Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, a review by Paul Leavitt
There's a strand running through the history of American fiction, most recognizably in the '50's and '60's, where characters rebelled against traditional, conservative, Puritan values and turned towards freedom, expression, and acceptance. I'm thinking most notably of The Beats, particularly Jack Kerouac. As a youth I, like just about everybody, loved this aesthetic. But like most youthful ideals, this became tempered with age. Mostly due to the obvious tasks involved in providing stability in my life, but also because this narrative came to seem very lonely to me. The image of the wandering pilgrim began to strike me as far too individualistic and self-reliant, too wrapped up in American masculinity. What about community and the stable bonds of love?
The point of this preface is to put in context what most captivated me about Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere, because she has crafted a novel which grapples and maybe synthesizes these two seemingly contrary aesthetics I alluded to above.
The basic dramatic premise of the book is laid out right away. The book opens with a nice house in a upper-middle-class suburban town burning, set fire, we think, by one of the kids who lives in this very house. It then steps back in time to tell the story of how and why this happened, how an ostensibly picture-perfect suburban family destroyed itself.
The answer to this mystery is sparked by a generous act on behalf of the family matriarch, Elena, who allows an itinerant artist, Mia, and her daughter, Pearl, to move into one of their rental townhouses at a discounted rate. This addition to their community slowly upends what Elena and her town had thought was a perfect idyllic community built around the simple concept that a society needs structure and rules, and "if you followed them, you would succeed." But, as The Beats, pretty much any rock-n-roll band, and Celeste Ng know, the world is chaotic; humans are chaotic; love follows no formulas; and the desperation in holding onto structure and rules sometimes ends up destroying the very things they were meant to protect.
The reason Ng solves these problems more satisfactorily than Kerouac, in my opinion, is that this story is not just a meditation on art, chaos, and freedom. It is also a meditation on love, family, motherhood, and community. It does not yearn to escape the ties of society, but seeks to find grounding in those very things Kerouac considered anathema. Ng orchestrates her characters perfectly with nuance and compassion to the end of showing freedom and acceptance to be the ultimate grounding of family and society.
Five-Carat Soul by James McBride, a review by Elayna Trucker
These stories by the winner of the National Book Award are all suffused with a strong sense of place and time, drawing us strongly into each. The collection has two clusters of related stories, but all follow the theme of how white America has routinely forgotten or repressed the memory of black hardships. This is most clear in "The Christmas Dance," where we and the main character learn about the decimation of an all-black regiment in the Italian theater of World War II. The most startlingly unique story is "Mr. P & the Wind" - our protagonist is a lion, king of the jungle, trapped in a zoo. McBride's character sing with unique voices and encompass the complex emotions we each carry within us. This collection is a reminder of how black Americans are still treated poorly so long after the end of slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Act. The writing is deliberate and luminous while still being playful, and reveal a writer very at home in his voice but comfortable to venture outside it.