Those who follow Dog Eared Reads will know that I had been saving a book for my journey back to England on the basis of my friend Kate telling me just how much I would love this book. My mum had actually bought it around a year ago so I managed to convince her to take it over to Crete as one of her reads and before I arrived over there I had received several messages from her saying just how excellent it was, so good that at points she had to put the book down and let it all sink in before moving on to the next chapter.
I started reading ‘All My Puny Sorrows’ by Miriam Toews the night before I travelled, I hate trying to find my way into a book when I am in noisy, busy environment, I need to be ‘settled in’ if I am to successfully block out the hullabaloo (turning out to be even more important on this flight, this sounds like something you’d see on a sitcom but the child behind me kicked my chair for the entire flight and then actually repeatedly hit me on the top of my head for around 15 minutes, the first time I thought ‘maybe he is getting up and has knocked me by accident’, the second time I turned around and realised this was meant to be some kind of endearing ‘I hit you then I hide’ game. The parents were more than happy with this going on so upon them I send a curse of only ever picking up bad fiction from here on in). ANYWAY – within the first three pages of this book I was already having to stop and annoy my sister by interrupting her reading to repeatedly say ‘my god, this is so good, the writing is soooo good, I am IN LOVE already’! Not often I have a reaction to a book like that after only three pages but I could just tell this book was for me.
Now there is no way for me to outline this story without it sounding incredibly depressing, and don’t get me wrong, it is indeed sad and heartbreaking, but I need you to trust me when I also say there is so much warmth and humour in there that this is not a novel that drags you down and leaves you emotionally scarred for weeks afterwards (I’m looking at you ‘A Little Life’). It will stick with you and move you in a way that means you will never forget it, it has a beauty, simplicity and real humanness about it that rendered me helpless to do anything other than fall for these characters head over feet.
The story centres around two sisters who are brought up in a frighteningly closed minded, patriarchal Mennonite community. From a young age Elf has a personality that is bigger than the world she is living in. Determined to fight against the efforts to keep her at home as a subservient woman, her emotions and passions come pouring out when she plays the piano and she is soon noticed as a prodigal talent. Her sister Yoli is in awe and is frequently found reading books recommended to her by her older sister, books that she believes will pass on wisdom about the world.
We skip forward in time to find the sisters grown women, Elf is known as one of the greatest pianists of her time and has a wonderful husband at home supporting her as she travels the world. Yoli has two children, two divorces and a career that is in no way fulfilling, but the real struggle in her life…she has become the person who is tasked with deciding if her sister lives or dies.
We learn that Elf has been suffering for a long time, several suicide attempts have been made and the novel mainly centres around the time she is hospitalised after recently trying to end her life again. The family gather together and we watch as they desperately try to find ways to make the days more bearable for her, to make her want to stay with them. Elf does not want this though, she wants to end the intense pain she feels and begins to beg her sister to help her end her life. She wants to go to Switzerland where she can do it legally and surrounded by the people she loves. The crux of the story is how this question haunts Yoli, is she keeping her sister alive for selfish reasons? Should she let her go and end her suffering? What is the right thing to do?
I cannot stress again how beautifully Miriam Toews has written this novel, I could just luxuriate in each sentence for hours, marvelling at how these peoples (I find it hard to call them characters, they are real to me) go through the whole gamut of emotions and you feel every single one with them. The relationship between each person in entirely unique and believable, their battles against a system that almost seems set to fail them ringing alarmingly true. The prose flows over you in a similar style to that of Elizabeth Strout, it seems so simple but when you take a real look at it you see you are in the hands of a master here. This is the first book by Toews I have read but will by no means be the last, I will happily read anything of hers put in front of me now. The novel has quickly shot in to my favourites of all time list and I don’t want to be away from it for too long, a re reading date will be booked in soon, I just know I will find even more layers to it the second time round.
During the year or so this website has been around this is most certainly one of my most important reads that I really want to encourage you to go and try. I do not know about Toews own background and if she personally has had experiences with mental health problems or somebody in her family has, but I myself have and found the story of these two sisters and their experience to ring so true, right from the darkest of moments to those times where you do still find light. This is a special, special book – I would love to know if any of you Dog Eared Readers have already had their hands on this?
