Short Stories All the Time

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... a few of my thoughts about 900, mostly contemporary, short stories.
Showing posts with label Munro. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Munro. Show all posts

28 May, 2017

Alice Munro, "Amundsen"

This first person point of view story tells of Vivien Hyde's experience as a teacher at tuberculosis sanitarium. Dr. Fox tells her he plans to marry her and then he doesn't. He's bossy, domineering and misogynistic. "He was evidently the sort of person who posed questions that were traps for you to fall into." "I did as he told me..." All the while, Vivien hoped that she "might turn out to be a woman with a man." The story takes place during WWII between Toronto and Huntsville. There's traveling by train in this story as there was in "To Reach Japan."

"Amundsen" was first published in The New Yorker  and then included in Munro's collection, Dear Life. 

Alice Munro, "To Reach Japan"

"To Reach Japan" was first published in Narrative Magazine and then it was included in Munro's collection Dear Life published in 2012. Link to the New York Times review.

Greta and Peter have a young daughter, Katy. They've been married about ten years and Peter has to go far north to Lund for work and coincidentally an old friend wants Greta to housesit in Toronto. Greta and Katy take the long train trip from Vancouver and along the way Greta has sex with Greg, a guy on the train. Katy goes missing for a bit and a terrified Greta admits that she will have to give up even more of herself to be there and take proper care of Katy. "A sin. She had given her attention elsewhere. Determined, foraging attention to something other than the child. A sin."

Before the trip, Greta had gone to a party celebrating the writings, and her poems, in a journal and had met a man, Harris Bennett, who she ended up obsessing over for the next several months or so. She wrote him a letter telling him that she'd be in his hometown.

As in all of Alice Munro's stories, many themes can be pulled from the story. She embeds them so deftly that with each reading a new theme presents itself. There's the guilt women feel when they have a desire for something other and beyond husband and children. There's the inability to know what other people are like and what they think by just looking at them. "But how could you spot that for sure in anybody?" There's the idea that babies can be a dangerous liability. What obsessions can do to damage a person's life. There's the idea that some people are never really themselves, open and honestly and in the moment. "Greta thought, That's what I do. I save myself up, out the time. Careful with Katy, careful with Peter." She even touches on religion, "They did parables from the Bible but also present day, about the awful things that happened to people who didn't believe what they did." Munro also touches on the theme that sometimes a person can be scared straight, so to speak. But as always, all of these themes and ideas and topics are smoothly integrated into the story and never jump out as morals. And, to top it off, the ending can go two different directions and the reader is left wondering and worrying about Greta, Katy, and Peter.

14 January, 2017

Alice Munro, "Fits"

Peg "self-contained" according to her second husband. She has two sons from her first marriage; it's Robert's first. They do not know very well the two sixty-somethings who live next door. There's a horrible crime; Peg found the bodies. However, she didn't tell anyone else after she reported it to the police. This leads the townspeople and her family members to question her and feel as if they don't know her or that she's not really their friend. "Nobody would want not to know. To go out into the street, not knowing. To go around doing all the usual daily things, not knowing."

Munro spins a story so that we feel we know the townspeople and the respect or lack thereof they have for each other. If someone asks Peg about what she saw, she'll answer, but she's opaque and to the point. She seems unmoved by the horrible killing. She drove to the police station, leaving without telling her son, Kevin, at home what had just been discovered next door. He was not happy about that and questioned her about it but received no answer from her.

It is difficult to winnow a short story down to its elements. The good ones are always more than just their plots. For me, the themes are how close one must get to something that is difficult to discern or believe, either a physical thing or an emotional thing. Arguments, discussions, seeing, and finding in the story show how close one must get to, how near one must be, to see what's really going on. Also, the human desire to know what's going on. No one likes to be left out in the cold, especially if a wife or mother or friend has experienced something tremendously life changing and she doesn't even mention it. That always feels like a betrayal.

"Fits" was first published in 1986 in Grand Street.

