Everything I Never Told You: book review

everything i never

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Publisher: Penguin (June 2014). Literary fiction. Mystery/thriller. Hardcover. 304 pages. ISBN13: 9781594205712.

Everything I Never Told You is a heartbreaking exploration on race and identity in the late 1970s. It’s a near perfect novel about an imperfect family. Is there any better read. Author Celeste Ng writes in a sparse yet exquisitely descriptive style. This novel engulfs you from page one and you’ll still be thinking about it days and months after finishing. Lydia drowns and her family deals with the aftermath. Was it an accident or deliberate? How could this happen when 16-year-old Lydia was the perfect child destined for wonderful things? As the family mourns secrets emerge. Ng captures this interracial family’s angst and struggles to fit in among a white Midwestern society with style and finesse. Every character’s intriguing. You want to read and read as quickly as you can yet you never want the novel to end.

Marilyn wanted to be a doctor. But she was a white woman and it was the 50’s at Radcliffe. She met James Lee when she took one of his classes. They felt an immediate attraction: he to her because she made him fit in and she to him because he was an outsider and although she looked like many others in her heart she felt like one. A move to the Midwest and several children later and Marilyn’s a mother not a doctor. She abandoned her career and she resents it.

“It would bother Marilyn, for the rest of her life, that her mother had been right. She worked her way through chemistry, majored in physics, ticked the requirements for medical school off her list. Late at night while her roommate wound her curlers in her hair and patted cold cream on her cheeks and went to bed, Marilyn sipped double-strength tea and kept awake by picturing herself in a white doctor’s coat, laying a cool hand against a feverish forehead, touching a stethoscope to a patient’s chest. It was the furthest thing she could imagine from her mother’s life, where sewing a neat hem was a laudable accomplishment and removing beet stains from a blouse was cause for celebration. Instead she would blunt pain and staunch bleeding and set bones. She would save lives. Yet in the end it happened just as her mother predicted: she met a man.”

Lydia became the model child, the favorite child with her blue eyes and jet black hair. She received the majority of the attention. Eldest son Nathan receives good grades and will be attending Harvard but no one notices him that much. Youngest daughter Hannah was unplanned and thus nearly forgotten by her parents on a daily basis. Marilyn wanted Lydia to do everything that she was never able to do herself and that’s a ton of pressure for any teen, for any child. Just having a parent live vicariously through you and then having that parent push you from a young age to succeed must be stressful, miserable and provide no outlets for self-expression.

“But he didn’t want to remember all the other times his father had doted on Lydia but stared at him with disappointment flaring in his eyes, all the times their mother had praised Lydia but looked over and past and through him, as if he were made of air.”

It’s as if no one in the Lee family ever communicates with each other. Not really. But how often is this the case that later on after a tragedy someone will say they never realized something about someone. Both siblings hold suspicions about what happened to Lydia but their parents just won’t listen. Nathan recalls “how in the cafeteria she sits silent while the others chatter; how, when they’ve finished copying her homework, she quietly slides her notebook back into her bookbag. After school, she walks to the bus alone and settles into the seat beside him in silence.” Yet at home Lydia’s put up a façade for her parents. They believe she has friends. That she’s both studious and popular. That she’s not lonely and isolated and questioning her place. None of them seem to know each other very well. Ng crafts this novel with delicate precision. It’s both a family expose and suspenseful. What led to Lydia’s drowning? Will the Lee family ever heal?

My deepest apologies to Celeste Ng and Penguin for sitting on this review for so long. I’ve only rated seven books five***** stars this year and Everything I Never Told You is one of those books. I fear that whatever I write will never be enough to convey the power and magnificence of this debut novel. So it’s taken me a long time to write this review. But I haven’t stopped thinking about this novel since I finished reading it in June.

RATING: *****/5

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Penguin Random House.

purchase at Amazon: Everything I Never Told You: A Novel

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Better than Ezra: music review

all together now BTE

“One More Murder” is a song I can play on repeat 10 times in a row. It’s got an intense hook. It has dark lyrics and was featured on the excellent television series Homicide. Love it. Also enjoy the super upbeat “Like it Like That” and “At the Stars” off the same 1998 album How Does Your Garden Grow. I generally think of Better than Ezra as one of those semi-non-descript white bread bands. They write a couple of hits but nothing particularly stands out for me that I can distinguish their non-hits from Dave Matthews Band or Maroon 5. You could almost intermingle those bands and I’d hardly know the difference if it’s not a hit song. But mediocrity sells. Not many people dare to be on the fringes, they’d rather remain in the safety of the familiar mediocrity. It’s why Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory are popular television shows.

