Mar 15, 2008

Alice Munro, Ray Bradbury and Terry Pratchett


You know how sometimes an author goes from being completely unknown to you to someone whose name you see everywhere in a short amount of time? Until some three months ago, I had never heard of Alice Munro. Then I started seeing her name being mentioned by fellow bloggers. Shortly thereafter, I discovered that Sarah Polley had directed a movie adaptation of one of her short stories (I am a big fan of Sarah Polley – she was extraordinary in two of my favourite movies, The Secret Life of Words and My Life Without Me, and I look forward to discovering how she is as a director). The movie is called Away From Her, and the short story in question is “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”.

A few weeks after that, I discovered that Jeffrey Eugenides had selected that same short story for the anthology of love stories he edited, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead. And then just recently I saw a little book containing the story and an introduction by Sarah Polley at the bookshop. I took the time to read the introduction, and in it she talks about how emotional an experience reading the story for the first time was, and how the story is one of those in which you find something different each time you come back to it.

So when earlier this week I discovered, thanks to Iliana, that the Alice Munro short story “The View From Castle Rock” was available online, it was the final push. It was time to read her at last. I did a search at The New Yorker’s website, and discovered that they also had “The Bear Came Over The Mountain”.

“The View from Castle Rock” is the story of a Scottish family leaving their homeland to board a ship to Canada in 1818. Different sections of the story are told from the perspective of different family members. There’s Old James, the patriarch, who was largely responsible for the family’s decision to emigrate, but whose feelings towards his native Scotland start to change once he catches a last glimpse of it; there’s Mary, largely ignored by her family, and whose love for her nephew Young James is her reason to live; there’s Agnes, who gives birth to Isabel on the ship; there’s Walter, who keeps a journal documenting the journey and who becomes friends with a young sickly girl. The story is not very long, and yet the characters have all the depth and complexity of a novel’s characters. I found myself caring more about them than about the characters of the novel I was reading at the time. Alice Munro’s eye for detail is impressive, and the result is a very human and very complete story.

“The Bear Came Over The Mountain” is the story of Grant and Fiona, who have been married for fifty years when Fiona is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. After some time, Fiona is admitted to Meadowlake, a nursing home that has the policy of not allowing visits during a patient’s first month there, so that they can settle in undisturbed. When Grant is finally allowed to visit her, he realizes that Fiona no longer recognizes him, and seems to have transferred all her affection to another patient. I think that, from this premise alone, it is easy to imagine how touching this story is. There is a certain quietness, a certain restraint to the writing that only increases the story’s emotional power. Nothing is overstated; things are described very matter-of-factly. I am very very interested in seeing how this story works as a movie.

Thanks to Andi, I read Ray Bradbury’s brilliant post-apocalyptic story “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains”. I don’t know what to say about it that won’t be a huge spoiler. It’s quintessential Bradbury – the writing is wonderful, it’s very disturbing (hint: there are no human characters) and it’s equally thought-provoking. The title is taken from a Sara Teasdale poem that is included in the story and fits it perfectly. The story is quite short, so if you have a few minutes to spare I urge you to read it. You won’t regret it.

Finally, I concluded my short story mini-marathon with “A Collegiate Casting-Out of Devilish Devices” by Terry Pratchett. This is a 2005 Discworld short story that for some reason had completely escaped my attention until a few days ago. The story describes a staff meeting at Unseen University, in which the wizards are asked what it is, exactly, that they do. I think that anyone familiar with the academic world will find that the story rings a bell.

And speaking of Terry Pratchett, I didn’t think it would be possible, but my respect and admiration for him continue to grow. Click here. Then scroll down and read his speech.

10 comments:

Debi said...

What a speech...I hope it does some good. I cannot for the life of me begin to imagine the courage it must take to get through each day knowing that you have Alzheimers.

You know, I'm not sure that I've ever heard of Alice Munro before. I definitely want to go read "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" now...sounds like quite the emotional read. And I will definitely be checking out the Bradbury story as well. Thanks for the links, Nymeth!

Chris said...

I saved the Bradbury story to read later on! It sounds perfectly Bradbury :) Pratchett's speech was great and it's wonderful what he's doing for that foundation. Of course he's benefiting himself, but you know he does it to benefit the population as a whole. I can't read anything that man writes without a smile on my face. He could be writing about starving children in Bosnia and he'd have us smiling.

Nymeth said...

Debi: I know, I can't even imagine it ether. He is dealing with this admirably. And you're welcome! I hope you enjoy the stories - I think you will :)

Chris: You'll love the Bradbury story! What he's doing is wonderful, isn't it? I do hope that he gets to benefit from it himself..like he said, there's no way of knowing if a breakthrough discovery will come in time :( But let's remain hopeful. And I know what you mean...it's amazing how he can always maintain his sense of humour!

Rhinoa said...

I know what you mean about Alice Munroe, I think even my mum has been reading some of her short stories lately. I must check her out. I didn't realise it was her who wrote the story behind "Away from Her" which was a film I really enjoyed. Very emotional. I must read more Ray Bradbury as well as the Pratchett story which sounds like a lot of fun. Bradbury is one of the few Sci-Fi authors I find very easy to read and enjoy.

DesLily said...

I think you can really tell when something touches someone by the length of the post... this surely touched you!!

Nymeth said...

Rhinoa: Good to know that the movie is good. I really want to watch it now! You definitely do need to read more Bradbury. I also find his stuff easier to get into than most sci-fi.

Deslily: I hadn't thought of that, but it is generally true - and it definitely is in this case. I guess the more something touches us, the more we find to say.

Trish said...

I've recently seen Alice Munro's name all over the place as well but I know little about her except she is Canadian (shame on me!! I really need to get better in touch with my roots). One of the reasons why I enjoy short stories is they can be such an intense study of human nature (at least some). It sounds like Munro does this in these stories.

Nymeth said...

Trish: Yes, I'd definitely say that these stories do that. And that is my favourite kind of story. You should read them!

Iliana said...

Nymeth I'm so glad you enjoyed the Munro story. Isn't it funny when you feel like the planets are all aligning and telling you to go read this author or that story? I love that. Thank you for posting the link to her other story. I had heard about the movie but didn't realize it was based on this story. Sounds very intense and wonderful.

Nymeth said...

Iliana: It really is funny when that happens. I hope you enjoy her other story. I found it very touching.