BOOK REVIEW | Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

4/5 stars

Celeste Ng’s latest work is a heartbreaking story about mothers and daughters, right and wrong, morality and reality, the wealthy and the not so wealthy. Little Fires Everywhere is the perfect title for this book, in which many polarizing controversies are littered throughout. I absolutely adored Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, and was beyond thrilled to win an advance copy of her latest book through Goodreads. Ng has created another special book that fans of EINTY will be sure to love.

In the picturesque town of Shaker Heights, Ohio, the Richardson family is the portrait of happiness and success. Elena and her husband are successful, and their 4 children, each 1 year apart, are well rounded and popular. Izzy, the youngest, doesn’t necessarily fit in with her family – she is a wild spirit with a knack for getting into trouble. Elena struggles to understand her youngest daughter, leading to a tenuous relationship.

When an artist, Mia, and her teenage daughter, Pearl, move into town and begin living out of the Richardson’s rental property, both families are inevitably changed. Elena values order, rules, structure. Mia moves from town to town whenever she loses her artistic inspiration, raising Pearl in an unsettled life. The longer they remain in Shaker heights, the more Pearl sets down roots. She befriends the Richardson children, often fantasizing about life in their family, while Izzy, never feeling comfortable with her own mother, finds a connection with Mia. A legal battle soon takes over Shaker Heights, leaving each family on opposite sides of the argument. Ng navigates both sides of the debate – as a reader I didn’t know where to stand. This battle shapes the later half of the story, ultimately revealing unexpected parts of both Elena’s and Mia’s pasts.

Ng has a way of drawing out qualities in her characters that capture who they are, such as the way Elena subtly leaves a cash donation on her way out of a museum. In one beautiful passage, Mia contemplates a parent’s need to touch their children, to hold them and breathe them in, and how over time the moments lessens. This nearly broke my heart; Ng’s writing is no less impactful than in her debut. I question the choices that some of the characters make towards the end, but felt safe in Ng’s capable hands. In some ways, I wish it ended differently, but I think it’s because wasn’t ready for the story to end.

 

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BOOK REVIEW | Stay Awake by Dan Chaon

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3.5 / 5 stars

My thoughts:
This is a solid collection of short stories from an incredibly talented writer. Reading Chaon’s work, you can’t help but feel as though he is either consciously or subconsciously revealing parts of himself. His flaws, his fears, thoughts on family, love, and death. He is a man who has loved and lost, and you feel the depth of his experience between the pages of his books.

This collection has a few brilliant, eerie stories. The first story, The Bees is so, so good, and so, so creepy. This collection started off with a bang! There’s some imagery there that I can’t get out of my mind. This story felt complete, it gave me everything I needed.

I struggle a little with short stories because I almost always want more, and this collection is no different. Many of the stories felt incomplete – I wanted Chaon to save therm to flesh out full novels! That said, they were all great to read and that is certainly the mark of a great writer – give me more! All of the stories are dark and twisted in one way or another.

Chaon is my kind of writer, and I am excited to continue working through his catalog. If you’ve read Chaon, tell me what I should pick up next!

 

BOOK REVIEW | All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

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5/5 stars

My thoughts:
This book is stunning. It’s challenging, disturbing, and will make you uncomfortable. Bryn Greenwood creates a relationship that by all practical accounts will make your stomach turn, and flips the table so drastically that you will question everything you know to be right and moral. I found myself struggling with some of the scenes, but also found myself justifying so much of it. I had to ask myself, what defines love?

It’s 1975 and Wavy is a little girl at 5 years old. Her parents are addicted to drugs, and she is living with her aunt Brenda and her cousins. As a result of her trauma, Wavy doesn’t speak, leaving everyone to think she’s mentally challenged. Wavy eventually goes on to live with her he grandmother, and finally ends up back with her mother.

Living with her mother, Wavy takes care of herself and her younger brother, Donal, cleaning and preparing food. A few years have passed and she is 8 years old when a chance encounter with 19 year old Kellen occurs. Kellen, a criminal who works for Wavy’s father, crashes his motorcycle by her house, and Wavy rushes out to see if he is OK. There is clearly a connection between the two, and after her becomes aware of Wavy’s living situation, Kellen steps in to help. Kellen cleans the house, buys food for Wavy and Donal, and begins to pay for Wavy’s school fees. Over time, Wavy begins to trust Kellen, and the two become inseparable.

As the years pass, Wavy and Kellen’s relationship evolves from something innocent to something more – there are many moments that gave me pause. Their connection, however, is something hard to define, something more than love. Is Kellen a pedophile? Is he taking advantage of Wavy in her disadvantaged situation? There is no sexual attraction between Wavy and Kellen initially. Kellen states “that’s not the only thing love means. You just got your mind in the gutter”.

