Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere by [Ng, Celeste] Summary:

This book chronicles the meeting of the “perfect” American family with a nomadic artist and her teenage daughter. It details their multiple and complicated entanglements and how they eventually unravel.

My Observations:

  • I enjoyed how the imagery of fire and burning were used throughout the book. It evidenced the author’s skill at structuring a book and added depth to some scenes that seemed minor in comparison to others.
  • I liked the suspense of not knowing for sure who set the fires that destroyed the Richardsons’ home.
  • I was disappointed when we found out who the perpetrator was. There was no surprise or shock, which undercut what was supposed to be the novel’s powerful denouement.
  • I appreciated the author’s observations about feeling trapped, whether you were in a repressive little community or living a “free” bohemian lifestyle.
  • It’s not a new revelation that children are a bridge between the past and the future, but the way in which Ms. Ng discussed the idea was nuanced and interesting.
  • Ms. Ng apparently grew up in the Shaker Heights community described in the novel. It’s a real place, but the fact that every last detail of that community is planned out, well-groomed, and whitewashed, makes it seem fake. It was hard for me to attach Shaker Heights to the real world–in no small part because it seems a lot like the communities in the dystopian literature that’s so popular these days. Realism has a particular sort of power that was lost in this book.
  • This book is a good example of how telling rather than showing drains fictional scenes of life. The narrative came across as clinical. The rough edges of the characters’ experiences were filed off and their passion was squelched.
  • The author’s portrayal of how well-meaning white people completely miss the point in discussions about race and culture made me cringe in a way that helped me learn and moderate my own behavior.
  • This book raises some big questions about motherhood.
    • Are wealthier people more fit to be parents than poor people? Mentally-well vs. mentally-ill? Married vs. Single?
    • Are there people who deserve to be mothers and those who don’t?
    • How much structure vs. freedom should mothers give their children?
    • Is cross-cultural/racial adoption ever appropriate?
    • Is abortion ever an appropriate decision?
    • How much self-effacement is required of a woman when raising children?
  • After being a mother for nearly 17 years, I still don’t have any hard and fast answers to many of these questions.

 

The Elegance of a Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

HedgehogReading The Elegance of a Hedgehog is like holding a sieve under a waterfall of gems, hoping to catch a few–and while a some may rattle around inside your sieve for a moment or two, they inevitably fall through and are seemingly lost. However, when you stop to reflect upon your experience you realize you are still basking in the brilliance of those treasures. As the novel points out, being able to fully appreciate beauty is not something you can sustain for an extended period. You cannot possess a gem of that sort. It’s something you are blessed with for a brief and wonderful moment.

After reading a few of the other reviews on Goodreads, it seems like many quibble with how realistic the scenario and characters are. I can see where they’re coming from, but to me, it was irrelevant whether or not the characters were familiar and whether or not I found the scenario plausible.

This is not a book for someone who is looking for an action-filled plot. In fact, there is very little action in this novel. It’s mostly a novel of the awakening of minds and spirits and the development of connections between isolated people–partly by choice, but also partly through the nature of the human condition. The warmth and charm with which this awakening is depicted makes the novel engaging.

People dislike the philosophizing and find it tiresome and pretentious. I didn’t feel that way at all. To me, the depiction of the characters’ thoughts and reactions felt familiar (perhaps I am tiresome and pretentious). My own mind is constantly questioning my experiences, re-evaluating ideas in light of things I’ve read or watched, doubting, re-affirming, and rebuilding systems of understanding. Maybe the ideas sound pretentious because a few names like Tolstoy and Husserl are thrown out here and there, but the text repeatedly shows how it’s not what’s read that’s important, it’s the importance of having clarity of perception and openness to others.

The novel demonstrates how difficult it is to see and appreciate someone else for who they truly are and not as just some projection of your own. It’s even more difficult to see them and appreciate them as they are–quirks and all. Conversely, it can be terrifying to let anyone else see you–the true yuo–without hedgehog quills, a glass fishbowl, walls and doors, class barriers or other stereotypes serving as armor, protecting your mind and spirit from the challenges, doubts and criticisms of others. While that armor keeps you safe, it also constrains you and prevents you from having meaningful experiences.

To sum up: I adore this novel. In fact, It’s going on my list of favorites, and I haven’t added to that in a long time. It’s thought-provoking, charming and made me laugh one moment and sob the next.

The Philosophical Practitioner by Larry Abrams

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This is not an action-packed thriller or a hard-boiled detective story, although it does come across a bit like a Sam Spade novel with its bold dialogue and dames in heels and short skirts, one of whom is bent on murder.

Its premise is unique: Eric, the main character is a “philosophical practitioner,” that is, he’s a lot like a psychologist, but instead of emphasizing feelings, he focuses on theory with his clients.

This novel stands in a category of its own. Kudos to the author for originality! While there is less action than introspection, the narrative doesn’t drag. It’s kept lively by Eric’s interaction with all of his different clients, along with a death threat to liven things up.

It was also enjoyable to see how philosophical theories could be applied to “real” people in their daily lives. Just because philosophy is abstract doesn’t mean it can’t be relevant. Unfortunately, these philosophical discussions were often cut short and didn’t go very deep.

The writing was clear and easy to follow, but it occasionally felt formulaic. For instance, almost every time a character appears, Eric surveys the details of their appearance. Sometimes, the descriptions felt superfluous. Their regularity grated on my nerves, reminding me a bit of essays written by middle-school students who were told they had to religiously follow an outline and provide 2 or 3 supporting details per paragraph. This kind of writing is awkwardly rigid.

Overall, I enjoyed the novel, but would have liked it better if the narrative was more fluid and if the philosophical discussions dug in a little more deeply.