 354 pp.
Daydreams of Angels, short stories, by Heather O’Neill, HarperCollinsCA, 2015, trade paper, 354 pp.

“TEN GAZILLION STARS”: that’s what I wrote when I first finished reading Daydreams of Angels, by Canadian author Heather O’Neill (Lullabies for Little Criminals, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night). I’m slightly embarrassed by this hyperbole now, but that reaction was genuine, born out of my deep appreciation and excitement for wildly inventive writing that smacks almost of improv. That’s not to say that O’Neill didn’t craft these stories carefully and thoughtfully, only that she understands relinquishing control to the literary muse.

Daydreams of Angels is magic realism at its best. It’s original and playful, funny and tragic, wise and clever. It is uninhibited while remaining true. Combined with the delightful ridiculousness are moments of striking reality we can all relate to, which is what keeps this collection from overloading us with only fancy and wit.

Most of the stories carry the tone of fairy tales, and there are a few liberally riffed upon actual fairy tales, such as Pinocchio (“Bartók for Children” is an exceedingly clever version that carries the same kind of inventiveness as the original, only O’Neill does it better) and Red Riding Hood (“The Wolf-Boy of Northern Quebec”).

As the title of the book vaguely suggests, some stories include angels, heaven, the devil, and even Jesus. In one of my favourite stories, “The Gospel According to Mary M.” (yes, that Mary M.: “Other people’s parents said I looked like a whore…”), Jesus is a Grade Six kid with what Mary’s mom calls “inner strength—a real screw-all-of-y’all attitude” who one afternoon finds the contents of his juice box mysteriously changed to wine (“‘Tell me if this apple juice doesn’t taste funny to you,’ he said”). Jean-Baptiste (haha), who says that Jesus has a Messiah complex, and Peter and Judas also feature on the playground.

Once when we were all in the back of the schoolyard and Judas was explaining to us where babies came from, Jesus positively spazzed out.

Now I knew all about that baby stuff, even then, and I knew that Judas was fifty percent full of crap, but if I piped in with my corrections, he’d be all “Excusez-moi, Professor Been-Around-The-Block,” so I made sure to keep my mouth shut.

But Jesus, on the other hand, started having a complete breakdown. He said that Judas was a liar and that if a woman hears someone whispering in her ear in the middle of the night and if she sits up and looks around and no one is there, she’ll be pregnant by the morning.

Interspersed throughout the collection is a series of connected stories featuring Grandfather and Grandmother (which have been radio-featured), who delight their grandchildren with fabrications narrated to us by the granddaughter. These stories are hilarious, for both the tales and the children’s reactions, and are about where babies come from (they’re washed up on shore by the waning tide, with their bums sticking up out of the sand so women can rescue them [“Where Babies Come From”]); dying and coming back to life and what happens in between (“Heaven”; the dead are all hustled onto trains: “The angels sorted through everyone, rushing about and chain-smoking cigarettes—for as it turned out, in heaven, smoking was good for you”); and about when Grandfather was a ladies’ man on the Isles of Dr. Moreau and dated a cat-girl, a deer-girl, and a swan-girl, and finally settled on the monkey-girl, Grandmother.

In other words, O’Neill fantastically succeeded in what she set out to do:

The collection I kind of conceived as a whole. I wanted it to be seen like one of those old anthologies of children’s literature that I used to get for Christmas in the ’70s. They would just have little chapters from Dickens novels and then a fairytale, and then an Aesop fable and then a story from the Bible. So I wanted it to be like one of those big children’s compendiums but then they would all be dark and for adults and with my own sort of twisted, perverted, little trademark things stuck in there. (Source)

Trademark, indeed. The collection is the misfit she often writes about but which has through obvious honing of her craft managed to find its own cool place. This book of imaginative, often reimagined stories is in a league of its own, not only with its original stories but also at sentence level.  I dogeared so many similes and metaphors because they’re like nothing I’ve read before—in a good way that absolutely thrilled me. As a writer, I appreciate the hard work she’s done to cultivate this skill, which has totally paid off—so much so she makes it seem easy.

Daydreams of Angels, UK edition, Quercus, 2015
Daydreams of Angels, UK edition, Quercus, 2015

For example: “The old man was careful with his life. As though it were an egg balanced in a spoon in a children’s race”; “Little O brought Joe’s awful black cat to the vet. It was always messy looking and out of sorts, like a kid that had just had a turtleneck pulled off its head;” a bear in the first story, “The Gypsy and the Bear,” spins “balls around as though he was God deciding where to put what in the solar system”; and “they slammed the book shut, like a folk dancer pounding his foot on the floor to announce the end of an act.”

Streetlights are, from above, like strings of pearls; a boiler bubbles and burps all night long as if it had a huge meal and now has indigestion; a young girl with three brothers finds herself lacking (“It was as though there wasn’t enough material left to make another boy and so I got made”) and compares herself to the “last funny cookie on the tray that there wasn’t enough dough for”; and “The surface of the moon on a clear night looked all dented, like it had been out drinking and driving and had now lost its licence after a crash.” There are tons more, connections you might not think to make but strangely seem almost obvious when you read them.

As I hinted at the beginning, this book isn’t all fun and games. Artfully blended in is an also observant insight into the darkness of being human. O’Neill writes about poverty, loneliness, feeling like a misfit, the misery of being unfulfilled, abandonment, the mid-century views of motherhood, and especially the way girls and women are made to feel by the expectations of society.

“The Saddest Chorus Girl in the World” is a particularly tender story about vulnerability, objectification, and sadness. The final story, “The Conference of the Birds,” tells of a family of six on welfare (not the only story in this collection that deals with poverty of some sort), and though it’s well-balanced and told with humour and a rather sweet ending that focuses on the way we can survive by being close-knit and positive, it too was tinged with sadness for me.

In all, Daydreams of Angels is a brilliant exploration of imagination, desire, and finding one’s place in the world, a collection that left me feeling satisfied yet hungry for more. I have yet to read The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (soon!) but already, I’m looking forward to whatever O’Neill wants to write next.

For more on this collection, listen to Heather’s interviews on and All in a Weekend. (Her sweet, light voice totally surprised me when I first heard it. Her writing made me imagine something meatier. I love this juxtaposition!)

other book stuff

To all who’ve read and so generously responded to my previous blog post Help Canadian Author Saleema Nawaz Rebuild Her Book Collection After Fire:

THANK YOU. Your responses showed kindness, understanding, empathy, and also a kindred love of literature. I feel certain that your comments have buoyed Saleema’s spirits even while she’s faced with the destruction of her home. As Sam Gamgee said to Faramir a long, long time ago, you have shown your quality, the very highest.

However: Saleema has posted an update on her blog. Please read her post. There are pictures, too. Importantly, she gently requests that since their books were mostly undamaged except by smoke, it’s not necessary for us to send her any to help her rebuild her collection.

