Short and Sweet: The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro

This the June edition of Short & Sweet, just a few days late.  This is one reading project I’ve managed to stay on top of this year, mostly because I’m enjoying it.  Most nights I read in bed for about 15 minutes before going to sleep, and while I don’t always read a complete story, I can usually finish a book of stories within a month.  In June I read The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro.

In The View from Castle Rock, Alice Munro mines her family history to create a set of linked stories spanning 150 years.  Part I begins with ancestors who farmed the land near Edinburgh, Scotland, and eventually made their way to North America, and ends with Munro’s parents making a living in the fur trade.  The stories in Part II are more contemporary, and more personal, dealing with the life of a young woman (presumably based on Munro herself).

Because the stories are linked and chronological, with recurring characters, the book reads like a novel.  In fact, for the last third or so I treated it that way.  Rather than reading a few pages each night, I made this book my “primary read” which allowed me to get inside the characters and see connections between events in different stories.

I enjoyed this book and really, my only quibble is not with Munro but with the publisher, Vintage Books, for poor cover design.  My edition sports a woman (headless!) lying on a sandy beach.  There isn’t a single story that matches this image, nor do the stories depict the “lazy days of summer” implied by the cover design.

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In July I’m reading The Stories of Edith Wharton, Vol. 1. Watch for the next installment of Short & Sweet!

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Short and Sweet: The Means of Escape, by Penelope Fitzgerald

The May edition of Short & Sweet is coming to you earlier than usual.  If you’ve followed along, you’ll know I’ve worked my way through a pile of short stories, usually as bedtime reading.  This month I read The Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald.  Or rather, I read half of it.  I have no idea why I had this book on my shelves, seeing as I really disliked Fitzgerald’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Offshore.  I should have known better.

The Means of Escape is a mercifully short collection of ten stories.  I read half of them before throwing in the towel.  The title story, where a woman helps an escaped convict in hopes of running off with him, was the best of the bunch.  One story, The Prescription, was so indecipherable to me that my notes just say, “???”.  The last story I read, The Axe, began with promise.  It took the form of a letter written by a manager who had recently made a long-time employee redundant.  Clearly he felt the decision was unjust and had sympathy for the employee.  But it took a sudden turn into very strange territory, and that’s when I knew I was done with this book.

This book was just too full of “quirky” characters and bizarre situations.  These might work better in a long-form novel, but encountering a new set every ten pages or so was just too much for me.

(DNF)

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Next month I’ll be reading The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro. Watch for the next installment of Short & Sweet!

Short and Sweet: The Thing Around Your Neck, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Welcome to the April edition of Short & Sweet, my feature dedicated to short fiction.  This year I’ve worked my way through a pile of short stories, usually as bedtime reading.  This month I read The Thing Around Your Neck, by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  It’s been 5 years since I read her novels, and I needed an Adichie fix while waiting for her new book, Americanah, which will be released in the US in May.

This collection of twelve short stories begins in Nigeria, exploring contemporary life and the effects of the 1967 Biafran Civil War.  Later stories focus on immigration issues and life in the United States.  I was struck by Adichie’s ability to write a well-crafted and deep plot, with very real characters, all in 15-20 pages.  These stories hooked me within a few sentences — I really cared about the characters, to a degree that’s unusual for the short story form.  Some of the better stories included:

  • Imitation – A woman living in the US with her children sees her husband only once a year.  When she learns he is having an affair back home in Nigeria, she takes an important step to change the situation.
  • A Private Experience – A woman caught in a riot takes refuge in an abandoned shop and finds another woman there.  One is Igbo, the other Muslim, but they share a few hours of community and support each other through loss.
  • The Thing Around Your Neck – in this immigration story, a Nigerian woman’s relationship with a white man creates cultural tension.

Adichie is better known for her novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun; the latter won the Orange Prize (now Women’s Prize) for Fiction.  The Thing Around Your Neck demonstrates the broad range of her writing talent.

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Next month I’ll be reading The Means of Escape, by Penelope Fitzgerald. Watch for the next installment of Short & Sweet!

Short & Sweet: At the Owl Woman Saloon, by Tess Gallagher

Welcome to the March edition of Short & Sweet, my feature dedicated to short fiction.  This is my third month reading short stories, mostly at bedtime.  At this rate I can read a book a month, and mixing stories with full-length books works well for me. This month I read At the Owl Woman Saloon, which I ran out and bought after it was featured in Belletrista.

