Dear Life by Alice Munro

Dear Life cover

Dear Life: Stories
by
Alice Munro

Rating:

Dear Life is the first collection of Alice Munro’s short fiction I have read. I think I need to read more of her work to fully understand her style and themes and to write an intelligent review. But I very much enjoyed reading this collection of ten short stories and four essays. Since so many people have studied and written about Munro, all I can do here is express my own ideas and opinions and tell you how these stories made me feel.

They made me uncomfortable. Her characters do uncomfortable things. They find themselves in strange relationships and situations. They relate to each other in a kind of disconnected state, and then retreat internally and think uncomfortable thoughts. These stories often end with a surprise or a looming unknown. Sometimes there’s a sliver of hope, shown by a character’s brief turn of the head, expression or word. Munro writes about the hard times of the past in Canada, The Great Depression, World War II, and the 1960s and 70s. These are not upbeat stories, but they aren’t hopeless. For me, I got a sense of people taking whatever happiness or satisfaction was available, but more or less accepting whatever came their way. The characters all seem passive to me and although travel seems to be a common theme, her characters are also aimless in spirit and ambition.

The ten short stories have interesting titles, revealing very little:

“To Reach Japan”
“Amudsen”
“Leaving Maverly”
“Gravel”
“Haven”
“Pride”
“Corrie”
“Train”
“In Sight of the Lake”
“Dolly”

At the end of these stories, Munro writes that the four remaining pieces are somewhat autobiographical.   They read like a description of how things once were for the author and are more loosely structured stories. They are a little bit shocking.

“The Eye”
“Night”
“Voices”
“Dear Life”

I liked “Haven” and “In Sight of the Lake” the best because the plots in these stories make you want to know what the characters will do in their predicaments. In “Haven,” the narrator is a thirteen-year-old girl who is living with her aunt and uncle. Her uncle is controlling and disapproving and it’s satisfying to see him thrust into an uncomfortable situation. Munro writes a touching story about dementia in “In Sight of the Lake.” You feel anxiety watching Nancy try to find her doctor’s office, you feel sad when she takes the wrong turns, but you sympathize with Nancy and hope she will find her way.

One of Munro’s stories, “Dolly” is relevant to this week’s news about right-to-die laws. It opens with the narrator telling us, “That fall there had been some discussion of death. Our deaths. Frank being eighty-three years old and myself seventy-one at the time.” They had discussed ending their lives, “Gone while the going was good,” she says. She’s not totally on board and this is what strikes me as an extremely relevant point, “I said that the only thing that bothered me, a little, was the way there was an assumption that nothing more was going to happen in our lives. Nothing of importance to us, nothing to be managed.” And of course, much more does happen.

Some of Munro’s other common themes are religion, marriage, relationships, being different, hardship and death. What I liked best about these stories is how her characters surprise you with important truths. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

  • In “To Reach Japan,” young Katie reacts to her mother meeting up with Harris at the train station: “(Katie) didn’t try to escape. She just stood waiting for whatever had to come next.”
  • When Ray leaves the hospital after his wife’s death in “Leaving Maverly,” he’s confronted by the idea of moving forward, “And before long he found himself outside pretending that he had as ordinary and good a reason as anybody else to put one foot ahead of the other.”
  • The least likable character in “Gravel” is Neal, yet what he says is the most true to his character and represents a distinct philosophy: “The thing is to be happy…Accept everything and then tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you’re just there, going along easy in the world.”
  • In “Pride,” the narrator has chosen a lonely life, because of his facial deformity. But as an older man who sees the war’s impact on the people around him, he realizes, “And I thought then, just living long enough wipes out the problems…”
  • I also liked the observation at the end of “Corrie,” a great story about adultery and blackmail, when Corrie understands what her relationship with Howard has really been: “There’s always one morning when you realize that the birds have all gone.”

Maybe it’s better to start at the beginning with Alice Munro. I’m just jumping on, but I’m going to keep on reading!

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“This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” by Sherman Alexie

“This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”
by
Sherman Alexie

Rating:

I enjoyed this short story about Victor, a Native American on a reservation in Spokane, Washington. His father, long gone from their reservation, has died and Victor must travel to Phoenix to settle the family affairs.

Unemployed and with no money, Victor turns to the tribal council. When that isn’t enough, he accepts an offer from Thomas Builds-the-Fire. Thomas is the boy he once beat up and the man he has ignored for years. Thomas, a lonely soul, tells his stories to anyone who will listen. Like all things, his offer to Victor has a condition. Victor must let Thomas go along on the trip.

As they travel, we learn about a promise Thomas once made to Victor’s father and we grow to understand this man who sometimes speaks in a strange and prophetic way. It’s a story that puts you in a somber mood, with small pieces of humor that make you smile in a grim kind of way. It finishes on an unsettled note, just the way you might expect. For Alexie brings together two unlikely people for a brief time. They share memories, honor their heritage, and then part ways with a private agreement. Is it enough? It’s probably all Victor can manage and the rest of the burden is carried quietly by Thomas.

“This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” was first published in Esquire in 1994.

Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexis is a poet, writer of fiction, and a filmmaker. A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, he grew up in Wellpinit, Washington. His writing reflects his experiences growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He has received many awards, including the National Book Award for the Young Adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and the PEN/Faulkner Award for War Dances. His latest book is Blasphemy, a collection of fifteen classic and fifteen new stories.

You can learn more about Sherman Alexie at these websites:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/sherman-alexie
http://fallsapart.com/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherman_Alexie

Here is a partial list of Alexie’s more recent works:

Blasphemy – New and Selected Stories
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven – Stories
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – National Book Award Winner
War Dances – Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award
Flight
Ten Little Indians
– Stories
The Toughest Indian in the World
Reservation Blues
Indian Killer
Smoke Signals
– film. Wrote and co-produced

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“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner

a rose for emily pic“A Rose for Emily”
by
William Faulkner

Rating:

In “A Rose for Emily,” William Faulkner tells the story of the reclusive Miss Emily Grierson, an old southern spinster from an era past.  In just a few pages, he shows the character of the curious townsfolk and, with only a small amount of dialogue from Miss Emily, hints at an understanding of her thinking and choices to cling to a southern life that has long passed.

I’m sure I read this story in school, but I’m finding how great it is to re-read something with the perspective of being older.  I don’t know if, back in high school, I could have appreciated Faulkner’s writing style and his ability to give the reader such a clear view of the personality of his characters.

Faulkner touches on the themes of change and death in “A Rose for Emily,” particularly as he shows how Emily and many people in the southern states resisted change after the Civil War.  Miss Emily wants to continue to live in a time when her family was part of the upper class and tries to do that by shutting herself inside, as reconstruction and northern influences surround her.  Faulkner also shows how she struggles to control the circumstances of death and decay, which play into the surprise ending, tying what seems to be just a descriptive detail into the final evidence of what she’s done.

If you have a few minutes to sit and relax, this short story is the perfect way to get a quick taste of Faulkner’s high quality literature!

william faulkner
William Faulkner

William Faulkner (1897-1962) was an American writer from Oxford Mississippi and is considered one of the greatest writers of American literature.  He placed many of his short stories and novels in the fictional Yoknapatwpha County, based on his own experiences in Lafayette and Holly Springs/Marshall Counties.  In 1949, Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for Literature and received the Pulitzer Prize twice (1955 and 1963), for his novels A Fable and The Reivers.  In addition to these works, Faulkner is best known for his novels The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and  Absalom, Absalom!  Faulkner also wrote poetry, essays, screenplays and two stage plays.

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