EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU: a devastating interracial family drama about the consequences of good intentions

Everything+I+Never+Told+You  Celeste-Ng

Everything I Never Told You

By Celeste Ng

Penguin Books: May 12, 2015

$16.00, 320 pages

Few would argue with the premise that it is one of the key roles of parents to guide their children to a good life, and if at all possible, a better life than that of the parents. But how exactly should one accomplish this worthy goal? Does it require the child to obtain a college education. . . participate in the family’s faith tradition . . . engage in community service . . . get a part-time job during high school . . . travel?

Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, explores the many facets of this premise, particularly the effects of well-intentioned but flawed parents. The result is an absorbing and heartbreaking family drama.

We learn in the first line that 16-year-old “Lydia is dead.” Although we know within the first paragraph what has happened and how, we don’t know the answer to the essential question when a teenager is found dead: why. Everything I Never Told You, set in Ohio in 1977, is a character study of the Lee family, both as five individuals and as a unit with very complex dynamics. But it is also a literary mystery, as the narrative methodically investigates Lydia’s life to find the answer to her untimely death. Was it an accident, homicide, suicide? How did it happen and who was involved?

The pleasure in reading Ng’s book is in the way she unfolds the story. We work our way backwards through the lives of her father James, a Chinese-American who is a college professor, and her mother, Marilyn, a white woman from Virginia who marries James in 1958, when such a marriage is against the law in half the country. James has been scarred by his experiences growing up and in college; Marilyn feels her ambitious life plan was derailed by marriage and an early pregnancy. But they love each other and are determined to make their unorthodox marriage work.

Not surprisingly, they work out their psychological and emotional issues in the lives of their children, especially middle child Lydia. Her father is obsessed with Lydia fitting in and being socially successful. Her mother has a single-minded devotion to ensuring that Lydia receives the best education possible so that nothing can be denied her.

“Marilyn would not be like her own mother, shunting her daughter toward husband and house, a life spent safely behind a deadbolt. She would help Lydia do everything she was capable of. She would spend the rest of her years guiding Lydia, sheltering her, the way you tended a prize rose: helping it grow, propping it with stakes, arching each stem toward perfection.”

But what about Lydia? What does she want? Can she please her parents or will she disappoint them? Does her parents’ behavior put her in a pressure cooker or does she thrive under their attention and concern? Does she even know her own mind in this regard? What kind of life does she want to lead as a high school student and beyond? “And Lydia herself — the reluctant center of their universe — every day, she held the world together. She absorbed her parents’ dreams, quieting the reluctance that bubbled up within.”

The domestic situation is complicated by her relationship with her older brother Nathan. Despite his peerless academic performance, his parents seem to take him for granted. In the Lee home, it’s all Lydia, all the time. He has learned to accept this but a price is paid. He and Lydia have grown up nearly as close as twins, with a complex interdependence.  “All their lives Nath had understood, better than anyone, the lexicon of their family, the things they could never truly explain to outsiders.” But a change occurs shortly before Lydia’s death. After the funeral, Nathan is determined to play detective and find Lydia’s killer.

The Lees’ youngest child, Hannah, seems almost like an afterthought in the family. But her quiet powers of observation allow her to play a key role in helping the Lees figure out what happened to Lydia.

As the title suggests, Lydia has been keeping many secrets from her family. They are not the obvious stuff of melodrama (sex, drug abuse, crime, etc.), but are instead potentially more powerful and destructive.

Ng manages this domestic dissection with aplomb. The story is told in a calm narrative voice that allows the facts to speak for themselves; they are persuasive enough that readers don’t need to be manipulated into an emotional reaction.

Everything I Never Told You was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month for July 2014 and was later chosen by Amazon as the Best Novel of 2014. Celeste Ng’s intimate understanding of these characters allows her to bring them to life, make you care about them, and then break your heart. Knowing the truth behind Lydia’s death will provide closure, but it is still devastating.

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STATION ELEVEN wins 2015 Tournament of Books; ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE is runner-up

StationElevenNorthAmericaHiRes  All the Light We Cannot See

Every March, The Morning News sponsors the Tournament of Books, a bracketed competition among 16 standout novels of the previous year, to coincide with the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournament. http://www.themorningnews.org/tob/ This is my kind of March Madness (although I love the NCAA tournament and filled out brackets for both the men’s and women’s tournaments).

In the 11th annual competition, Emily St. John Mandel’s critically acclaimed, bestselling Station Eleven defeated Anthony Doerr’s hugely popular All the Light We Cannot See.

What is perhaps most noteworthy about the championship matchup is that both books were what are known as “zombie books” in the Tournament of Books (ToB). Each was eliminated in previous head-t0-head matchups, but had so many popular votes among those following the ToB that they were able to return from the dead, as it were, to compete against the top two finishers in the Zombie Round (between the semifinals and championship. This year, Station Eleven came back to knock off Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, while All the Light We Cannot See eliminated Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State.

Other titles in this year competition included Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Phil Klay’s Redeployment (which won the National Book Award), Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You (chosen by Amazon as the best novel of 2014), David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, and Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.

Writers volunteered to judge each matchup and were randomly assigned to the various pairings. Elliot Holt (You Are One of Them) and Laura van den Berg (Find Me and Isle of Youth) joined regular commentators Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner, responding to each judge’s review and analysis. The judges’ reviews and the various commentaries make for very stimulating and enlightening reading.

