Dear Life: Stories

By Alice Munro

(Knopf Doubleday, $26.95, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Alice Munro, who lives in Ontario, near Lake Huron, is one of Canada’s – and the world’s — finest writers, with a novel, 12 short story collections and two compilations of selected stories to her credit. Her work frequently appears in the best literary magazines, such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine and  Granta, and she has won a staggering collection of major awards, including three of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Awards and two Giller Prizes, the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Lannan Literary Award,  the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker International Prize. Now in her early 80s, Munro used a typewriter for many years and still doesn’t use a microwave, calling herself a “late convert to every technological offering” in an interview.

What is this book about?

Munro shows in this collection of 14 stories that lives can change at a moment’s notice, from chance encounters or twists in what seemed like an endless smooth and steady path. A discontent young mother who is also a budding poet meets a newspaper columnist and prepares, almost without realizing it, to up-end her familiar life. A soldier on his way home from WWII gets off his train one stop early and thereby ends his engagement and begins a wandering life. A wealthy woman in a clandestine affair with a lawyer painfully discovers a brilliant solution to blackmail. A young teacher at a tuberculosis sanitarium in the Canadian hinterland falls into a strange and ultimately sad affair with the imperious head doctor. A similarly misogynistic and overbearing doctor gets his comeuppance when his long-submissive wife finally has had enough. A young woman is haunted by her older sister’s death as a child, fearing she was complicit. Ten of the stories are pure fiction, while the final four are fiction inspired by Munro’s own experiences. As she says in a brief introduction: “They form a separate unit, one that is 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.”

Why you’ll like it:

Reading Munro is to put yourself in the hands of a master storyteller. She has a no-nonsense style, sparked by an often wry sense of humor and an ability to sketch her settings in a vivid way without overwriting. In this, it seems to me, she is a quintessentially Canadian voice, and one that is wonderful to hear. Here is what she told an interviewer about her writing:

“I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way — what happens to somebody — but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness,” she explained to Random “I want the reader to feel something is astonishing — not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me.”

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly: Munro … can depict key moments without obscuring the reality of a life filled with countless other moments—told or untold…she continues charting the shifts in norms that occur as WWII ends, the horses kept for emergencies go out of use, small towns are less isolated, and then gradually or suddenly, nothing is quite the same. There are no clunkers here. … While many of these pieces appeared in the New Yorker, they read differently here; not only has Munro made changes, but more importantly, read together, the stories accrete, deepen, and speak to each other.”

Every new collection from the incomparable Munro, winner of the Man Booker International Prize for her lifetime body of work, is cause for celebration. This new volume offers all the more reason to celebrate as it ends with four stories the author claims are the most autobiographical she has written. As she has moved through the decades, so have her characters, whose stories are mostly set in small-town Ontario in an earlier time or who are looking back from the present with some earned perspective. …In every story, there is a slow revelation that changes everything we thought we understood about the characters. VERDICT : Read this collection and cherish it for dear life,” says Library Journal.

“A revelation, from the most accomplished and acclaimed of contemporary short story writers. It’s no surprise that every story in the latest collection by Canada’s Munro … is rewarding and that the best are stunning. They leave the reader wondering how the writer manages to invoke the deepest, most difficult truths of human existence in the most plainspoken language. But the real bombshell, typically understated and matter-of-fact, comes before the last pieces, which the author has labeled “Finale” … When a writer in her early ’80s declares that these are the last things she has to say about her life, they put both the life and the stories in fresh perspective. Almost all of them have an older character remembering her perspective from decades earlier, sometimes amused, more often baffled, at what happened and how things turned out. …The author knows what matters, and the stories pay attention to it,” says Kirkus Reviews.

Booklist, in a starred review, says: “Munro’s latest collection brings to mind the expression, “What is old is new again.” As curiously trite and hardly complimentary as that statement may sound, it is offered as unreserved praise for the continued wonderment provided by arguably the best short-story writer in English today.”

When is it available?

“Dear Life” can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library and the Mark Twain branch.

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