Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Colombia's Eastern Plains, Los Llanos Orientales

The Lagos de Menegua resort, located 12 km from Puerto Lopez on the road to Puerto Gaitan, is advertised as being just 3 hours from Bogota. We left my house at 9:30 in the morning. The first hour was spent simply wending our way through Bogota's increasingly insufferable traffic.

We stopped at a gas station to fill up, and Sally, being a practical and cautious person, checked the pressure of the tires. The front tires were low. The tire jockey swung into action, removed the tubeless tires, shook out several pieces of glass and pointed out the large tack that was embedded in one of the tires, probably picked up during the recent truck drivers' strike. He applied a total of 13 patches to the leaks and cracks in the 18-month-old Michelin tires.

Two hours after departing from home, we left the city of Bogota behind us. The city ends abruptly. Suddenly there are no more red cinder block houses and we were surrounded by fields. There is no industrial park or buffer zone on the outskirts of town.

It had been years since I had been to the plains region. The new highway apparently shaves 4 hours off of the trip to Villavicencio, the capital of Meta Department. The old route used to be breathtaking; it was a winding goat path precariously perched along the edge of the abyss, with some of the most spectacular views ever, probably heightened by an imminent sense of impending death. The new road is wider, better paved, has more tunnels (one of them 4.5 km long) and a much higher survival rate. We only passed one accident, with the uncovered body laid out on the road.

Despite being caught behind some slow moving trucks, we made good time to Villavo (as the locals call it). Billboards along the roadside announced the Festival de la Mujer Vaquera (Cowgirl Festival) under way this weekend. Don't think Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, these are honest to goodness female cow wranglers competing in rodeo events, including the local specialty coleo, a competition in which the rider chases down a year-old calf and has to flip the animal by applying a grip and twist technique to its tail, then jump off the charging horse and rope the calf.

From Villavicencio we lucked out in getting the road to Puerto Lopez, cunningly stopping to ask the very last roadside pineapple vendor who was located just before the place where we had to make a quick right on a discreet and unmarked turnoff before the bridge. There is no signage. The route was dotted with gorgeous pink trees in full boom. I wish that I knew what they were called.

The contrast between the mountains of the Cordillera and the Eastern Plains is amazing. Suddenly the last of the mountains disappeared behind us, and the flat plains stretch before us, all the way to Venezuela. The land between Villavicencio and Puerto Lopez is neatly parceled into cattle ranches extending for miles, the cattle grazing leisurely with plenty of room. There were no signs indicating land for sale. By all accounts the region looks very prosperous.

Many farms have their own landing strips and small planes were visible out front. We also passed the Apiay base that houses the crop spraying planes that fumigate the FARC's coca crops in La Macarena. There were a huge number of tanker trucks on the road, transporting oil from the oilfields of Casanare and Arauca to Bogota. It stuck both of us that the investment and energy expenditure of transporting all that oil by road would be better used in building oil pipelines.

We arrived at the hotel at 4:30 in the afternoon, seven hours after Sally picked me up at home, including two brief stops, one for lunch and one for tropical fruit desserts and coffee. The Lagos de Menegua hotel is nice but certainly not luxurious. A cold beer and a dip in the pool were the order of the day. As the day drew to a close, hundreds of tropical birds filled the air, catching insects in the dusk, particularly a lot of split-tail swallows.

Saturday morning we were up at 6:00 for a bird-watching hike. Didn't really see all that many birds in the wooded grove; 5:00 would have been a better time. Did see three bands of red monkeys. Coming out by the lake there were quite a few water birds: ducks, cranes and ibises.

The hotel's property is quite large. Owner Don Bene arrived in Colombia 1948 after being displaced from Palestine, and bought up 1,300 hectares of land (13 square km). As well as the hotel he has a booming fish farm that produces 5 to 6 tons weekly of the river fish mojarra and cachama that are native to the Orinoco region. The fish farm is fascinating. We had a look at the incubators where the fish eggs are hatched, and the different types of pools where the fish grow. All of the pools are covered with mesh so that the birds don't get at them. Cachama (a delicious member of the characid family, which includes piranhas --eat it before it eats you) was on the dinner buffet twice during our stay. I got the card for the distributor in Bogota, which is actually not far from my house (http://www.cendismar.com/default.htm).

