Week 24 (Blaga): Dear Life, by Alice Munro

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Reader: Blaga

Task # 22: Read a collection of stories by a woman

Book: Dear Life: Stories, by Alice Munro

Publisher: Vintage International (2013) (First edition by Knopf Doubleday, October 2012)

In 2013, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature for being a “master of the contemporary short story.” Throughout her career, the Canadian writer has published a number of award-winning short-story collections but I had never opened any of them, despite their presence in my family library. So, when I had to choose a selection for this task, I realized that the time had come for my journey through Dear Life.

I suppose that when a writer (or, most recently, artist) wins this prestigious literary award, the first question that comes to mind is “What makes this person — and their work — stand out?” My personal observation on the Swedish Academy’s selections over the years is that it is not always about the art itself; often, there is politics involved as well. Naturally, there is only so much that one can judge from a single collection, yet if Dear Life is any indication, then Munro truly deserves her award.

If this collection has some kind of a common thread, I found it difficult to see – not because it was not present, but because it was rather subdued. Dear Life presented me with fourteen stories that could hardly be more different from one another. In “To Reach Japan,” a  restless mother rides the train with her child; in “Gravel,” we learn of the events leading to a drowning and its consequences; “Corrie” is (seemingly) about an affair that leads to blackmail; while “Dear Life” is strikingly biographical and addressed directly to the reader, as much a personal essay as a short story. Some of the stories take place in small towns, others in locations as diverse as a cross-country train or a children’s hospital. Some take place over days, others over years. Many take place in the 60s or 70s in Canada. Some are told in the first person perspective, others in third. A few examine religion, most explore relationships of various kinds. What is most striking is how understated they all are, and how this lends them a sense of realism and importance.

Munro is concerned with the everyday, ordinary lives of ordinary people. None of her characters are particularly extraordinary, nor does anything extraordinary happen to them. Yet, they are as real —  as individual and complicated — as any living, breathing human being. The choices that define them, the key moments in their stories, are not described in any remarkable way; so much so that in some cases it was not until the end of a story that it became clear which of those moments was the one that would change someone’s life. This is yet another way that Munro strengthens the believability of her stories. In real life, life-changing moments are not announced with fanfare; life continues and it is only in hindsight that they can become apparent.

On the technical side, Munro’s work is also excellent, demonstrating an unusual command of language. At times, she switches seamlessly from one tense to another, using them all for greater impact. She employs dialogue, but only in controlled quantities; many times conversations are summarized rather than reported directly. The calm, confident flow of her prose is often more than enough to keep the reader engaged through all fourteen stories.
If I have one regret in reading Dear Life, it is only that I used it as my introduction to Munro’s body of work. It is, after all, her last published collection and established a high bar. I can only hope that the rest of them will be as wonderful as this one, but thankfully, Dear Life has left me with no doubt that Alice Munro is a master of the contemporary short story.

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Week 23 (Sam): The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

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Reader: Sam

Topic #22: Read a collection of stories by a woman

Book: The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter

Published by Victor Gollancz Ltd (1979)


I shall take two huge handfuls of his rustling hair as he lies half dreaming, half waking, and wind them into ropes, very softly, so he will not wake up, and, softly, with hands as gentle as rain, I shall strangle him with them.”


The pattern is simple. There is a woman and there is a man, and when they collide, the world becomes something much stranger, a dream come true, half nightmare, half fantasy. In her short-story collection, The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter retells several classic fairy tales, some more than once, and invents a couple of her own, all of them gravitating toward an obsession: sex, and the power it has, both in concept and in action, over human beings.

The ten stories in The Bloody Chamber vary in quality from astoundingly beautiful to fairly forgettable. The eponymous “Bluebeard” retelling, “The Bloody Chamber”, is the highlight of the collection, followed by strong entries such as “Lady of the House of Love” (a variant on “Sleeping Beauty” involving vampires) and “Wolf Alice” (an original story about a feral girl slowly gaining her humanity for the first time). On the other hand, “The Snow Child” is obtuse to the point of virtual unintelligibility, and “The Werewolf” seems strangely irrelevant to the spirit of the other nine stories. Fortunately, while the weakest, these are also the two shortest stories in the collection. Carter rounds out her offering with two versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” the eerie “Erl-King” and a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Puss-in-Boots.”

The Bloody Chamber opens with Carter’s version of “Bluebeard,” and it is in this story that her unique, dreamlike voice is most effective. For those who don’t know the story, a young woman marries a fabulously wealthy old widower, only to find that her new husband may be hiding a terrible secret that threatens to claim her life, just as it claimed the lives of his previous wives. Carter describes her unnamed protagonist’s extravagant, new home with equally extravagant prose. Everything that the woman sees combines with what it seems to be. The ruby choker she wears is a bleeding wound in her throat. A hall of mirrors is an army of identical hers, all equally her husband’s bride. Speech is often reported without quotation marks, muddling the distinction between what is said and what is seen. The tale is written in the past tense, but is sometimes written as though it is being lived through at that very moment. The topic shifts strangely from paragraph to paragraph, a certain vagueness hanging over the story like a dream where whatever the dreamer is not paying attention to is subtly shifting and changing. The effect is haunting. 

