4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
I first discovered Alice Munro by reading The Love Of A Good Woman. The second volume that I've read was Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. I've reviewed the later at Amazon, giving it that rarer accolade: 6-stars. The list of authors who only had one really good book in them is long; subsequent works were often pale shadows of the great one. Not so Alice Munro. She continues to craft short stories of undiminished excellence. There simply is not a weak one in this collection. I admire the tightness, the sheer density of her work. Like some Picasso paintings, with an economy of lines that are sufficient to convey the entire image, she presents the reader with an abundance of information with only a few sentences. Throughout her stories, she maintains the reader in a high state of dramatic tension. She bobs and weaves, and it is impossible to predict how she will end it. Ah, much like life itself, and it would be difficult to find a keener observer that Ms. Munro.
There are ten stories in this collection; the first nine are all slices, albeit extraordinary, drawn from contemporary Canadian life. In "Dimensions," there is Lloyd, a crazy ex-hippie who works as an orderly, and who marries Doree. The title suggests a new dimension that their two kids have entered. And the ending, indeed, one of those real life surprises. "Fiction" is quintessentially modern, with multiple marriages, different sexual orientations, and a wedding party that brings them together. Is it possible that one of the attendees, a new author, recognizes the woman who was once her music teacher? "Wenlock edge" is one of her "edgier" pieces, with two young women, one a veritable baby production machine, and the varying ways they maintain themselves via older men. I heard the screech of chalk on the board in this one several times. "Deep-holes" concerns the son of a geologist who falls into a deep hole in the rocks. Does it mark him for the rest of his life? He grows estranged from his family, and there is a heart-breaking reunion with his mother later in life - as with much of Munro, it is not what you might expect. The tension is strong also in "Free Radicals," as a woman, 62, with terminal cancer, must outwit an unexpected visitor. "Face" is all about a birth mark, and how that one oddity, like many others, so marks, as it were, the individual's relationships with the rest of humanity. Do they all make fun, particularly the "cruel" children, or is there some empathy, displayed in strange ways? The central character in "Some Women" is a man dying of leukemia, back when the treatment options were severely circumscribed. The title refers to the three women who surround him: his wife, his mother-in-law, and a woman invited to the home to give massages. The story centers on the interactions of the women; he coming on stage at the end in decisive action. "Child's Play" addresses again the cruelty of children, and a horrible secret that is carried to the end of one of principal character's life. Why, oh why can we be so heartless to those less fortunate; who drew the bad hands in life? And "Wood" concerns a man who works with it, loves it, and harvests it, and the premonitions of his wife.
The tenth story breaks the pattern. It is a fictionalized account of the life of Sophia Kovalevsky, a 19th Century Russian mathematician, who broke many barriers and molds herself. She became the first woman to teach mathematics at a university in Europe. That progressive step was taken in Sweden. The story concerns certainly her loves, her "white" marriage, the life of the upper class in late 19th century Europe, as well as those who hoped to bring it down, notably via the Commune, in Paris, in 1871. Dostoevsky, the mathematician Henri Poincaré, Charlotte Corday, and others are skillfully woven into this penetrating recreation of her life. For what it's worth, Kovalevsky has even had a crater on the moon named after her.
Like so many of her characters, Alice Munro is Canadian. She both transcends and places Canadian literature on the world stage, for she remains THE short story writer without equal. Again, with all hyperventilation aside: 6-stars.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 7 December 2010
Alice Munro is my favourite living short story writer, and this collection does not disappoint except, strangely for the long title story. Unlike the other contemporary pieces, this one is set in the nineteenth century and centres on the real-life Sophia Kovalevsky, a Russian mathematician and novelist. The story simply did not come to life for me, and it seems out of place among the rest of the collection, though Munro clearly wants to draw attention to it through the title. Other readers may be entirely captivated by the romantic complications Sophia faces; I am perfectly ready to accept that the fault is my own, but all criticism is subjective.
The other stories are set in familiar Munro territory - in and around Ontario, focusing on small lives - but nothing is ever quite familiar with this writer, who has the unerring ability to unsettle us, often by examining the brittleness of relationships, sometimes by the placing of quirky incidents in seemingly ordinary circumstancess, as here in the story 'Wenlock Edge' where a student takes her friend's usual place as a solitary guest in a wealthy man's home and is invited, quite coolly and charmingly, to dine with him completely naked. Equally oddly, she complies, without knowing why, and nothing happens - the man continues conversational and correct throughout the meal. The perverse strangeness of it reminded me of Pip's visits to Miss Havisham in 'Great Expectations'.
I believe Miss Munro has said this will be her last book. She is 75, but I do hope there's more to come from her yet. As readers of her work, we can't have too much happiness.
