Sunday, July 22, 2012

Raising the Mercury on Summer Reading: The Walrus July/August 2012

Maybe we can blame the summer reading frenzy on John Keats when he said “give me books, fruit, French wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors.” Never mind that for most people it’s now magazines, junk food, beer, scorching humidity and Top 40 radio on the beach; the sentiment remains. Summer is a time to relax with your literature and libation of choice. What defines ‘summer reading’ or ‘beach reads’ – is it content, style, or context? We could ask the same question of Canadian Literature (CanLit). For most definitions of both summer reading and CanLit, The Walrus July/August 2012 issue, the ‘summer reading’ edition, lives up to expectations.

Although summer reading is notoriously light and easy, The Atlantic and The Huffington Post have recently put out articles disputing this assumption. And they’re right. Why should our brains shut down just because it’s hot out? But it’s also true that although we still want to be challenged, it’s not fun reading doom and gloom with the sand between your toes. Filled with short stories by talented Canadian writers, The Walrus summer reading issue is always the perfect balance, and this year is no exception. Heather O’Neill, Joseph Boyden and Margaret Atwood all treat us to an inside glimpse into well-remembered characters from their novels. That’s not to say if you haven’t read the novels you won’t understand the stories. I’ve not read Boyden’s Three Day Road, but I was still able to appreciate the true Canadian-north setting and pitting of characters against the elements. In fact, both these things were a refreshing antidote to lying docile in a pool of sweat on the beach.

Interspersed with these tales were poems by David McGimpsey. Yes, the verse tended toward esoteric in its allusions, but what it lacked in accessibility it made up for in Canadian content. In all fairness, lying on the sand or relaxing in your backyard is the perfect time to reflect on vague poetic meaning.

While other articles in this issue were perhaps more lighthearted than you’d usually find in The Walrus, they were far from frivolous. “The Race against Time” discusses the mental aspect of marathon running - a smarter version of a fitness magazine. “London Calling” examines old London vs. new London – a smarter version of a travel magazine. “An Exile on Main Street” follows singer K’naan – a smarter version of a celebrity gossip magazine. You get the idea – you get to have your cake and eat it too…with the added nutritional value of intelligent research and writing.

I always enjoy the comic strip which concludes each issue of The Walrus. The trouble is, often I don’t get it because often I don’t watch the news. This time, however, anyone could understand the poke at our federal government’s incongruous approach to managing finances and supporting the arts.

There are certain themes readers have grown to expect from Canadian literature – survival, nature, multiculturalism, anti-Americanism, and the aboriginal experience being some of the more common. The Walrus delivers on them all. Survival is a key theme in the trio of short stories; nature in Sarah Milroy’s article on northern art; multiculturalism in the clever comparative review of Nahlah Ayed’s and Kamal Al-Solaylee’s recent memoirs; anti-Americanism in the portrayal of K’naan’s hunt for popular appeal; and the aboriginal experience in Emily Landau’s essay on Mohawk-English poet Pauline Johnson (aka Tekahionwake).

Effectively, this issue is a crash course in Canadian literature and Canadian life, possibly more summer school than summer reading, but immensely enjoyable nonetheless. My expectations for The Walrus summer reading issue melds my expectations of summer reading and Canadian literature: smart, funny, provocative, digestible and uniquely Canadian. It sounds like a lot to live up to, but, as always, The Walrus is impeccable.

– Mari-Beth Slade is a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax. She enjoys hearing new ideas and challenging assumptions. When not hard at work, she appreciates sharing food, wine and conversations with her family and friends.

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