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This article was published 18/12/2009 (2743 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
By Leslie Vryenhoek
Oolichan Books, 176 pages, $19
SOME readers think all short stories are literary exercises, mere mood pieces, minimalist, precious and plotless. Those readers need to check what's out there these days.
There's a host of Canadian women writers who are breathing new life into the short-story form -- Alexandra Leggat, Ramona Dearing, Dede Crane, Seleema Nawaz, to name a few.
Their stories are gripping from the first sentence, provocative, visceral, sexy and often hilarious.
Add to the list Leslie Vryenhoek. She lived in Winnipeg for many years and now calls St. John's, N.L., home.
Her debut collection of 15 offers an incredible range of subject matter and points of view. Unfortunately, there is also a wide range of effectiveness -- some are too brief, some don't quite click -- but the best stories are easily worth the price of the book.
Captive Audience enters the world of spin doctors, as communications specialist Lori tells how an abusive mother named Cathy became the spokesperson for the Canadian Association for Child Abuse Prevention.
As they move from city to city, attracting bigger and bigger crowds, author Vryenhoek nicely strips away the artifice to show what kind of person Cathy really is while satirizing a profession she, the author, knows all too well.
Early Girl, Pacific Avenue presents a few stages in the romance of a young couple who meet in poetry class. In Vryenhoek's capable hands, a ripe tomato becomes both the focal point of the story and a symbol of temptation, much like Eve's apple.
In All She Swallowed, a middle-aged woman named Judi, home alone and drinking vodka, invites a door-to-door salesman into her kitchen. Their conversation and the denouement are both funny and tantalizing.
In Hyacinth, a corporate hack named Dave, who has split from his wife, is transferred to Winnipeg, where he wants desperately to get to know a female fellow worker who happens to write poetry. Rather than simply talking to her, he concocts schemes for wooing her -- the details are amusing and excruciating.
The best story is The Chain Around My Neck, which perfectly captures the teenage vernacular of a bright protagonist named January.
"[Mom] says they didn't want me to be another Amanda or Ashley or Jessica, so instead they made me a freak who has to spend half her life explaining she was born in February."
When her mother is away, January throws what is intended to be a boy-impressing party, but it goes terribly awry.
The least effective stories are at least interesting. One is completely absurd; another is bloodthirsty in the cannibalistic sense, but darkly humorous. Throughout, Vryenhoek shows a fine ear for dialogue.
Most of the stories are set in Winnipeg, and though streets like Pacific and Simcoe are named, what happens could take place anywhere.
With Scrabble Lessons, Leslie Vryenhoek becomes a new literary voice that's helping to revitalize the Canadian short story.
Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg novelist whose most recent short story, Harassment, appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Prairie Fire.