Literary Gut Punch: From Heather O'Neill's And They Danced by the Light of the Moon

Heather O'Neill's work always has this dreamy, fable-like quality. And They Danced by the Light of the Moon is no exception. Jules is desperate to believe he can escape the collective fate of the town. Manon is the girl of his dreams. For Manon, Jules is something altogether different:

Manon, however, only decided that Jules would do when she saw him roller-skating at the Récréathèque. Jules was skating backwards and doing figure eights with his feet. He did this gesture with his hands as if he were dealing cards onto a card table. Everyone else ignored Jules’s grandiose performance that night. But Manon knew suddenly that Jules was different than anybody else in Val des Loups. That’s what young people look for: someone who will open strange doors for them.

Literary Gut Punch: From Amy Jones' Aurora Borealis

I devoured Amy Jones' debut novel earlier this summer and have been enjoying all the well-earned praise it's receiving. I was delighted to see that the winter issue of Taddle Creek magazine (No. 38 to be exact) features, Aurora Borealis, a pretty, little story by Jones in it. I say 'pretty' because it's just that: filled with beautiful verbal "landscape shots" of the epic drive from south to north, and I say 'little' because it's short. But not too short. Just right. There was one line in particular that stood out as a Literary Gut Punch:

There's something about the way the air up here feels in your lungs, as though you are the only person breathing it —unlike Toronto, where the air has already been breathed hundreds of thousands of times.


Literary Gut Punch: From Zadie Smith's Swing Time


I'm two-thirds of the way through Zadie Smith's new novel Swing Time, which may be the best exploration of female friendship and motherhood I've ever read. In typical Smith fashion, there are shimmery jewels of prose and dialogue glinting from every page. One of my favourite characters in the book is the unnamed protagonist's father, a man who cannot help but love a woman who does not respect his mind, and who adores the duties imposed on a good parent. This statement, made by the protagonist about her father, felt like a knee to the heart:

The thing I feared was no longer my parents' authority over me but that they might haul out into the open their own intimate fears, their melancholy and regrets. 

Literary Gut Punch: From Lindsey Smith's Experience™

I've written about Lindsey Smith before. She's my literary soulmate. The PB to my J. We met while we were students in Sarah Selecky's Intensive, and have been pals ever since. Lindsey's writing is brave and unapologetic. It takes up space in your heart. Recently, her story Experience™ was selected by Lisa Moore as one of two runner ups in the Little Bird story contest. I was not at all surprised. Moore said it better than I ever could, describing the piece as "a canny, lyrical, post-modern, and clever story about romantic love" and the prose as "tight, crisp, and affecting". Without further ado, here's a pretty little punch that clobbers you right in the kisser.

That first time, do you remember? When you said, “Hey,” and leaned into the tilt of the café table to make sure I didn’t walk past? In that instant, I remembered the imperfect whiteness of my mother’s milk. How it looked and how it felt swishing around in my wanting baby mouth. I remembered it even as I knew there was no way I could possibly know anything about the imperfect whiteness of my mother’s milk. You said, “Hey,” and I regressed. Your voice made me do it.

Literary Gut Punch: From Lorrie Moore's How To Be an Other Woman

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Lorrie Moore is a treasure. She's the kind of writer whose stories make me want to write. To try to create something even half as universal and vibrant and potent. 

In How To Be an Other Woman, she puts the reader in the driver's seat by using second-person POV. 

When you were six you thought mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and know it can mean many things, but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet. 

Literary Gut Punch: From Junot Díaz' Miss Lora

I've read Díaz' collection (This Is How You Lose Her) several times over the years. It doesn't matter how many times I've walked the streets in his stories, I still round a corner and get cold-cocked by a universally stunning coupling of sentences.

You were at the age where you could fall in love with a girl over an expression, a gesture. That's what happened with your girlfriend, Paloma—she stooped to pick up her purse and your heart flew out of you.

Literary Gut Punch: From Adam Ehrlich Sachs' The Philosophers

Sachs' story was featured in the February 1st 2016 issue of The New Yorker. I read it sitting in a chair at my hair salon and within the first paragraph, I knew (as much as someone can know a thing), that it was a special kind of sacrilege to keep reading something so beautiful while Ginuwine's "Pony" was being pumped out the speakers. But I couldn't stop.

This story, which is actually a series of vignettes, blew my heart wide open. It reminded me what a story can do. It's been a while since I've encountered a writer who, upon reading a single story of theirs, I want to crawl up inside their mind and play, like a first-grader on a jungle gym.

This entire story is Literary Gut Punch

Soon the madman had talked to everyone worth talking to, seen everything worth seeing, thought about everything worth thinking about, and yet again was left bored and lonely. Even the company of geniuses wasn’t enough; boredom would always be with him, he realized, as long as he had this huge, historic intelligence. Suicide was the only way out. He decided to commit suicide by paradox. He would go back in time and kill his own grandfather—a logical impossibility, as we all know, he said, since killing his grandfather would mean that he himself wouldn’t be born, which would mean that he couldn’t go back in time to kill his grandfather. So this might be interesting, he said. Plus he would get to murder the man who had handed down to him this huge, horrible, historic intelligence.

