Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Dear Life by Alice Munro

Books of short stories are essential to every reader's library. They're lovely for those in-between times when one wishes for only a brief reading respite without committing to anything more weighty. I'm fairly new to Alice Munro's work, which is a crime considering she is a fellow Canadian and the doyen of short stories. But now that I've discovered her, I'm in the process of familiarizing myself with her writing and coming to more appreciate the short story genre.

In Dear Life, Munro drops us in on 10 fictional lives already in progress the last four being (somewhat) autobiographical. What struck me initially in each of her stories is that there isn't necessarily any backstory or explanation to what the reader is witnessing. We are placed in middle of an unfolding scene and have to trust that within a page or two an image will begin to take shape. I found this puzzling at first, but soon came to delight in the task much as one delights in watching a painter's canvas take on colour and depth with each stroke.

Dear Life by Alice Munro

To Reach Japan - A lonely and restless mother travels with her young daughter by train one summer to Toronto to house-sit for a friend while her husband is away for the season on a job site.

She didn't give up, though. The drink was helping her and she resolved to have another as soon as the tray came around. She watched for a conversational group that seemed to have a hole in it, where she might insert herself. She seemed to have found one when she heard the names of movies mentioned. European movies, such as were beginning to be shown in Vancouver at that time. She heard the name of one that she and Peter had gone to see. The Four Hundred Blows. "Oh I saw that." she said this loudly and enthusiastically, and they all looked at her and one, a spokesperson evidently, said, 'Really?" pg 9

Amundsen - A young woman takes a train to a Northern Ontario to take a position as a teacher in a war-era sanitarium. She has a relationship with a much older staff doctor who takes advantage of her naiveté.

But that was alright. It could be a game. I separated them into teams, got them calling out answers while I darted around with the pointer. I was careful not to let the excitement go on too long. But one day the doctor walked in, fresh from morning surgery, and I was caught. I could not stop things cold, but I tried to dampen the competition. He sat down, looking somewhat tired and withdrawn. He made no objection. After a few moments he began to join in the game, calling out quite ridiculous answers, names not just mistaken but imaginary. pg41

Leaving Maverley - A teenage girl gets a job at a movie theatre in post-war rural Ontario. Her prospects are not good and she makes some ill-advised relationship choices.

There was something in her, he told Isabel, something that made her want to absorb whatever you said to her, instead of just being thrilled or mystified by it. Some way in which he thought she had already shut herself off from her family. Not to be contemptuous of them, or unkind. She was just rock-bottom thoughtful. pg73

As far as Ray was concerned, this was all revolting chatter. Adulteries and drunks and scandals - who was right and who was wrong? Who could care? That girl had grown up to preen and bargain like the rest of them. The waste of time, the waste of life, by people all scrambling for excitement and paying no attention to anything that mattered. pg86

Gravel - Told as a memory of a young girl's life before and after a family tragedy. She carries a sense of guilt and responsibility around with her into adulthood. She seeks closure by visiting her estranged stepfather.

"The thing is to be happy," he said. "No matter what. Just try that. You can. It gets to be easier. It's nothing to do with circumstances. You wouldn't believe how good it is. Accept everything and then tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens, anyway. And you're just there, going along easy in the world." pg 109

Haven - A teenage girl is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in their clean and orderly and rather traditional home while her parents do missionary work in Ghana. The uncle is overbearing and the aunt is the peacemaker in a family estrangement.

Haven was the word. "A woman's most important job is making a haven for her man." Did Aunt Dawn actually say that? I don't think so. She shied away from statements. I probably read it in one of the housekeeping magazines I found in the house. Such as would have made my mother puke. pg114

Pride - A young man with a harelip gets to know the daughter of a wealthy banker who turns out to be more agreeable than he took her to be.

Oneida didn't go to school with the rest of us, anyway. I mean that nothing could have happened there, to set her up for life. She went to a girls' school, a private school, that I can't remember the name of, if I ever knew it. Even in the summers she was not around much. I believe the family had a place on Lake Simcoe. They had lots of money - so much, in fact, that they weren't in a category with anybody else in town, even the well-to-do ones. pg 134

Corrie - A 26 year-old woman with a lame leg due to polio lives with her father in the 1950s until her father dies. She then has an on-again-off-again affair with a married man.

