EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU

H Halloween

Z Halloween

Everything I Never Told You
by Celeste Ng

(Note: This book has nothing to do with Halloween, but accompanying pictures were too cute to ignore)

The surface story of Everything I Never Told You is a mystery. It is the spring of 1977 and sixteen-year old Lydia Lee has been found at the bottom of a lake in her small Ohio town. These tropes may sound familiar but I promise, this book is the farthest thing from formulaic. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this before.

At its core, this is a story about disappointment; the searing, haunting disappointment of having one’s dreams fade away unfulfilled. As a first-generation son of Chinese immigrants, Lydia’s father has never fit in among his white peers, even after marrying a Caucasian woman. Before they met, Lydia’s mother was a science whiz and planned to become a doctor. Neither of their lives has worked out in the ways they wanted, but even more tragic is the alienation they’ve experienced as a result, an alienation from themselves and each other. As the title implies, this is also a story about the tragedy of failing to communicate.

“Geez, T,” you might be thinking, “that sounds like a real buzz kill. I don’t like to read anything depressing.” So yes, this is a sad book; I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you. But it’s good sad. In fact, the small cast of characters is so well wrought and their emotions feel so genuine and true that I found myself whipping through the book, compelled by the tension of their emotional lives. Through gradual reveals that flash back to the characters’ individual histories, their inner tensions are woven into the story’s surface mystery.

Beyond doing a really fine job of telling a story about a family and its failings, Celeste Ng manages to tell a more universal story about the ramifications of institutionalized discrimination. What do people do with their frustrations? If they can’t talk about them, how do they deal? Do they end up expecting more from other people because they’re not satisfied with themselves? For some, they project their quashed hopes onto their children. They begin to conflate their sense of self with their child’s identity. But this desire to want for one’s children what you couldn’t have for yourself can be a dangerous, destructive force. Ng’s powerful depiction reminds us that systems of oppression don’t disappear in one or two generations’ time.

On that happy note …

Next Up: The much-anticipated new release of My Very End of the Universe by hometown hero and old friend, Mr. Chris Bower (and others). Look for an upcoming interview (a first for this blog) with Bower and some other new features in honor of his publication!

THE BONE CLOCKS

puppy love

       They call it puppy love

The Bone Clocks
by David Mitchell

I love David Mitchell. I have read most (though not all) of his books with much delight and I was very excited that The Bone Clocks was being released this fall. From what I’d heard, it promised a mix of a solid realist surface story along with shifting narrators, time periods and political backdrops plus a certain amount of fantasy. The kind of thing I wouldn’t have thought I’d like until I read Cloud Atlas (or watched LOST).

And so Supportive Husband and I trundled off to our local indie (shout out to Pegasus Books in Berkeley) where we happily procured a signed first edition, baby. And even though it kinda hurt my hand to prop up the 650-page hardback tome, I plunged in with a glee that lasted through the first half of the book. How can you not be happy when a 15-year-old female protagonist describes a boyfriend’s betrayal by stating, “My heart’s a clubbed baby seal” or when an older man going blind explains his experience as “like searching for your keys in the dirty snow.” My point is that David Mitchell can turn a phrase. And that kind of lovely writing can take a reader pretty far.

But, but, but … and I hate to have a but because I was so excited about this book … a little more than midway through this story that spans from 1984 English countryside to 2043 Irish countryside–with a lot of stops in-between–the book’s earlier, lighter flirtations with fantasy became the central plot of the story. It was at this point that my adoration started to fade. Once it crossed that (here it comes) sci-fi threshold, I found myself in a place I really didn’t want to be: an alternative universe so complex and full of lame jargon that it was all I could do to follow the silly plot devices leading up to an epic battle (described blow by blow, lord help me) in which, guess what, good guys fight bad guys. The characters and storylines preceding all this fell completely by the wayside.

It was at this most vulnerable point, when my own heart was a clubbed baby seal, that James Wood, the smooth-talking New Yorker book critic, came along and articulated my disappointment. Typically, I wouldn’t have looked at the review until I had finished the book and written about it, but I was weak, okay? Questioning my own judgment, wondering what David and I had ever had, I turned to another man.

Here’s the link to Wood’s review, where he sums it up pretty well when he says, “What occurs in the novel between people has meaning only in relation to what occurs in the novel between Anchorites [the bad guys] and Horologists [the good guys].” Exactly. And this is coming from the gal who went on and on in her last post about how much she loves plot.

