When I think contemporary short stories in English, I think Alice Munro.
Free Reads and Free Listens of her stories are at the bottom of this post.
I realize that Alice Munro has been writing for a long time, and I also realize that she has been dominating the short story genre in English for most of that time. I know I have come really late to the party on this topic, but to be honest, I have never had much patience with short stories. Ironic, right? Give me a 1000 page novel, and I’m fine. I first read Gone with the Wind when I was 14, and I was the talk of the 9th grade when I was carrying that giant paperback around. But short stories have always tried my patience because you have to reorient yourself for each one and recreate new characters. So to me, that’s a lot of work. Since I’ve been reading them more lately, I’ve also noticed that I tend to focus more on the length of the stories, but I don’t pay much attention to chapters when I read novels. Weird, hun?
When I decided to start writing about short stories…well, I didn’t decide to actually, my daughter asked me to…I started thinking about which authors I know of who are known for writing short stories, and of course, Alice Munro came to mind. So I chose Dear Life as one of her more recent story collections, and gave it a go.
After the first story, “To Reach Japan,” I wasn’t sure what I thought, but by the time I got to “Train”, I was hooked. Wow, have I ever lived that story. Not to that extent, where the couple is together for years, but the idea of someone’s being in your life for a really long time, and then just gone. Gone. Which can happen when you are in a situation where people don’t have close ties, and by that I mean roots and backgrounds. It’s ironic, yet telling, that the protagonist is returning home from one of the most transient situations in the the entire 20th century, World War 2, when he decides to go another way.
What I really enjoy about this particular story collection is that Munro manages to catch me off guard every single time…even by the end of the book, I don’t anticipate how the stories are going to end. But the endings don’t feel contrived or “tricky”. What they feel like to me, is life.
Even though I eventually came to expect the surprise ending, I wasn’t reading for it, if you know what I mean. I was enjoying the story. I also wasn’t tempted to flip ahead and see how many pages were left, which is big for me. It also meant that I wasn’t anticipating the ending.
The older I’ve gotten, and especially after living abroad, the more I’ve come to accept that life can completely change in an instant. And when you are dealing with people you have just met, you have no way of knowing what demons they may have inside them that may cause a completely unexpected response. Especially when you are in an unsettled time or place or with groups of people who are unfamiliar. Now that I’m used to it, the unsettlement is good. It means I can tolerate what is happening, if it’s not good, and I can appreciate the good times without ruining them by trying to hold on to them. I loved seeing this experience reflected in these stories.
The thing I like about this collection is that it makes me feel like my life makes a little more sense and that I understand it a little better.
Read The Lois Level’s Guide to Reading Short Stories here.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I was taught NOTHING about Canada in school. It really is shocking. If you feel the same way, here’s some help.
This video below helped me understand our border. It reminds me of the saying “good fences make good neighbors”:
Finally, and I am excited to bring you this, we have Free Read/Family Read from Prof. E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation on Canada, that is appropriate for children ages 8 and up. You have to register to download the freebies, but I know this is a legitimate organization.
The Core Knowledge is the foundation started by Prof. E.D. Hirsch to promote the Core Knowledge curriculum, which was big in the 90’s. Now, the American curriculum is more skill based, but Hirsch’s work is still valid for the framework of content it provides.
Hirsch is a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, where I did my graduate work.
Free Reads and Free Listens of Alice Munro’s stories
My favorite story from Dear Life, “Train”, freely available through Harper’s Magazine.
Munro’s story “Corrie” read by Margaret Atwood, Canadian author of the The Handmaid’s Tale, from The New Yorker.
Note: as of this writing, The New Yorker grants readers access to a limited number of articles each month without a subscription, so be ready when you click!
25 Alice Munro stories you can read right now from LitHub
I finally read some of her stories, and I found her accessible and not too depressing. You don’t always like her characters, you may not understand them completely, but I think you will get where they’re coming from, and you won’t hate yourself in the morning.
To my Canadian friends
I would like to dedicate this post to my dear friends who conducted my Canadian education. You know who you are, and I know it was difficult for you. I’d also like to thank the Embassy of Canada for having such well educated workers and very cool ambassadors. Finally, a shout out to the Embassy of the United Kingdom, who allowed the “colonists”, even traitorous citizens of the United States, to hang out in their clubs and spend hours discussing these things.
Understanding Canada and Canadians
One of the things I especially like about this collection is that it is clearly and definitely set in Canada, in the Southwestern part of Ontario. If you are United-States-American (which I will refer to as “American” from here on out of no disrespect to our Canadian cousins but because United Statesian just doesn’t work), point yourself north of the Great Lakes. If you are like many Americans, even that part of the US maybe a bit hazy, but if you don’t know where the Great Lakes are, you need to get on Google and take a look for heaven’s sake.
What really helped me mentally clear up the giant blob that Canada was in my little American mind is when one of my Canadian friends pointed out that the developed parts of Canada are lined up in the southern part, along the U.S. border. As you should know but may not, Canada is huge, but also a lot of it is wilderness. So you don’t have to concentrate too much on understanding north and south, plus east and west, the way you do in the U.S. I operate by trying to more or less keep straight the order of the provinces from east to west and which provinces roughly line up with which U.S. states. That helps me keep the eastern part straight from the cowboy part and the Pacific Coast.
