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July 2016 BOOKLIST
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Stories Writ Large
The short story is the most polymorphous of literary forms. A story can be as concise as a single paragraph or run for tens of pages. Short stories encompass every narrative mode and accommodate the most esoteric of concepts as well as intense emotions. Brad Hooper has long been a passionate and knowledgeable advocate for the short story, hence his first book: The Short Story Readers’ Advisory: A Guide to the Best. Brad eventually decided that the best is exemplified by Alice Munro, the subject of his new book, The Fiction of Alice Munro: An Appreciation (Praeger, $44.95, 9780275991210), his second in-depth inquiry following The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist (2005).
What does Brad love about the short story? “I like things that you see in their entirety very quickly,” Brad says. “I think that’s why I’ve always liked the small watercolor over the elaborate oil painting. I also like the technique in a short story. It’s more interesting to me than the technique of a novel, because it’s a stricter technique. You don’t belabor things. A novel can sprawl, it can be flawed, and still work. But in a good short story, the writer has to get everything just right. I love the diamond aspect of short stories.”
Short story collections are also ideal for readers who have little time to read and want to spend those moments with high-quality fiction. “Alice Munro is the perfect author to recommend for busy people,” Brad says, “because hers are large short stories. They will appeal to readers who think they don’t like the form. They are long and involved and have the feel of a novel. Readers who ordinarily don’t care to read short stories will forget that that’s exactly what they’re reading.” So distinctive are Munro’s stories, Brad argues, she “has developed her own brand of the short story,” one of rare amplitude. Brad observes. “It’s amazing that this brilliant woman, a bookstore owner and housewife in Ontario, suddenly reinvented the short story. It makes you wonder, Where do great artists come from? She wasn’t taught, beyond the most basic writing courses. This just came to her.”
As Brad closely read each story in Munro’s 12 collections, which include such celebrated titles as The Love of a Good Woman (1998), Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001), and Runaway (2004), he was surprised at some of the themes that emerged. Take her attitude toward women. “It came to me as a shock,” Brad says. “What you see from the very word go is that her adolescent female characters enjoy their father’s life much better than that of their mother. It’s free; it’s fun; they’d much rather go with Daddy. They can’t stand being with Mother, and you can understand why. Mother never likes what they do; she is never understanding of her daughter’s plight. I wondered, Is this because Munro doesn’t really care for women? My guess is if she was at cocktail party and there was a group of women and a group of men, she’d go over to talk to the men because she finds what they do more interesting.”
Another facet of Munro’s fiction that will intrigue readers who picture her as a genteel Canadian lady of letters is the role of violence in her work, and her wily use of “elements straight out of classic murder mysteries.” Brad explains, “Violence is part of life, after all. And this isn’t some sweet little old lady who doesn’t understand life.” There is a sense of not only deep engagement throughout Brad’s analysis but also the excitement of discovery. This is the sign of timeless literature, that it sustains and rewards such careful scrutiny.
Brad and his subject share a love of southern literature, which, like Munro’s work, tends to focus on small-town and farm life. Munro is particularly adept at capturing “the feeling of isolation in a small town if you are a little different. And her female adolescent characters are different, they’re going to be writers or artists; they are outsiders. They want to see over the next hill; they want more out of life. That’s how I was as a kid in southern Illinois, so I really identified with this aspect of her work.”
With an eye to readers’ advisory, Brad also notes that Munro has a rich sense of humor and that her stories run the emotional gamut from hilarious to tragic. As for her writing style, “It’s stunning. It’s the style we should all hope for, one that doesn’t draw attention to itself. But then you come across a beautiful metaphor, and your heart just goes sailing. She picks the most appropriate word, almost like Flaubert, you know, le mot juste. I don’t know if she counts Flaubert as one of her masters, but I’d be surprised if she didn’t love his work, at least Madame Bovary.”
Munro, who has been cited as Nobel material, “may have exhausted fiction,” muses Brad. “She may be ready to turn to memoir, and to call it memoir, unlike the confusion between the two in The View from Castle Rock (2006). But whatever else Munro publishes, she will always stand as a writer who opened the short story to boundless possibilities.” Thanks to Munro, the short story remains “strong and healthy,” the ideal vehicle for literary bliss and transcendence in a clock-watching world.
The Best of Recent Short Story Collections
Cheating at Canasta. By William Trevor. 2007. Viking, $24.95 (9780670018376).
Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories. By Steven Millhauser. 2008. Knopf, $24 (9780307267566).
The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted. By Elizabeth Berg. 2008. Random, $23 (9781400065097).
Eureka. By Jim Lehrer. 2007. Random, $24.95 (1-4000-6487-2).
The Faithful Lover. By Massimo Bontempelli. 2007. Host, $30 (9780924047350); paper, $15 (9780924047367).
Fine Just the Way It Was: Wyoming Stories 3. By Annie Proulx. 2008. Scribner, $25 (9781416571667).
Happy Trails to You. By Julie Hecht. 2008. Simon & Schuster, $24 (9781416564256).
I Love Dollars and Other Stories of China. By Wen Zhu. 2008. Penguin, paper, $14 (9780143113270).
Olive Kitteridge: A Novel in Stories. By Elizabeth Strout. 2008. Random, $24.95 (1-4000-6208-X).
The Stone Gods. By Jeanette Winterson. 2008. Harcourt, $24 (0-15-101491-4).
There a Petal Silently Falls. By Ch’oe Yun. 2008. Columbia, $24.50 (9780231142960).
Unaccustomed Earth. By Jhumpa Lahiri. 2008. Knopf, $25 (9780307265739).
Wild Nights! Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway. By Joyce Carol Oates. 2008. Ecco, $24.95 (9780061434792).
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