We met yesterday to discuss two books of short stories; The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro, and The Whole Story and Other Stories by Ali Smith. As I'm not really a short story reader, I was intrigued by my reactions to these stories compared to other readers, and we had an interesting discussion about "how to..." read short stories!
One of the readers present said that she thought reading too many short stories all at once was a similar experience to eating a whole box of very rich chocolates; after a while they all taste the same and you feel sick! Her strategy was to read one short story every once in a while, as a break or a change from her other reading. Then, while she was out walking the dog, or just going through her day, she would play with the story in her mind; searching for conclusions or resolutions, or just letting it settle.
Another reader said that he read short stories because of time constraints, and that when he was choosing to read a short story rather than a longer work, he needed it to fulfill certain criteria regarding length, quality of writing and so on, for it to be a satisfying experience.
We mostly agreed that short stories probably needed to be read slowly ( like poetry?) and posssibly even to be read aloud, for the full weight and meaning of the stories to come through. Those of us who had been at the literary evening at Eden with Ali Smith in December agreed that when she read aloud from her short story, Writ, and from her novel, The Accidental, we were able to engage with the story in a different way, and to appreciate nuances of tone in a way we had missed when reading silently in our heads.
We talked a lot about "voice"; both in the context of the voice we hear when stories are read aloud, but also the authorial voice and how we respond to it. Ali Smith's voice, for example, was felt to be extremely distinctive, and we talked about her style; the way she seems to write in the way we seem to think; going off at tangents, not being afriaid to make a sentence as long or as short as it needed to be. We talked about how the reader's responsibilty was to work at understanding; about how we didn't want it handed to us on a plate, and that it was actually up to us to work at unravelling what were very dense stories. Ali Smith doesn't render her meanings lightly, and this could be frustrating if it weren't for the intense readerly joy that is to be had along the way.
In contrast, we felt that Alice Munro's writing, in this collection at least, could be described as clear, simple, descriptive, and narratively driven. This isn't to say we didn't think it was fine writing; it was! She transported us through time and place, and we had to remind ourselves that although we were reading Castle Rock as autobiography or memoir, she herself had told us that these were stories. Of course, this led to much discussion about the writing of memoir as opposed to story telling; the slippage between fact and fiction is always intriguing!
There were some lovely points of connection between these two seemingly diverse books. The theme of women, trees and sexuality came up in both, and had me scurrying to find Zora Neal Hurston's wonderful Their Eyes Were Watching God: "Oh to be a pear tree, any tree in bloom..." As we know that Ali Smith has also read Hurston, it led us to wonder how often she might have taken a favourite piece of (probably not very well known) literature, and played with it, transformed it, made it completely her own, made it luminous and wonderful, just for the fun of the intellectual exercise! Other connections were that Smith is Scottish, and Munro of Scottish ancestry, and both are great observers of people and relationships. Both also addressed the issue of women on the edge, and of not wanting to stand out or draw attention to oneself, though each handled it very differently.
If you have read these books, and would like to join in our on-line group to discuss the books or these writers with other readers, please go to the Forum link at the top of this page, and follow the links to log in; we look forward to sharing ideas with you!
A Reading Day at Brook Cottage, deep in the Shropshire countryside, what a wonderful way to spend a wet and miserable Sunday in January. I left home in plenty of time as I had chosen to make soup as my contribution for lunch; this necessitated careful driving, no emergency stops or two-wheel cornering if I cared about the interior of my car. As a result I was the first to arrive and was welcomed at the door of her charming house, by our hostess, Anna Dreda. The cottage was welcoming and cosy, three log fires burned in various rooms, a delicious smell of baking emanated from the kitchen and pretty garlands of fir and fruits intertwined with lights festooned the beams and mantelpieces lending a celebratory air.
Our Readers arrived in ones and twos, some of them I knew from my time at Wenlock Books, others were new to me. An informal meeting with coffee and the heavenly biscuits that Anna had just removed from the oven, took place and introductions were made. I had not been to one of these events and I felt a pleasant 'let's get on with it' anticipation as we were ushered into the sitting room. Nine of us sat down, eight women and one brave man.
