Everything I Never Told You: A Novel

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Love and Land: Ann Packer’s ‘The Children’s Crusade’ and the Legacy of ‘East of Eden’

My first image of California was the Salinas River valley, just south of Soledad, lush and green in the full peak of summer. This little grove is a rite of passage for millions of the county’s eighth graders, standing on the river bank and listening to the gentle rustle of fauna in relative seclusion, as painted with John Steinbeck’s brush in the opening scene of Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck’s strokes spread over all of California as an iconic vision, especially in the opening scene of the parabolic epic East of Eden: “From both sides of the valley little streams slipped out of the hill canyons and fell into the bed of the Salinas River. In the winter of wet years the streams ran full-freshet, and they swelled the river until sometimes it raged and boiled, bank full, and then it was a destroyer.” But that is not California anymore, and in the 60 years since East of Eden’s publication, the dense farmland has become something else.

When writing about California, the land and Steinbeck hang as an overture, as family patriarch Bill Blair discovers in the opening of Ann Packer’s new California epic, The Children’s Crusade. He heads south, driving out of San Francisco, noting: “This king’s highway boasted car lots and supermarkets, nothing to fill Bill’s heart, but every so often a vista opened and included the sudden rise of yet more hills, some thickly forested, others the color of hay bales in autumn.” Bill, in his exhaustion as a young doctor, is searching for the last vestiges of Steinbeckian farmland, finally settling on a broad stretch in the Portola Valley with a large, lovely oak tree:

He lay on the ground under the oak tree and looked up between its snaking branches at the bits of startling blue. He wanted to figure out a way to live under that sky without forgetting the other sky, halfway around the world, that for two years had seemed always gray and always to bear down on the land and sea, no matter the season and no matter the weather.

From here, Packer launches her broad and pensive family epic of the Blairs: Bill and his wife, Penny, followed by their four children, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, and James. As adults, the four Blair children are brought together again when they must decide whether or not to sell their childhood home and land, the one that their father had founded for them. By settling the Blairs in the Portola Valley, a mere 100 miles away from Soledad, the legacy of East of Eden is inescapable.

East of Eden, lacking the social consciousness of Grapes of Wrath or the accessibility of Of Mice and Men, is possibly Steinbeck’s most difficult work and relatively neglected — despite the scope of its ambition and the author’s own declaration of it as his magnum opus. The story follows the thinly veiled biblical tale of Adam Trask and his brother Charles, as well as Adam’s sons, Caleb and Aron, as they rise and fall on their paradisiacal slice of the Salinas Valley and contend with Adam’s wicked wife, Cathy. Steinbeck’s work is rife with the toil of Genesis: men versus the hardscrabble, scarcely arable land, then men and women versus their temptation as women face the trials of Eve, and brothers’ hands twitch over the jealousy of Cain.

The inheritance of Steinbeck in Packer’s multigenerational novel is strong and diffuse. The Blairs take their creation myth as seriously tied to their land, their house, and their oak tree, well before the advent of strip malls, subdivisions, and the rise of Silicon Valley mansions that narrow in their once green-and-brown landscape. In 1950, two years before East of Eden was published, farmers accounted for 12 percent of the labor force; in 2015, they only amount to one percent. With the evolution of farmland into Silicon Valley and the change from farming to an industrialized and urbanized workforce, the nature of conflict changes, too. Men no longer struggle against the land, toiling as Adam once did because of the bounty of Whole Foods down the road. For Packer’s generations, the conflict has become a much more internal and introspective view of self.

