Sometime I was thinking of rereading all her stories and blogging it (kind of like this James Tiptree, Jr. blog), but that’s on the shelf behind a lot of other projects.
Alice Munro has a Selected Stories anthology, to which I am morally opposed. You should read them all! Lowen Liu suggests five of her stories you should read. I disagree with her about “Dear Life”; you should save it for last, because it takes the themes of much of her work and lays out the facts behind them in a heartbreakingly straightforward way. I haven’t often been as poleaxed after putting down a book, if only because it was Alice Munro telling us that there wouldn’t be any more Alice Munro stories. But, without looking, here are my five:
“Friend of My Youth” (from the book of the same name). That theme: her mother. The story within a story, of two sisters the narrator’s mother had known long ago, would be enough from a lesser writer’s work. But Munro moves fluidly back and forth from this story to her relationship with her mother (and she’s said it’s her own), with one last transition that’s so quietly virtuosic that you’ll have read the story five times before you find the moment that Munro slips the knife in. After this story I thought that Munro might never be able to write with the same emotional impact again, because what more could she have to say? I was wrong.
“Carried Away” (from Open Secrets). Most of Munro’s stories move back and forth across time in a short span. “Carried Away” also moves back and forth across time in a longer span. Munro’s stories tend to be long but this is self-consciously epic, taking one character through her whole life in four episodes. At the end we feel lifted up and gently placed in another place, even as we’re not quite sure what just happened.
(If you spend a lot of time rereading and dissecting Munro’s stories, and you should, you’ll realize that she often puts the climax in the next-to-last paragraph, before finishing you off with one last telling detail. “Carried Away” does this, and “Friend of My Youth” too, with very different emotional effects.)
“Fits” (from The Progress of Love). The first time I read this, I could hardly breathe. A murder mystery of sorts, with a building sense of dread, but the mystery is not who did it but why, and the dread isn’t in what happens to the innocent bystanders but in the things they won’t let themselves think about.
“Royal Beatings” (from The Beggar Maid/Who Do You Think You Are?). The second Munro story I read (after the short-short “Prue”), and the one that made me go out and get everything she’d written. Time opens up in all directions; we learn everything about Rose’s childhood through a few scenes told in no particular order (that is, a very particular order), intercut with a legend of the local town (as in “Friend of My Youth”), and the astonishing flash-forward ending ties it all up with a bitter commentary on the violence there is inside and outside the home. Question: In “Two Vancouvers dipped in snot?”, what’s “Vancouver” mean?
“Walker Brothers Cowboy” (from Dance of the Happy Shades). The first story of her first collection. The expanse of time is here as it is in so much of her later work, but rolled up, as a little girl travels with her father and brushes up against a past she doesn’t quite understand. Maybe the best place to start; linear but lovely.
And then you have to read the rest. Do it!