Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Over-the-Top, Winnipegian, Hard-to-Match, Every-Canadian-Honored, Beautiful McSweeneys-Packaged, Shockingly Sad and RIdiculously Funny Miriam Toews and "All My Puny Sorrows", Coming to Boswell on Tuesday, November 11.

a.I'm not exactly sure how we got on the tour list for Miriam Toews. In some ways, I think of Canadian writers as being the northern tiers equivalent of Southern writers. You host them in places like Buffalo, Detroit/Ann Arbor, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Seattle, places that seem like border towns. Of course the true Minnesota Canadian cousin is Fargo, North Dakota (close enough, just over the river from Moorhead). I was told by a visitor from Winnipeg that Fargo is the place you go in the States if you want to live it up. But unlike Michigan and Minnesota, Wisconsin doesn't actually touch Canada. You have to set sail in your boat if you want to go directly from Bayfield to Thunder Bay. Not terribly convenient.

b. And yet, and yet, Winnipeg residents do wind up visiting here. The woman above came with her cousin, who had migrated to Madison, and is a regular browser at the store. And recently, Sarah McNally, the proprietor of McNally Jackson, was in town, and she told me that Milwaukee so reminded her of the town where she grew up and where her family ran the acclaimed McNally Robinson stores, which were awarded the Canadian bookseller of the year award more times than I can count. In the States, we tend to rotate--I don't think Publishers Weekly has ever awarded the honor to the same bookstore twice. The Winnipeg McNally Robinson store is still around, run by their long-time manager, and FOB John, who reps the Harvard, Yale, and MIT lists across much of Canada, says it's an absolutely must-see store for any retail-ophile like me. One day!

c. So there is Miriam Toews, visiting Milwaukee, Winnipeg's American cousin, on Tuesday, November 11, 7 pm. One thing that Gabrielle, the publicist told me is that they knew I liked her in the past, and in fact I had read two of her previous novels, most notably The Flying Troutmans just as I started this blog in 2008. I can only place this because it's at the beginning of the reading list feature. it's the story of a woman and her two teenage kids journeying across the country in search of their missing father while her sister stays behind, confined to bed. It's said that Toews is upfront about drawing from her life in her fiction, and you will see this scenario play out in her new novel, All My Puny Sorrows, too. But booking is just the first step in the process. Now I have to make this event work.

d. How the heck am I going to make this event work? Toews is no superstar in the United States, though she has a much higher prominence in Canada. She won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize in Canada in 2008 for the above-mentioned The Flying Troutmans and lo and behold, she just won the same prize, for All My Puny Sorrows, the first person to ever do this since the prize was awarded in 1997. First time ever! Several of the former winners are among my favorite books, most notably Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers and Emma Donoghue's Room. And I also noticed that among the other finalists was a spring visitor to Boswell, Steven Galloway's The Confabulist. I tell you, the publishers think of Wisconsin as half in Canada, and I'm not going to argue with them about it. I just wish they still distributed Mr. Big bars here.

e. So I thought, I'm going to pair up Ms. Toews with another writer. My first thought was to ask our local Canadian writer in residence. She said Ms. Toews is indeed a great writer, but this request was a little odd, as Ms. Baldwin would be in Toronto that week. It's Giller Prize week, for goodness sake, and that's where all Canadian writers should be, celebrating Canadian writing in Canada and eating at Harvey's! Oh, Nanaimo Bar, what have I done?

f. So I went back to Gabrielle at McSweeneys (Toews' American publisher, she has bounced around quite a bit like any Canadian publisher who is not named Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood) and she went to the Canadian publicist and said, "Daniel is worried about the timing. Could Miriam Toews be a nominee? What should we do?" The publicists agreed that of course it was possible that Miriam Toews could be a nominee for the prize but that I was jinxing the whole mess by even bringing it up. It turns out there is a direct flight from Toronto to Milwaukee so what am I worried about?

g. And then All My Puny Sorrows was long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. And then All My Puny Sorrows was short-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prizer. A finalist! I don't know if I want her to win or not, because I am afraid that if she wins, she's going to cancel. So I asked Sarah McNally about this and she said (paraphrased, just like the other quote, but really, it's pretty close), "She's from Winnipeg. She'll show up."

h. And of course my loyalties are slightly divided in another way too, as once again, we are hosting two of the finalists. The other is David Bezmozgis, author of The Betrayers. He's at Boswell on Monday, November 17, 7 pm, co-sponsored by the Stahl Center for Jewish Studies. It's very odd--the books are both as bright an orange as they can be, Little Bee orange, as I call it. They look nice together, a sea of mango smoothie. I have the temptation to pair them up with Kathleen Ernst's A Tradition of Deceit (coming Wednesday, November 19, not Canadian to my knowledge) and several other orange books, but we all know that color displays, while beautiful, don't really sell books. But they are so pretty.

