Friday, January 17, 2014

Selected Stories

 by Alice Munro
Vintage Books     1996
662 pages     Short Stories

A reader could pick up any of the many collections of Alice Munro's stories and become immediately engrossed in the world of small town people of Ontario, including many children who observe with keen eyes the vagaries of life. Each story reads like a snapshot. I envisioned an itinerant photographer coming to town and snapping pictures of the people going about their business. Then Munro looked at the pictures of those people and imagined their worlds. If one thinks that small town life is boring, just read a few of Munro's stories. "Everybody in the community is on stage for all the other people,'' she says. ''There's a constant awareness of people watching and listening. And - and this may be particularly Canadian - the less you reveal, the more highly thought of you are.'' Munro writes about "emotions and places." The place she most often writes about is southwest Ontario, just east of Lake Huron. The emotions run the gamut from awe and wonderment, to fear, despair, and loneliness. 

The stories in Selected Stories were collected from short stories she wrote from 1968 to 1993, many of which appeared in The New Yorker. The reviewer in the London Telegraph says that "Munro's writing does what proper literature should do--plunges you into reality in all its knotty complexities." 

My favorite story in the collection was "Dance of the Happy Shades," the story of a piano recital. Miss Marsalles, the eccentric piano teacher, has been having recitals (she calls them parties) for many years, each year exactly the same. Many of the children in the recital are the children of parents who also took lessons from Miss Marsalles. "It will be understood that Miss Marsalles' idealistic view of children, her tender- or simple-mindedness in that regard, made her almost useless as a teacher." This year's recital, however, is different because some children from a school for mentally disabled children are also playing in the recital. One girl of about 10 plays beautifully--a surprise that the audience is not expecting, but which Miss Marsalles accepts as "natural and satisfying. . .To her, no gift is unexpected, no celebration will come as a surprise." At the same time, everyone knows that this will be Miss Marsalles last piano recital. It is a simple story, but at the same time profound. The story brought me back to my first recitals "taking" from Mrs. Bestel in Little Falls, Minnesota. I don't remember anything I played, but I do remember every dress I wore. I especially remember the year I had a new pair of shoes, but I got the flu before the recital and couldn't wear those shoes. Heartbreaking!

It takes a certain mindset to read a book of short stories. At my book club discussion last night, a couple of women complained that they wanted to know more--what happened before the story and what happened after the story. I really think that it takes more skill to write a short story because every word has to be so precise. Of course, this is why Alice Munro is this year's recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was recognized as a "master of the modern short story." It was the consensus of my book club that it was well-deserved.

 If you haven't read any Alice Munro, you can find ten of her short stories here:
Article about Munro in the New York Times in 1986:

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