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The best in small press: Three books to check out now

Hysteric By Nelly Arcan, Anvil, 168 pages, $20

"A novel": the words that so often redundantly follow a book's title on its cover are far from superfluous here. Those familiar with the broad details of Quebec author Nelly Arcan's biography (a former sex worker in Montreal; instant critical and popular success with her first novel, Putain (Whore); died by suicide in 2009) will recognize autobiographical elements in her second novel, first published in 2004 as Folle and here translated by David and Jacob Homel. In this deceptively simple narrative, a 29-year-old woman, also named Nelly Arcan, writes a suicide note to her former lover describing their relationship's demise – doomed from the start, according to her telling. "Hysteric," with its feminine connotation, captures the original title's full meaning: Nelly gives over to extreme emotions, but her madness is never clinically analyzed. Instead we have a spiralling argument that is by turns ugly, self-effacing, and nihilistic, always narcissistic, but relentlessly honest – a novel, but true.

I'm Not Scared of You or Anything By Jon Paul Fiorentino, Anvil, 176 pages, $20

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In the first story of this comedic collection the narrator tells his ex-girlfriend, who has a "weird face," that he left her at the bar because he had to chase his pot delivery guy. That he finds it necessary to add "I'm not scared of you or anything" of course implies the opposite. It's an apt title for a tightly unified collection populated by scared men with Asperger-level social awkwardness (several have trouble with figurative language or knowing what not to say – like not telling your ex, the one you're trying to win back, that she has a weird face). That disconnect and the elusiveness of masculinity are the two major sources of laughs here, but not in a bullying way. With stories told almost entirely in the first person and accompanied by Maryanna Hardy's colour illustrations, we might laugh at these men, but we feel for them too.

God Telling a Joke By Dave Margoshes, Oolichan, 276 pages, $19.95

In the title story of this collection, a Borscht Belt comic makes a deal with God: save his infant daughter from the mysterious illness that ails her and take him instead – but, if God wouldn't mind, since Sidney "Salty" Sellar has a family to support, could He put off his death for a little while? His daughter survives. Decades later, Salty acknowledges that having lived to age 99 is nothing supernatural, "just God telling a joke," but he wishes God would deliver the punchline already. Salty's story serves as an indication of the rest of this collection: these stories are not connected by character or setting but they share an expansive appreciation for humanity and a taste for the larger-than-life character and the slightly cosmic event, with some helpings of Jewish comedy. Three-quarters of this collection have been published previously in literary journals, but the quality is so high here you won't mind.

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