Giller Reading Day 5: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Untitled design-5I’m one of the fortunate people that got to read Miriam Toews All My Puny Sorrows when it was still in manuscript form in early 2014 and I remember experiencing so many feelings, almost every one on the Abraham-Hicks Emotional Guidance Scale. I laughed, I cried, I pouted, essentially I was a jumble of feelings for 320 pages. To ensure I was able to provide an accurate review of All My Puny Sorrows, I felt it was important to reread the book to refresh my memory. So that’s exactly what I did and then I cried all over again.

This is the story of two sisters named Elf and Yoli. Elf is an award winning pianist, in a happy marriage and considered quite successful. From the outside looking in, everything looks normal, but there’s one catch… Elf is determined to die. She’s made countless attempts to take her own life and thankfully has yet to succeed. Her sister Yoli isn’t as successful as her sister; she’s divorced and broke, but she isn’t struggling with mental illness and she’s got a strength, a sense of humour and a determination to help try to convince her sister to live. Knowing that Elf is deeply broken, Yoli drops everything to travel back and forth to see her despite the fact that it’s costing her a fortune and she’s still trying to be a Mother to teenagers. I’m not a Mother, but I know that raising teenagers isn’t a simple feat and if you add an extra level of stress, a strong and courageous woman will emerge.

Unbeknownst to some readers, this novel has an added level of context, because the premise of this fictional novel is based on Miriam Toews life. Toews’ sister and father unfortunately took their own lives and although she’s quick to point out that this is a fictional novel, it’s fiction based on truth. In April 2014, she spoke with the National Post and stated,

“I knew, with my sister, that the chances of her killing herself were very real,” says Toews, 49, sitting on the couch in the living room of her west-end Toronto home. “I was absolutely terrified, absolutely desperate. I would have done anything. Except, of course, I didn’t do what she asked me to do.”

What Marj asked her sister to do was help end her life, an unimaginable request. Toews considered her sister’s plea, but, ultimately, Marj acted alone. Afterwards, Toews did what she has always done when it comes to processing trauma — she wrote. “For me, writing is an act of survival,” she says. Try as she might, she couldn’t ease her sister’s pain, but, with All My Puny Sorrows, she has, in a small way, eased her own.

This is a close look at the relationships we form with our family members, but it’s a sad examination of the realities of mental illness. Toews writes with conviction and stability and whether she wins or loses the Giller Prize, you NEED to read this book. It will change your whole world.

Be sure to come back to the blog tomorrow when I’ll be sharing my thoughts on The Ever After of Ashwin Rao by Padma Viswan. 

The Scotiabank Giller Prize Winner will be announced on CBC Television on Monday, November 10 at 9 p.m. (9:30 NT).

Want to celebrate this literary evening wearing those shoes you’ve been saving for a fancy occasion? I urge you to head out to your local Giller Light Bash. Parties will be taking place across the country in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg and Halifax. Be sure to check out http://gillerlightbash.ca

Giller Reading Day 4: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill

Untitled design-2At nineteen years old, no one really has it figured out. But for twins Nicolas and Nouschka Tremblay, children of Etienne, a legendary Quebecois folksinger who continuously keeps winding up in jail, things are a bit tougher. As children they were broadcast on radio and on television as a gimmick, often referred to as Little Noushcka and Little Nicolas. When Etienne started running into legal problems, both children were dumped with their grandfather Loulou. With their Mother choosing not to be involved in their lives, Nicolas and Nouschka have become inseparable. They become one mind and are so heavily reliant on one another that others people in their lives make comments about their bond. But they need each other for support, comfort and guidance. Of course like an sibling unit, they argue and don’t always see eye to eye. They even have screaming and throwing matches at times, but quickly, sometimes within a matter of minutes, they patch things up. Poor Loulou doesn’t know what to do with them.

As they watch their Father continue to try to “make it” and watch a film crew follow him around trying to document his “has-been” life, the twins each take on their own paths of adulthood. Nouschka searches for love in all the wrong places and in all the wrong beds. She finds comfort and love by seeing a much older man, but continues to trudge on in school hoping that one day it’ll pay off. Her brother has a different approach. He’s no longer attending school, he has a child that he’s not supporting and he’s in the early stages of quickly becoming a felon. Their decisions and actions are clearly a result some deeper issues at hand; abandonment (their Mother), neglect (their Father) and isolation (Loulou). Watching them struggle with their choices isn’t always easy, but their journey (individually and together) is one that’s so tragic and disturbing that you’ll find yourself taking little breaks, because you need to know how it all plays out.

Heather O’Neill’s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is set during the Quebec Referendum (for my US readers, a time when Quebec voted to see if they should become an indecent state), more information here. It was a time of uncertainty, but for the Tremblay family, it was a time of unity. Because their family was so affiliated with the Quebec folksinging community, in an odd their family has become a symbol of hope, of what they their independent state could look like, even though their lives are filled with many, many cracks. As tragedy strikes and paths take unexpected turns, Nouschka knows that she can always run, but she can’t hide. Her home is with her family, despite their many, many flaws.