This review is by David Williams writerinthenorth
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 26 September 2014
'Dimensions,' is a complex, disturbing and extraordinary short story buried in the middle of 'Too much happiness', a recent (2010) collection by Alice Munro. 'Dimensions' tells the story of Doree, an abused wife whose husband killed their children, a subject which I suspect would make many of us turn away and try, if anything, to disengage from. But Munro pulls the reader in kicking to a story which begins with a very familiar kind of domestic bullying but which in Munro's capable hands eventually comes to hold the largest of all possible themes: religion, terrorism, grief, power, madness. Munro skilfully shows the insidious ways in which Doree's power is taken, how each power grab by her abuser is infinitesimally small but how the changes gather in her. Munro unstitches the reader a little too, until what might have looked at first glance like a complicity or submission on Doree's part, starts to seem more like something which in small, slow changes could happen to anybody's daughter, mother, friend. Doree's youth, her inexperience, lack of education and disconnection from strong family or friendship connections, above all the repeated pregnancies which her husband uses to control her (conveniently the abuser 'doesn't believe in' contraception), these are not the only things which make Doree vulnerable but they certainly don't help. Munro tells the very human story behind the gruesome headlines, unravelling the ways in which a person may be entrapped and made invisible over the course of a long relationship until being abused feels normal.
Munro explores some interesting questions around the role of therapy and religion in the aftermath of tragedy: Mrs Sands does not look Doree in the eye and face her patient's pain safely, squarely, perhaps because she's not sure she can handle it herself. The therapist's need to take professional measures to distance herself in a case like Doree's seems entirely human and Mrs Sands is by no means unkind, she is not even a bad therapist, Munro appears to hint that the problem simply goes beyond the solutions therapy has to offer. Or perhaps that the therapist's failure to reach Doree has been not so much a lack of empathy on her part as a lack of courage. Mrs Sands finds small ways to step around relating completely to her patient, she calls Doree's dead children "Your family", small pause and head slightly averted. Micro-moments but enough to make Doree feel that her children have become unmentionable, or clumped together in death. Nameless. She feels that there has been a terrible kind of 'forgetting' of her children as they really were, they've vanished behind a newspaper headline, a kind of second death. Munro is a master of the small heartbreaking touches, Doree visits her children's killer the first time just to hear their names spoken aloud. Munro doesn't shy away from showing us the self-blame, the shame, the complex ties of the abused to the abuser, above all Doree's absolute isolation, "Nobody who knew about it would want me around. All I can do is remind people of what nobody can stand to be reminded of."
Munro feeds us the clues slowly, evoking the insidious messages given in an abusive relationship, how slowly it starts until the victim is quite entangled, "She was even allowed to laugh with him, as long as she wasn't the one who started the laughing." And, "He got worse, gradually. No direct forbidding, but more criticism." Doree's husband prefers to ensure she sabotages herself, and like any good dictator wants to control every aspect of her life, up to and including what she wears. He wants her to be a blank sheet for him to write himself on, until even her clothes (perhaps the most basic unit of self expression) make her "a reflection less of the way she was than the way he wanted to see her." And as with any power grab there is a struggle over Voice: who gets to speak, when, and with what authority. And the answer for Doree is little, rarely, and with no authority at all. For her there is how he said to feel then there's how she felt, and those two things become like separate countries as Doree's slowly silenced by her abuser. At his most dangerous her husband controls the entire narrative of their lives together, he says how it is and how it was. This culminates in him feeding the newspaper a slur about Doree as a mother, quietly transferring the blame for his murders. She wants to see him, at least in part, "to make him take it back." The words matter. Worst of all, Doree visits him out of an almost primitive desire to retrace her steps, to find what she lost, where and how and Munro lets her readers softly hold their breaths for Doree. Allows us to see what Doree cannot: that her secrecy, her shame around the abuse leaves her ever more vulnerable to the further manipulations of a stone cold killer. Vulnerable enough that his cultish beliefs and delusions can take a further grip on her psyche and we can feel some sympathy for Mrs Sands here: what chance does therapy have against a belief system which tells a grieving mother that her children live and may be returned to her? Doree knows, deep down, that her abuser's magical beliefs are not true and yet ... And yet. We see her almost rationally considering taking on his madness. That it might be a more bearable, liveable strategy than what she knows to be real and true. That madness might be necessary even.