Again, I thank you so much for your responses and suggest instead, as Denise Bukowski commented, that you buy Saleema’s books. Mother Superior is a collection of, well, superior short stories. Bone and Bread, her new novel, has already been welcomed with high praise, and the Quill & Quire has called her Anansi’s new star.

This post serves to end the campaign to send books. Even if I jumped the gun, for which I apologize, I don’t feel the posts were in vain. Saleema saw your gracious, caring comments, and at a time when all was uncertain, felt us as the ground beneath her feet.

Thank you all again.


Short Stories for Breakfast

2013-02-19 08.00.24Another week of good stories. Some better than others, but I remain convinced that I don’t have a shitty book in this whole house.

April 15: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Of God and Cod,” by Anthony De Sa, from BARNACLE LOVE. So much richness in one little story. A man leaves his family behind for a voyage from Portugal and Newfoundland. The beginning of what promises to be a very good collection of intimately connected stories. Doubleday, 2008.

April 16: #shortstoriesforbreakfast is abominably late today. But better late than never. I read “Elk Talk,” by Elizabeth Gilbert, one of my favourite writers. It’s from PILGRIMS. Yes, she wrote short stories, and a novel, before Eat, Pray, Love! And her short stories kick ass. I’m jealous all over. A family in the country is surprised by unwelcome neighbours who appear on their doorstep en masse and invite themselves in. And the father has an elk call apparatus. [1997], Penguin, 2007.

April 17: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “For Puzzled in Wisconsin,” by Bronwen Wallace, from PEOPLE YOU’D TRUST YOUR LIFE TO. M&S, 1990. A woman’s reflections are triggered by a letter to the newspaper. “Dear Allie: My husband has an intricate tattoo on his chest. I am very fond of it, and I don’t want to see it go with him when he dies…” Very good, but I wouldn’t expect less from Wallace.

April 18: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Cleats,” by Johanna Skibsrud, from THIS WILL BE DIFFICULT TO EXPLAIN. My first Skibsrud read. And I like it. It’s pretty funny, this one, mature and well-done. I’ve heard more negative about Skibsrud than good, and I feel like I want to prove them all wrong. I don’t even need to read more to do that, but I will. Hamish Hamilton, 2011. (Read from the ARC)

April 19: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Big Bitchin’ Cow,” by D.W. Wilson, from ONCE YOU BREAK A KNUCKLE. I keep reading stories, like this one, that make me think, yes, this is exactly what mine’s supposed to be! A father chases his son across a frozen lake, remembering the past between them. So damn good. The structure is perfect. Hamish Hamilton, 2011. (Read from the ARC)

April 20: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Out of the Woods” by Chris Offutt, from his collection of the same name. A man goes and picks up his wife’s dead brother. Such a poor summary for such a masterful story. I love the vernacular, the tone. The greatest thing to come from the US is its literary talent. Like Woodrell, Offutt is a great American writer whom Tobias Wolff (yet another goodie) says is one of the best. I agree. Simon & Schuster, 1999.

April 21: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “With Daddy,” by Allison Baggio, from her collection IN THE BODY. In the wee hours of the morning, a girl’s father plucks her from her bed in the house where she lives with her mother, and takes a trip. Heartbreaking, an excellent story idea, and an interesting exploration of the collection title in a juxtaposition sort of way, but something tells me this story could have been better. Having worked on Girl in Shades, though, and having thought it rather strong, I look forward to reading the rest of this intriguing collection. ECW Press, 2012.

If you have suggestions, do let me know and I’ll add them to my list. Thank you to those who’ve recommended already. Duly noted!

Next up: who knows! I get to pick each day depending on what I feel like for breakfast!

book-related events

This is a Writers’ Trust press release

Finalists Announced for RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers

Toronto – April 18, 2013 – The Writers’ Trust of Canada is delighted to announce finalists for a literary award that plays an instrumental role in discovering and promoting the next stars of Canadian literature.

The RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers rewards writers under age 35 who are unpublished in book form. Alternating each year between poetry and short fiction, the award will be given this year to the author of an exceptional work of poetry. The $5,000 award is supported by the RBC Emerging Artists Project, which invests in up-and-coming artists to help build their professional careers. Two finalists will each receive $1,000.

A jury comprised of the poets Mary Dalton, Phil Hall, and Susan Holbrook read 135 blind submissions and selected three finalists:

Laura Clarke for “Mule Variations”

Laura Clarke is a Toronto-based writer and a graduate of the MA program in creative writing at the University of Toronto. She has published work in The Antigonish Review, Grain, PRISM international,Qwerty, and Freefall. The jury said of her work: “Something both hip and ancient is given full rein: hard limits slurping in the sun, Aristotle and police reports, electric fences and pick-up lines, subway riders with donkey heads. A washed-out sardonic tone delivers a sure push that is humane and celebratory.”

Laura Matwichuk for “Here Comes the Future”

Laura Matwichuk holds an MA in art history from the University of British Columbia and is a recent graduate of the Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University. She lives in Vancouver and will be a writer-in-residence at the Banff Centre later this spring. Her poems have appeared in Contemporary Verse 2 and Emerge. The jury citation said of her work: “Matwichuk hangs poetry from the syntactical hooks of the sentence, offering us prose poems that are flexible, slightly surreal, both expansive and focused.”

Suzannah Showler for “The Reason and Other Poems”

Suzannah Showler holds an MA in creative writing from the University of Toronto. Her writing has appeared in many places, including The WalrusHazlittThe Puritan, and Joyland, and she won the 2012 Matrix LitPOP Award for Poetry. She is the poetry editor for Dragnet Magazine and curator of the website Art of Losing ( She lives in Toronto and is working on her first collection of poems. The jury said of her work: “These poems distinguish themselves by the quality of their poetic intelligence. They are astute, linguistically and syntactically adept, and full of sonic energy.”

The winner will be announced on May 28, 2013, at an event hosted by acclaimed poet and past Bronwen Wallace Award winner Jeramy Dodds. The event will be held in Toronto at the Leslie and Anna Dan Galleria at the TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning, located at the Royal Conservatory of Music.

The nominated work of each finalist is available for free to download exclusively on Apple’s iBookstore starting today at

“At RBC, we believe in the power of creative writing to enrich our lives,” said Shari Austin, Vice-President, Corporate Citizenship, RBC and Executive Director, RBC Foundation. “That is why we are proud to support the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, because it helps promising young writers to build their professional careers and fosters the next generation of great Canadian writers.”

“The RBC Bronwen Wallace Award has a stellar track-record of launching literary careers,” said Mary Osborne, Writers’ Trust executive director. “A nomination for this award signifies exceptional potential and gives young writers a boost at a crucial point in their development as artists.”

About Bronwen Wallace

Bronwen Wallace was a poet, short story writer, and mentor to many young writers as a creative writing instructor at Queen’s University and St. Lawrence College in Kingston. This prize was established in her honour in 1994 by a group of friends and colleagues. Wallace felt that writers should receive greater recognition early in their careers and so this annual award is given to a writer below the age of 35 who has published poetry or prose in literary magazines, journals, or anthologies, but has not yet been published in book form.

