Every Year is the Year of the Short Story

I’ve been meaning to sum up my YoSS year (The Year of the Short Story) for a while, but have been too distracted by travel and writing and edits and life. It’s also possible that I’ve been slightly intimidated by writing anything that may resemble a book review. I admit: it’s a problem. I’m one of those silent members at Goodreads who rate books without ever saying a word about them. My friend, Jay, who is one of their top reviewers, actually threatened to unfriend me if I don’t start reviewing books. I promised to try. So far I’ve done nothing about it.

When YoSS was first announced, in the beginning of 2011, I made a public vow to write and read as many short stories as I can manage during that year. I was working on my thesis at the time, my collection of short fiction, so it only seemed appropriate. I didn’t know then that during that year I would sign a contract to publish this collection (which will be coming out in 2013, but that’s okay, because since then YoSS decided to go timeless, so now every year is the year of the short story!)

I spent the year searching for new short story collections and writers: I asked friends and peers for recommendations and influences, looked up finalists of short story awards such as The Story Prize’s and Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, browsed bookstores and libraries. I only had one rule: if I read 3-4 stories and wasn’t really that into them, I let the book go. Life is too short to read books I don’t enjoy.

Okay, let’s talk numbers:

I read 43 collections of short stories this year. (I must confess: I did read a couple novels and memoirs, graphic novels and poetry books. I’m only human. Every now and then I needed a change of pace.)

24 of the authors were men, 18 were women (which is unusual for me. I generally tend to read more female authors.) Only one was an anthology: the Journey Prize.

18 of the books were written by Canadian authors, 19 by American authors. I also read books by a Nigerian author, an Australian, a Russian, a Columbian, and Dominican/British (Okay, Jean Rhys). Of the Canadian and American authors many were immigrants: Dominican, Bulgarian, Indian, Chinese, South African and more, and they often wrote stories set in these countries or stories about the immigrant experience, which I love for obvious reasons.

Only three of the books were translated from other languages. The first, Nikolai Gogol’s Petersburg Tales (published in 1842), which was translated from Russian to Hebrew, I found at a used bookstore by the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv last summer. I knew I was long overdue to read Gogol, who is considered one of the masters of the short story. I first encountered Gogol through Jumpha Lahiri’s book the Namesake, where she uses the quote, attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky: “We all come out from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’” The Overcoat was definitely one of the strongest stories in the collection, as well as the Nose and the Portrait, all of them surrealist and darkly humorous.

The second translated work was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Innocent Erendira and Other Stories, which I also read in Hebrew, translated from Spanish. I forgot how much I enjoyed Marquez’ writing: the long, poetic elegant sentences, the magical, dream-like feel of the stories. Now, a few months after reading it, I have mostly images left over from the experience, an old man with giant wings, a village kept awake by a strong smell of roses coming from the sea, an orphan being tortured and sold to a life of prostitution by her mean grandmother who sits on a throne-like chair, devouring cake…

The third translation was Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories, translated from Yiddish to English. Years ago, in high school, we had to read The Slave for literature class, which I enjoyed, but I never read his short stories. Gimpel is Bashevis Singer’s first collection, which came out in 1957, and the stories read like folk legends. It was an interesting glimpse into pre–World War II Poland and I enjoyed the touch of Jewish mysticism.

Only two of these books were by authors writing in their second language (though some are bi-lingual, like Rohinton Mistri and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). But Mirosalv Penkov (East of the West) and Yiyun Li (Gold Boy, Emerald Girl) are the only two, as far as I know, who learned English, and didn’t grow up speaking it at home. Like me.

Okay, so my top eight, in no Particular order, are:


1) The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I’ve been a fan of Adichie ever since I’ve seen her TED talk. In her TED talk, Adichie talks about what she calls, “the danger of a single story.” What she means by it is the single story we choose to associate with a country, people or a culture. She says: “Our lives, our cultures are composed of many overlapping stories. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they aren’t true but that they are incomplete.” She also says, “The single story emphasizes how we are different instead of how we are similar.”

The Thing Around Your Neck is a collection of short stories that take place both in Nigeria and The US, against a backdrop of war. The personal and the political are tightly entwined in these stories, but the stories are focused on the domestic lives of the characters. Adichie said in an interview that she likes books that don’t shy away from the unpleasant politics, but in the end are about human beings. This is exactly what I was attempting to do in my book too. I absolutely adored Adichie’s effortless and simple prose, her well-formed characters (most of them Nigerian women in Nigeria and the US). There wasn’t a story I didn’t like.
2) The Beggar’s Garden by Michael Christie

The Beggar’s Garden was one of the reasons I approached HarperCollins with my collection. I just loved this book so much. This is Christie’s first book; his stories about marginal characters in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side are long and involved and read like mini-novels, which is pretty much my favourite kind of short fiction. They are gritty, but not bleak, honest and compelling. Christie was shortlised to a few awards for this collection and is the winner of the City of Vancouver Book Award. (And look at this gorgeous cover!)


