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on December 11, 2009
The characters in Alice Munro's newest book, some anyway, are more extreme than I've been used to encountering in her earlier books. There are two triple-murderers, a woman whose childhood friend helped her kill another girl, a beloved son who chooses to be a derelict, the male narrator (rare for Alice) whose port-wine birthmark thwarts his whole life, and there are a statistiacally improbable number of "specials", people with disabilities of intelligence. The dysfunctional relationships, Munro's perennial subject, are more extreme, or perhaps just more quirky, than in previous portrayals. Munro's stories have always stayed close to home - southern Ontario - and close to plain folk, to herself, her family, her ordinary `others'. That's been the great strength of her work, really -- her honesty, her close-to-bone reality. Now in her seventies, in this book and in her 2006 "The View from Castle Rock", Munro seems to be stretching her range both in time and space, writing about emigrants of the previous generation, about people who weren't and couldn't have been neighbors ... and in the title story of this collection, "Too Much Happiness", she's written a long story/novella about a Russian woman mathematical prodigy of the 19th Century. It's easy to understand why she wants to stretch, to establish her claim to some universality and some ability to get beyond her own identity as a subject. No one who has read all of her previous work, as I have, could deny that she has "written the same story again and again." She has. Or rather, she has written her several stories again and again, like Leitmotives, in her eleven books. That is NOT, believe me, a weakness in her art. It's been her genius to be able to re-examine those stories - those experiences - from the perspectives of different ages-stages of her `unfinished' life. Each retelling has expanded the story, added rings to the tree trunk of memory.

Trees, wood, and wood-working... it occurs to me that `wood' has been as much a character in Munro's narrative cast as any human, and in this collection, one story is titled "Wood." `Cancer' has also intervened often enough, and in some of Munro's finest stories, to be considered a stock character. If anyone supposes that Munro hasn't written enough about the Great Themes, let me ask you: what theme is greater than one's own death?

Or than `age'? Munro has always written eloquently about the elderly, and about children. That's been another of her literary accomplishments. In this collection, however, `age' takes a different role. Here's the first sentence of the story Some Women: "I am amazed sometimes to think how old I am." Wow! Me too, Alice! I'm ten years behind you, 68 to your 78, but I'm keeping pace like a kid brother, edging relatively closer every year. Munro writes about the strangeness of living memories of dead-and-vanished worlds, of life-styles that now seem incomprehensibly extinct, of conversations recorded in her living conscious mind that seem archaic and exotic now. Age - being old in the always-new of life - is the unifying theme of Too Much Happiness.

Thematic unity is what makes Munro's eleven books of stories more than mere `collections'. Each of her books has been a story-suite, a genre of fiction distinct from the novel or novella, in which the various narratives entangle and infuse each other with meanings. That's the case with the first nine stories in Too Much Happiness. Frankly, I didn't begin to sense the impact of the first story, Dimensions, until I'd read the fourth or fifth. The final story, of the historical `feminist' martyr Sophia Kovalevsky, stands somewhat apart from the others. Perhaps it might have been better reserved for a different collection or published separately.

Munro is more tolerant of the failings of her women than of her men. More forgiving, though it's not that there's less to forgive. Many of her women, especially her first-person female narrators, are what my mother would have called "pills". My mother never used the B-word. But Munro's men `are who they are' - completely recognizable and plausible, from the outside - while Munro's women are ... herself. There's more of her strength: her honesty of perspective and her ability to forgive herself, after cross-examination, at least enough to be able to write her confessions. Munro is above all a confessional writer, of the generation of confessor-poets like Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.

And perhaps I need to confess that I don't consider Too Much Happiness one of Munro's best books. No single story in it is as powerful as "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" from her 2001 collection Hateship/Friendship/Courtship/Loveship/Marriage, or the title story from Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, or "What Do You Want to Know For?" from The View from Castle Rock. Those three stories are sublime. For them alone, Munro should rank as the "greatest writer who hasn't yet won the Nobel Prize." But Too Much Happiness is a powerful book, worthy of its lineage as Munro's twelfth suite of stories. I can't wait for her thirteenth!
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It is an honor to review 'Too Much Happiness' by Alice Munro, who I consider the greatest living writer of short stories in the English language. Ms. Munro is Canadian and lives in Clinton, Ontario. During her writing career she has garnered many awards including the Lannan Literary Award, the United States National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Man Booker International Prize. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, the Atlantic Monthly, as well as many other literary publications. I consider her an icon.

