It’s Not You, It’s Me

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

I love my son so much. Obviously. And I really love the earnest way he expresses bewilderment over some of his contemporaries’ preferences. Although he just turned 9, an age where “toys” sort of lose favor, it’s actually been several years since he’s enjoyed a toy: A fanatical obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine would have been the last one. He’d rather be outside with a ball or composing meticulous lists and charts—ranging from alphabetizing his school’s entire student body to transcribing World Cup rankings. So a year or two ago, when a few of his friends were into Skylanders (I don’t know what they are either. Little figurines, I guess, with elaborate backstories to go with them?), he just wasn’t sure how to engage with these pals. I picked him up from school one day and he said, “I don’t get it. All they do is…” And then he proceeded to demonstrate with lots of hand motions and puppetry how his friends would manipulate these figurines to battle and do cool stunts. Similarly, he tried the Lego after-school program for a few terms and just couldn’t get into it. (Just goes to show how kids will repeatedly surprise their parents; six years ago, I would have absolutely pinned him as a future “Lego Kid.” Guess not!) Simply put, he likes what he likes—some things you just can’t force. The great thing, though, is that he takes great care in picking out birthday presents suitable for these friends and truly desires to get these guys what they want even when he doesn’t have the foggiest idea what they actually “do” with them.

Here's passion: Transcribed stats for the Mini World Cup my son played

Here’s passion: Transcribed stats for the Mini World Cup my kids played in

I felt a little like how he must feel as I was reading All My Puny Sorrows by Canadian writer Miriam Toews. Her book was getting a little bit of publicity in The Irish Times and she seemed like a somewhat-under-the-radar writer, comparatively, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Based on the author’s experiences with her sister, who committed suicide in 2010 (in the same fashion as their father, who killed himself in 1998), the novel details the childhood of sisters Elfrieda and Yolandi, who are raised in a rural Mennonite community—just as Toews was. This is heartbreaking and uncomfortable territory; it’s one thing to read about such a devastating subject when the reader can assume that the work is pure fiction, or mostly fiction, but knowing that it is too close to a real-life situation—according to interviews with Toews—feels wrong and voyeuristic. Normally, a reader can put down a distressing book, taking a modicum of comfort in the fact that it’s over. With All My Puny Sorrows, however, an overwhelming sadness and disquiet left me wanting to throw the book away.

Was it purely the subject matter of the book, though? Or was there something more?

In an attempt to find out if my distaste for and discomfort from the book stemmed from the topic—or merely from Toews’ writing style—I downloaded Toews’ first novel, the acclaimed A Complicated Kindness. In other words, is this just another case of not liking Skylanders and Lego?

A Mennonite Family in Mexico, © Adam Jones, Ph.D.

A Mennonite Family in Mexico, © Adam Jones, Ph.D.

But despite a slightly less depressing narrative (this novel follows Nomi, a teenager living in—surprise, surprise—a cloistered Mennonite town and her father, Ray, as they grapple with the disappearance of their mother/wife and sister/daughter), I had a hard time getting through the disjointed and depressing montages. Nothing sinister about the women’s separate departures is implied, for one assumes that these women with their subtly rebellious ways have merely jumped ship. Toews spends a lot of time carefully delineating the ways that oppression has shaped the members of this (ficticious?) family.

After completing both books, I figured out what it was that I didn’t like. Both works are obviously ripe for a lot of introspection, which Toews accomplishes in her own way. And I guess it’s just “her own way” that doesn’t suit me.

Perhaps I was expecting more subtle and gentle poetic hand-wringing, but I was blinded by the author’s use of kitsch and quirk to paint a picture. Here’s the best comparison I can make: I felt like I had been transported to the set of Napoleon Dynamite, and although that movie has coaxed several belly laughs from me, every time I see it, I’m irked by the film’s use of (admittedly funny) anachronistic details to entice viewers. And just as I sat in the theatre ten years ago, telling my husband “I’m laughing, but these filmmakers are really annoying me because they think they’re so subversive with their tater tots and protagonist in moon boots and 1980s ‘droopy’ frame glasses,” my internal dialogue while reading Toews kept veering toward something akin to “Yes, it’s so delightfully 1970s that you bring up the band Air Supply in an attempt to color the people whom you don’t like.”