11 January, 2017

Alice Munro, "White Dump"

"White Dump" was first published in The New Yorker in 1986. It's divided into about fifteen sections with some being in present tense and some in past tense. Denise, her stepmother, Magda, and her father, Laurence are at the family's vacation home which has been remodeled. It's a family saga that covers many years, from 1969 to maybe 1986-ish. On the one hand, it's about a married woman who was never really happy and had many love affairs and divorced. But, actually it's more about, not the affairs themselves, or her family, two children, husband, and mother-in-law, but about how she was going through life just performing what was expected, marking expectations off her list and moving on to the next item, expectation. "Here she sat and saw her day as hurdles got through." And, "Not much to her credit to go through her life thinking, Well, good, now that's over, that's over. What was she looking forward to, what bonus was she hoping to get, when this, and this, and this, was over?" So, for me, maybe the theme is expectations and how waiting for them and trying to fulfill others' expectations cannot lead to anything good.

09 January, 2017

Alice Munro, "Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You"

The story is divided into fifteen sections and runs about twenty pages. The period of time covered is circa 1910 to sometime well after 1942. The story is of a sister, Et, and her prettier sister, Char. It's told from Et's third-person POV. Their little brother, Sandy, had drowned at about age seven. Mother never recovered and is pretty much absent in the story. Et never married and Char had one miscarriage and never was pregnant again. Char's husband, Arthur, was smitten with Char but close friends with Et. The boy whose parents ran the hotel, Blaikie, was in and out of the story. During teenage years, Char and Blaikie were involved. Blaikie went away, married twice, returned and spent time with Et, Char, and Arthur. Char was bulimic and no one ever knew except Et. After Blaikie went away and married the ventriloquist, Char attempted suicide by drinking laundry blueing which she thought was poisonous. This was a secret that Et never told anyone, but all through the years, she'd thought about telling Arthur, Char's husband. Also, Et found rat poison that she assumed Char planned on using at some point. The story structure goes back and forth in time and the events and relationships and timing are quite involved. However, the basic theme of the story, for me, is that people have predilections and weaknesses and secret ideas or plans and there's not much to be done about them. One can meddle and tattle but what good comes of that. People believe what they want to believe about people they love or are infatuated with.

"Sometimes Et had it on the tip of her tongue to say to Arthur, 'There's something I've been meaning to tell you,' She didn't believe she was going to let him die without knowing. He shouldn't be allowed."

"Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You" was first published in 1974.

08 March, 2015

Alice Munro, "Labor Day Dinner"

First published in the New Yorker in 1981, this 3rd-person shifting POV story is about Roberta and her daughters. Roberta has been with George for nearly one year and they along with Roberta's daughters, Angela, 17, and Eva, 12, go to Valerie's for Labor Day Dinner. Ruth and David, Valerie's adult children join along with David's new girlfriend, Kimberly. We learn that Roberta is a weak woman and that George is mean spirited towards her aging body. Roberta had been passive aggressive in her relationship with her ex-husband, Andrew, and is now realizing that George is behaving the same way, "He wants to be rid of me, then he doesn't, then he does..."

The story takes place in Toronto, Canada, and is told in present tense. There is an almost otherworldly  final scene and we are not sure how, if at all, it will affect George or Roberta. The story has many complex characterizations that are richly drawn in a way not many writers are capable. About Angela, "She will go to great trouble to flaunt it, as she does now, and then will redden and frown and look stubbornly affronted when somebody tells her she looks like a goddess."

About Roberta, "Now the payment is due, and what for? For vanity. Hardly even for that. Just for having those pleasing surfaces once, and letting them speak for you; just for allowing an arrangement of hair and shoulders and breasts to have its effect. You don't stop in time, don't know what to do instead; you lay yourself open to humiliation."

A theme, one of many that could be pricked out of the text, is that of lying to oneself. "How to keep oneself from lying I see as the main problem everywhere." And this is from the seventeen year old.

Roberta knows that by being with George she is opening the way for her daughters to be abused, not physically, but emotionally. "It seems to her that she has instructed the, by example, that he is to be accommodated, his silences respected, his joking responded to. What if he should turn, within this safety, and deal them a memorable blow? If it happened, it would be she who would have betrayed them into it."

