A Month of Short Stories 2015, Day 2 – What Is Remembered

The last two years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month… you can see the list for 2014 and 2015 in the comments for this page. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day two – What is Remembered, by Alice Munro.

Read it online here:

What Is Remembered

This afternoon, I worked on making a list of stories I am going to read and write about for my June Month Of Short Stories and realized that a lot of them will be linking with the New Yorker. Well, not very surprising….

Here we are on the second day, and we have a story very different that the first… instead of the efficient, biting prose of Raymond Carver, we have the lush genius of Alice Munro.

She doesn’t cut her words to the bone. She is quite generous with her word count. For example, in today’s story, here is her description of the arrangement of napkins at a funeral’s buffet table:

She looked down at the table napkins, which were folded in quarters. They were not as big as dinner napkins or as small as cocktail napkins. They were set in overlapping rows, so that a corner of each napkin (the corner embroidered with a tiny blue or pink or yellow flower) overlapped the folded corner of its neighbor. No two napkins embroidered with the same color of flower were touching each other. Nobody had disturbed them, or if they had—for she did see a few people around the room holding napkins—they had picked up napkins from the end of the row in a careful way, and this order had been maintained.

The amazing thing, the genius of Munro, is that this seemingly odd bit of description encapsulates the whole story, somehow. It has nothing to do and everything to do with the rest of the work.

This is the story of an affair – or of a one-night stand… a one-evening stand, really. But it isn’t a prudish morality tale – it is a laying out of a woman’s life and how much more there is than meets the eye.

Alice Munro doesn’t write with words as much as she writes with time. What is Remembered, like much of her work, moves back and forth over handfuls of decades, following the echoes of the past into the future and the conception of the future into the past. Like the title implies, this is a story about memory and how a person’s fate isn’t so much shaped by what they do as much as it is by how they remember what they have done.

On the ferry ride home, after the fact:

She had to join the crowd of jostling bodies making their way up the stairs, and when she reached the passenger deck she sat in the first seat she saw. She did not even bother, as she usually did, to look for a seat next to a window. She had an hour and a half before the boat docked on the other side of the strait, and during this time she had a great deal of work to do.

No sooner had the boat started to move than the people beside her began to talk. They were not casual talkers who had met on the ferry but friends or family who knew each other well and would find plenty to say for the entire crossing. So she got up and climbed to the top deck, where there were always fewer people, and sat on one of the bins that contained life preservers. She ached in expected and unexpected places.

The job she had to do, as she saw it, was to remember everything—and, by remember, she meant experience it in her mind, one more time—then store it away forever. This day’s experience set in order, none of it left ragged or lying about, all of it gathered in like treasure and finished with, set aside.

She had “an hour and a half” and a “job she had to do.” She had to fix what had happened into her memory, all of it, exactly as it had happened.

As the rest of the tale unfolds, we learn she didn’t do her job well. She forgot a lot. And what she forgot might have been more important than what she remembered – it protected her from a life that was not only wildly different, was a life that would not have been her own.

What we remember, what we forget, what comes back to us after it is too late….

What I learned this week, October 11, 2013

Revealed: How Gaudi’s Barcelona cathedral will finally look on completion in 2026… 144 years after building started

This amazes me to no end. Seeing the Sagrada Familia is something I want to do before I die… now I want to live long enough to see it finished.

I had better start taking care of myself.

50 People On ‘The Most Intellectual Joke I Know’

It’s hard to pick a favorite one…. maybe:

Q: What does the “B” in Benoit B. Mandelbrot stand for?

A: Benoit B. Mandelbrot.

I’ve had a small fascination with the icons marked on shipping crates… especially ones with art in them.


I always find this blog from the Dallas Museum of Art interesting



There are a lot of good things on this earth, but there are few things better than this:


Congratulations to Alice Munro. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature this week.

I’ve always said she is the unquestioned master of the short story. Glad to see someone working exclusively in the underrated form and genre of the literatry short story (pretty much) get this recognition. The only problem with reading Munro, as a short story writer, is that when you finish one of hers you realize that you will never be that good – that she has done something you will never be able to pull off.

There’s a new Pynchon novel out, Bleeding Edge. I’m not as excited as I have been in the past… (I have a lot to read) but still… I have to go read it.

Pynchon’s Mrs. Dalloway

Malcolm Gladwell has a new book out: David and Goliath

Excellent talk by him here: Malcolm Gladwell discusses tokens, pariahs, and pioneers


Library Book Sale

The Richardson Library had their annual big-ass book sale this weekend down in the crowded basement multi-purpose room. This used to be a massive deal to me. I would get a huge donated shopping bag at the entrance and fight my way along the long tables piled with paperbacks or heaped with hardcovers – the stacks screaming, protesting the weight. I would fill my brown paper bag until the kraft was tearing, pay my fee, and eagerly get my haul home.

Now, though, I have my Kindle. There are more books hiding in that slim slip of plastic than I can possibly read in the few remaining years I have allotted to me. I feel fairly certain that I will pass through this vale of tears with more than a few files left unopened.


Call Me Ishmael


I almost skipped the book sale, but I went more out of nostalgia than any logical purpose – though I do know there are books that I’ve been looking for that are not out in digital format. Plus, it is sometimes nice to have a real, physical paper book – something you can give away or curl up with when your peepers are tired of pixels.