The difference between the film and Toews’ work, however, is that I’m not sure there was too much of a point to Napoleon Dynamite beyond the humor. (Admit it, Tina is a great name for a llama that is fed leftover casseroles.) Toews is trying to accomplish so much more, but I couldn’t get beyond the attempt at humor and the reliance on snarky conflict between small-minded people and their more worldly counterparts to shade the sorrow. Simply put, I wanted to hear her thoughts about these complex topics, but her style just didn’t reach me successfully.

I feel slightly ashamed to write the above because Toews’ childhood has clearly provided her with rich, confusing, and painful material through which she writes passionately. A criticism of her works feels like a criticism of her entire life. Yet I may be in the minority, for Toews is an accomplished writer and has already authored seven books. She has been awarded the Governor General’s Award for Fiction for A Complicated Kindness. In 2013, she was awarded the Order of Manitoba, and in 2009, The Flying Troutmans was longlisted for the Orange Prize. A quick glance at Toews’ Wikipedia page shows quite a lengthy “Awards and Honours” section.

And here is a small sampling of some insightful lines from the two books I read:

“Wild was the worst thing you could become in a community rigged for compliance.”

“…suffering, even though it may have happened a long time ago, is something that is passed from one generation to the next to the next, like flexibility or grace or dyslexia.”

“…just because you have no use for the systems that help us measure our lives doesn’t mean that our lives don’t need measuring.”

“I’ve learned, from living in this town, that stories are what matter, and that if we can believe them, I mean really believe them, we have a chance at redemption. East Village has given me the faith to believe in the possibility of a happy reunion someday. Is it wrong to trust in a beautiful lie if it helps you get through life?”

There’s no denying that there is a lot of deep thought behind those words.

Skylanders versus a good soccer tackle. You know, po-tay-to/po-tah-to. It’s not you, it’s me. Any mother or father knows that one of the most rewarding parts of parenthood is seeing how these young beings can actually teach adults a thing or two. So no, I will probably not pick up another book by Miriam Toews. But for those of you who will? I don’t really get it, but in an attempt to mirror my son, I’ll say: Dig in.

The confusing world of Skylanders

The confusing world of Skylanders

 

 

A Real Education

The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

I’m about to sound either really clueless or really curious.

Here’s a sampling of some of the questions I asked myself as I read The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. Why is everyone referring to Malaya, and not Malaysia? Pearl Harbor was not Japan’s “official entrance” into World War II? Why is there a South African living in Cameron Highlands? And the Boer War: What was that again? Perhaps I should be a little embarrassed to admit my ignorance about the Eastern World despite, I think, being reasonably informed about general global history and geography. But my reading of Tan’s lushly and quietly beautiful novel about the Japanese Occupation and its lasting effects on protagonist Yun Ling took me constantly to Google; the result of my reading was not just another wonderful story embedded in my heart, but also a small step forward in understanding a greater world.

The Garden of Evening Mists presents one picture of what happened in British Malaya from World War II, to the early 1950s, to the late 1980s, which is when the story commences. Readers get little peeks into a world of Aboriginal tribes, the Japanese civilian internment camps where Yun Ling spent three years and where her sister died, and the CTs (Communist Terrorists) who ambush the areas around Majuba, the tea plantation where Yun Ling apprentices with Aritomo, the former gardener for Emperor Hirohito. Got it?

Cameron Highlands, in present-day Malaysia

Cameron Highlands, in present-day Malaysia

Despite the fact that some reviewers believed that Tan’s debut novel, the Man Booker-long listed The Gift of Rain, was preferable to this 2012 novel, I was more than satisfied reading this one. From a historical perspective, I wish I could have read something like this in high school. And I say this because I was lucky enough to learn from an outstanding English department where the breadth of literature that was presented to me was apparently—judging from conversations with my peers—not commonplace.