2013 Flannery O’Connor Award winner Karin Lin-Greenberg on her FAULTY PREDICTIONS

KLG Faulty Predictions

Karin Lin-Greenberg has made a splash on the literary scene with her debut story collection, Faulty Predictions. As one of two winners of the 2013 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (along with Monica McFawn), Lin-Greenberg received a publishing deal with University of Georgia Press, which sponsors the award, for the collection of stories she submitted for the contest. Reading Faulty Predictions, one sees very quickly why Lin-Greenberg was selected for the award: she has command of the story form, great empathy for her quirky and very human characters, and a droll sense of humor that adds an inspired light touch to her tales of family conflict, identity, and coping with a rapidly changing world. I expect to hear much more from Karin Lin-Greenberg after this stellar debut. (My review of September 26 is here.)

Tell me about the Flannery O’Connor Award application and selection process and how it led to the publication of this collection.

The Flannery O’Connor Award is sponsored by the University of Georgia Press and each year two winners are selected and their books are published the next year. All the collections submitted are first sent to four or five preliminary judges, who each read their batch and then pass on a certain number (I believe about ten manuscripts) to the series editor, Nancy Zafris. Then Nancy chooses two collections from the collections given to her by the preliminary judges. Once my collection was chosen, I worked with Nancy on revisions to the stories and then worked with a copy editor on smaller issues. Finally, I was able to give some input into the cover and design.

I love the wide range of characters in your stories: high school students (“Editorial Decisions” and “Half and Half Club”), college professors (“The Local Scrooge”), two Chinese immigrant women engaged in a power struggle (“Prized Possessions”), a bus driver coping with drunk and disorderly college students on Halloween (“Designated Driver”), an emotionally distant brother reluctantly helping his sister find a bridal gown during the annual Running of the Brides sale at Filene’s Basement (“A Good Brother”), a pair of senior citizen housemates on a crime-stopping mission inspired by one’s psychic messages (“Faulty Predictions”). What inspires or comes to you first in your stories, an idea about a particular character, a specific conflict, or a theme you want to explore?

Each story happens differently for me, but one element I never start with is theme. I believe themes emerge, especially in revisions, but I think it’s dangerous to start out a story intending to write about a certain theme. I tell my students to let the literature folks think about theme and for the creative writers to worry about telling a compelling story.

Sometimes I start with conflict. For example, for “A Good Brother,” I was reading an article about the Running of the Brides, and I thought, “Who would be really pissed off by this?” And then I came up with the character of an uptight brother that has to take his sister shopping for wedding dresses. And not only does he have to go shopping for wedding dresses, but he has to be in the middle of all this chaos and has to miss a golf outing for this event. Once I came up with the protagonist who’d be disturbed by this event, the conflicts kept unfolding.

I asked the same “Who would this really piss off?” question when I wrote “The Local Scrooge.” For three years I lived in Ohio and would sometimes go to an ice cream place called Jeni’s in Columbus. They have this menu in brightly colored chalk on huge chalkboards with all of these unique ice cream flavors (like goat cheese with fig and wildberry lavender) that I found exciting, but I started to think about a type of character who would find these kinds of flavors exasperating. Then I started thinking about what else would bother this character, and I realized that complicated drinks in coffee shops would drive him crazy. And then, thinking about coffee shops and ice cream shops, I knew that this character would abhor tip jars, and I started to ponder what sort of character could be so enraged about tip jars that he’d—very inappropriately—bring one to his job. I came up with a college professor demanding tips from his students. So one thing just kind of leads to another oftentimes as stories unfold for me, but stories can really start anywhere or with any sort of spark.

You have so much empathy for these wonderfully eccentric and very human characters. How do you get inside these people and decide how to present their flawed attempts to fix themselves, others, and/or the circumstances they find themselves in?

I think fiction can really teach us—as both readers and writers—empathy. I’m most interested in characters who are flawed and might make bad decisions, but whose motivations we understand. I love being able to inhabit characters’ minds, which is why I generally stay away from the objective point of view. I think the big question I ask when writing is “Why is this character this way?” For example, the grandmother in “Prized Possessions” is judgmental and critical, but ultimately, as her backstory is revealed, I hope readers come to understand that she just wants to be appreciated by her family and to have an important role in the lives of her grandchildren.

How did you choose the title story? Is it the central story thematically, your favorite story, or just a good umbrella label for the collection? (“Prized Possessions” and “Half and Half Club” also seem like they would have been appropriate titles.)

I looked at the list of all the titles of the stories in the collection, and there were some that could just be crossed out as the title of the entire collection because of either their vagueness or specificity (“Bread,” “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes,” “Late Night With Brad Mack”). I contemplated the titles that were left and decided that “Faulty Predictions” applied to all the stories. I think all the characters believe their lives or relationships are going to progress in a certain way, and something happens in each of the stories to contradict these “predictions.”

I noticed in the Acknowledgements that three stories (“Late Night with Brad Mack,” “Half and Half Club,” and the title story) have not been previously published. Are these your most recent stories? If so, do they reflect any particular/current preoccupations and/or approach?

Yes, those were three most recently written stories. I tried to get them published before the book went to press, but I just wasn’t able to with the time constraint. I wrote all three of the stories when I was teaching during the 2011-2012 academic year at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Boone is a fairly isolated town in the mountains of western North Carolina.

The second semester I was at App State, the poet Toi Derricotte visited and gave a reading, and she read a poem based on an experience she’d had as a young woman on a train. There was a character in the poem who didn’t realize that Derricotte was black and made a disparaging comment to her about another black passenger on the train. She spoke about how some people are in the position of always being aware of race, while others don’t ever think about race at all or believe they can be flippant about it.