About the Award

Over 19 years, this award has distinguished 66 young writers with a nomination and many have gone on to receive literary acclaim. Several past honorees have new books out this spring, including Michael Crummey, Shashi Bhat, Natalee Caple, Dina Del Bucchia, and Tanis Rideout.

About the RBC Emerging Artists Project

In 2012, RBC invested $6.2 million in programs that support Arts and Culture in Canada and around the world.The RBC Emerging Artists Project consists of support through sponsorships and donations to organizations whose programs bridge the gap from academic excellence to professional careers in all forms of art.

About the Writers’ Trust of Canada

The Writers’ Trust of Canada is a charitable organization that seeks to advance, nurture, and celebrate Canadian writers and writing through a portfolio of programs, including literary awards, financial grants, scholarships, and a writers’ retreat. Writers’ Trust programming is designed to champion excellence in Canadian writing, to improve the status of writers, and to create connections between writers and readers. Canada’s writers receive more financial support from the Writers’ Trust than from any other non-governmental organization or foundation in the country.


You can view the 2013 finalists on the Writers’ Trust site.

You can read Bronwen Wallace’s writing, too, but she does seem hard to find, except for the short stories. Try


  • Marrying into the Family – 1980
  • Signs of the former Tenant – 1983 (winner of the Pat Lowther Award)
  • Common Magic – 1985
  • The Stubborn Particulars of Grace – 1987
  • Keep That Candle Burning Bright and Other Poems – 1991

Short stories


  • Arguments with the World – 1992


  • Two Women Talking: Correspondence 1985-1987 – 1994 (with Erin Mouré)
Short Stories for Breakfast

2013-02-05 07.25.15The short stories I read this weekend were a nice mix, by women and men, contemporary and older, even different in format, since one I read, today, was from a pdf. Here are the breakfasts I enjoyed this week:

April 1: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “The Many Faces of Montgomery Clift,” by Grace O’Connell, author of the novel Magnified World. This story, which reminded me so much of a friendship I had, was part of Writers’ Trust Journey Prize Anthology #24. I enjoyed it so much I emailed Grace and we had a neat chat about it.

April 2: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: Going for seconds after reading Matthew Trafford’s aptly titled “Gutted” from The Divinity Gene. I’m caught. Hook, line, & sinker! “Gutted” specially blew me away. I read it three times. “Camping at Dead Man’s Point” is interesting in that he uses himself as a character in the story, a gay guy named Matthew Trafford, but the story also includes a walking, talking dead guy. An original, cool way to make a good point in this one! Trafford deserves much more attention. Douglas & McIntyre, 2011.

April 3: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Mother Superior” and “My Three Girls,” by Saleema Nawaz Webster, from Mother Superior. Enjoyed both, particularly the first one. The second was somewhat horrifying, but also very well done. I could keep reading! Freehand Books, 2008. Already in the first few stories there is a theme of motherhood and children.

April 4: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Cracked Wheat” and “Pisces,” by Hugh Cook, from Cracked Wheat  and Other Stories. Middleburg Press, 1984. Early stories by my former English prof. I read the book years ago and remembered “Cracked Wheat” fondly, reading it again. I recall why the story has stuck with me all these years. Well-written.

April 5: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Foley’s Pond,” “Occidental Hotel,” and “Spokane,” by Peter Orner, from Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge. (Reissue August ’13; Little, Brown. I hope they reprint all of his, as they’re hard to find.) You know you’ve just read some stellar writing when the first thing that comes out of your mouth is a giant sigh and “holy shit.”

April 6: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “The Premier’s New Pajamas,” by John Lavery, from Very Good Butter. ECW Press, 2000. NO ONE writes like John. No one. I miss you, cher ami.

April 7: #shortstoriesforbreakfast, “Better to Lose an Eye,” by Jamie Quatro, from I Want to Show You More. Powerful and surprising. I’ve read some of her stuff on McSweeney’s too, and it’s hilarious! Quatro’s been getting a lot off attention in the US. She’s one to pay attention to. Thanks to Hugh Cook for bringing her to my attention.

In all, a great week of stories. I’m understanding little by little more about how stories work, and what makes a good story better than another. I’m also finding myself hungrier for more literature in general (the way eating breakfast makes you hungrier the rest of the day), and finding myself becoming more inspired by ordinary things.

Next week includes some lesser-known Canadian authors, plus Diana Athill.

Stay healthy: read well.

book-related events

As much as the magazines and websites and professionals stress that you must eat breakfast every morning, I just can’t. I’m not ready, I don’t want it. It takes me a while to ease into my day. But everyone argues that you must have nourishment to start your day properly, to jumpstart your metabolism, blahblahblah. Sorry. No can do.

More than ever I’ve been listening to my intuition—literally, here, my gut. It tells me the best time for me to eat is between 10:30 and 11:30, and sometimes even later. I eat when I’m hungry. I used to eat every couple of hours, but that was because I was so restless. Now I’m finding calm and not needing to eat so much.

But I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss out on nourishment to start my day properly. And if I can’t jumpstart my metabolism, how about jumpstarting my creativity?

A few months ago, I decided to see how many short story collections I had, so I pulled them out from wherever they were, got a bookcase from Greenley’s, and shelved them all together. Not only was this very exciting for me, seeing them all, but it also elicited a kind of Pavlov’s dog response. All that potential in one place. The culmination of a deep and abiding passion for short stories.

But I was also overwhelmed. Lately, the shorter the book, the better, and I’ve been reading more short stories than anything else. But how was I going to read them all with so little time? How would I overcome that feeling of wanting to read them all at once?

Out of this question and the whole breakfast issue, Short Stories for Breakfast was born. In the morning, no less.

On the menu this week
On the menu this week

The first thing I do when I wake up now is pick a book of stories, bring it down into the kitchen, put on the stovetop kettle for lemon water, and then enjoy a short story for breakfast. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t survive without food for breakfast. I’m thriving.

Yesterday morning, I read the excellent and also gut-punching titular story from Jess Walter’s We Live in Water. It’s not the first story I’ve read from the book, and I’ve skimmed through some of the other pages, and I can tell you, this is very good writing. No surprise there. But this is my favourite so far of his books. I love his style, the topics, the theme of “personal struggle and diminished dreams,” the roughness of it all. Walter’s been called one of the greatest young American writers today. I will not disagree. We Live in Water is from HarperCollins, where he couldn’t have a better team of supporters.

This morning, I read two stories because they were somewhat short, called “Flies” and “The Table,” from Paolo da Costa’s The Green and Purple Skin of the World. Da Costa lives on the west coast and has won several literary awards. He was born in Angola and raised in Portugal, and this cultural background enriches his stories. He’s a writer, editor, and translator. This collection is from Freehand Books, also this year, and, well, I can’t help it, but I recommend this one, too. It’s not your usual breakfast, which is partly why I like it so much.