About a month ago, the British educational system made big news because Minister of Education Michael Gove proposed dropping American classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men from its English literature GCSEs. The majority of the new syllabus will be comprised of works from the British canon, mostly pre-20th century. I have to admit that I feel a bit disconnected from the outrage, for besides the obvious reason that neither I nor my children have anything invested in the GCSEs, “good” fiction still makes the list. On the one hand, I think it’s a pity that British youth won’t have the option to read these books as part of a curriculum, but on the other hand, it’s not as if Lee and Steinbeck are banned from the country. I know that part of the outrage stems from a general disdain for the conservative Gove himself. However, a quick look at reading lists for American high school students demonstrates that national-centric literature is the norm in a nation, such as Great Britain, that produces a lot of fiction.

Kids, what did you learn today?

Kids, what did you learn today?

I’ve read the aforementioned books more than once; I understand why they are on reading lists. What seems to get lost in the melee of this particular debate, however, is the fact that Anita and Me, Meera Syal’s 1996 semi-autobiographical novel about a British Punjabi girl in the Midlands, and DNA, Dennis Kelly’s 2007 play about bullying, are rumored to have made the list. With the influx of immigrants to Great Britain—and the controversy that migration brings—as well as the nation’s lack of immunity from issues that affect teenagers all over, these contemporary works strike me as nothing but appropriate.

First look in, then look out. Students have to have a solid sense of their homeland’s general place in the world—how others perceive it, its history, how it has worked or not worked with others—before starting to understand other lands and the people who call them home.

So, is America successfully giving its students an opportunity to “look in”?

According to a recent story in The New York Times, American educators have started to examine why James Baldwin, author of the classic 1953 novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, has “faded from the classroom.” To be fair, American students reading Baldwin is not akin to American students reading international literature. I’d suggest, though, that for a portion of these students, reading about early-20th-century Harlem will feel as foreign as reading Sanskrit. The article argues that Baldwin, who died in 1987, has had to “share space” (as if it should work that way) with other African-American writers, such as Toni Morrison and the late Maya Angelou.

In other words, educators are examining how best to “look in” to one aspect of American culture. The article notes that in some circles, a fear of Baldwin’s language, sexuality, and opinion about racism in America may be driving the “fade.” If so, I would argue all the more reason to keep his works alive and taught: The “safe” way to learn about a particular group of people isn’t always the best.

And then there’s the Common Core, the US Department of Education’s controversial attempt to standardize educational benchmarks throughout all 50 states. Again, at this point in time, I have no horse in this race, so I don’t have much of an opinion. However, as I was helping a friend compile a “recommended reading list,” I started researching what American high school students were reading. I was surprised—and disheartened—to read that by 12th grade, “informational text” will comprise the bulk of students’ reading. Although, in theory, this principle is supposed to span several classroom subjects (reading the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” in Social Studies, for instance), according to a Washington Post article, the “burden” of teaching these non-fiction texts is falling to English teachers at the expense of literature. Apparently, this is not Common Core’s intent, but a misinterpretation by administrations implementing the changes. Regardless, it’s still reported as happening in this fashion.

A trio of important books, whether or not they appear on reading lists

A trio of important books, whether or not they appear on reading lists

Figuring out texts to mandate to upper-level students is causing consternation on both sides of the Atlantic. Should students—and the greater population—be encouraged to read only what they know? Or should the “foreign” (however one chooses to define that word) be an active part of learning? And most importantly, how does an educational system pick these works of fiction?

Why does one even read fiction? That’s a question that will produce as many answers as respondents. Massachusetts English teacher J.D. Wilson, quoted in the Washington Post article, said this: “Reading for information makes you knowledgeable — you learn stuff. But reading literature makes you wise.” Like others, I read fiction for many reasons. (Although I never read it in order to be whisked away to vampire territory.) Not that anyone is ever done learning, but I feel fairly confident in my knowledge of literature that allows me to “look in.” So where to next? I closed The Garden of Evening Mists knowing a bit about Japanese gardening, the topography of the Malayan peninsula, the art of tattoo, relations between different groups including Chinese peasantry and Europeans in Asia, and a few more details about and perspectives on World War II. Bonus: Tan’s novel not only had me relishing his language and the precise ways he described the settings, but it pushed me toward a little independent historical research.

That’s a pretty good educational tool.