Packer’s Blairs might find themselves much more at ease with Celeste Ng’s Lees in Everything I Never Told You or Jonathan Franzen’s Lamperts in The Corrections, where the percolated failings of the parents — and the stress fractures of their marriage — have reverberating effects throughout the lives of their children. If East of Eden represents an essential parable of American Genesis, then The Children’s Crusade is the complication of that parable and its strict morality. As the land has grown, so has its people, their lives replete with a dinner table trauma of harsh words and youthful brawls and spoiled clothes that hang about their days like the scent of ozone before a storm. Bill is the kind, conflict-avoidant, and well-meaning patriarch whose axioms of “carry on” and “children deserve care” are interpreted by each of his children differently. Penny is the manic mother fraught with unassailable dreams of her own artistry. Robert is the duty-bound and approval-driven eldest son, Rebecca the thoughtful and calculating daughter, Ryan the overly loving and close-minded middle child, and James the damaged and tossed aside youngest of the family. Initially, the “crusade” of The Children’s Crusade is a foolish list, made by the children, of activities that might please their mother and engender her doting love. These are certainly pithy descriptions compared to the deep, sprawling mental landscapes that each of the children explores in their joint desperation to understand the loss of their childhood home, land, and the weighty portent of their father’s oak tree. The land means so much to the four of them because it’s where they have rooted their love and history, and in this singular love and necessity for the California earth, the Trasks and the Blairs are not so different.

Each of the four siblings narrates a section of the novel as adults looking back, with interluding scenes from their communal upbringing. The psychological weight is heavy and palpable for each child, such as Robert, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a doctor. Although Robert is well-established in his mid-40s, all of his decisions are weighed against his father’s imagined approval of him and his work. Often, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, or James try to puzzle over their distant childhood memories in an attempt to piece together how they came to where they are in their lives. For the most troubled child, James, the turmoil of growing up focuses on his dire opposition to his mother, keying on one supremely traumatic moment surrounding his favorite stuffed animal that forms his “rocklike” opposition to her and results in them not speaking for more than a decade. For the Blairs, the land has been long conquered, leaving only the rolling hills of their own hearts and minds to plow through and build upon.

Throughout The Children’s Crusade, Packer lets emotion do the heavy lifting, leaving the writing itself to snake a methodical trail about the characters, such as when Bill is talking to Robert. “As he spoke, his face changed around his eyes and mouth, as if love lived in particular regions of the skin, and Robert felt his own face grow warm.” Packer’s terse words ride high on this ripe emotion to the point of exhaustion, feeling each moment so deeply and fully on behalf of each child to the depth of minutiae. The story itself swings like a pendulum, with wandering interstitial and omniscient scenes of a summertime party, a family dinner, or a teenage birthday, filling in the thoughts of whichever family member is closest, even latching onto significant others, with such sudden leapfrogging that at times the cacophony of thoughts becomes oppressive. Between these are the children themselves, grown and worried adults now. In these passages, Packer shows the reach of her creation in the awful nuance of the fraught and doubtful adults in the fullness of their lives: Robert with his self-imposed mantel of pater familias, Rebecca with her thoughtful and oppressive problem-solving, Ryan with his burden of endless and unconditional love, and James with his rootless wanderlust — all of it so painfully real and confessional.

In East of Eden, Cathy is an evil and selfishly depraved soul set against her righteous and caring husband, and as a parable, it’s simply a moralizing black-and-white tale baked into the beauty of the Soledad River valley. Yet in The Children’s Crusade, the shift between the children’s monologue and the collective memory pushes the reader into the role of investigative psychoanalyst. Packer is most certainly aware of this, having one of the children, Rebecca, become an introspective psychiatrist whose memory and its distortion is a constant tease in her life, probing what might be real and whether it matters or not. Treading through the mottled family life of the Blairs, Packer pushes you to ask these questions: What is the motivation behind each memory or action? How have these scenes built Robert or Rebecca or Ryan or James into who he or she now is? Why might they be so broken?

The Children’s Crusade, at times, dips into heavy-handed moments, such as having a group of children sit around and discuss their “crusade” to bring their mother back into the fold, but if anything, the emotion and intent is genuine. For all the biblical Cain and Abel navel-gazing of East of Eden, the same hunger runs through Caleb’s urgent desire for his father’s love and approval. For both families, the crux of it is the dire attempt to fit together, with love as both the solvent and connective glue.

