Recommended Reading: Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

As I read Little Fires Everywhere*, Celeste Ng’s excellent second novel (after the wonderful, heartbreaking Everything I Never Told You), I kept wondering if this is what it feels like for a New Yorker to read a novel set in New York.

Little Fires Everywhere is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. Ms. Ng graduated from Shaker High, and I did too, a few years later; I delighted in all the Shaker- and Cleveland-specific detail in the book (The tiny trash scooters! The murals in the high school! The egress! The Lusty Wrench! Yours Truly!). It was almost surreal to know a novel’s setting so well.

In the novel and in actuality Shaker Heights is racially diverse, and a sizable contingent of the population is liberal and affluent. But its late-90s talk of “colorblindness” masked (masks) an undercurrent of discomfort when it comes to taking on issues of race and class—discomfort at which Ms. Ng takes careful aim. And goodness, does she ever hit her mark.

The Richardson family is the kind of family people tend to associate with the city: Mr. Richardson is an attorney. His wife, Elena (“Mrs. Richardson” for most of the novel, a subtle nod to her need to mark status), her journalistic ambitions thwarted by motherhood and sexism, is a reporter for the Sun Press, a local paper. They have a big house, nice cars, and four children who attend the excellent public high school (no joke, there’s a planetarium).

Lexie and Trip are popular kids, set to be successful in the same way their parents are; Izzy, the youngest, has a contrarian streak and clashes most often with her mother. But it’s Moody, the quiet sophomore, who brings Mia and Pearl Warren into their lives.

After more than a decade roaming the country, taking odd jobs to finance her art and buying furniture and clothes at thrift stores, photographer Mia decides to settle in Shaker with her daughter Pearl. They rent the second floor of a duplex owned by the Richardsons, and when Moody rides his bike over to have a look at the new tenants, he and Pearl become friends.

Over time, the two families intertwine in subtle ways, but the precarious social balance they’ve struck is upset when Cleveland is gripped by the case of little Mirabelle McCullough/ May Ling Chow. The baby was left at a fire station by her mother, Bebe, and taken in by the McCulloughs, a Shaker couple desperate for a child. When Bebe Chow appeals for help to get her baby back, the resulting furor puts Mia and Elena, already separated by class and lifestyle, on opposite sides of the bitter debate, with disastrous consequences.

The conflict gives us a window into how structural inequality can separate a mother from a child, how white people who consider themselves liberal find their sensibilities shocked (and fight back) when one of their own is threatened, how comfort constrains compassion.

What would she have done if she’d been in that situation? Mrs. Richardson would ask herself this question over and over [ . . .] Each time, faced wth this impossible choice, she came to the same conclusion: I would never have let myself get into that situation, she told herself. I would have made better choices along the way.

The strengths of Little Fires Everywhere are numerous, from its seemingly effortless prose to its command of more than half a dozen nuanced character arcs. Ms. Ng captures the insecurities of teenagers and adults with humor and sympathy; her characters make poor decisions, certainly, but we always understand why.

I loved this book about motherhood, privilege, art, and impossible choices. Highly recommended.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

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“Going home / behind the curtain”: Farewell, Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen books photo by Carolyn Oliver

He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat
from “Going Home”

If you’re a longtime reader of R&RG, you know about my devotion to Leonard Cohen. His death wasn’t public when I wrote the post quoting “Anthem” right after the election last week, but now I realize how strange it was that I used the past tense to talk about him—I almost always use the present when writing about living authors. The news of his death wasn’t shocking  (his last album, You Want It Darker, which is amazing, is also a farewell; and then there was his last letter to Marianne Ihlen, who died this summer), but it was heartbreaking nonetheless.

I can’t muster much more at the moment, except to commend his books to your reading and his albums to your listening; recommendations available upon request.

Rest well, Leonard. Endless love, see you down the road.

Here’s a 2014 review of Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, edited by Jeff Burger.


