by Kim Triedman My gym misses me. I haven’t exactly been pulling my weight lately. Or blasting my abs or busting my butt, either. In fact I can honestly say that from the moment I started writing my second novel this past September, I have gone through the gym …
Everything I Never Told You is Celeste Ng’s debut novel and she sets the bar high. Her novel revolves around the a Chinese-American family living in small town Ohio, a rarity in the 1970s.
What works in this novel is Ng’s use of a third person narrator, and through this narrator, we learn how deeply dysfunctional and non-communicative the Lee family is. The novel begins: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six-thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this Innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast” (1). Lydia’s death reveals how isolated each family member is from all the others. Set apart from their community because of the bi-racial nature of the family, they are also set apart from each other. Lydia’s death isolates her family further from their community–her death is a suspected suicide–and, when most needed, each other as well.
Ng’s third person narrator slowly reveals the inner thoughts and disappointments each family member harbors. Through her death, this narrator also shows each family member struggling to cope with what the each wanted reality to be, and the truth. The old saying is the truth shall set you free. In this case, the truth severs the frayed threads tying this family together, sending each of them tumbling through their grief, unmoored from each other.
Lydia is sixteen and a perfect mix of her genetic heritage: “But Lydia, defying genetics, somehow has her mother’s blue eyes, and they know this is one more reason she is their mother’s favorite. And their father’s too” (3). The ‘they’ in this quote are Lydia’s siblings, her older brother Nate and younger sister Hannah. Within the first few pages, the narrator reveals several secrets. Nate and Hannah know black-haired, blue-eyed Lydia is the favorite child out of the three. The only hidden secret is the parents unaware their other two children have picked up on the favoritism.
Marilyn Lee sends Nate and Hannah off to school and takes a mug from the cupboard, a routine gesture in a morning suddenly thrown off the routine. As she does so, she flashes back to a memory of Lydia when Lydia was eleven months old. Marilyn left Lydia playing in the living room on a quilt, and had gone into the kitchen for a cup of tea:
“Marilyn took the kettle off the stove and turned to find Lydia standing in the doorway. She had started and a red, spiral welt rose on her palm, and she touched it to her lips and looked at her daughter through watering eyes. Standing there, Lydia was strangely alert, as if she was taking in the kitchen for the first time. ..The thought that flashed through her mind wasn’t How did I miss it? but What else have you been hiding?…Marilyn often had her back turned, opening the refrigerator or turning over the laundry. Lydia could’ve been walking weeks ago, while she was bent over a pot, and she would not have known” (4).
Here we learn through the narrator Marilyn doesn’t know Lydia as well as a mother should, especially when it comes to walking. After a short time, Marilyn calls the police and James at work. Eventually, through the narrator, we learn this isn’t the first time the police have been called about a missing family member.
We also see James, grading history papers in his office. He’s a tenured faculty member, a professor of American history, at Middlewood College. When younger and:
“still junior faculty, he was often mistaken for a student himself. That hasn’t happened in years. He’ll be forty-six next spring…Sometimes, though, he’s still mistaken for other things. Once, a receptionist at the provost’s office thought he was a visiting diplomat from Japan and asked him about his flight from Tokyo. He enjoys the surprise on people’s faces when he tells them he’s a professor of American history,” but becomes defensive when people “blink.” (9).
He still feels the outsider, set off by his ethnic heritage, even though he’s as American as the people he is talking too.
Throughout the novel, Ng’s effective use of the third person narrator continues to reveal the secrets of the Lee family and how those secrets keep the family isolated from each other.
Toward the end of the novel, Ng also uses her narrator to flashback to Lydia, when she was alive, allowing the dead girl at the beginning of the novel a voice in her own story. It is an inner story that has shaped Lydia’s life, one she needs to revise, with devastating results.
The novel raises questions: how well do we know family members? Is what we “know” true, or assumptions, because it’s far easier to deal with assumptions–what we want to be true–than what really is? Everything I Never Told You is a novel that has stayed with me, long after I finished reading it.
Ng, Celeste. Everything I Never Told You. New York:Penguin Group. 2014. Print.