To Be Eaten in Case of Emergency: Inspiration and Comfort for Writers

When fellow staff writer Hannah Gersen asked if I had any visuals that helped me to better understand my novel-in-progress — a timeline, for example, or an Excel spreadsheet — I didn’t have much to offer.  Her request made me think, though, about the other visuals we writers surround ourselves with, however silly or inessential: for inspiration or company, as talismans or reminders. I currently have two favorites. The first is a note from my husband that reads, “To Be Eaten In Case of Emergency!”, which last spring he attached to a chocolate bar and stowed away in the luggage I took to a writers’ retreat. The chocolate bar is long gone (alas), but the note by itself makes me laugh, offering comfort in my lonely little office. Someday, when things get really dire around here, I might just rip the note off the wall and stick it into my mouth.

The second is a photograph by Klaus Pichler, called “Middle Class Utopia 21.” I find the image ominous and strange and beautiful, as I hope my novel-in-progress, Woman No. 17, is — or will be.  There’s also a lot of photography in my book, and I find it useful to stare at this picture and think about staging, perspective, color, and artistic intention.

I asked a few writers to share what visuals they kept near them while working. Perhaps what they keep near them as they make sentences will inspire you to get writing, too.

1. Christian Kiefer, author of The Infinite Tides and, forthcoming, The Animals:

As a novelist, I tend toward strict realism. Nonetheless, for five years I’ve been working on a long novel in the spirit of [Jorge Luis] Borges and [Italo] Calvino, a book detached from strict realism. I’ve taped Kayama Matazo’s “Winter” to the wall in my workspace to remind myself of the world I’m trying to create: weird, malicious, strangely beautiful, and filled with flapping animal life. That book is at 650 pages in manuscript so far but I’m beginning to see the end.

2. Catie Disabato, author of the forthcoming novel The Ghost Network:

This is a picture of my mom when she was a teen; she’s the second girl from the left, the one looking at the camera. I love it because she looks beautiful but also like she’s the vicious enforcer in a ’60s girl gang. My mom is an artist and has supported my writing since I was a tiny little girl, so looking at this picture reminds me both of the foundation she built and the creative home I grew up in. When I need writing energy, looking at this picture charges my batteries. I have a copy of this image on every single device I own.

3. Susan Straight, author, most recently, of Between Heaven and Here, and the winner of the Los Angeles Times Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement:

Three things always on my desk are a photo of my three girls when they were little, a piece of fluff with a black seed inside that floated down from the tree my brother planted in the yard, a shell I found near a Sea Island in South Carolina to remind me of my first novel, I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen And Licked Out All the Pots.  Two things for the novel I’m working on now are sea glass I found on a small beach on Prince Edward Island, and a wallet covered with PEI lupines given to me by my best friend, writer Holly Robinson.

4. Marie Mutsuki Mockett, author of the novel Picking Bones from Ash and the nonfiction book Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye:

A wise friend once said to me that sometimes you simply have to do things scared. I was scared the entire time I wrote Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye. No one really likes to hear about a writer’s insecurities, but I had and have had them in spades and they plagued me throughout this project. There’s really only one way out of fear for a writer, and that is to work. And so, I put a note on my computer that simply reads: “Work.” I’d switch on Facebook, from which I had previously taken a long hiatus, and get distracted, and then look down and see my note to myself, and then I’d exit Facebook and then I’d work. And wouldn’t you know — I finished writing the manuscript. And it became a book.

5. Paula Tang, a current MFA candidate at the University of California, Riverside, at work on her first book, a novel in stories presently titled Little China House:

When you asked if I look at anything interesting on my desk when I write, I didn’t even know how to begin to describe this print that I have by artist Kimiaki Yaegashi. The illustration is beyond strange, and reminds me to push past the familiar in my writing, to always weird my images somehow and aim to surprise and electrify the reader.

