Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

When it comes to reading I’m quite fussy; it takes quite a lot to keep me interested. I admit I have the attention span of a small, very easily distracted child… and I’m 32… and it’s only getting worse! I’d heard great things about Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, even memorising the cover as it flashed past my eyes in an Instagram story one day thinking to myself that I should probably read it. The book had also popped up in Youtuber’s “favourites” videos and touted as one of the best reads of 2017. Late to the party as ever I gave in to the hype which would usually put me off.

The story begins in Shaker Heights, an Ohio neighbourhood where everything is planned. The houses are built to specification, the less affluent rent flats that from the exterior are purposefully made to give the illusion that only one family lives there, community rules include fines if lawns are above regulation height, and there is a social expectation that residents of the area are happier than most, successful with idyllic family lives.

We initially meet the Richardson’s, a typical Shaker Heights family, as their expensive and beautiful house burns to the ground. The fire department tells Elena Richardson (one of our central characters and mother to the Richardson family) that the blaze didn’t start from one place, it began as per the novel’s title: Little Fires Everywhere. Here we find ourselves suddenly in the midst of a mysterious fire set alight on each bed of the Richardson home as our other central character, Mia, and her teenage daughter leave town in a hurry.

Mia, a photographer and perpetual drifter, and her daughter rent an apartment in Shaker Heights from Elena and quickly become entwined with the Richardson family. Mia takes part-time work cleaning their household while her daughter Pearl becomes firm friends with the Richardson kids. But all turns sour as a local family adopt another local mother’s child against her will and from there the many threads of this story unravel.

The book itself is elegantly written and is a fascinating exploration of class, race, culture, and what it means to be a mother. There are moments that make the reader squirm with discomfort at both intentional and unintentional ignorance of some of the characters.

Overall it is a great read; intelligently written, compelling, and thought-provoking. I spent a while after I finished the book telling everyone who would listen that they should read it, especially if, like me, they can’t bear hype. I’ll be picking up Celeste Ng’s first novel soon as I enjoyed the way she writes so much.

Reading List: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Image of Big Magic Book

Liz and I have a somewhat odd relationship. We’ve never met and she has no idea who I am, yet I feel a familiarity about her. Perhaps because in all her writings as Elizabeth Gilbert, her voice seems so intrinsically “her” on the page that she could almost be sat across a table in a cafe, nursing a cup of something delightfully warm, imparting the kind of knowledge only your most trusted friend would supply.

If an audio book could show its well-thumbed, dog eared pages, you’d either be alarmed at the state of them or in complete awe of the mental notes pencilled across the margins of my copy of Eat, Pray, Love. Far behind the crowds by a long shot, I came across her years after the height of her success, during a turbulent time in my life, and that audio book played on repeat for several months, her voice the only thing that was able to soothe my mind’s darkest moments.

I’d pre ordered Big Magic with the intention of reading it as soon as the parcel dropped on my mat, but life happened (as it often does) and it became one of the few books I’d lean against the spines of the rest of my collection, as if to say “this one next…”

In the years that have passed since Liz and I last met on the pages of a book, I’d forgotten her a little, and as I read I found she was still the beautiful wordsmith I remembered; still filled with all the intelligence and wit in the world; an old friend who’d once guided me off the ledge of my own life allowing me to rebuild myself stronger yet different.

 

The important thing to remember… about that exhilarating encounter between a human being and divine creative inspiration… is that you cannot expect it to be there for you all the time. It will come and go, and you must let it come and go.

 

In Big Magic she talks about throwing all caution to the wind, taking the hand of creativity and inspiration when it appears, and skipping off down the path of an idea. It might be a dead end, none of us will know until we reach it. Maybe it will fork off into another more interesting idea or lead us to the masterpiece of our lives. Or not. Maybe. Perhaps. And if that spark of inspiration doesn’t come to play for months or years, what then? Are we destined to wait around for inspiration to rock up and present us with the best thing we’ve ever written, painted, or crocheted? Liz says it’s better for inspiration to find us working. In essence, don’t stop, even when it’s painful and everything you create feels like it’s not quite right, because eventually… inspiration will flit in through a gap in the tiles when you least expect it, and you’ve got to be ready.

The book explains the paradox of the need for creative fear: that although we shouldn’t nurture fear, it does come hand in hand with creativity, and we can’t throw a hissy fit about the fact it’s there. Nothing will change that. Fear is so instinctual in us; it’s a necessary part of human existence. The moment we stop experiencing fear is the moment we stop questioning, and those questions are as important as it is to know when to tell fear to sit down and shut up. Liz even goes as far as to prepare a welcoming speech of sorts, to both welcome and put fear in its place.

 

Dear Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job seriously. Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting – and, may I say, you are superb at your job. So by all means, keep doing your job, if you feel you must. But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but, understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. I recognize and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still – your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You’re not allowed to touch the road maps; you’re not allowed to suggest detours; you’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.

 

It’s also refreshing to hear the gentle, but just tough enough “Liz Gilbert Smackdown”. Yes, fear may try to hold you back, but you are also very much responsible for your ability to show up for the work. None of us should put all the blame on fear. This very week, for example, I’d cracked open the stash of Kalms I keep in the back of a kitchen cupboard in case of emergencies, to try to counteract the crippling anxiety that came over me every time I attempted to write something. I understand more than most that saying “feel the fear and do it anyway” isn’t always a feasible option when it comes to anxiety; there’s no rhyme nor reason to it, but I know where it started. FEAR.

