on September 2, 2009
I have never read a full book of Alice Munro's short stories before this one. I mean, I've read a few here and there, and actually, as it turned out, had already read two of the stories in this collection in magazines, but never read a full book cover to cover.
Short stories get a bad rap. I've heard people complain of finding them a waste of time, or hard to get into, or unsatisfying. Well, to those people I say: You have just not been reading good short stories. And Alice Munro writes good short stories. Her stories span years, lives, births and deaths--they are novels crammed into 30 pages and you never feel like it could have been longer or shorter. She writes real characters that breathe on the page.
Here the stories tend to also revolve around a single person who arrives in each story and disrupts or changes something in some way. Sometimes, like in Free Radicals, the person is obvious, the change overt; but in other stories, such as the title story Too Much Happiness or Wood it is much more subtle. These stories are mostly about women (as I think much of her work is) and many are told from the point of view of someone older and looking back on their lives, remarking on the person that sparked the change in their lives.
Sometimes the content can be shocking. Perhaps I had an unfair view of Munro going in that her stories would be somewhat bland. Too Much Happiness proved that I was wrong several times, as almost each story contains an event, some violence or treachery or sexual act, but which is never held over the reader in a vulgar way.
I look forward to working backwards now and discovering more from her.
Here are ten reasons why you might want to pick up this award-winnning collection of short stories:
A. It deals with the very real challenges facing vulnerable women in the modern world;
B. As a series of unrelated stories it offers very unique and creative situations which women are faced with having to make ultimately courageous decisions;
C. The stories are well crafted in respect of providing credible characters to match believable circumstances;
D. The main characters - dominated and often abused women - gradually emerge from their ordeals as tragic figures who are very chastened but emboldened by their ordeals;
E. Munro does a wonderful job in setting the tone of the conflicts in her stories so that the reader can actually feel the pain and anguish of soul resulting from these various altercations;
F. The author chooses a different kind of story to end the book: one that deals with how a mature woman avoids being victimized by other people's manipulations by moving on before she becomes entrapped;
G. As usual, Munro deals with common people and their down-to-earth predicaments, which endears her to many empathic Canadians who have been there and done that;
H. Her prose is so well measured that it is effortless to read;
I. Strategically-placed irony abounds in these stories;
J. She has renewed my interest in the genre of the short story; not an easy feat considering I usually do everything to avoid them because they are too flimsy in structure and content.
I have never been a fan of short stories. I have found that with the typical short story it is like a) I am parachuted into a scenario. I have had little introduction to the characters or the environment in which they operate. Gradually I am given enough information to get acquainted; b) The plot—if there is one—does not have enough time to develop; c) I may have liked the story but find the ending is too abrupt, leaving too many questions that will never be answered.
Alice Munro being awarded the Nobel Prize in literature motivated me to buy two of her books. Having finished ‘Too Much Happiness’ I am still not much of a fan of short stories but that doesn’t mean I am not impressed by Munro’s literary skill. She is a superb writer and I think it is tragic that she has only published one novel. The story at the end of the book from which has been taken its title is a biography of Sophia Kovalevsky, a Russian mathematician, a genius, who struggled to be accepted among the exclusionary male academia of the late 19th century. It occupies 56 pages which is much longer than most short stories. Her life was marked by her fervent passion for mathematics, but she also married and became a mother and, having later becoming a widow, she was awakened to amour with a fellow academic who probably didn’t deserve her devotion. The story is mainly told in the ‘present’ time leading up to Sophia’s death, with many flashbacks from her earlier life.
Most of the stories are very agreeable but after finishing the book (unlike after having finishing a novel) it is difficult to remember what it was about, except for the lengthy last story. This is a good book for anyone who doesn’t have much time to read but it can also be enjoyed by novel-enthusiasts who may want a break from complicated plots and extravagant characterizations.
on November 16, 2009
Too Much Happiness is a splendid collection of Munro's short stories. If you have read her before, you will not be disappointed. If you are just being introduced to her writing with this book, you will make a new friend of this clever author. However, like everything Munro, the title is a bit misleading....
on September 16, 2009
[Cross-posted to LibraryThing and LivingSocial]
In the story 'Face', from this most recent collection of Munro's, she writes
"In your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place, where something happened, and then there are all the other places."
Almost every story in the collection is an exploration of the place, or few places, in the main character's lives where something happened, something that shaped who they became and how their lives ultimately turned out. The stories here have a darker and more sinister tone than in any of Munro's previous collections that I've read; the things that happened in these character's lives include the murder of their children, a weird seduction of a young girl by a creepy old man, a freak accident, a home invasion, and a case of childhood cruelty gone horribly wrong.
Munro has become a master of the twist at the end of a story. Like many of the stories in Runaway (an earlier collection), these also tend to have something at the end that either turns the story completely on its head or that snaps the whole thing into sharp focus. Munro does this really well, often it only takes one simple line, and she guarantees that I will be buying this book at some point to reread all the stories.