So I eschewed a shopping bag and simply pushed myself past all the enervated shoppers. Once more into the breach.

A good part of the large but cramped basement room was dominated by a handful of families that knew each other. They had a fleet of the massive baby carriers (barely smaller than the aircraft variety) that blocked entire aisles and provided a perch for their pre-reading hellions to reach out their snot-and-saliva encrusted paws and pull teetering piles of books onto the floor while giggling like giddy gibbons. Their slightly older siblings were grabbing stuff out and exclaiming wisdom like, “I only want books about dogs!” or “Are you SURE this is a childrens’ book?” while their mothers clucked loudly at each other with self-satisfaction at the precociousness and preciousness of their satan-spawn procreations.

Finally, after forever, this boiling mass of distraction and pain moved out the front and could be heard arguing over the price of their purchases in the hallway. The sound in the room was reduced to a certain low growl made up of the combined almost-inaudible grunting of the serious bargain hunters scooping up endless tomes that they had never known of until today but could simply not live without. This is a sober business. The air-conditioning, installed under a government lo-bid contract, struggled to cut the heat and miasma of used book mold-spores and bargain-hunting sweat.

So, did I buy anything? You betcha.

Hardbacks were only two dollars and paper seventy five cents. It would be a crime to let this opportunity go unheeded.

I bought a really nice hardback copy of Alice Munro‘s Open Secrets. Someone at work expressed a love of short stories yet had never read any Munro (yeah, I know…). I want to reread “The Albanian Virgin” carefully and outline it – it is the most amazingly structured piece of short fiction I’ve ever seen and I want to try and figure out how she does it.

On a whim I grabbed a paperback collection by John McPhee. This one is called Table of Contents and is a collection of his amazing short non-fiction. I can always read me some McPhee and come out of it knowing something I didn’t before.

After choosing these two light bits of bon-bon I thought for a minute and hauled out a big hunk of meat – the nine-hundred page posthumous magnum opus 2666 by Roberto Bolano. I have had my eye on this gigantic pile of translated text for a bit. For some reason I thought it would be fun to attack it as a fortress of paper rather than a cloud of bytes. Will I ever actually read it?

Probably. If I live long enough. Stick around and find out.

The parking lot had been full and I had to hike almost to the post office to get to my car. A thin older man scuttled by me, on his way in. He stopped and stared at the burden under my arm.

“Hey, I want all three of those books! I was worried they would be all picked over by now!”

He shot off towards the maelstrom of the book sale. If he had waited I would have sold him the three I had… at only a slight profit.

Too Much Happiness


I'm afraid to grow up because sometimes it feels it will never be this beautiful again.

I couldn’t sleep last night and I decided to clean up my reading list a bit and finish something I had already started. It didn’t take long to set in on the last story in Alice Munro’s last collection of short stories, Too Much Happiness. This was the long story… almost a novella… that the collection was named after. Too Much Happinesswas addicting and I had to keep reading until I was done, no matter how tired I was or how soon the next day’s work would come.

Alice Munro is a brilliant genius. She is, in my humble opinion, the unquestioned master of her genre. If you read the plot summary of one of her stories, you will scratch your head – it will read as melodrama, or a series of random, unconnected action, or it will seem that nothing much really happens. Her mysterious skill is so great that when you actually read the test it makes sense, draws you in, and takes you on an emotional journey far from your pitiful little room where you sit clutching that tattered paperback.

If I could have one ability – I would choose to be able to do, whatever it is, that she does. She makes seamless connections where none should exist. There is a concept that art is the conveying of something that can’t be done any other way. And that is what Alice Munro does, that is her genius. You can’t really summarize or explain what she writes because it is art of such exquisite subtleness that it has a kind of Heisenberg Uncertainty about it – to explain it is to change it.

The collection has a series of her typical mastery. Thinking about it, I almost want to go read it again.

But that’s not what I want to talk about tonight. I want to discuss that last long story, because it is different than what she usually writes.

The long story, “Too Much Happiness” is the story of a woman traveling across Europe one winter in the last decade of the nineteenth century. She visits a series of people from her past and spends a lot of time on cold trains moving through dreary country thinking about her life.

As I plunged on I realized that this was a real person that I had heard of before. The woman was Sofia Kovalevskaya – the first Russian female mathematician. She had been rumored to be the subject of a Thomas Pynchon novel – though she ended up being only a minor character. A fascinating character with an unusual, varied, courageous, and ultimately tragic life. Given such a dynamic protagonist most authors, writers of lesser vision and talent, would have wrote of the high points of such a person, scribbling in breathless prose her struggles to become a woman of letters in a time and place this was unheard of – her arranged marriage – her wild affairs – her political involvement – her friendship with famous figures of the day: Darwin, Eliot (there is a passage in Middlemarch where her mathematical theories are mentioned), and Dostoevsky.

But Munro spends most of her words simply detailing her journey, the people that she shares her compartment with, the difficulties she has with the changing weather, languages, and currency she has to deal with.

And I don’t know how she does it… but it works. By the end you feel you know Sofia… you want to meet her… and most of all you care about her. The ending is devastating, but not unexpected. It is, after all, a life.

The final sentence notes that there is a crater on the moon named after Sofia Kovalevskaya.

And, that’s that.

Reviews of the Alice Munro Collection Too Much Happiness:

Too Much Happiness

Too Much Happiness