I’m fairly certain that I would have spent my high school years as perpetually moody and angst-ridden as Molly Ringwald in any given John Hughes movie had it not been for Theatre (capital-T, said in your best Addison DeWitt voice).

To the Shaker Heights High School Theatre Arts Program (yes, it’s really called that) I owe a debt of gratitude: for leading me to my two best friends in high school, one of whom I met when she was tasked with teasing my nearly waist-length hair so that it would stand straight out from my head; for playwriting class; for teaching me the world “décolletage”; for the knowledge that I should never, ever wear flesh-tone spandex; for the chance to eat lunches with friends in Room 129; for the ability to recite, in perfect tandem with any other alum, “Shaker Theater events are non-smoking, non-drinking, non-drug-using, safe-driving, recycling events”; and for Leonard Cohen.

The department chair, Mr. Thornton, had a fondness for the Canadian singer-songwriter, and from the moment I heard that smoky voice singing “The Window,” I was hooked. I used my babysitting money to buy his albums, talked so much about him that my parents knew to get me Ten New Songs for my birthday, and hoped Leonard Cohen would tour someday so that I could see him live. One of the stupidest things I’ve ever done is not begging, borrowing, or stealing enough money to see him in concert in Boston in 2012.

photo 3 (5)Before he became famous, relatively late (he was in his thirties) as a singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen was a poet and novelist whose work earned him comparisons with James Joyce, even if it didn’t pay the bills. Music did, and more than forty-five years after the release of Songs of Leonard Cohen, the dapper and impeccably polite poet is a musical legend.

photo 2 (14)I was so entranced by his music that it wasn’t until college that I went looking for Mr. Cohen’s published poetry and fiction.  Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) which I recently re-read, is raw and energetic, the work of a young idealist who’s afraid the world is already lost. Book of Mercy (my favorite of the collections) is often called a modern book of psalms, although in an interview Mr. Cohen characterized them as “more conversations with the absolute” (148). The prose-poems — fifty of them — are prayers of great sadness and great longing. Here’s part of my favorite (19): “O beloved speaking, O comfort whispering in the terror, unspeakable explanation of the smoke and cruelty, undo the self-conspiracy, let me dare the boldness of joy.” It’s the same voice — almost mystic, worldly, sad — from “The Window”:

Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host
Gentle this soul

Like his poetry, Leonard Cohen’s songs are about the difficulties of love, of living, of dying; he sings about a world that’s broken and the people trying and often failing to keep the pieces together. He writes songs about betrayal, sex, faith, politics. A reviewer once famously said that it was “music to slit your wrists to,” but I’ve never found it anything but comforting, occasionally funny (see “Tower of Song”), and very, very beautiful. I’m not the only one.

photo 1 (17)Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters*, edited by Jeff Burger and recently published by Chicago Review Press, is a book meant for fans of the man who wrote not only “Suzanne” and “First We Take Manhattan” and yes, the ubiquitous “Hallelujah” (for the record, I like Leonard’s version best, followed by Jeff Buckley’s, followed by John Cale’s, then k d lang’s), but also Book of Mercy and Beautiful Losers and The Spice-Box of Earth. Judiciously selected interviews from Mr. Cohen’s four decades in the music industry trace the evolution of his public persona even as they illuminate aspects of his personal life and career that aren’t widely talked about. (Did you know he once made a signature drink for his band? I do now, and I’ll be mixing up a few batches this summer.)

What comes across in these interviews — which the interviewers themselves note in their interviews with Mr. Burger — is Leonard Cohen’s graciousness, his sense of humor, and his modesty. He unflappably fields predictable questions about his lack of commercial success in the U.S., speaks well of every woman he’s been romantically linked with, and pokes fun of himself (he riffs on his early albums’ bland (“neutral”) titles by joking that he’ll call the next one Songs in English [163].) He’s completely open about the grueling process of songwriting (he’ll write dozens and dozens of stanzas for one song, rejecting all but a few; songs often take years to complete), his difficulties with romantic relationships, and, in the later interviews, about his struggles with depression. Most longtime Leonard Cohen fans know that he spent years in relative isolation at a Zen center outside Los Angeles, but these interviews offer a fuller view of what those years were like, which I found particularly fascinating.

