A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in a Starbucks trying to get some work done when I overheard a man and woman talking about Little Women…presumably about the new film adaptation and its Oscar buzz. The woman was trying to explain “what” Little Women is – as in what it’s about – and was struggling a bit. “Well, it’s about four sisters…” To be fair, even if using the most straightforward way to describe the plot, it sounds a little homespun and maybe even boring: “Little Women follows four sisters as they grow up during the Civil War in the Transcendentalist hotbed Concord, Massachusetts.” And? So after the woman trailed off with the “four sisters” bit, the man replied, “But is it for men?”
A couple of months ago, I started using the Nike running app, and my least favorite part is picking which emoticon to select at the end of my run. I usually select the second- and third-highest “smiley” (just one shy of what is apparently “euphoria,” which is probably an indication that I should be pushing myself more), but I have never once referred back to these to analyze the different conditions that may inch me toward one or the other. It’s too simplistic of a method to chart progress, for although the app syncs with the local weather, it really has no clue how much the whipping wind from the Irish Sea affects my first mile or two. Similarly, although I may enter a relatively happy face because I feel physically good after the run, the little yellow face won’t account for the non-physical issues I’ve been tossing and turning in my mind on a particular day. Mostly, though, I can’t accurately compare my run – the same distance, the same route – to another. This 5-mile route is my only benchmark, and until I stretch out that length or at least huff and puff a little more, I won’t know what any of those frown-y faces on the right of my phone’s screen really mean. Nor will I appreciate the nice and easy little workout I’ve created for myself. (Note to self: It’s never too late to take up New Years resolutions.)
There are some endeavors, however, where I can compare days, instances, and situations because of a consistent baseline. I do enough writing of different genres and lengths to know when one piece deserves an exuberant smile, and I’ve now parented enough days to know when I miss the mark and land squarely on a frustrated sad face. When you do something enough – something that requires constant adjustment to varying circumstances – your arsenal of comparative situations grows.
Juliet Lapidos, an editor at The New York Times, recently penned a manifesto of sorts for The Atlantic simply entitled “Finish That Book!” She lists three good reasons why it’s important to keep up with a book that you’ve started. However, I’d like to add a fourth point: You won’t know what you really like (in literature, or in anything, really) if you can’t articulate what you don’t like.
I’ve been in a bit of a reading and writing slump. We had a house break-in in mid-October, right before the busy-ness of the Dublin Book Festival and end-of-year festivities kicked in. I was prepped to write about Marilynne Robinson’s new book Lila. (For what it’s worth, I like Housekeeping, her only book not set in Gilead, the best.) A few notes were jotted in a Word document, but then – poof – both my laptop as well as the Kindle I was reading Lila on were snatched, as were any extra concentration and resolve to continue this project’s trajectory. Insert major sad emoticon with tears.
I gave myself an out until January 2015: New Year, New Start. And I ended up picking a book that I had to force myself to finish. Once I realized that I probably wouldn’t change my opinion of this book, I decided that at the very least, I should stick with it until the end to see if anything in particular stood out as a deal-breaker. After all, this book was named Novel of the Year by a large Irish bookseller, and many people thought it breathtaking, including an acquaintance who inspired me to start blogging in the first place. My reading was agonizingly slow, and the sight of me with this book, open but face-down on my lap with a more enticing People magazine in my hands, was a familiar one, I’m sure, to my fellow air passengers, my in-laws, my parents, and my own little family – who continued to see the book lying around our house well in to January. Although each page completed and flicked to the left matched my snippy exasperation, I managed to finish what I initially considered a regrettable first book choice for 2015.
But it turns out that I’m actually quite grateful for reading this particular novel, for the author has been compared to Alice Munro, whose stories I hadn’t read in quite some time. Whereas I felt the novel in question hit a constantly and quietly mournful tone without much emotional texture, no “emoji” can encapsulate Munro’s brain-teasers offered up in her exquisite short stories. So downstairs to our bookshelf I went to pick up a collection of Alice Munro short stories that I had never read. (For the record, I read Too Much Happiness, although I can also wholeheartedly recommend Dear Life and Dance of the Happy Shades.)
Like Anne Enright, Munro has an astounding ability to combine phrases and words to emote. And I mean, rip right to the base of humans’ often contradicting yearnings and turn-offs. Sorry, Nike, none of your emoticons really represent how I feel after a run (that would be: so-very-glad-it’s-done-but-I-maybe-like-the-thinking-time-plus-health-benefits / completely windswept after running along the sea), but I bet an Alice Munro story could.
How can Munro mine an experience that the majority of us will only gape at via sensational news stories (the first story, “Dimensions”)? Why does she write about childhood cruelty in such vulgar and incomprehensible fashion (“Child’s Play”)? Did she conjure the strange character of Mr. Purvis in “Wenlock Edge” straight from her imagination? I suppose that a reader will never know how forces combined to allow this woman’s “psychologically astute” writing come to fruition.
However, Munro said something interesting in The New Yorker in 2012: “For years and years, I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel. Then I found that they were all I could do, and so I faced that.”
Well, that’s far too humble for a Nobel prizewinning author. But it’s also exactly spot on. How do we know what we like, or what we’re good at, if we’re not aware of where shortcomings – either in ourselves or in literary preferences – fall?
Shall we give a big thumbs-up emoticon to that? Happy New Year.
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.
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?
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.