You guys, I feel so great and excited about this new idea. I love starting out the morning this way. I’m getting to read a bunch of authors at once. I’m incorporating variety, which, as they say, is the spice of life.

This is my new reader’s diet. I imagine that not only will my creativity get stronger (had an idea for a NEW short story on my  walk today!), but also my reading muscles will tone, and my writing will become nice and lean.

Stay tuned for literary tweets and Facebook statuses sharing what I had for breakfast every morning. Isn’t that more exciting and appealing than telling you I had oatmeal with cinnamon and slices of banana and chia seeds and hemp hearts? Or granola and almond milk? Buckwheat pancakes with blueberries? I’ve always preferred breakfast foods at supper time anyway.

other book stuff

On the #CanLit chat today on Twitter with @CBC books, a couple of us were talking about the impressions people have of Canadian literature. Usually, these are unfortunate and misguided impressions, caused inadvertently by school teachers or others who define CanLit as only from a few major authors like Atwood, Ondaatje, Shields, etc. Not that there’s anything wrong with these authors or their writing, but CanLit is so much more than the canon.

We also discussed the negative and negligent attitude toward short stories. I’ve found as a bookseller that the response is exactly the same from each person when I offer short stories and people decline: No, I don’t like short stories. They leave you hanging, they never feel finished, they aren’t fulfulling, etc. It’s true that the short story can seem strange if you’re used to novels. But good short stories are simply not guilty of being unfinished. The craft of writing a short story is very precise. And it allows you afterward to think about the literature more so than after reading a novel. Short stories entice you to engage, and they often cause more of an emotional reading experience than you may have with a novel. Yes, short stories can be a bit of work, but not always. They do take some understanding of form, but not anything that’s beyond you as a reader to comprehend. And most importantly, not all short stories are the same. Lydia Davis’s are sometimes a paragraph, while Miranda Hill’s are long and very fulfilling.

When I made up a short story table at the bookstore where I worked, I targeted those readers who often found themselves short on time or with frequent small chunks of time during their day—such as waiting in line, at the airport, while commuting, before getting out of bed, before falling asleep—saying that they could still read an entire piece of fiction in their busy days rather being constantly interrupted in the story of a novel. And you know what? The table was such a success (in store, on Twitter, and on Facebook) that not only did we keep it going for at least half a year, we also now order in more collections than ever before. Short stories right now are being published left, right, and centre, and are being more widely recognized among our readers and literary awards juries. The signs are all here. Short stories are in. But still far too many aren’t willing to catch the wave.

Many times I’ve argued for the expansion of our views on CanLit, here on the blog or elsewhere. Examples of the posts I refer to can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here. And then I thought, maybe it’s easiest if I just make lists of Canadian contemporary CanLit people can browse. “Give Canadian” was created in response to 49thShelf’s invitation to make a list of CanLit we’d recommend for Christmas. And because short stories are my very favourite format, and I’d love to be able to share that passion and excitement with others, or to change others’ minds about short stories, as well as showcase superb contemporary CanLit, here is my list called “Defying Convention: Reading Short Stories” (contemporary CanLit short stories).

Happy browsing! If you buy any of these books, try shopping at your local indie. If you have to go elsewhere or order online, at least you’re buying and supporting our Canadian talent. I don’t think we should only read Canadian, of course, but I love it enough to say  I think it’s worth trying out. You never know. You may love it. Just as I did when it was introduced to me.

If I’ve forgotten any, let me know. These lists are from my own bookshelves.


Lately I’ve been finding it hard to keep up with all the fantastic book stuff! Here’s another LitBit post of some things I’ve collected since LitBits 26.

1. I want this very badly. It’s a tent that looks like a book! My husband and I take Lucy camping every year — have done since 2000 (well, we’ve been camping that long together, but Lucy didn’t start curling up with us by the fire till 2003). Anyway, I’d camp under the stars in this tent without hesitation. It’s awesome. “Sleeps two comfortably.” It would also be cool for backyard book clubs!

2. You already know I’m all for short stories. I just finished Alix Ohlin’s Signs and Wonders for work, and it’s excellent. Short stories are perfect for breakfast or just before bed, for your commute, or during lunch. They’re great for everywhere. Here are the three winners of the Commonwealth short story contest. And for $3 I downloaded the winners of Sarah Selecky’s Little Bird contest this year; you can too! The money goes toward helping migratory birds of North America.

3. Speaking of short fiction, Kristine Ong Muslim is a writer of flash fiction based on art. Her new book, We Bury the Landscape, is a collection of 100 mini-stories about different paintings. Each flash fiction piece corresponds to an artwork she’s indicated in the book. Portions of the book have appeared in publications and have been nominated for awards and cited as exemplary by publishers. For example, these stories were early versions of the fiction pieces that were included in the book:

We Figure the Leaves in Hobart

Revenge of the Goldfish in The Brooklyner

Boy with a Propeller Head in Birkensnake

Requiem for Industry in Eschatology

Flowers, Secrets in Every Day Fiction

The book has already been reviewed in many places,, too.

4. Bookends! Which I have no room for on my bookshelves, of course, but could be used to display a little selection of Canadiana somewhere else, like on top of a bookcase or shelf. I love these, from Anthropologie. Somehow they speak to me as stories themselves.

5. And since I mentioned Canadiana: you’ve probably already heard of the 49th Shelf’s Read Local map (I have a little badge for it in the sidebar as well). The idea is to pin Canadian books on the map. I put on Sam Martin’s This Ramshackle Tabernacle, because it’s very close to where I live (the stories mostly take place between Belleville and Algonquin Park, and north of 7). (I’m going to be reading his new novel, A Blessed Snarl, as soon as it arrives, for his virtual tour. It’s going to be excellent.)

6. Fellow book blogger @jacqu83 (Jaclyn Qua-Hiansen) sent me this awesome article to include here: In Barangay La Paz, Makati (the Philippines), Hernando Guanlao is the caretaker and founder of the wondrous Reading Club, commonly known as “the library on Balagtas Street.” Check it out!

7.  Introducing book-smell perfume, called Paper Passion. I’m pretty sure this is not how I want to smell, or how I want others to smell (although I’d go for it in lieu of how some people already smell. Phew). But I prefer to come across this fragrance when I walk into a bookshop or open a book. Right now I’m reading the hardcover copy of The Sisters Brothers, and I can’t stop fanning the pages. It’s such a good smell, that one.

