Looking for a Pretty Good Book?

The BookLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

What attracted me? I loved her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. Celeste Ng writes skillfully about troubled family dynamics and the subtleties of racial tension—themes that appeared in her first book. That book balances the central mystery (How and why did 16-year-old Lydia Lee die?) with character studies of her family members and boyfriend. Ng’s writing is insightful and poetic.

For me, there was the added bonus of learning about Shaker Heights, Ohio, a planned community in northeastern Ohio. Although I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, at the western edge of Lake Erie, I know very little about the Cleveland area.

The premise? Little Fires Everywhere also opens with a mystery. The Richardson house, home to well-to-do parents Elena and Bill Richardson and their four teenaged kids: Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy, has been nearly demolished by fire, but no one was hurt. The family is fairly sure that rebellious Izzy set the fire, so the question is why. While Elena is watching her house smolder, her starving artist tenant, Mia Warren, and her teenaged daughter, Pearl, abruptly leave the small house Elena had rented to them.

What appealed to me? Ng does an excellent job of re-creating the idealistic, but claustrophobic, culture of Shaker Heights in the 1990s, a pre-digital age. Pagers were more common than cell phones and research was done the hard way—without the Internet—a fact that allows Mia to pull up stakes and move without a trace every 10-12 months in pursuit of Mia’s art.

Because she’s always lived a vagabond lifestyle, Pearl relishes being swept into the lives of the Richardson kids. None of the kids is aware of how Pearl interacts with the other siblings, which heightens family tensions.

Privilege and class undermine the relationships. Elena, intending to be generous, bullies Mia into cleaning house for the Richardsons, in addition to her job at a Chinese restaurant. Lexie gives Mia castoff clothes, which Pearl is happy to have, but Mia resents.

Race becomes a central issue when Mia’s friend and coworker Bebe, an impoverished Chinese immigrant, seeks to regain custody of her daughter Mei Ling, who has been adopted by the Richardson’s wealthy, childless white friends.

Much good material. But despite intriguing characters and set-up, the book strained credibility. Even allowing for being set in a pre-digital age, could Mia really disappear so completely every year or so? While the Richardson kids are more than character sketches, none of them feels fully realized. Interestingly, Izzy, who sets the novel in motion, is the least developed.

Sometimes in her effort to contrast Elena and Mia, along with the life choices they’ve made, Ng drifts into stereotyping. The book is a pretty good read but not as believable or affecting as Everything I Never Told You.

What books do YOU recommend?

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The Book That Needed to be Written

Elizabeth di Grazia

Elizabeth di Grazia

House of Fire,is a book that needed to be written. I was the one to write it. I didn’t ask for sexual abuse to happen to me. I didn’t ask to get pregnant from brothers. But, I did. Who else could write this book but me? Who else to tell the story of how I came out of the hell that I lived as a teenager? Who else to tell the story of how I created a loving family? Who else to say to others who have gone through similar hells that they, too, can survive and have a good life? Who else to tell them that trauma doesn’t need to define them, that they are bigger than their stories?

The fact is many of us could have written this book. The next time you see a group of children, consider this: 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are a victim of sexual abuse. When a child is raped, 46 percent of the time, the perpetrator is a family member, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice. Those statistics suggest many stories. I hope to open a dialogue to change those statistics – and innocent lives – for the better.

R. Vincent Moniz, Jr.

R. Vincent Moniz, Jr.

House of Fire took me over twenty years to write. It took a lot longer than that for ink to meet paper. But, it did. I tried many forms to tell this story: poetry, fiction, and essays. I kept coming back to nonfiction. This story did happen. This story happened to me.

Healing takes time and work. When the day arrived that House of Fire was to be published, I was ready to stand at the podium as a statement that people can and do survive trauma and their dreams can come true. When you look at me, you won’t see the sexual abuse, the pregnancies, or the trauma. I don’t wear my past as a tattoo. You’ll see me in my allness. My smile, my kindness, my gentleness, and my happiness. You’ll see the peace that I have found.

House of Fire is not a tale of woe. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, but most of all you will be left with hopefulness.

I invite you join me on September 30th for a powerful night of stories and to celebrate the publication of House of Fire. Sharing the platform with me is a range of successful artists. When I first talked with Sherrie Fernandez-Williams, program director, of the Loft Literary Center she suggested I curate an event to celebrate my publication. I chose the title, Finding Your Bones. Sometimes the only thing of substance left after trauma is you, the bones of who you are. The artists who will be with me have in their own right found their bones and their stories. Wine and appetizers will follow the event.

Keno Evol

Keno Evol

Below are the artists’ bios:

An active force in the Twin Cities artistic community, R. Vincent Moniz, Jr. has received numerous literary awards and fellowships for his writing and live performances. The current and reigning IWPS Indigenous SLAM champion, he has performed spoken word all over the country, and parts unknown. A Nu’Eta enrolled citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes located on the Ft. Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Vincent was raised in the Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis in the long long ago in the before time.

Poet, essayist and activist Keno Evol is a six year educator having taught at nineteen institutions across the state of Minnesota. He has served as the chair of the Youth Advisory Board for TruArtSpeaks. A nonprofit in St Paul, dedicating to cultivating literacy, leadership and social justice through Hip Hop.