Ironically it is another crisis which appears to pull Doree back from this outer edge. A traffic accident on her bus route home and a youth hangs precariously between breathing and not breathing by a ditch. Doree has some basic resuscitation training. Here Munro, writing at the height of her considerable powers, evokes every atom of the pained wonder of the boy simply existing at the very edge between life and death, and with the grieving mother beside him, breathing for him for a while. We can almost feel Doree's awe at the first breath the boy can take without her, and his next breath and the next one. The wonder too as Doree begins to understand this breath to be also her own breath, and precious. And so Doree's story begins and ends with a bus route. In the beginning Doree has a series of interlinked buses to navigate, to get to where she thinks she needs to be and the complexity of her personal arrangements at the outset serve as a distraction from the gaping hole at the heart of her life, her grief. At the end of the story, Doree tells the impatient bus driver to go on without her, and as its lights blink away in the distance she finds something essential. It feels like one more of Munro's small miracles when Doree who once stuffed grass, sheets, towels, in her mouth in an attempt to stop feeling, and who could not cry because the problem was not in her eyes but in her stomach (she could heave but not make tears) is now able to slip beyond the alienating world around her to find something that she needs to go on: a sense of the precariousness and preciousness of life, including her own:
"Be quiet, be quiet, she wanted to tell them. It seemed to her that silence was necessary, that everything in the boy's body had to concentrate ... Breathe."
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 21 August 2013
My biggest complaint is that the cover (which includes the usual misleading blurbs) gives the impression that this is a novel. Nowhere does it inform the potential reader that what we get here is ten short stories, surprisingly varied in subject matter and style.
One theme the stories do have in common however (despite the rather ironic title) is death, or at least the expectation of death, be it murder, accident, suicide or illness. Another common characteristic of these stories is that although they are all relatively short, they often cover a long time scale, even whole lifetimes in some cases. This is accomplished without any difficulty, and the stories are all easy to read and enjoyable enough, given the limitations of the short story in general (ie, not enough time to fully involve the reader or develop the characters, a criticism that applies to this collection to some extent).
Only one of the ten made me wonder what was the point, and as it was I think the sixth story, I was already impressed enough to keep reading, which I'm glad I did because the final story, the one that gives the book its title, is both very different and perhaps the most enjoyable. This is a brief foray into the realms of historical fiction based on fact, about the life of a Russian mathematics professor, the first woman to hold such a position. A lot of good stuff packed into a small space.
So all in all, highly recommended. Just don't expect to be drawn in the way you might be with a good novel.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 15 October 2011
I don't usually read anthologies of short stories so I don't have a benchmark to compare the stories in this book to, but I have been left feeling slightly disappointed after each story except perhaps for "Free Radicals" and "Deep-Holes". I found that the stories tended to hook me in and my interest in the characters and plot would build up to fever pitch, and then......not a lot would happen. It almost felt like, with each story, the author had started off writing a novel and then remembered a few pages in that she was supposed to be writing a short story, so she just abandoned the characters and the plot, at times very abruptly.
on 18 August 2015
You never quite know where you're headed with a Munro story, but it will always be somewhere spectacular, where it takes your breath away. In this collection of 10 stories, Munro deals with the grittier side of human nature that surfaces in often innocuous places. In the first story, "Dimensions", we are introduced to Doree, a chambermaid at a smallish inn, who needs to take three buses just to get to a facility. We soon find out she is a mother of three, with an abusive husband, and the story that leads her to her current situation is shocking and bloodcurdling.
The presumed innocence of children is also challenged in"Child's Play", when Marlene recalls how a neighbour's child with special needs, Verna, had terrorised her, and the fear and loathing she experiences when she encounters Verna at a summer camp. Marlene's account is prefaced by the observation: "Every year, when you're a child, you become a different person", and its ominous significance only becomes clear at the end of the story for the way certain horrific acts can get shelved away because they seemed to belong to a different person who carried out that act in a specific time and place that is disconnected from the here and now.
"Deep Holes" and "Fiction" examines failed relationships and how they linger, even in latter years, regardless if they are between husband and wife or mother and child. In a particularly haunting and suspenseful tale, "Free Radicals", a recently bereaved widow finds herself reconstructing her own past to save her own life in a most surprising way. If there is one story that I feel did not engage as much is surprisingly the titular last story, which is based on female mathematician and novelist Sophia Kovalesvksy, though it does a good job as a piece of reimagined historical fiction.
on 22 June 2015
Too Much Happiness is a collection of short stories, which I know aren't everyone's cup of tea but I really enjoy them – when they are done well, and these were.
Alice Munro has a way of drawing me in from pretty much the first sentence and painting pictures of people and places that feel very real to me. I was amazed throughout this book just how quickly I became involved in the stories and attached to the characters.
There are 10 stories in this collection and all but one, Too Much Happiness, are set in Canada sometime in the past (between the late 40s and 70s I think). And all, bar one, are pure fiction as far as I can tell. Too Much Happiness is the one that isn’t. Instead, it is based on the last days of Russian mathematician and novelist Sophia Kovalevsky.
This is the longest of the stories too. When I started it, I wasn’t sure if I was enjoying it and it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of what I’d been reading. In retrospect, though, it is one of the ones that has stayed with me most and it does follow the same themes of women trying to make their way in a world they seem slightly out of sync with. They are looking for their place in it, often after an important life event, and their expectations of themselves and others seem to change as they get older.