In the afternoon we went to Puerto Lopez, which really is not much of a town. I bought a half bottle of my favorite aguardiente Llanero, which is only available in Meta Department. At the market place Sally bought a couple of bags of farofa, toasted manioc granules that are sprinkled on food at every meal in Brazil. After having eaten it for a whole week while traveling on cargo ships down the Amazon River, I still cringe at the sight of it. On the way back we stopped at the monument that marks the geographic center of Colombia. We stayed to watch the sunset, because the sunset over the plains is supposed to be particularly red and spectacular, but it was hazy and we really did not get the full effect. The full moon was also woozy under its cape of haze.

Many of the hotel's guests arrived quite late on Saturday. The road between Bogota and Villavicencio was closed for several hours because of a serious bus accident that left 15 dead.

Sunday morning after a leisurely sleep-in, Sally and I went out to kayak on the lake. We saw lots of aquatic birds. As we were coming around the small island to approach the red ibises known as coracora, something large and fast lunged at a wading bird on the bank, just off the right side of our boat. That made us paddle out of there PDQ. When we got back to the hotel the staff confirmed that there are babillas (spectacled caiman (caiman crocodilus) in the lake.

During lunch of carne llanera (meat cooked on a lean-to over an open fire), we had a performance of music and dance by a group of llanero musicians. Llanera music is characterized by the use of the harp, guitar, and maracas. A giant iguana came by to check out the excitement.

In the afternoon we went horseback riding. The cattle ranching in the primary activity in the plains and horses are the way to get around. I had a lovely buff colored gelding that was beautifully responsive. We rode far out on the property to a promontory in hopes of seeing the famed llanero sunset, but again the haze spoiled our plans. It was dark by the time we got back but the horses know their way to the stable. The following morning Sally realized that she had left her camera hooked around the pommel, but when she went to the stable to see if it had been found, no one had turned it in.

That put a bit of a damper on the weekend. Seeing as it took so long to arrive on Friday, we left shortly after breakfast on the long-weekend Monday, arriving back in Bogota in the afternoon without incident.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Love, Faith, and Betrayal

An Instant in the Wind by André Brink

Published in 1976 by South African writer André Brink, An Instant in the Wind was instantly controversial because of its portrayal of a love between a white woman and a black man. A surge of fame and infamy resulted in a nomination for the Booker Prize, and banning by the apartheid government. So does the book withstand the test of time, now that it is not so controversial?

I would argue that it does. Apartheid may have ended but mixed race relations are still culturally delicate in many places and, on a more universal note, it is the story of any love affair between two culturally disparate people.

The epigraph sets the tone for the novel: "We live in a disoriented, disarranged social structure, and we have transcended its barriers in our own ways and have stepped psychologically outside its madness and repressions. It is lonely out here. We recognize each other. And, having recognized each other, is it any wonder that our souls cling together even while our minds equivocate, hesitate, vacillate, and tremble?" – Eldridge Cleaver

The year is 1749. Escaped slave Adam (Aob) Mantoor discovers Elisabeth Larsson who is the lone survivor of her husband's poorly planned botanical and mapping expedition into the South African interior. The book tells the story of their two-year journey back to the Cape, with a stay in a tropical paradise (a veritable Garden of Eden, with all the biblical imagery but a lot more explicit sex than the biblical version), forest, mountains, deserts, and featuring encounters with wild animals, Hottentot tribes, remote settlers, and a lot more sex. The landscapes are lushly described and heavily imbued with symbolic significance.

Brink uses a technique of writing the characters' thoughts as if they were spoken out loud. The contrast between what is thought and what is said becomes very clear, with all the implicit presumptions and misunderstandings. Brink's use of contemporary language and logic takes the book out of its time period. As such, what it loses in realism, it gains in universality.

