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Best Canadian Stories 2021, edited by Diane Schomperlen

I was excited to receive a copy of Best Canadian Stories 2021 from Biblioasis for several reasons. First, I love the short story format. Secondly, I was happy to see that Diane Schomperlen was editor, as she is someone who writes a good short story herself. Thirdly, this is the fiftieth edition of Best Canadian Stories! Yes, it has been around that long, and Ms. Schomperlen has had her stories in several issues over the years, as she informs us in her introduction. As for the introduction itself, I recommend reading it, because if you skip it, you’ll miss why she chose some entries that you may come to question.

“I wanted stories that took risks—in voice, language, time, character, subject matter, point of view, form and structure, plot or the lack thereof.” — Diane Schoemperlen, Editor

And there are risky choices here, such as Elise Levine’s “Arnhem”, Joshua Wales’ “Lightness” and Joy Waller’s “Shinjuku for Stray Angels”, just to name a few I thought were beyond the pale of mainstream short stories. At any rate, there are fifteen stories in this slim (under 190 pages) volume which make it just a little larger than a regular edition of The Fiddlehead literary journal.

There are some gems here, notable “Downsizing” by Colette Maitland, which also was awarded the Metcalf-Rooke Award for 2021.

“Downsizing” was the inevitable choice because of the deep pleasure her pyrotechnic handling of language gave us. She delivered to us intensely realized characters and events through a dazzling verbal performance of great sophistication.
Language was the winner as we hope it will always be.
“— John Metcalf and Leon Rooke

“Downsizing” is the perfect Boomer story about a couple that has been together for ages and who have stayed together for financial reasons only it would appear. Babe, unable to work cuts and pastes obituaries from the newspaper into a scrapbook. Curt, has just gotten over cardiac surgery and begrudgingly puts up with Babe’s passive-aggressive (and oftentimes just plain aggressive) attitude fueled by Curt’s past peccadilloes.

One other story I will highlight is Don Gillmor’s “Dead Birds” the story of Liz who works in the rare books section of the Reference Library. Liz is married to Bennett and they have a child. Bennett appears satisfied to bring home a paycheque and do little else around the house. The baby is totally Liz’s responsibility.

Her marriage wasn't a disaster. She was neither unhappy or happy with Bennett. Their lives were rote, and the explosion of having a child had settled into a new roteness. It had fallen to her, all those feedings, the changing of clothes, the lulling to sleep, the buying of formula and toys and diapers and finding daycare. Bennett managed to seem helpful, but in fact he wasn't. Motherhood had isolated her somehow, a surprise. That you bring another life into the world and it made you feel more alone.

This briefest of stories has a lot to tell and is full of observations about a young marriage already settling into the Curt and Babe of “Downsizing” mentioned above.

It would be a thrill to own all fifty copies of this series just to see how the Canadian short story scene has evolved over the years. For these pandemic times, Best Canadian Stories 2021 makes for some great escapist reading.

About the Editor

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Diane Schoemperlen has published several collections of short fiction and three novels, In the Language of Love (1994), Our Lady of the Lost and Found (2001), and At A Loss For Words (2008). Her 1990 collection, The Man of My Dreams, was shortlisted for both the Governor-General’s Award and the Trillium. Her collection, Forms of Devotion: Stories and Pictures won the 1998 Governor-General’s Award for English Fiction. In 2008, she received the Marian Engel Award from the Writers’ Trust of Canada. In 2012, she was Writer-in-Residence at Queen’s University. She lives in Kingston, Ontario.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Biblioasis (Oct. 19 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 224 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771964359
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771964357
This article has been Digiproved © 2021 James FisherSome Rights Reserved  

The Essential Elizabeth Brewster as selected by Ingrid Ruthig

“Despite accolades, Elizabeth Brewster has remained at a distance,” Ingrid Ruthig writes in the introduction, explaining why she was compelled to put together this collection of Brewster’s poetry. This slim volume is short compared to the extensive bibliography of Brewster’s work included at the end, but it’s extremely effective: if I’ve ever known Elizabeth Brewster, the memory has been lost, but I do know her now – and I’m definitely interested.

Brewster, born in New Brunswick, “felt keenly the obstacles of her gender and poor, provincial background; she was excluded from male-only reading rooms, as well as from scholarships and support systems,” at the beginning of her career as a writer and scholar. Her career path, as described by Ruthig, was characterized by a long period of precarious employment before finally obtaining a position in Saskatoon – a career path that would not be out of place today. It was after she settled in Saskatoon that Brewster spent more time on her writing. However, over a span of fifty years, Brewster created an immense body of work, and Ruthig compiled a selection of poems spanning all of Brewster’s career, with a select few poems from each of Brewster’s eras in this collection.

