Review: A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

356047.jpgTitle: A Complicated Kindness

Author: Miriam Toews

Publisher: Knopf Canada

Publication Date: 2004

ISBN: 9780676978568

Synopsis from Goodreads:
Sixteen-year-old Nomi Nickel longs to hang out with Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull in New York City’s East Village. Instead she’s trapped in East Village, Manitoba, a small town whose population is Mennonite: “the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager.” East Village is a town with no train and no bar whose job prospects consist of slaughtering chickens at the Happy Family Farms abattoir or churning butter for tourists at the pioneer village. Ministered with an iron fist by Nomi’s uncle Hans, a.k.a. The Mouth of Darkness, East Village is a town that’s tall on rules and short on fun: no dancing, drinking, rock ’n’ roll, recreational sex, swimming, make-up, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities or staying up past nine o’clock.
——

It’s hard to articulate how I feel about this book, so I’m struggling a bit to write this review. I can’t say I loved or hated this book. Reading it years after the fact, I feel like there was so much hype surrounding this book that when I finally got to reading it, there’s no way it could have ever lived up to my expectations. For that reason, I did not love A Complicated Kindness in the same way that I did The Flying Troutmans.

Nomi is a teen in a mennonite town ruled by it’s minister, Nomi’s uncle. There is no room for freedom and those who oppose the religion are banished. This leaves Nomi and her father without her mother and sister. They’re living an empty existence in this town. Nomi in particular is trying to reconcile the religious beliefs she’s been brought up with and the rebellious ways of her kin. Nomi is quirky and is seeking meaning her her life. She doesn’t have aspirations beyond the pre-determined life of working in the town factory, but she can’t help but wonder what it is her mother and sister saw outside of their community. Nomi is really the best part of this book. She is our eyes into this small community, showing us what it’s like and how she lives. Her perceptions are influenced by her youthful opinions and naiveté.

What I didn’t like about this book is that I found that nothing really happens. It wasn’t exciting or as engaging as it could have been. We’re really just privy to Nomi’s day-to-day life, but the conflicts aren’t fully developed and really could have been much more dramatic. I felt like there could have been stronger feelings or greater conflict between Nomi’s family and without that, I was a bit disappointed. It was an enjoyable read, but I wish I’d read this book back when there was so much buzz about it, and perhaps I could have been a part of the group of readers who were generating all that hype. Alas, reading it so many years later, I was let down a bit. Still, Toews is an excellent writer who creates interesting and well-developed characters. I will continue to make my way through her collection of writing!

 

Rats Nest by Mat Laporte

29902260Title: Rats Nest

Author: Mat Laporte

Publisher: BookThug

Publication Date: October 16, 2016

ISBN: 9781771662444

Synopsis from Goodreads:
Mysterious and sometimes hallucinogenic, RATS NEST builds a narrative out of the complexity and dialectical uncertainty that many people feel about being alive in the 21st century. This first full-length book by Mat Laporte introduces readers to a protoplasmic, fantastical underworld, as navigated by a self-reproducing 3D Printed Kid made especially for this purpose. As the Kid descends the layers of a seemingly never-ending pit, its nightmares and hallucinations—recorded in stunning detail—unfold in twelve chilling chapters of unreality that will make readers think twice about what it means to be a human (or humanoid) on the planet we call home.


I am never disappointed by the books put out by Canadian publisher BookThug, and RATS NEST is no different. I picked this book up one Saturday morning and had it finished by noon. I just couldn’t put it down. It’s a story about a 3D Printed Kid who is descending into a bottomless pit and is sending recordings back to scientists of all the fantastical things it uncovers as it travels further into the ground. It’s nightmares and hallucinations become worse and more powerful the further it goes, affecting the world above ground as well. Although a fictional novel, through sci-fi and fantasy, this book reflects on the apprehension that many feel in modern society, the fears surrounding what the human race has become and where it is going. It almost reads as a series of short stories, but is in fact, a complete novel. Each chapter presents as it’s own unique experience, but is tied together in a hallucinogenic way, both real and unreal simultaneously.

It is hard to put into words what this story is about overall. It’s a very visceral book that evokes a sense of feeling throughout, rather than overarching plot. It’s incredible imaginative and moving in it’s commentary. It’s a story that provokes thought and asks the reader to ponder it’s creations and their reflections on our own reality. Laporte’s writing is so unique and beautifully crafted. I know for a fact that this is a book I’ll be returning to in the future. I’m trilled to have it in my collection.