6. Rebecca Makkai, author of two novels, The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, and the forthcoming story collection, Music For Wartime:

Okay, this is temporary, obviously, but: I’m at Yaddo now, writing from a little studio on the third floor of West House. Sylvia Plath wrote The Colossus in this room, and Patricia Highsmith wrote Strangers on a Train. You start to go a little crazy working 16-hour days alone (making friends with insects, etc.). I drew a face on this orange, a la Wilson from Castaway. And then I decided it looked like Patricia Highsmith. It helps to get work done…You can’t spend too much time playing computer solitaire if Patricia Highsmith is staring at you. Of course, I’ll eventually have to eat her…

7. Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You:

This is a painting I made, which hangs over my desk. It’s actually a passage from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. Each color represents a different letter of the alphabet, so the colored blotches can be decoded to read as follows:
Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of maple trees. The furniture is in place; you go back for your thermos of coffee. Then, wincing, you step out again through the French doors and sit down on the chair and look over the desktop. You can see clear to the river from here in winter. You pour yourself a cup of coffee.
Birds fly under your chair. In spring, when the leaves open in the maples’ crowns, your view stops in the treetops just beyond the desk; yellow warblers hiss and whisper on the high twigs, and catch flies. Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.
I love this quote, and it’s especially fitting as my office is on the second floor, accessed by French doors, and with maple trees right outside the window. But I wanted it to look visually beautiful too, and this is what I came up with. Whenever I look up from my computer, I see the painting and remember what it says, without getting distracted by words when I’m wordsmithing myself.

What do you keep by your desk?  I’d love to hear.

Merging Two Loves: Cover Art Reimagined

In an effort to merge two loves of mine — writing and photography — I recently began this photo series that pairs snippets of novels with fun visuals that expand upon their cover art. To see more of the ongoing series and the prose captions that accompany each image, please follow @lifeserial and check out my #lifeserialreads tag on Instagram.

Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes

California, by Edan Lepucki

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

Reunion, by Hannah Pittard

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber

The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller

The First Bad Man, by Miranda July

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, by Andrew Sean Greer

Ask the Writing Teacher: The Third Person

Dear Writing Teacher,
We met at the University of Tampa this past week and you gave me your email address in order to get book suggestions from you. I’m working on a young adult novel in close third person with a decent amount of world building involved in the narrative. I’ve found it difficult to find contemporary novels (and short stories) that aren’t written in first person so any suggestions you have, I would really appreciate.

Thanks in advance for your help.

Best Regards,
Tiffany

Dear Tiffany,

I have to admit that your question, initially, made me giggle. My in-house statistician hasn’t crunched the numbers yet (Nate Silver wasn’t available so I hired my dog, Omar Little, and, quite frankly, he sucks at the job), but I’m pretty sure the proportion of contemporary novels narrated in the third person is equal to those narrated in the first.  Or at least it feels that way. I have so many good third-person novels to recommend to you!  Stoner by John Williams. The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis. Off Course by Michelle Huneven. The Vacationers by Emma Straub. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.

(I’m basically walking through my house, calling out titles. I could do it all day. The Fever by Megan Abbott!)

Some of these books limit themselves to one character’s consciousness, like Stoner or Off Course. Others, like The Vacationers and The Fever, shift between multiple characters from chapter to chapter, or scene to scene.  In these novels, the distance between the reader and the events of the narrator, or “the psychic distance” as John Gardner puts it, is fairly close. These narratives reflect what James Wood calls, in How Fiction Works, the free indirect style:
“As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking.”
(If you haven’t read Wood’s book, you can read the first chapter here. And you can read Jonathan Russell Clark’s clever and helpful essay on close third here.)

The Thin Place is told in a more elevated, all-knowing third-person point of view that skips from one small town resident to the next, including a dog, which is fitting since the book is about the thin scrim between the cosmic and the mundane, and the connection between all things. Everything I Never Told You also shifts its third person perspective, between family members, and its narrator has more knowledge than anyone; the book’s first sentence, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet…” makes that clear, and it emphasizes just how little this family understands about itself. In both these novels, perspective reflects theme especially well.

If you’re trying for this more elevated perspective, I also suggest you read Edward P. Jones along with 19th-century masters like George Eliot. These writers alight on one perspective and then another and another, deftly providing access to a character’s most intimate motives in one passage only to gracefully move away to comment on the scene in the next. They drop Wisdom-with-a-capital-W and it’s great fun to read. (And write, I hope!) An omniscient third person narrator feels like a bodiless character who shapes our understanding of the narrative’s events.