The dreamlike quality that Carter establishes in the opening story continues in those that follow, becoming more or less prominent depending on the story. The cat narrator of “Puss-in-Boots,” for instance, doesn’t have much of an inclination toward metaphor, making it (ironically) feel a bit more grounded in reality than most of the others. On the other hand, “The Erl-King” takes the effect further, describing the story of a woman’s seduction and imprisonment by a strange man who lives in the woods through such tangled metaphor that it’s difficult to know precisely what happens in the story.  If a less talented author had written The Bloody Chamber, I might have advised readers who prefer a story to have an easily traceable plot to skip this collection, but I hesitate to do so in this case. Truthfully, these stories are much easier to follow than they sound, the emotional content of the symbolism often supporting the general meaning of a story even when the details are vague.

Despite the craftsmanship on display in individual stories, The Bloody Chamber feels redundant as a collection. Over half of the book consists of stories about monstrous and sexually-threatening men imprisoning helpless young women, but Carter is only able to capture the full horror of this scenario in her eponymous story. By comparison to “The Bloody Chamber,” other attempts to convey this dynamic through retellings of “Beauty and the Beast” or “Little Red Riding Hood” feel half-hearted and unnecessary. The monsters of these stories are less monstrous, and their power over the lead characters is less threatening, but rather than giving these stories their own identities, this fact only makes them seem like less engaging versions of the “The Bloody Chamber.” The stories are far from identical, but they rely on the same psychosexual core with a gradually reducing effect as the collection advances

Although self-sabotaging as a collection, I still have to acknowledge the stories themselves. Even the worst story in the The Bloody Chamber is worth reading, and the best stories it has to offer are classics I’ll return to in the future, even if I never read this collection in its entirety again.

Grade: B

Week 22 (Blaga): The Martian by Andy Weir

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Reader: Blaga

Task #2: Read a debut novel

Book: The Martian by Andy Weir

Publisher: Crown (2014)

 

Before I begin, I have an admission to make: I watched the movie before reading the book. I absolutely loved it! It was alternately hilarious and tense, but either way,  I was so enthralled that when I realized that there was a book, I was excited to read it. Would the book be able to move me like its on-screen adaptation?

Andy Weir’s debut novel The Martian is a novel of science, survival, rescue and, most of all, cooperation. Mark Watney, an American astronaut, gets left behind (presumed dead) when his team evacuates their Mars mission due to a dangerous storm. When NASA realizes that Watney is still alive, they begin a rescue operation to retrieve him before it’s too late. The book shifts between Watney’s first person perspective in the form of a diary, and a third person view of NASA employees and Watney’s crew on the ship Hermes.

A lot happens in The Martian, and unfortunately, it frequently moves much slower than it should. Many passages are full of humor that helps the pages fly, but there are also passages dry enough to slow the reader down with details. Ironically, one of the most impressive elements of this book is also one of its most tedious. It’s very clear that Weir put a great deal of research into the science of his story – and the result is unusually believable. In a way, it’s impressive that Weir knows so much about about the methods for creating H2O in space and the accompanying dangers, but I can’t say I actually enjoyed reading multiple pages about it in dryly scientific terms. Many of the characters, especially Watney, tend to use a lot of technical jargon (“MAV,” for example),  and while it makes sense that they would, it’s ultimately a burden on the non-specialist reader, who is forced to stop and concentrate on just understanding what the characters are saying rather than following along easily. More accessible dialog might have come at the cost of realism, but it would have been well worth the cost.

Watney’s sense of humor,  a brilliant combination of dark and silly, was one of the main draws of The Martian. His situation is dire, survival seems nearly impossible, but he still keeps up the jokes. This interesting tone is largely because his sections of the book take the form of his journal entries, and he would not be likely to log new entries if he truly upset. The despair he feels as death creeps closer nearly always goes unspoken, hidden between the lines. By comparison, the third-person narration of the rest of the book is more emotionally straightforward, the characters’ feelings explored explicitly through what they say, do, and think. These sections are not nearly as funny as Watney’s, but they are well-paced, quick to read, and offer an interesting contrast.

I was struck especially by how Weir’s shifting perspectives demonstrate the sheer scale of the rescue operation. While the third-person section of the novel are very precise in conveying the passage of time, the close third-person is constantly shifting, at times, seemingly at random. It goes from NASA employees, to the Hermes’ crew and (at one point) their families, to TV reporters and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) administrators. Altogether, Weir assembles these fragments into a larger picture and illustrates the astounding—almost frustrating—complexity of organizing this rescue mission. Only by conveying the vast human scale of the endeavor, in both time spent and effort exerted, does the fact that they chose to do it have true gravitas. (including external pressures as illustrated by the media’s – and subsequently the larger population’s – interest in Watney’s situation) (Incidentally, this is something that the movie does not communicate as effectively).

In the end, The Martian is a fantastic space/science thriller. It can occasionally be a bit slow, but overall, it’s a true page-turner and left me thoroughly satisfied, and demonstrated yet again that a story can be told effectively both on the page and on screen. Whether you have seen the movie or not, the book is worth your time.