A most wondrous tome currently resides on my coffee table…

October 5, 2015 at 1:35 am (Art, Awards, Book review, books, Children's literature)

Childrensbooks

Martin Salisbury is a professor of illustration at the Cambridge School of Art of Anglia Ruskin University. He obviously has a deep knowledge of children’s literature, and an equally deep love for it. His perspective is refreshingly international.

Salisbury begins his survey with a 1910 title: The Slant Book by Peter Newell. Slantbook

The book is rhomboid in shape,with text on the verso page and image on the recto throughout. The story follows the chaos of a runaway baby’s buggy as it rolls down a hill, the gradient of which is exactly equal to the slope of the book, so that the delighted baby is seen to be rolling towards the gutter of the book on each double-page spread.

(Martin Salisbury’s description)

Click here for a look inside The Slant Book.

As I make my enraptured way through this book, I’ve encountered some old friends Ducklings but quite a few more that I’d never heard of. And when I came to Village and Town by S.R. Badmin (London, 1942), I was literally stopped in my tracks, my Anglophile antennae quivering madly!

Well – you can see why: villages-and-towns-puffin  villageandtown

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I had to have this one! It was then that I learned my first lesson about acquiring older, out of print children’s picture books: They can be rare. And they can be expensive. Persistence paid off in this instance, I’m glad to report. For what I judge to be a reasonable sum, Village and Town is on its way to me courtesy of Abebooks’s UK site.

I am not at all knowledgeable in this field, but I’ve felt for quite some time that some of the greatest art being made anywhere can be found in children’s picture books. If you love brilliant colors

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Alphabet, by Kveta Pakovska (2013)

 

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Ella’s Birthday, by Betty Swanwick (1946)

and great draftsmanship, you will find these in abundance in the many great children’s picture  books.
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If you’d like some names and titles of recent picture books that have won critical acclaim, have a look at the list of Caldecott Medal Winners and Honor books. A great source for children’s literature in general is Barb Langridge’s site A Book and a Hug.

Where this vast subject is concerned, I’ve only scratched the surface in this post. My main purpose was to alert people to Martin Salisbury’s outstanding work of scholarship in this field; 100 Great Children’s Picture Books is a joy!

 

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The Man Booker Prize Long List for 2015

August 8, 2015 at 1:27 pm (Awards, books)

The Man Booker Prize long list for 2015 has been announced. Here are the chosen titles; they’re listed with the names of the publishers and the authors’  respective countries of origin (or current residence):

Bill Clegg (US) – Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape)

Anne Enright (Ireland) – The Green Road (Jonathan Cape)

Marlon James (Jamaica) – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications)

Laila Lalami (US) – The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing)

Tom McCarthy (UK) – Satin Island (Jonathan Cape)

Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) – The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press)

Andrew O’Hagan (UK) – The Illuminations (Faber & Faber)

Marilynne Robinson (US) – Lila (Virago)

Anuradha Roy (India) – Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus)

Sunjeev Sahota (UK) – The Year of the Runaways (Picador)

Anna Smaill (New Zealand) – The Chimes (Sceptre)

Anne Tyler (US) – A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus)

Hanya Yanagihara (US) – A Little Life (Picador)

I haven’t read any of these titles. Three of them – those by Roy, Sahota, and Smaill – have not yet been published in this country, as far as I can determine. I’ve had the Enright, Robinson, and Lalami titles out of the library at some point, but they were returned unread. (I don’t suppose that counts!) I had an unexpected “epic fail” with one of these selections: A Spool of Blue Thread. For years I’ve been a faithful fan of Anne Tyler’s fiction, but this novel annoyed me almost  from the get go. Those same hapless, well meaning characters back again! The problem could have been my mood. I may try again; one of my book groups has scheduled it for our December meeting, and I will always have a high regard and affection for Anne Tyler.