He still did not touch Corrie, except for a grateful, almost formal goodbye. This subject must be altogether separate from what is between us, was what he seemed to be saying. We'll start fresh. We will be able again to feel that we're not hurting anybody. Not doing any wrong. That was how he would put it in his unspoken language. In her own language she made a joke that did not go over. pg 162

Train - A young soldier just back from the war is returning home on the train when he decides to jump off and walk in the opposite direction. A strange life of transient and brief but amicable relationships and jobs ensue.

Jumping off the train was supposed to be a cancellation. You roused your body, readied your knees, to enter a different block of air. You looked forward to emptiness. And instead, what did you get? An immediate flock of new surroundings, asking for your attention in a way they never did when you were sitting on the train and just looking out the window. What are you doing here? Where are you going? A sense of being watched by things you didn't know about. Of being a disturbance. Life around coming to some conclusion about you from vantage points you couldn't see. pg 177

In Sight of the Lake - A rather confusing story about a woman needing to find a doctor's office. The ending explains the surreal quality of the story.

She gets to look at some of this trash because she has chosen to park in front of the shop where it is displayed. She thinks that she may as well search out this doctor's office on foot. And almost too soon to give her satisfaction she does see a dark brick one-story building in the utilitarian style of the last century and she is ready to have space where cars could park, and they put up something like this. Reddish-brown bricks, and sure enough the sign, Medical/Dental. A parking lot behind the building. pg 219

Dolly - Elderly couple talk about death and then reminisce about early married life and the brief misunderstanding and rift they went through at the time.

Franklin's idea was that any explanation at all was an insult. Not to others but to ourselves. To ourselves and to each other and any explanation at all struck him as snivelling. pg 234

The Eye - The author is five and remembers her nanny 'Sadie' who liked to go dancing but never had any steady boyfriends.

This is what Sadie sang with such sorrow in a full-throated alto, but in her job with us she was full of energy and confidence, happy to talk and mostly to talk about herself. There was usually nobody to talk to but me. Her jobs and my mother's kept them divided most of the time and somehow I don't think they would have enjoyed talking together anyway. pg259

Night - When the author is 14 years old she shares a room with her younger sister. One summer she has trouble sleeping, afraid at how easy it would be to do something spontaneous and horrible to her sleeping sister. She finds relief by wandering outside in the early morning hours. A chance encounter with her father settles her distress and puts her at ease and she never has trouble sleeping again.

And I did think of it. The more I chased the thought away, the more it came back. No vengeance, no hatred - as I've said, no reason, except that something like an utterly cold deep thought that was hardly an urging, more of a contemplation, could take possession of me. I must not even think of it but I did think of it. pg 277

Voices - When the author is 10 years old she goes to a dance with her eccentric mother. In the stairwell of the dancehall, Alice encounters a young woman crying surrounded by two Air Force men with British accents saying soothing things to her. She remembers these voices for years afterwards whenever she is in need of soothing herself.

So it wasn't Peggy I was interested in, not her tears, her crumpled looks. She reminded me too much of myself. It was her comforters I marvelled at. How they seemed to bow down and declare themselves in front of her. 
What had they been saying? Nothing in particular. All right, they said. It's all right, Peggy, they said. Now, Peggy. All right. All right. 
Such kindness. That anybody could be so kind. pg297

Dear Life - The author remembers her childhood home at the end of a long gravel road. Her mother has an unsettling episode with an irrational elderly neighbour lady who approaches the house while Alice is asleep outside in her pram. Years later, as an adult, Alice does some research on her hometown and discovers that the elderly neighbour used to live in their house and was probably not intending any harm that day long ago but just confused and disoriented.

We say of somethings that they can't be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do - we do it all the time. pg319


Sam (Tiny Library) said...

You know, I hardly ever read short story collections even though I tend to enjoy them when I do. I'll keep a look out for this one, thanks for the recommendation :)

Pooch said...

I always enjoy your reviews and today is a real treat. You are beginning to turn my head concerning Munro's short stories, typically not my read of choice.


Trish said...

Sam - Yes, I'm rather intermittent with my short story reading but I'm always glad to have a few of them around the house. Munro has quite a number of books to her name. I think you'll like her.

Pooch - Thank you for your kind words! I hope you'll get a chance to give her another try.

Alexis @ Reflections of a Bookaholic said...

I don't prefer short stories so I don't have books of them on my bookshelf. I should give them another try though. It has been awhile.

Information said...

Good post.