Told from multiple points of view, we gain other character’s perspectives on their relationship. Naturally, many characters are horrified by their bond and work to keep them apart. Greenwood herself is the ” daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer”, and has stated that this book was partially inspired by her relationship with an older man when she was 13 years old. Greenwood has created a world in which this relationship feels right, regardless of how inappropriate much of it is. As a mother and a fierce protector of children, I’m blown away by her feat. Only a skilled writer can craft a story like this and have you rooting for the couple. I’m looking forward to more from Greenwood, and may have to check out her backlist.

BOOK REVIEW | The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Enid, long-time matriarch of the Lambert family, sets her heart on an elusive goal: bringing her family together for one last Christmas at home.
Published to universal acclaim, Jonathan Franzen’s novel about a post-modern family breaking down in late-twentieth-century America is a comic, tragic masterpiece. Richly realistic, darkly hilarious, and deeply human, The Corrections has been a fixture on bestseller lists since its debut and was one of the most talked-about books of the year.

My thoughts:
Finally, after way too long, I have read Franzen. Yes, this was my first. I’m not sure what my expectations were going into this book, but I must say I really liked it. I think I was prepared to hate it purely based on Franzen’s reputation for being, you know, a pretentious asshole. I love confident, bold writers, but cannot stand it if there is no merit behind the big personality. Thankfully, I was able to connect with it and understand his appeal.

This is the story of a family, the Lamberts. Enid and Alfred, the matriarch and patriarch, are living together in a way that many couples live together after a lifetime – as roommates. Enid longs for Alfred’s touch and attention, while Alfred grows increasingly irritable and senile. Alfred has always been moody and distant with his family, while Enid fantasizes about romance and the ideal family. Enid wants, more than anything, to have one more Christmas celebration in their hometown of St. Jude. This means attempting to rally her three children, Gary, Chip, and Denise, together for the event. This sort of sounds like the setup for a fun holiday movie, but I can assure you that is not what this is.

I’m finding this review difficult to write – there’s a lot going on with this book, but there’s also not a lot going on – which I realize makes no sense. There’s action and advancement of the story line, but this is heavily character driven. Franzen shines with his characters. He has created a cast of flawed people with messy lives that many will hate, but I found myself relating to each member of this family for different reasons. Enid’s desire for love and family, Alfred’s internal space and need for privacy, Gary’s depression and the pressures of family life and responsibility, Denise’s search for identity, and Chip’s hunt for success. Some of the moments that hit me the hardest in this book are so quiet and unassuming that they can easily be missed. For example, a family meal that no one is enjoying only to be topped off with a desert of pineapple, igniting Alfred to become angry with Enid. It’s not a loud moment, but it also is. If that makes sense.

There’s a lot of unpack with this book, and a lot more going on than I will touch on here: economic crisis, sexuality, depression and mental illness, elder care, and so much more. Readers who enjoy beefy books that call for analysis will likely be at home with the Corrections.

BOOK REVIEW | Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

My thoughts:
This book is stunning – unique in style and rich in substance. I have never read anything like this before, and loved this new reading experience. This is one of those rare books that I could start over again immediately.

Willie, Abraham Lincoln’s eleven year old son, falls ill and dies leaving Abraham wrought with guilt and sorrow. Willie passes on to the bardo, a Tibetan concept of purgatory, and is greeted by other spirits who are stuck in this place, refusing to believe themselves dead. The ghosts want to help Willie move through to the other side, as young ones are not meant to tarry. Over the course of one night, Abraham visits Willie’s grave multiple times to be with his boy once more. Meanwhile, the United States is at war and we gain insights into Abraham’s torment about the state of the country, and how his grief shaped his presidency.

The story is told by the ghosts in purgatory as well as through historical accounts, making for a completely new reading journey. It took me a little getting used to, but all of the insights painted a layered picture of who Abraham Lincoln was, as well as the depth of his grief.

The impression I carried away was that I had seen, not so much the President of the United States, as the saddest man in the world.

An examination of grief, Saunders astutely captures the horror of a parent loosing a child. It’s all consuming, backwards, unimaginable. This is not the story of a president, but rather of a father who is desperate in his sorrow – so desperate that holding his son’s body, just a little longer, feels like the right thing to do. A beautiful and haunting book that won’t leave me soon.

