Friday, August 2, 2019

BOOKS! (Everything I Never Told You + Letters to a Young Artist)

Promises, promises. Apparently I need to stop making them. Truth is I actually had the second book of this pair finished in time to write a review on the last day of July, but then things happened and suddenly now it's the second day of August. So I'm just going to stick to my goal of posting a new review once a month like I've been doing. This time I've got two used books that I bought for $6 each on separate occasions. First is a novel that I found at 2nd & Charles, and second is an advice book that I found at this year's Detroit Festival of Books.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

I'd been aware of Celeste Ng for years and don't quite remember what brought her work back to my attention, but while browsing for cheap finds at 2nd & Charles earlier this summer, I looked for this novel and bought it (along with the most delightful set of magnetic Golden Girls bookmarks!). Everything I Never Told You opens in 1977 on the morning after Lydia Lee, the middle child and golden child of her Ohio family of five, has drowned in the neighborhood lake. A 16-year-old high-achieving student, she had grown up having her parents' expectations, hopes, and unfulfilled dreams projected onto her, so whether she wanted it or not, the Lee family revolves around her. As such, when Lydia is suddenly wrenched away from them, her family nearly falls apart. The grieving processes of each of her remaining family members not only reveal who they are as people, but also delineate the quiet and not so quiet dysfunctions that indirectly led to Lydia's death.

Her father James, an American history professor, relies on escapism to deal with the incident by beginning an affair with his teaching assistant. Her mother Marilyn, a would-be doctor who loved physics but gave up her dreams to be a wife and mom, reacts with fear and denial; she puts new locks on the door to keep the danger out and refuses to believe that Lydia's life may have been unhappy. Lydia's older brother Nath (short for Nathan) becomes obsessive and aggressive, stalking a neighbor and classmate with a promiscuous reputation who Nath thinks had a hand in Lydia's death. And Hannah, the youngest, used to being ignored by the rest of her family, tries to stay out of everyone's way and hesitates to share what she's heard and seen regarding her sister's behavior. The title of this novel is so apt because there's so much that all of the Lees choose to leave unsaid to each other. Reasons range from innocuous ones such as trying to avoid inconvenience, to more heavy and deep-seeded issues like concealing fear, regret, or shame. I especially enjoyed reading the backstories of James and Marilyn's respective upbringings and the earlier years of their relationship. James, the son of Chinese immigrants, has trained himself to blend into his surroundings while Marilyn, a white Virginia native who was often the only young woman in her science classes, strove to stand out. These clashing inclinations, in addition to the interracial nature of their relationship (keep in mind that they got married in 1958), profoundly affect everything about the family that they create, especially Lydia.

A review quoted on the back cover of this novel claims that it "calls to mind The Lovely Bones", and while it's been a long time since I read that book, I can partially agree with that comparison. In both cases, a teenage girl goes missing and dies in the 1970s, and the full truth of what happened to her is revealed to the reader but never to the police or her loved ones. There are key differences though. Lydia is half-Asian, but the girl in The Lovely Bones is not. The girl in The Lovely Bones tries to communicate with people and influence events from the other side, whereas Lydia's family doesn't receive any sort of presence or signs from Lydia after her death. Once she's gone, she's gone. If you want to read more Asian-American literature, grew up as a high-achieving person under constant pressure (whether from yourself or from others), have family or friends that just don't talk about certain things, have ever grieved someone or something, or currently need to grieve someone or something, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"He feared the day the universe would notice he wasn't supposed to have her and take her away. Or that she might suddenly realize her mistake and disappear from his life as suddenly as she had entered. After a while, the fear became a habit, too" (45-46).

"It was not too late... Lydia made a new set of promises, this time to herself... From now on, she will do what she wants. Feet planted firmly on nothing, Lydiaso long enthralled by the dreams of otherscould not yet imagine what that might be, but suddenly the universe glittered with possibilities. She will change everything... If he can be brave, so sure of who he is and what he wants, perhaps she can, too" (274-275).

Letters to a Young Artist by Anna Deavere Smith

Sometimes not Google-ing a book or its author before you decide to buy it results in pleasant surprises. I spotted this one on Book Beat's table at the Detroit Bookfest, saw that it was written by a Black woman and had endorsements from Laurence Fishburne and Kerry Washington, and figured, Hey, why not? I could use her advice, from one artist to another. It seemed like a quick enough read, so this is the book that I chose to close out the month of July. As I started reading it and learning about Anna Deavere Smith's fascinating life as an actor, playwright, and professor, I decided to look her up and realized I actually knew who she was already! She's had a vast and multifaceted career, but I recognized her as Alicia, Rainbow's (Tracee Ellis Ross's) mom on the TV show 'Black-ish'. I knew she looked familiar! 

I don't typically read self-help books. (While this is moreso an examination of artistry based on Smith's own experience in the entertainment industry, similar to The Wind in the Reeds, Letters to a Young Artist is categorized as "self help/creativity" on the back cover.) But I skimmed through the preface and these lines sold me on it, "If you are an artist of any age, if you are learning the ropes of your art form... I am writing to you if you are thinking of taking your rightful position as an artist... I'm writing to you if you just plain like to sing... I am writing to you if you love the way the sunset looks wherever you live" (3, 5). Smith's voice here seemed like just the right mix of inviting and whimsical and no-nonsense and practical, which basically characterizes this book as a whole. The letters, written to a fictional high school student and painter whom Smith calls "BZ", are meant to be applicable to all artists. But understandably, acting and painting/visual art are referenced the most.

Smith shares innumerable gems of insight which I think are worthwhile for readers to discover for themselves, so I won't elaborate on which sections or ideas are my favorite. What I will say is that I find refreshing how much Smith admires so many various artists and works of art, from both the acting world and other artistic disciplines. She is an admirer and observer of people in general, which makes sense since she argues that one of the duties of an artist is to understand and interpret all different aspects of human emotion and experience. It might read like a bunch of name-dropping or humble bragging at first; not only is she acquainted with an astonishing amount of famous and important people, but she's worked and traveled nearly everywhere around the world. But each person and location she mentions informs the story that she's telling, the lesson that she's trying to teach. It should also be noted that most of the letters date from 2000 to 2005, and this book was published in 2006, so the post-9/11 crises happening stateside and abroad factor prominently into what Smith believes the world needs at that time.

If you want to know more about the calling and the business of being an artist, enjoy people-watching, or want a small snapshot of current events in the early 2000s, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"There's nothing like those years when you don't yet have what you are working for. There's a lot of freedom because there's so much possibility. You need friends who are working for something too... You just need some dreams and something to fret about and someone to dream and fret with... Everything starts with an all-night conversation. Find a spiritual twin to walk the city streets with, to waken the dawn with, to construct a world with" (62).

"I am a fool in the classic sense. But I take my foolishness very seriously" (185).

"Are you becoming an artist because you want the world to see you? Or [because] you would like to use your ability to attract attentionand the ability to get people to look at your workin order to cause them to see themselves and the world differently through you?" (203). 

No comments:

Post a Comment