An Intro to Alice Munro's Short Story Collections

On Thursday,Canadian author Alice Munroe won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature. Only the 13th woman in the award's history to win, Munro has written 13 phenomenal collections of short stories. If you haven't read Munro before, now's not the time to get sheepish about it — just the time to change it, that's all. We figured we'd help you out with something of a Munro primer. Naturally, we recommend diving into these as soon as possible. Just ask the Swedes.

Dance of the Happy ShadesPublished in 1968, one would expect Munro’s first collection of short stories to be rife with the youthful angst of the era. Yet, in the midst of the anti-Vietnam War rallies and Jimi Hendrix’s apocalyptic guitar riffs, we are met with the antiquated, quiet streets of early '50s small-town Canada. We feel her protagonists’ wanderlust desires to explore beyond the borders of their sleepy town as urgently as they do.

Lives of Girls and WomenIn one of her earliest collections, Munro chose to focus each story on the central character of Del Jordan, a young woman coming of age in the small town of Jubilee. Setting the precedent for the style and subject of the majority of her later works, this collection is a delightful reflection on a woman’s first pangs of dissatisfaction and a yearning for something more.

Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell YouIn her earlier works, such as those in this 1974 collection, we encounter women struggling with a lovelorn past that only the reader has fortunate access to. In one, our heroine takes her life after reflecting on a love long since abandoned while in another, we meet a woman musing on the man she was hoping would write her, long since she has married the mailman who never delivered his letters. These are stories of disappointment and longing, delivered in Munro's telltale honest tone. 

The Moons of JupiterWith stories such as "Dulse"in which Lydia reevaluates her self-worth following a romantic affairThe Moons of Jupiter provides a series of stories around characters we've come to recognize as signature to the author. If her heroines are familiar, however, her stories are not, always fresh with a self-deprecating honesty that makes each story so accessible and true. 

The Progress of LoveIt was this collection of remarkable short stories that prompted a shower of praise from fellow renowned author Joyce Carol Oates in 1986. Of The Progress of Love, Oates says Munro can be credited with conjuring a kind of "density — moral, emotional, sometimes historical" that can usually only be attributed to the full-length novel. A standout in this set of stories surrounding the lives of somewhat undistinguished Ontario residents is the brilliant and heartbreaking "Miles City, Montana".

Friend of My YouthWe meet the protagonists in this 1990 collection at a point of abrupt and jarring change in their lives. In one story, Open Secrets, Mr. Siddicup, a piano turner, is struck ill and rapidly devolves into an unpleasant wretch of a man, much unlike his former, amiable self. In another, the remarkable "The Real Life", heroine Dorrie is plucked from her frugal existence on the fringes of Ontario, and swept up by a mysterious Australian visitor. Each story is so rich in detail and so entirely unique; one feels as though one has finished an entire bibliography of full length novels by the end. 

The Beggar MaidSet in Canada, The Beggar Maid recounts the experiences of frustrated heroine Rose, eager to escape her small town misery. Many of the stories focus on her relationships with various men, as she struggles to determine her true feelings toward each and, in turn, her future, we find a young woman trying to balance a desire for success and a desire for passion. 

The Love of a Good WomanIn 1998, Munro brought yet another brilliant collection of stories on the subject she knows best — the lives of women. Described as "characteristically superb" by Michael Gorra of the New York TimesThe Love of a Good Woman contains eight stories, each longer than her earlier works, and with conclusions more open to interpretation. "Save the Reaper" is a particularly powerful piece, a clever revision to Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find".

RunawayJonathan Franzen called this "a marvel of a book" and took it upon himself to argue the points as to why "her excellence so dismayingly exceeds her fame". Her decision to essentially repeat the same story of a girl finding her way in the world is made all the more remarkable by the fact that each iteration is compelling in a unique and undiscovered way. Munro's ability to transport us into the mind of a somewhat egotistical and cheeky young girl in "Powers" is further evidence of her gifts in character creation. 

The View from Castle Rock: Nestled amongst a set of somewhat more autobiographical stories than we're accustomed to from Munro are a series of small odes to Ontario and its physical majesty and intricacy. The characters navigate their spaces with new eyes, a fitting homage to a place that has played home to so many of her characters.

Carried AwayThere is far more than one reason to pick up this collection from 2006 (16 more to be exact), but if you only need one, let it be to read "Differently", the story of a young woman named Georgia, who is reprimanded by her creative writing teacher for writing stories that involve "too many things going on at the same time".

Too Much HappinessOnce again, Munro works her special brand of wizardry as she sucks us into the ten tales of Too Much Happiness. The subject matter in most of these is, objectively, remarkably salacious. We have murder, duplicity, lust and self-mutilation — yet none are sensational. They are, instead, each used as an opportunity to portray a character in as much depth as possible. In "Face", we are confronted head-on with a character's pain as he responds to an unwanted marital separation in a most violent manner.

Dear Life: Stories: In her 13th and most recent collection, the reader is given a glimpse into the life of the author herself as Munro rounds out book with four semi-autobiographical tales. She has since remarked that these may, indeed, be her last works published. If that's the case, then it's safe to say that with gems such as "Haven" and "Gravel", her final book is the perfect end to a stellar literary career spanning more than 40 years. 

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