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Pickle Me This

July 2, 2014

Miriam Toews and Lisa Bird-Wilson

all-my-puny-sorrowsThings are busy around here with the usual summer things (swimming pools, barbecues, celebrating Canada Day at Queen’s Park, not sleeping at night, lazy days, beer and chicken wings with my husband on a rooftop patio) and with a top-secret project that is going to keep things quieter on the blog front this summer. Which is as it should be–you’re all out gallivanting anyway. But I did want to share two amazing things I’ve been up to lately in celebration of two really excellent books.

The first is All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, which I was lucky enough to review for Canadian Notes and Queries 90, their summer issue. It’s out now. The review was a pleasure to write, to be working with material that was just so good. The book is the most hilarious heartbreak I’ve ever experienced. A teaser of my review:

“While markedly different in style and tone, All My Puny Sorrows reads as an interesting companion to Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir, Wave, another book about grief and trauma, in which Deraniyagala recounts the loss of her family in the 2006 Boxing Day tsunami. Both books are haunted by narrators whose voices are measured and understated, existing to evoke the dead and the past rather than to illuminate the present, partly because the narrator in the present is a hollow shell of grief. And that grief itself remains a quiet presence in the text, until it doesn’t, bursting onto the page with a torrent of rage. Interestingly, both narrators enact their rage by making obnoxious phone calls, describing themselves as “haunting” the calls’ recipients on whom they (inappropriately, but who can blame them for that?) lay blame for their tragedies.

Unlike Wave, however, and just like everything Toews has ever written, All My Puny Sorrows is also terrifically funny. The young version of Elf is a wonderful character, with her dramatic flares and karate-chop gestures. The most hilarious scene in the book takes place at a funeral (of course) when a young child steps up and begins to eat the ashes of the deceased. Elf and Yolandi’s mother emerges as the real hero of this story, a woman of unlimited faith and optimism (and who, in shock after her daughter’s death, answers every utterance with, “Ain’t that the truth”). And this is Yolandi’s revelation as well, that all this grief has not been put upon her alone, and that her mother, in her obsession with Scrabble games and detective novels, is trying to decode the mystery of things and put words together so they mean something, just as Yolandi herself is.”

just-pretendingI am also very pleased with my interview with Saskatchewan Metis writer Lisa Bird-Wilson about her short story collection, Just Pretending. I read the book in early May and found it incredibly affecting. Bird-Wilson’s answers to my questions were thoughtful, challenging, provocative and profound–just as her book is. And a taste of that?

Also, don’t you think there’s something a bit unfair about criticism that turns on the fact that stories made the critic feel bad? It’s unfortunate, but I’ve really noticed that audiences want you to read things that are funny—boy, they love that kind of thing. I find myself sometimes trying to excise funny bits from my stories and use them for readings—shame on me for bowing to the pressure but we all want to be liked, don’t we? I guess it’s human nature—we want to be able to laugh together—but in order to laugh together we also have to cry together sometimes. And sometimes we just laugh our way through the pain because there’s nothing else you can do.”

Reading the whole thing here.

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