The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro

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Those of you who follow such things will know that the Canadian author Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year. If you have not heard of her before, it might be because Alice Munro is not a novelist; rather she is a prolific short story writer, who was credited as being a “master of the contemporary short story”. Anyway, the publicity was enough to make me curious to read one of short story collections, and I chose The Love of a Good Woman.

The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro

The collection comprises eight longish stories, ranging from thirty to seventy-five pages in length. The stories are all set in Canada, with most being in Munro’s own home town of Ontario. Most stories have a central female character, and explore her relationship with her mother, husband, or daughter.

The stories focus on the lives of ordinary people and explore the nuances of their relationships, their passions, and their failings. Despite the collection’s title, there is little romanticism here. The characters are all fairly limited in their own ways, there is as much miscommunication as there is connection, and the outcomes are rarely what the characters had hoped for.

Unusually, many of the stories cover long periods of time, with Munro sometimes skipping backwards and forwards within the same story. This is, of course, a technique not uncommon amongst novelists, but I do not remember seeing it employed by a short story writer before.

As a slight aside, I have to say that I think that Munro chooses some great titles for both her stories and for her collections. The following are just some of her short story collections, and I love the titles of each:

  • Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974)
  • Who Do You Think You Are? (1978)
  • The Progress of Love (1986)
  • Open Secrets (1994)
  • The Love of a Good Woman (1998)
  • Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001)
  • Too Much Happiness (2009)
  • Dear Life (2012)

The two stand-out stories in The Love of a Good Woman to my mind, are the title one and The Children Stay. I found both to be captivating and extremely well told. I would say that the other stories were good rather than great. However, it was good to read some short stories once more, even though I did not love this collection quite as much as some of the other short story collections I have read. (If you are interested in finding out about other short story collections that I recommend, use the Short story collection category.)

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All Families are Psychotic – Douglas Coupland

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This is another post-modern tale from Douglas Coupland, the man who gave us the term “Gerneration X” (the title of his début novel back in 1991). This one is peopled with a characteristically dysfunctional crew, comprised predominantly by the Drummond family.

I have to say that the quality of writing is not too high here, but what the novel lacks in subtlety and grace, it certainly tries to make up for in plot and pace. This book must have one of the craziest plots I’ve ever read. In the course of under three hundred pages we meet with family feuds, adultery, smuggling, HIV, cancer, black market baby sales, armed robbery, car crashes, kidnapping, death at Walt Disney World, oh, and space travel. Yes, that’s right, the one successful member of the family, Sarah, has, against all odds, become a NASA astronaut, who just happens to be floating around up in space whilst much of the action mentioned above takes place.

All Families are Psychotic by Douglas Coupland

In a ridiculously chaotic story where events seem to spiral ever further out of control, I kept hoping for a good old Coupland moment of truth; a seemingly small, isolated personal epiphany with broad implications which would offer some hope to an otherwise lost and sorry set of circumstances. Sadly, I still feel like I am waiting. Okay, that might be slightly unfair, as there is a turning point of sorts at the end of the novel, however I didn’t find it nearly as convincing or powerful as I would have liked. I think part of the problem was that by the time I had reached the end of the novel, so many crazy events had taken place that they nothing really registered very deeply at all.

I know that Coupland’s talent and style is to deliver bold, brash works exploring modern life in new ways, but I don’t think that All Families Are Psychotic quite hit the mark. If you’re interested in reading any Douglas Coupland work, my advice would be to check out one of the following: Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, Life After God or Hey Nostradamus!

Surfacing – Margaret Atwood

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After thoroughly enjoying Margaret Atwood’s brilliant novel, The Blind Assassin, I thought I would try another of her works, and found this on the bookshelves. It is one of her earlier novels (her second, in fact) written in 1972. The story follows a nameless woman and her three friends as she returns to a remote area of Canada where she grew up, in search for her missing father. As the four of them spend more time away from the familiar routines of city life, the unknown habitat they find themselves in – with all of its vast space and silence – begins to put a strain on their relationships.

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

Whilst Atwood certainly creates a powerful atmosphere in the novel, especially in her use of the physical surroundings of the action, I wasn’t so convinced by the characters. Much of the novel is presented as an inner monologue from the main character, with little depth given to the other characters. Also I did find Atwood’s explorations into national and gender identities a little heavy-handed.

So, I wouldn’t particularly recommend this book, however, I am still keen to read some of her other works.

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

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I managed to crack through this 600+ page novel in just under a week; this was largely due to the extra reading time afforded me by having to catch the train to London and back each day last week, but  I also must admit that this is a gripping and brilliant read.

When you’re young, you think everything you do is disposable. You move from now to now, crumpling time up in your hands, tossing it away. You’re your own speeding car. You think you can get rid of things, and people too—leave them behind. You don’t yet know about the habit they have, of coming back.

The Blind Assassin is my first Margret Atwood novel (though I do have The Handmaid’s Tale and Surfacing temptingly sat on my shelves…). It is a difficult book to describe – a real mixture of different genres all bundled up together, each strand full of mystery and intrigue.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

At first glance the novel appears to be the life story of Iris Griffin, the grand-daughter of a well known and once prominent industrialist. We learn about Iris’s family, her early years growing up with her sister, Laura, in their father’s large house, whilst he was off running the family button factory. Later we learn of the early death of their mother and its impact on the two girls, and of the decline in fortunes of the button business.  We then follow the course of Iris’s life as she gets older, covering her marriage of convenience to the newly-rich Richard Griffen, her entrance into high society, the birth of her daughter, separation and old age.

Interspersed with all of this there are newspaper cuttings, detailing various significant events of the time, often linked in some way to Iris’s family, yet also encompassing a fair slice of twentieth century history in the process. Plus there is the intense unfolding love story between a young political radical and an unnamed wealthy lady. This section itself includes the unfolding of a story which Alex, the young socialist, tells in instalments to his love, about an alien race on a distant planet, where blind assassins roam around, hired to kill off other citizens.

If my potted summary is a little disjointed, Margaret Atwood’s novel certainly isn’t. The book unfolds brilliantly, offering the reader more pieces of the jigsaw as it goes along; with later events often enabling earlier ones to be re-interpreted, often poignantly. A really beautiful piece of writing.

Funny Boy – Shyam Selvadurai

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Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai

The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

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Life of Pi – Yann Martel

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Life of Pi

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