All My Puny Sorrows

  • All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (McSweeney’s, US publication), 2015
  • In 43 words or less: Sisters Elfrieda and Yolandi are closer than close. Now adults, Elf is a renowned pianist and Yoli a struggling mother and writer. Their Mennonite family and Elf’s mental illness overtake their lives. Funny and heartbreaking, this well-written novel isn’t for everyone.
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Locale: Canada
  • Time: Contemporary
  • Toews gives a glimpse into a less-than-traditional Mennonite family and the forces that shape it. Warning: Themes related to mental illness, living with a loved one with mental illness.

Miriam Toews is an acclaimed writer in Canada and less known south of the border. For more than two decades she has been amassing honors for her writing which includes six novels, the latest being All My Puny Sorrows. It either won or was shortlisted for most of the major Canadian fiction prizes upon its publication.

All My Puny Sorrows draws upon Toews’ family life as a child of an unconventional Mennonite family in Manitoba. Being unfamiliar with this community, her descriptions of communal norms and the choices her family made that set them apart were particularly interesting. The relationship of Elfrieda and Yolandi brought to mind the Helen Reddy song “You and Me Against the World.” Elf is a brilliant concert pianist who feels music, poetry and all aspects of life deeply and darkly. Yolandi, the younger sister, is her foil and protector, dropping everything to cushion Elf from harm.

Yoli hasn’t attended to her own needs as carefully. Her romantic relationships have failed, though her two children seem surprisingly well adjusted. A writer, she earns a meager living writing children’s novels she dislikes and is regularly a step away from financial ruin. Fortunate to have a friend who steps in when she can, Yoli’s first priority remains Elf and keeping her safe.

I regularly encourage people to visit independent bookstores when traveling and to buy local authors as a way to bring the trip back home.  A kind friend gave me All My Puny Sorrows after a visit to Toronto. While the book is beautifully written, the realism Miriam Toews brings to Yoli and Elf is so personal and painful I read it in small bites. Despite the darkness, there is a lot of humor and the story is filled with familial love across three generations. Even though there is little difference between American and Canadian English, there is something distinctly Canadian beyond the locations that are periodically mentioned.

Miriam Toews is a survivor of familial suicide and has written a nonfiction book about her father and his suicide. Her experiences clearly have informed her fiction. For this reason, prospective readers may want to avoid this book if it hits too close to home or is otherwise too disturbing.

SaveSave

Hum If You Don’t Know the Words

  • Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais (Putnam), July 11, 2017
  • In 40 words or less: Beginning with the Soweto uprising, a young white girl and a Xhosa woman are thrown together as a family. Their complementary narratives enrich insights into life under apartheid. Great book!
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Locale: Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Time: 1970s
  • Forty years after the uprising that began the end of Apartheid, this novel opens a door to the challenges of life for the Blacks and others in South Africa fighting for change. A wonderful novel of people in very difficult times.

Robin is a young Anglophone girl growing up in South Africa. Bullied by her Afrikaans schoolmates, she is very concerned about living up to her parents’ expectations. Her father is a manager in a mining operation, overseeing Black workers. When her parents receive a last minute invitation to a business function Robin’s life is changed forever. En route to the event, Robin’s parents are ambushed and murdered. So starts Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. Robin and her housekeeper are dragged to a notorious police station where the housekeeper is brutalized. Robin is turned over to her only relative, her Aunt Enid who lives in Johannesburg. After gathering up a small suitcase, Robin’s past life is left behind.

Beauty Mbali is a well-educated teacher living with her sons in the Transkei. Looking to improve her daughter’s life, she sends her to Johannesburg to live with relatives and attend a superior school. After receiving a message that her daughter may be in trouble, she travels for more than a day to Soweto to see her. Beauty arrives in the midst of the first day of the student marches, discovering that her daughter is in the leadership and is now missing. Beauty will do whatever it takes to find her daughter.

Robin isn’t the only one adjusting to her family’s trauma. Enid is a stewardess and modern single woman with no one to account to but herself. Though she tries, upending her life to provide the care Robin requires herself is neither practical nor within her skill set. She reaches out to her network of friends, many of whom are anti-Apartheid supporters, for help. Through these channels, Beauty becomes Robin’s caregiver, confidant, and lifeline. This allows Beauty to remain in Johannesburg, though illegally, so she can continue to search for her daughter.

Bianca Marais has created two rich communities to tell her story. Bit by bit, Robin’s world expands. Her one friend is a Jewish boy, homeschooled because of the anti-Semitic bullying he receives at school. His apartment becomes a safe space and his family’s customs a source of curiosity. Enid has several gay male friends who are at times endangered by the authorities. At times it is difficult for Robin to distinguish friend from foe.

During the continuing search for her daughter, Beauty reveals elements of her family and its past. Protecting all her children leaves her torn – caring for a white child while her sons are back home and her daughter missing. Her search takes her through Soweto, balancing secrecy with her goal. Vivid descriptions of afterhours gathering places and the leaders and hoodlums that are all part of the growing uprising enrich both the story and the reader’s understanding of the times.

