Posts Tagged ‘Canada’

In honor of Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, I’m reposting “Terms of endearment,” which I wrote last year upon the publication of her last book.

Alice-Munro1I always read the cartoons in The New Yorker first, except when there’s a short story by Alice Munro. She comes first, always. But as I noted in a 2001 column for the Sentinel, “Let us now praise Alice Munro,” I’m running out of ways to do so without repeating myself.

In 1990, I called her “the most generous of storytellers. She can capture an entire life within a few pages, and many of her stories open to encompass more stories, other lives.” Four years and another collection later, I noted that “love and loss, fate and choice are the seeds with which she sows a rich harvest.” Her 1996 Selected Stories was “a cause for celebration,” as were subsequent collections by this “Canadian Chekhov.” I rather regret that last rave because really there’s no comparing Munro to anyone but herself.

Her new collection, Dear Life (Knopf, digital galley via edelweiss), is everything I’ve come to expect from Munro and more. This time, the remarkable stories of seemingly unremarkable lives that suddenly turn on a dime — “Amundsen,” “Haven,” “Train” — are followed by a section dubbed “Finale.” Munro explains, “The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.”

Well! Because Munro’s stories often deal with the memory of events in small-town and rural Ontario where she grew up, I’ve often wondered how autobiographical they might be.  Munro, however, has always said she makes things up, although she did draw on her family’s Scottish immigrant history in writing The View from Castle Rock.  Still, it’s interesting to read the pieces in Dear Life as both story and memoir, trying to discern the difference.

Really, I can’t tell. The lives of Munro’s characters are rarely tidy, emotions are always mixed. She’s expert at mining “the truth in fiction.” Her narrators can be unreliable, although, as a writer, she is essentially astute. So, does it really matter that the young schoolteacher in “Amundsen,” who is courted and then jilted by a doctor, is wholly invented, or that the girl in the last story is Alice recalling an incident told by her mother? Both have the quality of lived experience.

“We say of some things that they cannot be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do — we do it all the time.”

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I’m home in hot, sunny Florida. Did you miss me? It’s ok to say no because I wasn’t thinking about books  much while on vacation in western Canada. Too much gorgeous scenery to look at. And while the weather  felt blessedly cool to us Southerners, it was warm for residents. I had to resist the impulse to make a snow angel on the Athabasca Glacier because it was mushy/slushy in the sun. Still, the ancient ice beneath our feet measured somewhere between 300 and 1,000 feet deep. Pretty cool, eh?

So, I did have my nook — Nanook — with me, and it sure beat hauling a bunch of books along on the trip. But I overpacked even e-books, misled perhaps by the “Reading Woman” calendar from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts above my desk.  The painting for July is John George Brown’s wonderful “Reading on the Rocks.” What was I thinking? I can read on planes but not in cars or trains. At night, I was reading the back of my eyelids. It was still light when I fell asleep, and light again when I woke up. 

But I did get through two books, one old, one new, both recommended. Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair is one of my favorite rereads because after a few years I always forget the neat trickery of the plot. Was young Betty Kane really kidnapped by two eccentric women living in an isolated English country house, or is she the original pretty little liar? The book was written in 1949, but the tabloid hysteria it depicts is similar to today’s cable TV coverage. Now I want to go back and reread the rest of Tey’s tales, especially Brat Farrar and The Daughter of Time

David Nicholls’ One Day has been hailed as a British When Harry Met Sally, and it is to a degree, with Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew hooking up in the early ’80s on their last day of university only to go their separate, intersecting ways. Nicholls catches up with them every July 15th — St. Swithin’s Day — as their youthful dreams melt in the big chill of real life and are then reshaped over the next 20 years. Growing up is hard to do. Funny, poignant, clever, heartbreaking — I bookmarked a dozen or more passages on the nook for rereading.  So it’s not as deep as a glacier. Pretty cool, though, for summer reading wherever.

Open Book: I have two copies of  Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair (Simon & Schuster), a mass market paperback here in Florida and a trade paperback at my mom’s in S.C. I picked up the latter the day before we left for Calgary and finished it a week later in Whistler. I purchased the e-book of David Nicholl’s One Day (Vintage Contemporaries) and read it on four planes from Vancouver to Orlando.

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NBC has been filling up empty airtime around the Olympics with stories on all things Canadian: Royal Mounties, beer, cuisine, fashion, wildlife, actors and so on. As far as I know — I haven’t been glued to the set — we’ve seen nothing yet on Canadian writers, and I think I know why. They’re very much part of our  own  literary landscape. Only rarely do you hear the word “Canadian” in front of short-story virtuoso Alice Munro, novelist Margaret Atwood or beloved children’s author L.M. Montgomery. The late, great Robertson Davies was invariably identified as “Canada’s literary lion,” but I’d forgotten — if I ever knew –that  Douglas Coupland, W.P. Kinsella  and Nick Bantock are Canadians all. And more confusing, Carol Shields, winner of the 1993 Pulitzer for The Stone Diaries, had dual citizenship. She was born in Chicago but moved to Canada in 1957 when she married.

How much of a role Canada itself plays in their books varys from one author to the next, and sometimes from book to book.  It’s impossible to disassociate Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables stories from Prince Edward Island, and Atwood drew on a 19th-century Canadian crime in Alias Grace. But Atwood’s dystopias of The Handmaid’s Tale or The Year of the Flood are hardly Canada — or Earth — as we know it, and crime novelist Peter Robinson, who lives in Canada, has as his series protagonst a detective in Yorkshire, England.

That’s not the case with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, star of Louise Penny’s series of award-winning crime novels set in the quaint Quebec village of Three Pines.  The Brutal Telling, the fifth and finest so far, was published last fall to deserved acclaim. Sins of the past resurface, and the murder mystery stretches across the continent to British Columbia before Gamache makes an arrest. Setting and character matter very much in these well-crafted tales, in which Penny blends the conventions of the traditional village mystery of Agatha Christie with the psychological insight of Ruth Rendell. (Christie and Rendell, of course, are Brits, which just goes to show you that categorizing by nationality is beside the point.)

Margaret Atwood, who resists labels of all kinds, told me as much in an interview some years ago:

“I’m addressing the country of readers. That is the real divide — not between genders or nationalities. It’s not a matter of locale. It’s between those who read and those who don’t.”

I pledge allegiance to the country of readers…

Open Book: I own several editions of Montgomery’s books, and the  publisher of The Brutal Telling (St. Martin’s/Minotaur) sent me an ARC (advance reading copy) last fall.

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