Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A Nobel Introduction?


Vintage Munro - a collection of short stories by Alice Munro


In 2013, Alice Munro received the Nobel Prize for Literature. What made this award unique was that it was the first time they gave it to an author who exclusively writes short stories. To honor this, Vintage books put out a revised collection of short stories, which includes the presentation speech by Professor Peter Englund. In that speech, he notes "… Alice Munro is often able to say more in thirty pages than an ordinary novelist is capable of in three hundred," calling her "the master of the contemporary short story." That's high praise indeed, which isn't surprising for a Nobel Prize.

It isn't like I make a point of reading works by every Nobel Prize laureate, but I was intrigued to see if Munro's works were as amazing as Swedish Academy said they were. Of course, choosing which book of hers was the problem, so when I happened on this special edition, I figured it would be a good introduction to Munro's writing. However, now that I've read it, and looked into the previous edition from 2004, I'm not so sure.

Let me be clear, my disappointment in this collection is certainly not the fault of Munro's writing. That, I can assure you, is just beautiful. In fact, this is exactly the type of writing I particularly enjoy. That being, simple prose that gets to the heart of the characters; she never gives too much away and always makes her readers think. I particularly liked how Munro populates many of these stories with characters that seemingly have no connection to one another, just as she weaves their lives together. Furthermore, Munro's language has a quiet, subdued quality to it that lends to the atmosphere of the subtle revelations found within her narratives. To top it off, in each of the stories in this collection, there's also something sinister or untoward going on, either hidden or obvious. This underlying imbalance gives Munro a reason to show which of her characters can figure out how to keep from falling into an abyss, and which ones fail. This makes these stories perfectly fascinating.

So if the artistry of these pieces isn't in question, then why can't I give this book a full five stars? Actually, in this case, I think I have to separate my rating into two categories. For each of these individual stories and everything about them - the characters, development, plots and style - I couldn't give them less than five out of five stars.

However, as a collection, I found this book to be less than satisfactory. While reading this book, I couldn't help feel a sense of something one-dimensional here. This might have been my own expectations, since I was hoping for something a bit more varied. By this, I mean that I had the distinct feeling that most of these works came from a similar period of Munro's writing career, with the exception of the last story, which felt was much newer (and seemed the only contemporary story of the collection). Imagine my surprise when I went to look up the original publication dates of these pieces and found that this assumption was absolutely correct. 


When I looked up the contents of the previous version of Vintage Munro published in 2004, I found that all the publisher had done was add one story from her last collection to the original five they had included 10 years before (which presented works from 1982-2001). It seems to me that for such an acclaimed writer who has been publishing stories since 1950, the publishers could have been a touch more original. I'm sorry, but taking an old compilation, adding only one of her most recent stories and slapping on the presentation speech (just to call it the "Nobel Prize Edition") just doesn't make the grade for me. Back in 2004, maybe people thought this overview of Munro's work was an adequate representation, despite the few pieces included. Unfortunately, for a Nobel Prize winner, this is a sad excuse of a tribute. Even worse, to me it looks like laziness combined with opportunism, on the part of the publisher. 

Therefore, while I loved these stories, each on their own, I can't really recommend this particular compilation of her work. I guess I'll just have to pick out the next works I want to read by Munro all by myself, and not rely on what her publishers think is a good sampling.

For the stories, I give this:


For the compilation, I give this:


The Nobel Prize Edition of "Vintage Munroe" is available from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.