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews £7.99 (Faber & Faber)
It has been a while since I posted so here is an honourable mention to some other books I have recently had my nose in (there are some not being mentioned as they most definitely deserve their own post!) ‘The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo’ by Amy Schumer (Harper Collins £20) is another in the growing pile of celebrity memoirs/essays out there which have some kind of feminist slant to them (or claim to). I have read several of these, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham, with different degrees of success. Tina Fey is a stand out amongst these, Poehler and Dunham felt a little like wasted reading hours I must confess. I am glad I picked up the Schumer though. At times it feels like she is presenting parts of her career or life as one of her comedy skits and it wears a little thin on the page. The strength in the book lies in her writing about her relationship with her father, losing her virginity when she was raped by her boyfriend – who she then ended up looking after when he was upset, and her response to the news that two young women had been killed in a shooting at a screening of her movie. If you are a fan of Schumer and her stand up then I would say this is a good read (unlike the Dunham, I enjoy her shows but would still probably tell you not to bother with the book), if you are not a follower of her already then there are better biographies out there for you.
If you keep an eye on children’s and young adult fiction you will not have been able to help but notice the buzz about ‘Cogheart’ by Peter Bunzl (Usborne £6.99) and I have to say it is thoroughly deserved, I was hooked by the first chapter. We enter a fantastical, steam punk world with a young heroine who is suddenly left in the hands of a Trunchbull guardian when her father goes missing, presumed dead. She soon finds that life has taken a dangerous turn as her father, a great inventor of mechanimals and mechanicals, has been rumoured to have left behind a perpetual motion machine – the secret to eternal life, and a lot of people want to get their hands on this. With a fox who is wound by a key as her best friend, along with a newly acquired companion in the towns clock makers son, life on the run brings all sorts of adventures. This is incredibly fast paced and gets the balance just right for parents and readers, some good lessons learned in there but also the right amount of jeopardy and action. This is marketed in the 12 plus bracket but I would say if you have a good reader who is not easily scared then this is good to go from age 10.
I have obviously read the new Harry Potter, there was no way I wasn’t going to. Now apart from this being a play and not a novel, it is very clearly not part of the canon, you can just tell Rowling hasn’t written every word, the detail isn’t as tight and it just isn’t…the same. BUT – I must confess, I read this book in one sitting and I loved every single second of it. I was having so much fun and just wanted to shout out ‘this is why I love reading!’. A lot of people have asked me if they play form means that you lose some of the descriptive detail when you are reading but I honestly found that didn’t happen. If you are reading the play you are likely to have read all the novels, and I found that as they have so firmly created that world inside your head you are already there the second you open this. There was one plot point (don’t worry no spoilers) that really jolted with me and it was the one time that I just thought, no, this doesn’t sit right at all, but just as quickly as I thought that I just kind of accepted it and moved on as I was just so happy to be back in the world of Potter! Don’t expect this to fill the place of an 8th novel but do get this just to visit some characters we know and love.
Last but not least I read my first Juan Pablo Villalobos, ‘I’ll Sell You a Dog’ (And Other Stories £10.00), although I have been told by many, many regulars that I should have started with ‘Down The Rabbit Hole’ – it seems whenever people mention this book to me a look of total glee comes over their faces. I will be visiting that one next I promise! I did really enjoy ‘I’ll Sell You a Dog’, an incredibly wry and knowing book. Set in Mexico our protagonist lives in a building that isn’t quite a retirement home but isn’t that far off either. A resident busybody is constantly organising events for those who live in the building and cannot contain her frustration that our elderly gentleman will not join in. She constantly insists that he is an author and is secretly writing about those who live in the buildings four walls, no matter how much he protests that he has only ever worked as a taco seller. The lengths the pair go to wanting to out do the other become almost farcical but always remain on the right side of the line for me, balanced out by how dry Villalobos is. I hate the word but I’m going to use it, a quirky yet darkely charming read.
So there we have it, a review and a round up. As I mentioned above there are some special books I’ve read lately that will have their own posts coming soon, and also an update on the novel writing journey*!
What have you lot been reading lately? Anything great, or not so great, you want to share just drop a line in the comments below!
*for ‘journey’ read ‘long arduous climb, like tackling Everest in flip flops’