One of my writing teachers declared on multiple occasions that the third person point of view was easier than the first person. I disagree; each is easy and difficult in different ways. The first person has always come more naturally to me. Its performative qualities are revealing; I discover who my character is via language use and voice tics, confession and truth-dodging.  Most importantly, there isn’t the elasticity of psychic distance that exists in the third person, which requires control and intention so that the reader doesn’t feel like she’s riding a narrative tilt-a-whirl. It’s disconcerting to be deep inside a character’s psyche and then, suddenly, to see him from afar. I bet many first drafts of third-person narrations struggle with finding the best distance from which to tell the story.

I recommend you decide what your novel’s psychic distance is, and stick to it. If you’re after a closer third person perspective, keep in mind Wood’s image of the narrative bending around the character’s mind so that the language and observations reflect and imply that particular consciousness. Also, avoid using “seeing” verbs; instead of, for instance, “She saw the cup on the table,” just say something like, “The cup was on the table.” Since it’s a close third person, you don’t need to tell the reader who is doing the seeing — that’s already implied. It’s also easy to forget the body when writing in third person (just as it’s easy to forget the external world when writing in first person). One way to lessen the psychic distance between reader and story is to include physical experience: not what others see of the narrator, but how it feels, internally, to be this self: how it feels to be tired, to be restless, to be nauseated, and so on. (One of my pet peeves as a reader is when we learn about the hair of a protagonist from a (supposedly) close third person narration; people have very specific relationships to their hair, and they don’t view it, can’t experience it, from afar. If you’re gonna talk about a character’s hair, make sure it expresses the experience of having said hair, rather than something like, “She ran a hand through her shoulder-length straight auburn hair…” which puts me outside the character and her experience. In that example, I’m looking at the character, rather than seeing the world with her.)

Since your novel requires world building, I also recommend you read the last story/chapter in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, “Pure Language,” which seamlessly depicts a future New York City and a music industry that caters to toddlers — or “pointers” as they’re known — from the third person perspective of a guy named Alex. As you read, mark the moments where Egan is providing the reader with expository information about the world. Where does Egan fit it in, and how? Perhaps more importantly, how do these passages reflect Alex’s psyche and and shape our understanding of him? For example, look at this passage, where he’s describing a woman he’s meeting for the first time:
Lulu was in her early twenties, a graduate student at Barnard and Bennie’s full-time assistant: a living embodiment of the new “handset employee”: paperless, deskless, commuteless, and theoretically omnipresent, though Lulu appeared to be ignoring a constant chatter of handset beeps and burps. The photos on her page had not done justice to the arresting, wide-eyed symmetry of her face, the radiant shine of her hair. She was “clean”: no piercings, tattoos, or scarifications. All the kids were now. And who could blame them, Alex thought, after watching three generations of flaccid tattoos droop like moth-eaten upholstery over poorly stuffed biceps and saggy asses?
I’m interested in how “handset employees” and “clean” are in quotation marks, which allows Egan to not only straight-up define these terms for the reader, but to show that Alex is apart from these communities. The phrasing of “All the kids” shows that Alex isn’t as young as Lulu. Overall, the description of her reveals that Alex is attracted to her — and also intimidated, I think. Egan could have left out the “Alex thought” in the last line — the sentence would still work without it — but its inclusion adds a few inches to the psychic distance, which perhaps gives Egan some flexibility of tone when describing this particular future.

Part of your quandary, of course, is that you’re writing a young adult novel, and I’m no longer giggling because, you’re right, there are far fewer third person examples in that genre. Why is that?  My friend Cecil Castellucci, who will publish her 12th (!) young adult novel, Stone in the Sky, in late February, has her own litmus test for categorizing a book as YA. Her definition sheds light on why so many are told in first person:
For me, a book is YA when it has a young protagonist and the action is happening right now or has just happened. If a book has a young protagonist, but it is nostalgic or self-aware, then it is an adult book.
Castellucci argues that a YA book feels like it’s happening “in the now,” and that this sense of urgency allows the reader to feel as if she’s “on the journey with the character as they clue in and grow.” The first person, and in particular the first person present, provides the kind of immediacy that the YA genre so excels at. In the third person, a sense of “nostalgia and awareness,” which Castellucci says is usually present in adult books with young protagonists, might creep in.

