Tuesday, November 25, 2014

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Spoiler-free summary:
Elf Von Riesen wants to die. She’s beautiful and talented; She’s a world-renown pianist with a loving, supportive family, but she would still rather be dead. Unsurprisingly, everyone around her, including her sister Yoli, wants her to live. All My Puny Sorrows tells Yoli’s story as she comes to terms with denying her sister the one thing she truly wants.


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I was nervous about this one. I read the description somewhere and knew it would either be really, really good, or abysmal. I was also afraid that if it ended up being fantastic, it would really depress me. To my surprise, All My Puny Sorrows was both fantastic and, miraculously, did not make me want to throw myself off of something. I’m not saying it was a joyful book – it was just too elegant and restrained to make me want to do anything that wasn’t elegant and restrained itself.

Restraint is not a bad thing. Without restraint, this book would be uh.. globular? Is that an appropriate way to describe literature? If I had written this book, I would have been so caught up in the violent, explosive sadness – the incomprehensibility of that type of pain that, well, my book would have been incomprehensible too. Toews takes something too painful to bear and makes it succinct and beautiful without compromising the intensity of the subject matter. The writing is quiet and deliberate. She wraps up something beastly in the tight, measurable confines of distant childhood memories, travel costs, and scheduled hospital visits.

I suppose the above observation ties into the reviews stating that this is not a book about death and sadness, but rather about survival and the idiosyncrasies of life, which, through their improbabilities and quirks and impossible humor, make us want to live. Perhaps this is why, at the end of the novel, I did not feel the widening sense of despair I thought I would feel. Instead, much like the writing, I felt organized and calm – a little sad, yes, but in a systematic, palatable way. Crazy things happen to these characters in the present, but their responses are conservative and humble, often insignificant compared to their reactions of things past. Elf’s grief over her father’s death propels her into a present where her actions and reactions, such as toward her aunt’s sudden death, are muted. The real pain in this book happened long ago.

This brings me to the idea that, through their history, faith, and community, the Von Riesen family possesses some type of innate melancholy. At times I felt that the addition of the Mennonite faith, or, rather, the break from the Mennonite faith, did not matter much to the story. It could be that the Mennonites of my native Ohio are a bit more strict than the ones found in Toews’s story and my expectations are skewed, but the threat imposed by the overzealous, pushy neighbors never seemed present enough. While the Mennonites fictionalized here do admonish the family, and some of the Von Riesens can’t help reverting to the comfortable, but binding ways of their ancestors in moments of crisis (and this I found very convincing), I thought that the consequences for completely rejecting aspects of the society were not realistic. I was put in mind of a family not fitting into a small conservative town rather than a family of misfits disowning a way of life/rejecting an entire set of traditions that were once fought for, and killed over. I felt there should be more guilt hidden somewhere in there (or, is that what the father’s deal was?). Additionally, this lifestyle was so foreign that it deserved more line space; It was something I was genuinely interested in and I was sad that I did not get the time to become better acquainted with it. While the inclusion of the Mennonite faith allowed Toews to discuss the idea of inherited suffering, I wasn’t fully convinced that their family had come from this grief-steeped lineage. But, in the end, compared to the honest characters and the beautiful prose, this wasn’t that big of a problem at all.

Nostalgic, funny and sad, All My Puny Sorrows deserves a place on your shelf.

4.5 stars (Puking in the comfort of your own empty, tidy home, with only a little bit coming out through your nose).

Would now be a good time to mention my new rating scheme? The plan is to mention the “stars” I would have/did award the book on Goodreads (even though I’m not sure if I entirely like this method of reviewing) and then, a la J14 magazine categorizing your most embarrassing moment of all time, include a pukey equivalent of the rating. For example, a really crappy book might merit one star and would be like puking shards of glass onto your groom on your wedding day, in front of the congregation. The best book of all time, which is hopefully a five star book, might make me feel as if I had just puked so gracefully and beautifully that I am imbued with self-confidence, and have now transcended to a new plane of being.

This is not to decry or endorse puking in any way. I am just trying to make the best of my weird URL, chosen in a moment of enthusiastic, but perhaps misguided inspiration.

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