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All My Puny Sorrows Hardcover – November 18, 2014
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A Boston Globe 'Best Fiction of 2014' Pick
A New York Times Editors' Choice pick for the week of November 26, 2014.
Included in the New Republic's Best Fiction of 2014
"I read 'All My Puny Sorrows' very recently and fell in love with Miriam Toews’ work. That novel is totally unafraid of the dark wilderness of the mind and heartseeing as it’s a novel largely preoccupied with suicideand it also somehow manages to be really funny. It felt incredibly alive to me."
Laura van den Berg, Salon Magazine
"Irresistible its intelligence, its honesty and, above all, its compassion provide a kind of existential balma comfort not unlike the sort you might find by opening a bottle of wine and having a long conversation with (yes, really) a true friend.” Curtis Sittenfeld, The New York Times
"In the crucible of [Miriam Toews'] genius, tears and laughter are ground into some magical elixir that seems like the essence of life." Ron Charles, The Washington Post
[A] wrenchingly honest, darkly funny novel. (Grade: A)" Entertainment Weekly
"Toews is a writer of considerable subtlety and grace, with a gift for bringing flashes of lightness, even humor, to the darkest of tales." --The Millions
"[A] masterful, original investigation into love, loss and survival." Kirkus (Starred)
"Bold, brash and big-hearted.... Toews writes from the point of view of Yoli, whose interior monologue reads like a cross between David Foster Wallace and Robin Williams if both were, in fact, a 40-something Mennonite woman with authority issues. She’s a smart aleck with heart, a philosopher with a comic’s timing." The Dallas Morning News
"[A] triumph in its depiction of the love the sisters share."Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"Toews writes with a sharp and piercing eye, offering characters and descriptions which are so odd and yet so spot-on that the reader has to laugh, albeit reluctantly." Booklist
"A touching tribute and a captivating novel." BUST
"Touching and unexpectedly humorous." Marie Claire
Toews is an extraordinarily gifted writer, with unsentimental compassion for her people and an honest understanding of their past, the tectonic shifts of their present and variables of their future.” The Globe and Mail
"[Miriam Toews] has a wry, funny voice that is the readers’ steady companion. She also has an eye for the absurd and a perfect tragicomedic timing in delivery." Christian Century
"It requires a talented author to take a serious subject and write such an engaging, enjoyable work.Library Journal (starred)
"[A] sad, wise, often funny and very good novel." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"'All My Puny Sorrows' is a bittersweet story about those who survive and those who can’t fight the current." Minneapolis StarTribune
"Funny and irresistibly warm" BuzzFeed
"Toews infuses [All My Puny Sorrows] with humor and sympathy."
John Williams, NY1, The Book Reader
"A harrowing and often very funny novel ... Every page yields a surprise, a laugh, or a line that will make your breath catch in your throat." Dan Kois, Slate
"Thanks to the prodigious talent of author Miriam Toews, 'All My Puny Sorrows' is an off-kilter, frequently funny and begrudgingly life-affirming romp through, well, death." The Los Angeles Times
"As jagged and ripped open as a freshly torn heart." The Boston Globe
"Fitful and seething" The Rumpus
"Both funny and heartbreaking, this semi-autobiographical novel was the bravest book I read this year." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Soul-crushingly beautiful." The Oregonian
'All My Puny Sorrows,' by Miriam Toews, is the book that etched itself most deeply inside me this year, and I feel certain will become a lifelong companion. Underneath the stunning writing and outrageous humor are insights wise and profound that test the boundaries of human rights and stretch the borders of love." Naomi Klein, San Francisco Chronicle
"A touching examination of loss, of family, of life itself. an exquisite, lasting elegy." The Seattle Times
"Toews is truly distinct, hilarious even when she’s dealing with the most heartbreaking and bleak of subjects." The New Republic
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Top Customer Reviews
Elf (Elfrieda) and Yoli (Yolandi) are sisters and best friends. Growing up in a Mennonite community outside of Winnipeg, they were tremendously close as they united against the way the community's elders treated women and tried to marginalize Elf's talent playing the piano. They also tried to understand the mood swings of their father, a gentle man who felt desperately passionate about so many things.