With more than five hundred pages of interviews (several never before translated into English, some transcribed from the raw footage of television interviews), it’s not surprising that some material is repetitive. Interviewers ask questions asked many times before, and sometimes Mr. Cohen’s answers retread ground already broken. Still, the book is a treasure trove, and worth reading just for the interviewers with specialized backgrounds who share long, knowledgable conversations with Mr. Cohen on songwriting and his Jewish background, among other subjects. Rarely did four or five pages pass without me turning down a corner to come back to an idea or a phrase; choosing favorite passages and quotes for this review proved an impossible task. But here’s a snippet from a conversation the editor had with interviewer Thom Jurek, who spoke with Leonard Cohen in 1993:

Jurek recalled asking Cohen why it had taken so long after the release of The Future for him to tour. “He explained that it was because backing vocalist Julie Christensen had borne a child; it was important to hold off on the tour to give the new family time to bond.” What about finding another singer? Cohen said he hadn’t even considered that. “The reason, he said– and I am pretty sure I remember this by heart–was: ‘She shouldn’t be punished for bringing life into the world.’

This from a man who says, “We cannot forestall the apocalypse. The bomb has already gone off. We are now living in the midst of its aftermath. The question is: how can we live with this knowledge with grace and kindness?” (507).

There is a risk in books of this kind — as in meeting a favorite author — that the subject will be demystified in some way, will appear all too human, which is not, after all, how we prefer our idols. This isn’t the case with Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen. For all his foibles and favored anecdotes, the man is consistently human in the best sense of the word: compassionate, invested in the welfare of others, deeply concerned with ideas. I came away admiring him, and loving his work, even more.


Related:

An Interview with Jeff Burger, Editor of Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen.

“Going Home”

Review of So Long, Marianne

New Yorker profile of Leonard Cohen (October 2016)

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of this review.

An Interview with Celeste Ng, Author of Everything I Never Told You

Recently I reviewed Celeste Ng’s luminous debut novel, Everything I Never Told You.
Ms. Ng graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of Everything I Never Told You? What was the writing process like?

Celeste Ng Author photograph (c) Kevin Day Photography

Celeste Ng
Author photograph (c) Kevin Day Photography

CN: For me, stories almost always start with images. In this case, my husband happened to tell me that when he was a kid, he was at a friend’s house when his friend pushed his own little sister into a lake. When my husband told it, it was a funny anecdote—his parents had to come pick him up early, because wow, was his friend in trouble—but for some reason that image of a girl falling into water stuck with me. I am a terrible swimmer myself, so maybe my fear of water had something to do with it. It transformed into something quite different—in the novel, Lydia is a teenager, for one, and it’s not clear how she ended up in the water. But that was the seed that started the story.

I began the novel when I was completing my MFA at the University of Michigan, in the spring of 2006, and I wrote 4 drafts before finishing the book in 2012. So it was a long process, with a lot of changes in between: I finished school, I moved, I had a baby. I like to think that long gestation made for a better novel.

 What led you to choose to set the novel in the 1970s?

Everything I Never Told You_COliverCN: As I got to know these characters, I realized that the 1970s was a time that highlighted all of the struggles they faced. Interracial marriages have become more common now, but in the 1970s—to say nothing of the decades earlier—Marilyn and James would really have turned heads. Asians weren’t as much of a presence yet, either. And Marilyn’s dream of becoming a doctor was much more poignant in that time period—she would have been in college in the 1950s, when medicine would have been a hard path for a woman. It made my heart ache to know her daughter could have that opportunity, but that Marilyn never really would.