It also means that as a reader it is necessary to suspend one's disbelief. This novel is really a Socratic dialogue, with its emphasis on internal debate and debate between the characters, as well as the symbolic landscapes.

Readers who prefer a more strictly realistic style of storytelling might have objections to:
-The lack of physical hardships during Adam and Elisabeth's sojourn in paradise: No nasty insects, no scratches or cuts from the trees as they romp naked through the forest, no serious infections.
-Throughout their long journey they experience surprisingly few gastrointestinal problems, despite the lack of clean water sources.
-Both Elisabeth and Adam are remarkably articulate and well-spoken.
-Even toward the end, despite being under extreme physical duress, they continue to wax philosophical on the nature of love.
-How a woman who is described as having reached a state of emaciation manages to conceive is pretty dubious.
These details, however, are beside the point, if one is willing to accept that the characters are being used a vehicles for philosophical positions, rather than literal beings.

This is a book about love. The soul that recognizes affinity in another is the universal love story. It is a testament to the human ability to transcend discrimination and racism, and see the humanity in another person, and the cruel reality that the ability to sustain this connection is very fragile. It is also the story of faith: faith in love's ability to overcome adversity, and the most basic faith that keeps us alive: a belief, even if unfounded, that tomorrow will be better, or at least not any worse. I don't want to spoil the ending, but whether that faith is justified or not is seriously questionable.

An Instant in the Wind is a testament to the human experience as lived: for everyone who has ever felt that heady, intense, passionate, caring and longing for another, while at the same time doubting whether their love would survive the pressures of society. Elisabeth and Adam are aware that their connection to each other is real and immediate, and that it could easily be stripped from them and erased forever by outside forces or their own weaknesses. "This no one can take away from us, not even ourselves."

Quotable Quotes:

-And huddle together in the night, pretending, when daylight returns, that it hasn't happened? For how long can one live a lie? A body contains its own truth and will not be denied.
-Love is the beginning of violence and betrayal.
-To hold someone, not for a moment but forever, in a world where everything is fleeting and painful and treacherous. And for the sake of that small possibility you must be willing to risk everything, to break through, to walk into the night naked.
-Who are you? I have never known anyone better, yet you are altogether strange to me.
-Have you thought something else was possible? –to touch someone and not let go again? But you forget one thing: we are still human. And so we remain scared, and petty, and treacherous. Look, you have abandoned me.
-Will I always be enough for you? One can only believe. Or hope.
-They're not trying to deceive one another any more by pretending it's permanent…They live in touch with past and future, no longer trying to deny it.
-For all the others I've been no more than a woman, a game, a toy. You're the first person to whom I am a person. That is why I dare be a woman with you.
-This space lay before them, all its possibilities enclosed in the future, on the border of reality. All they had to do was to say: I will. For it was will that opened it, will that made it happen.
-I believe you even if I know you're lying.
-But perhaps I was younger then. I needed the sudden violence to shock me into awareness. Now I demand much less, my needs are humbler.
-Surely one must have the dignity, sooner or later, to say: Now I refuse.
-How can you survive if you're not prepared to be an animal?
-One does it because one believes in it, because it seems right. Even if it means going against the rest of the world…What happens if one opens one's eyes to find one is still alone?
-One has to learn to live with betrayal.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Talisman for Protection?

Twenty-three Colombian workers carrying out oil explorations in Vichada Department for the Canadian oil company Talisman were kidnapped by FARC Front 16. Subsequently 22 of the men were released. It is speculated that the kidnapping was meant as a warning to the company for having failed to pay protection or extortion money.

In the wake of this incident President Juan Manuel Santos announced that any multination company that is found guilty of paying protection or extortion money would be thrown out of the country.

The companies argue that the safety and security of their personnel and facilities is at risk, and that the government is not in full control in many regions. These are not new concerns. These are the same reasons that gave rise to the self-defense groups that gradually evolved into the paramilitaries. It is ironic that as the paramilitaries have demobilized, a number of their former members have resorted to forming criminal gangs that engage in extortion.