The band’s seventh album, All Together Now, is a mixed bag. The Americana-twinged, sweet smooth “Crazy Lucky” possesses a cool edge particularly the way Kevin Griffin sings crazy with his laid-back southern accent. The super catchy “Undeniable” with its piano melody and choppy singing might be the best song on the album. It’s clever and unusual. The fast-paced rather groovy “Insane” spins and rolls with upbeat goodness. “Gonna Get Better” and “The Great Unknown” are rather bland quickly forgettable songs that would only sound good in the background of a bar. Positive that Better than Ezra would be a marvelous good time live. They’ve written some hits, some solid songs when they want to it’s just that sometimes they don’t put in the effort so you get a less-than album. A shame. These might be one of those albums where people buy per single. I hear that’s what the kids are doing anyway.

All Together Now
The End Records
Release date: September 9, 2014

purchase at Amazon: All Together Now

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The Miniaturist: book review

miniaturist

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. Publisher: ECCO (August 2014). Historical fiction. Hardcover. 416 pages.

Lots of buzz surrounding this novel: it was a BEA Book Buzz selection; an Indie Next Pick; A LibraryReads selection and a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick. Rights sold to 30 countries. Great work marketing this one. A gorgeous cover. A romantic, cool setting – 17th century Amsterdam. An intriguing concept—a young wife, shuttled in from the countryside to marry her 20-years-older merchant husband—begins commissioning a miniaturist to fill a cabinet-sized replica of her home her husband gave her as a wedding present.

The miniaturist designs items that Nella never requested and seem to predict a doomed future. It started to be creepy in a good way. Nella received items that she barely knew existed in the expansive home she inhabited. Then she received dolls depicting everyone in the household including her sister-in-law, the help and most tellingly her husband’s lover. A few months before Nella happened in on Johannes in flagrante delicto with his younger lover and quickly realized why the 38-year-old man decided to marry her. She felt betrayed and stuck.

“Someone has peered into Nella’s life and thrown her off-center. If these items aren’t sent in error, then the cradle is a mockery of her unvisited marriage bed and what’s beginning to feel like an eternal virginity. What sort of person would dare such impertinence? The dogs, so particular; the chairs; so exact; the cradle, so suggestive—it’s as though the miniaturist has a perfect, private view.”

Unfortunately there’s not enough about the miniaturist despite the novel’s title. I’d expected it all to be about that. I expected details about how a miniaturist designs and works. About the art of creating miniatures. Author Jessie Burton visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and saw Petronella Oortman’s elaborate dolls’ house filled with Chinese porcelain, oak, Italian marble, glass, oil paintings and tapestries. That’s what I wanted to know about. That’s the world I wanted this novel to allow me to enter.

When 18-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to start her life as wife to renowned trader and merchant Johannes Brandt she doesn’t find the welcome or comforts she’d expected. She’s lonely and isolated. Her husband pays little attention to her. Sister-in-law Marin remains strict and secretive. Nella questions her decision to leave her family and small village yet had few options. How predictable and mundane for Marin to be wary of the young Nella and overly protective of her brother. Marin never married and she and her brother live together quite comfortably. Marin controls the household and now there’s this young woman setting foot in her territory.

“In Assendelft, there may have only been one town square, but at least the people sitting in it would listen to her. Here she is a puppet, a vessel for others to pour their speech. And it is not a man she has married, but a world.”

Of course there should be tension. Everything’s rather dark in this novel which is fine and has its place it just does not always work. Nella possesses little emotion for anything even her beloved parakeet she brought with her. There’s nothing to make the reader feel she truly cares for the bird. What drives Nella? Why is she doing what she’s doing? Is she really outraged by her husband’s behaviors or is she just a young woman who cannot yet understand? At that time she’s living in quite a religious society but she’s not a religious woman. Her sister-in-law’s the one who seems to be living her life based on religious doctrine. It’s infuriating because although Nella’s gained power in legal and societal terms by marrying a wealthy man respected in the community she allows her sister-in-law to continue to make the rules and force her to behave in ways that make Nella feel uncomfortable. Until many secrets reveal themselves and Nella and Marin must collaborate does Nella begin to gain her own voice and strength of character. By then it’s just too late to care.

The Miniaturist is a moralistic play on betrayal and survival and how one young woman conquers everything to come out intact on the other side. Her husband’s tried for sodomy. I skimmed many pages about his incarceration and trial. Johannes is a bore. There’s nothing striking about this character and that’s unfortunate. Her sister-in-law is pregnant with the black servant’s child and ends up committing suicide. While there’s some lovely writing and descriptions at parts, it lacks emotion, tension and intrigue. At the end I was left wanting more. The novel seems unfinished and it’s more than 400 pages.