After she read the poem, Derricotte asked the audience how many people thought about race on a daily basis. She asked for a show of hands. About three or four people in a room of maybe sixty students raised their hands. The raised hands belonged to the few students of color that were in attendance. I realized then that I’d been thinking about race a lot more in Boone than I ever had before.

Boone was probably the least racially diverse place I’ve ever lived. I’ve lived in some small towns and places that weren’t very diverse, but I’ve worked at colleges and universities that were able to draw somewhat diverse faculty and students. But the faculty, students, and non-university people who lived in and around Boone were almost all white.

I’m half Chinese and half Jewish and I’m pretty sure there was no one else in Boone like me. So I set “Faulty Predictions” in Boone and created a character who hasn’t known anything but this fairly homogenous town. She has a granddaughter who’s mixed race, and she wants to connect with this girl but can’t allow herself to. This woman is clearly a racist, but I also wanted to show that she is a product of her environment and living in an isolated place and not being exposed to people unlike her has, in a way, ruined her.

I wrote “Half and Half Club” right after I wrote “Faulty Predictions,” and that story is also concerned with race, once again in an environment where there isn’t much diversity. So, yes, I definitely see connections between these two stories. “Half and Half Club” is also one of the longest stories I’ve ever written, and I think I was writing toward a novel; lately I’ve been wanting to tell larger tales than a short story can contain.

How did you and your editor decide which of your stories to include in Faulty Predictions? I see from your website’s list of stories that you have many others.

The stories in the collection are the stories I’d submitted originally. Nothing was swapped out. Nancy Zafris and I worked on the order a bit. The first and last stories stayed where they were, but we shuffled everything else around, trying to make sure stories that were similar (in terms of characters or point of view or types of endings) weren’t right next to each other.

Before I submitted the collection, I did a lot of thinking about what stories to include because, as you mentioned, I do have other stories. When I first started submitting to prizes for story collections in 2006 when I graduated from my MFA program, I included every story I’d written that had ever been published. I thought that publication was a stamp of approval and meant the story needed to go in a collection. But over the years I’ve thought a lot more about how collections work, and I’ve also realized that because my stories are set in many different places and have a lot of different types of characters, they need something to hold them together. I tried to choose stories that have a similar sensibility to include. I think these stories are alike in terms of voice and tone, and they all have (I hope!) something funny in them.

 How do you find time to write while working full time as a professor at Siena College?

I certainly write more during the summer and other breaks from teaching than I do during the school year. I do, however, get inspired to write when my students are excited about a topic we’re discussing in class. For example, last semester I taught a class on experimental fiction and we read several stories that were written so they progressed backwards chronologically. Several of the students in the class tried to write their own stories whose chronologies worked this way, and I so appreciated the way they grappled with the form and its challenges. It made me want to go home and try my hand at the same technique.

 What books have you particularly enjoyed recently that you recommend?

A book I read recently and loved was Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. Brunt does such a great job of creating a teenage character who feels realistic and vulnerable and true. And the ending of the book is a real knockout. I don’t want to give anything away, but that book had the most emotionally affecting ending I can remember reading in a long time.

I also recently read Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, which I actually tracked down because of your glowing review on this site. That book and the characters have stuck with me, and I keep thinking about the incredibly effective way Ng employed omniscient point of view to allow readers to know and understand the secrets the characters keep from each other. It’s not a point of view I’ve ever been able to use successfully, so I’d like to go back and reread and really examine how Ng accomplishes what she does.

Right now I’m reading and thoroughly enjoying Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. It’s an epistolary novel, entirely in the form of letters of recommendation written by a professor of English and creative writing. It’s hilarious because it does such a good job of depicting some of the particularly ridiculous aspects of academic life.

 

EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU is a devastating family drama about the consequences of good intentions

Everything I Never Told You   Celeste-Ng

Everything I Never Told You

By Celeste Ng

The Penguin Press, 6/26/14

$26.95, 292 pages

Few would argue with the premise that it is one of the key roles of parents to guide their children to a good life, and if at all possible, a better life than that of the parents. But how exactly should one accomplish this worthy goal? Does it require the child to obtain a college education. . . participate in the family’s faith tradition . . . engage in community service . . . get a part-time job during high school . . . travel?

Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, explores the many facets of this premise, particularly the effects of well-intentioned but flawed parents. The result is an absorbing and heartbreaking family drama.

We learn in the first line that 16-year-old “Lydia is dead.” Although we know within the first paragraph what has happened and how, we don’t know the answer to the essential question when a teenager is found dead: why. Everything I Never Told You, set in Ohio in 1977, is a character study of the Lee family, both as five individuals and as a unit with very complex dynamics. But it is also a literary mystery, as the narrative methodically investigates Lydia’s life to find the answer to her untimely death. Was it an accident, homicide, suicide? How did it happen and who was involved?

The pleasure in reading Ng’s book is in the way she unfolds the story. We work our way backwards through the lives of her father James, a Chinese-American who is a college professor, and her mother, Marilyn, a white woman from Virginia who marries James in 1958, when such a marriage is against the law in half the country. James has been scarred by his experiences growing up and in college; Marilyn feels her ambitious life plan was derailed by marriage and an early pregnancy. But they love each other and are determined to make their unorthodox marriage work.

Not surprisingly, they work out their psychological and emotional issues in the lives of their children, especially middle child Lydia. Her father is obsessed with Lydia fitting in and being socially successful. Her mother has a single-minded devotion to ensuring that Lydia receives the best education possible so that nothing can be denied her.