There are ten stories in the collection, most of which have appeared in magazines in the last couple of years. I don't think I have a favourite, I liked almost every story in the collection, though 'Dimension' was really memorable and both 'Free Radicals' and 'Child's Play' kept me up at night, turning them over and over in my head.
The collection ran out of steam a little bit at the end, the last three stories weren't quite as good as the first seven. 'Child's Play' was great until we find out what actually happened to girl that everyone hated and that turned out to be a disappointment. After so much build-up, Munro just glossed over the actual event, which seemed like a letdown. 'Wood' didn't quite fit in with the rest of the collection, it felt like it never really went anywhere and some things didn't make sense to me. The last story, 'Too Much Happiness' was different in that it was twice as long as the others and was based on the life of an actual person, Russian mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky. It was interesting but felt really disjointed and could have used some proofreading.
Overall: despite the criticisms, it's still an excellent collection and really, Alice Munro on a bad day is still leagues ahead of her competition. Definitely recommended.
on November 6, 2015
Looking at events of the second world from children's point of view was very interesting. Well written.
When I picked up this collection of ten short stories by Alice Munro, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. This, courtesy of a reading group, was my first encounter with Ms Munro's fiction.
After I read the first story, `Dimensions', I put the book down for almost a week. I was not sufficiently optimistic about Doree's future to be comfortable with the possibility of a new beginning. The ending to Doree's story took me by surprise, and I wanted more before moving on. At the rate of one story a day, I finished the book. Each of these stories made an impact and, a number of them made me uncomfortable - especially the relationships in `Wenlock Edge' and the cruelty of children in `Child's Play'. I found `Too Much Happiness' quite different from the other stories, and it didn't work as well for me. While I'm interested in learning more about Sophia Kovalevsky, a 19th century Russian mathematician, as a consequence - I couldn't be sure where fact ended and fiction began. For some reason I found this distracting.
The two stories I liked best were `Face' - with its male narrator and his disfiguring birthmark, and `Wood', the story of Roy and Lea.
`You think that would have changed things? The answer is of course, and for a while, and never.'
In most of the stories, knowledge comes to the reader in pieces as the story moves between present and past. In each of the stories we see events and relationships as the characters, mostly female, remember (and sometimes reinterpret) them. I did not like most of these characters, but what they did (or how they reacted) often made an uncomfortable form of sense as the stories unfolded. I found in many stories I wanted to know more, because I'd become involved enough in the story to not want it to finish when it did. I think it's an issue of comfort rather than incompleteness. The stories include a number of momentous and sensational events: including adultery, murder, suicide and violence. But these events are not the centre of each story which generally revolves around relationships or consequences.
Yes, I will be reading more of Ms Munro's fiction. But not just yet: the devastating effect of some relationships is reality, but it's a form of reality I need in measured doses.
`I grew up, and old.'
Yes, I know Alice Munro is one of the most successful story-tellers in Canada and, yes, I know she is extremely talented and profound. Even so, her writing has never really appealed to me; I have always found it tedious, unrelatable and melodramatic. But with all the buzz and praise surrounding Munro's newest collection, Too Much Happiness, I figured I'd give it a try like a good Canadian. In the story "Face" , Munro writes: "In your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place, where something happened, and then there are all the other places." The idea of place forms a central theme of this collection as characters connect their surroundings to life-changing and often terribly dark events such as a freak accident, a home invasion and an extreme case of childhood cruelty. Out of the ten stories, I really enjoyed four. "Dimensions," "Fiction," "Wenlock Edge" and "Free Radicals" all engaged my attention and featured strong, creative women triumphing in difficult (and often creepy) circumstances. The other stories were more or less consistent with my general evaluation of Munro's work: dry and irrelevant. Unfortunately, I felt that the worst mistake of the book was the disjointed and extraneous title story, "Too Much Happiness," which is based on the real life of Russian mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky. Ultimately, the collection did confirm my appreciation of Munro though she definitely doesn't sit among my favourites. I guess I'm just not Canadian enough...
on November 10, 2010
I was captivated by all of the stories in this collection. My one complaint is with the title story, which is actually a novella based on the life of Russian matthematician and novelist Sophia Kovalevsky. Because Munro chose to do this as a frame narration in which Kovalevsky recalls her life while riding on various trains and ferries to Sweden, the story is not told in chronological order. This creates confusion in particular when suddenly Kovalevsky's former husband, Vladimir, appears in the story without warning and his presence is only explained somewhat later. This confusion caused me to temporarily put aside the story, and it might well cause some readers to give up on the story altogether. "Too Much Happiness" is a fascinating story about how a remarkably intelligent and talented woman at the beginning of the 20th century had to deal with so much patriarchal oppression and misunderstanding, and consequently never received the venue to develop her talents she deserved. Even so, the title story is different from the rest of this collection because it is not as tight and carefully structured as the others, which are otherwise all brilliantly realized, classic Munro stories.
on March 22, 2014
I am using this book to teach English. My students are Spanish speaking and have read little English fiction. The book is so interesting to them, that they are reading far above their level just to find out what happens in the stories.