Summer Reading Series 7: Best Magazine Short Features

The Short Feature is the catchy folk song of the magazine world–three chords, succinct enlightenment, and a tune you’re glad to have stuck in your head.

Sure, a lot of what makes magazines great is the freedom they give writers to compose elaborate, multi-faceted rock operas of meaningful prose. (To wit: David Remnick’s twelve-million-word profile of Bruce Springsteen in a recent New Yorker.)

But the short feature starts and finishes the story without leaving you feeling like you just stayed up all night listening to Darkness on the Edge of Town.

This year we had a tie for the Gold in BSF–a dead-even top score after six independent judges evaluated the submissions–so we’re glad to feature them both in our Summer Reading Series, along with the first-ever winner in this category.

As always, these complete articles and those of all finalists and winners from recent years can be found in the National Magazine Awards archive (magazine-awards.com/archive).

1.JJ Lee on the first time he told a girl she was beautiful,” ELLE Canada (2011 Gold winner, tie, in Best Short Feature)
It’s an episode we can all relate to: first love. For memoirist JJ Lee–writing in ELLE‘s popular “First” series–it was the very moment that the comic-book femininity he’d come to know in early adolescence faded into the blinding eclipse of a real-life muse. And in that universally awkward moment of expression, he felt himself becoming an artist.

“The words had struck her. She would never look at herself in a mirror the same way again. They had struck me too. And I felt doomed because I knew we had our whole future to separate us from the simple closeness of the moment. That was the day I began a lifelong career as a maudlin nostalgic.” [Read more]

2.When Your Mother is a Strangerby Heather O’Neill, Chatelaine (2011 Gold winner, tie, in Best Short Feature)
In this vivid reconstruction of a singularly tender moment–meeting her mother after an absence of ten years–two-time National Magazine Award winner Heather O’Neill (she also won Gold in this same category in 2010) rewinds her childhood to each of the most potent memories that can help her re-imagine this stranger as her mother, a person of ancient familiarity in a suddenly foreign context.

“I went to the address she gave me. She was living in a building known as the Crazy People Building. It has the cheapest rent in the neighbourhood and is filled with people who can never quite pull it together. Bare-chested men hang out of the windows in the summer. A man who lives there carries around a white kitten that wears a tie and is introduced as Mr. Timothy. There is an old man who dances on his toes as he walks, blowing kisses at anyone he makes eye contact with.” [Read more]

3.The Alchemy of Pork Fatby Gerald Hannon, Toronto Life (2007 Gold winner in Best Short Feature)
When the NMAF launched the Best Short Feature category in 2007, Toronto Life‘s foodie memoirs turned out to be an ideal fit (the judges that year awarded four of the ten finalists’ spots to these tasty TL shorts, each consisting of a personal essay and a recipe), and none better than the Gold-winning piece by 13-time National Magazine Award winner Gerald Hannon.

Hannon–warts and all–reminisces on the great motherly myths of food, especially those involving lard, and wonders how he could have evolved such a passion for gastronomy without them.

“Food, perhaps because it was scarce and unvarying, always seemed to tremble with the potential for good or ill. Even in her old age, [my mother] could not add cucumber to a salad without first neutralizing its ‘poison’ in a way she had learned from her mother: you cut about an inch off the end, rubbed that piece vigorously against the other cut edge until a milky liquid—the poison—appeared, then you threw out the small, now noxious piece to render the rest of the cucumber safe to eat.” [Read more]

Read these stories and more at the National Magazine Awards archive: magazine-awards.com/archive.

Previous editions of our Summer Reading Series: Travel | Essays | Sports & Rec | Fiction | Personal Journalism | Poetry

Springsteen photo credit: Dave Cooper / Toronto Star

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