“Marilyn would not be like her own mother, shunting her daughter toward husband and house, a life spent safely behind a deadbolt. She would help Lydia do everything she was capable of. She would spend the rest of her years guiding Lydia, sheltering her, the way you tended a prize rose: helping it grow, propping it with stakes, arching each stem toward perfection.”

But what about Lydia? What does she want? Can she please her parents or will she disappoint them? Does her parents’ behavior put her in a pressure cooker or does she thrive under their attention and concern? Does she even know her own mind in this regard? What kind of life does she want to lead as a high school student and beyond? “And Lydia herself — the reluctant center of their universe — every day, she held the world together. She absorbed her parents’ dreams, quieting the reluctance that bubbled up within.”

The domestic situation is complicated by her relationship with her older brother Nathan. Despite his peerless academic performance, his parents seem to take him for granted. In the Lee home, it’s all Lydia, all the time. He has learned to accept this but a price is paid. He and Lydia have grown up nearly as close as twins, with a complex interdependence.  “All their lives Nath had understood, better than anyone, the lexicon of their family, the things they could never truly explain to outsiders.” But a change occurs shortly before Lydia’s death. After the funeral, Nathan is determined to play detective and find Lydia’s killer.

The Lees’ youngest child, Hannah, seems almost like an afterthought in the family. But her quiet powers of observation allow her to play a key role in helping the Lees figure out what happened to Lydia.

As the title suggests, Lydia has been keeping many secrets from her family. They are not the obvious stuff of melodrama (sex, drug abuse, crime, etc.), but are instead potentially more powerful and destructive.

Ng manages this domestic dissection with aplomb. The story is told in a calm narrative voice that allows the facts to speak for themselves; they are persuasive enough that readers don’t need to be manipulated into an emotional reaction.

Everything I Never Told You was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month for July 2014 and received a starred review from Booklist. Celeste Ng’s intimate understanding of these characters allows her to bring them to life, make you care about them, and then break your heart. Knowing the truth behind Lydia’s death will provide closure, but it is still devastating.

What Are Some of Our Favorite Women Authors Reading This Summer? Part 2

Summer is the season when readers have more time to read than usual. Accordingly, there seems to be more talk than usual these days about what people are reading or planning to read. So I thought I would ask several writers about their summer reading. 

I posed three questions to them: 

  1. What have you read recently that impressed you (and that readers should know about)?
  2. What are you currently reading?
  3. What is in your To Be Read stack?

I received the responses that follow, each of which includes books you will almost certainly want to read. There are more good books being published than ever, and there are still all those earlier books, from classics to last year’s overlooked books, so the options for readers are truly unlimited. 

Part 1 of this feature was posted on July 20, 2014 and can be found here

 

Katie Crouch   Abroad

Katie Crouch, author of Abroad

Recently Read: The Blindfold  by Siri Hustvedt. This legendary writer’s first book. In this novel-in-stories, Iris Vegan is an impoverished graduate student in New York. I love how having no money is met with fear and utter despair here, which is such a very real phenomenon. So many times in novels characters say they’re broke, but being a woman alone with no money in New York invokes a special sort of peril. The book has some wonderful twists, during one of which Iris cross dresses, and another when she has a brush with madness. She also falls completely for the wrong man. It’s a truly wonderful psychological thriller.

Reading now: The Year She Left Us by Kathryn Ma. It’s about a young adopted Chinese woman in the U.S. who returns to her homeland to research her family, and how that choice reverberates throughout her life and her current fractured clan. The writing is out of this world.

Going to read: The Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai. I’ve heard great things about this one. Plus it’s spooky, and I love spook. Great writing? An English manor house? Twisted characters? I’m sold.

[My review of Abroad is coming soon.]

Kimberly Elkins   What is Visible

Kimberly Elkins, author of What is Visible

What I read recently that impressed me: David Samuel Levinson recently published a stunning novel, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, that really knocked my socks off.  The book manages the nearly impossible feat of being a page-turner while still embracing literary writing of the highest order.  The novel is populated by unforgettable characters, and the secrets abound and rebound.  Trust me, you want to read this one!

What I’m currently reading: I am, in general, often afraid of poetry–modern poetry, anyway–afraid that it will make me feel stupid for not understanding its obscure tropes and labyrinthine metaphorical conceits, and so when I find a poet whose work stirs me in ways that I both can and cannot understand, and yet is still accessible, then I am smitten.  Rita Mae Reese’s The Alphabet Conspiracy is such a book. Reese uses dictionary entries as the jumping-off point to uncover, and to rediscover, messages of the soul encoded in language, and the results are gorgeously engrossing.

What’s up next on my reading list: I’m eager to read Valerie Martin’s The Ghost of the Marie Celeste, another historical novel based on real people and events:  the Marie Celeste, a ship which vanished in 1872, and the storm stirred up by young Arthur Conan Doyle’s story about it.  Martin’s Property is one of the finest, most stirring novels I’ve ever read, and was key to showing me what historical fiction could be at its best.  There’s nothing like learning from a master, page by page, line by line.

Siobhan Fallon   You-Know-When-the-Men-Are-Gone

Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone

Was recently impressed by: Anything and everything by Valerie Trueblood. She is a master. We ought to all know her name; she belongs on that lofty shelf with Annie Proulx and Grace Paley. Her stories are wide sweeping worlds, everything captured in a handful of pages, and they astound. They also inspire; I always want to write, and write something completely different and new, as soon as I finish one of her stories. My favorite collection is Marry or Burn, but her latest, Search Party: Stories of Rescue, is also great.