Officially no one is supposed to pay any money to illegal armed groups, for any reason. But many people who live or work in regions where security problem are ongoing will acknowledge that the practice persists.

The president's position that foreign companies should not pay protection and extortion money to illegal armed groups because this serves to perpetuate crime is logical, but it fails to contemplate the full extent of the problem. Why should this only apply to foreign companies? Shouldn't this principle apply to all companies, including Colombian companies?

The same logic of refusing to sponsor crime led to a radical shift in the policy on kidnapping during the Uribe government. Previous governments had been willing to negotiate hostage exchanges for humanitarian reasons. The Uribe government refused outright to consider negotiating hostages on the grounds that this would only encourage hostage-taking, and that it cheapens human life by making it into a negotiable commodity.

It is one thing for a government to adopt this as a policy. A family who has had a relative kidnapped might see the situation differently. Officially it is illegal to pay ransom money. A number of years ago, the first thing that the officials did when a kidnapping was reported was to freeze the family's bank accounts and assets to make sure that they did not pay. This policy has quietly slipped by the wayside. Individuals who are dealing with private tragedies are tacitly allowed to do what they need to do, even if it is technically still illegal.

The principle in both cases may be clear and logical, but the practical reality of the matter remains murky.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Book Club Facilitating Notes on A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

1. Brief history of the Mennonites. Mennonites in modern times.
2. Book synopsis.
3. About the author
4. Author interview
5. Reader's guide questions
6. Index to events in the book. Nomi's last day in town.

1. Brief history of the Mennonites.

The Mennonites are a group of Christian Anabaptist denominations named after the Frisian Menno Simons (1496–1561), who, through his writings, articulated and thereby formalized the teachings of earlier Swiss founders. The teachings of the Mennonites were founded on their belief in both the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ, which they held to with great conviction despite persecution by the various Roman Catholic and Protestant states. Rather than fight, the majority survived by fleeing to neighboring states where ruling families were tolerant of their radical belief in adult baptism. Over the years, Mennonites have become known as one of the historic peace churches because of their commitment to nonviolence.[2]

There are about 1.5 million Mennonites worldwide as of 2006.[3] Mennonite congregations worldwide embody the full scope of Mennonite practice from "plain people" to those who are indistinguishable in dress and appearance from the general population. The largest populations of Mennonites are in Canada, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the United States, but Mennonites can also be found in tight-knit communities in at least 51 countries on six continents or scattered amongst the populace of those countries. There are also a significant number of Mennonites scattered throughout China. There are German Mennonite colonies in Argentina, Belize, Bolivia,[4] Brazil, Mexico and Paraguay[5], who are to a large extent descendants of Mennonites living in Eastern Europe, and there remains a small congregation in the Netherlands where Menno was born.

The early history of the Mennonites starts with the Anabaptists in the German and Dutch-speaking parts of central Europe. The German term is "Wiedertäufer" (that is, Again-Baptists, or Anabaptists via the Greek ana [="again."]). These forerunners of modern Mennonites were part of the broad reaction against the practices and theology of the Roman Catholic Church known as the Protestant Reformation.

Jacob Amman and the AmishMain article: Amish
In 1693 Jacob Amman led an effort to reform the Mennonite church in Switzerland and South Germany to include shunning, to hold communion more often, and other differences. When the discussions fell through, Jacob and his followers split from the other Mennonite congregations. Amman's followers became known as the Amish Mennonites. In later years, other schisms among Amish Mennonites resulted in such groups as the Old Order Amish, New Order Amish, Kaufman Amish Mennonites, Amish Mennonites, Conservative Mennonite Conference, and Biblical Mennonite Alliance.

