This is likely Alice Munro’s last book of short stories. It includes a Finale of autobiographical memories. I haven’t read much Munro, not being much of a short story fan, but I’m sure I’ve read at least one other of her collections. I’m trying to read more short story because I want to appreciate it more, and the endeavour has been instructive. I love using short story as a “palette cleanser” between novels. I always read each story twice in a row and then search online for others’ comments about it, that way I learn more and realize things I’ve missed. (Goodreads is a good source to see what others have said–sort of like the “blind men and the elephant tale”–everyone describes something different so all together a range of truth and ideas is provided).
Compared to a novel, a short story is a nugget, a bullet, with all of the parts of a longer work condensed into a complete unit that packs a powerful punch. Though not my favourite, I can see the beauty and skill displayed by a short story writer like Munro. What I liked most about Dear Life was the ‘Finale’ where she talks more about her own life. The writing is looser reflections, less complete, and not quite so self-contained–a rare glimpse into Munro’s own childhood, but is it so rare? I think her personal life has already been hinted at through the themes in her short stories.
Munro is known worldwide for her brilliance as a writer of short stories. She has won, among many other awards, a Nobel Prize in Literature. And yet she tells everyday stories of people living everyday lives. I do like that about her writing, it is very approachable. Her characters are flawed and human and she loves to explore how one event can be the fulcrum around which someone’s life can turn on a dime. From her stories we discover that she is highly critical of men, often characterizing them as thoughtless, selfish, and unpredictable. The women are capable of great love, but are often powerless and weak. I suppose these may have been things she grew up with, or perhaps typical of her parents’ generation in small town Ontario. There really doesn’t need to be an answer. Like the blind men, we can all take away from the stories whatever we like, and enjoy our own observations and interpretations.
Are you a short story fan? Do you have any advice for short story reluctant readers like me? Do you have a favourite Alice Munro collection?
Usually I post on books I have already read. This time I’m going to post on one I am reading because it may take me some time to finish it (like maybe years) and I want to share these ideas now.
At a recent book conference I attended a session called “In Praise of Short Stories”. I found the session so inspirational and challenging that I came away with a personal mission to give short stories another chance. And in order to have something to “practice” on, I purchased this delicious brick of a volume (over 600 pages with 60+ stories!) by an author I already like. Elizabeth Taylor writes beautifully and has always been somewhat undervalued, perhaps because of the confusion around her name. When I read Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont I realized I wanted to read more of her work.
To be honest I have not been a fan of short story mostly because I got impatient with just getting into the characters and the set-up and then it would all abruptly end. So why spend all that investment on a story just to have to leave it and go on to another?
What I learned at the session, was that the short story experience has to be viewed differently, as with poetry. Short stories are small powerful self-contained nuggets, like a concentrated capsule or a core sample with only the important stuff. The impact is intense, like a bullet. That is not to say however, that there is always closure. As with a novel, a good short story can also leave much unsaid. Sometimes when I read a short story I have the nagging feeling that I’m not quite “getting it” (that happens with poetry too). Perhaps it will take some more reflection than I have been willing to give it in the past.
So, with short stories the main advice is simple – read one a day, no more. To get the most out of it, read it twice. The first time to be introduced to the story and the second time to go deeper and try to appreciate what the author has done; notice the word choice, the themes, the structure, and the development. Apparently short story writers have a purpose for everything and nothing is extra or unnecessary – very lean. In fact diehard short story fans get impatient with novels since there’s too much padding!
So my plan is to keep this anthology nearby and read a story every couple of weeks, in between novels. I might pick up a collection by Alice Munro as well. She is probably one of the most celebrated short story authors and one whose stories I have enjoyed in the past. Munro said in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “Everything the story tells, moves you in such a way that you feel you’re a different person when you finish.” That kind of reading experience is worth the challenge! Actually all reading is that way. Experiences in literature do affect us and change us. That much we know for sure.
What do you think about short stories? Is there a short story author that you would recommend?