Reading now: Right now I am reading Lily King’s Euphoria for the second time, and I very rarely reread a book when there are so many out there on my ‘list’ to get to. But Euphoria is everything I wish I could put in the novel I am currently working on— a tortured love affair combined with the examination of human behavior and how cultures clash. Euphoria is also filled with beautiful, insightful writing and electric tension. King is terrific.

Up next: Rebecca Rasmussen’s Evergreen, just released. Rebecca’s debut novel, The Bird Sisters, came out around the same time as my collection of stories, and we became fast friends thanks to social media and a panel (and shared hotel room!) at the 2011 AWP in Washington, DC. She’s an all-round lovely and magnificently talented woman. If you’ll excuse me, I am going to open up her new book right now…

[My review of You Know When the Men Are Gone is here.]

Patry Francis

Patry Francis, author of The Orphans of Race Point

I was afraid I might not have time to do much reading while I was promoting my novel [The Orphans of Race Point], but the opposite has proven true. Every time I do an author talk or a reading at a bookstore, I discover another book or two or three that I simply must have.

Recently, I’ve been telling everyone I know about The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh, Long Man by Amy Greene, and The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez. Though they are very different, they all have strong protagonists — and a lot of heart.

My current read is The Blessings by Elisa Juska. It was recommended to me by two friends who recently heard her speak here on the Cape and did not disappoint.

Booksellers have convinced me I must not miss: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra or Daphne Kolotay’s Russian Winter. Those are up next for me.

[My review of The Orphans of Race Point is coming soon.]

 mira-jacob   Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing

Mira Jacob, author of The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing

I just finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I’m reading The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum, and The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.

Next up are Ted Thompson’s The Land of Steady Habits and Marie Helene Bertino’s 2 a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas!

 Dylan-Landis   Rainey-Royal

Dylan Landis, author of Rainey Royal

Recent: Robin Black’s Life Drawing. Suspenseful, gorgeously lyrical portrait of a couple whose marriage, shadowed by an old affair, is painfully tested again. I love it especially for lines like this: “There are often two conversations going on in a marriage. The one that you’re having and the one you’re not. Sometimes you don’t even know when that second, silent one has begun.”

Current: An advance copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. I haven’t read Gilead, which this follows, but I’m an ardent lover of Housekeeping, and this seems nearly as beautiful and intimate. She has a lovely fluid way of looping back and forth through time, creating layer upon narrative layer.

Next: Maybe Lynne Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny. Or Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street. Or the new Edward St. Aubyn, Lost for Words.

[My review of Rainey Royal is coming soon.]

rebecca-makkai-

Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House

I just read Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, which is not just beautiful but important, the kind of book that teaches us empathy.

I’m reading Kate Racculia’s Bellweather Rhapsody, which is a bit like The Westing Game for adults. (That’s a high compliment. It’s so fun that I’m shirking all nonessential duty to read.)

I was blown away in the bookstore by the first page of Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. I’d heard it was amazing, but I wasn’t prepared to be knocked clear across the bookstore.

[My review of The Hundred-Year House is coming soon.]

 Virginia Pye   River of Dust

Virginia Pye, author of River of Dust

I just finished Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek.

Right now I’m reading Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China (all 900 pages) in an ongoing way as research for my next novel. I’m also reading The Art of Floating by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe and Out of Peel Tree by Laura Long. I tend to read more than one novel at once.

I’m looking forward to reading Bret Anthony Johnson’s Remember Me Like This and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.

The research book by Spence — a history of modern China — is like ballast. The rest is for pleasure and to see what’s being written well right now. There are so many more books I’m not mentioning! These are just the ones of the moment.

I also always have an Audible book on my iPod for when I’m out walking the dog or on long car rides. Right now, I’m entering the magical, fully-fleshed out world of Bleak House, where I expect I’ll be for months. Kind of a treat to hear those wonderful British accents and to enjoy Dickens’ humor and impeccable language. The man could write.

[My review of River of Dust is here.]

Brittani Sonnenberg with Home Leave cover

Brittani Sonnenberg, author of Home Leave

I just finished Celeste Ng’s book, Everything I Never Told You, which I found intricately plotted and deftly written. I recently read Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote and really loved it, especially the way he paints setting. And I recently came across a poem (“Found to Be Borrowed from Some Material Appearance (5)”) by Donna Stonecipher, a Berlin-based American poet, which I think is pretty brilliant.

I think Jane Gardam, a British writer, now 86, deserves more attention. She wrote a fantastic trilogy mostly set in Hong Kong, the first book of which is Old Filth. I also admire Amy Bloom’s short story collection, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You.

I’m currently reading The Singapore Grip by J.G. Farrell and The Art Spirit by Robert Henri, and I plan on reading California by Edan Lepucki and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.

[My review of Home Leave is here.]

Tomi L. Wiley

Tomi L. Wiley

I just finished Bloodroot by Amy Greene, and before that Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer (in between some John Greene, but he’s not a woman). I just bought Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House two days ago – excited to read it. Up next is either Elizabeth Gilbert [The Signature of All Things] or Abroad by Katie Crouch. Reeeeeeally looking forward to the new Tana French.

Hidden Gems: Author Celeste Ng recommends THE CELESTIALS by Karen Shepard

The Celestials  Karen Shepard

Celeste Ng’s debut novel, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU (Penguin Press), was published on June 26. The initial response from reviewers and early readers has been extremely positive, bordering on ecstatic. Several magazines have selected it as a recommended summer read. Today, Celeste drops by to share a recommendation for a book she loves and thinks you will, too. 