The book I take on first from the above list will probably be The Moor’s Account. Laila Lalami, born and raised in Morocco, is currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California’s Riverside campus. What we have here is a striking, gifted, and mellifluously named author, a beautiful book cover, and a graceful and compelling opening passage:

In the name of God, most compassionate, most merciful. Praise be to God, the Lord of the worlds, and prayers and blessings be on our prophet Muhammad and upon all his progeny and companions. This book is the humble work of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, being a true account of his life and travels from the city of Azemmur to the Land of the Indians, where he arrived as a slave and, in his attempt to return to freedom, was shipwrecked and lost for many years.

Lalami

Laila Lalami

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The Booker Prize Foundation proclaims itself to be an evolving and dynamic entity. To an extent, this is no doubt true. But one does wish – This One does, at any rate – that its members would in some way acknowledge the outstanding work being done now and in years past in the field of mystery and crime writing. For that matter, where are the short story collections? An unusually large number of these have garnered rave reviews in recent months. I mentioned some of the titles in a recent post entitled Twenty fiction and mystery titles I’ve loved (or at least liked a lot) so far this year.  (Presumably the Foundation’s motto “Fiction at Its Finest” includes short stories – and could also include crime fiction.)

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Some thoughts on this year’s Edgar Award for best novel

May 19, 2014 at 7:27 pm (Awards, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

The nominees for the year 2014 Best Novel Award were the following:

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Of these six, I’ve read three: How the Light Gets In, Ordinary Grace, and Sandrine’s Case.  I’d like to comment on these.

By  the time I got around to reading the Louise Penny title, I’d already read a number of glowing reviews. So I was hopeful, and that hope was vindicated.  How the Light Gets In is a wonderful novel, filled with Penny’s signature poetic writing and populated with characters we’ve come to know and care about.

At this point, I’ve read nearly all of the books in the Inspector Gamache series and enjoyed them, for the most part. You’ll notice, I qualified the previous statement. Some of the novels have worked better for me than others. And then there was The Beautiful Mystery, the series entry immediately preceding this one. Almost from the beginning, I felt as though I were slogging through this narrative. Some mysteries have a slower pace than others, and don’t necessarily suffer for it, but this book seemed to me positively inert, completely becalmed. Everyone was penned up in a monastery on an island, and all I knew was, I wanted off that island ASAP! At about the half way point, I gave up.

The Beautiful Mystery was an award winner – nearly all of Louise Penny’s books have been honored in this way, several with multiple accolades – but  it did not work for me on any level. This was one of the reasons I was so delighted with How the Light Gets In. A glorious return to form for Ms Penny.

For the record, my favorite entries in this series are the first one, Still Life, and especially Bury Your Dead, the reading of which made me want to drop everything and get on a plane to Quebec City, where I would (naturally) stay at the fabulous  Chateau Frontenac..
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William Kent Krueger has garnered a slew of raves for Ordinary Grace. The novel is set in New Bremen, Minnesota in 1961; the unfolding events of that fateful summer are recounted by teenager Frank Drum. Frank’s  father is a Methodist minister; his mother, an aspiring writer. A younger brother and an older sister make up the rest of the family.

From the jacket copy:

It was a time of innocence and hope for a country with a new, young president. But for thirteen-year-old Frank Drum it was a grim summer in which death visited frequently and assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder.

Yes, it’s all there and it sounds sensational, yet as I was reading, it didn’t strike me that way. This may be partly because, clocking in at just over 300 pages in the hardback version, the novel proceeds at an oddly leisurely pace. We get quite a few opportunities to delve inside the daily lives of Drum family members, and, as is the case in most families, these quotidian glimpses are not all uniformly  fascinating – at least they weren’t for this reader. There were times when I became a bit impatient, in particular with Frank’s younger brother Jake, whom I found at times to be pesky. Perhaps his behavior was meant to be endearing; instead I found it annoying. (Sorry – apologies to baby brothers and sister  the world over!)

Krueger is the author of a highly regarded series featuring Cork O’Connor. It too is set in Minnesota. (The Land of 10,000 Lakes seems to be having its moment right now. I’m currently reading The Land of Dreams, a terrific novel in the Minnesota trilogy by Norwegian author Vidar Sundstol. And then, of course, there’s Fargo.) Cork O’Connor is a very appealing protagonist, and his home state is vividly described by Krueger. Native American lore and characters also enrich the novels in this series. I’ve read and enjoyed two of them: Thunder Bay and Boundary Waters, which was  a discussion selection by the Usual Suspects group.