For what it’s worth, Mitchell does manage to bring us back, a bit, to a more human component of the story, though his final message is a pretty dark one. For hard-core Mitchell fans, there’s still plenty here to treasure. And despite my disenchantment this time around, I’ll still come running next time he calls.

WE NEED NEW NAMES

Trying to relate to children

We Need New Names
by NoViolet Bulawayo

Ten-year old Darling lives in Zimbabwe, a country that’s been ravaged by 30 years of Robert Mugabe’s rule. In the book’s opening scene, Darling and her friends are playing games and trying to offset their hunger with a few stolen guavas, the same activities that fill most of their days now that all their teachers have left the country and there is no school to attend. The military police have bulldozed the children’s former homes, leaving them in a shantytown of tin shacks. The first half of the story takes place in the Zimbabwe of Darling’s childhood while the second half concerns her immigration to the United States as an adolescent.

Darling’s transition from Zimbabwe to America is the clear through line of the story and we watch as her survival skills adapt to her different environments. But by the book’s end, I just didn’t find myself all that connected to her as a character. It felt like the places she inhabited overshadowed and shaped her more than any internal dreams or characteristics.

My sense of distance from this character may have had to do with a couple of storytelling devices that tend not to resonate with me. First, I’m not a huge fan of adult stories told from the point of view of children (I know, this probably isn’t a huge shock to some of you). I’m sure if I really wracked my brain, I could come up with some examples that defy this generalization, but broadly speaking, I just find the child narrator irritating. Now in this case, Darling is definitely not irritating, but I found myself wanting more than what her 10-year-old perspective could give me.

And then there’s the issue of plot, or lack thereof. Speaking broadly again, I usually like a lot of plot – I want to be propelled forward wondering what happens next and why. I want to be surprised and manipulated by characters’ behavior and motivations. (Yes, I am currently catching up on Homeland, thanks for asking.) That doesn’t mean every story I read must be action-packed—some of the most interesting plots for me are interpersonal—but if the story’s events aren’t going to keep me flipping the pages, then I need something else, typically thoroughly-wrought characters whose tiniest choices will worry, please or surprise me.

Bulawayo’s writing style is more charcoal sketches than oil on canvas; she draws the outline and gives us the pertinent facts, but she allows the reader to flesh out the scenes and characters for themselves. This is a style that can be very effective but in this particular book, there was just a little too much left on the table for me.

We Need New Names was released last year around the same time as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, a novel to which it was often compared because they share some similar themes (although Americanah’s protagonist is from Nigeria). While they may share some surface similarities, the two books are told in very different ways and the style of Americanah suits me more. In fact, Americanah was one of my favorite books this year; it had all those thick, heavy brushstrokes and deep, rich textures that kept me up late flipping the pages and wondering what would happen next.

Speaking of next: David Mitchell’s latest, baby! Yes!

COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI

CTT Cover

Another beautifully designed book that’s so much more exciting in person.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
by Haruki Murakami

A lot of Murakami fans love the more surreal aspects of his writing. Me? I tend to like my allegories rooted in a concrete world. So I was very happy with his most recent novel, the story of Tsukuru (his name translates as “to make”) Tazaki, a 36-year-old man seeking to understand why, many years earlier, his once tight-knit group of teenage friends banished him without explanation. This group of three boys and two girls had been especially close, forming a cocoon of intimacy, comfort and support. Until one day when Tsukuru’s friends cut him off without reason.

For Tsukuru, “Alienation and loneliness became a cable that stretched hundreds of miles long, pulled to the breaking point by a gigantic winch.” The lure of suicide becomes that breaking point and although that lure eventually loosens its grip, this dark period from his past continues to haunt him 16 years later. So like any self-respecting (or self-deprecating) hero, Tsukuru sets out on a journey to unravel the events that led up to his exile.

At the beginning of his journey, Tsukuru has us believing that he is “colorless” and uninteresting. Even in his heyday among his former friends, Tsukuru was the only member of the group whose name didn’t correspond with a color. He interprets the coincidence as a mark of his character. It takes some time and some travels for our hero to start to see himself through others’ eyes and realize that the traits he has considered boring for all these years are signs of his creativity, focus and resilience.

I should make a habit of going back and reading the beginning of a book after I’ve finished it, which is exactly what I did in this case. I loved reading the story and following Tsukuru’s path but when I came to the end, I felt like I hadn’t fully grasped everything Murakami was trying to do. As I re-read the opening pages, it dawned on me that the story is an allegory for the transition between adolescence and adulthood. Once I considered the story through this lens, I appreciated it even more.

Do you ever re-read the beginning of a book once you’ve finished it? Have you found it helpful?

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