“Hidden gem” is exactly the right term for Karen Shepard’s fourth novel, The Celestials. I’ll admit it first caught my eye for the most superficial of reasons, the title’s similarity to my own name.  But once I’d picked up the book, I was immediately drawn in.

First, the “hidden” part: on the outside, The Celestials is an unassuming little book—the cover a demure tan, with a single black-and-white photo of a Chinese man to one side—put out by a small press, Tin House Books.  It’s based on a long-hidden story from history: in 1870, Calvin Sampson brings seventy-five Chinese workers—the “Celestials” of the title—to his factory in North Adams, Massachusetts.  The problem is, the Chinese workers are unwitting strikebreakers, and their presence stokes tension everywhere: between the laborers and the factory’s management, between the townspeople and the Celestials themselves.  In the novel, things soon reach a breaking point when Sampson’s wife, Julia, gives birth to a half-Chinese child.  Aren’t you intrigued already?

But let’s not forget the “gem” part: Shepard writes in the relatively uncommon omniscient voice, which is no less beautiful here for its authority and simplicity.  Instead, the voice allows her narrative to roam freely between characters, bringing insight into their fears, jealousies, and passions: the town of North Adams has “a peculiarly happy and peaceful look, as if a tea set were balanced in the hollow of God’s large hand; a mother, looking at her infant, feels “suddenly depleted, a wool blanket wet and wrung out.”  The narration is a particularly brilliant decision in the case of Charlie—the foreman of the Chinese workers—and the other Celestials: they may speak only pidgin English, but the omniscient point of view allows them to express their thoughts fluently and eloquently.  It also allows Shepard to weave in historical facts like landscape, giving context to the events in this tiny factory town.

Although she confronts weighty topics of bias, discrimination, and cultural clash, Shepard handles these topics delicately, without ever becoming didactic or moralistic.  Instead, the novel presents a nuanced group portrait of one community—townspeople and Celestials alike—wrestling with questions of identity, otherness, and the possibility of connection.  The portrait is literal as well as literary: photographs of Chinese workers from the era dot the text, challenging the reader to confront these forgotten images of the past. (For more on that, see Shepard’s “Research Notes” at Necessary Fiction).

The overall effect is indeed gemlike, multifaceted and gleaming.  Part historical study, part family story, The Celestials is an examination of love across lines of all kinds—racial, class, family, gender—that deserves a wider audience.

Everything I Never Told You  Celeste-Ng

 

Summer Reading Preview: 25 can’t-miss reads

Although Summer doesn’t technically begin until June 21, for most people (alright, most North Americans)  it begins in early June when school gets out or Memorial Day weekend is behind them. That means it’s time to preview the many intriguing female-authored novels arriving in the next three months. For once, readers might actually have the time to read most of the books on their TBR (to be read) list. Here are 20 novels worth looking into. 

Chasing the Sun

Chasing the Sun – Natalia Sylvester (Amazon/New Harvest, June 3)

Sylvester’s debut is the story of Andres and Marabella, a long-married couple living amidst the social and political upheavals of Lima, Peru. Andres thinks she has left him again, but he soon learns that terrorists have kidnapped her. How far is he willing to go to get her back? Is their troubled marriage worth saving? Andres works with a mediator to negotiate for her release, all the while caring for their two young children.

Home Leave

Home Leave – Brittani Sonnenberg (Grand Central Publishing, June 3)

The Krigstein family has lived a peripatetic existence, following husband and father Chris’s job to such far-flung locales as Berlin, Singapore, and Shanghai, before eventually settling in Madison, Wisconsin. Wife Elise has enjoyed the advantages of a clean slate every few years, while their daughters have developed an extremely close bond to cope with the constant change. When the family is rocked by a stunning loss, their lives and lifestyle are called into question. Extra bonus: Sonnenberg writes like a house on fire. The opening chapter alone is worth the price of this book.

Sixteenth of June

The Sixteenth of June – Maya Lang (Scribner, June 3)

Lang’s debut novel examines the intimately connected lives of a young married couple and the husband’s young brother over the course of one summer day in Philadelphia. Both a close observation of twenty-somethings and a satire of ambitions dreamed, thwarted, and abandoned, The Sixteenth of June pays tribute to James Joyce’s Ulysses with its single-day time frame and the characters’ attendance at a Bloomsday party.

We Are Called to Rise

We Are Called to Rise – Laura McBride (Simon & Schuster, June 3)

A wide cast of characters, whose lives appear to be falling apart, struggle to survive in Las Vegas during its recent boomtown years. Seemingly unconnected, their paths eventually cross. At the center of this compelling novel are an 8-year-old Albanian immigrant boy, a middle-aged woman whose marriage has just imploded, a lawyer who volunteers as a CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate for children), and a recently returned Iraq War veteran. As the title suggests, together they find a way to rise above their troubled circumstances and repair their damaged lives. Haunting and inspiring in equal measure and beautifully written.

The Book of Unknown Americans

The Book of Unknown Americans — Cristina Henriquez (Knopf, June 3)

When their fifteen-year-old daughter Maribel sustains a traumatic brain injury, the successful Rivera family decides to leave everything they have achieved in Mexico behind to go to the United States so Maribel can attend a special school and receive state of the art treatment. They end up living in a dilapidated apartment building that is home to struggling and ambitious immigrants from nearly every Latin American country. The voices of the residents explore what it means to be an “unknown American” while believing intensely in the American dream. The novels is enriched by Panamanian immigrant Mayor Toro’s love for Maribel, which leads to a close relationship between the Toro and Rivera families. This is a sweet, compassionate, and hopeful story.

