Thursday, August 1, 2013

a complicated kindness: a book club review

The second choice for my fledgling book club, reading Miriam Toews A Complicated Kindness was, for me, both a trip back in time and an other-world experience. Having grown up in a small town with small town people, and in a conservative Christian family with mostly conservative Christian friends, Toews world of East Village - a (not very) fictional village in Manitoba - both resonated and intrigued me.

Before I remembered that we're not suppose to read other reviews before our book club discussion, I read just one line from the Quill and Quire review that said "Reading A Complicated Kindness is like waking up at a crazy Bible camp." Having attend more than my share of Bible camp, and having loved every minute of it - even the part I couldn't quite articulate or integrate - I can say "yep, that's about right."

Naomi (Nomi) Nickel has all the familiar angst of an awkward younger sister (her big sister Tash's perfume was Love's Baby Soft - I haven't thought of that smell since 1984). All the internal drama of a virgin with a boyfriend. All the unreliability of an upset teenage narrator left to interpret life with little input from the adults in her life. All the complicated love of a family who loves deeply but not well. It's every woman's story, and she makes it all her own.

Part of what makes this story so uncanny is Toews' dance with language. The langauge of a skilled writer mixes that of an angry teenage narrator, an anachronistic father, and a village where 'the unwritten language of your people' often intermingles. Add in some good-ol' Bible thumping straight out of the King James, and East Village is a word-lover's paradise.

Narrator Nomi, an intelligent if not all that together girl, uses teenage language to express deep human emotion and experience that is simultaneously laugh out loud funny and heart-breaking. One sentence that particularly stuck with me: "It's raining questions around here. A person could drown in them."

Most of the story is of Nomi treading water in that sea of questions.

I just found out that Miriam Toews has written five other books. I hope to find them all in time for my holidays that start next week.

DISCLAIMER: If you click on any of my book links and choose to purchase from Amazon via that link, I get a small dividend.

Tonight was also my first time hosting the group and making dinner for everyone, and I went full-Mennonite. Or at least as full-Mennonite as someone who has only passing experience with strict Mennonites can get. We have agreed that our dinners will always be gluten-free (thanks ladies!) but my menu tonight would have been naturally gluten-free anyway:
  • home-made coleslaw
  • oven-roasted new potatoes
  • grilled Mennonite sausage (of course!)
  • bbq roasted chicken
  • steeped, honey-sweetened iced tea
  • gluten-free 1 2 3 4 cake cupcakes (based on this recipe from wikibooks, using gluten-free flour)
It was the kind of meal not many of us eat regularly - pretty meat heavy, and not a cooked veg in sight (I don't think that's very Mennonite - I just forgot), but was a lot of fun to share. There would have been a fight over the Mennonite sausages if we hadn't cut them into thirds. And the conversation was generous, vulnerable, fun and free - and honestly not all that focused on the book after the first few minutes. 

I had dog-eared a  question Nomi asks somewhere along the way 'If you were a disease, what would you be called and what would your symptoms be?" I had thought to ask the ladies of the club for their responses, but we were busy just enjoying each other's company.

I LOVE my new book club! 


  1. I read this story a ways back when life was pretty raw for me, and I found it awful and way too close to home to enjoy it or see any humour in it. I wonder if I could enjoy it now...

    1. It was interesting, Sarah. I was the only person last night who grew up in a 'religious' home, and it seemed I read more grace into the story than others. Some found it shocking & raw. I think having been raised with faith, and grace, and love, over-laid that on the story. The parts that were hard for me were the small-minded small town. Not that my experience at the time growing up in a small town was horrific, more that I knew even then that it was stunting and had the potential to destroy individuality.

      I know your experience growing up was different - I never really experienced legalism - and I can see that could be very triggering.

  2. Read this one a few years ago and loved it. I grew up in a small town too, but not with a conservative family. This reminds me that I need to get back into reading more frequently. I still have one of this year's Canada Reads books to finish!

    1. Of the 6 ladies at book club last night, 4 of us had grown up in small towns and had vastly different experiences. I haven't read Canada Reads books intentionally (I mean, I may have read some, but it was by coincidence, not plan), but I think I will look for a few more.

    2. Sometimes I have read them intentionally (Canada Reads books, I mean) and sometimes it has been by accident. If you haven't' read it, my favourite one 'by intention' was Nikolski.

  3. I am glad you liked this book! I am excited for you to read the other Miriam Toews books. Her older novels seem quite different from her newer ones--her style has matured and become more sophisticated, but I still like her oldest books too.

    I am also glad you are enjoying your book club. I am the newest member of the one I'm in, and we just realized I've been a member for nearly 9 years. (!!!) The longest-term members have been in the group for, I think, 20 years! Bonding over books is wonderful.

    We also read A Complicated Kindness and everyone liked it. Two of our group had grown up Mennonite, and two others grew up in a conservative Christian home (not Mennonite but also a community that practiced shunning). It was interesting to hear their responses to the book. I think it was emotionally most powerful for people closest to Nomi's situation.

    1. Wow, Mel, I can't believe you've been in PG long enough to be in a book club for almost a decade! It must be fun to have that kind of history with the women you meet with.

      I talked with Rivers' step-mom about the book; she was raised in a more liberal Mennonite community, and had a similar reaction to me. It's really interesting to see how different people interpret something.

      I am terrible for assuming people will see things as I do, and the book club has already been great for changing that.

  4. I miss gatherings like this. May check out the book. Enjoyed your review. Thank you.

    *bummer. word verification is problematic for me. Have you considered approval moderation?

    1. Ah, sorry LaTonya. You're not the first to struggle with word verification on here. I'll take a look at some other method.

      I'm glad you enjoyed my review, and hope you get to enjoy a similar gathering soon. It really is wonderful.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...