What made me keep coming back to the keyboard this week, was the notion that I had a choice. I could choose to let fear and anxiety win or I could continue to do my part, show up, sit, even if it yielded no notable work whatsoever.

But I would show the fuck up.

And I did. And it felt good.

Reading: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

wild cheryl strayed

It has taken me a good few months to finish Wild and that’s not to say that it’s a bad read, because it’s far from it; it’s a fantastic book. When I started it back at the beginning of the year I knew I would struggle with it. Right from the moment I read the blurb on the back which told me that Cheryl had lost her mother to cancer very rapidly and everything had fallen apart from there, I knew. This would be tough to get through because I’m still dealing with the same issue, 10 years after my own mum died.

I celebrated making it through the first chapter, put the book down and didn’t pick it up again until a few months later. To be honest, it frightened me that what I’d find inside these 300 or so pages would tear me open again and it did. But the beauty of this book for me was that I no longer felt alone. As emotionally difficult as this was to read for me, there were many times that Cheryl was speaking my life and my feelings on to the pages.

There is a section where Cheryl feels anger towards her mum for dying and she so succinctly put into words what I have never been able to, feelings I didn’t even know I felt…

    “It was wrong. It was so relentlessly awful that my mother had been taken from me. I couldn’t even hate her properly. I didn’t get to grow up and pull away from her and bitch about her with my friends and confront her about all the things I wish she’d done differently and then get older and understand that she had done the best she could and realize that she had done pretty damn good and take her fully back into my arms again. Her death had obliterated that. It had obliterated me. It had cut me short at the very height of my youthful arrogance. It had forced me to instantly grow up and forgive her every motherly fault at the same time that it kept me forever as a child, my life both ended and begun in that premature place where we’d left off. She was my mother, but I was motherless. I was trapped by her but utterly alone. She would always be the empty bowl that no one could fill. I’d have to fill it myself again and again and again.” – Wild, Cheryl Strayed

What I love about the book is that I feel a huge connection with the story. It seems so similar to mine, you know apart from the affairs and heroin… Having hiked a little myself, I enjoyed following the author along the trail, being as relieved as she was to get to the box at the end of each few hundred miles and, having never experienced it or even knowing it is, I now crave Snapple like there’s no tomorrow! As I finished reading it was as if I’d hiked the PCT myself only I, thankfully, still have all my toenails in tact.

Read it. Please.

Have you read Wild? What are your thoughts on it?

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Reading: Kale and Coffee by Kevin Gianni

kale and coffee kevin gianni

Kicking off this reading series is a book which I wasn’t searching for. It suddenly popped up as a suggestion of something I maybe, possibly, thank you, please, might like to read as I browsed Amazon for books about blogging. How the internet knew about my current OBSESSION with nomadic tales I just don’t know… Recent reads include Tracks and Wild. Apparently I must have alerted the internet powers when repeatedly searching for terms like “living in a camper van” and “hippy buses for sale” on a daily basis… But anyway I got completely sucked in by the description of the book which detailed how the author traveled across the US in an RV with his wife and toddler while trying to discover what the meaning of true health and well-being truly is.

 

Now before I go further into what the book is about here’s what it is not about: traveling America in an RV. I know. I too came away disappointed not to hear more about life on the road, however that’s not to say I didn’t find it enjoyable, I actually couldn’t put it down which is unusual for me because I get distracted very easily! What it is however is a journey through what makes a healthy lifestyle and it was so refreshing to read something that was:

  1. a) Funny. How often can you say that about a health book?!
  2. b) Relatable

Kevin was a vegan and raw-food vegan at that because he thought that was the most healthy lifestyle until he got a wake up call from his doctor who pointed out to him that actually it wasn’t working out for him. So he packs it in, starts eating meat, eating only organically, packs on some weight, goes back to the doctor again who tells him… errrr yeah this ain’t working either. The book is in essence a push and pull between the extremes of health and wellness and what he ends up discovering is that what we think is healthy isn’t necessarily and vice versa; the facts are very interesting particularly the section on coffee and caffeine. It’s certainly given me some food for thought… (Oh the puns! Haha)

What I really liked about this book was that compared to your typical book on this topic, peppered with anecdotes from the journey across America, each chapter led into the next with such ease that I just kept reading, I found it funny and yet I still learned an awful lot.

It covers diet, exercise, mental and emotional stability, and asks what it is that makes some people live into their hundreds and others not. Turns out it all has a lot to do with your genes. What works for one person isn’t always a good fit for the other and that is really something quite lovely to read these days when, especially as a woman of 30, all I hear about is the latest diet that WILL make me lose weight, the exercise program that will make me the fittest I’ve ever been and if they don’t I am probably doing it wrong. This book has definitely changed the focus for me. Instead of being told what is the healthiest option for me it occurs to me that it’s important to do  your  own research, knowing my own body, and telling myself what it is that I need to make myself healthier.

If you’re interested in the varying aspects of what makes up a healthy lifestyle I’d say this is a good book to read and one I will be returning to again once I’ve cleared my backlog of new books!

What’s your current read?

Next up: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

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