Sunday, September 28, 2008

The View From Castle Rock, by Alice Munro - Wendy's Review

These are stories. You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on. And the part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative. With these developments the two streams came close enough together that they seemed to me meant to flow in one channel, as they do in this book. -From The View From Castle Rock, Introduction-

We can’t resist this rifling around in the past, sifting the untrustworthy evidence, linking stray names and questionable dates and anecdotes together, hanging on to threads, insisting on being joined to dead people and therefore to life. -From The View From Castle Rock, Epilogue-

The View From Castle Rock is an interesting combination of fiction and truth - Alice Munro delves into her family background, digging up her ancestors and her childhood to create a series of linked stories which explore family connections, poverty, adversity and understanding of ordinary lives as part of a bigger history.

The collection begins deep in the Ettrick Valley, just south of Edinburgh Scotland. Munro visits a cemetery on a cold, rainy day and locates the headstones of her relatives.

Also, among various Laidlaws, a stone bearing the name of Robert Laidlaw, who died at Hopehouse January 29th 1800 aged seventy-two years. Son of Will, brother of Margaret, uncle of James, who probably never knew that he would be remembered by his link to these others, any more than he would know the date of his own death. My great-great-great-great-grandfather. -From The View From Castle Rock, page 6-

In this first story, the reader is introduced posthumously to the characters who will make up future stories in the collection. Each new story moves the reader further into the present. In the title story: ‘The View From Castle Rock‘…Munro gives the reader a glimpse into what prompted the emmigration of her family from Scotland to Canada. A young boy follows his intoxicated father up the steep, uneven stone steps of an ancient castle and onto a roofless tower.

The sun was out now, shining on the stone heap of houses and streets below them, and the churches whose spires did not reach to this height, and some little trees and fields, then a wide silvery stretch of water. And beyond that a pale green and grayish-blue land, part in the sunlight and part in the shadow, a land as light as mist, sucked into the sky.

“So did I not tell you?” Andrew’s father said. “America. It is only a little bit of it, though, only the shore. There is where every man is sitting in the midst of his own properties, and even the beggars is riding around in carriages.” -From The View From Castle Rock, page 30-

Munro’s strength in these early stories is her ability to set place and time for the reader. She writes lush descriptions and peoples her prose with complex characters. When Walter, a young boy aboard a ship bound for America, writes in his journal ‘And this night in the year 1818 we lost sight of Scotland‘ the reader feels the anticipation as well as the sadness of saying good-bye to one’s homeland in search of a better life. Munro uses real documents (such as Walter’s journal) to help piece together the history of her family and there are times when it is difficult to ascertain what is fact and what is fiction.

And I am surely one of the liars the old man talks about, in what I have written about the voyage. Except for Walter’s journal, and the letters, the story is full of my invention.

The sighting of Fife from Castle Rock is related by Hogg, so it must be true. -From The View from Castle Rock, page 84-

Munro completes part I of her collection with the story ‘Working For A Living‘ which recollects of her father’s boyhood in the town of Blyth. Part II introduces Munro herself to the collection in the story ‘Fathers‘ - a painful look at the fine line between discipline and abuse and a girl’s relationship with her father.

Lying Under the Apple Tree‘ is about the coming of age of a young girl…the innocence of youth vanquished. The ideas of God, church values (morality) and sin weave themselves through this story. Munro also skillfully introduces nature into her theme of growing up and the recognition of one’s sexuality. Her use of dirt as a symbol is effective in introducing the concept of sex vs. a girl’s fantasies vs. the realities of love.

“Dirt,” my sister whispered to me when I got home. “Dirt on the back of your blouse.”

She watched me take it off in the bathroom, and scrub at it with a hard bar of soap. We didn’t have running hot water except in the winter, so she offered to get me some from the kettle. She didn’t ask me how the dirt had got there, she was only hoping to get rid of the evidence, keep me out of trouble. -From The View From Castle Rock, page 203-

In ‘Hired Girl‘ Munro continues to explore the idea of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood. In addition she builds on the idea of place - physical place vs. one’s place in society. This concept of there being barriers between classes, is one of the main themes of Munro’s collection and in ‘Hired Girl‘ she emphasizes this idea.