Review: The Flying Troumans by Miriam Toews

2940207Title: The Flying Troutman

Author: Miriam Toews

Publisher: Knopf Canada

Publication Date:

ISBN: 9780307397492

Synopsis from Goodreads:
Hattie hears her sister Min has been checked into a psychiatric hospital, and finds herself flying back to Winnipeg to take care of Thebes and Logan, her niece and nephew. Not knowing what else to do, she loads the kids, a cooler, and a pile of CDs into their van and they set out on a road trip in search of the children’s long-lost father, Cherkis. Eleven-year-old Thebes spends her time making huge novelty cheques with arts and crafts supplies in the back, and won’t wash, no matter how wild and matted her purple hair gets; she forgot to pack any clothes. Four years older, Logan carves phrases like “Fear Yourself” into the dashboard, and repeatedly disappears in the middle of the night to play basketball; he’s in love, he says, with New York Times columnist Deborah Solomon. But though it might seem like an escape from crisis into chaos, this journey is also desperately necessary, a chance for an accidental family to accept, understand or at least find their way through overwhelming times.


This book was my introduction to Miriam Toews (yes I know, I’m so behind the times!) and I LOVED IT! This is a story of family, mental illness, growing up, healing, and so much more. This novel was absolutely raw in it’s emotion, confronting difficult issues head on and doing so with a touch of dark humour. The book is filled with this family’s desperation as the characters confront the reality that their lives may never be the same again, but they find strength and support in each other. They come together in a way that even they did not think could or would ever happen.

I can’t say I had a favourite character because I liked them all quite a lot. Thebes is quirky and trying to assert her independence in a world that doesn’t always accept individuality as a good thing. Logan is moody and brooding, but his heart is soft and strong. He’s learning that it’s ok to be emotionally and show his true feelings, even as a young man. Hattie is a scattered mess all around, trying to get a grip on her own life. Her heart is big and her devotion to her family is even greater, even if she struggles to know if what she’s doing is right and ok and even though she mourns the life she’s lost.

I couldn’t get enough of this book. I zipped through it in a few nights. I couldn’t get enough. I can’t wait to read even more of Toews books.

Review: Nostalgia by M. G. Vassanji

28363849*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Title: Nostalgia

Author: M.G. Vassanji

Publisher: Doubleday Canada

Publication Date: September 20, 2016

ISBN: 9780385667166

Synopsis from Goodreads:
In the indeterminate future in an unnamed western city, physical impediments to immortality have been overcome. As society approaches the prospect of eternal life, a new problem must be confronted: with the threat of the brain’s storage capacity being overwhelmed, people want to move forward into the future free from redundant, unwanted and interfering memories. Rejuvenated bodies require rejuvenated identities–all traces of a person’s past are erased and new, complete fictions are implanted in their stead. On occasion, though, cracks emerge, and reminders of discarded lives seep through. Those afflicted suffer from Leaked Memory Syndrome, or Nostalgia, whereby thoughts from a previous existence burrow in the conscious mind threatening to pull sufferers into an internal abyss. Doctor Frank Sina specializes in sealing these memory leaks. But one day, Presley Smith arrives in Frank’s office. Persistent thoughts are torturing Presley, recurring images of another time and place. As he tries to save Presley from the onslaught of memory, Frank finds clues that suggest Presley’s past may be located in war-torn, nuclear-ravaged Maskinia, a territory located in the southern hemisphere, isolated from the north by fiercely guarded borders and policy barriers. Who was Presley before the Department remade him, what secrets are buried in the memories that are encroaching upon him?


This was my first foray into the books of M.G. Vassanji, and I’m definitely ready to read more. Nostalgia introduces the reader to a future society in a mysterious sci-fi world in a concise but moving story. In this world, identity is something that no longer belongs to the individual and death is no longer an imminent threat. Humanity has lost not only personhood, but also any sense of mortality as well. People are divided by religion, by their desire to live forever or die naturally, and even by their own sense of consciousness and reality. Vassanji has weaved together a complicated story that could have easily been expanded to double the length, or even into a series. I think my main criticism would be the length of this story. So many interesting ideas and complicated topics are introduced, and there was not enough space for the author to really delve into the nitty-gritty details and to fully flesh out these ideas. I’d love to see a follow up novel to this series where more of these themes are explored.

Frank, the protagonist, is struggling to understand the world around him. He’s questioning his own beliefs and the world that he knows. His patient, Presley Smith, is having strange dreams that spark deep confusion and thought in Frank. As Frank seeks answers, he begins to learn that perhaps everything he’s known is not as it seems. Perhaps there are other answers out there.

