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, (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:

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:

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:

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:
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.

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