Tag Archives: Alice Munro

Books Read in 2013

Each year, I set a goal to read 25 books. Reading widely across all genres, including non-fiction work, is essential for fiction writers. This year, I fell short of 25 books. I also wanted to read more contemporary best-sellers, but I didn’t accomplish that, either. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the books I did read. Some were written by friends and colleagues, while others were penned by best-selling authors. The diversity of voices and stories have enriched my writing and I thank all of the authors on this list.

Fiction

The Lightning Charmer, by Kathryn Magendie
Waiting, by Ha Jin
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan
Third Willow, by Lenore Skomal
The Fault in our Stars, by John Green
Dune, by Frank Herbert
Looking for Alaska, by John Green
The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
News From Heaven, by Jennifer Haigh
Dented Cans, by Heather Walsh
Almost Armaggedon, by Jamie Beckett
Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane
The Night Eternal, by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo DelToro
Dear Life, by Alice Munro
Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe


Non-fiction

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, by KM Weiland
Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, by Donald Maas
Wired for Story: the Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Sciences to Hook the Reader from the Very First Sentence, by Lisa Cron
Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

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Book Review: “Dear Life,” by Alice Munro

Critics have said of Alice Munro’s short stories that they have the sweep of a novel told in much fewer words. That’s high praise, given the short story form’s challenge is to capture broader truths in the context of a scene or two. Munro’s short stories have always strived for more.

One of the pre-eminent short story writers of our time, Munro’s latest collection, “Dear Life,” published in 2012, features long journeys (both physical and emotional), lost desires, restlessness, sibling rivalries, dreams unfulfilled, and unrequited love. The lessons learned from these tales are often ambiguous, as is the case in “Corrie.” A rich young woman with a bad leg seduces a married man and carries on a long affair with him. Early on, the man tells her they are being blackmailed. The conclusion is both satisfying and morally fuzzy. In “To Reach Japan,” a fledgling poet whose engineer-husband is on a long-term assignment finds herself on a train from western Canada to Toronto (with her young daughter in tow) toward a hoped-for affair with a journalist.

“Haven” explores the fault line between domestic bliss and a sheltered wife’s desire to connect with people outside of her marriage to a rigid, conservative doctor. “Pride” features a protagonist with a physical deformity who leads a cloistered life as an accountant until Oneida, a childhood friend, whose wealthy family loses its dignity after the patriarch steals bank funds for a doomed scheme, breaks through his emotional cocoon.

“Leaving Maverly” is an endearing, sad tale about a police officer and his terminally ill wife. The officer meets a teen-age girl from a strict religious family whom he escorts home from her job as a screen projectionist. While he remains faithful to his wife the girl runs off with the local minister’s son. Years later, he encounters her again after his wife has died and there is a possibility of a connection between the two.

The last four stories are autobiographical and give insight into Munro’s upbringing in rural Ontario province. Her mother, an elegant woman, develops Parkinson’s disease and her father struggles to keep their fox farm profitable. In looking back, Munro is unsentimental and somewhat confessional, but ever the objective narrator. She writes, “I did not go home for my mother’s last illness or her funeral. I had two small children and nobody in Vancouver to leave them with. We could barely have afforded the trip, and my husband had a contempt for formal behavior, but why blame it on him? I felt the same. We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do—we do it all the time.”

In a recent interview, Munro, 81, hinted that “Dear Life” might be her last book. Here’s one reader who hopes she has more to say.

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Author Spotlight: Alice Munro

Alice Munro occupies a special place in my pantheon of modern authors. She is part of my Holy Trinity, along with Anne Tyler and Alice McDermott. Long recognized as one of the pre-eminent short story writers of our time, Munro received the 2009 Man Booker International Prize in recognition of her lifetime body of work. She is often called the “Canadian Chekhov.”

Ironically, Munro didn’t set out to write short stories. “I never intended to be a short-story writer,” Munro said in a November 1986 interview with The New York Times. ”I started writing them because I didn’t have time to write anything else – I had three children. And then I got used to writing stories, so I saw my material that way, and now I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel.”

She found short stories more satisfying than novels. ”I don’t really understand a novel,” she said in the same interview. ”I don’t understand where the excitement is supposed to come in a novel, and I do in a story. There’s a kind of tension that if I’m getting a story right I can feel right away, and I don’t feel that when I try to write a novel. I kind of want a moment that’s explosive, and I want everything gathered into that.”

Munro sets many of her stories in her native southwestern Ontario Province. The small towns of rural Huron County provide the backdrop for her complex female characters, many of whom feel the urge to break away from their roots, a theme explored to great effect in her 2004 collection, Runaway.