One of the things that struck me the most while reading The Essential Elizabeth Brewster was the varied subjects and syntax, and even very different tones, but with a strong, consistent, narrative voice. The poems both felt at home within the “traditional” canon Brewster was left out of – certainly, her work is strong enough to fit in – and also fresh and modern. Brewster covers all topics, from the landscapes and nature which tend to dominate Canadian poetry, to complaining about the ephemerality of most writing, except those deemed classics, in the poem “Tired of Books”:

I don’t want to write 
the stuff students are examined on

Brewster does this frequently throughout her work: poking fun at the things one is supposed to want, and embracing those that are more suited to who she feels she is. In “When I’m Old,” Brewster cheekily states: “I shall let my hair go grey, / and I’ll eat as many meringues as I want,” before moving to the more contemplative, “And at long last I shall write / the great poem I have not yet written.”

I’m glad to have learned more about Elizabeth Brewster and her work through this collection chosen by Ruthig. Her poetry is lovely, and by shining this light on her with this volume, hopefully, Brewster will at least posthumously be given the attention and study she deserves.


Elizabeth Brewster (1922–2012) was part of a second wave of modernist poets who helped influence the national conversation about Canadian poetry. Born in Chipman, New Brunswick, Brewster was the frail fifth child in a family unsettled by poverty. While her early school attendance was irregular, nothing stopped her from reading, writing, and later, seeking higher education, first at the University of New Brunswick, where she helped to establish the vaunted literary journal The Fiddlehead, and then at a number of institutions including Harvard’s Radcliffe College; King’s College, London; and Indiana University. She settled in Saskatoon, and taught literature and creative writing at the University of Saskatchewan from 1972 until she retired in 1990. Brewster died in December of 2012 in Saskatoon, at the age of 90. (Image courtesy of University of Saskatchewan, University Archives and Special Collections, Photograph Collection, A-11138.)

Ingrid Ruthig, writer, poet, visual artist, and former architect, is the author of This Being (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2016), winner of the League of Canadian Poets 2017 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Her work has appeared most recently in Resisting Canada (Véhicule Press, 2019) and Am, Be: The Poetry of Wayne Clifford (Frog Hollow Press, 2018). A 2018 Hawthornden Fellow, she is the editor of several books, including David Helwig: Essays on His Works (Guernica Editions, 2018) and The Essential Anne Wilkinson (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2014). She lives near Toronto with her family.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Porcupine’s Quill; 1st edition (May 15 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 64 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0889848785
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0889848788
This article has been Digiproved © 2021 James Fisher
Acknowledgements: Alison Manley
Some Rights Reserved  

Bright with Invisible History: A William Bauer Reader edited by Brian Bartlett

William Bauer (1932–2010), was born and raised in Maine, and completed degrees in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and North Carolina. In 1965 when the University of New Brunswick hired him to teach, he and his writer wife, Nancy, moved to Canada. Over the next thirty years, Mr.Bauer taught many fields of Literature at UNB, with a specialization in 18th-century British Prose. Also a teacher of Creative Writing, he worked as both Poetry and Fiction editor for The Fiddlehead.

As I was reading Bright with Invisible History, I had a feeling that I had encountered William Bauer’s writings before, as in forty-some years ago in a high school English class. This sent me searching for my English textbook (which aside from my Physics and Biology books were the only ones I kept over the years) and to my dismay, there wasn’t a mention of Mr. Bauer, although there were other Canadian authors in that ancient text of short stories and essays (it was published in 1967). So, despite the sense of familiarity or deja vu, William Bauer was a personage that was hitherto unknown to me. Perhaps that puts me in a better place to comment on the book, as well as Brian Bartlett’s editing of Mr. Bauer’s extensive works of poems, short stories, essays and book reviews from his archives.

The contents are arranged as:

I. Poems 1968-1978
II. Short Stories
III. Other Prose
IV. Other Poems

There is an abundance of wit and humour in Mr. Bauer’s writings, which I found quite entertaining. His hapless Everett Coogler character who has a roadside fruit and vegetable stand is quite the character:

Everett Coogler Turns Back Rumors

I am well aware of
What they always say
About me behind my back.
See if I'm not right;
They say something like this,
"That crazy old fool
Talks to the vegetables
Just like they were
I'm here to tell you
That's a lie
And not even a very good one
At that.
Why all these years
I've stood firm
According to the saying that
My father said and I say too,
"It don't pay to
Be familiar
With the
Hired help."

You get the idea of Everett’s state of mind and his situation in life as Mr. Bauer relates his trials as a roadside vendor, as a husband to Josie, and as a member of the Hampsterville community. Mr. Bartlett has chosen a good amount of Everett Coogler poems so that we get a familiarity with the man. As Mr. Barlett comments in the introduction: “More than a colourful eccentric, Everett represents the defensiveness, fragility, pride and stubbornness most of us possess to some degree.”