Russian MennonitesMain article: Russian Mennonite
In 1768 Catherine the Great of Russia acquired a great deal of land north of the Black Sea (in the present-day Ukraine) following a war with the Turks. Russian government officials invited those Mennonites living in Prussia to come farm the Russian steppes in exchange for religious freedom and military exemption. Over the years the Mennonite farmers were very successful. By the beginning of the 20th century they owned large agricultural estates and were even successful as industrial entrepreneurs in the cities. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Russian Civil War (1917–1921) all of these farms (whose owners were called Kulaks) and enterprises were expropriated. Beyond expropriation, Mennonites suffered severe persecution during the course of the Civil War, at the hands of both the Bolsheviks and, particularly, the anarchists of Nestor Makhno who saw Mennonites as privileged foreigners of the upper class and targeted them. Hundreds of Mennonite men, women and children were murdered in these attacks.[10] After the war people who openly followed religion were in many cases imprisoned. This led to a wave of Russian Mennonite emigration to the Americas (U.S., Canada and Paraguay).

Taken from
Wikipedia contributors, "Mennonite," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mennonite&oldid=416961580 (accessed February 19, 2011).

Mennonites in modern times.

The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online

GAMEO provides Reliable information on Anabaptist-related (Amish, Mennonite, Hutterite, Brethren in Christ) topics, including history, theology, biography, institutions and local congregations. Secular topics from an Anabaptist perspective and full-text source documents are also included.

In 1990 dancing continued to be a controversial subject in the Mennonite churches. Social dancing involving the physical contact of men and women is the type of dancing that has caused the most concern. The reasons most frequently cited for this concern include the potential for sexual stimulation, creating an image that weakens the Christian witness, and breaking down the spiritual life of the members of the church.
Taken from Gameo. February 19, 2011

2. Book Synopsis

Sixteen-year-old Nomi Nickel longs to hang out with Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull in New York City’s East Village. Instead she’s trapped in East Village, Manitoba, a small town whose population is Mennonite: “the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager.” East Village is a town with no train and no bar whose job prospects consist of slaughtering chickens at the Happy Family Farms abattoir or churning butter for tourists at the pioneer village. Ministered with an iron fist by Nomi’s uncle Hans, a.k.a. The Mouth of Darkness, East Village is a town that’s tall on rules and short on fun: no dancing, drinking, rock ’n’ roll, recreational sex, swimming, make-up, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities or staying up past nine o’clock.

As the novel begins, Nomi struggles to cope with the back-to-back departures three years earlier of Tash, her beautiful and mouthy sister, and Trudie, her warm and spirited mother. She lives with her father, Ray, a sweet yet hapless schoolteacher whose love is unconditional but whose parenting skills amount to benign neglect. Father and daughter deal with their losses in very different ways. Ray, a committed elder of the church, seeks to create an artificial sense of order by reorganizing the city dump late at night. Nomi, on the other hand, favours chaos as she tries to blunt her pain through “drugs and imagination.” Together they live in a limbo of unanswered questions.

Nomi’s first person narrative shifts effortlessly between the present and the past. Within the present, Nomi goes through the motions of finishing high school while flagrantly rebelling against Mennonite tradition. She hangs out on Suicide Hill, hooks up with a boy named Travis, goes on the Pill, wanders around town, skips class and cranks Led Zeppelin. But the past is never far from her mind as she remembers happy times with her mother and sister — as well as the painful events that led them to flee town. Throughout, in a voice both defiant and vulnerable, she offers hilarious and heartbreaking reflections on life, death, family, faith and love.

Eventually Nomi’s grief — and a growing sense of hypocrisy — cause her to spiral ever downward to a climax that seems at once startling and inevitable. But even when one more loss is heaped on her piles of losses, Nomi maintains hope and finds the imagination and willingness to envision what lies beyond.

Taken from: http://www.bookclubs.ca/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9781400025763#desc

3. About the author

Miriam Toews (pronounced tâves) was born in 1964 in the small Mennonite town of Steinbach, Manitoba. She left Steinbach at 18, living in Montreal and London and touring Europe before coming back to Manitoba, where she earned her B.A. in film studies at the University of Manitoba. Later she packed up with her children and partner and moved to Halifax to attend the University of King’s College, where she received her bachelor’s degree in journalism. Upon returning to Winnipeg with her family in 1991, she freelanced at the CBC, making radio documentaries. When her youngest daughter started nursery school, Toews decided it was time to try writing a novel.

