Everything I Never Told You-Celeste Ng

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.

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Revision? Try Renovation.

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 …

via Revision? Try Renovation..

The online conundrum and great advice from Writer Unboxed

The online conundrum–build a web presence. Write–don’t worry about a web presence. You need a website. Not all well-known authors have websites.

Argh.

Over at Writer Unboxed, Jane Friedman writes about the social media conundrum: “The Online Presence That’s a Natural Extension of Who You Are And What You Do, (Is It Just A Fantasy?).”

She writes: “I’ve been reading with interest (and sympathy) the comments on Porter Anderson’s Unboxed post last week, where we see the familiar Sturm und Drang of writers grappling with the demands of online marketing—or how to be publicly communicative and chummy when it’s against our nature, perhaps even against our work.

This has remained a problem for a long time now, hasn’t it?”

Read the rest oft her post.

Also read the comment by Donald Maas.

 

 

 

James McBride’s “The Good Lord Bird”

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.

 

 

 

 

What writers have on their bedside tables

A fun project from author Shannon Huffman Polson, author of North of Hope. It’s called The Bedside Table Project. Below is the description from Shannon’s site:

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.


Connect with Shannon on Twitter, Facebook, and her website.

 

Read these! Our contributors’ (and then some) work from around the web

Regular contributor Gabrielle Brant Freeman has several poems published around the web:
“The Art of Deception” page 64 in the Minetta Review

“Guess My Name” and “Linen” at CSHS

A short story from Kyler Campbell. You can download a free issue and read his story “Caretta Caretta” & short interview from Driftwood Press. Story starts on page 13.

Travis Burnham is a fellow Converse alumi and his short story “The Bone Washer” is up at Bad Dream Entertainment.

Jeffrey Schrecongost, another Converse grad, whose post was highlighted a few weeks ago, has a short story–“Mouthwash” up at Gadfly.

Poet Melissa Dickson Jackson is the author of Sweet Aegis and Cameo. Another Converse alumni and she has a blog post up at North American Review titled A Poem in Flight: Memory and Truth.

Check out contributor Yolande Clark-Jackson’s children’s book Rocko RocketRocko also has a Twitter account. Lots of good stuff happening here!

Core faculty member and fiction member Leslie Pietrzyk, author of A Year and A Day: A Novel and Pears on A Willow Tree has an interview up at Reader’s Lane. Leslie also has a blog at Work In Progress and edits Redux: A Literary Journal

 

Falling and Flying-South 85 blog

Good writing advice from Jeffrey Schrecongost at the South 85 blog:

Greed. Guilt. God.

The big ones, yes? The ways in which the three interrelate are what I seek to explore in my fiction. People who need more than they need. The pain of remorse. The nature of a faith that comforts some and confuses and disappoints others.

Read the rest of Jeffrey’s post at South 85.

Follow Jeffrey on twitter

Karin Gillespie–Writing advice, The New York Times, and a Writer Unboxed

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.

Follow Karin Gillespie on her website, blog, Facebook, and Twitter.

Fifth week roundup

This post is a collection of all the blogs posts since our last roundup.

Starter House–A Ghost Story

Author Interview-Sonja Condit, author of Starter House

The Spice of Backstory in Condit’s Starter House

Cheesecloth Removal: The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux

You Live Where? Strange Settings in Judy Budnitz’s Nice Big American Baby

Lit Mag Roundup

Just Right Love Poem

Slaughter House Five–Not Just Another War Story

All That was Faked Turned Bad: Hemingway and the Gift of Unruly Prose

North of Hope–A Daughter’s Arctic Journey

The Gift of Focused Power in the First Person Point of View

Marking Time

Punctuate Bodies in Rebecca Thrill’s “Punctuation”

Literary Citizen and Why You Should Be One #litcitizen

What Led Zepplin Teaches Me About Writing

The Night Circus

 

 

The Night Circus

The Night Circus

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

Her blog

Flax-golden tales–one photograph, one 10 sentence short story. posted on Fridays.

Follow her on Twitter.