When I sat down to read Ordinary Grace, I was optimistic, having no reason not to be. But only a few pages in, I looked up from the book and sighed deeply. I could not help thinking, I’ve been here before; another coming of age novel, a teenaged boy – it’s seems that it’s almost always a boy –  finds out the Truth about Life. Part of my problem was that I still held in my mind the recollection of Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, a stellar example of fiction in this genre, beautifully written and lightened with welcome touches of humor.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I was not quite as enthralled by Ordinary Grace as other readers obviously were. I found the novel by turns engaging and exasperating. I guess the problem was pretty much mine alone: Ordinary Grace just won the Edgar for this year.

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Sandrine’s Case surprised me. I’ve had problems with Thomas H. Cook’s fiction in the past. Last year the Usual suspects discussed Breakheart Hill. I had serious issues with that novel and only barely got through it. Previously, I’d tried Cook’s Edgar winner, The Chatham School Affair, and gave up at about the half way point. I was finding the portentous tone and relentless hints at profundity just a bit too irritating. But in view of the laudatory reviews Sandrine’s Case was getting, I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did.

Samuel Madison and his wife Sandrine are both professors at Coburn College in Coburn, Georgia. It’s a small college in a small southern town, and Samuel Madison can’t help feeling that he was destined for better things. When Sandrine, already ill, dies suddenly and inexplicably, her husband is accused of killing her. Initially,Madison’s default demeanor, characterized by an attitude of smug condescension, does him no good as a jury of his peers sits in judgment on him and on his actions.Here’s how he imagines the jurors perceive him:

I was a tenured professor, which to the people of Coburn was a ticket to a carefree and semiluxurious retirement. I couldn’t even be fired – so the locals assumed – no matter what I said in class, or even if I failed to show up in class at all. But this Samuel Joseph Madison character had wanted something more, they said to themselves and each other.A cushy life had simply not been enough for the esteemed professor, expert on Melville, Hawthorne, and God knows how many other lesser-known literary figures. Here was a man who’d lived high on the hog despite  the fact that he conceived nothing, built nothing, invented nothing, maintained nothing, sold nothing. Here was a man who lived high on the hog by…talking.

In this surmise, he’s probably not fat from the truth. But as this courtroom drama runs its inevitable course, his views on his marriage, his life, and the nature of life itself all undergo a profound change.

The day to day progress of the trial provides an equal measure of tension and tedium.

Of course, as a reader, I knew  that a great many things had been written about time. It was a river. It was a thief. It was money to Benjamin Franklin and a dream to Conrad Aiken. Tolstoy had thought of it as a warrior, but as my trial continued, I found myself recalling that it had been the peculiar power Shakespeare had ascribed to time that Sandrine had most often quoted, the notion that it voided cunning, that nothing could outfox it.

In other words, he observes wryly, murder will out.

Sandrine’s Case abounds with literary allusions. Partly these is meant to show the sphere in which Samuel Madison’s intellect nominally dwells (as did his wife’s). But they also showcase the erudition of the author himself. Cook’s knowledge and love of the world’s great literature enriches and deepens the scope of this narrative.

Be that as it may, Madison’s frequent citing of great literature risks making him look like an intellectual snob – which, to an extent, he is. At one point, he remarks to Morty, his lawyer, that he feels like Merseault, the emotionally inert protagonist of Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Morty’s response is heavy with sarcasm: “‘Be sure you mention that to the press, Sam, or better yet to the jury. I’m sure they’re all great fans of postwar existentialist French literature.'”

