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Alice Munroe: Ain’t Too Much Happiness Here.

Everyone, please remain calm.

There’s been a lot of happiness going around at BookSnob lately. (Alas, see Gretchen Rubin). I didn’t want you to worry that things are getting too cheery.

Because Alice Munro isn’t dishing out the infinite joy in her latest collection of stories, Too Much Happiness.

Don’t get me wrong, the book itself is fantastic.

But it’s notable that she has been criticized that this series of stories has it’s fair share of deadbeat, downtrodden, delusional and distasteful souls. This book has got infidelity, homelessness, unexpected deaths, even murder. One critic I read referred to it as Southern Ontario Gothic. (Seems like a stretch, but let me assure you there are some grim contexts.)

A mother, Doree, resiliently tries to persist after the death of her three children. Nita’s alone after her husband’s death and cleverly wards off an intruder. A son lives ashamed by a deep purple birthmark and his best friend moves abruptly away after mimicing him by painting her face. Two malicious girls knowingly let a neighborhood child drown because she irritated them with her whole being.

And yet, how to convince you that it’s not depressing???

Each of the stories do have a sense of foreboding and a slow, meandering pace. There’s a sparseness, almost a desolation to where the characters find themselves.  (Hint: It’s a solitary, lonely place.)

But what makes it so accessible is that we know every human has their story. But Alice Munroe delivers each of them to us at the seminal moment in their lives. She reveals to us this moment that defines them. It is etched on their soul.

In “Face”, one of my favorite stories, Munro writes:

“Something happened here. In your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place, where something happened and then there are all the other places.”

Here’s a brief snippet from the NY Times Podcast with Munro. (3:30). When the interviewer asks about her ‘ordinary’ and ‘drab’ characters, she says this puzzles her. “These are the people I know. They want great things. They are capable of quite a lot.” In fact, it is hope that Munro gives us. Her characters endure extraordinary things and, in her own words, she explores the question: “How on earth do you go on???”  We know these people in our own lives. They’re heroic.

You may recall from my Emerging 2010 Selections post, this was my stories pick. Never one for short stories, I don’t have a deep appreciation for Cheever, Carver, art of the short story, blah blah blah. Saying that Munroe is our Chekov did nothing for me. Ignorance revealed. My going in assumption has always been: how masterful can a short story be? I don’t even have enough time to grow used to the characters, let alone love them.

I take it all back.

Alice Munro give us language so efficient, so simple, so direct, so rich, it boggles the mind. She covers immense distances and swaths of time in a single paragraph.

And yet, I got to drink in all the depth I wanted and then some. Nothing left me feeling short-changed. (okay, except the last story. didn’t love it).

Rock on, Alice. You short story ass kicker, you.


Noted
I was confused as to what the difference is between the Man Booker price (Wolf Hall) and the Man Booker International Prize (this book). Silly marketing.
So here it is: “The Man Booker International Prize echos and reinforces the annual Man Booker Prize for Fiction in that literary excellence will be its sole focus. The Man Booker International Prize is significantly different from the annual Man Booker Prize for Fiction in that it highlights one writer’s overall contribution to fiction on the world stage.  In seeking out literary excellence the judges consider a writer’s body of work rather than a single novel.”

*** Oh, and don’t forget to submit your thoughts on what a booksnob is. It’s easy. Honest.


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7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jazzie #

    Short stories can be amazing! Ray Bradbury, Kafka and, yes, Chekov are my personal favs. I’m ordering this one from the library today.

    Thanks,
    Jazzie

    February 25, 2010
  2. easyreader #

    Munro is probably the best short story writer working today. I just can’t read her anymore.

    February 26, 2010
  3. Why not? Just curious…

    February 26, 2010
  4. I enjoyed Too Much Happiness, but was just too happy to finish it. (Kidding.) Seriously, though, I picked it up after I had my daughter. The postpartum anxiety was just too fresh and after reading a few of the stories, I had to put it down. There seemed to be an alarming number of babies in danger. I’ve read a few of her works, but I have to say that _Loveship, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Marriage_ was my favorite. All of those stories seemed to speak to me.

    March 3, 2010
    • I agree Jana there was a lot of danger and violence–and the first story was jarring. I was wondering what people considered her best, so glad to have the Loveship, etc. recommendation. Thanks.

      March 4, 2010
  5. easyreader #

    Why can’t I read Munro anymore? I think because these days, when I read fiction, I do often want a little. . . happiness. The last Munro collection I read, Runaway, was masterful. She’s always masterful, like a modern Canadian Chekhov or something. But after a long and exceptionally snowy winter here in DC, I crave sunshine in all forms and I suspect the new Munro book won’t do much for my serotonin levels. Maybe later in the spring. . . .

    Have you noticed how much of the recent literary fiction features dysfunctional, neglectful (or worse) mothers? The Lacuna, A Gate at the Stairs, Penelope Lively’s Family Album, Byatt’s The Children’s Book, even Olive Kitteridge (though that one’s beautifully nuanced). . . . Where are the good mothers?

    March 9, 2010
    • Yes given the snow on the East Coast, I suggest you give yourself a breather. And after the Vagrants, maybe we all need a nice, hilarious joyful read. As for good mothers–apparently there was one over at Sandra Bullock’s house ; )I don’t actually think the dysfunction is just reserved for the moms (though you certainly have had your fair share.) Family dysfunction makes for a good story–no matter the gender!!

      March 9, 2010

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