8. My friend Alison Gresik is an author. We went to school together, sang in the concert choir, and then in 2000, a year after I graduated from my fifth year, she published her first book. I was jealous when I first came across it working at Chapters. And then she lost her way; she fell into a depression. A few years later, she and her husband decided to sell everything and leave Canada for Asia. They are now happily of no fixed address. Her journey through depression wasn’t easy but she discovered along the way that not being true to your creative self can be a very bad thing. Now she’s a creativity coach, helping artists and authors fulfill their dreams and foster their creative needs. She’s also written another book, called Pilgrimage of Desire. Recently, she and a designer friend decided that they were going to self-publish the book so they could lay it out the way they wanted. It’s beautiful. She raised over $10,000 in support of her project, a book that openly shares what she went through and will help those going through the same. Alison is a truly amazing, strong, and inspiring woman. You can check her and her book out at

9. The term bibliotherapy makes sense to me as is. But I recently found it has a different meaning than I thought. Bibliotherapy is an academic term used to describe the beneficial mind/body reactions that occur from reading erotic romantic literature. Apparently, too, sex therapists advise their patients to get busy reading romance. While I’m glad they’re endorsing reading, unfortunately, it’s not necessarily of good literature (*cough* Fifty Shades *cough*) or even emotionally healthy sex. So what literary romance or erotica have you read? While they’re not romance novels, I admit the sex scenes in Philippa Gregory’s Tudor series were pretty breathtaking, whereas Ken Follett’s in Pillars of the Earth are deplorable. I am going to try only one more time to read that book. [UPDATE: Melanie of the blog Four Rooms: Creative self-care, wrote to inform me that bibliotherapy has a much wider use than simply sexual health. See her helpful, thorough post on bibliotherapy here.]

10. By now you’ve read the news about the government cutting funding to the Literary Press Group, which has rightfully caused a huge uproar. LPG has offered several ways to help counter this heinous act.

11. For all you digital readers out there: Thomas Allen and Cormorant Books have launched a really cool project called cStories:

cStories has made it easy for you to read short stories digitally but still support your favourite local bookstore!

cStories offers individual short stories ready for readers on-the-go.  A joint initiative between Thomas Allen Publishers and Cormorant Books, cStories will make a significant number of outstanding Canadian-authored short stories available exclusively through the websites of independent booksellers.

You can also win an iPad with predownloaded ebook singles in their humorously named Get Into Our Shorts contest!

12. And speaking of cool ventures, fellow book bloggers Colleen McKie of Lavender Lines and Kimberly Walsh of East Coast by Choice have partnered to launch Fierce Ink Press, a “publishing label dedicated to producing high quality books of fiction and short non-fiction pieces by Atlantic Canadian authors who write for young adults.” I’m very excited about this, mainly because I know both of them as booklovers and active in the industry (Colleen opened her own second-hand bookshop last year and Kimberly has worked as a writer and with publishers), but also because this is exactly what the industry needs in a time of such uncertainty: fierce support for writers and hope for the book industry. It’s not unusual that we look to small and independent ventures to shine and turn things around when the going gets tough. I’m certain these girls are going to give much to the Atlantic and the YA book world in general! And get this: already they’ve been recognized and won an award, before they’ve even got started!

Fierce Ink Press is asking for submissions, too, for their Fierce Shorts imprint.

13. I love this story, because I have first-hand experience of it working but also because it’s such a lovely thing to do. I’ve said before that when I read to Colin in the car or at home, Lucy always joins us and also calms down. See what the Regina Humane Society has started: reading goes to the dogs! 

14. People love making lists. Here are the fifty coolest book covers, according to Of course, lists are subjective and must leave stuff out, and I can think of a few I like that aren’t on there. Depends on what you think is cool. But which are your favourites?

15. CBC Canada Writes has recently been featuring 600-word stories by Canadian authors for their Brief Encounters series:

Life is made up of fleeting moments that may be life-changing or destabilizing. What are the repercussions of an instant?

We asked ten Canadian writers to imagine a vivid meeting or confrontation: A “Brief Encounter” in 600 words or less.

Try Sarah Selecky, “The Guest Room,” Alexander McLeod, “Everything Underneath,” and Annabel Lyon, “Rusty or Ruby (Or Both).” The rest of the stories are here.

16. Last but not least, introducing the CWILA, Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. I only just heard of them today. There are some interesting literary gender stats here. You can also follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

And that’s it for today, all! Thanks, as always, for reading!

other book stuff

Mad Hope, by Heather Birrell, Coach House, April 2012, 232 pages

I’ve always read good books. Because of the way I choose a book, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ever regretted a purchase. But I think, during my whole long reading life, never have I read such great books in succession since publishers found this blog a couple of years ago and began offering me review copies. I don’t know if it’s just that my appreciation has deepened through reviewing, or if the books I’m reading (tending to be by young Canadians) are more my thing than what I previously read, or if certain publishers are getting better at picking what they produce, or if writers are in general actually getting better, contrary to what many think.

Maybe it’s all of these things. Maybe it’s none, and I’m just very lucky. Whatever the reason, over the past couple of years, again and again I’ve read stories that cause me to marvel at them, not simply enjoy them.

No book is perfect, of course. But Heather Birrell’s latest, a collection of short stories called Mad Hope (published by Coach House), is so good, the writing so strong and skilled, I kept thinking, These stories are perfect.

The collection is divided into three parts (sweetly, simply, indicated by the number of frogs on the page). In each section and in each of the stories, there is death or loss, whether purposeful (murder, abortion) or not (miscarriage, drowning). But there are also the themes of birth and motherhood and family; children feature prominently, particularly babies both unborn and born. In fact, and I only just noticed this, the endpapers show a pattern of sperm (swimming upward and downward, respectively – or are they tadpoles? Ha!), as does the background on the back cover. The design of this book, by Coach House senior editor Alana Wilcox, is both gorgeous and significant.

An interesting tidbit, then, while we’re on the topic of frogs, because I wanted to know the meaning of them in this book, besides their significance in an excellent story called “Frogs” (about a teenage girl who is pregnant and asks her bio teacher [who’s had an interestingly relevant history in Romania, who teaches his class respect for the frogs they dissect] if he’ll take her to an abortion clinic). Frogs all over the book and are addressed even in the epigraph. So:

Frog Meanings and Symbolism

When the frog jumps into your life it may indicate now is a time to find opportunities in transition. We see animal symbolism of transition with the frog in its unique growth cycle. The frog undergoes incredible transformations to reach the destination of full adulthood, and so do we as humans.

The frog understands what it is like to undergo some serious growing pains – and so it is a fantastic animal totem for teenagers as they sometimes struggle to find their place (in-betwix youth and adulthood) in society.

In many cultures the primary symbolic meaning of frogs deals with fertility. This is largely because these cultures observed Frogs laying enormous quantities of eggs, therefore making it a fertility symbol as well as a symbol of abundance.

In China the Frog is an emblem of Yin energy and thought of as good luck. Feng Shui practices recommend putting an image of a Frog in the east window of your home to encourage child birth and/or happy family life.

Frog energy is also considered to be a link between the living and the dead.

  • Luck
  • Purity
  • Rebirth
  • Renewal
  • Fertility
  • Healing
  • Metamorphosis
  • Transitions
  • Dreaming
  • Opportunity
  • Intermediary
(emphasis in original)

This does quite fit the themes of Birrell’s book. In “BriannaSusannaAlana,” three sisters, six, ten, and nearly thirteen, deal with the fact that there’s been a murder in a brownstone near them. “My Friend Taisie” tells the story of a young man whose partner has just committed suicide. At present, the young man is avoiding having to deal with his grief by staying with his friend Taisie, who is pregnant and about to give birth to her second child. “Wanted Children,” one of my favourite stories even though I’m not sure I quite got the ending, is about a young couple who after a long time trying to conceive lose the baby through a miscarriage. They decide to get away from the pressure of feeling having a baby is what they must do, and travel to the Amazon basin and down the Cuyabeno River.

