This is the second post in a series of biased reviews, wherein I review books written by friends, colleagues and associates. The first was about Kicking the Sky by Anthony De Sa.
One of the things that makes for a biased review is an inability to listen to opposing arguments. It’s the responsibility of the reviewer to be aware of his or her state of mind.
For example, I am a life long fan of Neil Young. Sometimes I will come across a person who will tell me that they find Young’s voice whiny or that he should stick to playing his hits at a show. When I hear this, I completely lose it.
I don’t want to hear these words about Mr. Young. I don’t want to debate it because his music means so much to me (I’m thinking of you, man in the seat beside me on May 19, 2003 at the Hammersmith Apollo in London).
I have author equivalents to Neil Young, those that I love to the point where I’m not willing to listen. In some ways, this is a shame. If I could hold back from splitting my shirt, I might write an informed and insightful review. Instead, I turn green.
One of these authors is Miriam Toews. We are friends as well, but my relationship to her work is distinct from my relationship to her. Also see Alissa York (I will write about Fauna soon).
I recently finished Swing Low, one of Miriam’s that I had missed. How had I not read this book before?
I just realized the other day—as I was sufficiently absorbed in my thoughts about the book not to notice that I was mid-way through an attempt to cross busy College Street on a red light—that my relationship with this book is complex. I didn’t read it so much as it lodged into me.
It is a memoir about Miriam’s dad, Mel Toews. He was diagnosed at the age of 17 with manic depression, now known as bipolar disorder. He went on to accomplish great things, including becoming a father, husband, community member and a popular school teacher in the close-knit town of Steinbach, Manitoba. After retiring from school, he committed suicide.
In the prologue Toews explains that towards the end of his life, her father asked her to write things down for him:
“You will be well again,” I wrote…
…Eventually it stopped making sense to him. “You will be well again?” he’d ask me, and I’d say, “No, Dad, you will be well again.”
“I will be well again?” he’d ask.
“Yes,” I’d say.
“I will be well again,” he’d repeat. “Please write that down.”
This is how Miriam made a shift to first person. She went on to write the memoir in his voice. It is such a brave and remarkable leap.
My two novels are written in first person. It is the closest I will ever get to becoming someone else. I am aware that it is only a simulation, though. Like an actor who plays a convincing role, an author can only pretend.
The startling, mid-road crossing revelation was that Swing Low is actually about distance. Our brains are encased in a cradle of bone. We use our senses to perceive another person. The distance between the senses and the brain makes it hard to know someone else completely. Those closest to us, our parents, are often the greatest mysteries.
Swing Low puts that distance into the context of a life. Miriam takes a brave leap and shows how much love is involved in trying to connect. The result is both heart-breaking, beautiful and comforting.
I am glad to report that I managed to jump out of the way of the car while crossing College Street. I will try to stop thinking about this memoir when nearing a street, but I’ll have to stay on guard. Swing Low is a book that will be with me for a long time.
And that is why I don’t want to talk objectively about the book. Reviewing needs to be about the reader. This book means too much to me.