RATING: ***/5

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

purchase at Amazon: The Miniaturist: A Novel

Jessie Burton will be at Harvard Book Store on Thursday, September 11 at 7pm.

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September Boston-Area Book Readings of Note

 

lovely dark deep

Joyce Carol Oates

Lovely, Dark, Deep: stories

Brookline Booksmith

At Coolidge Corner Theatre

Thursday, September 11 at 6pm

miniaturist

Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist

Harvard Book Store

Thursday, September 11 at 7pm

bone clocks

David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks

Porter Square Books

Thursday, September 18 at 6:30pm

paying guests

Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests

Harvard Book Store at Brattle Theatre

Thursday, September 18 at 6pm

 

landline

Rainbow Rowell

Landline

Harvard Book Store at Brattle Theatre

Friday, September 19 at 6pm

liars wife

Mary Gordon

The Liar’s Wife

Porter Square Books

Monday, Sept 22 at 7pm

unspeakable things

Laurie Penny

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution

Harvard Book Store

Friday, September 26 at 7pm

thirteen days

Lawrence Wright

Thirteen Days in September

Harvard Book Store at Brattle Theatre

Monday, September 29 at 6pm

life drawing

Robin Black

Life Drawing

Harvard Book Store

Tuesday, September 30 at 7pm

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Beyonce: GO feminist GO

beyonce feminist

Last night I enjoyed the Retro Futura concert at The Wilbur Theatre in Boston with 80s legends Tom Bailey [of the Thompson Twins], Howard Jones, Midge Ure [of UltraVox] and Katrina and the Waves. Mostly men. Big shout-out to Tom Bailey for his all-female backing band. Totally kick-ass and rarely seen. Even female musicians usually tour around with male backing bands. While I shimmied to some 80s tunes and relived my hazy unhappy high-school days, the tween set [and many others] watched the MTV VMAs. I could care less about MTV even though back in the 90s I worked as a music critic for MTV/Viacom.

The big news is that when Beyoncé sang “Flawless” she stood in front of a huge sign that said FEMINIST. Thank you Beyoncé.

Any feminist knows how hard it is to be a feminist. Just last night where I was volunteering before the concert at WGBH (a relatively liberal nonprofit PBS station in Boston), a guy said to me, “don’t tell me, you’re a feminist.” as if that were the worst possible thing I could possibly be. The negative overtones I’ve heard when I identify as feminist are disheartening. Feminism is misunderstood.  I’ve identified as a feminist since fifth grade. It’s not been easy. Guys have steered clear of me since high school. Their problems not mine but I’m still a sensitive person. An ex-boyfriend asked me once: “what’s the point of a women’s college?” I graduated from Simmons College in Boston. Between being a feminist and being vegan, I spend a lot of time explaining my choices. It’s exhausting.

In the song “Flawless,” Beyoncé uses a clip from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on feminism. When someone as influential as Beyoncé identifies herself as a feminist and she proudly and associates closely with the term, it’s monumental. It breaks down the stigma. It gives women and girls around the United States and world hope that someday  being a feminist won’t be so negative– it will be the best thing ever.

#365feministselfie the day I had to euthanize my childhood pony Easter

#365feministselfie the day I had to euthanize my childhood pony Easter

Today if you say you’re a feminist people make ridiculous and mean assumptions that you’re unfeminine or you don’t like men.  That’s why I’ve been part of the #365feministselfie project to illustrate the Kaleidoscope of feminists out there.  Feminists are beautiful. Feminists can be feminine. Feminists can look however they want. Feminists are doing all sorts of wonderful, creative, productive activities. Feminists are outspoken. Feminists are changing the world. Just the other night I had a date where the guy shockingly told me that “women are doing okay.” Women only earn 77 cents to a man’s dollar. Reproductive, sexual rights and healthcare continues to be of grave concern for women. Hopefully, one day if you’re not a feminist people will look at you negatively.

So  thank you again for standing up and speaking out about feminism, Beyoncé.

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A Distant Father: book review

distant father

<em>A Distant Father</em>  by Antonio Skarmeta. Publisher: The Other Press (September 16, 2014). Contemporary fiction. Hardcover.  112 pages.

“In the course of an hour, I notice that the little town I’m in moves about as slowly as a watch, and I try to think up some possible conversational gambits to use on the girls.”

Seek out this beautiful and witty novella about a schoolteacher named Jacques who lives in a small Chilean village and works as a French translator for the local paper. He learned to love and speak French from his Parisian father, Pierre, who abandoned Jacques and his mother without a clear explanation a year ago. Will he let his father’s disloyalty affect his life.

