Friday, August 15, 2014

Summer is a-going on

Annie Proulx

Patio or camp, Kobo or print, summer reading goes on. I remember a canoe trip where Robert Service was read aloud and the old chestnuts came alive in the firelight. “Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew…” and we listened as if we were kids again, hearing it for the first time.

Long drives require audio books. I am off on the 500k to Winnipeg and have two choices, The Brothers Karamazov or Saints and Sinners by Edna O’Brien.  Without hesitation, I pick Edna, first because Dostoevsky should be saved for a Canadian winter trip through endless snow and second because short stories are great for travel. They give you a dose of fiction between stops for food, scenery, chat or that mid-afternoon silence when you hunch over the wheel, thinking you might never get there.

Edna writes about the human heart, about love and loss and longing and all those emotions that crowd our days. Her language is simple and direct as an arrow. “You have to be lonely to be a writer,” she says and “My interior life is where I live… That’s because I am a writer.”  She often writes in the first person which gives her stories incredible power. You can drive forever across the prairies with Edna O’Brien.

This summer I decided to reread some old favourites. I unearthed an old copy of Huckleberry Finn but alas, unlike Robert Service, Huckleberry did not come alive for me. As most everyone knows, it is written from the point of view of Huck, the garrulous ragamuffin whose down-home, ah-shucks dialect twanged off the page.  I hate to admit it but I was tired of Huck’s voice by page 2. 

So instead I gathered up some of the books of short stories that I will never throw out and read a few from each at random. I started with Alice Munro’s deceptively simple story “Amundson,” from Dear Life. I reread “Cheating at Canasta” by William Trevor and “In the Ravine” by Chekov. But the story that stayed with me, even after all the above-mentioned masterpieces, was Annie Proulx’s, “Family Man,” from her second collection of Wyoming stories titled Fine Just the Way It Is.

In this story, Roy Forkenbrock, an aging former cowboy, now a resident in a seniors’ home, decides to tell his daughter the darkest, most shameful, family secret before he dies. She brings her tape recorder in order to collect his memoirs and with some trepidation he tells her about the life of his beloved father.  But the difference in values between the generations collide and she misses the point completely. The great shame of the past turns to platitudes in the present. The final pages of this story almost stand still, so fraught are they with meaning and missed connections.

The summer will end in novels: The Age of Hope by David Bergan, A Large Harmonium by Sue Sorenson and My New American Life by Francine Prose. The latest Evonovich and…..?

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