August 11, 2013

Dear Life - Alice Munro

Last weekend was a long weekend, so I decided to spend at least part of it binge-reading the newest Alice Munro collection of short stories.  I don't know what it is about Alice Munro, but I always associate her with summer-time reading, even her stories that are set in the dead of winter.  This is possibly because of the summer 12-ish years ago that I spent reading everything written by her that I could get my hands off!  But for whatever reason, as soon as I start reading something by Alice Munro, I think of hot summer days.  And so an August long weekend was perfect to spend curled up with a new collection.

It is hard to write a review of a short story collection, as each story is individual unto itself.  An Alice Munro short story is like a snapshot in time.  Sometimes you get a bit of background of what came before, and sometimes you get a hint of what might happen afterwards.  But generally, you are just thrown right into the middle of the action which will end 20-30 pages later.  I find her writing to be very vivid that it only takes a couple of paragraphs before I am right there with the characters.

This collection was no different.  I was able to relax, knowing that I was safe in the hands of a master storyteller.  That doesn't mean no plot twists, it just means that I know that I am not going to be left hanging at any point, I am going to be immersed in the setting and the action, and that the characters are going to be realistic and true to themselves.

Interestingly, the last 4 stories in the collection she referred to as the most autobiographical stories she ever had written or will write.  And yet they still had the feel of an Alice Munro story.  The only thing is that as I started each one, I knew who the narrator, who the "I" of the story was going to be.  But each story was an independent snapshot, not dependent on one another.  And I guess that can be interpreted as a compliment on her short stories.  If the non-fiction felt like the fiction, then the fiction is so true-to-life that it could have happened.

I think that it was Shelagh Rogers who said that she has a bittersweet feeling with each new collection of Alice Munro stories, as she is unsure if this is going to be the last collection due to the author's advancing age and health concerns.  I can echo that sentiment - I truly hope that there are more stories to come from this Master of the English Language; but even if she never publishes another story, this would be a good collection to go out on.

August 4, 2013

The Virgin Cure - Ami McKay

This book took me a long time to get through, and an even longer time to get around to writing a review.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement now, is it?!

Everyone out there seems to have read Ami McKay's debut novel, The Birth House, but I somehow missed it.  I certainly have seen copies in the bookstore, but never got around to picking up a copy.  This was possibly due to it's release date (February 2006), right in the middle of my 3-year cultural gap when I was living overseas and out of touch with current books and movies and music.

Anyways, after all of the hype (good and bad) about The Birth House, I decided to give her second novel, The Virgin Cure a try.  I have to say that I was underwhelmed.

It is the story of Moth, a girl trying to get by after being abandoned by her mother in the seedier side of New York City in the late 1800s.  She eventually lands in a "house of ill repute", with a Madam who makes a small fortune by selling the virginity of young girls to the highest bidder.  The Madam is especially careful though to avoid customers looking for The Virgin Cure - a belief that having sex with a virgin would cure syphilis.

I wasn't particularly drawn to any of the characters.  For me to get into a book, I generally have to be rooting for at least one of the characters, and I didn't find anyone to cheer on in this book.  Probably the character that was the most sympathetic to me was Dr. Sadie, a Lady Doctor whose job included looking after the girls in the brothel.  However even she seemed a bit to pedantic - she was so sure that she knew the best way for everything.  Moth, the main character, was a bit to cold and calculating to be particularly endearing.  And all of the rest of the characters seemed to come and go without making a very big impression on this reader.

I was especially disappointed with the author's note at the end where she talks about the origins of this book and she spends quite some time talking about syphilis and the virgin cure.  But not once does she mention that the belief in a virgin cure is still alive today, but that the disease that it is supposed to cure is AIDS.  In my time in Tanzania, there were many girls (some very very young girls) admitted to the hospital after being raped (often by a relative) in an attempt to cure AIDS.  And yet the author talks about the virgin cure as if it is a thing of the past, not as a very real and present thing in the world today.  And so the final pages of the book left a bad taste in my mouth - possibly the reason why it has taken me almost a month to write this.

Anyways, I did not enjoy this book, and I probably won't pick up any of Ami McKay's other books in the future.  I apologize to her multitude of fans out there.