Thursday, August 09, 2007

To Hype, or Not To Hype

When I started this blog I made some rules:

1) Don't talk about my life as an agent. I'm more interested in talking about my life as a reader.

2) Don't plug my own books. And don't plug our agency's books.*

I've forgotten what the other rules were. I think Don't Talk About Bestsellers was one, and Don't Talk About Authors Who Are Dead; Don't Talk About Books I Hate was definitely a rule; Don't Talk About Books In The Same Genre Over And Over Again; Don't Talk About Books That Have Won the Nobel Prize...

I've probably broken most of these rules by now. And I'm about to break another one to hype one of my clients: Brian Francis Slattery, author of Spaceman Blues: A Love Song.

Spaceman Blues was just published this week, simultaneously in hardcover and trade paperback. I could tell you all about it, or you could just read this great review in The Village Voice, which may be a wee bit more objective than any gushy review I would ever write, (as if book reviews could ever be considered objective - ha!). Brian was also interviewed on NPR's The Leonard Lopate Show , where he gave some very smart answers to some very smart questions.

Yes, I'm bragging.

*Rule #2 is the only thing that keeps me from turning this blog into a Jim Butcher fan site every time the next book in The Dresden Files comes out.

Monday, August 06, 2007

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

Some books aren't meant to be read in just one or two sittings. I think A Complicated Kindness is one of those books. I read it too quickly, and it pushed me into some sort of scarred Mennonite funk, and my head is buzzing with all the funny and apt and beautiful and poignant quotes I loved. The atmosphere of the book is absolutely oppressive. The main character, 17-year-old Nomi Nickel, talks about how silent and severe the town is, and when she says, "people here just can't wait to die," you feel it in your bones. Reading this book made me feel like I was drowning, and I kept coming up for air, but then, after a short time of reflection, or an actual "real world" conversation, I couldn't help but jump back in.

Miriam Toews is a damn good writer. She tells the story in a pretty linear way, though there is a lot of jumping around, both in terms of flashbacks and moving in and out Nomi's head, and purposefully abrupt scene switches. The bulk of the story is in the flashbacks. Right away we read this great sentence:

"Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing."

And I'm hooked. From there Nomi introduces us to her tiny and totally insular Mennonite community in Canada, where American tourists come in the summers to see how people lived centuries ago (the "simple life"). The town's industry is split between tourism (all of which is faked by teens who wear bonnets and pose knitting by old school fire places or churn butter) and Happy Family Farms, where Nomi is fated to work in an assembly line killing chickens as soon as she graduates high school.

At the time she's telling the story, Nomi is a pissed off and sarcastic teen a la Holden Caulfield. Even so, through flashbacks we meet a younger Nomi who was devoutly Mennonite and fervently prayed for her family. Through these, we see how comforting it can be to be under the wing of a belief system that puts everything in black and white. And there's a sort of Red Tent aspect to the town that's attractive. Sort of. To me at least.

The story begins with Nomi talking about her father, the only member of her immediate family she has left. We learn later that her sister Tash has run off with her boyfriend, and her mother Trudi was excommunicated, and has chosen to leave her family rather than become a "ghost" (Mennonites must shun the excommunicated, and Trudi didn't want to her husband and daughter to have to chose between her and the church). At least that's what we think. At first. To stay away from spoilers, I won't got any further. Just read this passage, which nearly broke my heart:

"The other day I found her [Trudi's] passport in her drawer when I was putting away my dad's laundered handkerchiefs. I wish I hadn't. For the purpose of my story, she should have it with her. I sat on my dad's bed and flipped through page after empty page. No stamps. No exotic locales. No travel-worn smudges or creases. Just the ID information and my mother's black-and-white photo which if it were used in a psychology textbook on the meaning of facial expressions would be labeled: Obscenely, heartbreakingly hopeful."