Castellucci says there are beautiful examples of third person YA books, so I asked my friend Katie Coyle, who recently published her first YA novel, Vivian Apple at the End of the World, for her suggestions.  She recommended Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and Malinda Lo’s Ash and Huntress. The first two are examples of realism, the third is historical fiction, and Lo’s are fantasies.

Now that you have these recommendations, I suggest you ban the first person for at least six months. Read only novels written in the third person. Furthermore, try to read third person novels that have the same psychic distance you’re aiming for, be it close third, or an elevated omniscience, or something in between.

When I’m struggling with a technical challenge in writing, I bang my head against the wall, write and rewrite and write again, and seek out books that have mastered said challenge. It’s useful if the book’s content is wildly different from mine — that way, I don’t feel like I will accidentally crib its ideas. For instance, if you’re writing an epigrammatic novel about, say, the workplace, it would be helpful to read Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell for its succinct and perfect short chapters. (See also: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.) You’ll be wise to avoid books that share your subject matter. It’s form you’re after, not content.

Aside from all that, I’d recommend writing, to yourself, your reasons for choosing the third person. Why does the story need to be told this way? It’s useful for me to articulate and defend my choices when I’m about halfway through a first draft.  This lets me move partly (but never wholly!) out of intuition and into intention. Intention feels powerful.

“Good luck, Tiffany!” she typed as she tucked her silky blonde hair behind her ear.

Sincerely,
The Writing Teacher

A Year in Reading: Rachel Cantor

I divide this year’s shortlist into three categories: Tales Well Told, Fun Stuff, and Miracles of Voice.

Tales Well Told includes books with stories that captivated. In some cases I wasn’t sure why I liked the book, but I just wanted to keep reading. More, more! These were the books I left parties early to go home to read (or for which, more likely, I skipped the party), the ones that might have caused me to miss my subway stop had I read them on the subway, but I usually didn’t because I had already read them through the night before. Gripping stories, unexpected turns of plot, I have to know what happens next! More, more, more! Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which I picked up having been entranced by her reading at last year’s Brooklyn Book Festival; Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, every bit as wonderful as Wolf Hall; two impressive and chilling debut novels: The Kept by James Scott and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You; Robin Black’s Life Drawing, which I read in one sitting; Elizabeth Kadetsky’s transporting The Poison that Purifies You; Jay Cantor’s Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka, hand-sold to me by a very smart bookseller; and Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade, recommended to me by some wise person on Facebook when I said I was looking for something sad — what that man does with dialogue!

I tend to read a lot of Fun Stuff — by which I mean lively work that makes me laugh, enjoyable books, playful books, entertaining and absurd books. Among the best I read this year were Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi; Jeremy Bushnell’s The Weirdness; Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life; and the brilliant, moving, and otherwise-perfect-in-every-way How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe by Charles Yu.

The largest group of loved books this year and probably every year are Miracles of Voice, almost all of which, perhaps because of their eccentricities, are small press books: Alissa Nutting’s riveting collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls; Lore Segal’s witty and sad Half the Kingdom; Jeff Jackson’s startling Mira Corpora; Submergence, J.M. Ledgard’s gorgeous tour de force; Catherine Lacey’s stunning Nobody Is Ever Missing; Kevin Barry’s captivating City of Bohane; and, perhaps above all, Patrick McCabe’s heartbreaking The Butcher Boy, the voice of which stayed in my head for many inconvenient days when I was trying to write my own original pages.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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A Year in Reading: Rachel Fershleiser

It has been a fucking great year for books about women. Not just books written by women, or books with strong female characters, but books that are truly about women — books that treat womanhood as a topic as worthy of literary exploration as manhood or war or true love or any other aspect of the human condition. In so many wonderful books I read this year, women are the subject, both in the sense of topic and in the grammatical sense — the one doing the things, rather than the object being acted upon. We’ve been talking a lot about unlikable characters and “relatability,” but perhaps all these unlikeable, unrelatable women are a logical extension of a set of works where they are not relegated to sidekicks, set pieces, or romantic interests. How could they possibly only make good decisions for 400 pages?