Literary Gut Punch: From Dana Spiotta's Jelly and Jack

Jelly and Jack was published in The New Yorker in December of 2015. Jelly's consciousness is a painful but enchanting place to be. The story slowly undresses itself, but at the end, it was me left feeling naked. There were many beautiful moments in the story, but when I read this particular passage, I felt all the air hovering at the front of my mouth. I had stopped breathing. So, of course, this is my most recent Literary Gut Punch for the annals. All you need to know is that Jelly is about to listen to a piece of music by Jack. Here it is:


Jelly closed her eyes and leaned back again. She called this body-listening. It was when you surrendered to a piece of music or a story. By reclining and closing your eyes, you could respond without tracking your response. Some people started to speak the second the other person stopped talking, or playing or singing. They were so excited to render their thoughts into speech that they practically overlapped the person. They spent the whole experience formulating their response, because their response was the only thing they valued.

Literary Gut Punch: From Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated

I've been waltzing down memory lane the past few weeks, first, enjoying my favourite novel— Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close— in an entirely new form, and then, feeling ravenous for all the Safran Foer work that exists, I decided to reread Everything Is Illuminated.

Last night, as my eyes were still reading, my eyelids began doing their sleep dance. And through drifting lashes, my eyes swept across these two sentences, so beautiful that my eyes shot open again. I creased the upper corner of my book and made a note on my heart to add this to my Literary Gut Punch collection as soon as I woke up. Here it is:

He would fall asleep with his heart at the foot of his bed, like some domesticated animal that was no part of him at all. And each morning he would wake with it again in the cupboard of his rib cage, having become a little heavier, a little weaker, but still pumping.


Literary Gut Punch: From Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been my favourite novel since the day I picked it up. While working as a bookseller at The Bookshelf in Guelph, I remember I sold a record number of copies over one particular holiday season, so enamoured with Oskar that I seized every opportunity — which typically presented itself in the form of an unsure reader wanting to be dazzled by some piece of work, or wanting for a loved one to be dazzled by some piece of work — to send a copy of the book out into the world. 

Recently, I decided to listen to the audiobook, which I had never done before. It was a beautiful way to experience the story. How could I not include the following passage in my ever-expanding collection of Literary Gut Punches

In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you could know if New York is in heavy boots.

Literary Gut Punch: from Jill Margo's How to Become a Mascot

The latest in my compilation of Literary Gut Punches comes courtesy of the exquisite, hilarious Jill Margo, whose story— How to Become a Mascot— broke me in the second sentence. (It appears in the latest issue of The Walrus and you can read it online here.)

First, quit your day job and go back to school, even though you're thirty-two already. Do this because your boyfriend is dead and you will never get to run your fingers through his curls again.

I read Margo's stuff closely and with the kind of reverence my Mother reserves for Popes. Margo so often gets me laughing right before she pulverizes my heart. And this story (which is actually based on her real-life experiences) is no different. It's the way the character's resilience coils around her grief that makes this story so compelling. 

Literary Gut Punch: from Lisa Moore's Sea Urchin

I love a sentence that pummels me. I've slowly started compiling gorgeous Literary Gut Punches (LGPs) as I encounter them in my reading life. 

The latest example comes from Lisa Moore's story Sea Urchin which appears in The Selected Short Fiction of Lisa Moore: Open and Degrees of Nakedness. (You can also find it online here.)

The character she's describing is the narrator's father, whose blotchy face becomes such a tender force in the story.

"He sunburned easily and when he drank or became emotional, his skin would break out in red blotches, quickly, like the wind blowing a field of poppies all in the same direction."

Image credit: Alain Delmas (France) (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Literary Gut Punch: from Kevin Hardcastle's Montana Border

As you know by now, I love a sentence that whomps the reader in the gut. So I've slowly started compiling my favourite Literary Gut Punches (LGPs.). How appropriate that my most recent example actually describes a character getting punched in the face! 

Kevin Hardcastle's Montana Border appears in the June issue of The Walrus. (You can also read it online here.) I swear my testosterone quadrupled after reading it. 

"In the fight he got hit so hard that his molars sang."

Image credit: Alain Delmas (France) (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Literary Gut Punch: from Margaret Atwood's True Trash

A = Margaret Atwood, B = readers.

A = Margaret Atwood, B = readers.

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I love a sentence that's delivered like a swift, unapologetic punch to the gut. I've started compiling my favourite Literary Gut Punches (LGPs). Today's is courtesy of the Mother of [Canadian] Dragons— the Canuck Khaleesi, if you will— the one and only: Margaret Atwood.  

The line comes from Atwood's story True Trash which you can find in her collection Wilderness Tips (1991):

"He has a leathery, handsome face, the grey, tailored hair of a Bay Street lawyer, and the eyes of a hawk: he sees all, but pounces only sometimes."

Image credit: Alain Delmas (France) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Literary Gut Punch: from Neil Smith's Green Fluorescent Protein

A = Neil Smith, B = readers.

A = Neil Smith, B = readers.

I love a sentence I can chew on. The kind of sentence (or small bundle of sentences) that are delivered like a swift punch to the gut. The kind of punch you don't see coming and it sends all the breath straight out of you. I'm going to start sharing my favourite Literary Gut Punches (LGP) as I experience them, from stories new and old.

The first LGP is delivered via a few devastating, lovely lines from Neil Smith's story Green Fluorescent Protein which you can find in his debut story collection Bang Crunch (2007)The story was shortlisted for the 2002 Journey Prize, and apparently was the first story he ever wrote. Go figure that it actually mentions guts!

"You hate her, don't you?" I finally said. "You hate her guts."
"No, Max," he said, wiping the snot with the back of his hand. "I was crying because I love her guts."

Image credit: Alain Delmas (France) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons