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Selected Stories of Alice Munro, 1968-1994

I am finding this review so hard to write!!! This is because I’m not fully where I am (in Crete, for the record, in our second home, but shortly back in the first one again). This is entirely Alice Munro’s fault!!!! She has plunked me down in small-town Canada, couple of decades ago, and I can’t see quite how I’ll ever get out again.

I cried when I reached the end of her collected stories because Vintagehad deceived me. I was at 86%, my Kindle opined, so I guessed I had maybe four more stories to scoff, like chocolates, like salty twiglets… but then there weren’t any more, just a load of drivel about the publisher Vintage.

Sod Vintage!! I need more Munro stories!! I need to gulp them down, story after story, each so perfectly balanced, so exquisitely timed, word-after-word (world-after-world).

People waffle on, on Amazon reviews especially, about books “transporting” them. In a handful of words, Munro will not only have transported you but also opened up a character, a mood, a time. Here are a couple of examples – in that order. A character. A mood. A time.

I am convinced that my father looked at me, really saw me, only once. After that, he knew what was there.

*

At first, people kept phoning, to make sure that Nita was not too depressed, not too lonely, not eating too little or drinking too much. (She had been such a diligent wine drinker that many forgot that she was now forbidden to drink at all.) She held them off, without sounding nobly grief-stricken or unnaturally cheerful or absent-minded or confused.

*

All this happened in the seventies, though in that town and other small towns like it the seventies were not as we picture them now, or as I had known them even in Vancouver. The boys’ hair was longer than it had been, but not straggling down their backs, and there didn’t seem to be an unusual amount of liberation or defiance in the air.

We’re talking an Austenesque balance, a deceptively simple economy of information, a subversively witty sleight-of-hand. In these exquisite miniatures, these irresistibly crunchy twiglets – ‘just “one” more! – we’re also receiving a mini-masterclass, where the smallest detail tells, yet nothing feels shoehorned in or falsely emphasised, and every minute glitter is amply earned.

Munro’s pacing is virtuosic – like Mozart, like Mahler – depending on what the theme requires. Some whirl you along, in others, we’re snowshoeing in the footsteps of a culture long since gone. Her dialogue is seeded with reality – but dissipates on the tongue, like frost. You almost dream each story… you certainly live it.

Is there nothing Munro can’t do? – on this evidence, no.

Many readers have suggested that every Munro story has the germ of a novel in it, and I’d agree that perhaps 1/3 of these do – but part of her genius is to choose her “two inches of ivory” and polish it till it glows. I never once felt ripped-off… except by Vintage. Instead, I feel lifted and exalted, shaken and rewarded, replete and breathless with admiration… and still in small-town Canada, perhaps in the sixties, in the eighties, which is fizzing with such life.

Nemesis, by Philip Roth

By mid-century, polio had become the nation’s most feared disease. And with good reason. It hit without warning. It killed some victims and marked others for life, leaving behind vivid reminders for all to see: wheelchairs, crutches, leg braces and deformed limbs. In 1921, it paralyzed 39-year-old Franklin Delano Roosevelt, robust and athletic, with a long pedigree and a cherished family name. If a man like Roosevelt could be stricken, then no one was immune.”  (Yale School of Medicine).

This is blazingly, unrepentantly beautiful writing, with themes of guilt, innocence and redemption during the summer of 1944 when polio ravages Newark’s Jewish community. The relatable protagonist, Bucky is, in some sense, Everyman – a decent guy, a straight-shooter, a person determined to ‘do no harm’. He starts the novel still unreconciled to having been rejected for army service in WWII, and thus denied his shot, with his friends, at D-Day immortality.

His first struggles are small-scale: how far to go with his girlfriend and, with polio felling so of the local Jewish boys, whether he should still coach softball, where they mingle. However, darker clouds roll up with such perfect pacing – particularly once his fiancée persuades him to move to the youth camp – that the reader is hooked. Impeccably written, Nemesis is a perfectly controlled, slow-motion train-crash.

It also addresses massive issues. (“But for killing Alan with polio at twelve? For the very existence of polio? How could there be forgiveness – let alone hallelujahs – in the face of such/God’s lunatic cruelty?”) Pointing up the very pointlessness of chance, railing against God/fate, absorbing raw new resonances from the world’s recent experience of Covid – not to mention Dostoevsky – this slim book provokes considerations about learning to live, to love and to let go, lest, like Bucky, we transform into our own nemeses. In a small and claustrophobic setting, soused in guilt, Roth has conjured a mini-masterpiece.

E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia

My book club recently rejected my suggestion of this mini-masterpiece – lol – which got me thinking about just how much I love it. Next to P.G. Wodehouse – who challenges Mark Twain in the humour stakes – Benson is my never-failing, go-to, feel-good author. Even Austen, famous for her upbeat, wedding-flooded endings, has far more angst than he…

This is historical fiction so feather-light that it resembles a tiny prawn cracker, the kind that almost instantly melts to nothing on your tongue. The humour is gentle, the satire has just enough wit to bite.