Both Beauty and Robin are leading their lives as survivors rather than as victims.  Not always optimistic, each demonstrates inner strength consistent with her position in life. Neither is perfect and these flaws are key to the story.

As a blogger and book group leader, I have the chance to read some books before they are published or reviewed. It can be a crapshoot – some good, some meh and some not worth finishing. And then there are the special books.  I love Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. There are twists, even in the beginning. As I read I could see the story unfold, almost as if a movie was taking place in my mind. This is Bianca Marais’s debut novel. It has been selected as an Indie Next selection for this month and has gotten well-deserved advance accolades. It is a great pick for book groups and to share with friends.

SaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Sharing books with Mom

Regardless of where you sit on the family tree, there is likely a mother (daughter, sister,  in-law, or you) in your life that is deserving of recognition. Just as I’ve shared suggestions of books for Dad in the past, mothers should have equal time.

For Mother’s Day, you want to give (or get) just the right thing.  One thing likely has not changed from the days when a handmade macaroni necklace was perfect – it’s the thought you put into it that counts. There are more pluses to giving books than the obvious reasons.

When you select a book you are opening a conversation. Are you giving a book you’ve enjoyed or one that reminds you of a shared experience? Is it by Mom’s favorite author or takes place in a city she loves? Whether it becomes her new favorite or not, talking books is usually interesting, often more so if you disagree about merits of a title.

Before I give some of my picks, I’d suggest you think about those titles that you’d read again, either because they entertained or informed you. They may be a perfect choice for gift giving. Please share your picks in the comments.

Here are some titles and authors my mother may see if she hasn’t already. Titles with links have my reviews:

  • Helen Simonson’s  The Summer Before the War or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Two novels of English small town life with endearing characters, the first WWI-era and the second contemporary.
  • The Girls of Atomic City is a fascinating look at the integral secret role women played in the development of the atomic bomb. Oak Ridge was created almost overnight from nothing and was at the forefront of research (and social engineering) during the latter days of WWII. By Denise Kiernan.
  • Geraldine Brooks really does have something for every Mom! My favorites are Year of Wonders, a fictional account of a real community that isolated itself during the plague, and Foreign Correspondence, her memoir of her beginnings as an Australian schoolgirl whose pen pals set the stage for her career as a journalist and author. March and People of the Book are also great choices!
  • Israeli novels in translation are a favorite of mine. Three picks are The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher Atir, a novel about the high personal price of life in the intelligence service, and The Hilltop by Assaf Gavron, a contemporary story of the complexities and absurdities of life in an Israeli settlement. Lastly, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi is a novel about life in Palestine/Israel at the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State told in the rare voices of generations of a Sephardi family. This view has made it a huge bestseller in Israel. My review will appear soon.
  • Three very different historical fiction stories of strong women are The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes (19th/21st century), The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (20th/21st century), and The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning (18th century).
  • Start her on Louise Penny’s Three Pines/Inspector Gamache mysteries and she will have books to keep her busy for months. A Great Reckoning was just released in paperback, or start at the beginning with Still Life. Rich characters that deal with life’s big issues in a setting you wish you could visit. There are many reasons her fan base is so loyal.
  • Perla, Carolina deRobertis’s magical novel about seeking identity during Argentina’s “Dirty War” will send her searching for information about the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the women who demonstrated and sought out information about their children and grandchildren “disappeared” by the government.
  • For something totally unexpected, share one of these stories about the American West immediately after the Civil War. News of the World is a beautiful small book by Paulette Jiles about a newsreader and a young girl rescued from Indian captors. EpitaphMary Doria Russell’s novel about the legendary Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, has just been optioned for a movie. I’d stand in line to see either on the screen.
  • Speaking of the screen, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Smoot and The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman are wonderful nonfiction titles have been adapted recently.
  • I love Venice and I’m a sucker for detective stories. Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti keeps me coming back to explore that wondrous city. There are now 26 titles in the series. While the principals have aged some since the beginning, it is not critical to read them in order.
  • If you, or the mother in your life, enjoys short stories, travel, and mysteries, check out the Akashic Noir series of titles. There are books for cities from Baltimore to Belfast to Beirut and beyond, each with stories written by local authors.
  • Finally, some “drop everything and read” titles that are perfect for getting away. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney is a new gem, based in part on the life of the top female advertising copywriter in the first half of the 20th century. The Truth According to Us is Annie Barrow’s story of long-held family secrets wrapped up with lots of information about the National Writer’s Project which employed writers to tell the histories of small-town America during the Depression. Before Me Before You, Jojo Moyes penned The Girl You Left Behind, a novel of life in the French countryside during WWI, a painting, and questions of its ownership almost a century later.

This lengthy listing barely touches on the possibilities. I specifically avoided WWII/Holocaust historical fiction. There are many, many wonderful and well-promoted books in this genre. Cookbooks and food memoirs with rich stories would be great for foodies but they are specific to individual tastes (excuse the pun!) Short story collections are making a big comeback, as are narrative nonfiction titles. While a few biographies or memoirs have been included, an entire list could be made of this genre. Still looking for something else? There are many recommendations on the website.

