Dear Life by Alice Munro

Dear Life_Alice MunroI finally finished “Dear Life” last night. Alice Munro was a revelation for me, mostly in terms of “how to write a good story” from a technical point of view. I read that her stories are teaching material in creative writing classes, and I can see why. Munro really knows how to hook you up simply by telling the story, avoiding any unnecessary rhetoric. Reading “Dear Life” is not easy, as you cannot simply flip from one story to another. You need time to process each of them, and after I finished the book, I found myself under the impression that I had read 14 novels instead of 14 short stories.

“Dear Life” is Munro’s latest collection of short stories and she mentioned it would be her last. I suspect she really means that, given that the final four stories in the book are autobiographical and sound a bit like a literary testament. All the stories in the book are set in rural Canada or in small Canadian towns just like the one Munro herself lives in. You would suspect that nothing out of the ordinary ever happens in such a quaint setting, and indeed in doesn’t. It is Munro’s insightful writing that goes deep inside the characters’ thoughts and actions and makes the ordinary special.

While the writing was indeed faultless, I found some of the stories better than others, but I guess this is bound to happen with any book of short stories. “Amundsen” is the one I liked best. It tells the story of a young teacher who takes up a job in a remote sanitarium where solitude becomes painful. You can see the romance with the doctor of the town coming, but the ending is truly surprising. Another powerful story is “Dolly”. Here an elderly couple plans a  joint suicide, but it all falls apart when the husband’s ex-lover appears from nowhere. The wife goes from wanting to die together with the love of her life to the strong desire to pound him to pieces.

I would say that while I enjoyed the stories overall, there was a feeling of redundance at times. I think this was because Munro’s voice is the same in all the stories and this makes everything a bit repetitive. The setting feels a bit claustrophobic for the reader, but by the time I finished the book I got a good glimpse of what it’s like to live in the middle of nowhere, trapped between the vast sky and the mountains.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

“Dear Leonard. To look life in the face. Always to look life in the face and to know it for what it is. At last to know it. To love it for what it is, and then, to put it away. Leonard. Always the years between us. Always the years. Always the love. Always the hours.”

The Hours CunninghamA party that slips into a wake. A woman who wants to kill herself because she can’t cope with a peaceful, suburban family life. Virginia Woolf fighting the demons in her head. Apparently three stories without any connection. Read “The Hours” and you’ll be amazed how one can imagine a book that intertwines them all. I first read Michael Cunningham‘s “The Hours” in 2006. Since then, I’ve read it twice more, and I am positive I will do it again sometime in the future. This is one of those books I wish I wrote myself. I do not think that any review can do justice to this book, so I’ll try to stick to my very personal and subjective opinions about it.

Cunningham wrote “The Hours” in 1998 and the book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1999. It’s not a very long book and the first time I read it in 3 or 4 hours without pause. It’s not that it has a thrilling plot that makes you not want to put it down. This is the kind of book you don’t want to put down simply because it talks about everything in less than 250 pages. Love, time, death, emptiness, family, abandonment, suicide, gay/lesbian relationships, books, poetry, depression, life in the big city, rural life, mental illness, physical illness, you name it, “The Hours” has it. It’s actually remarkable how Cunningham integrates all these seamlessly in his triptic story. All the elements are where they should be and as I read the book I didn’t feel overwhelmed by all these topics, but by the power of the characters instead.

Even though it may seem that “The Hours” is crammed with all these topics, there is actual a main motif to the story. As you turn the pages, you can almost feel that time is an invisible character in the book. Time is not only the element that lays at the base of the book, but also a recurrent motif in the stories of all characters. We witness the painful struggle of three of the main characters with the hours that align inexorably before them.

What do you do with the hour after the one that passes so slow it feels like a perpetual agony? And with the hour after that? Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown, and Richard Brown all seem to think that the only way to stop the hours from swooping upon them is to take their own lives. Virginia chooses to put some stones in her and drowns herself. Richard puts an end to his pain by jumping from the window of his flat. Laura Brown is the only one who thinks that she should give the hours another chance, but even though she doesn’t get trough with her suicide attempt, she decides to change the way she is going to spend the hours she has left. If this means leaving her family, starting over in Canada, and live 50 more years of solitude, then so be it.

The intertextuality in “The Hours” is poignant. There are strong echoes of “Mrs. Dalloway” in a book that has Virginia Woolf as a character. It’s a pretty smart thing to do in a novel and Cunningham makes it look so natural. The play with time is what makes the novel remarkable, though. Everything happens in a single day, but the stories overlap as Cunningham jump-cuts masterfully through the century, only to converge unexpectedly for the grand finale.  “The Hours” is very much concerned with creativity and even though the poet and the writer in the novel see themselves as failures, ironically this is not the case with Cunningham, who has written one of the most imaginative books I have ever read.

Book Review: Pulse by Julian Barnes

pulsestoryReading “Dear Life” by Alice Munro seems to take a bit more than I would expect from a 400-something pages book. I thinks that’s because the stories are so well-crafted that you can’t possibly rush through them. I found myself reading just one or two per day. This is my first Munro book and I love it so far. She is truly a gifted storyteller and makes cramming a lifetime into a 30-pages story look so easy.

While reading this book, I tried to remember when was the last time I read short stories. I like the genre very much, but I haven’t read anything worth mentioning in a while, except for “Pulse” by Julian Barnes earlier this year. I couldn’t help but compare the two. In terms of enjoyment, there’s no doubt I like Munro’s stories better. This has something to do with the way she makes you bond with the characters by penning them in a sketchy but convincing manner. The story is different with Barnes, who is perhaps more inclined to discuss people in a social setting than individually.