3) Once You Break a Knuckle by D.W. Wilson

D.W. Wilson, who I saw recently in the IFOA, has been receiving great reviews for his first book and for a good reason (he’s also won the BBC National Short Story in 2011 –  the youngest person to have ever won it. He’s like, twelve). I didn’t expect to like his book as much as I had. His loosely linked stories, set in the Kootenay valley, centre on men—tradesmen, fathers and sons—and his language and imagery, his detailed descriptions of physical activities, reflect that. But despite it being a physical, masculine, sometimes violent book, the writing is so fluid and gorgeous and fine (I sometimes had to pause, go back and reread whole paragraphs) that there was something almost feminine about it. (Similar, I guess, to how physical fights can sometimes look like dancing…)


4) The Turning by Tim Winton

D.W. Wilson was the one who turned me onto Australian Tim Winton, citing him as an influence in an interview. And now I’m in love. Seriously. I need to move to Perth. Winton’s collection, The Turning, was one of the biggest surprises for me this year. I just couldn’t fathom how I lived without ever reading him before. His prose drew me in from the first story, about two teenage friends going on a road trip to the tropical north, and I couldn’t put it down. Set on a coastal stretch of Western Australia, Winton’s stunning collection of linked stories follows recurring characters in a fictional town; one in particular, Vic, appears as a kid and adult in different points in the collection. By the end of the collection, I was in awe by the way Winton weaved these stories into a narrative.

See? That’s why I don’t write reviews, because I find myself using superlatives like stunning and masterful and like, amazing. Don’t take my word for it. Go read it. Now.


5) Greedy Little Eyes by Billie Livingston

Livingston, who won The Danuta Gleed award for this gorgeous book, wrote a collection of dark, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes heartbreaking, well-crafted stories. Livingston does not shy away from drama, which I love. So many Canadian stories play it safe, afraid of being ‘too much,’ but not Livingston. She gives you murders and suicide, a mother who abducts her daughter’s friend, and it is never too much. Her writing is witty and honest and intimate and begs to be read again. In fact, I just decided I’m going to read it again like, right now.You can read an excerpt from one of my favourite stories, ‘Before I Would Ever Hurt You,’ here.


6) Drown by Junot Díaz

Drown was my first introduction to Junot Diaz, and it blew my mind. I have never read anything quite like it before. Diaz writes mostly from a young adult point of view and the stories are set both in the US and the Dominican Republic. Despite it being his first book, Diaz writes with an authority of a seasoned writer and the voice, the rhythm of his prose, are sure-footed and bold. There was a time when I thought I had to write a certain way to be published. I wish I read Diaz then.


7) East of the West by Miroslav Penkov

I think I liked Penkov’s book before I even read it. Penkov, like me, writes in his second language. Originally from Bulgaria, he moved to the States at nineteen to study. Last year he was nominated for the Story Prize and in their blog he wrote a great piece about writing in English and translating his book back into Bulgarian. Penkov writes about his homeland of Bulgaria in a loving, non-sentimental and sober way. His stories are dark yet humorous, all in first person, and reminded me at times of Aleksander Hemon‘s wonderful story collection, Love and Obstacles. Perhaps there’s something about writers from East European war-torn countries that I relate to. And maybe I’m just feeling a special kinship to Penkov and Hemon: us second-language writers must unite!


8 ) A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

It seems like people either love or hate this Pulitzer winning book. I fell in love with Egan from the moment I read Safari in the New Yorker. Though the book was marketed as a novel, I failed to read it as one. For me, it was short stories all the way. ‘Safari‘ still remains one of my favourites but there is also a power point story, ‘Great Rock and Roll Pauses,’ which could be dismissed as a gimmick if it weren’t so damn good. I actually forgot pretty quickly that it’s a power point presentation because I was so engaged with the story and taken by the young narrator. You can read (view?) ‘Great Rock and Roll Pauses’ here. 


That’s it. I had a horrible time writing these reviews, but I did it. All for you! (Plus, now I can copy and paste them onto my Goodreads account and maybe Jay won’t unfriend me). There were so many other books of short stories I enjoyed this year, and you can view the full list here. Also, I have a list of some of my favourite story collections on Goodreads that I read before the YoSS year, and it includes books by some of my favourite short-story writers: Jhumpa Lahiri, Daniel Alarcon, Lorrie Moore, Nam Le, Deborah Eisenberg, Etgar Keret and more.