{Check out A Year of Reading the World to learn about one woman’s [successful!] attempt to read a book from each of the 195 UN-recognized sovereign states plus former UN member Taiwan. Her book, Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf, is forthcoming in 2015.}

 

Just the Facts

The Temporary Gentleman, by Sebastian Barry

The Temporary Gentleman, by Sebastian Barry

“Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person, to live another life.” – Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is one of my tried-and-true, go-to authors. From the first time I picked up a copy of The Bean Trees in the 1950s-bowling-alley-turned-Barnes-and-Noble in downtown Bellevue, I knew I would like it. Originally, it was the cover art and fluorescent orange spine that made me pick up the book, but after I bought it and actually read it, I knew I was under the spell of this author. Although the eccentricity of a blind babysitter named Edna Poppy and a shop called Jesus is Lord Used Tires stood out to this 17-year-old, what I really enjoyed was Kingsolver’s ability to show me other sides to issues and situations that I didn’t know much about, such as underground railroads for immigrants and rural Appalachian towns. It was all very eye opening, yet in a quirky-character-driven sort of way. But as much as I love to read Barbara Kingsolver, I’d also argue that her novels sometimes lean toward the pedantic and heavy-handed side; she may write sympathetic characters for both sides of an issue, but at times, they turn into caricatures of themselves.

Reading from the perspective of “the other” is one of the gifts of fiction, yet how can a reader tease out the nuances in complicated conflicts? Do we need to read exaggerated versions of stereotypes in order to “get” them? Conflict is a constant throughout history: We already know that struggles have two or more sides to them, and anyone over the age of 25 or so should (hopefully) know that a 100% fool-proof version of events is about as elusive as being given a Cherokee baby and naming her Turtle, as happens in The Bean Trees.

A Barbara Kingsolver collection

A Barbara Kingsolver collection

But this particular post isn’t about Barbara Kingsolver. Instead, I’m writing about The Temporary Gentleman by Irish author Sebastian Barry. The way that he creates empathy for his characters differs from Kingsolver’s method—Barry has an interesting track record using an approach that, whether he intends to or not, allows readers to empathize with different players in his plots without sermonizing or writing garishly unrealistic characters.

First, the author gives his characters their own concrete story, told via first-person narration. They may waver in their convictions and sense of purpose, but they own their perspective.

The Temporary Gentleman is the story of Jack McNulty, an Irish soldier serving with Great Britain during World War II. It is the story of a man trying to decipher what it means to be Irish nearly forty years after Ireland gained independence from Britain and what it means to fight in a war in which his own country has claimed neutrality. And it is the story of a man and his family—wife Mai and daughters Maggie and Ursula—damaged by alcohol abuse. The Temporary Gentleman showcases Jack’s woulda, shoulda, coulda reflection of his life. Barry uses time shifting to tell Jack’s story, as readers are brought from Sligo, in Northwest Ireland, to his time in Accra, in present-day Ghana, with the British Merchant Navy and back and forth both in locales and years.

After a brief recollection of his family’s history, Jack ruminates, “Though this was a history without documents, it constituted in my father’s mind a faithful and important record of real things. And it was from this that inevitably I drew a sense of myself in the world, and I never questioned any of it.” It’s as if Barry is saying, Here’s Jack’s take on the story. He knows it’s his alone—and shaped by his own history—but receive it and realize that you’re getting one singular, but very particular, vantage point.

Our stories and our perspectives are innately selfish; no one is immune from seeing the larger world in relation to our own, microscopic one. In the case of Jack, he is quick to see numerous facets of his life in Accra in relation to his life in Ireland, although on the surface, these two places could not be more different. While filtering his foreign surroundings, Jack compares what he pays his houseboy Tom Quaye to what his brother Eneas received in the Royal Irish Constabulary. As his houseboy whisks him to nearby Osu for a night out, Jack watches the “sullen, sunken presence of the Atlantic shore…and suddenly [his] mind was filled with memories of Sligo nights.” Further, I find it hard to believe that mere coincidence or carelessness would allow the author to give the name Tom to both one of Jack’s brothers as well as his houseboy in Accra. At one point, he thinks his houseboy “the very spit of [his] brother Tom, years ago in his dancehall at Strandhill.”

