Friday, December 22, 2006

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

There are novels that shake me up and infuriate me and inspire me all at once. This is one of those.

I've already discussed how the author's somewhat negative view of growing up Mennonite clashed my own; in fact, I barely recognized the faith as my own the way she describes it. You can read all about that here, where I wrote about my feelings in great detail. Right here however, is where I discuss the novel for what it is.

It's brilliant.

Miriam Toews has perfectly captured the voice of a disillusioned, smart and sensitive, bored and hurt teenage girl.

As I finish up my own novel about a couple of similarly inclined teenagers, I feel like I've just been taught how it should be done.

Sixteen year old Nomi Nickel lives with her dad because her sister, then her mother, have run away. Nobody knows where they have gone, and Nomi is haunted by their motives for leaving. There isn't much of a plot, other than Nomi thinking of ways to leave her stifling small village, but as the novel moves along the tension rises steadily and quietly.

That's the genius of this story- you barely notice as the tension builds. Nomi wanders in her own thoughts and in her surroundings, and it seems like nothing is happening, but gradually clues surface about the past and about where her future will take her.

The only way I can do it justice is to show you instead of telling you.

I may be a disappointment to Menno Simons but I would like him to know that I have carved, out of the raw material that he has provided, a new faith. I sitll believe that one day we'll all be togehter, the four of us, in New York City. Lou Reed could live with us too. We would all sleep until nooon, then play Frisbee in Central Park, then watch him play in clubs. We'd be his roadies. People would say hey, is that Lou Reed and his Mennonite family of roadies?

This is amazing- I have said so many prayers that sounded just like this:
I went back into my bedroom and knelt at my bed the way I did when I was a kid. I folded my hands and pressed the top knuckle joints of my thumbs hard into my forehead. Dear God. I don't know what I want or who I am. Apparently you do. Um...that's great. Never mind. You have a terrible reputation here. You should know that. Oh, but I guess you do know that. Save me now. Or when it's convenient. We could run away together. This is stupid. What am I doing? I guess this is a prayer. I feel like an idiot,but I guess you knew that already, too. My sister said that god is music. Goodbye. Amen. I lay in my bed and waited for the thick, sweet feeling to wash over me, for that unreal semi-conscious state where the story begins and takes on a life of its own and all you have to do is close your eyes and give in and let go and give in and let go and go and go and go.

I don't care how you grew up, whether you were from a small town or a farm or the burbs or the big city. If you are or were a teenager, and ever questioned your sanity and that of the people around you, then you should read this book.

Despite my disappointment at the way Mennonites are portrayed, and despite the lack of quotation marks in conversations, I rate "A Complicated Kindness" a FIVE JOHN DEERE TRACTOR rating, even though Nomi Nickel herself would probably be mortified!

THE END by Lemony Snicket

I have been afraid to tell you about this book for about two months. Aside from the obvious-- that stories about orphaned children being chased by villains who want to harm them and steal their money-- THE END is almost impossible to review without spoiling it for you! I promise not to spoil the ending of a book. This book is all about the end.

You didn't expect a happy ending though, did you?

You won't get it.

As for loose ends being tied up, you'll be disappointed again if that's what you're looking for.

Despite that, it's not a letdown. By the end of this book I felt just as perplexed as ever. I'm not sure who the father of Kit Snicket's baby is, or what's in the sugar bowl, or how Carmelita Spats became such a horrible brat.

Yes, we want to know. It's frustrating to not know what's going on. It feels like we've been given all these details only to be left wondering what the mystery is! But you don't get to know. You will never find out.

And that's the way it should be. Life does not turn out the way you expect it to, or even the way you want it to. Even though A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of the dreariest, saddest stories, if you take away the fantastical unlikely details, the sentiment is quite realistic. Somebody, somewhere, has a worse life than you!

Now. If you haven't read this series yet, for cryin out loud, will you just do it? Start at the beginning and read the whole thing, then read it again.

THE END- I'm only giving it 3 tractors out of 5 because I didn't want it to end.

A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS- must be given all five tractors.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

I went to see this movie in a theatre which means I paid full price for it, on the night it opened. (Yes I waited a month and a half to tell you about it. I've been busy.) I went with my kids, my writer friend, and her daughter.

We all loved it.

Being a frustrated novellist I was of course drawn to the concept of a guy whose life is being narrated in his head. I was curious to see how this would all play out. I think it worked although many of the real critics disagree!

Don't go into this movie with an analytical mind, or you will have unanswerable questions. Just accept that one morning while brushing his teeth, IRS agent Harold Crick (Played brilliantly by Will Ferrell) hears an elegant British female voice in his head.

This unwelcome voice is providing a running commentary on his every action and thought. Worse, the voice includes disturbing things like, "Little did Harold know that soon he'd be dead."

The voice belongs to writer Karen Eiffel (the always excellent Emma Thompson) and she's stuck. She's under pressure to get this novel finished but she's struggling to find a way to off her main character, Harold Crick. She has to kill him off; it's what she does. "Death and Taxes" is due but Karen is still creating death scenarios that don't work while her new assistant (Queen Latifah) stands by unrelentingly, under orders from the publisher.

Karen Eiffel is a mess. She is exactly what we want to see when we think of Author Plagued With Writer's Block!

(Again, don't try to pick through the details for any kind of verisimilitude. Just go with it.)

Desperate, Harold visits a Literature professor, seeking help to find out whose voice it is.
Keep your eye on how many cups of coffee Dustin Hoffman's professor goes through.

Harold may think the voice is driving him crazy but that's nothing.... he goes really crazy when he makes an appointment with a bakery owner to discuss the payment of her taxes. She's like nobody Harold's ever met before, and whaddaya know...turns out she's in the novel too. After she's done yelling at him, she seems to like him, much to her dismay.

This whole thing about Harold's impending doom will not make this romance easy. The rebellious punker baker herself (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who made me love her) isn't going to make it easy either.

Meanwhile, watch out for the young woman job hunting and the kid on the bike. Pay attention.

If you're expecting the typical Will Ferrell schtick, you will be disappointed because this isn't it.

I'm going to come right out and say it, okay? WILL FERRELL MOVED ME TO TEARS.

He did not get naked or semi naked other than the -wait for it- love scene. Yes, Will Ferrell love scene, and it didn't make me gag or snicker. I know. Shocking.

He did not take on a silly accent. There is only one burst of physical exertion. He managed to pull off the difficult task of bringing a basically boring guy to life and making us care about him. Yes, Harold Crick is regimented and rather dull. You didn't expect anything else from an IRS agent did you? C'mon...

Scenes to watch out for:

-Ana gives Harold his first taste of homemade cookies. Harold is blissful but of course promptly screws it up.

-The professor interrogates Harold. "Are you the king of anything?"

-You know what? Any scene with Karen Eiffel. She's that good.

-Harold getting ready for work on the day of his doom.

Here's Harold teaching himself how to play guitar. Why the heck not? He's gonna die any day now, he might as well live a little.
This movie made me laugh and cry.

Final note- "How many people have I killed?" I think that's something any aspiring writer needs to keep track of!

I'm giving it Four Tractors and a Snowblower!