Tag Archives: Alice Munro

Several Missed Attempts, then Louise Penny: How I read Now

Some libraries are reporting the genres most read during this Moment, and no surprise mysteries and romances (along with kids books) are coming out on top. Something about an escape? Or a tidy resolution? Or a distance from reality? Whatever the reason, it’s holding true for me, too.

I tried – resolutely – to read More Serious things. I read 200 pages of Alice Munro’s For the Love of a Good Woman before giving up because while it was excellent writing and masterful storytelling, it was also too far removed. I started to think ‘inconsequential,’ but that’s not it – Munro’s stories do the genius thing of taking the particular individual and demonstrating how absolutely consequential one person, one action, one choice can be. More that the collection was so gentle in its context: small towns where gossip and betrayal were/are the worst there is to imagine.

So I pivoted. I thought I’d try another pandemic, in another not-so-distant time: AIDS under Thatcher in Alan Hollinghurt’s 2004 Booker Prize winner The Line of Beauty. Again I committed about 250 pages (which was only about half) to this read, continuing to hope that the protagonist, plot or context would become compelling but… no. Something to be said for how HIV/AIDS hangs in the background, unnamed for the first 250 pages I read, but lurking for the reader in the present. Something marginally interesting in the relationship between the protagonist and his host family (he rents a room in the mansion of a Conservative MP), but in the end, neither protagonist or plot did much to inspire concentration or interest.

One more attempt in the form of Isabelle Allende’s City of the Beasts and here I didn’t make it past page 10.

So I gave in/gave up/admitted that what I most wanted to read was Louise Penny. I picked up How the Light Gets In and I read it in a day. Turns out that when the genre is distracting and absorbing and distant, I can still read. Phew.

And I want to read because despite my distraction, reading is mindful activity for me. Forget the hundreds of apps encouraging meditation, or the articles espousing focus and deliberate engagement with media, for me all I’ve ever wanted and needed for mindful activity is a book. To be fair, lately I’ve had to be sure to put my phone in another room, and I’ve never been able to read on a tablet or laptop as the lure of the Internets is too much for me, even with a great book. But put a physical book in my hands and I can – at least with the Not So Serious but Seriously Enjoyable – take myself away in moments of focus and calm.

So yes. I expect you’ll be Judging Me for what I read this summer. I’m just going to read what feels good instead of what I think I should enjoy, and what I very much do enjoy in other times. And I’m okay with it. For now.


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Friend of My Youth: What happens if you don’t like Alice Munro?

capture1Does someone come and take away your PhD in English? Does your Canadian passport spontaneously catch on fire? Are you called before a panel to prove you still recognize what it means to be human? what constitutes beauty?

Thankfully I’ll never know, because I did like Friend of My Youth, though not as much as other members of book club, and more than M. I can’t tell you much about it because it’s a short story collection and I’ve already forgotten all of the stories. What I do remember is lots of layering of narration such that the person telling the story isn’t really the person the story is about. My wild insight for book club: can we ever really know anyone?! No, E., no we cannot. I also remember the accuracy of K.’s observation that with a Munro story you’re reading along happy as can be and then *bam* someone is an adulterous, soul-rending, murderous… housewife (re: can we ever really know anyone). My other insight: I serially underestimate how long it will take me to read a collection of short stories. My ill-founded belief that it’s ‘just’ a short story collection belies that it’s still 300 pages of reading. I should have never dropped out of maths.

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Death in Summer and The Love of a Good Woman: I Expected More

So two books and one post ought to tell you something (and yes, the something is that I’m a little behind on posting). 

First up – The Love of a Good Woman

So you know my deal with short stories and my deal with Alice Munro (hate the former, love the latter, the complexity of this hate-love keeps me up at night). So why did I find this collection to be… less than satisfying? I don’t know. I think maybe I had some weird and misplaced expectation that these stories were going to link together more – I kept waiting for a bit more resonance. Of course the usual Munro things stayed true: her genius, the capacity for a single sentence to capture an entire character/setting, the thrust of a verb… so no complaints with the stories themselves, more a complaint with the stories as a collection. I just wasn’t thrilled.

Cue – Death in Summer

I’ve been meaning to read more of William Trevor since discovering him with “Love and Summer” (like discovering “Madonna” as a pop star – I must have been living under a rock not to know about him). So on a recent used-book-store adventure with S. I bought a couple of his books. I was giddy with the prospect of more genius (maybe my problem with both writers is that I expect perfection and am crushed when I read only really, really, utterly, brilliant, genius?). The book delivers knockout descriptions, but is lacking in plot coherence. It sets itself up as a murder mystery, but unfolds as a Sunday tea in the heat of summer: lazy, oppressive and plodding. That reads a bit cruel, and I’d take it back, except I didn’t like the book (gasp! did I say it? yes, I did) – I love Trevor, think he’s genius, but wasn’t at all captivated by this one. I’ll try the other one I bought and hope for better things. Until then…

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Too Much Happiness: Perfect Detail


Alice Munro might be the reason I hate short stories. I mean, she’s the best short story writer ever – perfect detail, brilliant dialogue, the amazing ability to move forward and back in time in seamless slips of paragraphs – but with this incredible talent comes (my) the awful realization that the story is only going to be 30 pages long. And that you want it to be 300. Which doesn’t even make sense because short stories have a certain something-something in the punchiness of the plot, the pace of things, that tells you that it can’t – shouldn’t – be sustained for more than 30 or 40 pages, and yet, such is the brilliance of the characters and the complexity of their motivations that I can’t help but be just a little furious that they’re capped at being *short*.

In any case: it’s a dark collection. Murder, betrayal, knives and cheating and cold train trips. The last and titular story feels a little out of place in the collection in terms of time and setting – it’s historical fiction and set in Sweden/Denmark/Germany – but it maintains thematic resonance with preoccupations of the extent to which women will subsume their own desires and opportunities for the men in their lives, or that women are dependent (to the point of great violence) on men, or the propensity for violence that lives in each of us just waiting for particular – though not necessarily extraordinary – circumstances to come out.

Anyway. I have some ambition to read all of Alice Munro’s collections next year, but then I realize that I have to take several days off from reading after each story because I find them just so intense. So maybe I won’t. Or maybe I’ll read a story a week or something. It’s a hard life for a reader when the challenge is how to space out brilliance so as to not squander it or be overwhelmed by its dazzling beauty.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Prize Winner, Short Stories