The story from which comes the title Mad Hope, called “Geraldine and Jerome,” was actually my least favourite, the one I found less believable somehow, but its message of hope, expressed by and living within a young, optimistic, and unlikely character, is significant, especially in light of the other stories.  The overriding theme in part one is of youth and coming to terms with death and loss, but it ends on a hopeful note.

Part two contains three connected stories. In “Dominoes,” Maddie writes to her brother Jeremy, remembering her past with him, and her brother’s friend, Richie, and the murder he committed of a gay man. In “Bye Bye Flangle Nuts,” we meet Jeremy, whose girlfriend is practising makeup application on him. As his face is done, Jeremy remembers back to six months ago, when he found out from Maddie that his father was dead, something he’d sort of foreseen. He remembers his father, and in particular the jealousy he perceived in him when he was watching Jeremy present his school speech at the finals. And then in “Dingbat” we have Maddie’s perspective again, remembering too her father’s death but also her brother’s absence. In this story, there is a sense of loss surrounding all of Maddie’s family, including the dog.

The third and final section has three stories. The first, “No One Else Really Wants to Listen,” is written as a series of comments in a forum for pregnant women. This is brilliantly executed in form and in terms of character, and tells the story of a woman who is pregnant when she first goes on the forum but is about to lose her baby through miscarriage. While she worries about the possibility of this happening, she confesses to the others that in the past she was an escort for women going to an abortion clinic. As a blogger and blog reader, I particularly related to the types of comments and characters. Birrell really captures how strangers interact; there is a sense of abandon in anonymity, which allows one to be both bold and more intimate and honest than one might be with a “real life” friend.

In “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning,” a woman remembers her mother’s death by drowning while they were on a trip together, but also tells of her young son’s near drowning. And in “Impossible to Die in Your Dreams,” told from the perspectives of a grandmother, Eliza, and her granddaughter, Samantha, both at the granddaughter’s sister’s wedding, each remembers the past and looks with hope to new beginnings.

Writing these descriptions has made me feel like deleting them because of how they grossly oversimplify the stories and how they sound almost depressing. That’s my fault, because they’re not. There is such excellent humour in this book too! I tell you, you have to read the stories.

And the thing is, you don’t have to do much thinking to see the themes of death, loss, need, birth, sex, marriage, family, hope — they’re somewhat obvious and even a little repetitive, though dealt with in very individual, well-crafted stories. But while the themes would make for interesting discussion, while they indeed reflect the human experience and how we each try to navigate that experience, it’s Birrell’s even better execution of the finer points of writing — the excellent dialogue, the expertly crafted inner thoughts of characters, the original and highly effective and often humorous way of putting things, and especially the details she pinpoints — these are what really make these stories as perfect as they are.

Birrell is brilliant at writing details, at situating us, at making us see a person as though they were right in front of us, at causing us to relate. The stories are peopled with characters so real, so poignantly human, that you can’t help but feel as though you might be intuitively observing these people in real life.  In “Frogs” she describes a school so aptly I suddenly remembered my own high school. I knew exactly what she was talking about, both the quiet and the ruckus; I swear to god I smelled the halls.

Vasile was alone in the science office when Naadiya knocked. The two colleagues with whom he shared the space had sprinted out the door seconds after the bell rang. He understood it, the pressing desire to put distance between the overwhelming stimuli of the school and the shaky sanctity of the self. But minutes after dismissal, there was a new quiet in the school — a deflated sense of contentedness, as if the building had digested something, then belched up its essence. It was not like this of course on the main floor, near the drama and music wing, or in the basement gym, where rehearsals and practices went on, causing a ruckus with bleating trumpets and bouncing balls and proclamations of love and victory. Here on the second floor was a different story. A calmer, emptier story.

In these stories, people feel the threat of rain in their sinuses, days are of the sort when bad men choose to bury body parts, drivers wearily flip each other the bird or furiously shake their fists like thwarted revolutionaries, then fold themselves angrily and efficiently into eggplant-coloured SUVs. Men having their makeup done make a face “all bunchy and shit. Like a bulldog swallowing a wasp.” Women get tipsy at weddings and drunk pee in the bathroom so vividly your head spins with remembrance.

Smug polished stones cluster next to the sink beside a pile of dried rose petals resting in a shallow pewter dish, and in the mirror, Samantha’s own self, flushed from the wine and the dancing. The hairdo seems prepared to rally, but an anxious musk is mingling expertly with her perfume, clouding out from under her arms, between her legs … Inside the stall is safe and square, the lock slots into place as it should. She swings her skirt up and forward, gathers it in front and works her underwear down with one hand. Once seated, she relaxes into the pee, her panties pulled taut between her knees. Everything, her whole life, shrunk now, to this stall, which is every stall, every seat where she’s ever sat to pee. A room of one’s own and all the careful deliberation of the drunken: narrowed eyes, clasping fingers, the slow tear and the slower, conscientious wipe … Samantha … is experiencing some of the empty-headed euphoria that accompanies dizziness. Her gaze slides easily up the walls and to the ceiling, then back down again.

I remember.

Mad Hope is a collection of stories that have you experiencing others’ lives. They’re simultaneously echoes of your own humanity, so that you can relate, and like virtual reality, stopping just shy of literally walking in someone else’s shoes.

They say that art, particularly good art, imitates life. I’d say Heather Birrell goes beyond imitating it. She creates it.


Thank you to Evan Munday and Coach House Books for sending me Mad Hope for review! This review was part of the Fictionista blog tour featuring Heather Birrell, Sarah Kathryn York, Alison Preston, Cassie Stocks, Margaret MacPherson, Barb Howard, and Arley McNeney. I’ll be reviewing Sarah Kathryn York’s novel, The Anatomy of Edouard Beaupré, as well.

book reviews

whirl away

One of the very best things about my reading experience with short stories lately is that they keep getting better, just when I don’t think it’s possible. I don’t know if I can say that about the novels I’ve checked out lately. Certainly there are very good ones, but nothing has been so original and skilfully written in my reading these days as the collections of short stories.

Whirl Away by Russell Wangersky is certainly no exception. To give the verdict away from the start, this is easily my favourite collection of this year. Right from the first story! Talk about whirling away.

The first thing I noticed about this collection, besides the excellent and attractive cover design (by Michel Vrána, who also did Sarah Selecky’s This Cake is for the Party), is that there is no short story titled “Whirl Away.” Unusual, and I really like it. This has more meaning for me than a story that’s meant to carry the collection or the title of a story that’s intended to sell the book and sum it up. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with those things, but in this case the lack of a title story meant I was to find pieces joined by a theme, which I typically enjoy examining — twelve interpretations of the title, say, or the stories giving that overall effect of the title.

