Alice Munro · books · Canadian books · Canadians · short story

The Short Story and my love affair with famed Canadian author Alice Munro

I vividly remember my first look into the literary world of Alice Munro. I was in my first year of university at Brescia College in London, Ontario and my thoughtful professor had enough foresight to include The Lives of Girls and Women on the syllabus. That book was a wonder and changed how I read short stories forever.

For those who do not know about Alice Munro, you should. Most recently I introduced her flavourful writing style to my book club when we read Dear Life published in 2012. I have to admit, I was shocked many of these women who I admire greatly had never read anything by one of my favourite writers. How could this be? The average age of book club members is 65 and I was astonished she had been missed by these well-read women.

Munro is the kind of writer that has a unique voice. Her characters come alive in their simplicity and complicated lives. She writes equally in a woman’s voice or a man’s or a child’s for that matter. Not all writers can successfully pull that off. When I read stories by Munro I am transported to that place and time easily. She writes paying special attention to local colour, dialogue and setting as she tells each story. The details are memorable long after the book closes.

“His tan looked like pancake makeup, though it was probably all real. There was something theatrical about him altogether, tight and glittery and taunting. Something obscene about his skinniness and sweet, hard smile.”
-from the story Mischief from Who Do You Think You Are? (1978)

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Munro is an author I have come to greatly admire as each of her books gets better and better with time. I have always appreciated the characters she creates in her stories. From my first meeting with Munro through her character Del in The Lives of Girls and Women to other characters like Flo and Rose who grappled with the realities and hardships of growing up. Munro was not afraid to write female characters who were challenging sexual stereotypes, engaging in risk-taking behaviour and really, enjoying an odyssey of self-discovery. This is most likely why her stories resonated with me in that first year English class.

As a Canadian, I also have a deep appreciation for the settings that Munro chooses in her stories. Some are just SO Canadian that I can feel like I’ve been there before. Some are reflective of small town Ontario while others venture into bigger cities like Toronto and Vancouver.

“Now there was a village. Or suburb, perhaps you could call it, because she did not see any Post Office or even the most uncompromising convenience store. The settlement lay four or five streets deep along the lake, with small houses strung close together on small lots. Some of them were undoubtedly summer places
— the windows already boarded up, as was always done for
winter season.”
-From Runaway published in 2004.

As much as I admire all of Alice Munro’s books I probably liked Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage the best. Published in 2001, this collection of nine stories is a work of literary art. Each character so uniquely different telling a story that is their own. The dialogue is sharp and quick-witted when called for. Her characters are described in minute detail: “…a woman with a high, freckled forehead and a frizz of reddish hair came into the railway station and inquired about shipping furniture. …Her teeth were crowded to the front of her mouth as if they were ready for an argument.” Amazing. I can see her now. As a reader who readily enjoys descriptive writing, Munro is a marvel.

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One summer my family and I accidentally came across The Alice Munro Literary Gardens in her hometown of Wingham, Ontario. For a bibliophile like me, this was like seeing a rock star. All of her works were there with a beautiful small garden to wander through. Munro has also received numerous awards for her body of work and many of the attributes were on hand to view. She is a much celebrated and admired writer of my country.

As I close this blog post I credit Alice Munro for cultivating my love of the short story. It is not an easy feat as a writer to achieve a successful short story that is engaging and entertaining. Because of her, I have sought out short stories and discovered new authors along the way which is one of the best things about reading. I urge you to find an Alice Munro collection and read it. She is engaging, witty and writes with considerable depth and consideration. I hope you enjoy her as much as I do.

books · Canadian books · Canadians · dogs · library · reading · summer · witches

Summer Reads

As the summer comes to a close with the temperatures getting cooler each night and the sun setting a little earlier each evening, I think back on all the books I have read over this nine-week period.

Thirteen books have passed through my hands during the hot months of July and August and some were page-turners while others left me wanting for more.

I found these books in libraries, on my own book shelf and on the shelves of book stores, both big box and local and in an airport.  With each read I was transported to a different time and place depending on the genre of the book and the focus of the author.

The summer started with the novel by Canadian author Katherena Vermette who first came to my attention with a fantastic collection of very Canadian short stories.  I did not want to pass up her debut novel The Break and I was not disappointed.  Although I have already blogged briefly about this novel, I wanted to mention it again as I liked the characters and the stories.  A brief synopsis was shared with a friend of mine who asked what I thought of it:

“I really liked it. I had a hard time putting it down. I did have a hard time connecting to Stella and her inability to react. It was not the easiest subject to write about but the author did a good job in creating the different narrative voices to reveal each part of the story.”