The other story I couldn’t let go of was Child’s Play, a tale of childhood cruelty and how this can be hard to let go of. There is a twist in the tail of this one that made me stop for more than a second. This story is about 30 pages, as are the rest, making them easy to fit in and read in bursts. As well as childhood, the stories deal with domestic abuse, infidelity, ruined friendships, mothers and sons, bereavement, and love. None are easy subjects and some are pretty uncomfortable reading. All are handled well, even the most disturbing, though – making me think back through my own life and ask questions of the world around me. They are all well worth a read. Highly recommended!
Sadly, some books are not that memorable but I often find that the atmosphere of a book stays with me, rather than the detail. Not a good thing, particularly since it is often in the detail, the particularity, that a book has captured me, rather than in the general gist. Nevertheless, I must say that I enjoyed Alice Munro's collection - she is a satisfying sort of writer, rather like a good meal, there has been variety, nourishment, enjoyablity. Surprise, of a good kind, even when the situation of the story has jumped up and bit me. Wenlock Edge, is such a story, taking in situations that might threaten and alarm. Never mind, she is in control. Never telling us what to think, only holding out the extraordinary as a kind of bonus.
Face is a story about a child with an unignorable birthmark of which the father says, "You don't need to think you're going to bring that into the house." This reaction sets the scene: one side of the boy's face is normal, the other "...looks as if someone has dumped grape juice or paint on me, a big serious splash that does not turn to driblets till it reaches my neck." He makes a living on radio as an announcer. But the main point of the story concerns a neighbour's daughter who becomes obsessed by the naevus to the point that she wants one too.
The title story Too Much Happiness is almost a novella and gives Munro space to develop a theme based on the adventure of mathematics, about which she says: "Many persons who have not studied mathematics confuse it with arithmetic and consider it a dry and arid science. Actually, however, this science requires great fantasy." Here I have to confess my incomprehension. Maths is a mystery to me. But what I took from this story was a beautiful sense of the Russian character which had me thinking that maybe I should read Tolstoy, who I have so far evaded. No, not even Anna Karenina. She spread before me a sense of the fatalism and inherent revolutionary nature of Russia, and this was, for me, inspiring in itself. I've read Crime and Punishment, of course, which I loved, but now I might venture further.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
I have heard Alice Munro described so often as one of the greatest contemporary short story writers that I had high expectations for this book. The length of the stories surprised me, together with her frequent tendency to ramble from what seems to be the main thread of each tale. Then there is the tendency to skim in a few pages through decades of a character's life, often telling us what to make of people and situations, rather than implying or revealing these aspects. Yet from the outset I thought I could see the reasons for Munro's fame in her easy, confident and very readable style, the rapid building up of situations and characters, the occasional very insightful comments which chime with one's own experience of life, clarifying some point which has lain dormant in one's own mind, and one suddenly recognises to be true.
I was held by the continuous sense that a story is heading somewhere meaningful and thought provoking, and by the knowledge that, at any point, she may insert some dark and shocking event: a man murders his children in a jealous rage, a widow realises that the gas man she has admitted to her house is in fact a crazed killer. I suspect that most people will find that some stories leave them cold, but they are moved by a few to which they can particularly relate, such as a mother's sense of loss before steeling herself to accept that her son has "dropped out" to become an anarchist.
I agree with the reviewer who found the title story "Too Much Happiness" hard to engage with - it reads like a draft of a story, based on research notes - but I do not mind that it is "out of character" with the rest in being the tale of a female Russian mathematician in the late nineteenth century, rather than a series of tales of small town Canadian life - a kind of Lake Woebegone with a sting in the tale. Also, the title seems inappropriate for the collection as a whole, since most of the themes are somewhat bleak.
Although these stories are admirable and original, characters appear implausible at times and plots often seem very slight with underwhelming downbeat endings(as in Wenlock Edge) and left me ambivalent - not sure what to make of some stories and wondering whether I had missed something! I suppose that the scope for debating what each one means adds interest - good for reading groups and so on! I was made very aware of Monro's age with many of these stories harking back to a distant youth, and reflecting on a whole lifetime (as in Face). I plan to read some of her earlier work to see if the stories have a tighter structure and make more of an impact.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 8 February 2010
I've read Alice Munro's short stories before and enjoyed them but these are in a different class. She is a wonderful writer with a clear,elegant style and extraordinary psychological understanding. They're absorbing to read and stay in your mind long after you've finished. The stories are quite long - novellas rather than short stories - and I can't imagine anyone not enjoying them. Even people who normally don't like short stories may find they have to change their opinions after reading Too Much Hapiness.