BOOK REVIEW | The Nix by Nathan Hill

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
It’s 2011, and Samuel Andresen-Anderson—college professor, stalled writer—has a Nix of his own: his mother, Faye. He hasn’t seen her in decades, not since she abandoned the family when he was a boy. Now she’s re-appeared, having committed an absurd crime that electrifies the nightly news, beguiles the internet, and inflames a politically divided country. The media paints Faye as a radical hippie with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows, his mother was an ordinary girl who married her high-school sweetheart. Which version of his mother is true? Two facts are certain: she’s facing some serious charges, and she needs Samuel’s help.

To save her, Samuel will have to embark on his own journey, uncovering long-buried secrets about the woman he thought he knew, secrets that stretch across generations and have their origin all the way back in Norway, home of the mysterious Nix. As he does so, Samuel will confront not only Faye’s losses but also his own lost love, and will relearn everything he thought he knew about his mother, and himself.

My thoughts:
There is not one true self hidden by many false ones. Rather, there is one true self hidden by many other true ones.

The Nix is exactly my type of book: long and sprawling, detailing complex human relationships. Almost immediately, this book reminded me of John Irving. Elements of A Prayer for Owen Meany and The World According to Garp abound, thought it manages to retain its own unique voice. I’m not sure if Nathan Hill was inspired by Irving, but I couldn’t help but compare him to one of my favourite writers. Hill tackles politics, activism, and mother and son relationships with a smart comic voice that completely drew me in. I laughed out loud more than once while reading this.

Samuel Andresen-Anderson is an apathetic college professor and struggling writer. His mother, Faye, abandoned him and his father when he was a young boy, leaving him with a gap in his life that he has been unable to fill. Meanwhile, a 60 something year old woman is thrown into the media spotlight after committing a bizarre crime, and he soon realizes that the woman is his mother. The media is quick to label Faye as a radical hippie with a troubling history, but that’s not the woman Samuel remembers. When his publisher offers him a deal to write a tell-all book about his mother, he begins the journey into re-discovering the woman who abandoned him all those years ago.

This is an ambitious debut novel for Hill, and I am so impressed by its strength. This book is over 600 pages long yet I didn’t want it to end. His prose and wit are razor sharp, and his ability to connect this wild story to the human condition blew me away. This deeply emotional journey centers on the power of forgiveness and the value of the supporting characters in our lives.

BOOK REVIEW | Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
One hot August day a family drives to a mountain clearing to collect birch wood. Jenny, the mother, is in charge of lopping any small limbs off the logs with a hatchet. Wade, the father, does the stacking. The two daughters, June and May, aged nine and six, drink lemonade, swat away horseflies, bicker, and sing snatches of songs as they while away the time.

But then something unimaginably shocking happens, an act so extreme it will scatter the family in every different direction.

In a story told from multiple perspectives and in razor-sharp prose, we gradually learn more about this act, and the way its violence, love and memory reverberate through the life of every character in Idaho.

My thoughts:
Perhaps it’s what both their hearts have been wanting all along – to be broken. In order to know that they were whole enough to break.

I can’t remember the last time I was so moved by the writing in a book. I read beautifully written books all of the time, but Ruskovich’s prose is absolutely stunning. It’s simple and lyrical, yet carries so much weight. Simple revelations or descriptions would nearly move me to tears. I read this book slowly, because it’s the only way to read a book like this. I savored the prose, and was completely enthralled with the characters. Ruskovich tells the story of a deeply broken family and the power of memory.

Anne is a music teacher who married a man named Wade. Wade is loosing his memory to dementia, and came to her intent on taking piano lessons after hearing that it can help with memory. He was married previously and had two daughters, May and June. On one tragic day, he loses it all. Years later, he is haunted by the parts of his memory that he can recall, as well as the parts that he is loosing. Anne meets Wade during the early stages of his memory loss, and desperately wants to care for him and find her way into his heart. The story is told from multiple perspectives and timelines, making for a well rounded picture of the family. We hear from Anne, the girls, Wade’s ex-wife Jenny, and more.

This book is painfully sad, but has so many moments of joy and beauty within. I adored the scenes with May and June as little girls, swimming in water barrels and playing the game MASH. Ruskovich so perfectly captured the innocence of childhood, and I loved getting to know them. Wade’s memory loss really resonated with me, as I watched my Grandmother suffer with Alzheimer’s, and eventually completely forget who I was. It’s absolutely shocking and heartbreaking to experience.

Here’s the thing – this book will not be for everyone. It’s completely character driven, and I think some readers will find this dissatisfying. There is a plot here, but the plot is the force behind the characters motivations and choices, not what keeps the story moving forward. For me, this book was nearly perfect. Ruskovich crafted something truly unique with Idaho, and I will be anxiously awaiting her next creation.