Combining the tragic and the comic: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

All MyMy book club recently had an engaging and lively discussion about the fiction novel, All My Puny Sorrows.  The novel’s plot revolves around a family confronting the potential loss of a beloved member through suicide.  Elfrieda (Elf), despite her fame as a world-renowned pianist and a loving husband at home, has suffered from depression and a “weariness of life” for many years.  Her suicide attempts take a toll on her loving sister, Yolandi (Yoli), and their Mennonite mother.  This plot line may not seem enticing because of its unsettling nature, but this character-driven book is actually a joy to read as the dialogue is realistic and funny, the characters (particularly Yoli, and her mother) are unique, witty and compassionate.

Yoli is relentlessly self-deprecating.  Her funny and loving letters to Elf are filled with delightful accounts of her not-so-perfect life as a struggling writer of children’s books, an imperfect parent and a poor judge of men: “Seriously, who wants a mother who buys flavoured condoms from the machine at the Rivoli.”  Yoli and Elf’s mother is a delightful, forward-thinking, optimistic and cheerful Mennonite woman who is “comfortable in her XXL pink cotton shorts and the T-shirt she won at a Scrabble tournament in Rhode Island.”  She is a survivor who makes friends easily, has no trouble talking to strangers, and rarely worries about what people think about her. Her optimism is a bright light that shines for the reader and is an example of a life that is well-lived and appreciated.

An article in the Vancouver Sun reveals that this fiction book is the author’s most autobiographical and personal book.  Miriam Toews (pronounced “Taves”) was grappling with the psychological effects of her own sister’s suicide in 2010.  When her sister lay in the hospital prior to her death, she had asked Miriam to help end her life…a request that is thoughtfully recreated in All My Puny Sorrows. We feel the author’s anger, confusion, and sadness through the character of Yoli. As reader, I was forced to confront my own attitude and that of society towards individuals who chose to take their own life (to kill yourself does not mean you are crazy) and to determine whether assisted suicide should be considered for those who suffer from mental anguish, not just unbearable physical pain.


Left to right: Joan Thomas, Cary Fagan, Miriam Toews, Ken Babstock, Susan Musgrave, and Tyler Keevil. (Photo by Tom Sandler.)

All My Puny Sorrows was the winner of the 2014 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.  Despite the awards, I did not expect to like the book All My Puny Sorrows, as I was definitely not a fan of Toews’s previous dark and convoluted book, Irma Voth.  Fortunately, I have returned to the cheering section for Miriam Toews.  Ultimately, this story is a reminder of the incredible intimacy of family, the importance of compassion, and that there is humour in even the darkest of situations.

Members of my book club recommended some extra reading/viewing on a similar theme:

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace:

A gargantuan, mind-altering comedy about the Pursuit of Happiness in America set in an addicts’ halfway house and a tennis academy, and featuring the most endearingly screwed-up family to come along in recent fiction, Infinite Jest explores essential questions about what entertainment is and why it has come to so dominate our lives; about how our desire for entertainment affects our need to connect with other people; and about what the pleasures we choose say about who we are. Equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy, Infinite Jest bends every rule of fiction without sacrificing for a moment its own entertainment value. It is an exuberant, uniquely American exploration of the passions that make us human – and one of those rare books that renew the idea of what a novel can do.  Publisher’s Summary

Darkness Visible: A Memoir Of Madness by William Styron:

A work of great personal courage and a literary tour de force, this bestseller is Styron‘s true account of his descent into a crippling and almost suicidal depression. Styron is perhaps the first writer to convey the full terror of depression’s psychic landscape, as well as the illuminating path to recovery. Publisher’s Summary

It’s Kind Of A Funny Story directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden

Sometimes what’s in your head isn’t as crazy as you think … that’s certainly true for Craig, a stressed-out teenager who checks himself into a mental health clinic for some time out. What he finds instead is an unlikely mentor, a potential new romance and an opportunity to begin anew. Charming, witty and smart, its a coming-of-age story that’s kind of a funny story.


About gplmarcia

Hello book aficionados! I am a librarian at GPL’s Main Library. Most of my time at work is spent on the Information Desk helping people with their information needs and, of course, finding a great book to read. I order the fiction books for the Main Library, so I have the inside track on what’s new, and what’s hot. In my spare time, I love to read (no surprise), walk my dogs (an English Setter and an Irish Red & White Setter) in the forest, visit the gym, and plan my next vacation (however humble that may be…I’m happy to go to the Blue Jays game).
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