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Bookends: Two months spent in the worlds of Alice Munro October 15, 2014

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: Two months spent in the worlds of Alice MunroMunro Best Stories

By Dan Davidson

January 29, 2014

– 775 words –


My Best Stories

By Alice Munro

Introduction by Margaret Atwood

Penguin Books

509 pages



You can’t get through a career spent teaching high school English without bumping up against Alice Munro’s work but, while I have taught several of her stories over the years, and read a few more, I haven’t spent an intensive amount of time on her writing.

That’s enough of a lapse when dealing with a three time winner of the Governor General’s Award (1968, 1978 and 1986) as well as two Giller Prizes (1998 and 2004) the Man Booker International Prize (2009) and the Commonwealth Writers Prize (2005), not to mention a page long list of other honours.

I was, however, spurred to make her further acquaintance when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature last fall. The volume at hand was published in 2006 and contains 17 of her short stories, selected from books published between 1977 and 2004, the most recent story being “Runaway” from the book of the same name. There have been several books since that time, including another collection of best stories that overlaps this one for content.

What was useful about this book, rather than two other best stories collections, is that it has an informative 12 page introduction by Margaret Atwood. It contained much of the same material that I had heard on Q, As it Happens and Sunday Morning, and had read in Maclean’s, but gave it all a literary shape.

What would have made the book a little more useful would have been to arrange the stories in the order they originally appeared in either book form or in the New Yorker, where a good many of them first saw ink, though not, it seems, in necessarily the same form as the versions between hard covers. Munro apparently liked to tinker and revise.

There are books of short stories where you can sit down and breeze through several of them at a sitting. There’s nothing wrong with that sort of writing, but it’s not what Alice Munro does. One of her tales, which are usually not that short by page count (something my students used to complain about), is enough to chew on at one time.

Indeed, it has been said repeatedly than Munro’s short stories are rather like condensed novels, and I can certainly see where that idea comes from. Her tales may as easily span a lifetime as an afternoon, and often slide back and forth in time without a great deal of warning. They may be narrated in the first or third person, may be very individual in tone, or take what seems like a historian’s eye view of events.

They have been described as domestic in subject matter, but the activities of housewives are never exactly what they are about. They deal with relationships failed and successful, or under stress. The earlier stories have a lot to do with fathers and daughters in some way, and the ones in the middle seem to have a lot of failed marriages.

During her early life she was by turns a waitress, a tobacco picker, and a library clerk, and these professions appear in her work, along with that of bookseller, for she and her first husband opened Munro’s Books in Victoria, where she began her writing career.

Much of her life early life was spent in south west Ontario, which Atwood refers to as Sowesto. She seems to spend much of her energy bringing that area to life in her books, much as Stephen King spends his energy in New England and William Faulkner’s work lived in Yoknapatawpha County in the USA.

Not everything is set in Huron County and not everything is nicely domestic. “Runaway” deals with an unsuccessful domestic intervention. “Vandals” is a tale of malicious vengeance. “The Albanian Virgin” deals with life in the Old Country as well as the New World. “A Wilderness Station” is a bit of historical fiction told in letters that turns out to be a bit of a murder mystery. “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” explores that unknown country of old age and dementia and asks how far a man might go to bring comfort to his fading wife, along with whether his actions are entirely altruistic. Having read that one I must now get hold of Away From Her, the movie Sarah Polley created from that source material.

I finished this collection today, after having spent about eight weeks in the Munro-verse. It’s an interesting place and I expect to visit it again.









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