The Re-reading List: A Short Story Reading List

I teach an introductory literature course for college students that focuses mostly on the short story. But after having taught it for a number of years with only minor tweaks here and there, I decided it was high time to start revamping it. Thankfully, professors assigned College Communications 3 have a great deal of leeway in selecting what textbooks—if any—they will use, and so the first thing I decided, in order to give myself more freedom, was to dispense with the book altogether. Although the textbook was very useful those first few semesters in helping me organize the course, I wasn’t terribly excited by many of the stories—and, I’m sure, neither were my students. But to keep things somewhat simple, I decided (for this semester at any rate) to retain a few of my favourites from the book for my core lessons, including Alice Munro’s “How I Met My Husband” for my lesson on irony, William Trevor’s “Kathleen’s Field” to highlight symbolism and metaphor, and Guy de Maupassant’s “Abandoned” to highlight setting. The big challenge, however, lay in selecting 18-20 works of short fiction for student presentations, the first nine of which would relate to various take-home essay topics. As it turned out, it was a much more overwhelming project than I anticipated. But it was also a great learning experience—and, I hope, it will be a similarly good one for my students as well. 

John Williams' Stoner

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I’m sure most of us when visiting a cemetery have stopped to gaze at the headstones of those buried there to wonder about the lives behind those names. Who were those people? Were they happy? Did they lead meaningful lives? But what seems so especially tragic is to see gravestones so old that the names and dates have almost been completely effaced as a result of weather and time. Does anyone alive today even know anything about those buried in those semi-anonymous plots? And though we may wish to deny it, no doubt this is the fate most of us, eventually, will also share. And so I wonder if this notion of lost and forgotten lives was the inspiration behind John Williams’ excellent novel Stoner.

Originally published in 1965, and apparently receiving something of a comeback recently, the novel is the story of William Stoner, a life-long assistant professor at the University of Missouri. Right from the opening passages, we’re told that after his death Stoner was barely remembered by his students, “held in no particular esteem” by his colleagues, and was rarely spoken of now. Written in plain, lapidary prose, the novel is a straightforward, chronological examination of a man’s life. Beginning with his early life on a farm, Stoner enters the University of Missouri to study agriculture, but switches to English after taking a survey literature course. He eventually gets his PhD and is hired on as an assistant instructor at the same university. When World War I breaks out, he avoids conscription, falls in love and marries a woman who only turns out to be his enemy, and has a daughter whose own life also turns out to be a tragedy. During his 40-year career, he faces numerous battles that prevent him from rising in stature, renown, and professional fulfillment. He’s an incredibly dedicated teacher, but only because his life has so little else to offer. Only once does Stoner fall truly in love, but even that is thwarted due to social pressures. Somewhat redolent of The Death of Ivan Ilych, John Williams’ Stoner is an enormously tragic novel and a compelling read. I’d never heard of Williams before, but only noticed the book recently at Word on the Street; a sticker affixed to it that read, “As good as everyone says” was what drew me to it. Although I’m usually skeptical of such praise, Stoner turned out to be much better than I expected, and I’m glad to see it being revived from the dustheap of forgotten works of literature and to receive the kind of immortality this novel deserves.

 

Williams Trevor's Last Stories

It was in 1996 when I read a glowing review in the Globe and Mail on what was at the time William Trevor’s latest collection of stories, After Rain. Already a fan of short fiction, I ran out, got the hard cover, and devoured it. That collection, which I still have and still refer to from time to time, contains some of what I consider to be Trevor’s finest stories: “A Friendship,” “Timothy’s Birthday,” “A Bit of Business,” “Gilbert’s Mother,” and “Lost Ground.” Since then I have gone on to read the rest of Trevor’s short fiction (of which there is a prodigious amount), everything he’s written before and since, thus beginning a life-long admiration for a man who, until his death in 2016, was widely considered one of the greatest living short story writers in English. So when I recently learned of the posthumously published Last Stories, I immediately ordered it online.

Story Acceptance!

I’m excited to announce that my story “The Magazine” was accepted for publication in Plenitude Magazine, Canada’s online queer literary magazine. I’m thankful to the people at Moosemeat, my writing group, for the insightful feedback and criticism I got when I first presented the story to the group. Without their valuable responses I wouldn’t have been able to find a home for this story.

Tom Perrotta: Nine Inches

I get like this every now and then: I get a hankering for a good, solid collection of stories. So it was very fortuitous, while recently browsing in a second-hand bookshop, that I noticed the spine of a book called Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta. Sounds like the name of a story collection, I thought, and indeed it was—an exceptionally good one at that.

Anthony Powell: The Kindly Ones

In the same way that it had become an enjoyable habit to read another volume of Proust’s massive novel every few months, so it has also become a pleasure to intermittently return to Anthony Powell’s twelve-part novel A Dance to the Music of Time. His dry, subtle humour, his inimitable style, not to mention all those marvellous sentences, is always a treat to come back to. So it is with the sixth volume, The Kindly Ones.

Donal Ryan's The Spinning Heart

This past summer a friend of mine went to Ireland on vacation, so I asked him to bring me back a novel or story collection by some up-and-coming Irish writer I might not have heard of here in Canada. What he returned with was Donal Ryan’s 2012 debut novel, The Spinning Heart. For a long time I put off reading it for one reason alone: the title; I feared sentimentality. But this past week I gave it a go, and I’m glad that I did.

An Evening with Four Writers from the Moosemeat Writing Group

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Please join me Wednesday, August 8th, at Another Story Bookshop. I'll be reading from my collection of stories and discussing the value of writing groups alongside Mary Lou Dickinson, Ele Pawelski, and Heather J. Wood, all members of Moosemeat, the writing group I belong to. Another Story is located at 315 Roncesvalles Avenue in Toronto, and the event starts at 7. For more information, click here. Hope to see you there!