December's 14 Must-Read Books
"No ideas but in things," the poet William Carlos Williams proclaimed, an adage long embraced by Alice Munro, arguably the English language's greatest living short-story writer, as she imbues everyday details with passionate meaning. Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995–2014 (Knopf), Munro's first book since she received the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, maps the arc of her later career, showcasing the ferocity and precision she brings to her craft.
As Faulkner transformed his Mississippi backwoods into a mythical landscape, Munro's fiction shifts back and forth between the two regions that make up her own Yoknapatawpha County: her native rural Ontario, with its checkerboard fields and straitlaced towns, and the gleaming cities of Canada's craggy Pacific coast. Flawlessly, she evokes a sense of place: "The hardwood trees were humped over the far edge of the fields, making blue-black caves of shade, and the crops and the meadows in front of them, under the hard sunlight, were gold and green. Vigorous young wheat and barley and corn and beans—fairly blistering your eyes." Against this backdrop she choreographs her characters' lives, applying flesh and bone to the oddities and incongruities of human nature. "The Love of a Good Woman" ostensibly probes a mysterious death, but becomes an exploration of a nurse's enigmatic choices. In "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," an elderly woman's dementia forces her academic husband to seek a proper valedictory to their complicated marriage. And in "The View from Castle Rock," Munro taps her own family's boisterous history, reimagining her Scottish forebears as they strike out for the New World with their baggage of petty rivalries and secret ambitions.
An unsurpassed eye for setting and scene, sentences that startle with their cadences and textures, fine-cut images that open onto universal truths—all of Munro's singular gifts leap off the pages of this collection, abundant evidence of her towering influence.