Edwardian society had its stratas, and Mapp and Lucia in Tilling (based on Rye) stand at the crest of theirs, vying for social supremacy, with first one and then the other edging ahead… Each forty-something lady has their supporters and their unbelievers, their miniature crises and their quite major embarrassments – but almost nobody dies, the approach of WWI is not so much as hinted at… no, it’s all comfortably middle-aged, upper middle-class, entirely middle-England characters, with their little foibles, jealousies and weaknesses affectionately portrayed.

 Lucia holds the entire series of books together (there is also Lucia in London, sans Mapp, and the delicious early Lucia novels, before the move to Tilling – in these she has operatic divas and Daisy as her foils, instead). Effortlessly snobbish but still delightful, she pretends to speak fluent Italian and believes herself a great deal more pianistically accomplished than she actually is. Her admirer, the asexual Georgie (they eventually marry) is just as winning, and the portraits of Diva, Major Benjy, Quaint Irene etc. are so splendiferous that one can’t help suspecting that, in Rye at least, they once existed.

Rye – here called Tilling – itself seems almost a character: a seaside town of pre-war innocence, if occasionally subject to (real) sea tempests.

This is escapism in its purest sense, and, if there’s no real drama, the writing itself is a delight. Benson’s prose is effortless – his pacing perfect – his dialogue as pitch perfect as Austen’s. There’s not a false note anywhere. This is escapism but – really – sometimes there’s nothing better. Sink into a Lucia book and you’ll find, an hour later, that you’ve somehow scoffed every tiny prawn cracker – and you upturn the book itself, hoping for more.

Devoney Looser’s Sister Novelists

This non-fiction tour-de-force is as pacey as a novel – never a dull moment. A mesmerizing and impressively well-researched work which makes Georgian England spring to life.
In fact, as I read it, I kept thinking what a fantastic TV series it would make…

Here we have the tale of two lovely, dramatic, and gifted young Regency sisters – though disconcertingly poor – triumphing, despite being mostly taken for granted by men, whether the men concerned were rivals, publishers, potential suitors or even their own brothers. Both Jane and Maria expended no little energy keeping their brothers out of debtor’s prisons, while otherwise dodging the advances of older men, being manipulated by publishers, breaking hearts – or, having their own hearts either sprained or else broken.
In other words, in Devoney Looser’s Sister Novelists we’re gifted with an utterly believable glimpse into what living in Georgian times might have felt like – at least, if literary – rubbing shoulders with Byron and Scott (and royalty) while simultaneously, sometimes desperately, trying to keep up appearances.

The sisters are equally fascinating. Jane is a powerhouse: passionate, resourceful and resilient, holding the family together even when Edmund Keen – no less – deliberately chooses to shipwreck the premiere of her first play at Drury Lane. Maria – almost as gifted and much more prolific – emerges as rather more vulnerable and romantic, capable of falling for a young Guardsman on sight and – oh! the scandal! – even conducting a clandestine correspondence with him.

It is also Maria who suffers upon ending up, in hopes of assisting their brother, in a ‘nest of vipers’. This particular nest is dominated by a rich aristocrat who makes Lady Catherine de Bourgh look like a badge-laden Girl Scout – fomenting rumour, violating her houseguests’ private correspondence, and messing about with her underlings’ love lives. Not to mention the appalling Mrs Campbell, who attempts to blackmail Jane’s love, Henry, by threatening to besmirch Jane Porter’s own reputation – a blackmail he scorned.

At about two inches thick, this book is a massive achievement in every sense, but the pages just fly by. Austen lovers will relish such wicked subtleties as ‘Mrs Crespigny, handsome, clever, and rich, had been known to Jane and Maria for several years.’ And, ‘by eleven, he had delighted Mrs Porter long enough’ (!) Looser is mischievous – but also intensely serious. She makes a powerful case against the sexism that held back not only the Porters, but Austen and many other female novelists of the time.

To sum up, we have a elegantly written, beautifully presented book with:
1) a thrilling storyline
2) vivid characters – and they’re all real, as well!
3) meticulous research
4) silky prose
5) immaculate pacing
6) and as neat a summation of what it felt like, to be a supremely gifted member of London society without either a famous name or money, as could be contrived.

Sister Novelists is a TV series crying out to be made. It has the lot: the manipulative Margravine of Ansbach, the sensitive Maria, the passionate-but-less-impulsive Jane, not to mention all the men who pursue or annoy them. And we even have the dramas of the stage: the struggles to be ‘seen’ as women as equal artists to a man – and even a brush with plagiarism.

Whether Sir Walter Scott really acted as ‘vampire’ to Jane Porter’s own work for his Waverley series is not made entirely clear, but that the pair of sisters succeeded, by talent and guts alone, against all odds, is perfectly obvious. Even their own brothers cheated them, but their final image here is one of resilience – yes, and of triumph, too.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (with spoilers!)

I’m calling a near-miss on this one.

I’m glad that I read it (hooked by the start, lost interest in the middle, re-enrolled near the end)… However, I remain unconvinced.

