Ben Babcock's Reviews > The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories

The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories by Jane Urquhart
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Oct 04, 09

bookshelves: 2009-read, anthologies, canadian-author, literary-pretentious, not-my-cup-of-tea, owned
Read in October, 2009

I've rated, out of five stars, each of the 69 stories in this book, and taken the average of those ratings to determine my overall rating. My actual rating is 2.86 stars out of 5.

It took me a long time to read this book—because it's long. That's not always bad, and for an anthology called "Book of Canadian Short Stories," a certain girth is required to have a truly representative sample. Still, the length can be daunting for a reader, and I repeatedly questioned why I spent $24.00 on a book of stories in which I wasn't particularly interested. This definitely isn't the sort of book you should buy on a whim, like I did.

There are some definite gems in this collection, however, and that's what I'll focus on for the rest of this review. I'm going to iterate all of the stories to which I gave 5 stars and give a brief reason why.

"The View from Castle Rock" by Alice Munro

"And then there was Andrew himself, who ever since that day on the rock has felt about his father a deep bewildered sense of responsibility, much like sorrow."

A moving tale about the disenchantment with life that often accompanies growing up . . . the sacrifices one makes in the name of practicality over idealism. This is an excerpt, rather than the full book, and cannot do justice to the characters or the relationships depicted therein.

"Last Rites" by M.G. Vassanji

"I wanted to say to him, as I saw him, Look, Bharwani, this is not the time for your smart, sceptical arguments. This is real, this is how you leave the world; at least this once, walk along with the rest of us."

Wonderful story about the conflict between belief and faith. Told from the point of view of a Torontonian mukhi, “Last Rites” concerns the fallout of Karim Bharwani's request to be cremated after death. Bharwani was always an agitator in life, but carrying out his last request may prove a difficult decision for his family and the community. As Bharwani's wife is quick to point out, is it better to honour the request of the deceased, even if that may mean damning them according to one's religion? Such questions do not evaporate as science and technology march inexorably onward.

"The Collectors" by Rohinton Mistry

"I know!" said Jehangir. "That's the one Burjor Uncle lost and thought that I..."

Mrs. Mody squeezed his arm which she was still holding and he fell silent. She spoke softly, but without guilt: "He did not lose it. I destroyed it." Then her eyes went moist as she watched the disbelief on his face. She wanted to say more, to explain, but could not, and clung to his arm. Finally, her voice quavering pitiably, she managed to say, "Forgive an old lady," and patted his cheek. Jehangir left in silence, suddenly feeling very ashamed.


My favourite story in the entire anthology, "The Collectors" demonstrates how much of our lives is determined by what others do rather than the choices we make. His characters are tragically three-dimensional, and even the young Jehangir finds himself full of regrets and confusion about the choices that were his to make, and the choices made for him by others.

"The Flesh Collectors" by Michael Redhill

Roth had long since given up on making sense of the many laws that were to govern his life and his behaviour. These things had been drummed into him as a child, which was part of the reason he had strayed, although straying from orthodoxy to conservativism was a deviation on the order of dark rye to light.


As with "Last Rites," this is the story of conflict between one's religious beliefs and one's personal convictions. The main character is Jewish and planning to undergo a vasectomy so that he and his third, younger wife can continue to have sex without risking pregnancy. But Roth worries he may want to have more children in the future and contemplates freezing some of his sperm—an act that would, his rabbi opines, definitely result in sin, whether he uses the sperm or not. As Roth's vasectomy looms, he's torn between safeguarding against the unknowable future or conforming to the tenets of his faith. At the centre of this crisis, we have to wonder: how much of us, of our personalities and beliefs, comes from the religion in which we were raised?

"Fever" by Sharon Butala

She wanted to tell him that she too had been gone, that she had been exploring, lost, in a wild, violent country, that she had narrowly escaped, that she had had to tear herself away, lest the swamps and bogs and blackness claim her forever.


A man inexplicably becomes ill on a business trip to Calgary. As he lies in a hospital, wavering on the threshold between life and death, his wife, who has accompanied him on the trip, dallies with another guest at their hotel. For reasons she does not understand, she cannot bring herself to worry about her husband, cannot feel anything.

It's difficult for me to say why I liked this book; the main character seems selfish at times and mostly foolish. Maybe it's those foibles, her inability to play the dutiful bedside wife, that I find so endearing. She strays, yes, but ultimately she comes back—as does her husband—and for perhaps the first time in their stagnating 15-year-old marriage, they are changed.

"Ray" by Guy Vanderhaeghe

Over all the months of separation her voice had changed, or his way of hearing it had. Coming out of the void, how false, how insincere it sounded, how actressy. It struck Ray that the owner of such a voice might not know all there was to know. Something more had passed between him and his father, borne on his dead brother's train, than a mere exchange of drinks and loose chang. What, was for him to decide.


