Monday, March 13, 2006

BOOKS: Cold Hearts, Snowy Hills

I can't believe I almost forgot to mention this, but I finished two books -- short story collections, to be specific -- a couple of weeks ago. The fact that I'd forgotten about them is probably telling.

le Dog and Living on Water by Matt Cohen (#7 and #8)
If you live in Canada and you frequent used-book stores, then you know Matt Cohen. Oh, maybe you've never actually read any of his
books. But you're familiar with the sight of them, peeking down at you from the "C" section. And maybe you've even thought to yourself, "Who the heck is Matt Cohen?" or "I really should pick up one of Matt Cohen's books one of these days" or "Gee, that Matt Cohen guy sure is prolific."

So one day I took the bull by the horns (inasmuch as buying a book can be compared to bullfighting) and picked up not one but TWO of Cohen's short story collections.
Café le Dog is a collection of stories that were originally published between 1979 and 1983. Living on Water, released in 1989, six years later, is lauded as showing Cohen "at the height of his powers." Hm.

I read them in the order they were published, so when
Café left me feeling meh, I was still optimistic about Living. And yet... meh.

It's not that Cohen is a bad storyteller. He can construct a finely nuanced, multi-layered narrative with the best of them. He's not short on perceptive insights, nor on lovely turns of phrase. It took me a while before I realized that the problem was the characters. Not only did I not like any of the characters in any of these stories (with the exception of the very last one I read, "Racial Memories"), I got the impression that Cohen didn't like them, either. His characters are, for the most part, clever, neurotic, arty, academic types. They have affairs and complex multi-person relationships. They're packing a middling-to-above-average load of angst. Sure, I've just made them sound unlikeable with those descriptors, but it's possible to write such characters in such a way as to make them sympathetic and/or charming. But Cohen doesn't do this. Which made me think, well, if
you don't even like them, why should I be expected to care about them? And if I don't like them or care about them, why should I bother reading about them?

Since we're all in the trust tree together here, can I confess to you that I flirted dangerously with a vague theory about male short story writers versus female short story writers? Something along the lines of how flawed characters are always more interesting to read about, but female writers are better able to imbue these characterizations with warmth and sympathy, if not outright affection, than male writers. I got to this idea when I thought about all the great short fiction writers I've read over the past couple of years:
Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood, Annie Proulx, and Mavis Gallant, to name just a few.

But then I put paid to my own theory when I rolled the tapes back a bit further and thought about some of my other favourite short story writers: Guy Vanderhaeghe
, Sherwood Anderson, Truman Capote, and a certain author named Anton Chekhov. Perhaps you've heard of him?

So let's light a candle together and share a moment of silence as another half-assed theory bites the dust. And now Cohen's going to have to bear the brunt of his unsympathetic characters on his own shoulders. No fobbing it off on his Y chromasome. Sorry about that, guy.

So, in lieu of a solid book recommendation, how about... some baby pictures!

They're photos from a hike we took yesterday. Every so often we realize that the mountains we can see from our house are actually REAL and not just chromakeyed over a bluescreen, and we're taken with the urge to get up there and tool around. So it being a magnificent, sunny day and all, we chucked young Master Sam and Dobbs in the ol' pick-up and headed for the hills.

It was Sam's first experience with real snow, and he was such a trooper. Despite the fact that the sled tipped over twice. Well, really only once if you define "tipping over" as "dumping the baby headfirst in a ditch." I wish I could say he doesn't often look at us with such trepidation, but then I'd be lying.
Dobbs always loves a good romp in the snow, despite the fact that his hair is such that snow tends to clump on his legs in increasingly larger snowballs until it looks like he's wearing white pompom pants.
We saw Bambi over by some trees. This is Sam's best impersonation of "Disney eyes."
It's such a clich
é to end a series of photos with a picture of people walking off into the sunset or whatever. And yet here I am doing just that.


landismom said...

Lovely photos, thanks for sharing. I'm lighting a candle for your theory, 'cause I was right there with you for a minute.

Andi said...

I was there with you as well. I really was. Then I remembered Hemingway (although I hate bull and matador guts).

I'm reading Annie Proulx's Close Range as we speak. Love love love her dearly. If not for Brokeback I'd still be Annie'less.

Anita said...

Well, you've more than made up for the lack of book recommendations with those adorable pics.

Somehow, even after reading Alice Munro, I am rarely inspired to pick up a book of short stories. So my ability to assess the male vs. female writer thing is seriously impaired. I'll confess it was sounding pretty plausible there for a moment . . .

Anonymous said...

Do you have like the cutest baby boy ever or what? Thanks for sharing those cute photos.

Anonymous said...

I read Cohen's autobiography a few years ago and loved it (and found the people in it deeply sympathetic) - I've been saving Elizabeth and After for future reading... I'll make sure not to bother looking up his earlier work.