Euphoria

Euphoria — Lily King (Atlantic Monthly Press, June 3)

King made a big splash with her debut novel, The Pleasing Hour, in 1999, and has written several other notable novels in the last 15 years. Euphoria, based in part on the life of Margaret Mead, explores a love triangle among three anthropologists in New Guinea during the 1930s. Englishman Andrew Bankson is ready to call it quits when he encounters Nell Stone and her Australian husband Fen, who have just been through their own trauma. The three anthropologists are re-energized by their professional and personal chemistry and the discovery of a matriarchal tribe. But conflicts soon arise, jeopardizing their important work and their friendship.

What is Visible

What is Visible — Kimberly Elkins (Twelve Books, June 3)

Elkins brings to life the young woman who was reputed to be the second-most famous in the world in the 19th century. Laura Bridgman lost four of her five senses due to scarlet fever at age 2. She was Helen Keller before the Keller herself came along, and they had much in common. Elkins explores Bridgman’s amazing life and the reasons Keller became the poster child for overcoming profound disabilities while the woman whose experience laid the groundwork for Annie Sullivan’s success with Keller faded into obscurity. Listen to Kimberly Elkins interview with Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition here.

All Day and a Night

All Day and a Night – Alafair Burke (Harper, June 10)

The latest installment in the Ellie Hatcher detective series, All Day and a Nightis Burke’s tenth police procedural thriller. When a Brooklyn psychotherapist is found murdered, her husband is the prime suspect. But an anonymous caller knows that her body was abused in a way that matches the trademark of a serial killer who has been imprisoned for 20 years. The killer maintains his innocence, and now it appears that the actual killer is still at loose. Of course, the plot is far thicker than a brief synopsis can convey. As with Burke’s previous thrillers, All Day benefits from Burke’s years as a prosecutor. Her work is also distinguished by the presence of strong and realistic female characters.

Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street — Susan Jane Gilman (Grand Central Publishing, June 10)

One of the most highly anticipated books of the summer, Gilman’s first novel is a multi-faceted fictional biography of a life that parallels many of the key events of the 20th century. Russian immigrant Malka Treynovsky arrives in the Lower East Side of New York City as a child and is soon crippled in an accident with an Italian ice vendor’s horse cart. When her poor and desperate parents abandon her, the vendor adopts her, changes her name to Lillian, and teaches her the business. Eventually she marries and takes over the business, which she and her husband, Albert Dunkle, rapidly expand. In time, Lillian Dunkle’s chain of ice cream stores is the most successful in America. She is famous not only as the ambitious queen of the Dunkle empire but also as a charming television personality. In reality, Lillian is an imperious and opinionated force to be reckoned with and a character that readers will both admire and despise.

The Quick

The Quick — Lauren Owen (Random House, June 17)

Looking for a literary mystery dripping with atmosphere and strong sense of place? The Quick might be your book. Set during the Victorian era in both Yorkshire and London, this suspenseful Gothic thriller about a brother and sister is full of twists and turns, shocks and surprises. Yet another strong debut novel.

Abroad

Abroad — Katie Crouch (Sarah Crichton Books, June 17) 

Abroad is the second novel in less than a year to take the experiences of American college student Amanda Knox as a starting point (Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois was published in October 2013; see my review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-4g). Knox is the foreign exchange student in Italy who was charged with the murder of her British roommate, with the motive centering on a romantic triangle gone wrong. She was convicted and spent four years in an Italian prison before an appeals court overturned the ruling and released her in late 2011. She returned to Seattle to watch a second trial proceed without her presence, resulting in a guilty verdict and  a sentence of 28 years. She remains in the U.S. With Abroad, Crouch has fashioned a coming-of-age-in-Italy story about a British college student who is pulled into a group of thrill-seeking girls hungering for every experience they can squeeze out of their year abroad. Her roommate, an American, is concerned, but when they both fall for the same Italian boy, everything gets very complicated very fast. Abroad is a dark, lurid tale of privilege, friendship, passion, and betrayal.

Mambo in Chinatown

Mambo in Chinatown – Jean Kwok (Riverhead, June 24)

Kwok, the author of the highly regarded Girl in Translation, tells the story of 22-year-old Chinatown resident Charlie Wong. She is leading a dreary life, working as a dishwasher, when she lands a job at a ballet studio. Charlie, as it turns out, has her own dancing talent. But her family is Old World Chinese and disapproves. Then her sister becomes seriously ill, and a conflict arises between Eastern treatment and Western medicine.

Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng (Penguin Press, June 24)

When their middle daughter Lydia is found dead in a nearby lake, the marriage of Marilyn and James Lee, a Chinese-American family avidly pursuing the American dream, begins to unravel under the burden of James’s guilt and Marilyn’s determination to find the killer. Lydia’s older brother has his own theory about who killed her, but quiet younger sister Hannah may hold the key to solving Lydia’s murder and restoring the family’s delicate balance.

The Arsonist

The Arsonist — Sue Miller (Knopf, June 24) 

Miller has had a long and impressive career full of terrifically readable books. She returns with a story centering on arson in a small New Hampshire town. The intrigue centers on the fact that the arsonist is burning down only the houses of summer owners. This opens up a divide in the town’s social fabric as suspicions run wild like bushfires. The protagonist, Frankie Pomery, has returned to stay in her family’s summer home after 15 years in Africa, only to encounter the kind of trouble she thought she’d left behind.

Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing — Mira Jacob (Random House, July 1)

Comparisons to the work of Jhumpa Lahiri are inevitable — and justified — with this debut novel about a dysfunctional middle class Indian-American family. Jacob’s novel is split between India and New Mexico, where brain surgeon Thomas Eapen and his wife Kamala reside.  Their daughter Amina, a photographer living in Seattle, returns home to find that a trip the family took to India 20 years earlier is having unforeseen ramifications.

Red Joan

Red Joan – Jennie Rooney (Europa Editions, July 1)

This historical novel is a character study based on the case of Melita Norwood, who was exposed at age 87 as a KGB spy who had spent decades in Great Britain. Rooney has crafted a psychologically astute portrayal that makes suburban grandmother Joan Stanley a believable, three-dimensional character whose motivations are understandable if not laudable.

hundred-year-house

The Hundred-Year House — Rebecca Makkai (Viking, July 10)

Makkai’s second novel is a cleverly-constructed family saga with a satirical bent. Zee Devohr is an academic who rejects her family’s wealth and privilege in principle but still lives on the estate. Her husband Doug, a struggling biographer, begins work on a book about the artist’s colony that resided in the house for more than 30 years mid-century. But his attempt to conduct research on the house’s long history leads to conflict with Zee’s eccentric mother, Gracie, who refuses to give him access to the records. Both the Devohr family and the house they’ve long lived in have an even stranger history than Doug and Zee could have imagined.

Land of Love and Drowning

Land of Love and Drowning – Tiphanie Yanique (Riverhead, July 10)

Set in the Virgin Islands during the early 1900s, Land of Love and Drowningtells the story of three siblings orphaned in a shipwreck. The story runs 1916 through the 1970s, following the three members of the Bradshaw family and their progeny through the full range of life events. Yanique weaves Caribbean history and her family experiences with a magical realism inspired by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison, all told in her powerful and rhythmically distinctive Caribbean prose.

Life Drawing

Life Drawing — Robin Black (Random House, July 15) 

Robin Black attracted a lot of attention with her debut, the short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, in 2011. Life Drawing is her first novel, and it has received even more acclaim (having been published in the UK in April), including a rave review by Claire Messud (author of The Woman Upstairs and The Emperor’s Children) in The Guardian. Augusta (Gus) and Owen have “retired” to the country to escape the urban life and concentrate on their art and writing, respectively, and to spend more time together in hopes of rekindling the flames of their earlier passion. Of course, there is a hitch: an affair long ago casts a long shadow even now and a young, attractive neighbor complicates matters further. Black is an astute observer of human nature and has written a compelling character study that will pull you in and hold you fast until these issues are resolved, for good or ill.

The Home Place

The Home Place – Carrie La Seur (HarperCollins, July 29)

Alma Terrebonne has left her troubled family and life in rural Montana behind to become a lawyer. But she is drawn back into her past when her sister dies accidentally. Or did she? This debut novel is said to explore family life, small town rigidity, and the secrets held by both in an evocative style with a strong sense of place.

Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies — Liane Moriarty (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, July 29)

Moriarty, author of the smash The Husband’s Secret, returns with another clever potboiler set in a small town that examines relationships during and after marriage, the challenges of raising children from these marriages, and the suspicions and misunderstandings that occur despite good intentions. Big Little Lies is the story of three women: divorcee Madeline (whose ex-husband and his new wife have just moved into town with their own child), Celeste (charismatic, community-oriented mother of exhausting twin boys), and Jane (a young single mother who is taken under the wing by Madeline and Celeste). They are connected through their children’s school, where multiple tensions come to a head.

Lucky Us

Lucky Us — Amy Bloom (Random House, July 29)

Bloom, whose last novel, Away, was critically acclaimed, tells the tale of a mother and daughter’s (mis)adventures across America in the 1940s. Heading out from Ohio in an old station wagon intending to make mother Iris’s dreams come true in Hollywood, they end up in locales as far-flung as Long Island and London. Lucky Us is about mothers and daughters, creating families, experiencing a new world and a new life together, and surviving one crisis after another, from scandals to World War II.

Invention of Exile

The Invention of Exile – Vanessa Manko (Penguin Press, Aug. 14)

Based partly on her own family history, The Invention of Exile, set in 1913 and thereafter, follows Russian immigrant engineer and inventor Austin Voronkov and his American wife Julia as they are deported for Austin’s alleged communist/anarchist activities. The story details their life during the Russian Civil War and their escape to Mexico City. While Julia is allowed to repatriate to the U.S., Austin is trapped in Mexico, where he devotes himself to designing new inventions in the hope that obtaining a patent will lead to his return to Julia and their children in Connecticut.

The Miniaturist

The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton (Ecco, Aug. 26)

Both an atmospheric study of a house and family in 1686 Amsterdam and a suspenseful page-turned with a supernatural bent, The Miniaturist is the story of an 18-year-old country girl, Nella, her wealthy merchant husband Johannes Brandt, and his martinet of a sister, Marin. When Johannes gives Nella a chest-size version of the family home, to be filled with replicas of themselves and their lives crafted by a miniaturist, Nella begins to learn the truth behind the family and their lifestyle, and the story takes a turn toward the supernatural. Or is it all in Nella’s mind?

Rainey-Royal

Rainey Royal — Dylan Landis (Soho Press, Sept. 9)

Landis has expanded one of her popular stories into this captivating novel. Rainey Royal is the talented 14-year-old daughter of a New York City jazz musician, and her story, set in the 1970s, follows her attempts to explore her own creative impulses and create a new family (her mother has abandoned her husband and Rainey). Landis captures the tenderness and rebellion of adolescence, the artistic ferment in the rough and tumble NYC of the 70s, and the vicissitudes of friendship and family.