As adults, on the surface Elf leads a glamorous life—she has a devoted husband and a successful career as a renowned concert pianist, while Yoli has been divorced twice and is struggling to cope with raising her two children as they approach adulthood, as well as financial, romantic, and career difficulties. Yet Elf suffers from a crushing depression and desperately wants to end her life, although her attempts have all ended in failure.
"It was the first time that we had sort of articulated our major problem. She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other."
What Yoli wants is for Elf to finally get the treatment she so desperately needs, so she can finally enjoy her life and once again be the passionate, highly intelligent person Yoli knows and loves. And more than that, Yoli really wants her confidante again, wants someone to help guide her out of the mess that she is making with her life and help her regain the confidence she needs to move her writing career in a different direction. But despite the love of her husband, her family, and her fans, all Elf really wants is to die, so her suffering can end.
As hard as Yoli fights to change Elf's mind about dying, Elf fights just as hard to convince Yoli to help her end her life. How do you convince someone you love that their life is worth living when they are unable to see that for themselves? Is it our responsibility to help those we care about end their suffering?
I've never read anything by Miriam Toews before, but I was truly wowed by her ability to inhabit these characters. This is an incredibly moving book about the toll depression and suicide have not only on the person struggling, but on those who care about them. It's also a story about finding the strength to carry on when it feels like you have nothing left, and everything seems to be going against you.
This is a hard book to read because of the emotional nature of the subject matter and the suffering that the characters endure (and I've only scratched the surface in my description), but Toews' prose is so lyrical, almost poetic at times, and it truly immerses you in the story. At times it got a bit difficult because the hits kept on coming, and it was hard to watch Yoli make such a mess of her own life at the same time, but the beauty and power of Toews' writing compels you to soldier on.
This is the predicament that Yoli finds herself in when her brilliant and talented sister, Elf, is in the hospital again after swallowing bleach along with another toxin. Elf wants to die. It doesn't matter that she is a famous concert pianist with a wonderful husband, a lot of money, and has everything to live for. She. just. wants. to. die.
Yoli and Elf grew up in a small Mennonite community in Canada called East Village. Their family stood out because of their intellectualism and how they pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in their religion and cultural tradition. Elf was a quester, a young woman with passion who tested limits. Yoli looked up to her and they grew up close and loving. Their mother, a Mennonite wife, still had the verve and acumen to question the elders and, though it was forbidden, brought a piano into their home to feed her daughter's talent. Their father was thought of as an 'oddball' who went for long walks and "believed that reading and writing and reason were the tickets to paradise". He was also "quiet, depressive and studious".
Yoli is the one who lives hand to mouth. As the book opens, she is getting her second divorce and has two children from two different men. She likes to sow her oats and might even be thought of as a bit promiscuous. She has very little money and the future doesn't promise a whole lot yet she grabs on to life and cherishes it with gusto. How, she wonders, can Elf, who has everything, want to check out? "Listen! I want to shout at her. If anyone's gonna kill themselves it should be me. I'm a terrible mother for leaving my kids' father and other father. I'm a terrible wife for sleeping with another man. Men. I'm floundering in a dying non-career." And then she wonders, "Maybe it's because you've perfected if that you are now ready to leave it behind. What else is there left to do?"
Yoli wonders about the family and cultural legacies of suicide. She tries to understand the illness of depression but she doesn't want to let go of her beloved sister. To help her attain her goal of death would mean she was complicit with Elf. "I had to know she'd be okay . . . that I would bow down before her suffering with compassion."
This is a brilliant book, one that not only engages the reader totally, but looks into the depths of human suffering and despair. As the poet Roethke says, "What is madness but nobility of the soul at odds with circumstance." While this isn't true for all mental illness, sometimes there is no other answer.