Too Much Happiness Paperback – 2 Sep 2010
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"She writes with a beautiful clarity, an elemental humanity and a marvellous, limpid, funny, apprehension of what goes on" (Jane Shilling Sunday Telegraph)
"Some of the most honest, intuitive and exacting fiction, long or short, of our time" (Tom Gatti The Times)
"Munro's bold, unflinching narratives have taken the short story places many a novelist has feared to tread... That she does this in a style both calm and deliberate, fluid yet tightly controlled, stark yet compassionate, is what makes her insights into the human condition so profound" (Mary Crockett Scotsman)
"Written with veteran assurance, brimming with intensely believable characters and rich social detail, these dispatches from the most unsparing reaches of Munro's imagination confirm her acclaimed place on the highest ground of contemporary fiction" (Peter Kemp Sunday Times)
"Alice Munro commands enormous respect and almost uncritical adoration from her readers" (Elaine Showalter Literary Review)
**Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature**
A brilliant, compelling new collection from one of the world's greatest living short-story writers, and winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2009.
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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.
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.
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.
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