Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Reading again: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Oh, reading how much I miss you. I am such a cliché of motherhood, always running like a headless chicken, leaving a million little chores halfway through because someone started crying or fell down or needed attention and that is how I spend my days. So when I have some actual time I am also dead tired and I just either fall asleep or space out.

Anyhow, the other day I actually won a giveaway! The American Book center kindly raffled a signed copy of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (thank you!)  and I was so curious about it: the stories and descriptions of motherhood, of subversion, of disregard of the status quo.

The book sucked me right in. It took me less than 2 weeks to finish it, I don't know how I managed, I stole every little moment available. It is so good. So good, so good, so good. First of all the story takes place sometime at the end of the 1990's, the main characters are kids who were all born between 1980-1986 (like me) and are high-school students at the time the story takes place. So all the cultural references to music and political events that frame the events in the book: the president's scandal with an intern; music groups like Boyz II men, Alanis Morisette, Aerosmith; hints to what was in fashion are all things I grew up with. I feel so old writing this. I also loved the fact that the parents were part of the generation of the late 1960's, so there are slight mentions to the protests and fights of the time. That is a subject that has always fascinated and appealed to me, maybe because I did not actually live those days. Perhaps I look at them with a certain naïveté, but it seems to me that the youth's ideals back then were so transparent and pure, that they really believed in change, that a better world was possible and they were out to make it happen... unlike the somehow cynical attitudes of the young of today:  lost and perplexed after having seen socialism fail and simultaneously experiencing the ravages of imperialism, capitalism, extreme neo-liberalism. Defeated? Resigned?

Then there is also one of the main themes of the book, so painful, so close:  motherhood and who deserves it and why. And is it even a matter of deserving?

So here are, at random, some of my favorite parts.

-When Elena Richardson describes her experiences of having a very early premature baby. It brought it all back in words I could never have put together myself:

"Despite these precautions, Izzy had arrived precipitously soon thereafter, making her appearance -eleven weeks early- an hour after her mother arrived at the hospital. Mrs. Richardson would remember the next few months only as a vague, terrifying haze. Of the logistical details, she remembered only a little. She remembered Izzy curled in a glass box, a net of purple veins under salmon-colored skin. She remembered watching her youngest through the portholes in the incubator, nearly pressing her nose to the glass to be sure Izzy was still breathing. She remembered shuttling back and forth between home and the hospital, whenever she could leave her oldest three in the capable hands of the housekeeper -nap time, lunchtime, an hour here and there- and when the nurses allowed it, cradling Izzy against her: first in her two cupped hands, then in the hollow between her breasts, and finally -as Izzy grew stronger and filled out and began to look more like a baby- in her arms.

For Izzy did grow, despite her early start, she displayed a tenacity of will that even the doctors remarked upon. She tugged at her IV; she uprooted her feeding tube. When the nurses came to change her, she kicked her thumb-sized feet and hollered so loudly the babies in nearby incubators woke and joined in. "Nothing wrong with her lungs", the doctors told the Richardsons, though they warned a host of other problems that might arise: jaundice, anemia, vision issues, hearing loss. Mental retardation. Heart defects. Seizures. Cerebral palsy. When Izzy finally came home -two weeks after her scheduled due date- this list would be one of the few things Mrs. Richardson would recall about her time in the hospital. A list of things she would scan Izzy for over the next decade: Did Izzy simply not notice things, or was she going blind? Was she ignoring her mother out of stubbornness, or was she going deaf? Was her skin looking a bit yellow? Was she looking a bit pale? If Izzy's hand, reaching to add a stacking ring to her toy, fumbled, Mrs Richardson found herself clutching the arms of her chair. Was it a tremor, or just a child learning the complicated business of managing her own fingers?