The book has an overall sinister feel, and does not have a warm and fuzzy happy ending. It’s not a feel good book, but instead is a story to provoke thought and to cause the reader to question the transformation of technology in our own world. Vassanji posits a potential future reality for us that could be something our world one day sees.

I thought this book was very interesting and well-written considering it’s length. It made me happy to see it on 2017’s Canada Reads list and although it was not the winner, it’s a book that definitely deserved to be a contender. Although I was unsatisfied with the ending, I found the characters to be unique and compelling. Vassanji’s way of writing is slow and thoughtful, thorough and pensive. I didn’t feel rushed or hurried. I wanted to savour each page. The reader is given tidbits of information which helps build the mystery and intrigue.

I hope you’ll give this one a try, because it’s definitely worth it, especially for sci-fi fans!

Review: Birdie by Tracey Lindberg

23590716Title: Birdie

Author: Tracey Lindberg

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication Date: May 26, 2015

ISBN: 9781554682942

Birdie

Synopsis from Goodreads:
Birdie is a darkly comic and moving first novel about the universal experience of recovering from wounds of the past, informed by the lore and knowledge of Cree traditions. Bernice Meetoos, a Cree woman, leaves her home in Northern Alberta following tragedy and travels to Gibsons, BC. She is on something of a vision quest, seeking to understand the messages from The Frugal Gourmet (one of the only television shows available on CBC North) that come to her in her dreams. She is also driven by the leftover teenaged desire to meet Pat Johns, who played Jesse on The Beachcombers, because he is, as she says, a working, healthy Indian man. Bernice heads for Molly’s Reach to find answers but they are not the ones she expected. With the arrival in Gibsons of her Auntie Val and her cousin Skinny Freda, Bernice finds the strength to face the past and draw the lessons from her dreams that she was never fully taught in life. Part road trip, dream quest and travelogue, the novel touches on the universality of women’s experience, regardless of culture or race.


This book came to my knowledge when it was featured as one of the finalists for CBC’s Canada Reads. I’m always inclined to check out these books because it’s so wonderful to discover new and established Canadian talent. Plus, it’s been compares to Robinson’s Monkey Beach which is one of my most beloved books. I love when Canadians highlight their own, because so often in the book industry, Canadian books are overtaken by bestselling international authors. I couldn’t not pick this book up.

Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie is such a visceral book. It’s a book that encourages the reader to connect through feeling and intuition. It is often disjointed, reflecting the broken life of Birdie/Bernice. Abandonment, abuse, rape, and shame have been a prominent part of Birdie’s upbringing and young adult life. We piece together her story, learning through Birdie’s eyes as she reaches her breaking point. Her story is powerful and moving. She has struggled and she comes so close to failure, to death. Her story is full of her spirit and life. Birdie is a character that the reader comes to love as you turn each page. She is incredibly strong. She refuses again and again to be beaten down, but even she is not immune to the terrible outcomes of a lifetime of abuse and struggle. I love Birdie because even in her darkest hour, she is able to gather her courage and to find a bright light. We learn of her life as she confronts her past. As we read, Birdie heals, drawing on the spirit of her ancestors and family.

Has any one else ready this book? What are your thoughts?

Review: Pauls by Jess Taylor

Pauls-Jess-Taylor-cover-510-510x777

*I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Title: Pauls

Author: Jess Taylor

Publisher: BookThug

Publication Date: October 2015

ISBN: 9781771661683

Synopsis:
Pauls, the debut short-story collection by the exciting young writer Jess Taylor, is about people: the things that remain unseen to them; how they cope with their unforgettable pasts; the different roles they take in each other’s lives; how they hurt each other; how they try to heal each other; the things they want to learn; and the things they’ll never discover. At the same time, Pauls is a portrayal of the world as these people see it—they all exist in a universe that is strange and indifferent to those within it. Coincidences, relationships, conversations, and friendships all pose more questions than answers.

—–

Pauls is a short story collection that’ll take your breathe away. These stories are open, raw, and truthful. They do not shirk away from tough topics and seek to portray reality as it is: harsh, tough, and unforgiving. The Pauls in this short book do not have easy lives. They struggle with abuse, depression, pain. But they also find love, friendship, and healing. This collection moved me and more than once, it took my breath away. Taylor’s writing style is coaxing. She writes with the power of experience. She made me feel as her characters feel. I understand their sadness and their hurt, their need to love and protect, their desire to find contentment. Taylor’s writing made me feel like I knew these experiences. In a few short pages, I felt like I knew the characters intimately. Pauls is a window into the lives of strangers, that could so very easily be our own. Few stories have happy endings, but all stories share their lives as they really are. They don’t try to hide or alter. It’s an excellent collection.