By Robin Black This post first appeared October 11, 2011 What can renovating and reclaiming your home after years of neglecting it teach you about revising fiction? A lot more than I imagined, it turns out. My husband and I have lived in our house for sixteen …
At the Festival of Faith and Writing, held every other year at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, I heard James McBride discuss his novel The Good Lord Bird. He had wanted to write a novel about the abolitionist John Brown, but wanted to do it in a way not done before. He more than accomplishes this goal with his first person narrator Henry “Onion” Shackelford, a ten year old slave boy in the Kansas Territory in 1856, who is kidnapped by John Brown following an argument between Brown and Onion’s owner, Dutch Henry Sherman. Unfortunately for Onion, who is a male, but like most colored boys in those days, he wore a potato sack for his clothing and with his light skin and curly hair, Brown mistakes Onion for a girl.
Onion narrates this novel and begins his tale by stating “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.” (McBride 7). Onion is a confident narrator, and this confidence makes the novel, as he relays his efforts at trying to pass as female and his adventures with John Brown. He’s an adult, looking back on his life, and his sure voice carries the cadence, humor, and words of someone who’s experienced much and takes pride in relaying his story.
Onion is an exceptional storyteller with the strong cadence of his voice and his choice of words. “Now, in all the years I knowed him, Old John Brown never got excitable, even in matters of death–his or the next man’s–unless the subject of the Lord came up. And seeing Dutch Henry fling that Bible to the floor and swearing the Lord’s name in vain, that done a number on him…Next when he spoke, he were talking like an Irishman no more. He spoke in his real voice. High. Thin. Taut as gauge wire” (16).
Onion takes great offense to being mistaken for a girl by Brown: “Now, I don’t know about Pa, but between all that mumbling about kings and heathens and Zions and so forth, with him [Brown] waving that Sharps rifle around, I somehow got stuck on the “daughter” section of the speech…Everybody in Dutch’s, even the Indians, knowed I was boy. I weren’t even partial to girls at that age, being that I was raised in a tavern where most of the women smoked cigars, drunk gut sauce, and stunk to high heaven like the men” (18).
Onion describes Brown’s actions during a fight in Pikesville, a slave town. The fight is taking place outside, in an alley: “Well, I don’t know if it was that lit cannon belching smoke over his shoulder that done it, or them rebels losing heart when they seen the Old Man hisself in person standing in the clear, untouched with their bullets zinging past his face, but they turned and took the tall timber…And with that cannon fuse lit and burning home to its maker, the Old Man stood right next to it and watched the fuse burn to nothing and fizzle out. It didn’t hit the hammer. The thing was dead” (197)
Onion’s voice paints a picture that is hard to miss–Brown standing in an alley, oblivious to the danger he is in. Onion’s voice paints vivid scenes–some funny, most not–throughout the novel. Onion grows from a ten year old boy to a young man, present at Brown’s final stand at Harper’s Ferry. Throughout, Onion’s voice is strong and uniquely his because of word choice, and the cadence of his speech.
The Good Lord Bird won The National Book Award for Fiction.
McBride, James. The Good Lord Bird. New York: Riverhead Books. 2013. Print.
Part voyeur, part inspiration, every Monday you get a glimpse into the lives of authors and other thinkers who share a picture of their bedside table, a view into what matters to them right now, the things that inspire them, that occupy their minds.
Karin Gillespie is a friend and a writer with a strong sense of humor. She’s also full of great writing advice. Below are excerpts of where she’s been on the web lately, with links to the full articles:
From A Master‘s in Chick Lit:
I’m a genre writer. Gary Shteyngart hasn’t blurbed any of my novels, and Marion Ettlinger has never photographed me for a book jacket. I’m more at ease with the sequins and shirtless men at the Romantic Times conference than I am with the serious eyewear at poetry readings. When critics describe my work, which is basically chick lit, they don’t say it’s emotionally astute, sweeping or a tour de force. They call it “a fast-paced screamer.”
Read the rest here.
From How I Got Published in The New York Times on My First Try (and What Happened Next)
One of my favorite movies is Julie and Julia. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the true story of a young woman named Julie Powell who cooks Julia Child’s recipes and blogs about her experiences. Powell is eventually featured in the New York Times and after the paper comes out, she’s deluged with calls from agents and editors. And later, of course, Amy Adams plays her in a Nora Ephron movie. What more could a writer ask for?
Read the rest at Writer Unboxed.