Everything Mrs. Richardson had put out of her mind from the hospital stay -everything she thought she'd forgotten- her body remembered on a cellular level: the rush of anxiety, the fear that permeated her thoughts of Izzy. The microscopic focus on each thing Izzy did, turning it this way and that, scrutinizing it for signs of weakness of disaster. Was she just a poor speller, or was this a sign of mental impairment? Was her handwriting just messy, was she just bad at arithmetic, were her temper tantrums normal, or was it something worse? As time went on, the concern unhooked itself from the fear and took on a life of its own. She had learned, with Izzy's birth, how your life could trudle along on its safe little track and then, with no warning, skid spectacularly off course." ANGER IS FEAR'S BODYGUARD, a poster in the hospital had read, nut MRs Richardson had never noticed it".

-Also, this description of parenthood:

"To a parent, your child wasn't just a person: your child was a place,a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. You could see it every time you looked at her: layered in her face was the baby she'd been and the child she'd become and the adult she would grow up to be, and you saw them all simultaneously, like a 3-D image. It made your head spin. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it,each time  your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be ale to return to that place again."

-Then this part:

"But three generations of Shaker reverence for order and rules and decorum would stay with Elena, too, and she would never quite be able to bring those two ideas into balance. In 1968, at fifteen, she turned on the television and watched chaos flaring up across the country like brush fires. Martin Luther King, Jr., then Bobby Kennedy. Students in revolt at Columbia. Riots in Chicago, Memphis, Baltimore, D.C. -everywhere, everywhere, things were falling apart. Deep inside her a spark kindled, a spark that would flare in Izzy years later. Of course she understood why this was happening: they were fighting to right injustices. But part of her shuddered at the scenes on the television screen. Grainy scenes, but no less terrifying: grocery stores ablaze, smoke billowing from their rooftops, walls gnawed to studs by flame. The jagged edges of smashed windows like fangs in the night. Soldiers marching with rifles past drugstores and Laundromats. Jeeps blocking intersections under dead traffic lights. Did you have to burn down the old to make way for the new? The carpet at her feet was soft. The sofa beneath her was patterned with roses. Outside, a mourning dove cooed from the bird feeder and a Cadillac glided to a dignified stop at the corner. She wondered which was the real world. 

The following spring, when antiwar protests broke out, she did not get in her car and drive to join them. She wrote impassioned letters to the editor; she signed petitions to end the draft. She stitched a peace sign onto her knapsack. She wove flowers into her hair. 

It was not that she was afraid. It was simply that Shaker Heights, despite its idealism, was a pragmatic place, and she did not know how to be anything else. A lifetime of practical and comfortable considerations settled atop the spark inside her like a thick, heavy blanket. If she ran off to Washington to join the protests, where would she sleep? How would she stay safe? What would become of her classes, would she be expelled, could she still graduate and go to college? The spring of their senior year, Jamie Reynolds had pulled her aside after history class one day. "I'm dropping out", he said. "Going to California. Come with me." She had adored Jamie since the seventh grade, when he had admired a sonnet she'd written for English. Now, at almost eighteen, he had long hair and a shaggy beard, a dislike for authority, a VW van in which, he said, they could live. "Like camping out", he'd said, "except we can go anywhere," and she had wanted so badly to go with him, anywhere, to kiss that crooked, bashful smile. But how would they pay for food, where would they do their laundry, where would they bathe? What would her parents say? The neighbors, her teachers, her friends? She'd kissed Jamie on the cheek and cried when, at last, he was out of sight.  (...)She had no regrets, she told herself. She'd been crazy to have considered it even for a moment. (...) All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame:; a reminder of light and goodness that would never -could never- set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. This philosophy had carried her through life. Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn't you might burn the world to the ground."

And this excerpt in Mia and Mrs. Richardsons final conversation:

"It bothers you doesn't it?"  Mia said suddenly. " I think you can't imagine. Why anyone would choose a different life from the one you've got. Why anyone might want something other than a big house with a big lawn, a fancy car, a job in an office. Why anyone would choose anything different than what you'd choose": Mow it was her turn to study Mrs. Richardson, as if the key to understanding her were coded into her face. "It terrifies you. That you missed out on something. That you gave up something you didn't know you wanted". A sharp, pitying smile pinched up the corners of her lips. "What was it? Was it a boy? Was it a vocation? Or was it a whole life?"

Have you read the book, did you like it? Which were your favorite parts?
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