As a dog lover I picked up two different novels completely by chance at my local public library in Hamilton at different points during the summer.  The first called Ordinary Dogs, Extraordinary Friendships: Stories of Loyalty, Courage and, Compassion is a non-fiction book that chronicles the amazing life and adventures of Pam Flowers and her trips into the Arctic with her team of sled dogs.  Her tales are harrowing at times and this would be a great read for young adolescents who happen to love dogs.  After reading this book, I had a greater respect for working dogs and the people who love them.

More recently I finished the short book Good Dog, Stay by renowned American author Anna Quindlen.  It is another account of dogs and their people; those who love them and bond with them.  I liked this book and Quindlen’s devotion to the different dogs that came into her life and bonded with her children with a focus on her Labrador retriever, Beau.  It is a sweet story for anyone who has had a dog and loved it and the heart-wrenching decision to put your dog down when it needs to end its’ suffering.  Get the tissues out for this one.

As the summer passed I made more time to read including a collection of short stories called Boundary Country by Tom Wayman.  Some of the stories I really liked as they often reflected my countries vast and varied landscape and climate.  This was my first introduction to Wayman who is otherwise known in the literary world as a poet.  He seems to have a keen grasp of the human condition as he writes each story sometimes using historical events to frame the narrative.

Into my hands came more Canadian authors including Margaret Laurence as I re-visited her writing style through The Fire-Dwellers and laughed out loud as I read through the highly recommended Home From the Vinyl Café: A Year of Stories by Stuart McLean.  Although both authors are deceased, each book reminded me of the greatness of some of my country’s authors and how incredibly Canadian a book can be.  The narrative, the setting and even the dialogue is uniquely my country’s own as I read through each book.

I also found myself reading a few graphic novels as the summer went on.  One I was extremely excited to find, as it had been on my “to-read” list on GoodReads for some time.  Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? was one of the best reads this summer.  The subject matter is sad and depressing but how Chast presents the true story of her parents aging and eventual deaths is so authentic.  The cartoons are fantastic as she chronicles her parents and their eccentricities.  As a person who has lived through the experience of watching a parent die as a result of a chronic illness some of what Chast says is relatable.  Although my father died at the early age of 64 and Chast’s parents live into their nineties, the relatability is similar.  I really recommend this book to anyone who is at this stage in their life where the roles are reversed and one is caring for an aging and/or dying parent.  An uncomfortable topic to be sure, but Chast’s wit and genuine reflection on this terrible time in an adult child’s life is written with true compassion and care.

The lazy month of August came and I flew through Miller’s Valley when I ran out of something to read while travelling back from Las Vegas.  This was my first Anna Quindlen novel.  I had always wanted to read something by this much celebrated American author but opportunity to do so never materialized.  The novel started slow but gained some momentum as the family saga played out focusing on protagonist Mimi Miller.  It is a cautionary tale related to water sustainability while Quindlen creates both likeable and unlikeable characters for the reader to absorb.  I was pleased with this book and will read more of Quindlen’s work.

While in beautiful Las Vegas I was continuing to read Into the Water which I had started before we left for our trip. The much-anticipated follow-up novel from best-selling author Paula Hawkins had me intrigued.  I had heard a podcast (Q) on CBC radio where Hawkins was interviewed and discussed her writing and the incredible success she received following her excellent debut novel Girl on the Train (which I loved!).  I did like the novel as it read much like a mystery, but it is so hard for any author to follow the kind of success from a stellar debut like Girl on the Train.

The last two books I wanted to blog about in this post are very different from each other.  The Witches of New York is by Nova Scotia author Ami McKay who I know from her terrific first novel The Birth House.  McKay is an author I really like.  She incorporates quite a bit of historical information into each story and this novel is no exception referencing the horrific Salem witch trials (Into the Water referenced the trials too).  All three protagonists are very different but oh so likeable!  The book is filled with beautiful illustrations and poetic verses and witches’ spells that all add to the story.  I was sorry when it was over.  McKay’s imagination and the ability to weave together an engaging tale is a true gift.IMG_3110

The last book for this blog post is another book that I had wanted to read but kept missing.  A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects should be mandatory reading in all Canadian schools.  Jane Urquhart is a Canadian author who weaves together a historical and engaging account of fifty objects that connect to Canada all neatly illustrated by Canadian Scott McKowen.  Not every Canadian would have chosen the same fifty objects that Urquhart did but they are good choices that tell a story of our nation coming together to become the country that it is today, and will continue to be as the world changes.  I liked this book because Urquhart does pick some strange things like a tractor and a shoe, but the more the reader reads, the clearer the reasoning is for her choices. I learned new tidbits and facts about my country.IMG_3219

As the summer comes to a close and I get ready to head back into the classroom, I will have new books to share with my students and family.  Now to get to that list for Autumn…