With each book of hers that I have read (and I have read them all!) I think that she has reached her zenith. Yet, with each new publication, I find her newest work better than her previous publications. Her work is glorious. At the rate she's going now, her zenith may be light years away.

I find the metaphor of looking into a tide pool an apt one for describing the stories of Ms. Munro. A tide pool is a microcosm of the ocean, yet it has a certain stasis and life of its own. It is a living organism, relating to the macrocosm of life in many ways. The tide pool contains living species of fish, reptiles and crustaceans, all delineated by their own life cycle which can change with the tides or with the events of weather. Ms. Munro's stories are like this. She will take a small microcosm of life and show how it has enduring and lifelong effects - effects which may be immediately observable or which may not be obvious for decades.

'Too Much Happiness' is a collection of ten short stories, each wonderful in their own right and each one as rich and nuanced as a novel. Many of them deal with similar themes - paradox, movement through time, repercussions of impulse, regret, acts of horror and relationships.

'Dimensions', the first story in the collection is about a damaged woman whose three children are murdered. She goes through life feeling empty through she talks to a social worker regularly. She is driven to visit and re-visit her ex-husband in jail. At one point he writes her a diatribe about his revelations that their children are now in another dimension. On her way to visit him one evening on the bus, she witnesses a car accident and attempts CPR on the victim. Through the CPR, she can feel life return to the young man who is near death's door.

By the third story in this collection, 'Wenlock Edge', specific themes begin to emerge - Who are we? Do we change in relationships? Of what are we capable under certain situations? Do these situations have particular reasons or are they random events related to our current environments?

The story begins with a a young woman who has regular visits from her aunt and bachelor uncle when she is a child. Her aunt dies. The young woman continues school in the city and has a weekly ritual dinner with her uncle. She also has a small circle of acquaintances. Solely by chance, she ends up with a part-time roommate with a `history'. This roommate is always getting herself into situations that don't work out and that compromise her virtue. She is also a prolific liar and likes to be in one-up situations with others. Both young women find themselves "on their way to deeds they didn't know they had in them".

'Deep-Holes' begins with a family outing to celebrate the father's publication of a paper on geology. During the course of the picnic, one of the sons, Kent, falls into a crater and breaks both of his legs. He has to remain out of school for six months. During that time, Kent and his mother share stories about distant isles and lands that are remote or unknown to mankind. One of the children becomes an attorney, the other a physician. Kent drops out of college and is heard from rarely and erratically. He lives on the fringes of society and the question arises, `What is society? The story reminded me of a novel by Carol Shields, a Canadian author, now deceased. I wondered if this story might be an homage to Ms. Shield's novel.

'The Face' is a wonderful story about a boy born with a port wine stain on half of his face. His father abhors him for his looks and calls him `liver face'. The father is rude, crude, awful. The mother is sanctimonious, martyr-like and loving her son in a standoffish way. The father avoids the son in every manner possible - he doesn't eat with him, talk to him or spend time with him. Ms. Munro brings up a lot of questions about this boy's life and the metaphor of paradox is paramount. "You think that would have changed things? The answer is of course, and for a while, and never".

'Child's Play' is a story that is idyllic on the surface and horrific in the interior. Two young girls attend a summer camp and during the course of this camp they do something that is never spoken about again until decades later. Even then the extent of what happened when they were children is not fully absorbed.

Each of these stories is masterful and wonderful in the telling. I've read the book twice and appreciate it more with each reading. There is no one living to compare Ms. Munro with. The only writer I can think of whose short stories I love as much as hers is Eudora Welty. What a group of two!!
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The thing about Alice Munro is, she makes it seem so EASY. Of course, it's never easy translating the core of human emotions with a few deft strokes. Or to capture universal truisms in a couple of beautiful words. Unless, of course, you're Alice Munro!