I also found that the 1970s allowed a bigger sense of mystery. We have a lot of ways of finding and knowing people now—we can track them by the GPS in their cell phones, or we can look at their browser history and see what websites they were looking at, or check what they posted on Twitter or Facebook for insight into their thoughts. But in the 1970s, of course, there were no cell phones, no internet, no social media. I wanted Lydia’s family to have to face that information void, to have to face a lot of unanswered questions about her life.

The structure of the novel modulates (seemingly) effortlessly between the past and present, between children and parents. How did you arrive at this structure?

CN: The structure took a lot of work. As I said earlier, I went through four drafts of this novel, and every one of them had a major structural change. I tried telling the story in parts—a few chapters when Lydia’s body is discovered, then a few chapters of Marilyn’s past, then a few chapters of James’s—but that broke up the momentum. I tried braiding the different timelines together, but it got confusing. I tried a lot of things! I ended up having to change the viewpoint as well as the structure, using an omniscient narrator to help make connections between past and present. The story itself stayed relatively constant throughout; it just took a long time to figure out how best to tell that story.

Much of the conflict in Everything I Never Told You involves longstanding miscommunication and misperceptions. What’s something you hope readers take from the novel back to their own lives?

CN: I hope readers will finish the book thinking about the ways they might misunderstand people close to them, and about the assumptions they might be making about others. We assume so much, all the time—we fill in a lot of gaps in conversation and relationships. We draw a lot of inferences about what it means when someone calls you or doesn’t, when someone gives you something or doesn’t, when someone comes to your birthday party or your brother’s funeral or your dance recital, or doesn’t. But we don’t always interpret those gestures and words correctly. It’s hard to say to someone, “Wait, what do you actually mean by that?” A lot of times it’s easier to hear things the way you want to hear them than to ask questions and listen.

On your website, you write that you grew up in a family of scientists. How did that influence your writing? When did you first think of becoming a writer?

CN: I always wanted to be a writer, but didn’t think it was an actual job you could do. So I spent most of my childhood and adolescence planning to write “on the side” while I held another job: paleontologist, astronaut, journalist, book editor. By the time I finished college, I was planning to get a Ph.D. in English, teach college literature, and write on the side, when a mentor suggested I think about an MFA instead. I had no idea such a thing even existed. And it wasn’t until years after I finished the MFA that I started thinking writing could be something I could do professionally.

I actually think that growing up in a family of scientists helped me become a better writer.  From my family, I learned a particular scientific mindset: to look closely at things that puzzle you, to find anomalies more revealing than the norms, to think about cause and effect.  Most important, I think science taught me to believe that there is a logic and a system to the universe, and that—if you try hard enough, and look closely enough—you can illuminate at least a small part of it.  All of that feeds into my fiction.  If you look at science in that way, it’s an ideal training ground for a writer.

What’s next on your writing horizon?

CN: I’m working on another novel that’s actually set in our mutual hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio.  I won’t say too much about it yet, as I’m superstitious about such things. But as you know, Shaker Heights is an interesting place: it’s racially integrated and very well off, yet of course there are still issues of race, class, and culture that affect the city. And it has a lot of quirks, and a real concern with appearance. I always tell people about the garbage collection—how you’re not allowed to bring garbage to the curb, but you have to leave it in the back for the mini garbage-scooters to pick up and ferry to the big garbage truck, so that the front of the street never looks messy.  It’s such a fascinating place, so the new book deals—so far, anyway—with a family living in Shaker, and a mother and daughter who move there from out of town and unintentionally start to shake things up a little bit.

My thanks again to Ms. Ng for her time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about Ms. Ng, and Everything I Never Told You, on Ms. Ng’s website, www.celesteng.com. Follow Celeste Ng on Twitter: @pronounced_ing

Bostonians: You have two opportunities in July to hear Celeste Ng read from Everything I Never Told You!

July 23: BROOKLINE BOOKSMITH. 7:00 PM

279 Harvard Street
Brookline MA 02446

July 29: NEWTONVILLE BOOKS. 7:00 PM

10 Langley Road
Newton Centre
Newton, MA 02459