Wednesday, May 4, 2011

I can't read short stories. I just finished a book of short stories.

I haven't forgotten you, dear readers! I am just running around in circles: literally. Most of this blog post was (oh, brave new world!) written on my iPhone, with a side order of a study carrel at Algonquin's library. Monday, I was at Bookmobile then Main Library, Tuesday, I was at Bookmobile, Nepean Centrepointe Branch (and quick stop at Algonquin College), and then Rideau Branch (briefly). Today, Bookmobile, Main Library, and now Algonquin again for OALT's opening reception. This learning curve on the new job is one wild ride these days, let me tell you. I am tired and hungry all the time, from getting up earlier, absorbing information, and dealing with new challenges. On the bright side, spring has sprung, as you can see from one of the trees in my front yard.

So, into this scattered existence, enter the short story.

Short stories and I have just never really been friends. It's not that I hate them (ok, I sort of do), it's not that I am too simple-minded to appreciate them (although sometimes I fear that may be the case), it's more a combination of fear and dissatisfaction.

I know, you're thinking how could I be afraid of a short story?

Aside from Lives of Girls and Women, and some Atwood, I have to say I somewhat avoided the short story for years. Here's the thing, I think: I throw myself into a world, and I have always found the short story somewhat jarring because just when I get myself settled, just when I get my loyalties sorted out and immerse myself in the narrative, it's over. I appreciate the art form, but my heart just can't take being wrenched away from the characters so quickly. Alternatively, I feel so alienated from the story that I never settle in properly.

Then, a few years ago, a book of short stories pushed me over the edge into a long-term bout of insomnia, during the brief period I lived alone in a 14th floor, 800 sq. ft. apartment looking out over McGill campus. The book in question was The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, lent to me by my library school friend, Mary. Within the two previous years, I had ended a long-term relationship with someone who was of a different religion, just days before 9/11, and finished my Honours thesis about connections across class, race, and other social boundaries. The nights alone in a new place, figuring out what I was going to do with my life, entering a new relationship, were coloured by Lahiri's brilliant, but devastating, stories about missed connections, couples who say the same thing but don't understand one another, people reaching across boundaries and not finding anyone on the other end. It was too heartbreaking.

I swore off the stuff.

Short stories were the thing I decided, maturely, to allow myself to give up. I'm an adult, I thought; it's time for me to just own it already. I don't like them; no point in apologising for it.

Then two short story collections made the Giller shortlist, and I heard Alexander MacLeod speak at Writer's Fest, and I was utterly charmed. Am I brave enough to give this another shot, I wondered? In a fit of optimism, I placed my requests at work.

Yesterday, I invited Sarah Selecky into this liminal world I curently inhabit, a world of bus rides and meetings, terrible evening TV and dining "al desko." She fit in just fine; in fact, she might be the perfect thing for me right now. Her stories are perfectly crafted, and seem to exude for me this sense of reverence for the characters to which I really respond. The story "Where Are You Coming From, Sweetheart?," moved me to open tears on the bus, causing me to close the book entirely for several minutes.

Maybe I am just more able to embrace the random right now. In fact, I might have embraced the random so much recently, I might have caught something from it.

So are short stories and I friends again? Maybe, but in that tentative way you make up with a friend who has hurt you before.

In the meantime, Sarah Selecky has kind of saved my life a few times this week.

So thanks, Sarah, and thanks, Jack Rabinovitch.


  1. I've found the last couple years, short stories are my preferred reading material other than YA novels. Love the brevity and how they say so much with so little.

    Yet, oddly, This Cake is for the Party has been sitting on my bedside table for 5 months now and I've only read two of the stories. I guess that's one of the benefits of short stories - you don't *have* to read a whole collection.

  2. I admit I've felt the same way about short stories, with the only exception being Alice Munro (whole novels packed into 20 pages, really). I really, really enjoyed Cake is for the Party.

    However, Light Lifting was one of the most depressing things I've read in a long time. A lot of tragedy but no time to fully absorb or comprehend.

  3. Thanks, Leigh, I might just put Light Lifting on the back burner....!

    and yes, Jennifer, I do enjoy that you don't have to read a whole collection. That often helps!