Take, for example, the haunting story "Child's Play", about two young girls and a special needs child. Munro writes: "Children of course are monstrously conventional, repelled at whatever is off-center, out of whack, unmanageable." In a brief sentence, she dispels the notion of childhood innocence and flexibility and reveals children for what they are: afraid of what is strange.

Or take a quote from the signature story, Too Much Happiness: "When a man goes out of the room, he leaves everything in it behind. When a woman goes out, she carries everything that happened in the room along with her." Does this writer understand the human condition or WHAT?

Munro draws her readers deftly into a sort of alternative world, where the people ring true, the situations, even when bizarre, seem real, and the recognitions are surprisingly of oneself. There is much pain in these stories; in Dimensions, a woman who must soldier on after her husband murders her three children. In Wenlock Edge -- in my mind, one of the best in the collection -- a college student feels compelled to read to a benefactor stark naked, and endure a humiliation that will likely always affect the way she views literature and learning. In Deep-Holes, a mother must cope with a flipped-out adult son who condemns her for not being "useful in life." And in Face, a boy with a deformed face connects and separates with a childhood friend who performs self-mutilation. The final, title story focuses on a real-life 19th century Russian mathematician and novelist and reveals another aspect of humanity entirely.

The writing is not flashy, not post-modern, and not self-conscious; just powerful, ambitious, and pitch-perfect from a writer who is correctly touted as one of the top writers working today. At the end of the book, "too much" seemed not enough at all; I await her next collection.
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on January 9, 2011
... something outside her usual range, and in this collection she certainly exercises that right. This is a second edition of "Too Much Happiness" with a different cover; I almost grabbed it and bought it in a bookstore before I recognized some of the story titles. Don't make that same mistake, unless you have an urge to give a copy to your favorite niece or nephew. Here's the review I wrote of the first edition, many months ago:

The characters in Alice Munro's newest book, some anyway, are more extreme than I've been used to encountering in her earlier books. There are two triple-murderers, a woman whose childhood friend helped her kill another girl, a beloved son who chooses to be a derelict, the male narrator (rare for Alice) whose port-wine birthmark thwarts his whole life, and there are a statistiacally improbable number of "specials", people with disabilities of intelligence. The dysfunctional relationships, Munro's perennial subject, are more extreme, or perhaps just more quirky, than in previous portrayals. Munro's stories have always stayed close to home - southern Ontario - and close to plain folk, to herself, her family, her ordinary `others'. That's been the great strength of her work, really -- her honesty, her close-to-bone reality. Now in her seventies, in this book and in her 2006 "The View from Castle Rock", Munro seems to be stretching her range both in time and space, writing about emigrants of the previous generation, about people who weren't and couldn't have been neighbors ... and in the title story of this collection, "Too Much Happiness", she's written a long story/novella about a Russian woman mathematical prodigy of the 19th Century. It's easy to understand why she wants to stretch, to establish her claim to some universality and some ability to get beyond her own identity as a subject. No one who has read all of her previous work, as I have, could deny that she has "written the same story again and again." She has. Or rather, she has written her several stories again and again, like Leitmotives, in her eleven books. That is NOT, believe me, a weakness in her art. It's been her genius to be able to re-examine those stories - those experiences - from the perspectives of different ages-stages of her `unfinished' life. Each retelling has expanded the story, added rings to the tree trunk of memory.

Trees, wood, and wood-working... it occurs to me that `wood' has been as much a character in Munro's narrative cast as any human, and in this collection, one story is titled "Wood." `Cancer' has also intervened often enough, and in some of Munro's finest stories, to be considered a stock character. If anyone supposes that Munro hasn't written enough about the Great Themes, let me ask you: what theme is greater than one's own death?

