As Munro explains in her acknowledgements, it’s a story based on the final days of Sophia Kovalevski, a brilliant Russian...

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TOO MUCH HAPPINESS

STORIES

Every story collection from Canada’s Alice Munro receives such critical plaudits that it’s tempting for reviewers to recycle superlatives and readers to take her for granted. But there is no such thing as just “another” Munro release. Each time, she extends her work in a manner that redefines it.

Her latest doesn’t represent as radical a repositioning as its predecessor, The View from Castle Rock (2006), which Munro introduced as a story cycle different than anything she had published before, based on generations of her family’s historical record as reflected in journals, letters and the writer’s research. But most of the stories in Too Much Happiness—and most of them are shorter than usual for Munro—also concern the relationship between life and storytelling, how the construction of narrative reveals deeper truths or uncomfortable lies. In one of the stories, simply titled “Fiction,” the protagonist finds her own life recast in the stories of her divorced husband’s stepdaughter. “How Are We to Live is the book’s title,” she relates. “A collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is hanging on the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.” Ha! No modern writer this side of Raymond Carver has opened that gate wider for the story’s literary regard, though Munro’s fiction has more of a novelistic scope and scale than the elliptical, tightly focused work of Carver (and so many other short-story writers). In less than 30 pages, “Fiction” combines the chronological expanse of a novel with an artful compression that merges the events as remembered by the protagonist and the fiction it has inspired. Even more powerfully, “Child’s Play” concerns the stories we concoct in order to live with ourselves. The question posed to the girlhood protagonist—“How can you blame a person for the way she was born?”—carries greater resonance as she achieves the maturity of the narrative perspective, climaxing in a stunning confessional about childhood complicity and guilt. Title aside, there is far more death than happiness in these stories—the body count, though not the violence, rivals a Cormac McCarthy novel. Yet the title story, the longest and last, arrives at an epiphany that combines ecstasy and mortality in a manner that puts all that has come before—in this volume and throughout Munro’s career—in blindingly fresh light.

As Munro explains in her acknowledgements, it’s a story based on the final days of Sophia Kovalevski, a brilliant Russian mathematician who also wrote fiction that enraged her father. “Now you sell your stories, how soon before you will sell yourself?” he sputters after a magazine edited by Dostoyevsky publishes her. Here, Munro herself reads like a Russian master. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could write stories richer than these. Until the next Munro collection.

Pub Date: Nov. 17, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-307-26976-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2009

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers...

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EXHALATION

Exploring humankind's place in the universe and the nature of humanity, many of the stories in this stellar collection focus on how technological advances can impact humanity’s evolutionary journey.

Chiang's (Stories of Your Life and Others, 2002) second collection begins with an instant classic, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” which won Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette in 2008. A time-travel fantasy set largely in ancient Baghdad, the story follows fabric merchant Fuwaad ibn Abbas after he meets an alchemist who has crafted what is essentially a time portal. After hearing life-changing stories about others who have used the portal, he decides to go back in time to try to right a terrible wrong—and realizes, too late, that nothing can erase the past. Other standout selections include “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” a story about a software tester who, over the course of a decade, struggles to keep a sentient digital entity alive; “The Great Silence,” which brilliantly questions the theory that humankind is the only intelligent race in the universe; and “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny,” which chronicles the consequences of machines raising human children. But arguably the most profound story is "Exhalation" (which won the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Short Story), a heart-rending message and warning from a scientist of a highly advanced, but now extinct, race of mechanical beings from another universe. Although the being theorizes that all life will die when the universes reach “equilibrium,” its parting advice will resonate with everyone: “Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.”

Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers in a big way.

Pub Date: May 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-101-94788-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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