At first glance, such a happy cover, with its amusement park  look, whimsical font, and flirty title. But when you look at it properly, you fully grasp the deep autumn colours (rather than, say, the blue and pink of cotton candy), which ground the book in more serious tones. As it turns out, too, the ride itself has different connotations than what you might first assume.

Indeed, each of the stories is devastating in its own way, another thing I very much like since that’s juxtaposed with such a light-sounding title. Whirl away can mean many things — perhaps in this case the way we hail ourselves to more emotionally safe or internal places, or off into crazyland, or to whatever anchor we can latch onto in times of extreme duress.

In “Bolt,” we meet two women, though the story is told from the perspective of only one of them, dealing with the horrendous car crash of a loved one.  In “Echo,” for me the most disturbing story, Kevin Rowe is a five-year-old kid with “serious, obvious eyes with small, square eyeglasses, and short hair, all of it cut the same length so that it [stands] up like bristles on a brush.” He speaks only “in short, tight bursts of words,” and what he says is horrible. For the duration of this withering story, Kevin is left on the deck of his parents’ house all afternoon in the heat to amuse himself as his parents fight inside.

In “911,” a suspended ambulance driver takes a call alone, without telling anyone, and with tragic results, when he realizes there’s not enough drivers on the road and no one else can go. “Family Law” is narrated by a jaded lawyer who while he tells the story of his own relationships intersperses it with divorce cases he’s looking up as precedents. You’re in for a surprise ending with this clever story (it’s twenty pages and of those pages I’ve dogeared eight), as you also get with some of the other stories, like “Look Away,” a fascinating piece, narrated by a husband and father, that becomes more strange, uneasy, and tragic as it unravels. “Little World” is an intriguing monologue, not what it seems, perhaps, from the perspective of an elderly woman taking a police officer on a tour of her neighbourhood and to the scene of a crime she witnessed. That piece will make you cock your head at the end; it’s definitely one you’ll want to read twice for full effect.

In “No Harm, No Foul,” a travelling salesman who talks to himself with a fake Scottish accent on long drives relates his story, almost like a confession, of an event that almost happened, an effective device that makes the reader feel always on the edge of waiting. And in “Sharp Corner,” probably my favourite, though “The Gasper” is another contender along with several others, a man becomes obsessed with telling people at parties his detailed (and rehearsed) stories of the three car crashes that have taken place in front of his house.

In each of the stories we have failed relationships, deluded characters, obsessiveness, untrustworthy narrators, people dealing with upsetting events the only way they know how, which is to say not all that successfully. They are as fragile and liable to break, if they haven’t already, as the rollercoaster in “McNally’s Fair.” If any story in this collection is symbolic of what’s going on in the other stories, it’s this one. It also contains the one protagonist who keeps seeing the truth, finally, who can see how things truly are when you’re up close, who can also see through the paint that he’s asked to repeatedly slather on the rollercoaster in order to cover up the dilapidation of the ride.

He knew it didn’t matter how many times The Thunder was painted and repainted, every time he rose in one of the cars, he could tell by the sway how much more the cross-members sagged. It was drooping even faster this year, bolts stripping everywhere, the first turn bottoming out deeper than it should — and even fifty coats of paint couldn’t disguise that from him.

Like The Thunder, the characters in these stories are buckling from the pressure and stress of their lives. Simply put, the characters’ fragility is where we look for meaning in the title. As the protagonist says in another exceptional, surprising story called “Open Arms,” which is directly linked to “Family Law”: “I’m out of my depth here.”

Wangersky’s exploration of how we handle crisis is not only sympathetic but also probing, as though rooting out honesty. It’s interesting, this, because the characters don’t themselves really see the honesty in front of them, or if they do, they don’t handle it well or are surprised by it. But we as readers discover it for ourselves as we read, not all at once, but in the slow way, with clues that build, though in a non-manipulative way, that gives us goosebumps.


Tautly written, perfectly edited, sharply detailed — “I Like,” the final story, is particularly sensory in this respect — and cleverly imagined, these stories are some of the finest examples I’ve ever read of how short stories ought to be written. I wish I could explain just what I mean by that. Each one is worthy of analysis, of review, and that must be why I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of this book and how excellent the stories are both in originality and craft. I’d offer quotes as examples, but it’s the kind of book that makes you overwhelmed in that case because you want to quote everything. And then, I don’t want to take anything out of context. Every bit in these stories is important, everything is written with such writerly skill that I don’t want to take anything away. It’s just easier to say, Trust me. READ IT. I read each story engrossed yet at the same time practically aching with admiration of things I came across, of the words. Like Sarah Selecky’s Cake (it’s fitting she endorsed this book), this collection is one that focuses on details, on unique events or settings that we yet can relate to. It’s one I will read every time I want to write something myself. And it’s made me want to read more by him.

Wangersky’s also written The Hour of Bad Decisions (a short story collection that earned him nominations for the Giller and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, and was a Globe and Mail Top 100 book; also, interesting: many of the characters in Whirl Away make bad decisions), Burning Down the House: Fighting Fires and Losing Myself (interesting: there are both firefighters and people losing themselves in Whirl Away), his award-winning biographical work, and The Glass Harmonica, an award-winning novel.

In his acknowledgements, Wangersky said that he writes in a combination of doubt, wonder, fear, and occasional confidence. I feel quite confident myself in saying there can be no doubt whatsoever that this is a wondrous collection. No Fear.


Many thanks to Thomas Allen Publishers for sending me my copy of Whirl Away. They are so onto something with the collections they’re publishing and the authors they’re supporting!


There are ten short stories in my new book Stopping for Strangers. I spent about ten years working on the book, so on the face of it, that makes for easy math: I averaged a story a year.  The truth, however, is more complicated. When I switch on my computer and look at the folder where I keep old story drafts, there are dozens and dozens of abandoned or finished-but-never-published stories. There are also some stories that were published but didn’t make it into the collection. While none of this work was good enough for the book, it was all vital to the writing of it.


I saw a picture the other day of what people think success looks like: a straight arrow, a single bold line headed in one direction. Next to it was a picture depicting the reality of success: a wild squiggle, a twisting line gone across itself over and over again.

When you hear an interview about an author’s latest book, they don’t spend a lot of time talking about the squiggle or discussing what they didn’t write: the false starts, the mistakes, the wrong turns. Looking back on that folder filled with abandoned stories, I knew the false starts were worth discussing.

I’m writing a novel now, but in the days when I wrote nothing but short stories, I wrote a lot of them, or at least I started a lot of them. My first drafts were usually written longhand and some of them didn’t even make it into the computer. Others I typed in, but quickly abandoned; some I revised for eight or ten drafts but never submitted to a magazine. There were others I sent out but never found a home for. And in the end just over half of the stories I’d published found their way into this book.  The truth is that I wrote about ten stories for every one that appears in Stopping for Strangers.  People who don’t write don’t realize that it takes a lot of abandoned and failed work to get ten good stories. I never found any shortcuts. For me, the only way to find out if a story is good or not is to write it out, revise and rewrite it, take it as far as you can, and then see what you’ve got.