Or than `age'? Munro has always written eloquently about the elderly, and about children. That's been another of her literary accomplishments. In this collection, however, `age' takes a different role. Here's the first sentence of the story Some Women: "I am amazed sometimes to think how old I am." Wow! Me too, Alice! I'm ten years behind you, 68 to your 78, but I'm keeping pace like a kid brother, edging relatively closer every year. Munro writes about the strangeness of living memories of dead-and-vanished worlds, of life-styles that now seem incomprehensibly extinct, of conversations recorded in her living conscious mind that seem archaic and exotic now. Age - being old in the always-new of life - is the unifying theme of Too Much Happiness.

Thematic unity is what makes Munro's eleven books of stories more than mere `collections'. Each of her books has been a story-suite, a genre of fiction distinct from the novel or novella, in which the various narratives entangle and infuse each other with meanings. That's the case with the first nine stories in Too Much Happiness. Frankly, I didn't begin to sense the impact of the first story, Dimensions, until I'd read the fourth or fifth. The final story, of the historical `feminist' martyr Sophia Kovalevsky, stands somewhat apart from the others. Perhaps it might have been better reserved for a different collection or published separately.

Munro is more tolerant of the failings of her women than of her men. More forgiving, though it's not that there's less to forgive. Many of her women, especially her first-person female narrators, are what my mother would have called "pills". My mother never used the B-word. But Munro's men `are who they are' - completely recognizable and plausible, from the outside - while Munro's women are ... herself. There's more of her strength: her honesty of perspective and her ability to forgive herself, after cross-examination, at least enough to be able to write her confessions. Munro is above all a confessional writer, of the generation of confessor-poets like Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.

And perhaps I need to confess that I don't consider Too Much Happiness one of Munro's best books. No single story in it is as powerful as "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" from her 2001 collection Hateship/Friendship/Courtship/Loveship/Marriage, or the title story from Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, or "What Do You Want to Know For?" from The View from Castle Rock. Those three stories are sublime. For them alone, Munro should rank as the "greatest writer who hasn't yet won the Nobel Prize." But Too Much Happiness is a powerful book, worthy of its lineage as Munro's twelfth suite of stories. I can't wait for her thirteenth!
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on November 26, 2010
Alice Munro is one of my favourite writers and she does not disappoint in this one. It is amazing to consider that nearly all of her stories take place in rural Canada and yet they convey all the dimensions and richness of human existence, feelings, emotions. Alice Munro is so incredibly skilled at creating a mood and making the reader feel very strong emotions just by describing the scene and the story and not really using any big emotionally charged words. She reminds me of Hemingway in that way.
My favourite story from this collection is "Dimensions" - a very chilling tale of dealing with a tragic personal loss. As a mother myself I found it heartbreaking to read and yet somehow uplifting as well. There is light at the end of every tunnel although maybe the light has a different quality than before entering the tunnel.
I heartily recommend this book.
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on December 8, 2009
The author's credentials are well known, but that doesn't necessarily translate into an enjoyable reading experience. The problem here is the overemphasis on "atmospherics" at the expense of "plot". Although some of the stories in this collection are extremely well done, an equal number seem pointless--perhaps meant to be admired for their literary pedigree alone? As a result, this is a "slow going" text that requires a substantial expenditure of time with only intermittent rewards.
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on April 18, 2010
Alice Munro can always be depended on for a great short story collection every few years, and last year's Too Much Happiness is no exception.

As usual, most of the stories center on small-town Canadians, like Munro herself. (The only exception is `Too Much Happiness', which is based on the life of 19th century Russian mathematician and novelist Sophia Kovalesky) As usual, she writes with an almost anthropological precision in detailing the lives of her characters. As usual, she wonders us with her ability to put a novel's worth of life and wisdom into her thirty page stories.

My favorites were `Dimensions', in which a mother who has lost her three children finds enlightenment in a stunning way, `Fiction' in which a woman discovers an ex-student has achieved literary success only to learn there is another, more painful memory from the distant past that ties them, the O'Connor-esque `Free Radicals' in which a dying woman is forced to face her past by a fleeing murderer, and the wonderfully crafted and haunting `Child's Play', which spans sixty years to tell of a single moment of cruelty shared by two girls at summer camp.

