Little Fires Everywhere

Unknown-2   Rather than putting out small fires to keep ahead, Celeste Ng proposes letting them roar and flame to cleanse and start anew in her novel Little Fires Everywhere.  The story begins with a fire destroying a house, but with the reassurance of lives saved, and possibly renewed.  As Ng backtracks to lead the reader to the moment of flameout, her characters expose how differences can be threatening as well as as freeing.

Mia, a talented artist who settles into a small town outside of Cleveland, is the heart of the story.  Leading a vagabond life with her teen-age daughter, Pearl, Mia works as a waitress to sustain her real vocation in art. Although the mother and daughter usually stay only a short time in a town, leaving after Mia completes her latest art work and ships it to New York for sale, this time they plan to stay longer – maybe settling.

Their landlord is Elena Richardson with family roots dating back generations, connecting  to political and social wealth.  Having opted for small town prestige rather than dangerous adventure in the outside world, she returned to the town after graduation, worked as a journalist for the small town newspaper, married her college sweetheart who became the town attorney, had four children in five years, and comfortably settled into a predictable life.  Three of her children follow the same formula: Tripp, the eldest handsome seventeen year old with dimples and success in sports – the high school ladies man; Lexie, the popular and pretty sixteen year old girl; Moody, intelligent and quieter than his siblings.  They are all elegant foils for the artsy freedom and open-mindedness of Mia and Pearl.

Only the youngest, Izzy, seems to fall out of pattern, stretching the limits and often getting into trouble – but for all the right reasons.   The author tells us Izzy has set the fire, but it takes reading to the end of the novel to discover her motivation.

As the author slowly unravels each character’s background, she offers reasons for their inclinations and actions.  Several unlikely connections begin to proliferate the tension and drama: Pearl and Moody become friends, Elena hires Mia to clean her house and cook her meals in exchange for rent, and Elena’s childhood friend who cannot have children tries to adopt an abandoned Chinese baby.

With astute observations of how this WASP community operates, Ng cleverly exposes their underlying prejudice.  Of course, none of the townspeople would see their zoning or country club style of living as restrictive.  After all, Lexie has a Black boyfriend whose parents are compared to the Cosby television series parents – lawyer and doctor with upper middle class mores.  And the few Asians who go to school with Elena’s children fit the stereotype of bright and polite.  The courtroom scene may be the highlight of Ng’s final thrust at ignorance when the Asian attorney questions Elena’s friend about her intentions for raising a Chinese baby; her claims of instilling culture by eating at a Chinese restaurant and reading the children’s book The Five Chinese Brothers should make the reader cringe.

Elena Richardson’s relentless pursuit to uncover Mia’s past reminded me of a comment I heard directed at a group of women.  This disingenuously polite discussion leader noted her dislike for anyone not willing to share personal secrets because, after all, she claimed, friendships are only formed when persons of interest are willing to open up and expose their vulnerable sides.  The notion scared me; why would I want anyone, everyone, to know all about me, especially someone like Elena, who proved her willingness to use information to destroy.  We all let pieces of ourselves seep out, as needed, and only a few trusted friends know more about us than others who stay on the periphery of relationships.  For Elena, knowledge was power, but only within the parochial confines of her small world.  For Mia, small-mindedness had no place in her world.

Mia’s relationships with Pearl and Izzy create a safe haven, as she doggedly pursues her art.  As Mia’s past life is slowly revealed, her character becomes more and more in contrast to Elena.  Ng uses Mia as a sympathetic voice for women who do what they must to survive and thrive – outside society’s norms.  By the end, I had respect for Mia, despite some of her decisions, and pity for Elena.

If you read Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, you know she thrives on mystery.  I’ve added her to my short list of authors like Patchett and Shreve who always deliver a good story; I can’t wait for her next book.

