The Event: A Tribute to Alice Munro at IFOA 2013

Alice reading Alice, © Getty Images
Alice reading Alice, © Getty Images

On the evening of November 2nd, 2013, a sold-out crowd at the International Festival of Authors rose in a standing ovation at the urging of editor extraordinaire Douglas Gibson, who asked us to “hoot, and holler, and clap our hearts out” so that Alice Munro could hear us all the way in Victoria, BC, where she’s wintering with her daughter. The Fleck Dance Theatre was packed to the rafters, and we were all on our feet, shouting out our love and admiration for the divine Ms. Munro.

Alice Munro has been a quiet giant of the Canadian and international literary landscape for decades, publishing short fiction that reverberates with authenticity about lives, journeys, small towns, and the roles women play. On August 1st (two months before Ms. Munro became the first Canadian ever to win the Nobel Prize for literature), IFOA announced a tribute to her, a “‘who’s-who’ of Canada’s literary community, including other writers, close colleagues and family members, as they present readings of Munro’s work.”  From newer works such as Dear Life and Too Much Happiness to canonical classics Lives of Girls and Women and Runaway, Ms. Munro’s short stories have been a touchstone and a revelation to me—and to many others. The promised who’s-who brought a thrilling mix of authors to the stage: joining host Gibson was Jane Urquhart, Miriam Toews, Colum McCann, Alistair MacLeod, and Margaret Drabble.

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Absences and memories: a review of Dear Life by Alice Munro

This review has taken a long time to write. How do you review Alice Munro? It’s akin to being an art critic who looks at the Mona Lisa in order to write a review—only this is a brand new work, not an age-old classic.

 “People were always saying that this town was like a funeral, but in fact when there was a real funeral it put on its best show of liveliness. She was reminded of that when she saw, from a block away, the funeral-goers coming out of the church doors, stopping to chat and ease themselves out of solemnity.”

 “Corrie,” from Dear Life, by Alice Munro

This review has taken a long time to write. How do you review Alice Munro? The task is akin to being an art critic who looks at the Mona Lisa in order to write a review—only this is a brand new work, not an age-old classic.

I’m always a bit twitchy when a new work comes out from an author I love. What if it doesn’t live up to my expectations? (See, for example, J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. I may review that book here if I ever force myself to finish slogging through it.) I needn’t have worried, though. In her latest collection, Dear Life, Munro surpasses herself. This is a gathering of stories set mostly in rural Ontario (“Munroland”), mostly in the not-too-distant past, that are as much about what is remembered by the narrator as what isn’t, as much about what is left out of the story as what is brought into it. This book is a work about the shifting nature of memory and the way we build and rebuild our own narratives.

Continue reading “Absences and memories: a review of Dear Life by Alice Munro”

Endless heartbreaks: a review of Drifting House by Krys Lee

Drifting House by Krys Lee is a spare, lyrical, heartbreaking collection of short stories about the Korean and Korean diaspora experience. The book presents a mosaic, each tile a sad portrait of unique characters and a different set of difficulties.

“At home it is impossible to see Hana in her mother’s fat folds of flesh that smother with each hug. There are only the skirts of her mother’s stiff silk hanbok scraping against her cheeks. She says, My little genius! You’re as good as any of our boys.
“Mrs. Song’s professions of love echo as loud as threats.”
Drifting House, by Krys Lee

Drifting House by Krys Lee is a spare, lyrical, heartbreaking collection of short stories about the Korean and Korean diaspora experience. The book presents a mosaic, each tile a sad portrait of unique characters and a different set of difficulties.

Lee’s stories use the political upheaval of North and South Korea and the personal upheaval of leaving your home country behind you and going somewhere new as a backdrop for heartbreak, threading ideas of ritual and tradition throughout to give her characters’ lives structure. The first story, “A Temporary Marriage,” sets the tone for the collection: Mrs. Shin saves up money for three years in order to leave Seoul and go to California, chasing after her abusive husband, who has used his money and power to abscond with their small daughter and his mistress. The story focuses not just on the difficulties Mrs. Shin has in getting the American police to take her seriously, but also on the length of time it took to gather the resources to leave South Korea, the arrangements with Mr. Rhee to create a fake marriage in order to stay in the US, and the affair she settles into with her strange false husband. The story ends with pain, heartache, and no real resolution, as messy as real life.

The collection includes several standout stories, all in the middle of the book. Continue reading “Endless heartbreaks: a review of Drifting House by Krys Lee”

Lost in the old world and the new: a review of Copernicus Avenue by Andrew J. Borkowski

By addressing moments in time through short stories, Borkowski is instead sharing pieces of these lives with us, conferring an intimacy upon the reader that might be missing from a larger, more sweeping narrative.

“The front pews are filled with the old women who always come to early mass to claim good seats for the funeral mass that follows this one. These babci are ageless. Smelling of wet wool in their scarves and galoshes, they could be the same women who jostled for the best places when St. Voytek’s opened its doors forty years ago.”

The Poland of Andrew J. Borkowski’s Copernicus Avenue is a land of shifting borders but eternal meaning, shaping and shadowing everything that happens in each character’s life. A set of linked short stories, the book’s setting shuttles between Poland and the Polish Canadian neighbourhood of west Toronto, on the fictional Copernicus Avenue. Spanning many decades, the book tells the overarching story of the Mienkiewicz family, from Great uncle Stefan in wartime Poland to sweet, lost Blaise, the sometimes-narrator of the overall story, in present-day Canada. Along the way we are introduced to Blaise’s family and a host of other characters—and I do mean characters—and given precious glimpses into the minds and hearts of a war-torn and often adrift group of people who are just trying to find a new foothold.

I picked the book up at a recent short story reading. Borkowski stole the show with his animated, accented “Twelve Versions of Lech,” which is one of the book’s showstoppers, transporting a modernist Polish artist from the motherland to Canada. Lech is unlike anything the Polish immigrants and their Canadian-born children of 1980s Copernicus Avenue have ever encountered, and he represents a Poland that is distinct from the memories the older generation cherish and protect. Continue reading “Lost in the old world and the new: a review of Copernicus Avenue by Andrew J. Borkowski”