Also it’s important to know that Quebec is French speaking, so take note of that. It is east a little north, with some English speaking parts tucked underneath, probably to protect the French culture in Quebec from the UK and the US.
The thing I like about French Canada is that their French is lot easier for me to understand that Parisian French. For that I am grateful. I feel that my time studying French in school is not wasted. Since I figured this out, I decided that we all study French for the Canadians, and not the French lol (although I like France too).
Working on your French with a French Canadian is also good practice if you have to travel to the northern parts of the Middle East and North Africa, where a lot of people will lay French on you if you don’t appear to be African or Arab. Also many signs in those countries will be in Arabic and French (English will be the third if at all), so you will need to go with the French. If you get the chance, take it, or at least try to understand them when they talk to each other. Luckily, French speakers in all parts of the world that I have encountered are also easier to understand that actual French people. Just saying, in case you studied French and still feel clueless in France.
Aside from French Canada, a thing that will help you understand the major ways in which Canadian culture is different from American culture is to keep in mind that they have a lot fewer issues with our British cousins than we Americans do because we Americans had to go start a war to get our independence. As punishment, we have to stand in the long line at UK immigration (although we might be joined by the Europeans pretty soon if Brexit goes through), but we get to pretty much do everything else our own way, including our spelling/grammar and our measurement system.
The Canadians, in typical fashion, just chilled out, had some beer, and waited for the Brits to get tired of messing with them and their huge, cold wilderness in return for their natural resources…eventually, the Brits gave up and just let them go. As a reward, they get to keep the Queen on their money, participate in the Commonwealth Games, and stand in the short line at U.K. immigration.
In other ways, the Canadians are kind of a random mixture of what they picked up from us, kept from the Brits, and added to the bargain themselves. What affects us as far as understanding them is the fact that their English is mostly British (and for that I feel sorry for them because American English grammar is more systematic, ask any second language English speaker), and, like many former British colonies, they have Canadian dollars, not Canadian pounds, which is kind of weird because the money looks more like British pounds than American dollars because Her Majesty is all over them.
They are also a lot of fun to hang around because they are very easy going. It’s good to have Canadian friends to visit because you can get sick there without worrying about going bankrupt, a practice that Americans seem to associate with the root of all evil.
Of course, for that reason, our senior citizens do like to make drug runs up there. On the flip side, American consumer goods are cheaper (lower taxes), so Canadians like to make a run for our border to shop. I think this it what they called “checks and balances” when we were in school. Right?
In Munro’s stories, I actually didn’t see much about any of the above, but she does mention religion quite often, so it’s good to understand a little about Canadian Protestantism.
Munro’s stories quite often mention the religion of the characters. The ones that come up a lot are “Anglican”, “United”, and some other ones, which seem to be sort of Baptist or Pentecostal in nature. Both of these denominations have individual churches that practice some, but not all, of the tenants of the main denomination organization, so the names can vary widely.
There’s a good chance that you might know that “Anglican” is “Church of England” but not, in Canada anyway. In the US, our denomination that is Church of England but not is called “Episcopalian”. As you might recall, the Church of England had a very legitimate beginning when King Henry VIII realized how sinful the Roman Catholic Church in Rome had become when the Pope refused to allow him to divorce his Spanish wife, Katherine for the very legitimate reason of his having the hots for Anne Boleyn, future mother of QE1, who was quite the schemer and made Henry buy the cow (You know the old saying, right?). Of course, there was already a reformation going on across Europe that was based a little more closely on theology.
Which brings us back to the other denominations that you will see in this story, the United Church. The United church of Canada is the result of a merger between most of the other what I think of as Mainline Protestant Denominations in the U.S. (Church of Christ, Presbyterians, Methodists etc.) to better serve remote/wilderness areas and join forces for missions and other social justice/charity work. Which makes a heck of a lot of sense to me.
I was able to find this history of the United Church of Canada on their website, so here is the exact information if you want to know more.
I couldn’t find an official history to support my next point, but my guess based on inferences from these stories and what I know from personal experience is that Anglican is more upper-crust, old school, traditional. Then you have your Baptists, Pentecostal and related religions that I guarantee (as someone raised Baptist) are not going to go along with any church that practices infant baptism and baptism by anything other than immersion (which the United Church does). They are more hard core and maybe are associated with a lower social class.
I don’t mean to sound biased in any way, but Munro does make reference to religion as a method of characterization, so if you aren’t Canadian you may get a little stuck here. Feel free to disagree with my inference, but just keep in mind that she’s saying SOMETHING she wants you to know by mentioning religion the way she does.
Munro is a precise and skilled writer who excels in the short story format, so you have to assume that if it’s there, it’s there for a reason.
As much as I enjoy my 1980’s introduction to Canada through Bob and Doug Mackenzie, one of the reasons I enjoy Munro is because she writes about the Canadian experience so well, and without the stereotypes. I feel that I get to see the real people.
The United States and Canada share the longest border in the world. I am amazed that we manage to get along as well as we do. I never noticed until recently that in all my years of school, and the 4 YEARS of American history that I had total (1 in elementary, 2 in middle, and 1 in high school not including US government), we NEVER talked about Canada. Seriously?
It’s time to fix this situation.