At the Owl Woman Saloon has 16 stories set primarily in the Northwestern United States.  Some deal with people who work in logging, a major regional industry, but themes of aging and widowhood a paramount.  Like most short story collections, some stories spoke to me in very direct ways, and stood out from the rest:

  • The Leper: this story recounts everyday events for a couple living in a seaside village.  Gallagher captures a moment in time without attempting to tie up loose ends.  The woman takes a phone call from a distraught friend.  Funeral flowers are mistakenly delivered to her home.  She watches horses swimming in the sea.  Small, ordinary and yet extraordinary occurrences all beautifully portrayed.
  • Coming and Going: Emily, recently widowed, is visited by a deputy Marshall looking for her husband regarding a legal dispute.  She directs him to where her husband has “relocated.”  I could feel her pain while also laughing out loud at her deception.
  • Mr Woodriff’s Neckties: A man observes his neighbors as one of them declines and eventually passes away.  A good deed brings a sense of calm.  I loved this story; it made me think about mortality and the importance of enjoying today because you never know what the future holds:

On Sundays I see her gathering these same roses, now that they’ve bloomed, to take to the cemetery. It makes me wonder if they both knew while they were planting them that this was out there in the future. Or maybe they were so involved with earth and root balls and whether the holes were deep enough that they didn’t trouble to think ahead, except that eventually there would be roses. Maybe their minds were mercifully clear of the future.  That’s what I hope, anyway.  (p. 148)

  • The Woman who Prayed:  the book ends with this powerful story of a woman who discovers her husband is having an affair, and handles the situation in a unique and admirable way.

Gallagher is first a poet, which is clear in her beautiful prose.  More than characters or plot, her stories are best appreciated by letting her words, imagery and metaphor wash over you.

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Next month I’ll be reading The Thing Around your Neck, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Watch for the next installment of  Short & Sweet!

Short & Sweet: Mrs Somebody, Somebody by Tracy Winn

Welcome to the February edition of Short & Sweet, my feature dedicated to short fiction.  This is the second month of a personal project to work my way through at least nine volumes of short stories residing on my nightstand.  I’ve found the short stories to be perfect bedtime reading. Sometimes I can read a story in a single sitting, sometimes I need two bedtime reading sessions.  And before I know it, I’ve made my way through an entire book!  Now it’s become a habit.

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Mrs Somebody Somebody reminded me how much I love connected stories.  Set in Lowell, Massachusetts, the book begins with the arrival of unions in Lowell’s textile mills.  Several years later, industry has died and the town’s demographics have changed dramatically. Characters wander through multiple stories.  Children reappear as adults.  A girl who featured prominently in one story is identified later only by the color of her shoes.  But the reader knows who she is.   These are gritty stories of life’s hardships: a man returns from the war and has trouble reconnecting with his wife.  Over the course of three stories, a little boy grows into a troubled man.  Immigrants struggle to make their way in American society.  The first and last stories are both about Stella, a mill worker turned hairdresser.  They wrap around the entire collection, providing a surprising but somehow fitting conclusion.

Mrs Somebody Somebody is an impressive debut effort.  If you liked Olive Kitteridge, you’ll like this book (and if you haven’t read Olive yet, then read that one too!)

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Next month I’ll be reading At the Owl Woman Saloon, a collection by Tess Gallagher.  I ran out and bought this after it was featured in Belletrista.  More in the next installment of  Short & Sweet!

Short & Sweet: The Progress of Love, by Alice Munro

Welcome to Short & Sweet, my new feature dedicated to short fiction.  In my 2013 Reading Resolutions, I launched a personal project to work my way through at least nine volumes of short stories that currently reside on my nightstand.  In Short & Sweet I will bring you reviews, commentary on individual stories, and other chatter related to short fiction.

Faced with a huge backlog of short stories on my TBR pile, I realized the only way I could work through them is by setting aside dedicated reading time — and why not bedtime?  I have fond memories of bedtime reading as a child, and with my own children.  So why not treat myself now?  And so far, bedtime is proving to be ideal for reading stories.  While I don’t often get through a complete story before nodding off,  seldom does a story take more than a couple of nights.

The first collection I tackled was Alice Munro’s The Progress of Love.  Munro writes almost exclusively short fiction, and I’ve enjoyed some of her more recent efforts (most notably Runaway, which I reviewed here).  The Progress of Love was published in 1986, one could say midway through a career that is still going strong.   There are eleven stories, all dealing with relationships, especially marriage.   Unfortunately, none really stood out.  I kept waiting for one that would take my breath away, or give me something to think about until my next bedtime reading session.  No dice.  Most of the stories seemed like mere retelling of events, and lacked emotional tension and impact.  I can’t even muster up a proper review.  Sorry!

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Despite this slow and unsatisfying start, I’m ready for more!  Next up is Tracy Winn’s Mrs Somebody Somebody, which comes highly recommended by several LibraryThing friends.  Watch for more about this collection in the next Short & Sweet!