Monthly Archives: May 2014

A Carton of Hard Boiled Eggs: The Brilliant Examination of the Solid Squishy Life Moments in Alice Munro’s “Runaway”

MunroHomeeditAfter reading Lorrie Moore’s “Birds of America”, I was inspired to introduce more short story reading into my repertoire and to see what I can discover about the art of short story writing. Of course Alice Munro came to mind when I considered what short story author to read next. Since her Nobel Prize in Literature win, there have been many articles out about her writing and suggestions concerning which of her books readers should tackle first. A few articles recommended “Runaway” as a good starting place to get a feel for Munro’s writing, and so that is the book I have tackled.

Alice Munro is deserving of all the praise her writing has been given. Her stories were captivating, her characters were complex, and her writing was poignant. Her stories describe real moments within people’s lives, and examines all the complexities of emotions and human experience. Even if they are events you have never experienced, she touches on the emotions of that event in a way that every person can relate to the feelings she evokes. I think this amazing depth of realism is what makes her stories so lasting.

One of the things I am beginning to wonder about short stories is if there are any that are purely comical or light-hearted; because, all of the short stories I have read so far seem to have a vein of sadness pulsing through. Even in moments of freedom or happiness, there is some sadness that seeps through. For example, Grace in “Passion” gets given enough money for her to start a new life but only after the deadly car accident; or Juliet in “Chance” finally decides to go after the man she loves only to face a surly housekeeper and to discover he has a lover. (The most heartbreaking story for me was “Tricks” where love is finally found but then tragically lost.) I found myself feeling a little depressed after finishing Munro because it made me think of the sadness that seems to run under the course of life. I think it is a sign of a great writer that their story makes you examine your own reality, your own world. And although Munro caused me to see the inevitable pain in life, I also saw with appreciation the opportunities that my current reality holds for me that some of these characters didn’t have.

One thing that seems to set Munro apart from other short stories I have read is that some of her stories will span years of a person’s life. In “Powers”, she explores the relationship of Nancy, Ollie and Tessa. The short story spans over 50 years and has mini-chapters where the point-of-view switches characters, yet the story is seamless and meaningful despite all these occurring in only 50 pages.  Munro is also not afraid to revisit the same protagonist in multiple short stories. Juliet’s life is featured in “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence,” and I really enjoyed visiting multiple moments in this character’s life without having to read a entire novel centered around her. I think I got a better picture of Juliet’s life this way than I would have with an entire book devoted to her; because, each short story was focussed on that particular event instead of trying to convey some meaning to her overall life.

Munro is a powerful writer and she gives a solid portrayal of the little events that make up our lives, while also conveying the fluidity of emotions: sadness, love, regret, friendship, pride, anger, confusion. These are not uplifting stories but they will make you take a necessary deeper look at your own life. These engrossing snapshots of women’s lives and the choices they face will remain with you long after you put the stories down.

4.5/5 bacon strips

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Nuts in the steel cut oatmeal: The mixture of humour and Canadian politics in Terry Fallis’s “The Best Laid Plans”

bestlaidplanseditYes this book is about Canadian politics, which is what turned me off from wanting to read it for quite awhile. But this book kept coming up on Canadian-books-you-should-read lists, so I decided to give it a try. I am so glad I did! Although it is focussed on Canadian politics, this book touches on the ludicrousy of politics in general so I think this is a story that a person from any country can appreciate.

Daniel, a speech writer for the Liberal Party leader, decides to leave his position after becoming disillusioned with the world of politics and being cheated on by his girlfriend. But to save face with the Party, Daniel agrees, as his final duty, to find a Liberal candidate for the Cumberland riding to keep up the Party’s appearance in the fiercely Conservative area. Daniel makes a bargain with Angus, his new landlord, agreeing to teach the English for Engineers class at the university (a task Angus loathes) in exchange for Angus’s name on the Cumberland ballot under the Liberal Party. In a shocking twist of events, the reluctant Angus wins his riding and is thrust into Canadian politics. Daniel is forced back into negotiating the twists and turns of Canadian politics, but this time with a Member who refuses to be governed by anything other than his heart and his values.

I found myself laughing out loud in every chapter either because of some shocking plot point (like Angus stripping in front of Daniel and nonchalantly jumping naked into the lake). Or it was finding the humour in the everyday normal (like the reaction of voters to the two punk Petes canvasing for Angus). Or Fallis’s brilliant wordplay. I’m still smiling at his use of politic jargon and sexual innuendo to describe Daniel catching his girlfriend cheating with the Opposition House Leader. It was so cleverly worded and so hilarious that I handed the book to my husband and forced him to read those pages so he could understand why I was laughing so hard.