"Labor Day Dinner" is a complex study in human behavior and relationships. I've just touched on a couple of details. Read it again and again for this is a story that will never be completely consumed. And, that is what makes it great and timeless.

01 March, 2015

Alice Munro, "Meneseteung"

First published in the New Yorker magazine in 1988 and then included in Munro's 1996 collection, Selected Stories and her 1990 collection, Friend of My Youth. The story is divided into six sections each beginning with a quatrain. Also included are some articles from the local newspaper, Vidette.

The first-person narrator is telling the story, her imagined story with many details, of a poet from the nineteenth-century. The narrator reads the poems, reads the local newspapers and looks at old photographs to build Almeda's life. The story is about writing about writing, about research, about gossip, about surmising and imagination. It's a story within a story in the way that we are in the mind of the narrator as she creates the life of the poet. The poet, Almeda, never married, lost her two siblings young, her mother had mental issues before she died; she took care of her father and remained living in their home. Almeda begins to hope for a relationship with the new guy, Jarvis, next door. All of this imagined by the narrator. In this way, we learn about how the narrator interprets the poems and newspapers about Almeda.

Favorite sentences:
"As soon as a man and woman of almost any age are alone together within four walls, it is assumed that anything may happen. Spontaneous combustion, instant fornication, an attack of passion."

"The countryside that she has written about in her poems actually takes diligence and determination to see. Some things must be disregarded."

"He believes that her troubles would clear up if she got married. He believes this in spite of the fact that most of his nerve medicine is prescribed for married women."

25 February, 2015

Alice Munro, "Postcard"

Helen Louise has allowed Clare to have sex with her for years while holding him to little honesty or commitment. When he marries unexpectedly, she's hurt and shocked and finally realizes that most of the town must have known what she kept herself blind to. Some themes touched on are hypocrisy, double standards, hindsight is 20/20, lacking self-respect invites abuse and blaming the victim.

I enjoyed the story a lot, especially the scene where Helen parks outside Clare's house at midnight and honks the car horn and screams until the neighbors are looking out their windows and Clare comes down to the car. He tells her to go home and give his love to her mother! Gosh, he's got lots of nerve after using Helen for sex for years and then not a word about not marrying her and, even worse, marrying someone else days after being with Helen. He's a spoiled brat who barely works and uses people as though they are at his disposal.

One of my favorite sentences. "And who knows, maybe I'd be the same if Don Stonehouse showed up like he threatens to and raped her and left her a mass of purple bruises--his words, not mine--from head to foot. I'd be as sorry as could be, and anything I could do to help her, I'd do, but I might think, Well, awful as it is it's something happening and it's been a long winter."

Another of my favorite sentences. "And if I had really thought about what he was like, Clare MacQuarrie, if I had paid attention, I would have started out a lot differently with him and maybe felt differently too, though heaven knows if that would have mattered, in the end."

The story is divided into eight sections, told in first-person POV, is about 17 pages long and in past tense. It takes place in Jubilee, Canada, I assume. "Postcard" was first published in Tamarack Review in 1968. Then included in a 1996 volume of selected stories and then reprinted.

23 February, 2015

Alice Munro, "The Beggar Maid"

First published in 1977 in the New Yorker, the story is about Rose and her eventual marriage to a rich guy, Patrick. Much has been written about this story in the intervening years. So just a few quick notes for myself. 34 pages long, close limited 3rd person point of view except in a few places where it feels to shift a bit, past tense, and takes place in Canada. The story is told some nine years after Rose's divorce after their ten year marriage.

 A retelling of the legend of King Cophetua and his desire to marry a beggar maid. Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote a poem about the legend as well, "This beggar maid shall be my queen!"

Themes: class and economic standing / love versus infatuation / wanting while not-wanting / appearances and accepted behaviors, feminism / self-hatred /

"He was the most vulnerable person Rose had ever known; he made himself so, didn't know anything about protecting himself."

"Poverty was not just wretchedness, as Dr. Henshawe seemed to think, it was not just deprivation. It meant having those ugly tube lights and being proud of them."