TOO many coincidences. (Jude’s encountering Kennedy…whaaaat?). TOO many unlikelihoods. (Transgender was a thing, mid-twentieth century? … really?)

Nor could I imagine how the passive, undemanding Stella suddenly found the nerve to risk everything – and, decades ago, it would have been everything – by choosing to impersonate a White person. Or how Desiree – so much more the bolder – so comprehensively lost her nerve, returning to Mallard and to waitressing forevermore.

Admittedly, both twins had witnessed the horrific racist murder of their father: an almost unimaginably traumatising event. But to expect us to believe, after the rebellious Desiree’s being the one to insist that her twin Stella escape with her to the big city, that she would rush back herself to the small town she loathed – and remain – while the stolid Stella supposedly found sufficient nerve to impersonate a White person… It just failed to make sense. Would have been a much better book had the twins switched fates, imho.

Having involved us in the twins – with some excellent writing, no question – the author summarily dumps Desiree and her much-missed twin in favour of their daughters. Jude was believable… but Kennedy never was. I almost DNF (did not finish) at this point, with the coincidences and the jolt of losing sight of the main characters, but the end of the book provided some sense of closure.

In fact, I’m very glad I read it, thanks to its eye-opening perspectives about racism and race generally. I even believe it to be an important book but – especially for a writer of Bennett’s ability – still a near-miss.

Review of Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave

First, am a massive fan of O’Farrell (Hamnet is why!!!) so I was thrilled when one of my book clubs chose another of hers.

I didn’t like the title – to me, it reeked of O’Farrell coming up empty – “finding titles” ought to be a circle of Dante’s hell – and some young publishing assistant thinking it sounded up-to-date. However, it started promisingly and I love books about unravelling families (see Anne Tyler, also Kingsolver). Also, though not remotely Irish – the name is my husband’s – I worked for two years in the Ulster Orchestra and have a particular affection for Irishness generally.

As mentioned, the book begins promisingly – O’Farrell’s prose as crisp as I’d remembered – but, in the end, the book was a failure. I’m now pretty sure that what we call in tennis “scoreboard pressure” is the reason. Meaning: back when I had a starry literary agent and a posh publisher, I got no peace from either. It was all, “What are you writing now?” and “How’s it going?” and “What’s next?” and, in the end, the pressure was too much for me and my (then untreated) ADHD.

In other words, there are books that one has to write – that one burns to write – and books that one is cajoled/bullied into writing and I’m certain that Hamnet was one of the former and Instructions for a Heatwave one of the latter.

I still like O’Farrell’s writing – there are tiny gems strewn here and there – Gretta is hilarious – and I loved Aoife. However, her disability felt as contrived as her father’s situation, the plotting was poorly-paced, and the end was facile, with almost every reconciliation feeling forced. In short, I am pretty sure she was impelled forward by being obliged to write another book (“or else your readers will buzz off and prize committees forget you and your advances go down instead of up” etc. etc.)

But have I given up on O’Farrell? No way. In fact, have just bought The Marriage Portrait. More once I’ve finished it!  Alice

Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad reviews — and what to do about them

You can read this article on medium at the link below…

’Twas the Last Gig Before Christmas…

Read Alice’s article at Medium using the link below.

Salt Lick by Lulu Allison

Link: https://www.amazon.com/Salt-Lick-Lulu-Allison-ebook/dp/B08YQT7BHT

This is a deceptively brilliant, beautifully written, book… Have only just finished it, but I’m sure I’m going to re-read it, if only to relish its wonderful prose.

This is a subtle, not “in-your-face” book. Characters are challenged, change, and grow. But, even in this version of our own, possibly dystopian, future, there is generally an inner core of human decency and hope.

Allison’s prose is almost unnervingly brilliant. But that’s not all. She has also created a terrifyingly believable dystopian Britain – a Britain so real and grainy that you can almost feel the rough tongues of its cows on the back of your hands – and smell the dusty grime of the (half-deserted) Colchester.

She’s also created characters that pull you into caring about them – complicated people facing complicated choices in a world which no longer feels entirely real. (Such as Isolde, who tracks down the prisoner who killed her mother, only to discover disquieting truths about her family.) The cities are scary but the countryside almost as terrifying. To own a car is prohibitively expensive. In some places gays are – literally – branded. The “25” recollects the M25 motorway, since gone to seed. The shoots of hope are what keeps the reader glued.

A ancient Greek-style chorus occasionally commentates. Some readers, both here and elsewhere, are not mega-keen on this. It reminded me – though very much shorter, and very much better – of those poems (by Bilbo) that occasionally interrupt Tolkien’s immortal LORD OF THE RINGS.

Here’s where I am with it: If it lights your fire, read it. If it doesn’t, just skip the poems, and plow straight on, which is what I always do, with LOTR. Some amazing readers are simply resistant to poetry, and that’s OK.

A sample:

The land creeps in on slow and shallow waves

We follow,
a flotilla

Once the land has pulled the towns under
.

Sorry, and only my opinion, of course – but… this is excellent poetry. Tolkien’s… not so much.

My advice? Buy it.

ALICE McVEIGH

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