Sam Madison’s veneer of thinly veiled contempt is a cover-up for a man who is gradually and inevitably being shaken to his core. His mind is more and more frequently cast back into the past, his past with Sandrine, when their love was new and filled with hope and happy anticipation. Here he describes his feelings after indulging, while in court, in an especially poignant reverie:

Before that moment I’d sat in utter silence, completely still. I’d faced the witnesses squarely and offered no visible response to anything they’d said. But in the surprising insistence of that particular recollection I felt the emergence of a second, far darker tribunal, the grand inquisitor in his black robe, demanding to know what really happened, how with so starry a beginning I’d reached this starless night.

That is so beautifully put – I especially like the use of the word tribunal. There’s plenty of writing like this in Sandrine’s Case. But the greatest strength of the novel lies in its exploration of one person’s mind and heart, in its depiction of what the truth really consists of, and how, once that truth stands revealed, it has the power to alter a person’s most basic assumptions about the world, about other people, and most of all, about him- or herself.

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Last October, an article by Thomas H. Cook entitled “The Ten Best Mystery Books” appeared in Publishers Weekly. His annotations are so persuasive, it’ll make you want to obtain his selections immediately. (The fact that three of my all time favorites are on this list may partly account for my enthusiasm. They are The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, A Coffin for Demetrios by Eric Ambler, and The Quiet American by Graham Greene.)

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The Mystery Writers of America, the organization that bestows the Edgar Awards, features on its site a database that allows you to access the names of award winners and nominees going back to the inception of the award in 1946.

 

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Carrying your soul like a treasure through life….Alice Munro, once more with feeling

March 12, 2014 at 10:43 am (Awards, Book clubs, books, Short stories)

9780307390349_custom-e27155c40d223c6858288333cae9ff0dc4056f80-s6-c30  When it was announced that Alice Munro had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, AAUW Readers expressed a desire to discuss some of her short stories. (As for me, I had my own, slightly hysterical reaction  to this much deserved recognition of one of my favorite writers.)

As I had previously led such a discussion – twice, in fact – I suggested that we talk about some of the stories in the 2009 collection Too Much Happiness. I said some rather than all, because despite their relative brevity, these tales have more density, ambiguity, and just plain strangeness than many a full length novel. You can spend a fair amount of time discussing just one of them. And so it proved.

Of the stories in this collection, reviewer Troy Jollimore said this:

The power of random events lies at the heart of “Too Much Happiness.” Nearly every story here hinges on some calamity, some unanticipated and mostly arbitrary event. Such things appear, before they happen, neither probable nor possible, though afterward they may well come to seem inevitable.

Nowhere is this truer than in the opening story, “Dimensions.” Doree, an unworldly and gentle soul, marries Lloyd, a hospital orderly whose surface geniality masks a ruthless need for domination. He and Doree have three children in quick succession; all during this time, Lloyd increases his oppression of Doree, bending her to his will and all but extinguishing whatever spirit she still possesses. Finally, out of the relentless workings of this pressure cooker existence, the explosion comes.

The climactic event of this first story is so awful that some readers declared themselves too put off to continue. Or if they did continue, it was under duress and with heightened anxiety. But even those whose reactions were strongly negative admitted the power of the writing. Here is how Munro describes Doree’s life in the aftermath:

For almost two years she had not taken any notice of the things that generally made people happy, such as nice weather or flowers or the smell of a bakery.

From a previous reading, I had written in the margin that this was as succinct a description of human misery as any I’d ever encountered.

In the first part of “Dimensions,” Lloyd emerges as the kind of person most of us meet with at some point, either in real life or in fiction. Here’s my description of a similar character in another context:

Bart Hansen is a veritable case study of the narcissistic personality. His numerous woes are everyone’s fault but his own. His list of grievances is epic and endless, no one understands him, he is sorely put upon, etc. And as for that dreadful crime….who are they talking about anyway in that courtroom? Surely not him: he could never do such a thing!

Bart Hansen is a character in “The Execution,” one of four novellas in  Evil Eye by Joyce Carol Oates.

One of  the readers commented that the power of “Dimensions” lies in the meaning of the title: that the characters, Doree in particular, live in an always changing dimension as events unfold. And those events do unfold with a kind of terrible inevitability, until at the very end there is an unanticipated moment of genuine consolation.

