Monday, September 17, 2007

Sigh....Maybe it's me

Maybe all the varied stresses of the past three months have finally caught up with me, sapping my brain of the ability to make sense of fiction. Or maybe I really have just been reading some pointless stuff lately. I'm a little sad to report that I finished another collection of Alice Munro's short fiction, The Love of a Good Woman, and didn't find it up to her usual standard.

I love Alice Munro. I love how she manages to make each of her stories so distinct, whereas many other writers just seem to be writing about themselves over and over. I love how some of her stories smell like the inside of a country general store, like barrels of grain and wood smoke from the stove and old penny candy and the wood of the floorboards and the dirt of the road outside, a scent and feeling so far in the past it doesn't even conjure up nostalgia anymore. Others are about thoroughly modern types, artists and writers and communists. Some are set in the present, some in the past, some it doesn't even matter. She writes about childhood friendships, adult sexual relationships, the bond between parents and children, first person, third person, she can do it all. Sometimes she twists the story at the end, most notably in one of her larger anthologies in which the narrator rambles on about the aunts on her mother's side and her father's side, neither set of which ever married, but one set was educated, independent and fun-loving, while the other was timid and never left the ancestral home. She goes on and on about what she knew of both halves of her family history, her memories of visits from both and how they affected her. Then at the end of the story, she says something like: "Everyone is dead now, and the life buried here is one you have to think twice about regretting." And it just took your breath away.

So, I tend to go into one of her books with high expectations, which may have been the problem here. The title story hung together for me only on retrospect: the manner of telling it was so confused and roundabout, and thoroughly buried the lead. "Jakarta" is the next story in the book, and this one totally escaped me. It only hinted at the point, never stated it outright.

"Cortes Island" was more what I think of as a real Alice Munro story, probably my favorite in the book. Its plot is so simple as to barely qualify as "plot": it's about a newlywed woman who takes a job watching her landlady's husband, who's suffered a stroke, and how the landlady kind of goes nuts after the woman quits to take a more permanent job. But in this simple tale, the narrator's hopes, dreams, and fears are blatant and vivid. To me, that's what Munro does best.

"The Children Stay" didn't gel for me until the concluding few pages. Munro takes a look from the inside at a woman who has left her husband and children to be with another man, and attempts to answer the question "How could she do that?" by showing how little choice the woman felt she had, how once she made the first decision, the rest fell as inevitable as dominoes. It was very poignant and sad.

I also liked "Before the Change", but I'm afraid to say too much about it without giving away the major plot points. Like many of Munro's stories, you have to be a bit patient with this one, but it will pay off. The most I feel I can really say is that it's told by a woman who's returned to her father's home to regroup after her life fell apart, and the secret her father's been hiding.

"My Mother's Dream" is something different for Munro. She's written from the perspective of both genders at all ages, but I'd wager that this is the first she's written from the point of view of a baby. The baby's mother was a violinist and a young war widow, whose sisters-in-law brought her to the family home to have her child. The story is about the mother struggling to accept the burden of motherhood, and about the sisters' (both unmarried) varied and revealing reactions to having a baby in their midst. This one, too, is very good.

I have glossed over "Rich as Stink" and "Save the Reaper" until now. These are two that I really didn't understand. I'm hard-pressed to even talk about them. "Rich as Stink" is one of those that does a full reverse on you, but I was never sure what it was reversing from. It's told from the point of view of a child, who doesn't live with her mother full-time. Her mother is an editor who lives in a trailer in the woods, and almost seems to be part of a triad with a married couple who lives up the road. She's editing the husband's book. When the child arrives for the summer, the threesome (if that's what it even is) has broken up, and the girl keeps having these oddly emotional reactions to seemingly ordinary conversations. It was as if there was some subtext there that I just didn't get.

"Save the Reaper" was a little along the same lines. I don't really even know how to describe this one and don't have the energy to try, so I'll stop here. Ultimately, this wasn't a bad book, just very uneven. And I am open to the possibility that it is me, that I'm just too tired and distracted to properly understand and enjoy anything more complex than a shoelace. So, for my next project, I will read something that is fairly straightforward. I have already started The Lady and the Panda, about the first American to capture a panda alive. They made a limited-release IMAX movie out of it, and I liked that, and my sister says the book is much better, so I'm looking forward to it.

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