Isolation in a town where few place an interest on learning and thinking doesn’t help matters for the intellectual Jacques. He finds flirtation with a student’s older sister passes the time. Can he subsist with such simplicity and not knowing the truth. During a visit to a nearby town, Jacques runs into his father with a young child who looks strangely familiar. How important is the past to one’s present. How far will Jacques go to forgive his father.

Skarmeta writes lovely phrases such as: “She strokes her chin, and for an instant she looks like a ballerina. She’s a shallow, distracted woman whose beauty is marked by melancholy.”

In this brief but solid endeavor one gets a clear sense for how Jacques feels about his father’s abandonment and digression. How having a father who left his life makes him feel in his small village today. He’s a bit aimless, a bit searching and a bit incomplete. He seeks answers. It’s charming and direct. It succinctly provides a clear sense of Jacques and his difficulties with both himself and his father’s abandonment. Which must be difficult at an older age. He questions who he is now and where he’ll be later. Skarmeta’s previous works served as the basis for the films No! and the Academy-award winning Il Postino: The Postman.

RATING: ****/5

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from The Other Press.

purchase at Amazon: A Distant Father

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Project Runway S13:Ep5 RECAP

 

Challenge: Design a red carpet gown for Heidi Klum to wear to the Creative Emmys Red Carpet

 

Tim and Heidi come in to meet with the designers. Heidi's wearing Zac Posen.

Tim and Heidi come in to meet with the designers. Heidi’s wearing Zac Posen.

 

Heidi and Tim come in to consult with the designers. Heidi gives honest feedback and doesn’t like many of the designs. She then returns to tell that designers who are struggling can return to Mood with $100 to get more fabric. If people weren’t returning they could give their money to other designers. Sandhya went around and asked designers for their money. She ended up with $400 to spend and purchased an expensive fabric. 

design by Sandhya

design by Sandhya

The chance to return to Mood made some designers annoyed. Emily thought that it gave many designers an unfair advantage and a chance at a do-over that they should be able to pick proper fabrics the first time out. I agree. Emily designed a really skimpy dress that showed way too much skin. Yes Heidi likes to show skin but I don’t think she’d dress like that for an Emmys event.

design by Emily

design by Emily

Korina had designed a green dress that Heidi said reminded her of something German hunters would wear. Then Karina went and bought another green fabric just in more of a jewel tone (per Tim’s comment). Mitchell freaked out. “I don’t think it’s magical. I don’t think it’s gorgeous.” He’s designing a red gown. Most of the designers that went back to Mood ending up struggling instead of just “making it work.”

 

prs13_062614_bn-0267_f

 

“Some of you did really well but a lot of you missed the mark.”—Heidi Klum

HIGH SCORES 

Kini

design by Kini

design by Kini

“You did a fantastic job. You gave it some drama too.” –Heidi Klum

“It’s hard to make dresses with an open back that still give it the curve in the waist.” –Lindsey Vonn

“You had my highest score today. It’s impeccable. Your lines are in the right places. You were very smart with your fabrication.” –Zac Posen

 

Amanda

design by Amanda

design by Amanda

“It’s different. I think it’s beautiful”. – Heidi Klum

“It felt like a beaded curtain. But it  fit nicely.” – Zac Posen

“It is refreshing to see you do something that is not so predictable and cliché.” –Nina Garcia

Sean

design by Sean

design by Sean

“It’s different. it’s beautiful. I love what you did with the bottom.” –Lindsey Vonn

“I love what you did with the ombre. It makes it more modern.” –Zac Posen

guest judge Lindsey Vonn

guest judge Lindsey Vonn

LOW SCORES

Kristine

design by Kristine

design by Kristine

“It’s like a boob canyon.” – Zac Posen

“I like the paneling. It looks modern. Had you done this properly it would have looked well. But it was badly executed.” – Heidi Klum

 

Mitchell

design by Mitchell

design by Mitchell

“I think a lot of things went wrong. It is way too short.” –Heidi Klum

“I think you just tried a little too hard.” –Lindsey Vonn

“Great evening clothing takes a lot of time and a lot of skill. I feel like you were out of your element here and it shows.” – Zac Posen

Korina

design by Korina

design by Korina

“Why the cliché ideas. Why not make this into a jumpsuit. Instead we make this train. It’s so old lady.” –Nina Garcia

“The back is a disaster. I didn’t know what was intentional and what was not.” –Zac Posen

the judges including Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn

the judges including Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn

SEAN is the WINNER.

MITCHELL and KRISTINE are OUT.

Heidi shared this on her Instagram about five days ago (without a spoiler alert!) said how proud she was of S13 designer Sean:

HK

 

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