As is the case with Anne Tyler’s work, Munro writes quiet stories that plumb the interior depths of complicated relationships. Some critics say little of consequence happens in her stories, but that is her strength. Munro doesn’t need body counts or car wrecks to keep the reader riveted to her stories.

“Munro’s writing creates…an empathetic union among readers, critics most apparent among them. We are drawn to her writing by its verisimilitude—not of mimesis, so-called and…’realism’—but rather the feeling of being itself…of just being a human being,” Robert Thacker wrote of Munro’s work

In an interview on the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group website, Munro spoke about her approach to writing and why she was attracted to short stories. “I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way—what happens to somebody—but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something that is astonishing—not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me.”

She also discussed her relationship with her characters. “I always have to know my characters in a lot of depth—what clothes they’d choose, what they were like at school, etc…And I know what happened before and what will happen after the part of their lives I’m dealing with. I can’t see them just now, packed into the stress of the moment. So I suppose I want to give as much of them as I can.”

Munro also made the astute observation that memory is a key element of story-telling. “Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories—and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories. We can hardly manage our lives without a powerful ongoing narrative. And underneath all these edited, inspired, self-serving stories there is, we suppose, some big bulging awful mysterious entity called THE TRUTH, which our fictional stories are supposed to be poking at and grabbing pieces of. What would be more interesting as a life’s occupation? One of the ways we do this, I think, is by trying to look at what memory does (different tricks at different stages of our lives) and at the way people’s different memories deal with the same (shared) experience. The more disconcerting the differences are, the more the writer in me feels an odd exhilaration.”

At the age of 81, Munro is still going strong. Her publisher announced recently she will publish her 13th book of short stories in November, Dear Life. I can’t wait.

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Who Are Your Favorite Authors?

A blogger recently posed the question, “Who are your favorite authors?” It’s not an easy one to answer. Tastes can change as readers are exposed to different authors. J.D. Salinger’s classic, The Catcher in the Rye, kindled my interest in literature. I was a teen-ager when I read it the first time. Until then I read mostly sports biographies: The Mickey Mantle Story as told to (insert name of author), The Phil Rizzuto Story as told to…These books could hardly be considered literature, though with the rose-colored treatment these athletics received, they could well be classified as fiction.

In my 20’s I discovered the work of John Updike, Philip Roth and, later, Saul Bellow—three of the most gifted and prolific writers of the second half of the Twentieth Century. In the 1980s, after watching the movie, The Accidental Tourist, I read the novel on which it was based. I was hooked on Anne Tyler’s work. She has become one of my favorite authors. She is part of my Holy Trinity, along with Alice McDermott and Alice Munro. I was drawn not only to the excellent writing and craftsmanship, but also the subject matter. Stories about family dynamics have always intrigued and fascinated me. The family is the basic social unit. Everybody starts out life as a member of a family. These writers explored the complex relationships and frailties of families in an original and authentic way.

When I began writing fiction in earnest in the mid-1990s, I gravitated toward family sagas. I felt at home writing in that genre. Though I prefer reading family sagas, I believe it’s important for writers to read widely among all genres. I also believe fiction writers should read non-fiction books on a regular basis. Nonfiction can be a good source of research for novels, but it also informs and enlightens the reader about the issues of the day.

Today, I read an eclectic list of authors, including Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Jennifer Haigh, Richard Ford, Sue Miller, Anita Shreve, and Richard Russo, among many others. I enjoy discovering new writers, including self-published authors.

Reading is a continual source of joy and fulfillment. It will enrich your life.

Who are your favorite authors?

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My 2011 Reading List

You’ve read this before. Aspiring fiction writers should read widely across all genres. This will give the novice writer a better understanding of the craft of fiction. I believe new writers cannot improve their own writing unless they read quality fiction. It also gives all writers an appreciation for great literature.

Each year, I set a goal to read 25 books. I try to sprinkle in some non-fiction books in addition to the fiction books I read. Once in a while, I re-read a classic, as I did this year with To Kill a Mockingbird. I also make an effort to read e-books by new authors, as I did this year with Victorine Lieszke’s Not What She Seems and A.D. Bloom’s Bring Me the Head of the Buddha. Full disclosure: Aaron Bloom is a fellow member of the West Hartford CT Fiction Writers’ Group and a very talented writer.

