Her gemstone eyes

This is my review of New Selected Stories by Alice Munro.

Why is Alice Munro regarded widely described as one of the greatest female short story writers, yet also perhaps read less than this accolade would suggest?

This selection from five collections covering the decade 1998-2009 displays the key aspects of her writing. On one hand, stories which are often as long as 30-40 pages, loosely plotted to allow digressions into the lives of various characters, generally lacking in suspense or dramatic endings, or pithy punchlines. On the other, very acute observation of human behaviour and empathy with their thoughts and emotions, a strong sense and apparent love of the Canadian landscape and seasons, and a deceptive rambling in stories which maintain a clear underlying purpose and momentum.

I particularly enjoyed "The Bear came over the Mountain", about a sensitive and creative woman whose Alzheimer's has become sufficiently serious for her husband to place her in a home. When she forms an attachment to another resident, is this a kind of revenge for her husband's serial infidelity? What makes this story interesting is that it is written from the husband's perspective. Although sad in places, this is too insightful and at times sharply witty to be depressing.

On a lighter note, I appreciated "Chance" about an academically inclined but uncertain young woman on the brink of her adult life and possible career, who responds to a letter from a married man she has met by chance on a train. To what extent is she choosing her fate?

The three stories selected from "Too much Happiness" were the ones I enjoyed most in that collection: the woman who has suffered terribly from a controlling man, the woman estranged from a son whom she loves who drifts into a lifestyle she finds alien, and, most gripping of all, the widow who has to deal with a sinister guest.

I found it hard to get into the first story "The Love of a Good Woman" which seemed quite disjointed with too diffuse an opening section for me. "My Mother's Dream" written apparently from the viewpoint of a baby is also highly original and imaginative, but not to everyone's taste.

Perhaps one is most drawn to the stories which reflect one's own experience, so that the range of Munro's topics make it likely that there will be something for everyone. Also, each story gives a great deal to discuss, as we are likely to come away with some different perceptions of each tale.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

“Ending as often in disappointment as in success”

This is my review of A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

This is likely to divide opinion sharply since it rejects the convention of a clear plot, and flits back and forth in time with a variety of viewpoints and sheer number of characters which may prove confusing.

It is a series of short stories rather than a novel, focusing in turn on different members of an amorphous group who have in common only some kind of link to the music industry – they know, or know someone who knows, either Bennie the driven music manager, or Sasha, his light-fingered assistant whose kleptomania may have some deeper emotional cause.

I enjoyed the quirky incidents and offbeat humour of the first seven chapters, and the game of anticipating which character mentioned in passing would turn up as a key player in the next episode. I liked the way the author always managed to overcome my irritation at being dragged away from one group of characters, by skilfully hooking me in to the next one, only to be disappointed again at having to leave the new story with strands left unresolved, perhaps forever.

Some of the relationships are genuinely moving, such as the hard-bitten, selfish, corrupt Lou's love for his sweet, gentle son, whom he cannot help inadvertently damaging, just through being the bastard that he is. I was impressed by the study of Scotty, mentally ill but managing after a fashion, who convinces himself half the time that being a failure is as good as being a success.

My good opinion suffered a blow in Chapter 8, an over-farcical account of a disgraced PR manager trying to make ends meet by advising a genocidal dictator of some unnamed country, which was an annoyingly unconvincing mixture of Arab desert too close to lush African jungle. The there are two sections I grew too bored to read properly: an intentionally bad , I think, parody of a journalist's interview with a movie star, followed by an attempt to relate to an autistic boy, and to show his thought processes, through a PowerPoint presentation – a novel idea, but it goes on for 74 pages – has the author not heard of death by OHP? After that, the return of the final chapters to some of the original characters lacks the power to engage me, in a work which seems to have lost its way – perhaps because the subjects are essentially rather uninteresting and underdeveloped players in an artificial and shallow world.

On one hand, this book is unusual, often creative and original, with what you might call brave experiments (but shouldn't the author be clear-eyed enough to see where they may have fallen short?), yet there is too much that is contrived, gimmicky or glib for me to rate this as an indisputably worthy Pulitzer winner.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

Dated Wit

This is my review of Saki, The Complete Short Stories (Penguin Modern Classics) by Saki.

It is easy to understand why H.H.Munro, pen name Saki, is still regarded as one of the greatest writers of short stories. His elegant, ironic prose reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse with a sharp sting in the tale.

Although Saki mocked the snobbery and hypocrisy of upper class Edwardian England, he himself seems to have been limited by unexamined prejudice against the lower classes, women in general, and new social movements of his day like female suffrage and socialism.

Organised by date of collection, the tales show a clear progression. The early "Reginald" stories are remarkably short, often barely a page, very dated and a bit too precious in style for my taste. As the years pass, the stories gain in length and depth, culminating in works like "The Square Egg". This captures the muddiness of trench life in World War 1 – the streaming mud walls, the inches of soup-like mud at the entrance to the dug-out, the muddy biscuits eaten with mud-caked fingers. This story also shows Saki's talent for going off at an imaginative tangent, in this case based on a wily Frenchman's novel idea for using the idea of "square eggs" from specially bred hens to try to get some money out of the narrator.

I particularly enjoyed the stories which focus on real emotions and psychology which could be relevant to any age and society: "Peace Toys" in which an uncle tries to give his nephews toys which will discourage them from violent play; "Tobermory" which speculates on the practical disadvantages of having a cat which has learned to speak about all the compromising goings-on it has witnessed as it creeps around unnoticed; "The Lumber Room" in which a small boy takes advantage of a rare chance to have his revenge on a pious, bullying aunt – the many stories about children getting their own back on control-freak adults may stem from painful experiences in Saki's own motherless childhood. Then there is "The Story-teller" where a bachelor distracted by noisy children on a train ride subverts the normal rules about telling children only improving stories.