The story we considered next was “Wenlock Edge.” Where “Dimensions” was shocking and tragic (and for some, bewildering), this one is just plain weird. As with many Munro stories, “Wenlock Edge” opens in a studied and understated way, with the introduction of a character who goes on to play a supporting rather than a leading role in subsequent events:

My mother had a bachelor cousin who used to visit us on the farm once a summer. He brought along his mother, Aunt Nell Botts. His own name was Ernie Botts.

In demeanor, Ernie seems to have been a sufficiently pleasant person; physically, however, he was at best unprepossessing. Because he tended to be somewhat heavy in the hip region, the narrator referred to him, when he was out of earshot, as Earnest Bottom. She adds: “I had a mean tongue.”

This narrator, whose name is never divulged, is destined to be on the receiving end of a life lesson that is equal parts unanticipated and bizarre. It requires that she accede to an outrageous demand.

The title “Wenlock Edge” refers to the poem “On Wenlock Edge” by A.E. Housman. This poem is part of a cycle of sixty-three poems published in 1896 and  called A Shropshire Lad. In a key scene in the story, the narrator is asked by an elderly man to read to him from this collection. The circumstances in which this occurs are singular, to say the least.

Here is the poem “On Wenlock Edge:”

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.

At first sight, this poem is somewhat confounding – at least, with its esoteric and archaic vocabulary, it confounded me. An excellent explication can be  found on a site called Hokku.

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“On Wenlock Edge” and other Housman poems were set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams. In this video, tenor Ian Bostridge sings them and also tells something of their background:

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We were in Shropshire in 2011. It’s easily one of the most mysterious and beautiful places I have ever been to. Wenlock Edge is defined as “a limestone escarpment near Much Wenlock, Shropshire.” We saw it from a distance. Here it is, photographed from the air:

wenlock-edge-from-the-air

While there, it was my great good fortune to obtain this gorgeously illustrated edition of A Shropshire Lad:

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The next story we looked at was “Deep-Holes.” A husband and wife are on a picnic excursion with their three young children. What appears on the surface to be an ordinary family outing turns out to be anything but. The eldest child, Kent, tumbles down a hole and is severely injured. Sally and Alex are informed of the accident by their younger son Peter. Sally meanwhile is attempting to nurse baby Savanna.

There follows the inevitable panic. By Herculean effort, Alex manage to rescue Kent, who has broken both legs. One of the breaks was sufficiently severe that he’s left with a slight limp. Other than that, he recovers and seems to be fine. Yet this outing proves fateful, in more ways than one. The family goes on as before, but there’s  been a subtle change, especially as regards relations between Kent and his  father.

In fact, this discussion made me realize that “Deep-Holes” is a story about the father-son relationship. I mentioned reading somewhere once that every son must eventually face a moment of reckoning with his father. This moment can be especially fraught if the father is difficult and demanding, or has achieved  a distinguished position in the world and expects his son to do the same. The irony in this story lies in the fact that Sally is the one who ultimately bears the brunt of Kent’s accumulated resentments.

This story elicited some personal (and to a certain extent, painful) recollections from members of our group . One involved a brother, a favored sibling in the family, who joined a cult and cut himself off from that same family. Another was of an elder brother whose troubled relationship with their father never achieved a satisfactory resolution.

As we were trying to parse the differences between an American and a Canadian sensibility, one among us revealed that she’d lived in Calgary, Alberta, for a time. When you dwell in the Canadian provinces, she assured us, you definitely know that you’re outside the U.S. The place just had a different feel. This was even more true of the small towns in the region. (Actually, her observations reminded me of how I felt when I left the Baltimore/Washington area to go live in a small town in southern Wisconsin. I’d lived in South Korea for a year prior to that move, and I felt more of an alien in Wisconsin, perhaps because I didn’t expect to feel so thoroughly out of place there.)

The penultimate choice for discussion was “Child’s Play,” a story that begins with unprovoked hatred and culminates in an act of terrible malevolence. When I first wrote about Too Much Happiness, I said that “Child’s Play” put me in mind of  “The Tell Tale Heart.” by Edgar Allan Poe.   Both stories illustrate “the generative effect of a baseless loathing,” but there the similarity stops.