Like Lullabies for Little Criminals (which is one of my favourite novels), Heather O’Neill slowly peels away the layers of her characters to expose their most intimate thoughts in a very calculated way. She never seems to be afraid at showcasing their flaws and this makes the reader have to think about the bond they’re creating with the main character. Do you like Nouschka? Are you rooting for her or for her family? I’ll be honest and share with you that I was unable to fully connect with Nouschka on that level. She just wasn’t my cup of tea and I think that getting hung on that fact tarnished my experience with this book. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the book, I just didn’t love it as much as I loved other books on the list. Do I think you should read it and form your own opinion? 100%

Be sure to come back to the blog tomorrow when I’ll be sharing my thoughts on All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. 

The Scotiabank Giller Prize Winner will be announced on CBC Television on Monday, November 10 at 9 p.m. (9:30 NT).

AND if you feel like treating ‘yo self, I urge you to head out to your local Giller Light Bash. Parties will be taking place across the country in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg and Halifax. Be sure to check out http://gillerlightbash.ca

Giller Reading Day 3: Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

Untitled designWhen Us Conductors was published in April 2014, it was a book with a lot of buzz. A number of my book loving pals raved on and on about how wonderful the book was and until now, I didn’t understand it, mostly because (in full disclosure), I had no idea what a theremin was or how it worked. After a quick YouTube search and a chat with a friend for further clarification, I finally took the plunge and dipped into Sean Michaels book. Like Paula McLain’s depictions of Hadley Richardson in The Paris Wife and Tanis Rideout’s fictional account of George Mallory in Above All ThingsSean Michaels creates an elaborate semi-fictional story of the man that invented the theremin, Lev Termen.

I’ve never written a story about another person, hell, I’ve never written my own story (other than the one my elementary school teachers made me write) about another persons life, but it seems like it would be really difficult. It’s a real talent to add such detail and description to someone’s life, especially when you’ve never met the person you’re writing about. Here’s a quote found on page 24,

My box of tricks was not a deception, simply physics. And yet the mission in Europe was to tantalize, plant sees, dangle hooks. All these foreign entrepreneurs, seduced by theremin: What would they trade for a share?

This is just one example how Sean Michaels paints a picture of Lev Termen’s life. The thread throughout the novel is the love and admiration he has for Clara Reisenberg, a young violin turned theremin player he meets in New York City in the 1930s. Often referring to her directly in the writing, we hop around in the text from his childhood in Leningrad to New York and then back to the scientific camps in the Soviet Union. His fame and success in the US quickly drys up and he’s forced to find alternative routes to survive in New York. All his problems dissipate when he’s “snatched” in the middle of the night and imprisoned on a ship where he’s told to play the role of log keeper. Not knowing what’s going to happen when he steps off the ship, the reader, along with Lev experiences the horrors of taking a plea bargain for a scrum of food. I think the description of the book explains it perfectly when it says, “Us Conductors is a book of longing and electricity” (source)

Not only was this novel smart and well researched, it was like unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It had EVERYTHING. History, music, romance, suspense, war and more. It’s one of those books that you can put into anyone’s hands and they’ll be guaranteed to call you up after they’ve finished reading to thank you for gifting them such a great read. In my humble opinion, I think it has really good odds in the Giller Prize running.

Be sure to come back to the blog tomorrow when I’ll be sharing my thoughts on The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill. 

The Scotiabank Giller Prize Winner will be announced on CBC Television on Monday, November 10 at 9 p.m. (9:30 NT).

AND if you love singing out loud to No Diggity while celebrating books, I urge you to head out to your local Giller Light Bash. Parties will be taking place across the country in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg and Halifax. Be sure to check out http://gillerlightbash.ca

Giller Reading Day 2: Tell by Frances Itani

Untitled design-4Can I be honest for a second? Yes, of course I can. This is my blog. I wasn’t too excited to read this book. I took one look at the cover and thought… “WWI story. I’ve read a thousand of those novels before. I’m good.”  But because I vowed to read all the Giller nominated books this year, I opened it up and then I felt like an utter fool by page 10. This book had spirit and heart and I couldn’t put it down. I guess what they say is true, Do. Not. Judge. A. Book. By. Its. Cover.

