All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews is drawn from the author’s life. Her wit sparkles through the sadness of this story of two sisters, Elf and Yoli.
Elf suffers from depression and is determined to kill herself. She repeatedly begs younger sister Yoli to take her abroad to die. Eventually, Elf manages to commit suicide by throwing herself in front of a train on the afternoon that she’s released from a psychiatric ward. Elf’s death recalls that of the sisters’ father.
The novel doesn’t shy away from the issue of assisted dying, yet it’s not an issues book. Rather, the reader enters into Yoli’s inner turmoil as she wrestles with Elf’s persistent requests to die. At the end, Yoli regrets not taking Elf abroad where she could have died peacefully instead of alone and violently.
All My Puny Sorrows is also a critique of the state of psychiatric care in Canada. Drawing from her sister’s experience, Toews paints a picture of care that is patriarchal and demeaning.
On the lighter side, The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant is the story of Addie, an 85-year-old who recounts her life story for her granddaughter. The daughter of immigrant Russian Jews, Addie desperately seeks to escape the confines of her family’s small apartment and her embittered mother’s small-mindedness. When she joins a reading club for girls and meets a librarian who mentors her, Addie’s world opens.
The Boston Girl focuses on the personal – on Addie’s experiences and her memory of them. In the retelling of her life, Addie brushes over upsetting incidents in a Pollyanna sort of way. The reader is left to determine whether Addie is incredibly resilient, or has adopted a defence mechanism that makes disappointment and trauma more tolerable.
The novel avoids overt commentary on issues of prejudice and faith. Still, as the story moves along, there are glimpses into the timeless challenges that immigrants encounter as they build a life in a new place.
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris is another good read. This novel explores the challenges of maintaining traditional, orthodox religious practices while living in a secular, modern context.
Chani is one of eight daughters of a somewhat impoverished Haredi Jewish family. Despite repeated attempts to arrange a marriage, she has not had any offers. Baruch, who is from a wealthy, intellectual family, glimpses Chani in the women’s section of the synagogue and is determined to marry her.
Chani undergoes marriage preparation with Rivka, the rabbi’s wife. As the rabbi’s wife, the community looks up to Rivka as a paragon of Haredi virtue. But, Rivka has troubles of her own, not the least of which is the rabbi’s inability to communicate with his wife.
Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal deals with death and dying. Gawande, a surgeon and writer, weaves together his experience as a surgeon who is trained to “fix” people with his experience as a son who accompanied his father through terminal illness, decline and death.
Gawande uses research and case studies, some drawn from his own practice, to demonstrate that treatment is not always in the best interests of the patient. He reflects on the reluctance of physicians, surgeons, and family to have the difficult conversation around death and dying, and provides evidence that at some point treatment diminishes the patient’s quality of life.
Gawande also discusses the limitations of assisted living and nursing homes. He points out that concern for the safety of the elderly has resulted in both a loss of independence and a loss of sense of purpose, frequently to the detriment of well-being.
Playing Cards in Cairo by Hugh Miles is part love story, part political musing, and part cultural observation. While a freelance journalist in Cairo, Miles falls in love with a Cairene woman. He becomes initiated into her circle of well-educated female friends through an Egyptian card game that resembles bridge.
The women’s association with Miles is dangerous; the culture is such that a woman’s brothers could beat her for befriending any male, let alone a westerner. Miles returns briefly to the United Kingdom but his love for Roda draws him back to Egypt, and the two marry.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.
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