“Child’s Play” contains a sentence that demonstrates the way in which Munro’s stories sometimes go quietly along and then wallop you:

I suppose I hated her as some people hate snakes or caterpillars or mice or slugs. For no decent reason. Not for any certain harm she could do but for the way she could disturb your innards and make you sick of your life.

With Poe’s narrator, it is, of course, the old man’s eye:

He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

Poe’s narrator is a lone actor, whereas in “Child’s Play,” Marlene and Charlene act in concert. Before they act, though, they’ve spun a web to enclose one another in their own unique world, one in which irrational feelings and beliefs make perfect sense. This phenomenon has a name: folie à deux, also called shared psychotic disorder. That may seem an extreme diagnosis in the case of these two ordinary-seeming girls – that is, until they do what they do.

That “Child’s Play” is told by Marlene in the first person makes it all the more provocative. She circles the horror at the center of the story, unwilling to confront it until the very end. Back and forth she goes, from her childhood to her life as adult, leaping lightly over the truth at the center of things until Charlene’s plea renders continued denial all but impossible. Charlene is desperate for absolution. But what about Marlene? What does she truly feel about their shared past? We can never know. Munro lets you into her heart and mind just so far, and then no further.

So intense was our discussion of these four stories that we barely had time to discuss “Too Much Happiness.” The title story in this collection is substantially longer than the preceding ones and differs from them in significant ways. It recounts the life of Sophia Kovalevsky, the first great female Russian mathematician. (The feminine form of the last name is Kovalevskaya. Her first name is sometimes spelled Sofia, and she was also known as Sonya. One must be mentally nimble when dealing with Russian names.)

Sophia’s life, both in its personal and professional aspects, was a constant struggle. She could not travel outside her native land without the consent of either parents or husband. Therefore she acquired a husband for that specific purpose, so that she could pursue her studies at some of Europe’s great institutions of learning. Not long after, the husband dies; so does Sophia’s sister. When she goes to visit her widowed brother-in-law and her adolescent nephew, she is shabbily treated. Urey, the nephew, is especially mean-spirited, disparaging Sophia’s study of mathematics as unnecessary and a waste of time. He himself declares that he aspires to be employed on buses to call out the names of stations – a much more useful occupation, he smugly informs his aunt, than that of mathematician.

Urey reminds me of Kent in “Deep-Holes.” In fact, Munro’s fiction features a veritable gallery of repugnant and nasty offspring. She’s the least sentimental writer on the subject of children that I’ve ever encountered (with the possible exception of Joyce Carol Oates). They turn on their well-meaning parents and/or relations for no apparent reason. Or if they don’t turn on them, at the very least they abandon them, as Kent does.

In an acknowledgement at the end of the book, Alice Munro says that she discovered Sophia Kovalevsky while researching another topic in the encyclopedia. Many of us who love to do research have had similar experiences.

Sophia is in love with Maksim, a man who resents her intellectual accomplishments and aspirations and in my view is in no way worthy of her. But of course such considerations carry very little weight where matter of of the heart are concerned. Sophia seems to me a conflicted woman, wanting to excel in her field but also willing, even eager, to submit to a man’s domination. Sometimes, in both life  and art, our preferences do not line up as neatly as we would wish them to.