Not American!

Not American!

I suppose it’s a bit like seeing a Honda here in Dublin, where that brand of car isn’t too popular. The first time I spied an Accord, arguably one of the most common cars in America, a quick drop of homesickness spit at me. Or there is the time that an Australian friend posted a picture of a motorway exit sign on Facebook; Aussie signage apparently looks an awful lot like the emerald-green American freeway signage, so again, a little lump appeared in my throat at the sight of something so seemingly familiar. Yet, the irony, of course, is that neither of these concrete objects is American; it’s just how an American would claim them as “theirs.” Those glimpses of homesickness or association with concrete reminders of home may belong to me, but the objects themselves can play a part in anyone’s story.

This appropriation of items, scenes, and people colors Jack’s tendency to see things the way he wants to see them. As he remembers watching Louis Armstrong, in Accra to perform, he notes “The white wives laughed with delight at the sheer musicality of it all, a few inches from the black wives, laughing with the same delight.” This performance occurs “as the pot of freedom was boiling,” and the reader ponders this picture of a conflict-free harmony that Jack paints: Are they “delighted” for the same reasons? And when Jack relays how, after a wild and alcohol-infused night with Tom Quaye, he wakes up to see his room doused in his own urine and feces and how Tom dutifully and matter-of-factly surveys the state of the room (and then presumably cleans it up), the reader must wonder: What is Tom Quaye really thinking?

And how do others see Jack McNulty? Here is the beauty of learning about Jack McNulty and the family that shapes him: The Temporary Gentleman is not the first book in which he’s appeared.

You see, Jack McNulty isn’t a new character for Barry. And for readers of his other works, they will already have met Mai, Jack’s brother Tom, as well as a despondent and somewhat pitiful minor character in Gentleman: Roseanne, Tom McNulty’s wife and the main character in Barry’s Man Booker-shortlisted The Secret Scripture. Although Gentleman gives readers a glimpse into Jack’s life from his own vantage point, here’s what Roseanne has to say about Jack in the 2008 novel in which she centers: “The epic story of Jack – a little epic, an ordinary epic, a local epic, but epic for all that – was unknown to me. All I saw, or began to see, was two spick-and-span brothers coming in for their cups of tea, any Chinese leaf for Tom, and Earl Grey by preference for Jack.” Or this: “Because [Jack] had been in Africa he also had strange phrases like ‘Act the white man.’ And ‘hamma-hamma’. Because he had seen a thousand drunken nights, another phrase was ‘Keep the party clean.’” Roseanne indicates that Jack cares about social class (and potentially looks down at her because of her Presbyterian background) and “…had those smalltown filmstar looks, you’d be in the cinema watching Broadway Melody or some such, and when the lights would go up at the end, yes, you’d be back in bloody Sligo – except for Jack. Jack still had some halo of Hollywood about him.” In short, he was a big-man-around-town who wooed others with his charm, and while I suppose that representation comes across somewhat in Gentleman, it is Roseanne’s account in Scripture that helps to round out the picture. (Barry also wrote The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, which I have not read, but which describes how the third McNulty brother was forced to flee Ireland and introduces readers to the McNulty family. Eneas is mentioned briefly in the two other books, in a “hushed” manner.)

Any Journalism 101 class will give students an exercise to demonstrate how different vantage points—either ideological or physical—will result in different stories depending on the source. Let’s think of this as Sebastian Barry delivering The Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera, and the Irish Independent to his readers in one bundle.

Being Informed 101: Vary Your Sources

Being Informed 101: Vary Your Sources

One of Barry’s best lines goes to Roseanne in The Secret Scripture: “For history as far as I can see is not the arrangement of what happens, in sequence and in truth, but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of the withering truth…Friend or enemy, no one has the monopoly on truth. Not even myself, and that is also a vexing and worrying thought.”

My first thought after finishing The Temporary Gentleman? I’d next like to read Mr. Barry’s take on the houseboy Tom Quaye and his experiences with British colonialism. I know the stereotypes, so I don’t need moralizing or fringe personifications. I’d like just the facts—Tom Quaye’s facts.