 

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The Chalk Artist

9781400069873_p0_v1_s192x300   Allegra Goodman cleverly combines the worlds of computer gaming with poetry and art in The Chalk Artist.  Through her three main characters’ disparate interests: a young man, Colin James,  with a untapped artistic talent; his true love, Nina Lazare, a struggling idealistic teacher; and a bright teenager caught in the hypnotic trance of an imaginary computer game world, Goodman addresses their common element – the need to relax into themselves to find happiness.  But this is not a book about art or romance or happiness; it is about gaming.

Just as Nathan Hill used one of his characters in The Nix to demonstrate the evil effects of addiction to computer games, Goodman targets the dangers of living in the virtual world by having her teenage character, Aiden, play to exhaustion and eventual hospitalization.  Hill had his character sleep his way into a new life, but Aiden’s addiction is harder to kick.  Surprisingly, his young English teacher, Nina Lazarre, leads the way with poetry.

In a complicated riff on the effects of computer games on teenagers, Goodman connects her characters with the game itself.  Nina’s father is the wealthy game developer.  Recognizing Colin’s potential when she meets him waiting tables and drawing on chalkboards, she helps him get a job drawing dragons and avatars for her father’s new game.  Through a marketing ploy, Aiden, who happens to be in Nina’s American literature high school English class, gains access to the unpublished game, and falls into the pit of nonstop playing, disregarding his school work, his family, his life.

The story jumps around from Colin’s descent from pure artistry to the cynical world of marketable images for the company, then to Nina’s frustration over not being able to convey the magic of Shakespeare to eleventh graders, then to Aiden’s downfall from A student to disaffected drone in school.

Goodman’s descriptions of the virtual world have the most impact, as Aiden’s gaming takes on more reality than the real world.  The effect of dissolving, at times, into a movie set rivaling The Neverending Story or The Hobbit can be disconcerting, and its believability easily demonstrates how Aiden could have difficulty leaving a place where he is a knight conquering monsters to return to his teenage world of angst and uncertainty.

Sometimes the action seems as fast and furious as the virtual gaming the author is describing, and connecting the three plot lines can be a little harrowing.  Not everyone will appreciate Goodman’s style, but her intent is clear.  Eventually, Aiden finds his way by participating in a poetry recitation contest.  The sixteen year old finds wisdom through an Ezra Pound poem that demonstrates the universality of his feelings, realizing that “these lines scared him,” that “a stranger had been telling his secrets, publishing his dreams before he was born.”   English teachers all over the world who read these lines will rejoice and have their faith restored – someone finally got it.

If you get to the ending, you will find it dutifully romantic, with a final nod against the computer world, as Colin leaves his lucrative yet artistically confining job to find true love with Nina, and venture into the indie-animation world.

Not a compelling book, The Chalk Artist was easy to put down.  Nevertheless, Goodman, who has a Ph.D. in English, had a clear message – good literature outweighs virtual reality, and relationships are far more important than video games or chalk dust.

 

The Excellent Lombards

If I hadn’t read Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, I may have missed Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards. Patchett recommended the book as “the book Hamilton was born to write.” Like Patchett’s Commonwealth, The Excellent Lombards focuses on a family, and has some biographical references from its author. Coincidentally, both books also have a character named Frances.

Since Hamilton tells this coming of age story through the voice of twelve year old Mary Frances Lombard living with her family on a small Wisconsin apple and sheep farm at the end of the twentieth century, the rhythm of the narrative is hard to follow at first. Ownership of the farm lands has been passed down through generations and is now shared by Jim Lombard, Frankie’s father, his cousin Sherwood, and an elderly aunt May Hill. Everyone from old May Hill to the children, Frankie and her brother, William, work the farm, except Nellie, Frankie’s mother who is the town librarian.

Frankie is determined to stay on the farm forever, imagining a long life there with her brother, but the small farm struggle against land development and innovative crops, as well as inner family rivalries, threaten her dream. Change is hard, especially when you don’t want to grow up.

Hamilton, of course, has a message for the reader through tense moments at town hall meetings or around the dinner table, but the novel’s humor, cleverly flowing through Frankie, kept my attention – from her pushing the library carts through the halls in a synchronized dance routine to being locked in the old lady’s bedroom while she was sharpening her spying skills.  Frankie will go to extremes to keep everyone happy, purposely losing the geography bee to her younger lispy cousin to make her feel better.