The opening story, “East Wind”, was actually the one that I liked most. An Eastern European waitress with a dark past starts a relationship with a middle-age real estate agent. Nothing remarkable here at first sight, but Barnes masterfully sets the story in a bleak English autumn, and you can almost feel the gloom of the seaside cafe where the two of them meet. The four “At Phil and Joanna’s” stories scattered through the book are theatrical reproductions of dinner parties where two middle-age couples discuss contemporary topics, ranging from politics to art. I didn’t particularly enjoy them, but I liked the resemblance with Platon’s Symposium. Barnes alludes to this himself, when one of the characters mentions they talk about anything but love.

I found the title story, “Pulse”, a bit uncharacteristic for Barnes. It is filled with so much more emotion you would expect after reading the previous stories. The moment when a man rolls some herbs in his finger to make it possible for his dying wife to smell them is quite memorable. I had only read a couple of Barnes’ novels prior to picking up “Pulse” and I must admit it somehow altered a bit my idea of him being just a cerebral and witty writer.

The Never-ending Debate: Paper Books vs. eBooks

I had been reading paper books for over 20 years before giving eBooks a shot. Over the years, I have spent thousands of pounds on books, most of which I only read once, given that my main interest is in fiction. I used to live in a house where there were books everywhere and space to deposit new ones was indeed a problem. At some point, I was forced to “double park” my books on shelves. I spent most of my teenage and young adult years on a continuous quest to find cheap books. I was hunting offers online, spending hours in bookshops that sold used books, not to mention the countless trips to the local library. Carrying a bag full of library books has been a constant over the years. When I moved homes, I suffered in silence thinking of all the books I had left behind in my parents’ house and I was constantly harassing them to bring as many of my beloved books as they could carry whenever they drove over to my new place. My obsession with books was known to everybody and most of the presents I have ever received in my life had pages and covers. Not that I minded. I still cannot imagine living in a house with no books in it. However…

The Christmas of 2010 marked a change in my reading patterns. My boyfriend made me a wonderful surprise in the form of a Kindle. I had of course been very familiar with eBooks, but I only used them for school assignments on an as needed basis. I had never read a proper fiction book on such a device before. The bookworm in me had toyed with the idea of an e-reader before, mostly because I liked how you could store hundreds of books on it and have them available at your fingerprints at all times. So I started reading on my new Kindle and three years later, I find myself addicted to electronic books. This is something I never thought possible, but on the other hand  I hate to feel left behind by technology or any other thing for that matter. Two tablets later, I have finally found the perfect eReader in the form of an iPad mini, which I intend to keep until it falls apart.

This does not mean I  have given up paper books entirely. I still have cravings for paper books, and I satisfy them once in a while. When passing by a bookshop, I still feel the urge to go on a spur of the moment shopping spree. As many other book lovers, I love everything about the books, including their smell and the way they feel in your hands. I am well aware that eBooks are just the same thing, delivering the same stories and ideas in another form. I can read them in any kind of light, I can switch positions as often as I want as no heavy book makes it difficult for me to find a comfortable position. This is important because most of the time I read in bed, so big, heavy hardbacks have always been a source of trouble. I make use of the dictionaries in the iBooks constantly and the last time I read a paper book I tried to double-click a word to check its meaning. Besides these obvious perks, what I probably like most about eBooks is that I can start reading any book crosses my mind in a couple of minutes. No more waiting for the Amazon order to arrive to start reading something I set eyes on last week. This is truly a book lover’s dream, and I’m living it. I still buy paper books, but not fiction anymore. I think that the eBooks cannot be a replacement for art books for instance, so these I’ll continue to buy in paper form forever. I’m pretty sure I’ll have an emotional connection to physical books until the day I die, and I can’t help but wonder if I would have still become such a bookworm in the absence of paper books. I’m pretty sure the answer is no.

Thoughts About Young Adult Fiction

As someone who was already seriously hooked up on fiction well before 1997, I have never read any of the Harry Potter books. I haven’t actually read almost anything that may be classified as young adult fiction. “The Catcher in the Rye” and “To Kill a Mocking Bird” are the closest I ever got to the genre. By the time the Harry Potter mania took the world by storm, I wasn’t attracted to the idea at all. I have never read Tolkien, Frank Herbert, or Terry Pratchett, not to mention the “Twilight” series.

I’m not quite sure why I avoided these names over the years (except for “Twilight”, of course, you wouldn’t catch me dead anywhere near a book about vampires). I guess I was too old for stuff involving too much magic to read Harry Potter. As for the rest, I have never been too attracted to fantasy/Sci-Fi, so it simply didn’t happen.

Last year I thought I should see what the fuss is all about some of the new names in YA fiction, particularly because I got fed up with the cliche that teens fiction is not just for teens anymore. So I read the first volume of the “Hunger Games“, which I found rather interesting in its plot, but badly written. I get it the book is meant to be read by kids/teens, but the language was so simple it was borderline insulting. I managed to finish it, but couldn’t be bothered to read the next two books.

After a while, I decided to give Stephen Chbosky a try, and I’m glad I did. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” was surprisingly one of the best coming of age stories I have ever read. I actually think it held its own in front of Salinger and Harper Lee. I particularly enjoyed the epistolary style, as well as the way Chbosky penned his main character, Charlie, as an introverted teenager who thinks and feels beyond his years. The book references in the text are also quite clever, and the music references bring an invisible soundtrack to the novel, creating something you can almost hear while turning the pages. This book convinced me that some of the books that appear on a YA top list are actually worth considering even if you are closer to 30 than to 16.