Making amends, making friends

  • My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman (Atria Books, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: Seven-year-old Elsa and Granny are best friends. Precocious and a misfit among her peers, Elsa gains strength from the magical stories Granny weaves. After Granny’s death, Elsa is sent on a quest connecting people Granny met throughout her life.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Non-specific Sweden
  • Time: 2012
  • This book is for you if you enjoy quest literature. Some characters are reminiscent of those in the Harry Potter books. Be aware that suspending belief about the sophistication of a seven-year-old is necessary. It is definitely NOT like A Man Called Ove.

Fredrik Backman made a splash on the literary scene when A Man Called Ove was first published in the U.S. in 2014. His third title, Britt-Marie Was Here, was released last summer. When I had the chance to speak with Backman at Book Expo America last May, I asked which of his books he’d suggest for some book groups I facilitate. His recommendation was My Grandmother… precisely because people seemed to either love or hate it. And he was right.

I am a sucker for a quest. I recommend Markus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger at every chance I get. Backman does an admirable job of connecting the reader to Granny and Elsa. While it is very hard to imagine that seven-year-old Elsa really has read all the Harry Potter books multiple times, it is no stretch to understand why her eccentric, anti-establishment Granny is her anchor in her confusing family. Elsa’s mother works constantly and is pregnant with Halfsie, soon to be Elsa’s half brother. Everyone seems to adore her stepfather but they have no special connection.  And her father and his new family are not very involved in her life. When Granny isn’t getting into scrapes with the local police and businesspeople she devotes all her attention and imagination to Elsa.

Granny’s unexpected death leaves Elsa bereft and adrift. The small apartment building that Granny and Elsa lived in is filled with characters. Some are a part of daily life, whether Elsa likes it or not. Others are disconnected and often far from view. Delivering an envelope written by Granny to a neighbor sends Elsa on a journey to learn about them all.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is alternately humorous and touching. The imaginary world Granny created to ease Elsa’s night fears is complex with memorable elements. Some of Backman’s descriptions of Elsa’s neighbors are reminiscent of people met in the pages of J.K. Rowling’s novels.

As Fredrik Bachman told me, some love the book, others really not. Having Elsa be a seven-year-old is a real sticking point for many. Backman used the timing of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia to bring Granny back home to care for her granddaughter, a choice that created unnecessary hurdles. For those who can buy into the intellectually precocious Elsa, Granny’s imaginary world, and the quest to find Elsa’s true family, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry may be a worthy undertaking.

Reading to move forward at Thanksgiving

thanksgiving2

Two weeks ago I spent the morning leading a discussion for approximately 30 people titled Page to Screen. While there was interest in the material presented, there was a persistent buzz and uncertainty in the room about the upcoming election. While the outcome was known two days later, a general unease remains about how we got to where we are today and how we can move forward.

Regardless of one’s choices, the daily news is disturbing. Vandalism, hate crimes and incivility are increasing. This is not the peaceful transition of power that has characterized the aftermath of US elections for two hundred years. Being an informed and engaged citizen is at least as important today as it was two weeks ago. While it is important to step up and support the issues and organizations that speak to our individual concerns, it is also vital to step back and focus on those elements of our lives that shape our views: family, home, personal history and health, leisure interests and more.

Reading can calm or energize; help educate or offer the option to escape – it’s all in the selections. Daily, people are approaching me for book recommendations to distract from the political furor. For some I suggest the hair of the dog, fine narratives of earlier eras in American history, both fiction and nonfiction. Examples would be Erik Larson’s Dead Wake and In the Garden of Beasts, Ruth Gruber’s Haven, Mary Doria Russell’s Epitaph, and Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. All serve as a reminder that America has faced intractable problems and dissension in the past, and solutions come with a high price. Here is a list Penguin Random House built of titles to understand America in 2016.

2016 National Book Award finalists
2016 National Book Award finalists

Others are looking for books where the emphasis on characters and plot provide a respite from real politics and history. My current picks in that area are Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War, Louise Penny’s mysteries, and the short stories of Molly Antopol and Edith Pearlman. And great comfort comes from re-reading whichever books you consider your old friends.

Don’t forgot that the anger, disappointment, and uncertainty heard in our conversations and seen in the news can disturb children as well. This may be a great time to drop everything and read classic and modern children’s literature together. Biographies of American leaders – presidents, suffragettes, inventors or leaders of the Civil Rights movement – can provide both perspective and inspiration to all in these complicated times.

As I prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday, my hope is that everyone finds a welcome spot around a table, that there be conversations to bridge differences, and violence is left on the football field. If you choose to battle the shopping hoards, please consider a stop at your local bookstore. Between the books and other gift items stocked, there is likely something for everyone on your list with no assembly required. Even Senator Tim Kaine is ready for a stop at his local bookstore.

Courtesy of Shelf Awareness
Courtesy of Shelf Awareness