The only thing that I found slightly annoying was how neurotic Daniel could be about every detail. It seemed that he was barely able to relax for a moment in the novel and his obsessive worrying got a little on my nerves. Also, Angus was a little over the top as a character, which did sometimes add to the humour but made him seem less realistic. His ability to find solutions that were just perfect for his values and the economy was a little too packaged to be believable. But then again, this is a fictional narrative designed to entertain readers and it did very well do that.

This book is funny and brilliantly worded, and provides a unique view into Canadian politics and the people involved. Despite the couple of hiccups for me, I thoroughly enjoyed it and plan on picking up Terry Fallis’s new book “No Relation”.

4/5 bacon strips

P.S. This is the book I read in Paris. Here is a snapshot of me reading in the Jardins des Tuileries enjoying the rare hour of sunshine we had on our vacation. IMG_5122IMG_5123

Use the eggs you have: “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin

happinessprojecteditI actually finished this book before my Paris trip, but did not get the chance to write my review prior to leaving. I have often looked at this book at Chapters. The bright cover drew my attention and the lure of a project that could make one happier. Who doesn’t want to be happier? I find the concept of happiness one I often consider. What is happiness? How do you attain happiness? Job? Appearance? Relationship? Material possessions? And is happiness really something you can work towards and check off your list? “I have reached my ideal happiness. Checkmark.”

Gretchen Rubin takes an interesting approach as she seeks to be happier; she creates some overarching principles and each month is given an improvement area.  She actually creates a checklist for each month with a list of goals related to the area such as money, mindfulness, and work.  In each chapter, Gretchen describes that month’s subject area and her goals, related research about that subject and its relationship to happiness, and her personal stories as she seeks to keep her resolutions.  Through the course of the year, she also discovers Four Splendid Truths: One of the best ways to make myself happy is to make other people happy. One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy myself. The days are long, but the years are short. If I think I’m happier, I am happier.

It is hard to put my finger on what I didn’t like about the writing. Perhaps I was expecting more depth in the exploration of happiness as a subject instead of the month-to-month personal stories appearing under subdivided goals. The chapters ended too quickly and I felt like more could have been said on each subject. The book felt a little shallow to me and too easy of a read for such a complex subject. However, I do recognize that happiness is a huge topic and Gretchen is simply sharing her own experiences not wrestling the theoretics of happiness. Despite my dislike of the writing style, this book did inspire me and made me think a lot about happiness. I think though that I could have gotten the same inspiration about happiness by reading her blog instead of buying the book.

I am like Gretchen in that analytic, type A, checklists-make-me-feel-productive kind of person, so I responded to her method of tackling how to practically be happier. I also appreciated her touching on some difficult topics that come with happiness such as whether seeking happiness is selfish or even a reasonable pursuit. Again, I felt like these difficulties could have been explored more but that wouldn’t have fit the monthly structure and personal focus of the book. Gretchen does touch on some really important truths that 2 weeks later are still sinking in with me. She emphasizes that you can change your life without changing your life. Perhaps you can’t get a new job, buy a bigger home, find a spouse, lose the weight….whatever it is that you perceive will make your life better, but is unattainable currently. Yet you can change how you perceive the things in your life and how you live your life day to day. Gretchen acknowledges some of the shortcomings in her goals (she couldn’t sing in the morning every day, she grew tired of her gratitude journal), but she also shows, through her own experiences, that happiness can be increased through little changes such as consciously laughing more, nagging less, and remembering birthdays.

We have to stop expecting that suddenly happiness will just fall on us. It takes work to be happy, but the work is worth it. And often that work is changing your attitude; attitude is essential to happiness. It reminds me of this one holiday morning where I had planned to make a quiche. I opened my fridge and discovered to my dismay that I didn’t have enough eggs. I felt myself slipping into a dejected state of pity over the fact that I was looking forward to surprising my husband with a fancy breakfast and had forgotten this one item on my grocery list. I jerked myself back and looked again at the situation. I realized that there were many other delicious things I could make for breakfast and I would just have to use the eggs that I have now. By changing how I looked at the situation (no matter how little and silly it seems now), I was able to have a pleasant breakfast with my husband instead of sulking that I didn’t have enough eggs.

To add my own Splendid Truth, the way you treat the little things will affect the way you approach the big things in this life. Perhaps there is a big change you need to make in your life to be happier, but there is still merit in cultivating how to be happy with what you have, who you are, where you are right now.

3.5 /5 bacon strips

Gretchen Rubin’s website is definitely worth checking out if you are also interested in the subject of happiness: http://www.gretchenrubin.com/