This was an absolutely stunning story about the relationships a man has with both his wife and his father. Ray is an utterly practical individual who fails to grasp the nuances of society and humanity; his wife married him because he makes her feel better about himself, not because she loves him. Ray feels a bond with his father despite the fact that he received little affection, whether as child or as adult. But ultimately, I love the development Ray undergoes in such a short story. He starts off as a shy, unassuming man and becomes more confident—with the right amount of tribulation along the way.

"Jhoomri's Window" by Anita Rau Badami

Amma acts like she did not hear me and asks Jhoomri again, “Well Jhoomri, what is wrong with Mungroo?”

A great big smile spreads across Jhoomri's face, “Bibi-ji, he has a hairy nose,” she says.

Amma frowns at her, “You still behave like a child, girl, and about to get married too.”

“No Bibi-ji, I am no longer a child, am I?” says Jhoomri.

Amma pats her on the shoulder and says, “Don't worry, you'll be happy, you'll learn how to be happy with Mungroo.”

“Yes,” says Jhoomri.

“And your window?” I ask, totally confused now. How can Jhoomri be happy about marrying Mungroo? “Will you be getting your pink window today Jhoomri?”

“What will I do with a window now, child?” asks Jhoomri. And all of a sudden she sounds just like my mother.


Told from the point of view of a capricious seven-year-old, “Jhoomri's Window” is a bittersweet story about growing up and turning in one's vibrant cloak of idealism for the more muted colours of pragmatism and practicality.

"Catechism" by Wayne Johnston

He had always had great reserves of politeness, consideration, and forbearance, which were fatally combined with a desire to be liked, and so he had never been able to dismiss someone out of hand or offend them even when he knew it would have served their interests even more than his if they were to never meet again.


Much more happens in “Catechism” than one would expect to find in the average short story. The narrator shows us little moments, without judgement, from the life of the main character. In many ways his life is on hold, static and dreary like the Canadian winter in which much of the story takes place. He fails to connect with anyone even though he yearns for connection. In the end, he must confront the fact that he is unhappy. While “Catechism” is not very uplifting, it felt very emotionally true.

"An Easy Life" by Bronwen Wallace

Sometimes what Marion thinks is simply that she's lucky to have such an easy life. “Karma” some of their friends used to call it, hanging out at the farm, smoking black hash, letting the boys run naked through the fields.

Other times she knows damn well it's because of Carl and their double income, her education, her parents' double income even, everything that's made her luck possible. Political, not spiritual, and she should damn well face up to what that means. Whatever that means.

Sometimes she just doesn't know, and it scares her.


This story moved me because of Wallace's portrayal of parallels ... how circumstances beyond our control can profoundly influence our lives, more than we'd like to admit. “An Easy Life” also has a ray of hope, as Marion Walker's easy life is not an empty one, and she manages to pay her karma forward to the young Tracey Harper.

"The Art of Cooking and Serving" by Margaret Atwood

I couldn't understand why she'd chosen to do what she'd done—why she'd turned herself into this listless, bloated version of herself, thus changing the future—my future—into something shadow-filled and uncertain. I thought she'd done it on purpose. It didn't occur to me that she might have been ambushed.


To a child, everything is amplified, larger than life. Additional responsibilities—such as caring for one's pregnant mother or for a younger baby sibling—can seem like monumental tasks. Atwood replicates the stresses a child can feel, and the ways in which he or she copes in the absence of real parental guidance. I loved both the tone of the narrator and the denouement, in which the narrator seeks her freedom. There's a certain amount of generational observation here, as modern children have a sort of independence less common in previous generations of families.

"The Glass Sphere" by Sean Virgo

“The sphere had frozen, and baked. The air inside it, which was the breath of a man, had made frost-flowers upon its walls, and had filled it with mist.”

The title is slightly misleading, since the story is less about the sphere than it is about how that sphere connects two people across two centuries. It's about the breath trapped inside the sphere, the incredible journey on which it has gone, carried in the seemingly-indestructible blown-glass vessel, until it was finally released and taken in by another person. Virgo writes with such wonderful conviction; his descriptions are beautiful, as is this story.

"Constance" by Virgil Burnett

The identity of the partner in the sins of which Constance was suspected by the court gossips was a subject of endless discussion. A multitude of theories was advanced, factions developed, and the probability of each candidate for her affections was debated hotly and with utter frankness. . . .

Evidence was collected by every imaginable means. Servants were threatened, bribed, beaten. Patrols were organized along the ramparts so that Constance's windows could be constantly observed. Informing, eavesdropping, and spying became as prevalent in the palace as gossip had always been. This diligence was rewarded by the exposure of a score of entertaining scandals, but none of them involved Thibault's wife.


This is one of my favourite stories because it's just so different from the rest of the anthology. It actually has a plot, for one thing. And I love this idea that the courtiers are going to such great lengths to discover if Constance is having an affair (all the while she is, although her lover's identity is never discovered). Burnett uses this irony to inject some humour into a story that might otherwise be considered tragic or even haunting.
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