"They had never had to defer and polish themselves and win favor in the world, they never would have to, and that was because they were rich."

"She could not realize what a coup she had made because it would have been a coup for her if the butcher's son had fallen for her, or the jeweller's; people would say she had done well."

"It left out her own appetite, which was not for wealth but for worship." "She had never known before how some places could choke you off, choke off your very life. She had not known this in spite of a number of very unfriendly places she had been in."

"She cringed afterward, thinking of these efforts, the pretense of ease and gaiety, as cheap and imitative as her clothes." 

"She didn't like giving up being envied; the experience was so new to her."

"He made a face at her. It was a truly hateful, savagely warning, face; infantile, self-indulgent, yet calculated; it was a timed explosion of disgust and loathing. It was hard to believe. But she saw it."

31 August, 2014

Alice Munro, "Nettles"

The story opens with a memory in 1979. The narrator tells us that she's been on the hunt for a particular house. She did not find the house but she found the golf course. Also included is a great image of a man standing at the kitchen counter making a ketchup sandwich. Lots of red and a touch of blood will reappear throughout the story. We learn that the narrator has a second husband and she seems dissatisfied, "I have an idly persistent way." The opening scene of the story is in the present perfect tense but the bulk of the story is a memory so is written in past tense.

 Next we see the narrator as an eight year old with a temporary friend who is the son of the well digger who has come to the family farm or ranch to re-drill their dry well. Mike, named after his father, the well digger, hangs out with the narrator. My favorite part of this section is the Billy Goat Gruff-like bridge scene. Now that I think about it, the narrator does have a quality about her that is looking for the next bigger and fatter goat, i.e., man. She leaves her husband and two teenage daughters for not a lot of concrete reasons. During the "game of war" played with Mike and the "town children" she imagines as a sort of courtship. This is a behavior she'll continue into adulthood.

The drilling serves as a metaphor for memory and digging into old memories, dredging up the past, so to speak.

One morning Mike does not come to the farm with his father and the narrator is surprised at her lack of realizing just what it was going to mean to her that Mike disappears from her life. "Why did I not understand what was happening?...I must have known that Mike would be leaving. Just as I knew that Ranger was old and that he would soon die. Future absence I accepted--it was just that I had no idea, till Mike disappeared, of what absence could be like."

Then the story moves to adulthood and the narrator has called her friend, Sunny, and has been invited to visit her and her family in Uxbridge. Sunny is fun and open with three kids and a husband. They are all set to enjoy a weekend at Sunny and her husband Johnston's summer house. Another friend whose wife and kids are in Ireland is going to be there as well. Mike. Yes, Mike from the narrator's childhood. They immediately recognize each other.

Also, in the meantime, we learn that the narrator's two daughters have visited and left early to return to the father's house.

What was supposed to be a group weekend turned into the narrator and Mike going to the golf course, getting caught in a storm, running into a poison ivy type of plant that gave them blisters and welts. Mike confesses to the narrator that he accidentally killed his young son, Brian, three years old. She realizes that he is a man who understands "rock bottom" and that either people were more closely bound by tragedy or they were torn apart.

They returned to the house, received some care and kindnesses from Sunny and her family. Eventually the friendship with Sunny "dwindled" and the narrator found out that what she had thought were nettles that had caused the welts at the golf course was really joe-pye weed, "more insignificant plants." So in life there are always events and things that are more and less significant.

29 June, 2014

Alice Munro, "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage"

This famous short story by Munro was first published in 2001 in her collection of the same title. Johanna Parry, an unattractive woman with a life of hardships and unreturned love, decides to take some initiative and when coupled with two teenage girls' practical jokes, Johanna takes a long trip to marry a man who is not expecting her.

Once again, Alice Munro has written an engaging a longish short story filled with close observations running the gamut of human frailties and foibles, hidden strengths and courage
. For me, the themes are "the twist of consequence" and "antics of her former self should not be connected with her present self..."

"Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage" has been made into a movie and was released in April 2014.