i. Of course I thought of pairing these two Canadian writers together, though Bezmozgis's cultural identity is more Latvian than Canadian, and according to House Hunters, Riga is a real hot spot, properties are going fast, but I digress. And Miriam Toews has a cultural identity beyond Canadian as well. I often like to call her the word's foremost Mennonite literary novelist, mostly because I can't think of anyone else. And because I couldn't think of anyone else, I had nobody to pair her with on that front either. I will say that her previous books were not very hot on the Mennonite church leaders, so it might not be a good idea to pair her anyway, and what am I thinking, a bonnet romance? But the Milwaukee Mennonites actually appear more akin to modern Quakers from their mission statement, so a few of them might be interested in coming. But I don't think any of them are well-known authors.

j. Now here's the thing. I actually had one other themed pairing that I was working on. There's an elephant in the room regarding All My Puny Sorrows, and that is that the book is really about suicide. Toews' father committed suicide a number of years ago, and her sister followed suit. So the novel has this as the setup, with Yoli (Yolandi, they are Mennonites!) being a bit of a mess, a fairly unsuccessful children's book writer, and Elf (Elfrieda) a successful pianist, as the publisher notes, "glamorous, wealthy, and happily married." But Elf struggles with terrible depression and has already tried to take her own life several times. And now she wants Yoli to take her to Switzerland to help her with assisted suicide. Yes, that's the setup. And here's the thing, this is a broodingly sad novel, and yet, it's shockingly funny.

k. And so what comes onto my desk but another novel about suicide, sad and angry and funny too, but Hannah Pittard's The Reunion. It's another woman (Kate Pulaski) whose life is a mess who has to fly to her father's house after his death, yes, by suicide. And while her mother's passed away, she has multiple stepfamilies to contend with, and really no moral support, as she has estranged herself from both her siblings and her husband. She has done some really stupid things. And all I could think of was that Kate and Yoli would completely understand each other and maybe if Hannah Pittard were Canadian, she'd get the acclaim she deserves, because boy this was a good book. I couldn't make the pairing work but Pittard wound up reading with Will Boast as you know for his memoir Epilogue and it turned out to be a wonderful evening, with their best numbers to date (26 people, and it's her third appearance with Boswell, his second, and yes, we track these things and take it very personally when books we really love don't get the attendance they deserve). And in the end, a suicide-themed fiction reading seems like a really bad idea, even in the end, both books are life-affirming. Bad idea.

l. And we thought about opening readers but it was a bit of a tall order to give Todd, who is helping with these things. "Todd, I need someone who is very sad, and very funny, but it isn't cloying and we're not talking violence (the budding writers love the violence) and not dystopian (they also love dystopia) and well, just someone perfect." Yes, too tall and order. My apologies to Todd who has to go through these conversations.

m. Oh, and if I have to say there's a theme running through my fiction reading this year, it's this. Plot has dropped off the map. I've always been interested in the other components of novels - character and theme and language - but I realize that it is sometimes very hard to sell fiction by admitting in the end, that while things are happening, the through arcs are rather, well, hard to explain. Take Joshua Ferris's To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Genius, right, but what exactly happened? It's like a washing machine that won't turn off. At one point your thinking that the clothes are going to come out clean and then you are worrying, that no, the clothes are going to be destroyed, and finally, you're just happy that the house isn't flooding. And it's so crazed that it's funny, especially when you get out some towels to blot the water that's seeping out of the machine and you think, "it's too bad the towels are kind of dirty. I should clean them. Oh, I can't clean them." And so forth. That's the way I feel about that book and that's pretty much the way I feel about Miriam Toews' book. To get through it, you have to make it through a particularly messy spin cycle.

n. Here's my staff rec (the Canadian jacket is at left) I wrote after finishing the book, many months ago: "This heartbreaking tale chronicles the struggles of a woman whose father committed suicide, and the crushing depression that drives her older sister to follow in his footsteps. Miriam Toews is probably the world’s foremost Mennonite novelist, and while her background once again gives the story a unique perspective, the tale of Yolandi and Elfrieda is a struggle that transcends culture. All My Puny Sorrows is a contemplation of what binds people together, and what it means to be alive, beautifully told, spiced with laugh-out-loud humor, a gem of a novel." What a book!

o. What can I say? Come to the reading already! If nothing else, congratulate Miriam Toews. Can you imagine if the winner of the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize went from a room of thousands to a bookstore with five people? And we are Winnipeg's American cousin, you know. The whole thing would be and will be an embarrassment.

p. If you'd like a to bring refreshments, here's a recipe for shoofly pie. I think the chicken borscht would be a little messy.

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