I’ve never visited Deseronto, Ontario before, but I do know that it’s close to Belleville. I’ve seen pictures, but that’s about it. So when I picked up Tell by Frances Itani, I felt like I was stepping into a small, rural town with a hockey rink and a broken spirit. Unbeknownst to me when I started reading, this story is the continuation of Itani’s novel DeafeningTell is the story of the aftermath of WWI, what happens when the war is over in 1919 and everyone is home and forced to put the (broken) pieces back together. We meet Kenan, a young man, home from the war and wounded in body and in spirit who has become a shut in. His wife Tress is unsure of what to do and how to help mend her broken husband.  Tress explains her husbands condition to her Aunt Maggie by saying,

Everything he does has to have order – some internal pattern I don’t understand. He was never like that before he left for the war. Now he gets upset easily if his sense of routine is disrupted or altered.

Tress finds comfort by visiting her Aunt Maggie and Uncle Am. Luckily Am has always had a soft spot for young Kenan and when he catches him roaming out at night hoping to appear invisible, he knows this young man is in need of a friend. Spending many nights skating on an isolated ice rink, both Am and Kenan are fighting internal demons. Because it turns out that Kenan and Tress aren’t the only ones having marital and mental issues, Aunt Maggie and Uncle Am have been fighting their own uphill battle. Their once solid and comfortable marriage is at jeopardy when Lukas, a Music Director moves to town and takes a real shining to Maggie. While Am is hoping to hold onto the familiar, Maggie is drawn to the uncertainty and unknown that is Lukas.

Sometimes wounds aren’t always visible but they can cut deep and they can change the mental state of a person. After WWI, the town of Deseronto, Ontario was never the same and Frances Itani was able to break it all apart and then tie it back together in a not so tidy, but satisfying bow. Itani’s writing is lyrical, expressive and I can’t recommend it enough to each and every one of you. This book is my top 3 of books I’d like to see win the Giller Prize on November 10th!

Be sure to come back to the blog tomorrow when I’ll be sharing my thoughts on Us Conductors by Sean Michaels. 

The Scotiabank Giller Prize Winner will be announced on CBC Television on Monday, November 10 at 9 p.m. (9:30 NT).

Want to celebrate this literary evening in style? I urge you to head out to your local Giller Light Bash. Parties will be taking place across the country in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg and Halifax. Be sure to check out http://gillerlightbash.ca

Giller Reading Day 1: The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

Untitled design-3One of the reasons I decided to read each book on the Giller Prize shortlist is because the list exposes readers to topics and plots worth exploring. It also allows for readers, such as myself, to be introduced to books we might not have picked up otherwise. That’s definitely the case when it comes to The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis, a novel that explores peoples morals set against an Israeli backdrop. Of course this unveils a number of themes including betrayal, an individuals character and the difference between right and wrong. Often times, these themes are discussed in the news and on social media, but it’s rare that these themes are discussed in a fictional sense from the voice of Russian Jewish male. If you decide to pick up The Betrayers, you’ll quickly see that Bezmozgis sets out to do just that by creating two men by the names of Kotler and Tankilevich.

Told in the span of 24 hours, we meet Baruch Kotler, a beloved Israeli politician who has been shunned by his people for voicing his opinion and refusing to succumb to blackmail. He (and his mistress) decide to escape the “mess” by traveling to the small town in which Kotler was raised, Crimean, Russia. Fate steps in and he comes face to face with Tankilevich, the man who betrayed him by denouncing Kotler to the KBG years prior, causing Kotler to spend 13 years in prison. The narration flips back and forth between the two men allowing for the reader to fully understand why both men now lead such different lives.

The reader will continuously be forced to examine their moral compass while reading this book. Do you always do the right thing? Are you ashamed of past behaviour? What about your current behaviour? In The Betrayerscracks are exposed and both Kotler and Tankilevich are forced to examine their past and their present decisions. T.D. Jakes once said,

We think that forgiveness is weakness, but it’s absolutely not; it takes a very strong person to forgive.

It’s very simple for someone to say those words, but pride and dignity always play a role in the act of forgiveness, especially when someone feels so badly betrayed. That being said, it also requires everyone involved in the feud to take a good, hard, look in the mirror and ask themselves, “have I done everything perfectly? Have I ever messed up? Am I wrong?” This reoccurring theme is the main thread of this very smart and very important novel by David Bezmozgis. Tough and controversial subjects are explored that will cause the reader to sit up a little straighter. This is by no means an easy book to read, but it is a book that deserves to be read. In my opinion, the writing and character development in the novel is what caused it to earn a well deserved spot on the prestigious Giller Prize shortlist and whether it wins or loses, I urge each and every one of you to pick it up.

Be sure to come back to the blog tomorrow when I’ll be sharing my thoughts on Tell by Frances Itani. 

The Scotiabank Giller Prize Winner will be announced on CBC Television on Monday, November 10 at 9 p.m. (9:30 NT).

Oh and if you’re like me and feel like celebrating the Giller Prize announcement in a fancy dress with an alcoholic beverage, I urge you to head out to your local Giller Light Bash. Parties will be taking place across the country in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg and Halifax. Be sure to check out http://gillerlightbash.ca