07 April, 2014

Alice Munro, "Train"

Jackson, young solider, jumped off the train twenty miles before his destination. He decided to stay on at Belle's dilapidated farm. He fixed it up and many years later took Belle to Toronto for much needed
surgery. Again, he moves on to the next opportunity that presents itself.

The story is divided into about fifteen sections and covers some forty years. Over the course of the story we find out that both Jackson and Belle had traumatic childhoods. A terrific story.

"Train" was first published in Harper's Magazine, included in Munro's collection, Dear Life, and then included in the 2013 anthology, Best American Short Stories.

07 December, 2013

Alice Munro, "Leaving Maverley"

First published in The New Yorker, "Leaving Maverley" has a cast of characters from Leah, the conservative religious girl who goes to work as a ticket cashier at a movie house in a tiny town in Ontario, Canada. Her father will only allow it if
she not only does not see the movies, she cannot hear them either. Ray marries Isabel after her divorce. Ray had been in the Air Force and barely escaped being killed with the rest of his original crew. Isabel suffers from pericarditis and her husband is a night time policeman who is in charge of seeing Leah home on Saturday nights. Of course, Leah eventually runs off and marries the preacher's saxophone playing son and has two kids for whom she loses custody. Isabel's health declines. The story seems to be about losing and leaving, something that happens to everyone eventually and is an ongoing process from birth. Leaving childhood, leaving home, leaving spouses, leaving the church, leaving--sometimes forcibly--children, and the ultimate leaving, death. However, at one point Ray could not leave, "He was no longer waiting for her to open her eyes. It was just that he could not go off and leave her there alone."

 The story begins with an unnamed girl leaving her job because "--she had been married for half a year, and in those days you were supposed to get out of the public eye before you began to show." Leah takes her job and the story ends with Ray trying to remember Leah's name.

Morgan Holly, the movie house owner and projectionist, was more comfortable watching stories, "--he preferred to sit in his upstairs cubbyhole managing the story on the screen." Leah who had gone missing, married the preacher's son which Isabel "thought was a great story." "Leaving Maverley" is a story about stories, Bible and movies.

"Leaving Maverley" is included in the 2013 issue of The O'Henry Prize Stories. It is twenty pages long and told in a shifting 3rd person POV.

17 November, 2013

Stephanie Coyne DeGhett, "Icons of the Everyday: Postcard Sleight of Hand and the Short Story"

Postcards, one-sided narratives or "open-faced narratives," have been used in short fiction pieces by many writers and in this essay, Stephanie Coyne DeGhett discusses six authors and stories: Hempel's "The New Lodger," Kaplan's "Love, Your Only Mother," Paley's "A Woman, Young and Old," Munro's "Postcard," Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain," and Millhauser's "The Sepia Postcard."

My favorite point that DeGhett makes is that,

"Of its readers, it (a postcard) demands an ability to write the story you are reading yourself, to fill in the gaps between the frame story and the small disclosures of the postcard, to see the disjunctions of meaning and layers of intention."

To me that is what a short story does and so a postcard is a short story of a short story, so to speak. This is an interesting article and one to hang on to for re-reading. There are many thoughts about short fiction that I want to revisit.

"…the postcard serves economy in the fiction that appropriates it by virtue of the associations it carries with it--travel, separation, impermanence--and its potential to subvert those associations…"

"Cryptic but not uncommunicative, the story shares a good deal in common with the nature of the picture postcard."

DeGhett's essay is in the December 2013 issue of The Writer's Chronicle.

02 June, 2012

Alice Munro, "Dolly"

If Alice Munro had not decided to be a writer she could have been a psychologist. She understands people so that her stories effortlessly expose our tiniest foibles with precision. "Dolly" is in the current, Volume 13, Number 4, issue of Tin House. An elderly couple, she 71, he 83, have been discussing their planned deaths and decide that further discussions can wait until the wife is 75! Then a woman selling make-up appears and sets into motion what one would expect of a much younger and insecure couple. Perfect.

Get a copy of Tin House soon! The essay, "Cooking with Friends" is a fun read as is "Notes on the Merritt Parkway Novel." And, I can't wait to read the Jess Row story. Gosh, what a treasure of an issue. Amy Hempl as well.

