Things to Read - Five VERY Different Short Story Collections

1. Dear Life - I've been a huge Alice Munro fan for years now (she's even in my profile description, see it? over on the right, with the color grey and balloons). Munro's writing is always nothing short of excellent, full of characters that come alive within moments of each story's beginning (hence all of the awards and honors). But, in my opinion, her recent collection diverges from her other work. Munro's early stories contain vague senses of hope, even as characters face destroyed plans and expectations, the sense of something else, around a corner, always lingers. Then came what I think of as the "middle years", with collections like Runaway (profiled, by me, here) and Too Much Happiness, which contain several stories so bitterly sad and gut wrenching that I found them hard to read, such as Dimensions, where a wife has to go on living after her disturbed husband murders their three children.

And now at 80+ years of age, Munro has published Dear Life, another astounding collection of stories. Unlike her earlier work, this newest collection has a coldness to it, even the saddest stories contain an element of "maybe you expected too much from life." For example in Corrie, Munro tells the story of a man and his mistress, who learns at the end of a multiple year relationship that the love she treasured never really existed. Or in Gravel where a woman looks back years later at her sister's death by drowning. In both works, the sense of new beginnings, undiscovered corners, so prevalent in Munro's early work, is missing. Life simply continues. I'm not sure what to make of this change, but it hasn't caused me to like Munro any less. Actually, more than ever I feel like I should dive in, read through her with extra attention to detail, figure out what she has to tell me, not just about lie, but about how aging itself effects the stories we choose to tell.

Further, and worth mentioning, Munro ends the collection with a set of four works, which she describes as "not quite stories." Rather, Munro characterizes them as "the first and last - and the closest - things I have to say about my own life." And, in this set, Munro's warmth returns as she describes her small town childhood and a way of life that no longer exists. The final story, Dear Life, ends on a note which continues to reverberate with me, and which, truly, sums up the entire collection - "I did not go home for my mother's last illness or for her funeral. I had two small children and nobody in Vancouver to leave them with. We could barely have afforded the trip, and my husband had a contempt for formal behavior, but why blame it on him? I felt the same. We say of some things that they can't be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do - we do it all the time."

2. Tenth of December - Critics and reviewers FAWNED over this collection (see, for example, The New York Times' "George Saunders Has Written The Best Book You'll Read This Year"), I've never seen a book (much less a short story collection) receive such universal praise. And after reading it, I get it. Though I'm still not sure I truly GET IT. Saunder writes well, merging science fiction and contemporary fiction in a way I've never read before. In several of Saunders' stories the timing seems to be modern day, yet certain details are different. Key details. An alternate reality. Making his fiction oddly disturbing and discombobulating, especially in The Semplica-Girl Diaries (which you can read in full here) where in a world almost identical to ours, middle class Americans rent girls from impoverished countries, dress them in ethereal white gowns, and HANG THEM AS LAWN ORNAMENTS (a care company arrives throughout the day to provide food and bathroom usage). Even Saunders' more "normal" stories find a way to disturb you in odd, disorientating ways. Almost to the point where I no longer wanted to read them (it took me about a month to finish this relatively short book). So be awed. Be amazed. But be prepared. Saunders hits hard and often in ways that you don't quite see coming.

3. Signs and Wonders - This book had been on my Amazon wish list for years and I almost passed it over, but lately I've felt like reading short stories so I reserved it at the library, figuring it was worth a try. And now it might be in my top 20 favorite books ever. Seriously, I INHALED Alix Ohlin's collection. Most of the stories deal with divorce or loss coupled with the change inherent in such events, the thrill of newness with the crushing defeats such newness can bring. The characters seemed so real that even though each story lasted an average of 15 pages (the collection contains 16 works), at the end of each tale I felt an odd sense of loss. I found Ohlin's The Stepmother's Story especially haunting and beautiful (perhaps because this is the only work that dips into surrealism/fantasy), about the chasms that occur when a 9 year old boy disappears while vacationing in Scotland with his father and new stepmother. I also enjoyed Robbing the Cradle, where, upon learning of her husband's infertility, a teacher plots and succeeds in using a student to become pregnant, hoping that her husband will love the resulting baby so much that he will eventually accept the child as his own.

4. Vampires in the Lemon Grove - Karen Russell's stories are quirky and odd - vampires who prefer lemons to blood, girls who become silkworms, a tattoos that changes with memory, dead presidents reincarnated as horses, etc. While Russell writes well sometimes I feel that reading her takes work, almost like school. I'm curious enough to want to know how each (incredibly imaginative) tale ends, but I can't imagine staying up late at night to finish one. Sometimes her characters seem a little hollow to me, almost as if they can't live up to the crazy scenarios she puts them in. Oh well, when one of Russell's stories manages to make an impact, it lasts. For example, I can't stop thinking about Rutherford B. Hayes in The Barn at the End of Our Term and his loving conviction that his dead wife has come back as a sheep. I also enjoyed The New Veterans, in which a war veteran's most horrid memories slowly leak from him to his massage therapist, causing the reader to reflect on what purpose memory really serves, especially when recollecting those who have already passed.

5. When It Happens To You - I'm a huge Molly Ringwald fan, the whole brat-pack/John Hughes' portrait of teenage years - I love it. Ducky dancing to Otis in Pretty in Pink might be cinema's best moment ever. Yet despite my adoration for her acting career, I wasn't expecting much from Ringwald's short story collection, so I was pleasently surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The first story (and probably my least favorite) focuses on a wife learning of her husband's infidelity. The remainder of the stories center on other people who have somehow been effected by the couple's marital problems. Some of the stories are stronger than others, but I found myself unable to put the book down - especially as the question lingers over whether or not the couple will, ultimately, stay together.


  1. Putting all of these on my reading list, because your book recs are always great. :)

  2. I'm always surprised when a celebrity turns out to actually be talented at whatever the industry's letting 'em do now. So I'll probably pick up Ms. Ringwald's book out of curiosity, but only because you said it's not scary. ;)



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