Hamilton touches on historic moments such as the terrorist attack on the New York City Towers, but only as placements in time. The real terror is the developing history noone can stop. The story ends with Frankie facing her own possibilities, opportunities, and obstacles – some seem inevitable. With grace and wit, Hamilton delivers her perspective on the difficulty of letting go.

News of the World

9780062409201_p0_v5_s192x300 What a ride – with a seventy-one year old and a ten year old on the road together in Texas soon after the Civil War.  Paulette Jiles’ short book – News of the World – has the fast paced adventure of an old Western.

When Captain Kidd agrees to deliver a young blond girl back to her German family in San Antonio, he creates an unlikely partnership.  Captured by the Kiowa tribe when she was six years old, the girl only knows the ways of her adopted family. She speaks no English and bridles at the uncomfortable clothes she is forced to wear.  Captain Kidd, a seasoned army sergeant and former printer, works like Mark Twain on the road,  reading newspaper stories on stage to the interested and illiterate, as he tries to make money in his retirement.

Although the girl, named Johanna by the Captain, is wary and angry, her intelligence and skills in tribal warfare help the Captain overcome their first adversaries, men from another tribe intent on capturing and selling her into child prostitution (“blond girls are premium”).  As they continue their journey, Johanna and Kidd bond, with her calling him Grandpa and he protecting and teaching her through a series of adventures – some humorous, some frightening.

The plot line is direct and Jiles provides a satisfying ending, but Jiles’ vivid descriptions are the real story.  Her historical notes of the unrest and hardships after the Civil War immerse the reader into another time – the wild West just as it is beginning to develop.  Through the relationship between the Captain and the girl, the author cleverly reveals their two disparate  backgrounds, while maintaining the common denominators of human kindness and priorities for values worth having.

I came across Jiles’ book just as I finished reading the first book of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.  The densely packed Justine had left me wanting a story more readable and with a less cynical view; News of the World delivered.  Jiles’ book is short and focused, and redeemed my notion of books delivering  an escape and possibly some wisdom.  One of the phrases I will remember:

“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we  are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”

The News of the World was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

9781594203985_p0_v4_s192x300 Although Zadie Smith’s Swing Time tells the story of two London friends – girls from the hood who grow up together, one with talent, the other with ambition – Guardian reviewer Taiye Selasi  clearly identified Smith’s theme but it’s taking me awhile to digest it:

“Our narrator seeks above all a place where she belongs. That place is what a best friend, even an estranged one, can be, especially for a woman. Its comforts cannot be underestimated, not least in a life of great change. Like all of Smith’s novels, Swing Time has brilliant things to say about race, class, and gender, but its most poignant comment is perhaps this. Given who we are, who we are told that we are not, and who we imagine we might become, how do we find our way home?”

Tracey, with an absent father and an angry mother, is the talented dancer and rebel. “She wears flashy clothes, has lots of boyfriends and takes a lot of drugs.” The unnamed narrator is the good girl, who goes to college and eventually gets a job with Aimee, the celebrity stereotype.

I am still reading – about halfway through.  Smith uses the current popular writing style of alternating chapters from present to past, with the foundation of the girls’ lives offering rationale for their decisions later in life. I am finding the past more palatable and I like to linger over the stories of the best friends’ younger selves.  The chapters detailing Aimee’s much publicized efforts to build a school in an unnamed African country have been wearing.

This is probably a book I should have consumed in one swallow, but the holidays with time-consuming rituals distracted me.  The initial references to Fred Astaire movies and dance routines (hence the title) were also appropriate for the swinging back and forth in the girls’ lives but can make following the story difficult, and the narrator’s angst a little too heavy.

To help get me on track, I found the New York Times review by Holly Bass

Zadie’s Smith New Novel Takes on Dance, Fame, and Friendship

On the other hand, maybe I’ve read enough…