"I paid for some lotion that would restore my youth and she promised to drop it off next time she was around."

"A snatching at enjoyment in whatever situation. Now that she had her cigarette, she appreciated everything."

"It had been the off-season, cheaper--they were reduced to taking afternoon sinners, and I had been one of them."

Tin House

03 July, 2011

Richard Bausch, "Ancient History"

I've read this story before but read it again today and it is a good example of something Charles E. May mentions in his recent blog entry reviewing an Alice Munro story, "Gravel." He states,

"One of the first things I look for when reading a story is the motivation for its telling....The problem is that we usually remember the past in isolated moments—events that happen, but we have difficulty remembering what causally connects them, what relationship one event has to another....we may remember what happened, but not how it happened, what caused it. One tells a story in order to try to understand the links, the motivation, the causes."

"Ancient History" includes a thirty-six year old woman and her eighteen year old son. Lawrence, the husband and father died six months earlier. We watch Charles' uneasiness, sadness, and bewilderment at his father's sudden and unexpected death which is natural and to be expected. However, as the story moves along, Charles appears to be depressed. The reader accompanies Charles to the realization that his father was going to leave them anyway. The marriage had fallen apart, for reasons not known to the reader but Charles saw the differences in his parents' behaviors. So, not only does Charles have to try to deal with the sudden death of his still young father but also with the knowledge that the family was disintegrating anyway.

Every story I read by Richard Bausch is a masterpiece and I am truly amazed at the perception and ease with which Bausch captures the nuances of emotion. 

"Ancient History" takes place in Washington D.C. in about 1979. It is written in third-person POV and past tense and is 18 pages long.

17 August, 2010

Alice Munro, "Child's Play"

"Child's Play" was originally published in Harper's Magazine and subsequently in The Best American Short Stories, 2008. It is the story, told by Marlene, of a time when the narrator was young and met a friend at summer camp where Verna, a special-needs girl, attended for the final weekend. The story is haunting and chilling in the way regular, run-of-the-mill, folks are capable of the ultimate cruelty.

19 June, 2010

Alice Munro, "Passion"

Alice Munro's short story, "Passion," is about allowing others to make all of the decisions, as Grace goes along for the ride, so to speak. She's a poor girl who loves learning. A rich boy, Maury, falls in love with her as does his mother. However, Grace allows an alcoholic family member, Neil, to take her on a drive. Mrs. Travers gives a directive to Grace to keep Neil from drinking which she does not. All along, the only time Grace has taken charge of her life was in her early education but everyone told her how it was crazy and not useful and after that, Grace just seemed to be "along for the ride." However, we do know that in the intervening forty years or so, Grace has traveled to Australia and turned into quite an "engaging talker." Bu we never learn exactly what, how, or when, Grace took her life into her own hands. The story is about 10,000 words and written in a close 3rd person POV. This story is worthy of many reads and is included in her collection, Runaway.

I want to include this passage from Charles E. May's presentation at the 11th International Short Story Conference in Toronto, June 17, 2010. He was gracious to include a copy of his lecture, The Short Story's Way of Meaning: Alice Munro's "Passion," on his blog. "The second half of the story begins on Canada's Day of Thanksgiving for which the literal translation of the French, in typical Romance fashion, is "Day of the Action of Grace." As soon as Grace drives away with Neil, she begins a transfigurative journey into a fictive "undiscovered country."

27 December, 2009

Alice Munro, "Dimensions"

Read Alice Munro's short story, "Dimensions" included in her collection, Too Much Happiness. It is about a controlling and abusive husband who murders their 3 young children and the wife's life afterwards.

N.B. In the online version of The New Yorker, the title is singular but in her collection, it is plural.

23 December, 2009

Alice Munro, "Fiction"

Read Alice Munro's short story, "Fiction" which is included in her book, Too Much Happiness. It is about a woman, remarried, first a music teacher then a professional cellist crosses paths with the, now young woman and writer, child of her first husband's subsequient wife.

In this story about fiction writing, Munro weaves considerations about fiction writing and short stories in particular into a complex story of family and change.