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1st September
2009
written by Steph
Well, she got the hate part right, at least...

Well, she got the hate part right, at least...

[Note: I realize I should be posting my thoughts on Part 4 of 2666, but I still have some more reading to do before that part is finished.  I had considered pushing myself or rushing through it, but that’s really not the way to read, especially when reading for pleasure, is it?  I need to take a bit of a break from the behemoth before I finish up what I have left of Part 4 lest I post another cranky and disgruntled review yet again!] Out in the real-world I take part in a book club made up of some women from my department at school.  I haven’t always been the best member, having failed to finish several of the books (not from lack of time, but mostly lack of interest, I’m afraid), and when the streak of books being chosen was one in which I had little to no desire in reading the majority of the selected books, I bowed out for a while.  But a good friend of mine was picking the book this past month and it happened to be this collection of short stories that I already owned (but hadn’t read), so I decided that I would rejoin the fold.  We had our meeting last night, over Mexican appetizers (is there any food better for discussing Munro’s stories which all take place in the wilds of Canada? 😉 ), and I’m really glad I went.  I can’t say the discussion was always illuminating, but the company was good and I think we all put our best foot forward when it came to discussing HFCLM. When it came to this collection of short stories, I was a bit leery (as I always am of short stories), but went in with the best of intentions.  I really enjoyed the first short story of the collection (which shares the same title as the book itself), finding it quite clever and thoughtful, and also a little whimsical.  I read one Alice Munro story back in highschool, and this story reconfirmed my beliefs about her, and I felt it was “classic Munro” (based, of course, upon my one time reading experience!).  It had all of the elements I remember about that story I read back in highschool (“How I Met My Husband”), including a trademark Munro twist near the end.  Even more importantly, I thought “HFCLM” worked well as a short story because while short, it was also complete, and I felt the author had achieved in those 30 or so pages what she had set out to do.  Also important was the fact that I think it’s immensely critical that a short story hook its readers from the first few pages (ideally the first page!), as it doesn’t have the space and liberty that a novel does to have its readers gradually warm up to it.  “HFCLM” is very effective in this regard, catapulting you immediately into its midst and warmly ensconcing you there.  After finishing it, I was optimistic that the rest of the collection would hold the same spark for me… after all, there must be a reason why Munro has famously made her living on short stories and nothing else! Unfortunately, the opposite wound up being true for me (and I’ll point out that for whatever it’s worth, the rest of my book club felt the same).  With the bulk of the remaining eight stories, I found myself struggling to be interested in and engaged with the stories I was reading, especially for the first few pages.  Consequently, I failed to read 2 of the stories in the collection, because I simply couldn’t muster up sufficient interest in them.  Moreover, many of the stories felt jumbled and opaque to me; in many instances it seemed like a random assortment of events occurred that it was difficult to discern the meaning of, and then the story was just over.  I felt like Munro was giving us a slice of life, but not one I could make anything of.   I prize myself on being a fairly astute and discerning reader, yet so many of these stories left me baffled and confused, which seemed counterintuitive given that Munro was supposed to be shining lights into the secret shadows of ourselves.  I wondered if I had suddenly become very stupid or emotionally blunted, because so many of these stories failed to speak to me or mean anything at all.  I felt like motivations were obscured and confused, that I couldn’t understand why things happened, or why characters behaved as they did.  It was actually very gratifying to speak to my book club and find I wasn’t alone in my confusion!  To make things worse, almost every single story in the collection is wildly depressing, but not in the way that I like!  Sometimes I want a book that will make me feel deeply, even if those feelings are ones of grief and intense sadness.  With Munro, the stories were sad because they revolved around unhappy circumstances (e.g., cancer, infidelity, death, etc.) and were so bleak, but I felt like with the exception of the final story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”, the author didn’t really push much beyond the superficial, and sometime was just including sad twists and events because the story needed to depressing.  At no point did my hand spring to my chest because my heart ached at the comingling of sadness and loveliness (perhaps in the prose or even in terms of a profound insight being shared), and I have to admit that I felt cheated by this.  Sometimes you want to wallow in something that is both sad and beautiful, but I felt that Munro’s bleak visions whitewashed any beauty that may have been contained here. So, I’m not really sure where this reading experience leaves me.  By and large, I didn’t enjoy this collection very much, as I failed to read two of the nine stories, and many of the stories felt like struggles that were not rewarded in the end.  I find myself wondering if I might not be a good short story reader, but then again, one girl in my book club claimed to really love short story collections but felt mostly unmoved by this collection… so perhaps the fault does not lie squarely with me.  Whatever the case may be, this collection certainly did not cause me to revisit my current belief that I greatly prefer novels to short stories, that I find short stories generally unsatisfying.  This time I did space my reading of the stories out over the course of several weeks in a bid to enhance my appreciation/enjoyment of them; I don’t know how successful this was!  I think it certainly didn’t decrease my enjoyment, and I will probably employ this strategy again in the future.  Of the nine stories, I liked two, and appreciated two more (though found elements of them confusing).  The title story is very good and a nice way to start the collection (but also felt misleading as it is so different in tone and structure from the rest of the stories), and “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” was a story that resonated deeply with me and which I felt was actually a thoughtful examination of love and was probably the saddest of all the stories.  Unlike the other stories, I felt Munro had tapped into something genuine here, that she earned the emotions she evoked.  I also appreciated the story “Post and Beam” for some of the ideas it examined (though it is very bleak), and after a bad run, “Queenie” captured and held my interest, even though I didn’t really know what to make of it in the end (it was one of those stories where I didn’t understand the characters’ motivations and why things happened).  I was thoroughly confused by “The Floating Bridge”, “Family Furnishings”, and “Comfort”.  I did not manage to finish “Nettles” and “What is Remembered”. I do think I will try more short stories in the future, and perhaps even more Alice Munro, but I think in my approach, I will not hold myself to the same constraints that I would with a novel.  First, I will not require that I read a short story collection in a particular order.  If I reach a story that just doesn’t seem to be working for me, I will not force myself to see it through, but allow myself to drop it and return later should I so desire.  Also, as I did here, I will not require myself to read the collection in its entirety.  If I had only read the first and last story in this collection, I think I would currently think much more highly of Munro than I now do.  Maybe I should try an anthology, where in theory only really good stories from a variety of authors are highlighted?  Are any of you short story readers, and if so, do you tend to find yourself appreciating collections or anthologies more?  Or do you find both to be about the same?  Any pros and cons for me to consider? Rating: 3 out of 5