Here’s my advice to short story writers struggling to find their way. Start ten stories over the next year, work every one as hard as you can, and take it as far as you can. If you finish ten stories, polish most of them, and send a few off to magazines, with luck one might get published. Ten years from now, one of the stories might even appear in your first book.

book reviews


Daniel Griffin is all over the place right now. Just google him. His name’s been frequently popping up in newspapers, journals, magazines, and on blogs. Not long ago, he released Stopping for Strangersten polished stories that took him just as many years to write. It’s a slim collection, just shy of 150 pages, but that in no way leaves you feeling cheated.

The first story, called “Promise,” about a tense relationship between two grown brothers, sets the tone for what you’re about to embark on—a powerful, insightful, and often jolting experience of reading the messy and complicated relationships we have, mostly between family members—children and parents, husbands and wives, and particularly siblings, who are usually contrasted with one another.

“The stories are about families in crisis,” Daniel has said. “Family under pressure. People trying to connect. About young people who may have become parents earlier than they would have chosen. People who are struggling to do the right thing under the circumstances.

“People talk about these stories being dark. I don’t see them the same way. I hope I’m taking a compassionate look at the darker corners of our lives in this time.”

And so he does. Each of the stories, even or especially the ones that possess unlikable characters, are written with a deep understanding of human character and are strong reflections of an acutely observant writer. Possibly the strongest story, “The Last Great Works of Alvin Cale” portrays an artist, Skylar, whose adult son Alvin, also an artist, is dying of cancer. While this brings the estranged two back together (in spite of the “years of muck built between us, a weight like undigested meat in the belly”), and we discover the history between them and feel the vulnerability, regret, tension, and tenderness between them, there is an underlying thread of obsession that runs parallel to Skylar’s grief in watching his son die. Their past a monster between them, Skylar becomes intent on studying his son’s paintings, which to him hold the mystery of both skill and the past. He look for clues to his son, and for a type of possession and inspiration: while visiting Alvin at his home, Skylar steals several paintings Alvin has done of Sylvette, Skylar’s ex-lover and model (“the source of the best work I’ve done in over forty years of painting”), and takes them back to his own studio:

Standing at the easel I turned slowly and faced Alvin’s paintings. I crouched by the first—a rich vision of a face turned raw and bloody across the top of the painting. It was as though the skull had been sliced open and the top lifted off. The face itself was green, grey and blue and I brought my brush so close to the dark shadow of the nose that it might have touched. I backed away, dropped the brush and for a moment paced the room…. At last, I returned to the painting. I raised my brush and this time it did touch.

In the early 1900s, Chaim Soutine used to send an assistant to buy paintings from hawkers on the banks of the Seine. He’d use these as a base. He’d begin from them. I’d done similar things, although never with a painting of my son’s. In one way or another every artist works from the paintings of others. We all take and we all give. It’s the cycle of art.

After Alvin’s death, while Skylar sits with his granddaughter whom he’s only just met (and who is Alvin and Sylvette’s child), instead of comforting or seeking comfort or discovering more about her, he is instead thinking about the last great works of Alvin Cale. At the beginning of this story, Skylar dreams his son tells him of his illness, but rather than driving to see him, he goes out to the woods to paint. All through the story, then, even after his son dies, Skylar’s underlying preoccupation is yet with his art. Stealing his son’s paintings, in the end, even though he does mourn Alvin, may be at least in part symbolic of reclaiming what his son took from him—that is, Sylvette.

There’s much more going on in this story, and as such it’s a richly layered and strongly characterized piece. It’s no wonder it was a finalist for the 2009 Journey Prize anthology.

The stories in this collection are quite varied, even while similar in theme. Griffin’s range of subjects often amazed me: where some authors don’t stray far outside their comfort zone in theme, setting, and characterization, these stories cover a wide range of individuals as well as specialized knowledge—about painting (his mother is a painter), guns, gymnastics, army service, massage practice, and various locations in BC and Ontario (it was neat to recognize  places in my area!). Contrasted with this is Griffin’s obvious position as a father himself; evidence of this is perhaps most apparent in “Promise,” “Cabbage Leaves,” and “Lucky Strike.” These stories have a more personal feel to them, though the others are by no means less believable or effective.

In addition, Griffin’s characters are often on the brink of doing something you don’t want them to do, to go somewhere or do or say something you wish they wouldn’t; about to start a fight or shoot themselves or steal something or paint over their dead son’s paintings or lie or bet too much money or say something they’ll regret or dismount off a railing while drunk. It’s also what they don’t say or do that makes us uncomfortable. Our anticipation, even horror, or our struggle to reconcile the characters’ actions or lack of action with what we may feel is right, makes us as readers want to reach out a hand and prevent things from happening or prompt things to happen or be said, but because we can’t, there’s a lovely tension that drives the stories forward. There’s no shying away from truth in these stories; nothing is tidy and neat, not even the endings.

And a couple of those endings left me feeling slightly unsatisfied, I think because some pieces seem a bit more like sketches of character dynamics than whole stories. The collection thus seems somewhat uneven, perhaps also because they were written over several years, though the pieces are well placed within the book for balance.

Besides “The Last Great Works of Alvin Cale,” three other stories in particular stood out for me: “The Leap,” “Florida,” and the final story in the collection, my favourite, “Mercedes Buyer’s Guide.” The antagonistic brother–sister relationships in the first two are strong, the characters’ actions as well as their history evoke emotion, and both stories come full circle in the telling of them.

The last story is less dark and seems to have an element of magic realism to it. Harry, a skillfully portrayed middle-aged man with a wife and kids, and who says “Jesus weeps” as a curse because he heard someone else say it and likes the sound of it, buys a second-hand Mercedes in which miscellaneous rather conspicuous articles keep popping up—a microwave, a toaster, broken casserole dishes, a typewriter, bags of old shoes, twelve windshield wipers, a letter, and, finally, $3200 hidden with the spare tire. Harry is curious about the previous owners of the car, wants to know who they were, what they were about, what their experiences were in the car. His curiosity fuels ours, and against the backdrop of Harry’s suburban family and their exploration of the car we are told the history of the car itself and the original owners. “Mercedes Buyer’s Guide,” which appeared in the Dalhousie Review, the Journey Prize Stories 16, and Coming Attractions 2008, is well-crafted, and a strong ending to the collection.

While I can’t say I would have compared Griffin to Raymond Carver, as did David Bergen, I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing. To me, Daniel’s stories are like no other’s. His unique way of putting characters we recognize into situations we can easily imagine but which are far from cliché makes him quite special. I’ll definitely be watching for whatever comes next.

And stay tuned: Daniel kindly agreed to write a guest post for us, and I’ll be putting that up here tomorrow!

A special thank you to Sarah Selecky for introducing Daniel and me!