“This Will Be Difficult to Explain: And Other Stories”

By Joanna Skibsrud

(Norton, $23.95, 176 pages)

Who is this author?

She lives in Arizona now, but Joanna Skibsrud was born in Nova Scotia and is making a name for herself as one of Canada’s most promising young authors. She was already a published poet when her first novel, “The Sentimentalists,” won a major Canadian literary award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize of $50,000 in 2010. At 30, she was the youngest writer ever to win that honor, and the book is being published in paperback this year in the United States. That book also is one of three by Canadian authors to make the short list for the prestigious Commonwealth Book Prize. Her latest book, “This Will Be Difficult to Explain: And Other Stories,” is just out in the U.S.

What is this book about?

Stories, some linked and some that stand alone, make up Skibsrud’s debut collection. Set in such locales as the American Midwest, Canada and France, they offer shifting points of view and characters whose misunderstandings lead to profound consequences. In one, a chambermaid agrees to be the model for a painting, but the artist is not at all who she thinks he is. In another, a divorced father currying favor with his 13-year-old, lets her drive – a bad decision. A wartime attack on a family’s home is told and retold in differing versions, reflecting a family in crisis. Several stories focus on an American woman who moves to France and begins a life there.

Here is what Skibsrud told Open Book Toronto online:

“The nine stories in the collection are various, both in terms of content and location — the settings range from a farm in South Dakota to museums in Paris, from small-town Nova Scotia to Hiroshima, Japan. There is a story of a twelve-year-old boy on a hunting trip with his father; of two siblings forced to deal with the troubling — and possibly false — recollections of their Croatian-born father; of a young journalist faced with his first major assignment — and its surprising results. Although some of the stories are explicitly linked by shared characters and settings (four of the stories concern a network of middle-aged women friends, all American ex-patriots living in Paris), most are not. All nine stories share an impulse to question — and ultimately push past — the ordinary limits of perspective, communication and understanding. The characters are forced to confront what is, for them (for various reasons and to varying degrees), most “difficult to explain.” 

Why you’ll like it:

This is a book that will appeal to the discerning reader who appreciates clean and unadorned prose and stories that at first appear simple but gradually disclose intriguing depth. Through the artful use of misunderstandings, Skibsrud, who writes prose with a poet’s skill, infuses her stories with the kind of misapprehensions that reveal character.

Here is what she told Open Book Toronto about writing in the short story form:

“The mistake that so often gets made, though, is to think of short fiction as a very short novel or (this more rarely) very a long poem. A good short story is neither of these things, but both at once. It is entirely its own genre, has a different set of concerns and requires a different set of skills to write. The short-story writer has to maximize imagistic and narrative power within a deliberately limited time/space constraint. A good story plays with those limits — it knows what to include and what to leave out. It has the ability to say “everything” with just a single scene, sometimes just a single well-placed word.”

What others are saying:

“[Johanna Skibsrud’s] prose is as taut as Alice Munro’s, her plots as spare as Mavis Gallant’s. Her characters have startlingly vivid inner lives…Skibsrud’s new book is just as assured [as her novel], and it has the same emotional punch,” says Toronto Life.

Says Library Journal: “As the title suggests, the stories in this debut collection resist easy summary. …The larger subject of these intricate stories is the tension between the parts and the whole, perception and creation, art and artfulness. Skibsrud, a poet and author of the Giller Prize-winning first novel “The Sentimentalists,” brings to these stories a poet’s eye and the subtle shadings of some of our best practitioners, including Marilynne Robinson and Alice Munro.

“Connection and enlightenment are sought and occasionally experienced in a first collection from Canadian poet and Giller Prize–winning novelist Skibsrud…Relationships remain unexpressed or rest in not-quite-connected small family knots in Skibsrud’s dreamy yet searching fictions…Skibsrud’s economical, poetically aware stories reveal a writer comfortable with the form, and one who requires her readers to think,” says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

It can be found now on the New Books shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library. 

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