5 Comments

  1. 09/01/2009

    Sorry this book was so unbalanced for you. I tend to shy away from short story collections as well for some reason. I think my problem is that just when I start to get involved in the rhythm of the story and it’s characters, the experience is over and the story has ended. I tend to prefer books that gradually draw me in and keep me captured for awhile. I guess if I had to boil it all down, short stories are just too short for my liking. I have read that The Best American Short Stories collections are pretty good, but I have yet to read one. I have really enjoy the short fiction I have read by Jhumpa Lahiri, but that’s about all I can recommend.

  2. 09/01/2009

    I’m not a short story reader myself, but I try to balance it out sometimes. Anyway, I just actually purchased this book last week (look at my sidebar, it has a very pretty cover, and the real reason why I bought it haha!). Anyway, I think I need to approach short stories in between other reads, otherwise I tend to tire myself out and just want to get them over with as quickly as possible. I hope I’ll have more success with Alice Munro, as the rest of her other books in Penguin are also very very pretty. It would be a shame. 😀

    P.S. Don’t worry about 2666. We’ll wait. 🙂

  3. 09/01/2009

    @ zibilee: I tend to have the same thing happen, in terms of my engagement. Just when I feel a story is finding its feet and beginning to blossom, they end and I’m left with a big question mark over my head. This is why I think it is so important for a good short story to establish itself fairly quickly right out of the gate… there’s not much time to explore and develop the space and story, so I think authors need to have a very clear idea of where they’re heading right away.
    I have wondered about “The Best American…” collections before. It might be something I should check out… but from the library!
     
    @ Claire: Given my less than enthusiastic response to Unaccustomed Earth earlier this year, I specifically made sure I spaced out my readings this time so that the short stories felt like supplements rather than the bulk of my reading. At times I felt I wanted to get them over with, but having other reading material to turn to definitely helped me mitigate these feelings. This was a collection that on the whole probably wasn’t a great fit for me, BUT ironically I felt my response was similar to my response to Bolaño’s 2666 in that I felt everything was too intangible for me to grasp! I will not be surprised if you wind up liking this collection a good deal; I certainly hope you do!

  4. 10/07/2009

    Steph, I just finished. You’re right though, I really liked it a lot. What’s funny is that two of my favourites are the two you didn’t finish! Lol. I loved the ending of both, and were the most insightful. Although I totally get why you didn’t finish as they had the most boring beginnings of the lot. They were the only two stories I had to reread a few paragraphs at the start because I got sidetracked with other thoughts.

    The last story was my favourite, too. I don’t know if I understood the ending correctly. Did Fiona remember Grant finally? Was it he that she hugged? Or did she turn back to Ashley and hugged him instead? I know it must be Grant, as I reread the last page three times just to make sure. But it only says “he” so can you shed some light on me? 🙂

    Was Post and Beam the one whose cousin came to visit? I agree her stories were sad, but I really didn’t think them depressing. It was probably her tone in writing, as it was very subdued and never upbeat.

    Which characters baffled you the most?

  5. 10/08/2009

    @ Claire: Yes, my issue with the two I didn’t finish I just couldn’t get into – every time I tried to read them, I kept zoning out.

    Now as for the last story, I’m trying to remember what happened, but I am pretty sure she doesn’t remember Grant in the end; I think the “happy” ending was just from the fact that Grant convinced Ashley’s wife to let him visit. One of those bittersweet endings, I suppose.

    Post & Beam was the one where the cousin came to visit… I suppose Munro has a reflective style, very pensive, and I just didn’t feel there was a lot of joy in any of the stories. Why were all of the marriages unhappy and/or plagued with infidelity? I just thought it weird that for a book with the word “loveship” in the title, there wasn’t a lot of that going around for the married couples.

    As for baffling characters, I was really confused by the Queenie character, as well as the main character in Family Furnishings (who randomly started to hate her aunt). Also, I didn’t really understand the wife in The Floating Bridge.

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