This post is a collection of all the blogs posts since our last roundup.
Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is a love story, a modern-day fairy tale (in my mind), and a battle between old arch-rivals, who think nothing of using others in their never-ending battle to better one another.
Many things work in this book, and work well, but what really pulls this book together is the plot. Two long-time rivals, Hector Bowen, aka Prospero the Enchanger, and Alexander , the man in the grey suit, who tells the young boy he picks up from the orphanage: “Names are not of nearly as much import as people like to suppose…If you find you are in need of a name at any point, you may choose one for yourself. For now it will not be necessary” (27).
The two magicians make a gentleman’s wager–Hector’s daughter Celia is to be pitted against Alexander’s protege–a student he has yet to choose. At some point in time, the two will compete against each other and the outcome determines which magician is the better instructor. It is the biggest wager yet, with the highest stakes–“only one of them can be left standing” (back cover). After years of training, Celia and Alexander’s protege–Marco–are ready to begin.
The Night Circus–Le Cirque des Reves–is the centerpiece of this wager, and it is through The Night Circus the plot unfolds. The Night Circus appears without any warning–no fliers or parade through town announce it’s presence. One day there’s an empty field, the next, black and white striped canvas tents are there. The circus is only open at night. As the acts and activities of the circus progress, so does the wager, but the details of how it is fought unfold gradually, as Celia and Marco begin to decipher the competition and it’s final outcome. The depth of the competition and its ramifications also sink in slowly, showing the selfishness and narcissist traits of Alexander and Hector. The reader is left wondering with the characters how the competition will end, for Celia and Marco have fallen in love, and the ramifications of their love will affect everyone involved in the circus–performer or visitor.
Morgenstern, Erin. The Night Circus. New York: Anchor Books. 2012. Print.
Erin Morgenstern’s website
Flax-golden tales–one photograph, one 10 sentence short story. posted on Fridays.
Follow her on Twitter.
“The plane fell from the clouds toward the dirt airstrip in the Inupiat village of Kaktovik, Alaska… Windows aged and opaque blurred the borders of ice and land, sea and sky…Kaktovik perched on Barter Island, a barrier island shaped like a bison’s skull just north of the Artic Coastal Plain…The Beech 1900 touched down with all the grace of a drunk…
As I walked off the plane down the rickety stairs, the Arctic wind cut through my fleece…It was the end of the world. The ultima Thule” (19).
These paragraphs begin Shannon Huffman Polson’s memoir North of Hope. It’s a paragraph full of information and questions. Polson is in an airplane battered by its circumstances—the windows are difficult to see through and the stairs are of questionable stability. She’s in a small Native village “at the end of the world.” The airstrip is dirt and the cold knifes through her clothing. Boundaries blur. Its obvious Polson has traveled to a place far off the usual Alaskan tourist path; this is not a place for the casual visitor. It’s a hard land; a desolate one. All of these details lead the reader to a question: why is she here?
Polson answers that question throughout the rest of her book. She is here to repeat the last journey her father and stepmother started a year ago, but never finished; they were mauled to death by a rouge grizzly bear. Her memoir is also a story of her journey through grief; a journey she started by singing Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor with the Seattle Symphony “every Monday…after Dad and Kathy’s funeral” (43).
Polson’s writing brings the reader alongside as she undertakes her parents’ last journey through a harsh, fragile, and beautiful land; a place most people will never experience. Her memoir is about loss, the difficulty of grieving as she chooses to embrace the pain, and hope as she finishes the journey—both down the river and through her grief.
I took this book on vacation with the intention of reading it, but then my husband, who is not a reader, picked up North of Hope, and I didn’t see it again until he was done. It’s a book that has stayed with both of us.
Read the first two chapters here.
Polson, Shannon Huffman. North of Hope. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2013. Print.
Support literary magazines–they need you!
River Teeth Journal–publishes non-fiction
Wips Journal-Works (of fiction) in Progress–focuses on fiction.
Superstition Review-publishes art, poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction
New Ohio Review-publishes fiction, poetry, and non-fiction
Contributor Gabrielle Freeman has started her own website–Lady Random. Her tagline: “Writing is your mistress. Submit!”
Also check out Rocko Rocket–creation of contributor Yolande Clark-Jackson