Having enjoyed his poetry, I certainly looked forward to Mr. Bauer’s short stories. For this section, Mr. Bartlett has chosen two uncollected stories, “Pig of the Wind: A Figment from the Archives” and “Never Bet on a Dead Horse”. The other three stories are from the 1979 collection A Family Album. All three were enjoyable. “This Story Ends in a Pinegrove”, is the story of a young Lothario who is thwarted in amorous pursuits, a St. Bernard mix named Fern whose existence borders on the mythological, and the final “What Is Interred with Their Bones” a pastiche of Poe-meets-Twain-like story reconstruction of two women found dead in a shared bathroom. All three demonstrate Mr. Bauer’s wonderful turn of phrase and his mastery of language and style.

If like me, you are unfamiliar with William Bauer, I highly recommend getting a copy of Bright with Invisible History. While his writing comes from a vastly different time than today’s, it is refreshing to read and this collection is a welcome tribute to the man by Brian Bartlett, who was a student and a friend of Mr. Bauer’s.

Here’s a fine obituary of William Bauer over at the New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia: William Alfred Bauer | NBLE (unb.ca)

Brian Bartlett, born in 1953 in St. Stephen, NB, has published many collections and chapbooks of poetry, including The Watchmaker’s Table, The Afterlife of Trees, and Wanting the Day: Selected Poems. His other publications include two books of nature writing, and a compilation of his prose on poetry. He has also edited many books, including selections of New Brunswick poets Dorothy Roberts and Robert Gibbs, and Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan. Bartlett taught English and Creative Writing at St. Mary’s University in Halifax for nearly thirty years before his retirement in 2018.

  • Publisher : Chapel Street Editions (Dec 29 2020)
  • Language : English
  • Paperback : 238 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1988299349
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1988299341

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First Things First: Early and Uncollected Stories by Diane Schoemperlen

Diane Schoemperlen is the award-winning author of twelve books of fiction and non-fiction. In 2016, she published is This Is Not My Life: A Memoir of Love, Prison, and Other Complications regarding her relationship with a federal inmate serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. Diane has lived in Kingston, Ontario, since 1986.

“When I read these early stories now, I can see myself slowly but surely finding my subject matter, my sense of humour, and my voice – finding myself on the page.”

Diane Schoemperlen

While Ms Schoemperlen has been a published author and one of Canada’s best-known writers of fiction, it was not until I came across This is Not My Life that I was introduced to her work. I would hazard to say that might be the case with many such readers, for that book of her memoirs put her on the national stage, introducing her to a new audience.
Now we have First Things First from Biblioasis who has performed a great service to readers like me who now want to get to know her fiction-writing skills. It is a handsome book, 300 pages containing 24 short stories (including her first published story from 1974) and an insightful Preface by Ms Schoemperlen. Some of these stories have never been published until now.

The Schoemperlen Experience

One fact you will notice from this collection is that Ms Schoemperlen has employed different forms and methodologies of storytelling over the years. One quite interesting one was “An Evening in Two Voices” from 1977. It begins:

Months and months after that evening, I have ways of remembering it. Special ways, my own ways, which end up being always the only ways.

The story is told from the perspective of two voices: Estelle, who is telling the story, and her friend Doreen, who recalls a different version of events than Estelle (perhaps the correct version!).

Partway through the story Estelle states (or sighs):

I don’t see much of Doreen anymore. We can’t seem to agree on anything lately.

That’s an example of the type of subtle humour Ms Schoemperlen employs in her writing. Another is “The Gate” told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old travelling with her parents to a relative’s house in a small town:

We’ve already been driving for two hours and the windshield is covered with bug guts. I think I can smell them.

Soon, the sign for Mapleside appears:

The residents of Mapleside, all 816 of them (that’s what the next sign says), have always seemed old to me, sand-coloured and dull. Even their babies looked used.

As I read through all of the stories (it took some time, for I don’t like to read through collections like this too fast; I prefer to savour each story) I noticed that Ms Schoemperlen is a very precise writer; each of her words appear carefully chosen, each sentence having a distinct straightforwardness to it.

Other notable stories are “Life Sentences” wherein the reader gets to fill in blank spaces in sentences, “True or False” where events either did or did not happen, “She Wants to Tell Me” where the storyteller is conversing with her guest and also having a conversation with the voices in her head, and the multiple choice story, “None of the Above”.

However, my favourite story is “How Myrna Survives” a (semi-autobiographical?) story about a woman, Myrna Lillian Waxman, a thirty-two-year-old aspiring writer living in a place that sounds a lot like Kingston (my hometown and where Ms Schoemperlen currently calls home).

Against all odds, Myrna is a writer, and every morning, to prime the pump, she likes to read a few chapters of some book good enough to be inspiring, but not so good as to induce paralysis with its shameless brilliance.

These are just some of the highlights from First Things First that I particularly enjoyed. There’s a lot to like about this collection. The stories themselves are timeless, meaning that although they were written over a span of 16 years (1974 to 1990), there’s still a freshness to them, due in part to Ms Schoemperlen’s crisp writing style and her use of different storytelling modalities. First Things First will be added to the 2018 Longlist for The Very Best! Book Awards.

This article has been Digiproved © 2017 James Fisher
Acknowledgements: Diane Schoemperlen, Biblioasis

Some Rights Reserved  

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