I did not yet understand that maids didn’t have to find their way anywhere. They stayed put, where the work was. It was the people who made the work who could come and go. -From The View From Castle Rock, page 231-

The final stories of Munro’s collection are dedicated to her early marriage (’The Ticket‘), and her maturation into a woman who is capable of looking at her history and life in the harsh light of reality (’Home‘ and ‘What Do You Want to Know For?‘). Munro’s recollections of her father in his later years and the home where she grew up being modernized, are touching exposes on what it means to finally be an adult and no longer be protected by the innocence of childhood. Munro writes:

The past needs to be approached from a distance. -From The View From Castle Rock, page 332-

The View From Castle Rock does that - in exploring her roots, Munro has succeeded in creating a unique blend of stories which look at one family’s history in the context of a bigger picture of what it means to live on the edge of poverty, connect to family, and create a life with meaning and understanding.


Saturday, September 13, 2008

Dubliners by James Joyce

In Dubliners, his collection of short stories, James Joyce captures Irish life, specifically the lives of Dubliners. Each story is a magnificent sketch of the people, setting, and situations; the entire collection presents a variety of such sketches. At the end of each sketch, I felt the despair that I believe Joyce intended to impart in each normal life situation. While each story captures different characters in a various stages of life, similar despair pervades each of their lives in related settings.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Skin by Roald Dahl

I read this collection of short stories for the RIP III challenge, the Short Story Reading Challenge and for Short Story September, several of the stories I had read before at some point, but I really enjoyed the collection, it was perfect for picking up whilst dinner was cooking or whilst in the bath. I had included a mini review of some, but not all, of the stories in the collection
WARNING: I have tried to avoid saying what the outcome of each story is, but with short stories this is hard and in some descriptions I come pretty close to the end of the tale.
"I want you to paint a picture on my skin, on my back. Then I want you to tattoo over what you have painted so that it will be there always."As a young man Drioli admired and loved another man's art, so-much-so that he begged this artist, to tattoo a portrait of his wife on his back. He taught the artist to tattoo, and ended up with his whole back as a portrait of his wife's face.
Years passed, 2 World Wars have caused Drioli's tattooing business to fail, and he is left a poor old man. Walking through the streets of Paris he sees a picture by Soutine in the window of the gallery. Going in to admire the art he ends up revealing an early work by Soutine, his tattoo. A poor man he may be, but he is a walking talking masterpiece, the gallery owner wants a piece of him. Just how far will he go to get it?
The African Story
When the Second World War started a young man joined the RAF as he loved to fly. On his first mission his flight failed and he spent two nights at a lonely, desolate farm. There, lived alone an old man who relished the pilot's company. The old man shared a strange story with the pilot, which the pilot later recorded "not in the old man's words, but in his own words, painting it as a picture."
The old man's tale tells of a relationship with his employee, a man with who gets obsessed by repetitive noises, the noise of his masters dog chewing leads him to kill his masters beloved dog. The man's tale tells his story of revenge.
Galloping Foxely
A regular commuter, used to the routine of his daily commute is suddenly struck with horror when a stranger appears and spoils his daily commute, having the audacity to share his carriage. Not only does this stranger upset the daily commute but he also recognises that face as the school bully who tortured him through his days at (a very stereotypical) boarding school. How does he react?
The Wish
A lovely and very short story about the imagination of a small child trying to make his way across an immense carpet of red hot rocks and black child eating snakes.
The Surgeon
In the surgeon, one mans ordinary day as a surgeon ends up turning his life upside down as he saves the life of the Prince of Saudi Arabia. He is given a rare, rather large diamond as a gift of thanks. With no way to store the diamond safely it is locked away inside the freezer in a bock of ice. He returns to find his house destroyed and the diamond missing, yet it turns up again in a rather strange and unfortunate place.
The Champion of the World
When I saw this title my first thought was Danny, but this has nothing to do with that small boy. I'm sure I've read this story before somewhere, maybe when I was at school. The Champion of the world is about Pheasant poaching, all the ways and means of doing it, slyly without the park keepers catching on.
A pair of men believe they have found the ideal way to poach these birds, and having come up with this method they can't just leave it at poaching a few birds, they go to the extreme and get over a hundred birds. But, as we all know, sinners never win.
Lamb to the Slaughter
The husbands annoying you, home late, expecting dinner on the table, he's got quite boring in his old age, and you just want out. Most people would just walk away, but not this lady. A quick smack to the back of the head and she no longer has a husband to worry about anymore, but she does have the small matter of covering up the murder to deal with. What better way than to ensure the the poilce remove all trace of the crime themselves.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The last one in the challenge for me ...