Miriam Toews’s first novel, Summer of My Amazing Luck, was published in 1996; it was nominated for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour and won the John Hirsch Award. Published two years later, her second novel, A Boy of Good Breeding, won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. She is also the author of Swing Low: A Life, a memoir of her father who committed suicide in 1998 after a lifelong struggle with manic depression. Swing Low won both the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award and the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction. Toews has written for the CBC, This American Life (on National Public Radio), Saturday Night, Geist, Canadian Geographic, Open Letters and The New York Times Magazine, and has won the National Magazine Award Gold Medal for Humour.

Toews’s third novel, A Complicated Kindness, has been called “a black humour grenade, dealing a devastating explosion of gut-busting laughs alongside heart-wrenching sorrow.” The Globe and Mail quotes Toews as saying: “Sometimes I am bugged by my own tendency to continuously go for the laughs, but I am trying to be genuinely funny even if it’s in a dry, tragic way. I don’t know if there is a Mennonite type of humour, but growing up with my dad, from day one I felt it was my job to make him laugh.” The memory of her father has influenced Toews’s fiction in another profound way: “Loss inspired the story, loss with no answers. I think I needed to put that on Nomi. She was going to be the person who would take me through the process of dealing with loss and wondering where those people went.” She adds: “I have seen the damage that fundamentalism can do. The way the religion is being interpreted, it’s a culture of control and that emphasis on shame and punishment and guilt is not conducive to robust mental health.” Though she no longer attends a Mennonite church, Toews says that she still considers herself a Mennonite. And despite the novel’s exploration of the destructive elements of life in a small religious community, she says: “I hope that people will recognize that there are aspects of it that I really love and really miss."

Taken from: http://www.bookclubs.ca/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9781400025763#bio

4. Author Interview

Can you tell us how you became a writer?
I have always wanted to be a writer, even as a kid, but it seemed like an impossible thing to do. After I graduated from journalism school I made a few radio documentaries and I realized that one of the stories would actually make a better novel, and that's where it started.

What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?
I was feeling kind of ambivalent about the whole writing/publishing thing when I started and thought maybe I'd just make photocopies of the finished book and staple it together and give it to my friends and family as Christmas gifts or something like that. I had also toyed with the idea of stuffing pages of it into obscure places like culverts and high branches of trees.

What is it that you're exploring in this book?
How we manage to somehow live in that place where loss and faith intersect. And the idea of leaving, of somehow disappearing, as an act of love. Or of it being perceived that way by those left behind, in order to continue. Sometimes I think that the people we've lost, the people who are missing, become god-like in our imaginations, and that's how religious faith begins. It's a type of transference. It's too hard to accept we're all alone on this earth and having to deal with the random "disappearance" of people we love, because where does that end? But I'm just rambling. This answer should probably be ignored, or at least taken with a grain of salt.

Who is your favourite character in this book, and why?
Ray, because he loves Nomi unconditionally, and in spite of losing so much and having to live within a conundrum, behaves with dignity and grace. He has deep religious convictions, but also manages to maintain his humanity.

Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
The Wolf Blass Yellow Label. I think it's a cabernet. And it's pretty reasonably priced.

Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your book?
I really enjoyed being interviewed by a class of grade ones when I was the writer in residence at the Winnipeg Public Library. Questions like: Do you like dragons? Are you a man or a woman? Do you live in the library? Do you cry?

What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?
I'm always so preoccupied with not sounding like a total idiot in interviews that when they're over I'm just relieved and spent and have no energy to think of even MORE questions.

Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
No, not in the long run.

Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
Well, there are so many writers I admire, but if you're talking about the writers who first opened my eyes to the possibilities of literature, they'd be the ones I read in high school: Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Salinger, Orwell, Maugham, Kerouac, Henry Miller, Vonnegut, Philip Roth, Charles Bukowski. I wish I could think of some women writers I read at the time, but unfortunately I can't. Maybe that was why I thought I could never become one myself. That's horrible. I was probably under the really stupid, destructive impression that honest, intelligent writing was somehow un-feminine.