As the story progresses we learn more about Mennonites, which are named for Menno Simons, and called "Mennos," (at least in Nomi's head). Nomi's uncle, The Mouth, has recently taken over the church (and by extension, the town), and rules with an ultraconservative anti-fun iron fist. By the time Nomi is 17, The Mouth has shut down everything in town except the cinema, and forced all the teachers to follow his own curriculum ("our textbook could have been called Proven Theories We Decry").

Even so, Nomi manages to get a boyfriend and a tobacco addiction and wear halter tops and buy drugs from someone she calls The Comb. And we've got her voice and humor to lighten the mood. And the mood does lift, especially when she's pointing out the absurdities of what's on Menno's shit list and what isn't, and wondering what sort of douchebag names a religious movement after his first name, but promotes total humility. Nomi's voice picks up the humor in trying to hold her family - now just her and her dad Ray - together. Also, check out how Toews doesn't use quotation marks, or any kind of marker, to point out the distinction between dialog and thoughts (like Cormac McCarthy in The Road; another book that gave me the "I'm drowning" sensation) -

"That's cool though, I said thinking Jesus, let's not be the kind of family that tidies up the dump at night. The dump is the dump though Dad, I said. The central idea at work in a dump is that it's not a clean place.
Ray said: Well, yes, but I organize the garbage in a way I feel makes sense."

And then, in a blink, we're right back to heart-wrenching:

"The dump was kind of like a department store for Ray, but even more like a holy cemetery where he could organize abandoned dreams and wreaked things into families, in a way, that stayed together."

Overall, A Complicated Kindness is fairly light on the complications, and on the kindness. It's a rather straight forward condemnation of religious fundamentalism. The church completely wreaks Nomi's family. Ray seems to be the only one who's left with his faith somewhat intact, and he's a very quiet character. I would have liked to have heard more from him.

Instead, the bulk of the complicated feelings are expressed by Nomi and her mother. Toews does a wonderful job of balancing when they are being sarcastic, or criticizing, and when they are being sincere. Someone once told me that no one loses their religion for intellectual reasons, and at the heart of every apostate is a much more personal and emotional beef. That seems right to me. Who turns their back on the comfort and order of an entire belief system just because some fossils and carbon dating techniques contradict the biblical time line? Even once Nomi is well on her way to excommunication, she can't help but pine for religious conviction, and admire those who have it:

"I wanted what she had. I wanted to know what it really felt like to think you were saving someone's life."

I took this statement to be totally lacking in sarcasm.

I got this book from Sarah, who recommended it in this post. The other night we were talking about it, and she made some really good points. It's interesting what stuck in her head as memorable, because it was stuff that I'd completely forgot. Throughout the book, Nomi keeps telling us how bad she is at endings. She writes various essays and papers for her English teacher, Mr. Quiring, and he also tells her she's lousy at endings too. Sarah asked me: "Weren't you disappointed with the ending?"

Me: "Not really. It was sort of anti-climatic, I guess." For some reason, I hadn't given the ending all that much thought. "Maybe I was mildly disappointed."

Sarah: "It seemed like the author was preparing us for a bad ending, because Nomi kept saying how bad she was at endings throughout the book."

Me: "Oh yeah." I'd forgotten about how Nomi said that, even though she said it enough that readers would take note. I'm struck silent by how smart my friends are. I mean, that was a comment for the upper-class lit discussion group. Was Miriam Toews covering her ass by making her "main character" bad at endings? Or would an author purposefully write a less-than-satisfying ending, to give her main character continuity?

I don't know. Here's what I want to know: do y'all think that some books, particularly literary fiction, are meant to be read slowly? We all know that some books are "page-turners," but are there books that are the opposite of page-turners? And I don't mean boring books, or books like Jane Eyre, that took me two months to read. I mean books that you are meant to savor over a longer period of time, like a week or two, and not because you're busy, or you're just not that into it, or because it's a textbook, but because you want to give yourself time to absorb it. Or is that an outdated idea, like the way that people read back before TV and cell phones and electricity?

Is it possible to read a book too fast?