Sunday, June 24, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 20th post

Actually starting to think ahead to July 2 and what will be left on my plate.  I have one unfinished review to write (The Free World).  Probably will not be able to get through Headhunter in the next week.  That may be the first review of the next challenge.  And definitely not The Engineer of Human Souls, since I haven't even started it.  That might be one to plan to take along on a plane trip to Toronto (scheduled for Sept.).  I've read part of Yann Martel's early story collection, but will probably wrap that up next challenge as well.

I have only a few stories left in Carol Shields' The Orange Fish, and I did finish her earlier collection Various Miracles.  So I will begin a double review and then return to close out this entry when I have conquered The Orange Fish.  For some reason I thought The Orange Fish was published first, which was giving me minor fits since two of the stories share a character (the comic writer Meershank) and it seemed so unusual to write stories of this type out of chronological order.  In particular, why this character would need a prequel.  It certainly makes more sense now that the order has been restored with "Flitting Behaviour" first and "Block Out" second.  Somewhat unhappily, I thought "Flitting Behaviour" was one of the better stories from Various Miracles, but I am not particularly taken by "Block Out."  It's hard to put the finger on where the second story isn't as interesting, but most likely it is because of the disconnect between a comic writer having to deal with heavy, heavy stuff (death of a wife) in the first one (which is sort of interesting) and then dealing with writer's block in the second story, which doesn't have quite the same frisson, esp. when he overcomes it offstage as it were and then writes a new novel in record time.

I have to say that Shields' short stories just are not doing that much for me.  They seem to fall into two modes -- stories that focus on overlooked people, particularly older women ("Mrs. Turner Cutting the Grass" and "Hazel") and stories with a magic realism slant ("Words," "Various Miracles," "Invitations," and "The Orange Fish").  The problem is that in these short stories she can't be (or doesn't feel she can be) as subtle as in a novel, like The Stone Diaries, and so is a bit more direct about how we should think/feel about these overlooked, older women and she comes across as a poor (wo)man's Margaret Atwood.  And I don't think the magic realist stories work well at all.  I was particularly annoyed by "Words," which has a sort of clever conceit -- let's take something we all have to do everyday (talk) and make that responsible for global warming in place of the other things we do everyday to keep our society functioning (and that is also killing us).  But I just found it annoying.

Fortunately, there are occasional stories in a third mode, where she looks at the workings of a couple (usually a couple that have been together a long time) and observes them at a crisis point relatively late in their lives.  These seem to work the best -- "Fragility," "Others," and to a lesser extent "Milk Bread Beer Ice"* fit in this category.  Still, for me, Shields' short stories have a hit rate of around 15% of stories that I find interesting and/or worthy out of all the stories she's written (that I've read).  Pretty low, all things concerned.  Munro is probably closer to 75%, though it has been a while since I've read her (next year perhaps).  Simply haven't read enough Mavis Gallant to judge. Of course, in that last poetry collection I reviewed (Noble Gas, Penny Black), I only was completely captivated by a single poem out of the entire bunch and it still was worth reading just for that one.

These are reviews 21 and 22 of the current challenge.  It also closes out my read/review a book by Carol Shields in June challenge.  I thought I was going to read Unless, but couldn't find my copy.  Something to keep in mind for next June...

* While the story is on a different topic, I thought that Milk Bread Beer Ice with a few tweaks might make a good list of things that unify Canadians.  Perhaps add Coffee and Cigs and then substitute Donuts (or more specifically Tim Horton's Timbits) for Bread and you'd have it.  I haven't done much at all with my broken sestinas over the past year, but this would make a good list, esp when I reach the year that I lived in Toronto.

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