If you weren't writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
I love to drive. Maybe I could drive a cab. Or I could read out loud to people in hospitals. I also enjoy playing poker.

If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
The Da Vinci Code. Just kidding. Honestly, I don't know

Taken from: http://www.bookclubs.ca/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9781400025763&view=auqa

5. Reader's Guide

*1. Nomi frequently interrupts her narrative to comment on word choice — both her own and that of others. Unreal, party, groovy, two-wheeler, keel, blouse and future are a few examples. What does language represent to Nomi? In what way is her fascination with words informed by her Mennonite upbringing?
-Author's voice, writing assignment beginning, middle, end

*3. Mr. Quiring appears on the first page of the book then plays a seemingly minor role until the last chapter. How would you describe his presence in the novel — both in terms of the story itself and how the story is told? What does Nomi mean when she says: “You provided my family with an ending”?

4. Nomi has been described as a “latter-day Holden Caulfield.” What aspects of A Complicated Kindness make it a coming-of-age story that resonates with readers regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds?

*5. Of the bloodstain on her wall, Nomi writes: “…every time I looked at it I was reminded that I was, at that very moment, not bleeding from my face. And those are powerful words of hope, really.” What role does hope play in the novel? How does each member of the Nickel family experience hope?

*6. What is the significance of the book’s title? Would you describe the departures of Trudi and Ray as acts of “a complicated kindness”? What other scenes reveal this quality at play?

7. How would you characterize Nomi’s style of humour? What function does it serve for her? What passages stand out for you as especially funny?

*8. Imagery Discuss the symbolic significance of the following images: the ugly black dresses “dancing wildly in the wind;” ; the graffiti on passing trains. Christina's world: Fuck you.

* Why do Tash, Trudie (p. 194), Ray (p. 244) leave?

* What do you think happened to Trudie? p.54, 245

* How is Trudie like Tash? How is Nomi like Ray? P. 118

* Ray and the dump. P. 158-9

* Ending, Nomi hasn't left yet. Will she?

* When she says: "Is it wrong to trust in a beautiful lie if it help get you through life?" What is she talking about? What other beautiful lies do we see?

Taken from: http://www.bookclubs.ca/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9781400025763&view=rg
Plus my own questions.

6. Index to events in the book.
Page numbers correspond to the Vintage Canada 2004 edition.

p. 46 A complicated kindness. You can see it sometimes in the eyes of people when they look at you and don't know what to say.
p. 48 Nomi: I want to be free
p. 53 Ray's powerlessness
p. 54 Her mother's passport in the drawer… and no clothes packed.
p. 65 To be sure of yourself. To need a lot of things.
p. 81 Activities that require silence, not knowing how to answer Travis.
p. 87 Ray with finger in dike
p. 90 Trudie singing in choir
p. 97 Trudie's card to Tash
p. 110 Beginning of the end
p. 116 Trudie's bravura
p. 118 Trudie - Tash; Ray- Nomi
p. 133 rage and chemical oblivion to escape
p. 158-9 Ray and the dump
p. 166 Dining-room table missing
p. 171 Nomi's nightmares about Tash in Hell, because of The Mouth
p. 177 Prayer and tomate juice for Lids
p. 189 Trudie excommunicated
p. 190 Trudie excited about going to see Mrs. Klippenstein
p. 191. Letters from Mr. Quiring
p. 194 Why Trudie left
p. 209 This world has to be good enough
p. 212 Trudie and musical theater
p. 234 Faith: tomorrow will be better
p. 235 Nomi's excommunication
p. 243 Quiring's threatening letter to Trudie
p. 244 Why Ray left
p. 245 Where's Trudie? The Mouth believes she's dead.
p. 246 Is it wrong to trust in a beautiful lie if it help get you through life?

Nomi's final day:
Lids gone
Gloria asks Nomi why she hasn't gone yet
Sets fire to Travis's truck in the motel parking lot
Trades sex for drugs with The Golden Comb
Meets her father at the dump
Reveals Mr. Quiring's final letter to Trudie in which he threatens to tell stories about her.