Tuesday, June 24, 2008

'a complicated kindness' by Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews’ funny but heart-breaking novel ‘a complicated kindness,’ features the Mennonite church and community. It portrays Manitoban families in the fictitious East Village, cut off from a city that is only 40 miles away and ministered by the fiercely pious and overly-zealous Hans. Toews, herself a Manitoban of Mennonite descent, paints a picture of the Mennonite church as one which prepares its flock for life after death by stifling the life out of its followers' earthly existence.

The protagonist, Nomi Nickel, 16, is lost within the folds of silence in her family and her community. At the beginning of her story, Nomi informs the reader that half of her family, the better-looking half, is missing. As she unravels their story, layer by layer, with a wry sense of humor and sharpness that exemplifies the gift of adolescence, you cannot help but smile, even as you feel her pain. Her dad, Ray, has his heart in the right place but finds himself stunted in his ability to be himself, to be a modern-day father and a strong husband. Yet Nomi does not love him any less on account of his shortcomings. In fact, she goes as far as taking over the responsibility of being the rock in the now two-member family. Or so she thinks. Ray, on the other hand, sees clearly what is best for his daughter, despite not knowing how to help her or even himself.

The contradictions between the lifestyle that is expected in this village (duly showcased in the museum for the benefit of American tourists) and the lifestyle that is a reality among some teens are mind-boggling. Consider this passage:

We’re Mennonites. As far as I know, we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager. Five hundred years ago in Europe a man called Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar religious thing…Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking, temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock’n’roll, having sex for fun, swimming, make-up, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno.
So East Village, on the outset, appears to be a success from Menno’s point of view. Even well-stocked libraries are banned, as in all societies governed and manipulated in a top-down manner. However, a closer inspection reveals that bored (or bewildered) teen-agers in Manitoba’s East Village may be no different from those presumed to inhabit New York City’s East Village. They wander about the streets in the night, have sex out of boredom, drink and do drugs and sometimes self-destruct in very direct and more efficient ways than you would think is humanly possible in picture-perfect societies.

Toews' writing style, employing no quotation marks, even when she is writing direct speech, throws you off a little in the beginning but you get used to it very quickly. There are scenes and passages, especially in the middle of the book, where the book seems to drag. Had Toews cut the novel by 30 or 40 pages, the story would not have suffered even a tiny bit. But despite that minor weakness, the book is well worth a read.

Also read:
An excerpt of ‘a complicated kindness.’
An author interview.

Monday, June 9, 2008

On being tagged

I've been tagged. This is probably the only context in which I will concede to liking chain-letters and go on to honour them. Up until now I had no idea that Sujatha over at fluff 'n' stuff even knew of my existence but she has me listed right next to Usha from agelessbonding. Usha is a veteran of the blogging world--she started blogging in 2003 and her site meter indicates she gets 267 visits, on average, per day. Having blogged only since January of this year, I assume that my readership doubles on the days my husband wanders over lazily from his haunts to check out my latest entry. So now is probably a good time to share this thought: that the 'six degrees of separation' rule does not apply to the blogging world. Through blogs, people can probably be connected to each other in no more than three degrees of separation.

Now onto the business-at-hand.

These are the rules:

Pick up the nearest book.
Open to page 123.
Find the fifth sentence.
Post the next 3 sentences.
Tag 5 people, and acknowledge the person who tagged you.

The book is 'An Obedient Father' by Akhil Sharma.

The sentences:

"...When the Muslim moved into Tailor's Alley and started a milk bar, I said to the people there, 'In my life this has always been a Hindu alley. Tomorrow this Muslim will be selling your children milk with cow bones ground in.'" He realized he was merely boasting and brought the conversation back on track.

Now for the more difficult part--the tagging. The introductory narrative next to the chosen blogger is not essential; it is just my personal touch as a tribute to those chosen.

Kalyani from 'those middle ages' (after all she is only marrying off her daughter and does not have enough on her plate).

Anonandon (while being as opinionated as the rest of us, she manages, better than most of us, to carve time for Bellinis or rock concerts or both--much to the chagrin of some Y chromosomes. But that is another story).

Asal thamizh penn (if she rejects being tagged and chooses instead to write about how annoying the game is, she will at least stamp it with her ATP-brand comic style. But more importantly, she will show me all the respect my Tamilness deserves and will refer to me only as an anonymized 'M').

Lisa (she lives my dream--immersing herself in Russian literature AND getting paid for it in that beautiful state of Maine. Moreover, she too brings back the past with the likes of Pozharskie cutlets and столичный салат).

Angry African (because he can be funny, angry, poignant...Heck, he does not mince his meat, I mean, words).

I don't know if this will work but I am tagging an extra blogger: Melvin, my humor-immersed husband because I have this need to see him pick up a book and actually read a few lines.

Thanks for the thoughtful stuff masquerading as fluff, Sujatha.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Nabokov's 'Natasha'

In its June 9, 2008 issue, The New Yorker has published 'Natasha'--a short story by Vladimir Nabokov, circa 1924; translated by son Dmitri Nabokov.

The story is a study of contrasts. Witness this early scene: Ailing Khrenov "pulled the blanket tightly around him" but "the thermometer was warm, alive—the column of mercury climbed high on the little red ladder. "

Old Khrenov, who is bed-ridden, ill and almost dying, is most in touch with reality -- he pays attention to people's movements, and presumably, to their feelings as well. He is obsessed with the world outside that can come to his bedside only via the newspaper. He makes a pronouncement early in the story that one almost misses.

Young Natasha, even while nursing and caring for her father with utmost sincerity, is quite attuned to "the warmth of her own body, her long thighs, and her bare arms...". She is lost in her own world of formication just as Baron Wolfe lives in his own fantasy world. But through Wolfe, towards the tail end of the story, we are made to confront the following life-affirming questions: is it really that simple to decide who inhabits reality and whose life is fictional? Is one man's insignificant life less complete because he merely dreams? Is another man's gigantic life a solid reality when all he does is moan, groan and complain his way through it? Again, an interesting juxtaposition of contrasting themes.

Truly, a charming, moving, riveting short story.

Cross-posted at Russian reading challenge.