Evol has received numerous grants and competed nationally as a spoken word artist. Evol has been published in Poetry Behind The Walls and on platforms such as Gazillion Voices Magazine , Black Girl In Om, and TC Organizer.

Christine Stark

Christine Stark

Evol has performed, taught workshops and led professional development in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Washington DC, Arkansas, Minnesota and New York. He has gone on to teach Spoken Word poetry in high schools such as Washburn High, Brooklyn Center High, MNIC High, PYC, Paladin Academy, Creative Arts and John Glenn Middle School.

He has appeared on TPT and Urban Perspectives. He navigates noting Patricia Hill Collins as she has stated “My work has always been bigger than my job.”

Writer, visual artist, and organizer, Christine Stark’s first novel, Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation, was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Her writing has appeared in periodicals and books, including Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prize-Winning Essays; When We Become Weavers: Queer Female Poets on the Midwestern Experience; The Florida Review, and many others. A Loft Mentor Series winner, Stark is currently completing her second novel and conducting research for a nonfiction book.

I hope you’ll join us for an evening of powerful truth-telling.

September 30, 2016 at the Loft Literary Center, 1011 Washington Ave. S, Minneapolis

5 Procrastination Tips Writers Can Really Get Behind With

  1. Read the newspaper thoroughly while eating breakfast. Beside the news, be sure to read the book reviews and the funnies. It’s important to know who’s being published and by whom. And the funnies help you keep your perspective.
  2. Those dishes aren’t doing themselves. Before tackling revisions, better get the dishes out of the way. That food will be congealed and disgusting later.
  3. Don’t be antisocial. It’s been days since you’ve scrolled (and trolled) through Facebook and Twitter. How will you ever build an author’s platform if you don’t keep up?
  4. Pay a few bills. If you leave them, they might get lost among the stacks of How-to Write-More-Effectively books you haven’t finished.
  5. 15 minutes isn’t enough time to do anything. Better to start fresh tomorrow. Whoa! Where’d the time go?

Do you have any tips for how to be a better procrastinator?

Will Our Grandchildren Even Need Bookcases?

How much longer will bookcases be prized as places where knowledge and inspiration reside? For hundreds of years people have built everything from simple pine shelves to the finest mahogany and oak bookcases to house their treasured books. But ebooks are replacing paper books. Instead of paging through a book, more of us turn to the Internet for information and open iPads or Kindles for the stories we love. I began pondering this cultural shift when I emptied my bookcases before moving to a smaller home last year.

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Deciding what to discard was difficult. I love my books. No, really. I love my books. When I picked up each one, I felt a tug of recognition and pleasure that quickly turned into a pang of sadness. As the afternoon wore on, I was knee-deep in books and accumulated nostalgia.

My books represented my intellectual history, and therefore, my own history. The philosophy textbooks and literary classics came from my undergraduate days. During graduate school I added feminist poetry, stories, essays, and novels. Because they were scarce in the late 1970s, my friends and I shared them like contraband. The ideas I found in those pages challenged me to reconsider many of my beliefs.

Some of my books are novels by authors I just love (Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Tim O’Brien, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Simon Mawer, Aravind Adiga—I could go on and on). Their stories transported me to other times and cultures and enriched me with insights that I wouldn’t have had any other way. How could I let go of these old friends?

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At least a dozen of the books are by authors I know personally. Pamela Gemin. Cynthia Kraack. George Rabasa. Sherry Roberts. The anthologies that published my essays are also stored there.

Essay collections by Marion Winik, Ellen Goodman, Barbara Kingsolver, Bailey White and others mark my ongoing effort to learn the craft of writing personal essays.

I have shelves of books on writing—from the grammar handbook I used in my first teaching job to books about the craft of writing memoir. I have books about how to get published and how to promote a book. P1040205

After a while, discarding the physical books became easier. I thought about how long it had been since I opened some of them and realized they meant something once, but no longer. I reminded myself that if I needed to reread a certain Wilfred Owen poem, I could find it online.

I needed to let go of the intellectual fantasy that one day a visiting friend would look at my books and say, “So what do you think of Kant’s The Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics?” or ask “How has Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets and Silence? influenced you?” When friends visit, we hang out in the kitchen—no one but family ever sees my office. And really? I know who I am and what ideas formed me—without these emblems to remind me.

Besides, there are plenty of books that I love but don’t own. Long ago I realized that I couldn’t possibly own every book I wanted to read. Many of my favorite books belong to the public library or to friends.

These days, I keep many of my books on my iPad—my own personal and very portable bookcase. So many books in such a small space! I can take them anywhere. I never have to be without a good book.

At Christmas, when I received hardcover books from my sons I was surprised—I assumed they would give me e-books. I’m delighted with their gifts, but I was startled to realize that my paradigm has shifted.

Today, I have one foot in the paper world and one foot in the digital world. I’ve pared down my collection of books, and it makes me happy to think of someone else enjoying the ones I gave away. There still are plenty of books I’m not prepared to part with. But going forward, I will have fewer paper books. My future grandchildren may view paper books and wooden bookcases as quaint artifacts and that’s OK.

I’ve come to realize that what I really love are stories and ideas. They can reside on the page or on the screen.