I have really enjoyed this challenge - and even though this post is about the final item I read in the list I prepared for it, I'm coming across so many more short stories that I want to read as I see others' comments and the titles they've chosen. So thank you for expanding my short story horizons!

In Sunshine or in Shadow : Stories by Irish Women, edited by Kate Cruise O'Brien, and Mary Maher, is a collection of short stories written by women from Ireland, and those of Irish descent. They are contemporary stories, many of them about women at the time of the referendum to legalize divorce in Ireland in the 1990s. This was my final choice in the Short Story Challenge.

Like any short story collection, there were some stories I liked much more than others. As a whole, the stories are all at least interesting. My particular favorites were "Taximen Are Invisible" by Maeve Binchy, "The Orphan" by Mary Dorcey, and "Bishop's House" by Mary Gordon (who is one of my favorite authors anyway). Many of the themes are universal, but with an Irish sensibility, which added a different aspect to them. I am always interested to read a story or a novel where I can identify with a basic theme or character, but some part of the whole is literally or figuratively foreign to me.

The editors did an excellent job of choosing what stories to include, in my opinion. There was a good balance of the serious, funny, poignant, ironic, and surprising. I would say that it is worth giving at least one or two of the stories a read, and who knows, you may meet some new writers along the way.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Kerfol by Edith Wharton; Ghosts of Kerfol by Deborah Noyes

Noyes, Deborah. 2008. The Ghosts of Kerfol.

The Ghosts of Kerfol is an enjoyable short story collection that pays tribute to Edith Wharton's short story "Kerfol". I'd encourage you to take a few minutes (about ten or twenty actually) and read this haunting story about an old-and-creepy manor. The Ghosts of Kerfol is a collection of five short stories: "Hunger Moon," "These Heads Would Speak," "The Figure Under the Sheet," "When I Love You Best," and "The Red of Berries." The first two especially--"Hunger Moon" and "These Heads Would Speak" pay tribute to Wharton's original story. The remaining stories are imaginative what-ifs that bring the story into the modern world.

The original story is a story-within-a-story. Kerfol is the manor in question. The framework of the story is about a person (I don't think it says if it is a man or woman; if it did I missed it) who is considering buying Kerfol. The narrator is there at the estate exploring the grounds and hoping for a closer view of the house itself. But the narrator keeps seeing a handful of dogs around the place. We later realize--along with the narrator--that these dogs are ghosts. That one day a year--on the terrible anniversary--they appear. The guardian and his daughter always leave that day to avoid the creepy factor as much as possible. The narrator then reads an account of the history of Kerfol.

This second story, the inner story, is set in the seventeenth century. It involves an old man and a young woman in a "seemingly" "happy" but childless marriage. Happy if you think such a thing is possible when the woman has no freedom to move about on her own even on her own estate in and about her home, her gardens, etc. Sensing on some level at least her loneliness, he buys her a dog. What happens next isn't pretty. One day he becomes jealous and he strangles her dog. And it only gets worse from there. Believe me. Dog-lovers will be crushed at the cruelty. But the husband does get his comeuppance, he's murdered--and according to his wife's claims--by these dead dogs of hers.

The story isn't pretty. It's melancholy at best. And the stories crafted in The Ghosts of Kerfol are bittersweet and haunting. The first, "Hunger Moon," re-envisions the second story (Yves de Cornault and Anne de Barrigan) as told by a servant girl, a waiting woman. The second story, "These Heads Would Speak," is about a young man visiting the estate. He's there while his mother seeks to straighten out his inheritance. Anyway, this story parallels the frame story of the original in a way.

The remaining stories interconnect with the previous and the original. It was a well-crafted book. The creepiness was perfect. I enjoyed all the stories.