Dear Life by Alice Munro

51WIU+mWxSL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_I always feel like I’ve failed when I don’t like a book that is critically acclaimed as much as this one is. Did everyone else catch something I missed? Do I need to read it again? Maybe with a novel but I’ve been reading this collection of short stories for two months and didn’t love any of them. That isn’t to say I vehemently disliked them. I was just apathetic which might even be worse.

Alice Munro is one of the most famous short story writers around now. Before I had picked up Dear Life I had heard raving reviews about how her short stories were more layered and complex than most novels or how she wrote about the commonplace and “ordinary” people with empathy and mastery and even how she was one of the greatest short story writers of all time.

The first, and major, problem with this is that I didn’t find Munro’s characters commonplace and ordinary. Unless you define ordinary as middle class, white, straight and suburban (I don’t). All the stories were based around characters from this same background. I don’t find it hard to empathise with characters from a different background to me (most books I read aren’t centred around British Pakistani women) and in fact I love reading about characters who are wildly different from me. The problem was that I got the feeling that Munro believed herself that this was “ordinary” not just to her but universally which is why I couldn’t connect to her writing.

Repression, sex and longing are major themes in this collection of stories. Munro’s unsentimental language illustrates how they burn or curdle under a seemingly mundane setting.  The relationships vary from the taboo to the routine or sometimes the merely unwise. Munro illustrates how an insignificant event can change someone’s life, how one person can devastate another and the tragedies and foolishness of life all while maintaining the same clear and effortlessly lovely voice.

“The dream was in fact a lot like the Vancouver weather—a dismal sort of longing, a rainy dreamy sadness, a weight that shifted round the heart.”

Stories I mildly enjoyed were Dolly a story of a couple reaching old age being surprised out of their complacency by an unexpected visitor and Gravel, a portrayal of parental negligence leading to tragedy. I also appreciated the understated devastation of Corrie.

I would be more forgiving of the build up around Dear Life if I enjoyed the stories more but unfortunately it wasn’t my cup of tea.

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The Stories of Eva Luna by Isabel Allende

9780241952887Inspired by Scheherazade and a Thousand and One Nights this book is a feast of 23 short stories all starting from the moment Eva Luna’s lover asks her to tell him a story she has never told anyone before.

The tales are crammed with sensuous and slightly macabre imagery and are all written in gorgeous prose with a strong sense of Allende’s Chilean-American identity. Allende and her translator illustrate a mastery over language that made each story part of an opulent and intense world that touched all the senses. I was expecting stories that were all style and little substance but what I found was a treasure chest of warm painful and joyful human emotion.  Nevertheless there was still a thread of magical realism or even just an archaic fairytale quality to each story that made them addictive to me:

Hermelinda was the only young woman in all the land – aside from the English lady who crossed through the rose fence with her shotgun only when in search of hares; even then, all the men could glimpse was a bit of veiled hat amid a cloud of dust and yelping English setters.

The stories have a variety of protagonists from schoolteachers to sex workers, corrupt politicians to campaigning priests, spirits, tyrants and great beauties. The politics and history of Latin America simmer underneath each story often with tragic and heated results.

There wasn’t a weak story in this collection but my favourites were The Gold of Tomás Vargas, The School Teachers’s Guest and A Discreet Miracle which all had an undercurrent of humour to the difficult themes of the plot which I really enjoyed.  

There were also stories which left me with a deep feeling of horror at the fate of the characters as child slavery, human experimentation, domestic abuse and colonialism were all shown without mercy. Overall however the collection left me with an uplifting feeling as it focuses on the healing power that love and community can bring.

My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro

20140529-221600-80160539.jpgI love short stories. And I love LOVE stories. So I bought this book prepared to be heartbroken and joyful and wallow in the genius of truly magnificent writing. After all the book promises these are the GREAT love stories.

Well I started reading. And eventually I slowed down. I wasn’t looking forward to each story. I just wanted to finish the bloody book. Hardly any of the stories moved me. Did I have a heart of stone?

I finally twigged what the problem was when I looked at the authors list at the back of the book.

 

21 out of 27 of the authors are male.

6 are female

21 are American

26 are white

So what you have is a book of love stories from the view point of mostly white American men collected by a white American man.

