|photo: Carol Loewen
Raised as a Mennonite in Manitoba, Canada, Miriam Toews is the author of A Complicated Kindness (winner of the Governor General's Award for Fiction), Summer of My Amazing Luck, A Boy of Good Breeding, The Flying Troutmans and Irma Voth, and one work of nonfiction, Swing Low: A Life (a memoir about her father). All My Puny Sorrows (McSweeney's), is her sixth novel. Toews lives in Toronto.
On your nightstand now:
Our Man in Iraq by Croatian author Robert Perisic. It's a completely original, strangely compelling book about the absurdity of war, funny and understated. I'm also reading Elena Ferrante's trilogy set in Naples.
Favorite book when you were a child:
Cue for Treason by Geoffrey Trease. I loved the setting: Elizabethan England. Two runaways join an acting troupe and actually meet William Shakespeare and thwart an assassination attempt on the Queen of England. It's an incredibly exciting read. I also loved Harriet the Spy, like a lot of other girls. She is an early role model for feminism and creativity.
Your top five authors:
Elena Ferrante, Marilynne Robinson, Laura van den Berg, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Alison Bechdel. These women all posses powerful voices and bottomless humanity. Fearless truth-seekers of what it means to be alive. Brilliant writers.
Book you've faked reading:
Vector Geometry and Linear Algebra (for Engineers and Scientists) by M. Jeger and B. Eckmann. I got an arts degree in film at university, but we all had to take one mandatory math or science class. It really brought my GPA down. I didn't have a clue.
Book you're an evangelist for:
Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc is one of my favourite books ever. It's nonfiction but reads like the most beautifully written novel. LeBlanc spent at least 10 years with a couple of families in the Bronx and documented their lives during that time. I hear she has a new book about stand-up comedians, and I can't wait to read it.
Book you've bought for the cover:
Sleep It Off, Lady by Jean Rhys. It's a great book, and she's a marvellous writer, but the cover is the thing that initially drew me to it. Well, really the title: Sleep It Off, Lady. That's hilarious--a good book to read on the subway.
Book that changed your life:
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. It was assigned to us in a grade-eleven English class. There's a stunning scene in it that will always stand out in my mind: Rose of Sharon, one of the young migrants on her way from Oklahoma to California, is pregnant and loses her baby. In an act of incredible compassion and empathy, she gives her breast milk to an old starving man who is travelling with them. Essentially she "nurses" the man and gives him life even in her deepest hour of grief and misery. That scene blew my mind. I hadn't known something like that could happen in life and could be written about so tenderly and fiercely and poetically and realistically all at the same time.
Favorite line from a book:
"One night, in a phosphorescent sea, he marveled at the sight of some whales spouting luminous water; and later, lying on the deck of his boat, gazing at the immense, starry sky, the tiny mouse Amos, a little speck of a living thing in the vast living universe, felt thoroughly akin to it all." --William Steig, Amos & Boris
Which character you most relate to:
See above. The mouse, Amos. I love all of Steig's writing, but this book is so heartbreaking and life-affirming simultaneously and so gorgeously written. It's a kids' book about friendship and the meaning of life. I read it to my kids when they were little, and now I have to have it on my bookshelf at all times. Sometimes I just glance over at it, sitting there on the shelf, and I feel whole again.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa. It shimmers in my mind, when I think about it--Pessoa's relentless quest for meaning, for connection and beauty, coupled with this pervasive sense of futility and melancholy. That's a fascinating combination, for me. When I first read it, I was in exactly the right frame of mind to relate to his words and thoughts. Maybe it wouldn't have the same effect on me if I read it now so maybe I should store that memory of the way I felt when I first read it and just let it be. It's called Disquiet, but for me it was very consoling.