Here is a list of books read this year:

Fiction

The Adults, by Alison Espach

The Red Thread, by Ann Hood

Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Burritos and Gasoline, by Jamie Beckett

The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson

Faith, by Jennifer Haigh

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Whiskey Sour, by JA Konrath

Not What She Seems, by Victorine Lieszke

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Eagan

Lethal Experiment, by John Locke

Baker Towers, by Jennifer Haigh

Mrs. Kimble, by Jennifer Haigh

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

Who Do You Love, by Jean Thompson

The One That I Want, by Allison Winn Scotch

Solar, by Ian McEwan

Bring Me the Head of the Buddha, by A.D. Bloom

Northwest Corner, by John Burnham Schwartz

Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan

Innocent, by Scott Turow

In Zanesville, by Jo Ann Beard

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

The Broker, by John Grisham

The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

While I Was Gone, by Sue Miller

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Good Mother, by Sue Miller

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

Non-fiction

Life, by Keith Richards

Decision Points, by George W. Bush

Decoded, by Jay-Z

Professional Development

The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner

Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Mass

Write Away, by Elizabeth George

Later this week, I will reveal my favorite book of 2011.

How many books did you read in 2011? Which one did you enjoy the most and why?

 

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Sue Miller to the Rescue

It must be the NaNoWriMo effect, but writer’s block is on my mind these days. Last week, I wrote about the “creative pause,” the positive effect  a short break can have on stimulating your creativity. Stepping away from my work in progress when I’m stuck has worked for me. Try it sometime.

Another winning strategy for unlocking my creativity is to have a “go to” author to read. I have several, depending on the nature of the story in progress. In my NaNoWriMo novel, there is a romantic relationship between the main character and a woman who, years earlier, was accused of murdering his baseball teammate and best friend. Through a series of circumstances, the main character tracked down the woman years later and they ended up in a relationship. I was having trouble writing the scenes where the two characters were together. I turned to author Sue Miller.

There are few authors better than Sue Miller at writing these types of intimate scenes between two people involved in a complicated relationship. A lot of writing coaches and bloggers talk about authors who pay attention to the small, precise details that make a scene come alive and propel a story forward. That’s one of Sue Miller’s greatest strengths.

An author and creative writing professor, Miller has written a number of best-selling novels. These include The Good Mother (1986), Inventing the Abbotts (1987), While I Was Gone (1999), The Senator’s Wife (2008) and The Lakeshore Limited (2010). She writes in the genre I like to read and the one in which I like to write. Her stories focus on families in conflict.

In an online interview, Miller lamented the decline in the number of novels that centered on families. “It seems both a more fragile and more important institution than it ever has been, more multifarious, more invented, as it goes along, more necessary. It’s been too easily dismissed as the subject or setting of serious fiction. American fiction in particular was for awhile pleased to think it had moved beyond the family, left it behind as a kind of low topic, suited only to women and children. But it comes around again and again…”

When I got stuck writing a scene for my NaNoWriMo novel, I drove to my local library and checked out While I Was Gone. The protagonist is Jo Becker, a veterinarian who is happily married to a minister. They have raised three daughters together and finally have an empty nest. Jo is content but feels somewhat unsettled, when a man from her past re-enters her life. He triggers memories of a time of personal upheaval, capped by the mysterious murder of her closest friend.

Read more about Sue Miller here.

Miller is among several “go to” authors I read, a list that includes Richard Ford, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munro, and Alice McDermott. I have read and re-read their work, with an eye toward how they set up scenes, develop characters, move the story along, and deal with large themes.

Eight days to go and I’m at 46,200 words.

Do you have a ‘go to’ author you read when you get writer’s block?

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What Are You Reading Now?

Writers benefit when they read widely, not only in the genre in which they write, but across all genres, and non-fiction as well as fiction. In addition to the inherent pleasure of reading a good book, writers gain a greater understanding of and appreciation for the craft of writing: how to structure a story, character development, use of dialogue, balancing narrative, dialogue and action, creating rising action, and much more.

Each year I set a goal to read 25 books. I just finished reading Ann Patchett’s latest novel, State of Wonder. I’ve always been a big fan of Ann Patchett’s work and her new novel does not disappoint. Here are some books I’ve read recently:

In Zanesville, by Jo Ann Beard

Northwest Corner, by John Burnham Schwartz

Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan

Innocent, by Scott Turow

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

The One That I Want, by Allison Winn Scotch

Decoded, by Jay-Z

Where do I find out about books? I choose books mainly based on reviews in The New York Times, Goodreads, fiction writers’ blogs, or recommendations of friends.

I gravitate toward family sagas, because that’s the genre in which I write, but I also enjoy murder/mysteries, women’s literature, biographies and even the occasional sci-fi thriller. I read mostly for pleasure. Sometimes I am drawn to a  book because of similarities to what I am currently writing. At other times, I select books for research. I read Decoded because I am working on a novella where one of the major characters is a
rapper and I didn’t have a clue about how to write that kind of character. I like Jay-Z’s music and the book gave me some great insights into the psychology and sociology of rap music.

What are you reading now? How do you decide on a book you’re going to read?

 

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