I am appalled. How limited is the reading list of Jeffrey Eugenides? And who on earth thought it was a good idea to let him pick a short story collection?

If you are a white male then you will probably love this book. If not and you are bored to tears by the white male dominated culture of fiction, journalism, tv and cinema then give this book a miss. It’s not worth the effort or the snores.

Short Stories by Katherine Mansfield

mansfieldShort Stories, Katherine Mansfield 1908-1922, Everyman Classics 1983

It took me so long to finish this collection of short stories! I started it last year. Each story was so richly detailed and full of the character’s inner selves simmering between the lines that when I finished one I felt as if I had read a whole book.

This is one of those books that I never would have finished if I hadn’t been keeping a blog. Which is one of the reasons I am so glad I started Ode to a Library!

The earlier stories in this collection are alive with the angry ideals of Mansfield and her fury at the powerless of women against the pomposity of self-satisfied men and these themes crop up in the stories throughout the book. In the tiredness of Rosabel violets and wet clothes and evening meals made of dreams contrast against the harsh realities of the protagonists life and we see this again in The Swing of the Pendulum where the girl swings between wild optimism and the greyness of how things really are with a humiliating consequence.

The stories are wonderfully diverse in their settings with stories in New Zealand and Germany and France. Bathhouse, hat shops, weddings, dingy flats, a store in the middle of nowhere, the great war, a ghastly holiday; Mansfield’s stories are wonderful to read if you want sensory photographs of her time.

A Married Man’s Story was one I didn’t expect to be blown away by and yet it surprised me the most. More than the hysteria and suppressed violence of Millie and The Woman at the Store because I didn’t like the protagonist yet some of his thoughts were the most moving in the whole collection for me. For example the scene where the man as a child finds his classmates have put a dead bird in his pocket:

The smoke from our kitchen chimney poured downwards, and flakes of soot floated- soft, light in the air. Through the big crack in the cement yard a poor looking plant with dull, reddish flowers had pushed its way. I looked at the dead bird again…And that is the first time I remember singing-rather…listening to a silent voice in a little cage that was me.

That story and my feelings towards it are a perfect summary of what I feel for Katherine Mansfield. I like her writing, I admire it and think it beautiful and clever and a lovely sensory visual of the early twentieth century. But I need to love the characters to properly love the writer.

 

The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Aymé

aymeThe man who walked through walls, Marcel Aymé, tr; Sophie Lewis, Pushkin Press, 2012

I am extremely picky when it comes to short stories, much more than novels. I generally try reading anthologies of stories hoping I’ll come across an author who delights me. So I surprised myself when I bought a book of short stories from an author I’d never heard of before.

And I’m in love! I’ve never raced through a book of short stories so fast. I’d finish one and move onto the next but find the last was still lingering around me like a delicious complicated scent. I’d be thinking and smiling about them while I was on the tube, at the pub, having dinner or with friends.

Aymé takes an idea; what if a man could walk through walls? What would he do? How would people around him react?  Dutilleul does nothing with his power until he is overly irritated by his boss and decides to surprise the man in his office:

Looking up, with an unspeakable fright, he found Dutilleul’s head mounted on the wall like a hunting trophy. But the head was still alive. Through its pince-nez, the head flashed a look of hatred at him. Even better, the head began to speak.

“Sir,” it said, “you are a ruffian, a boor and a scoundrel.”

Statue of Marcel Aymé

statue of Aymé in Monmarte

The stories are darkly comic and the leaps of his imagination made me gleefully anticipate what he would come up with next. Each one is like a reverse gothic parable. Aymé satirizes bureaucracy throughout society whether in a story about time being rationed due to shortages or the tedious queuing at the gates of heaven.

I don’t think I’ve owned a book by Pushkin Press before but I was impressed with the thick matte pages and the clear spaced layout and that it was quite sturdily made. It is one of those books you think could never be read as enjoyably on an e-book.

The author loves his characters. And he makes me love them too. How does he do this in such a short literary form? I knew each story would be wonderful, it would be humourous, sympathetic and poignant. I also knew I would care deeply about each protagonist however ridiculous or mundane their situation was. The relationship between a boy and his mother in The Seven-League Boots made my heart ache. I am so happy I took a chance and picked this book up.