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Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro Reviewed by Paula Shackleton

Alice Munro’s 14th book, Too Much Happiness (published by McClelland & Stewart 2009) is a collection of ten short stories. The first story is about a girl who is befriended by a male orderly during visits with her mother in the hospital. The mother has surgery and dies. The couple’s relationship turns romantic and soon the girl is married with three children. The reader is immediately given a sense of foreboding about the scenario. The husband insists upon home-schooling their children, and all the details of the family’s life are controlled by his growing oppressive behaviour. When the inevitable catastrophe ensues the reader is not rewarded with respite from the harmful husband. No, our stoic protagonist continues to be snared in the mind game that leads her to take three buses and hours of commute to visit him in the criminal insane asylum. When she finally concludes that the visits are probably not a good idea for her own sake, he manages to continue his hold over her through letters. The whole experience is like watching zombies walk toward a precipice where the reader feels the urge to push the characters off into the abyss, or failing that, to jump. This is the power of Alice Munro. Once you’ve read one story, you’re hooked and have to read them all because the writing is like no other.

It’s spare and simple, but at the same time as powerful as a kick to the solar plexus. These are people who by outward appearance seem normal if not just a little off. It’s as though you’ve wondered into Alice’s rural hometown in Ontario and had the drapes pulled back on the neighbours’ houses revealing all the dark, dirty secrets taking place in their living rooms. You don’t want to read, but you can’t help yourself. You turn out the light but the story keeps going around in your head until you finally get up, sneak out and put a housecoat on, make a hot Ovaltine and read the next one. It’s not a reward, and the next one doesn’t make you feel any better or take you to a different place with dewdrops and rainbows and happy people.

So why read it, I bet you’re asking. It’s not because of the national and international literary awards and life-long body of work awards. It’s not because Jonathan Franzen excoriates in red ink on the back dust jacket to “read Munro, read Munro” (well that might have lured a few reluctant browsers to trot up to the cashier with their purchase.)

I was interested to see a picture of the author on the back cover taken, so the caption below says, in the late ‘80s when she must have been in her 50s. A curly dark-haired woman with a broad smile looks directly at the camera. She’s situated in a garden almost enclosed by a leafy shrub or tree whose dark shadow obscures where her hair stops and the foliage begins. She’s wearing a flowered top. Her face has the first creases of age that disappear when the muscles are relaxed but will soon remain ingrained even at rest. She’s beautiful. I imagine that she enjoyed having her picture taken, or knew the photographer well enough that she was comfortable exposing this natural, gay emotion. (All the later pictures used by publicists and circulated to newspapers have a white haired old lady peeping at you with a look of, well, distrust.

Perhaps we were never meant to see this picture? Perhaps this was a scrapbook item raided for the purpose of this fourteenth book jacket that says, “Look, see when I was young and untouched by all you public?” If she threatened retirement before and came out with this opus, is she really using it as a kind of armour against all the speculation about the dark nature of the stories inside and what it all is supposed to mean?

Alice’s competition on the Canadian literary diva scene, Margaret Atwood argues that if a writer is not writing a story for the sake of telling a good yarn, then they’re writing for entirely different reasons—a manifesto or something. Well this is some story-telling. Don’t let the book wait until soft cover release. Do what the back cover says and settle yourself “safely inside the gates of Literature.” [Yes, with a capital L.}

This review appeared in The Pique Newsmagazine, Sept 24, 2009

Three Islands: One Mister Pip

The immortal character “Pip” from Charles Dickens’ most autobiographical work, Great Expectations is the clay from which New Zealand author, Lloyd Jones has molded his own stunning monument Mister Pip – a book that has captivated the heart of people everywhere and won him the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (2008) and finalist for the Man Booker Prize.

Jones’ fifth book titled, Mister Pip is a treatise to the power of stories to cross barriers of age, race, religion and gender. A good story can be told and re-told. It can even be re-conguered when it’s lost, and teach us to find a place in our hearts as well as that magical escape route to the imagination.

Set in the Solomon Islands off of Papa New Guinea in the ’80s, where civil conflict has broke out between three factions: the rebel male youths of the island who are sabotaging the copper mine operations and redskin soldiers brought in to take back control. The white Australian mining people have left the island and imposed a blockade cutting the villagers off from hope or escape. [This blockade really occurred and lasted for 10 years.] With their eligible men taken from them years earlier in search of paying work, the women, children and elders are left helpless to whichever side wishes to swoop into the village and take advantage of them. Their primitive state belies the period in which the book is set – and like its characters the reader is swept off in place and time into Dickens story of great expectation.

The main protagonist is a native girl called Matilda who lives with her mother in a hut among huts at the edge of the beach. The only remaining white man on the island is Mr. Watts who her mother says, “his tribe has forgotten him.” By default Mr. Watts becomes the village teacher. His only tool is his copy of Great Expectations and his power to transfix his pupils with its telling. Contrasted by the periodic wisdom of the village elders who drop into class to instill kernals of knowledge such as, how best to dispatch sea turtle or the value of the color blue, the reader comes to care for the welfare of the people as well as fear their uncertain future.

The three island homes I am referring to are of course Dickens’ England, Jones’ New Zealand, and Matilda’s Papa New Guinea. Together the writers and the characters they have inspired show us the power of love and literature to transform. Mister Pip will take its place on your library shelf as a favorite.

You Tube video with Lloyd Jones

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

It’s the variety that makes Joe Hill’s collection of 20th Century Ghosts, (William Morrow, 2005) stand out from the crowd of horror novelists. The stories ranges from the grotesque, to unnerving, even poignant and nostalgic.

“It’s a nice memory of my father sitting with his hands cupped behind his head and the wintry blue sky over the both of us. It’s a nice memory with that old seagull floating over the outfield and not going anywhere, just hanging in place with its wings spread, never travelling any closer to wherever it was heading. It’s a nice memory to have in your head, everyone should have a memory just like it.”

This book was not what I expected at all, as a mystery and horror fan I expected to be led down some very familiar plot lines but I was more than pleasantly surprised at the subtle intelligence behind each intriguing story. Christopher Golden, who writes the introduction, captures it perfectly; ‘Most of those who practice the art of the unsettling far too often go for the jugular, forgetting that the best predators are stealthy.’ I shouldn’t have expected any less from the two time winner of the Bram Stocker award whose debut novel ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ featured in the top 10 New York Times Bestsellers List.

Each story has a different style and tone but they do have an underlining theme, Joe Hill’s stories often revolve around a young male protagonist struggling with society in different ways, the relationship between Father and son, girlfriend and boyfriend, the bond between brothers, the real and unreal.

“He wasn’t looking at me. He was methodically beginning to take it all apart, severing tape, pressing boxes flat, piling them next to the stairs.” He went on, “I wanted to help. You said he wouldn’t go away, so I made him go away.” He lifted his gaze for a moment, and stared at me with those eyes that always seemed to look right through me. “He had to go away. He wasn’t ever going to leave you alone.”

As Christopher Golden finds, it is hard not to go into too much detail when writing about the individual stories. The ones that have left me slightly disgusted include the Kafka-esque ‘You Will Hear the Locust Sing’ and ‘My Father’s Mask’. “Better Than Home” made me smile and I’m still thinking about ‘Voluntary Committal’, though I wish I wasn’t!

Even if horror and ghosts aren’t your thing this book is so varied and well written I’d suggest picking it up and you’ll find yourself lost in a world that really isn’t your own. By Dorothy Raffo, BookBuffet Reviewer