With this collection, Munro shows us that, even at 78, she is still the queen of the short story.
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on October 18, 2013
In respect of our newest Nobel prize winner I decided I needed to read at least one of her books. The title called out to me. I guess I was looking for a happy book. From the first short story on, you quickly find out that it is not happiness but something dark that lurks in every tale. I listened to a Peter Gzowski interview with her on CBC radio and found the author to be a perfectly delightful humble Canadian. Despite my illogical antipathy to short stories ( if this was so good , why not make a real story out of it), I have to say I read this book with relish. I was able to put my latent misogyny well away, replacing it with a delight in skillful prose.
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on November 27, 2013
What is amazing is how much Munro can make out of so little, the lives of observant but unexceptional people, most of them in and around London, Ontario, in the 1990s or 2010s, who perhaps once in their lives have experienced an exceptional event. Within this restricted fictional territory, the author finds innumerable variations.

After the first few stories I was hoping for a change of scenery and skipped to the last, and title, story of the collection, "Too Much Happiness," and was surprised by something quite different. Here the protagonist is an entirely exceptional person and so far from contemporary Canada she probably could not even imagine the Ontario forests and suburbs. The Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891) was the first woman to earn a doctorate in a European university at a time when women weren't admitted even to sudy in universities (summa cum laude, University of Göttingen, 1874). Kovalevskaya's extraordinary triumphs and disappointments, including difficult romance with another Russian intellectual exile, all really occurred. The fictional imagination is in making us feel as though we are she, living all these frustrations and sometimes wild hopes, until the fatal "too much happiness."

This is not the only wonderful story in the collection. Other favorites of mine included "Wood," which seems to understand a man's loneness — his need to be alone, but in a place where he feels himself as part of something greater — as clearly as Munro's other stories understand women's ways of relating to, and sometimes, avoiding one another. "Some Women" and "Child's Play" are especially about that complicated ballet. "Free Radicals" is another memorable story — or rather, two memorable stories, first of a woman's sudden and unexpected widowhood, and then of a startling irruption into her life that seems to reconfigure the meaning of everything. But even in this story, the conclusion is not an event but the protagonist's sudden understanding of events in a new way, even though she, or he, or we, may not be able to describe just what that new understanding is.
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VINE VOICEon December 30, 2010
Alice Munro writes short fiction at such a high level it's almost beyond criticism. Words perfectly placed, incidents perfectly proportioned in relation to the whole - the reader experiences each story as a superbly made object, more like elegant sculpture than prose.

Some of these stories are more unsettling than Munro's usual work. Dimensions and Child's Play deal with child murders, edging into the chilly gothic realms of Joyce Carol Oates. Other stories contain her familiar array of intelligent, slightly rebellious Canadian girls. Their lives often pivot around a central event whose implications can play out over an entire lifetime. Deep Holes, Wenlock Edge and Some Women all hinge on mysterious, sometimes inexplicable behavior, made more resonant by the precision with which the actions and emotional reactions are laid out. Wenlock Edge, which describes a young college girl's complicity in her own degradation, lingers in a particularly spooky way long after it ends.

Munro often sets up a tension between the things you can master with your mind and the things in your mind that master you. Wood, a story about a down to earth woodcutter who has an accident in the forest, does this simply and beautifully. The longest tale in this collection, Too Much Happiness, is based on the actual life of Sophia Kovalevsky, a female mathematician and novelist, whose mind and spirit soar just when her body decides to betray her.

Aging has been another recent preoccupation of the author's. Fiction is about Joyce's accidental encounter with the daughter of a woman who once completely disrupted her life. The daughter has written a short story about those times, and Joyce must reconcile her past and present reactions to those events. In Free Radicals, an older woman usurps the past of her deceased husband's first wife to talk her way out of a dangerous situation. For Munro's characters, old age is not about serenity and forgetfulness, but about memories as indelible as the purple birthmark that disfigures the narrator of Face.

With the possible exception of Wenlock Edge and perhaps Wood, none of these stories are really in the top tier of Munro's work, which doesn't mean that they aren't excellent. At this stage, Munro can only be judged against herself.
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