Alice Munro's book is based on her own ancestors' emigration from Ettrick in the South-West of Scotland to Canada in the nineteenth century. It is a collection of stand-alone stories with this connecting theme and is written in such a way that many of us did not realise we were in fact reading short stories, the book read like a biography. It produced animated discussions on what constitutes a short story and its place in literature, the stoicism of early settlers and women in particular and the resilience of Scottish emigrants and what drove them to this life change. Many of our Readers had stories of their own family’s' genealogy and this produced interesting comparisons of life then and now and how they related to the book. We also discussed how true the stories were and how much the author had embellished them; she confesses to fictionalising many of the events and it was intriguing to talk about how much this is relevant. Ms Munro, who is the narrator of the stories, convinces you that it is a straight forward account of her young life only to slyly insinuate that it may only be based on fact.....much lively discussion followed.
At about one o'clock we paused for lunch but work did not end there, we were given homework to complete during lunch to stimulate discussion of the next book! Lunch, of course was delicious. We had all contributed to it and brought an array of vegetarian food which we demolished with glee. The sitting room was kept as a quiet room for those of us who wanted to read ready for the next session.
And so we came to Ali Smith's book. Anna kicked off by reading a story from the collection called The Start of Things. We had all read the story to ourselves but listening to it being read out loud gave a different perspective and this aspect was our first point of discussion. The story is about a domestic tiff that turned into a full blown row with one of the people being locked out of the house. Ms Smith brings us into the scene when there has obviously been much already said and the protagonists have been rowing for a while. We are given a snapshot of this couples' life together but nothing is explained and we are left with an inconclusive will she -won't she end. We discussed Ali Smith's use of language and meaning, what was actually implied in the story and then, of course, how we felt it related to our own lives. Anna was very good at keeping us from wandering away from the topics we were meant to be discussing, it was all too easy to go off at a tangent but Ms Dreda was a strict disciplinarian and soon brought us back on track. We compared the two writers and their approach to their craft. Ali Smith is Scottish and Alice Munro is of Scottish descent, they are both contemporary writers and both are adept at writing about the human condition. Very good choices which stimulated debate.
Tea was served in the kitchen as we decided what to read at the next Reading Day. The criterion was writers from the seventies and we chose The Colour Purple by Alice Walker and The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood. I can't wait!
Nine of us assembled at Brook Cottage last Sunday, to “compare and contrast”, as they always say in A-level English essays, two books of short stories; "The View from Castle Rock” by Alice Munro, and “The Whole Story” by Ali Smith.
Of the two books, Alice Munro`s proved to be the less contentious; we had all enjoyed it very much, several of us failing to notice that it comprised short stories as such, so closely are they linked. The author makes it clear that they stand as discrete anecdotes. In the first section, her deceptively simple, lucid and beautiful prose leads the reader along the path of fiction, convinced that it is fact. There is of course a historical and biographical framework; Alice Munro attaches to that a succession of imagined “stories”, describing her own family`s history. The sense of the fragility of life pervades these stories; gravestones mark the end of lives of hardship and labour, in many cases, but also of bravery and determination. Fact and fiction are blended so well that we believe in these people and care about them too. In the second section, the author carries
the same themes forward, through her own childhood and right up to her real and present-day existence, telling her story in such a way that it is the people rather than the events that shine through.
Anna started the afternoon by reading aloud to us the last story in Ali Smith`s collection. These short stories are a very different matter, and for those of us (self included) who had found them difficult, this proved to be an enlightening experience. For these are stories whose language needs to be examined closely, and heard. As someone so accurately commented, reading them all at once in quick succession was like eating your way through a whole box of chocolates at one sitting.
Plots and story-lines, where the laws of the everyday world do not quite apply, can be hard to pin down. The author puts her characters in places where we fear for their safety in some hard-to-define way. We are often not really sure whether they are men or women, old or young, mad or sane. But throughout, there are the typical Ali Smith sparks of humour, love of word play, and the “real-life” references to film or TV which somehow anchor the story in reality.
The company was great, the food delicious, the discussions rewarding and we all left with heads full of things to ponder further; the proof, if proof were needed, of a very successful reading day. Thank you, Anna.