I have mixed feelings about Clovis, a favourite recurring character of Saki's, who acts as a mocking observer of the class to which he has been born, while sponging off it, and snobbishly maintaining many of its prejudices. Yet "Clovis on Parental Responsibilities" is amusing where, in a Pinterish talking at cross purposes with a Mrs Eggelby, bored by her endless prattle about her children's accomplishments, Clovis undermines all the accepted views on bringing up children.

I would have liked a brief introduction on Saki's life. It seems important to know that, enrolling as an ordinary private soldier when in his forties, he was killed by a sniper's bullet after vainly asking a colleague to put out the cigarette which was emitting a tell-tale trail of smoke.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Dark Wit for Dipping Into

This is my review of The Complete Short Stories of Saki (H. H. Munro) by Saki,H. H. Munro.

It is easy to understand why H.H.Munro, pen name Saki, is still regarded as one of the greatest writers of short stories. His elegant, ironic prose reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse with a sharp sting in the tale.

Although Saki mocked the snobbery and hypocrisy of upper class Edwardian England, he himself seems to have been limited by unexamined prejudice against the lower classes, women in general, and new social movements of his day like female suffrage and socialism.

Organised by date of collection, the tales show a clear progression. The early "Reginald" stories are remarkably short, often barely a page, very dated and a bit too precious in style for my taste. As the years pass, the stories gain in length and depth, culminating in works like "The Square Egg". This captures the muddiness of trench life in World War 1 – the streaming mud walls, the inches of soup-like mud at the entrance to the dug-out, the muddy biscuits eaten with mud-caked fingers. This story also shows Saki's talent for going off at an imaginative tangent, in this case based on a wily Frenchman's novel idea for using the idea of "square eggs" from specially bred hens to try to get some money out of the narrator.

I particularly enjoyed the stories which focus on real emotions and psychology which could be relevant to any age and society: "Peace Toys" in which an uncle tries to give his nephews toys which will discourage them from violent play; "Tobermory" which speculates on the practical disadvantages of having a cat which has learned to speak about all the compromising goings-on it has witnessed as it creeps around unnoticed; "The Lumber Room" in which a small boy takes advantage of a rare chance to have his revenge on a pious, bullying aunt – the many stories about children getting their own back on control-freak adults may stem from painful experiences in Saki's own motherless childhood. Then there is "The Story-teller" where a bachelor distracted by noisy children on a train ride subverts the normal rules about telling children only improving stories.

I have mixed feelings about Clovis, a favourite recurring character of Saki's, who acts as a mocking observer of the class to which he has been born, while sponging off it, and snobbishly maintaining many of its prejudices. Yet "Clovis on Parental Responsibilities" is amusing where, in a Pinterish talking at cross purposes with a Mrs Eggelby, bored by her endless prattle about her children's accomplishments, Clovis undermines all the accepted views on bringing up children.

I would have liked a brief introduction on Saki's life. It seems important to know that, enrolling as an ordinary private soldier when in his forties, he was killed by a sniper's bullet after vainly asking a colleague to put out the cigarette which was emitting a tell-tale trail of smoke.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Stolen Samovars and Bitter Gooseberries

This is my review of The Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories (RED) (Penguin Red) by Anton Chekhov.

Chekhov's two hundred or more short stories can now be downloaded free of charge, so this selection of thirteen of them needs some rationale for the choices made. Although the notes at the end are interesting, say as regards the extent to which Chekhov's writing was constrained by the censors who cut out large tracts, I would have liked more background explanation of how the details of his life and his personality affected his writing.

Assisted by Ronald Wilks' excellent translations, the stories flow along and are very easy to read. I was struck by Chekhov's evident love for the countryside, his frequent flashes of humour, his rich cast of characters including many vivid little pen portraits, and his complex attitudes towards the peasants: he is repelled by their ignorance and boorishness, but realises that some of this is the fault of the wealthy people, like himself, who have deprived them of opportunities. A recurrent theme is for people to be dissatisfied with their lot, stultified by the boredom of provincial life and very indecisive about making changes, in particular embarking on a long-term relationship. I wanted to know to what extent these attitudes were Chekhov's own.

The rambling structure of many of these stories surprised me, together with their length, and inclusion of chapters! I can see why "The Lady with the Little Dog" is so famous since it analyses the narrator Gurov's inner thoughts so well. "And only now, when his hair had turned grey, had he genuinely, truly fallen in love – for the first time in his life."

My favourite story was "My Life", almost a novella at ninety pages, which seems to me to encapsulate everything to be found in all the other stories as regards human relationships and the flaws in Russian society. In what is subtitled "A Provincial's Story", the narrator actually makes some decisions – to give up his middle class heritage, and work with his hands, and to marry the young woman to whom he feels attracted. Inevitably, his actions bring some sorrow, and the story ends on a philosophical rather than positive, and poignant note.

I like the farcical wit of "Man in a Case" – the "solitary type…like hermit crabs or snails….always seeking safety in their shells… because the real world irritated and frightened him and kept him in a constant state of nerves." At times, as in "Peasants", Chekhov's sense of the ludicrous seems to go overboard. Other stories like "In the Ravine" seemed to me to be too "baggy" and lacking focus, in need of a good edit.

Perhaps I can only take these stories in small doses, but I am pleased to have discovered Chekhov as a short story writer and will definitely seek out more on the net from time to time.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars