-->
Books

The Author of 'Irma Voth' Writes in a Style Resembling J.D. Salinger

Gordon Houser
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Miriam Toews is a fine writer and a pleasure to read. She writes about a world most people are unfamiliar with.


Irma Voth

Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 272 pages
Author: Miriam Toews
Price: $23.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-09
Amazon

Canadian writer Miriam Toews has a unique writing style that resembles J.D. Salinger. She combines a comic narrative with an incisive exploration of dysfunctional relationships. Both in her award-winning A Complicated Kindness and in her new novel, she looks at a father-daughter relationship in a religious context that is strict, even abusive.

The eponymous narrator in this new work is 19 and lives in a rural Mennonite community in Mexico called Campo 6.5. She has married a Mexican named Jorge, an outsider to her white, Low German-speaking group. Normally the people are “sorted like buttons,” expected “to stay where we’re put.”

Irma gives a quick and dirty history of Mennonite beginnings in 16th-century Europe and how certain of them moved “all around the world in colonies looking for freedom and isolation and peace and opportunities to sell cheese.”

Jorge and Irma live in a small house owned by her father. Jorge leaves her until she learns “how to be a better wife” and goes to Mexico City, where he gets involved with drug dealers.

Meanwhile a film crew shows up to shoot a movie set among these Old Colony Mennonites. Diego, the director, learns that Irma knows several languages and asks her to translate for his lead actress, who speaks only German. (Toews acted in the 2007 film Silent Light by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas.)

Toews’ comic gifts shine as she satirizes filmmakers. Various things go wrong, and the crew isn’t getting paid. Irma translates for Marijke, the German actress, giving her nonsensical lines rather than what Diego wants her to say.

Irma, having grown up in an isolated setting, is at sea when trying to figure out these people. She writes, “I knew more about the social significance of birdsong, I realized, than I did about human interaction.”

Irma’s father is opposed to the film. He tells other Mennonites that “Diego (is) stealing their women and perverting the will of God.” When he learns not only that Irma is working for the film but that her 13-year-old sister, Aggie, has dropped out of school and is hanging out with the film crew and staying with Irma, he tries to force Aggie back home.

The father’s religion is more a patina of his abuse than at the root of it. In talking with Irma about a crowd encouraging a suicidal man to jump from a building to his death, the father says that “we feel and appear stupid and cowardly in the presence of this suicidal man who has wisely concluded that life on earth is ridiculous.”

At the same time, Toews provides some sympathetic notes that make the father a more rounded character. Irma remarks that her father “lost his family when he was a little kid,” and he expresses sorrow over some of his violent actions.

Toews’ ability to combine such harsh actions and characters with a comic narrative is remarkable — and at times jarring. Shortly after the above description of her father, Irma writes, “I could sleep in the barn like Jesus but without the entourage or the pressure to perform.”

The novel’s pace is quick and light, moving from one short scene to another. Suspense builds as Irma and Aggie flee with their baby sister to Mexico City and depend on the kindness of strangers. So much happens so quickly that the reader is unsure what will occur next.

At the same time, Irma provides peeks into the effect of leaving her isolated existence and entering an uncertain freedom. “For the first time in a million years it occurred to me that my chest wasn’t hurting and it was as though I were experiencing a strange, foreign feeling like bliss or something,” she writes.

Her harsh upbringing has not prepared her for this new life. She describes “a jazzy feeling in my chest, a fluttering, a kind of buzzing in my brain. Warmth. Life. The circulation of blood.”

Like many such coming-of-age narratives, Irma Voth reveals a deep, dark secret, a trauma that helps explain some of a character’s actions. Toews pulls this off well enough and brings her fast-paced narrative to a cautious, if hopeful resolution.

Toews is a fine writer and a pleasure to read. She writes about a world most people are unfamiliar with. Although her story has certain axes to grind, it is nevertheless an engaging read. And she is, after all, a novelist, not a sociologist or a theologian.

Gordon Houser is a writer and editor in Newton, Kan. His book Present Tense: A Mennonite Spirituality has just been published by Cascadia.

7
Music

The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less
7

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image