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Sophia Kovalevsky 1850-1891

Someone in our group said that “Too Much Happiness” was her least favorite story. One problem all of us encountered when reading it is that the cast of characters was large and sometimes hard to keep track of. In addition, there was a great deal of time shifting, a narrative device to which Munro is quite partial. Usual she makes use of it very effectively, but perhaps because of the length of this particular story, it can cause some confusion regarding the sequence of events. Nevertheless, I really liked it, mainly because of its recreation of the world of late nineteenth century academia and because, like Munro, I was deeply gratified to be introduced to this extraordinary woman, whose existence I’d not  been previously aware of.
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In general, some members of our  group liked Alice Munro’s fiction more than others. One person said that these stories simply did not work for her because  she could not like or identify with any of the characters, nor did she find them sympathetic or likeable.. Yet this same individual made valuable contributions to the discussion. I know I complain about the demands of book groups, but sessions like this remind me of how exhilarating and edifying  the experience can be.
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There are some excellent critiques and posts on the subject of Alice Munro’s works. In particular I’d like to recommend Reading the Short Story, a blog by Charles May, Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Long Beach.
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c16711  For those wanting to read more of Alice Munro’s stories, I recommend Carried Away: Selected Stories, published in 2006. The selecting was done by Munro herself, as representative of what she considered to be her best work to date. The book contains a very illuminating introduction by Margaret Atwood.
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It has to be said these stories are not for everyone. Some readers find them too bleak and too perverse in their view of human nature. But I find them both mesmerizing and brilliant.

While I was preparing for this discussion, I let Carried Away fall open to where I’d stuck a post-it flag a couple of years ago. This is what I found:

My mother prayed on her knees at midday, at night, and first thing in the morning. Every day opened up to her to have God’s will done in it. Every night she totted up what she’d done and said and thought, to see how it squared with Him. That kind of life is dreary, people think, but they’re missing the point. For one thing, such a life can never be boring. And nothing can happen to you that you can’t make use of. Even if you’re wracked by troubles, and sick and poor and ugly, you’ve got your soul to carry through life like a treasure on a platter. Going upstairs to pray after the noon meal, my mother would be full of energy and expectation, seriously smiling.

                                                                                                      From “The Progress of Love”

Alice Munro

Alice Munro

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Stop the presses: Alice Munro wins the Nobel Prize for Literature!

October 10, 2013 at 5:14 pm (Awards, books, Short stories)

MunroNobel

Yes, yes, YES!!

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One keeps hearing that she is greatest short story master currently at work. Really, she’s one of the best writers, period – in any form or medium.

Click here for the official announcement.

Here are some links to various media: The New YorkTimes,  The Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal, and The Toronto Globe and Mail. Here’s the lead in Globe and Mail article:

For the first time in history, the Nobel prize in literature has been awarded to a Canadian. Alice Munro, one of the world’s most respected and admired writers, was named this morning as the winner of the prize in an especially notable year: one in which she has announced her retirement.

How proud they must be, and with every reason.
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9780307264862_p0_v1_s260x420  If you are a newcomer to the works of this author, the collection Carried Away, published by Everyman’s Library in 2006, is a good place to start. Munro selected her favorites from her own body of work, to be included in this volume. Be sure not to miss the two collections that have come out since that year: Too Much Happiness and Dear Life.

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Of books and reading

September 27, 2013 at 10:02 pm (Awards, books, Library)

First, award nominations.

The National Book Awards long list has been posted, as well as the Man Booker Prize long and short lists.

Note that one book appears on both: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. I’ve read all three of her other books – Interpreter of Maladies (winner of the year 2000 Pulitzer Prize), The Namesake, and Unaccustomed Earth – and I’m greatly looking forward to reading this one.

The (extremely prestigious) Man Booker Prize has been in the news recently, due to the announcement of a broadening of the eligibility requirements. All fiction written in English will now enter the competition. We all know what that means. Watch out: the Americans are coming!

Inevitably, not everyone is pleased.
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Eve if you’ve already read my recent post on public libraries, it’s worth taking a second look. Two thoughtful and engaging comments have recently been appended.
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Thomas’s comment reminded me that I haven’t visited his site in a while. So I went there – and what treasures! Lists and more lists…

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Every once in a while, the judges get it exactly right

March 13, 2010 at 8:58 pm (Awards, books)

This past Thursday, the National Book Critics Circle announced its winners for 2009.  Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantels’ magisterial work of historical fiction, received the fiction prize. The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes’s astonishingly capacious history of science in the Romantic Age, won for general nonfiction.

Books were cited in four other categories. Click here for the complete list.

So gratifying, really, to have such an august body validating one’s own choices!

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