As I wrote about Emily Gould’s Friendship in July: “This book is entirely about the inner lives and creative ambitions and life decisions of women. The men are there but they are so peripheral in the face of friendship and identity and figuring out your own choices as to turn invisible by the end of the story.”

My favorite novels this year genuinely made me think in ways I never had before about my very femaleness, which I promise you, I already think about an awful lot.

The Girls From Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe might be the most under-appreciated book of the year, but I’m doing my part to never shut up about it. It’s a debut novel about a lifelong friendship that asks the most brutal questions about family, disability, abortion, responsibility, and what, if anything, we are owed or deserve. It asks us to inhabit the lived experience of people we are tempted to judge from afar, and it is somehow both deeply unsettling and a nonstop joy to read.

Another masterpiece of judgement is the forthcoming After Birth by Elisa Albert, which completely upended my understanding of natural birth advocates, the breastfeeding mafia, and the medical establishment. This work of fiction made feel wide open to the real-life possibility that everything I think I know about my body and my health is internalized patriarchal oppression. And yet? Another totally delightful reading experience.

So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman is a few years old, and I came to it through the brilliant Katie Coyle’s review, which I reread at least monthly. Again it recast how I thought about my body, this time as a vessel for abuse, as an atom of the contiguous renewable resource that is American women, considered by so many men to be as much their birthright as the land, the water, the air, the livestock. Hoffman weaves threads of environmentalism, economic change, and social conservatism into a thriller where the unthinkable is inevitable, and the most extreme retribution makes an eerie perfect sense.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is a story about marriage, fidelity, parenthood, accomplishment, and art, as told through scientists and philosophers, failed space travel, and poetry. It is an expansive work about life as we know it reduced so flawlessly to a sparse 177 pages that it’s hard to believe it didn’t take home every major literary prize there is. It might truly be perfect. Read it out loud to someone you love.

There are so many more I wish I could recommend here. I loved mysteries like The Secret Place and Everything I Never Told You, and even the middle grade poetry memoir Brown Girl Dreaming through this same lens. Everywhere I turned, there were female geniuses writing stories that helped me think in new ways about being a woman in the world. And I’m grateful.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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Before They Were Notable: 2014

This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books and authors as well:

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Year In Reading: Anthony Doerr)
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel (Character Assassin: An Interview with Hilary Mantel)
Bark: Stories by Lorrie Moore (Is She Writing About Me?: A Profile of Lorrie Moore)
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (Guerilla Grandma: On Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World)
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (In the Edges of the Maps: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, ‘The Blank Screen Is the Enemy’: The Millions Interviews David Mitchell, Exclusive: David Mitchell’s Twitter Story “The Right Sort” Collected)
The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henríquez (Hug Your Darlings, Give the Moon the Finger: Writers On Delight)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami (Aloof, Quiet, and Dissonant: On Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, The Elusive Qualities of Dreams: On Haruki Murakami’s ‘The Strange Library’)
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (Are You My Mother? On Maternal Abandonment in Literature)
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Scraps of Prayers: On Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing)
The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson (In a Toxic Dreamscape: On Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters)
Let Me Be Frank with You by Richard Ford (Tossed on Life’s Tide: Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank with You)
Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Marilynne Robinson’s Singular Vision)
The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (Ship of Fools: On Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Art After Tragedy: The Narrow Road to the Deep North)
Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya (More Alive and Much Stranger: On Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s Panic in a Suitcase)
10:04 by Ben Lerner (Only Disconnect: Ben Lerner’s 10:04)
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (This Could Be Your Story: On Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves)

A Year in Reading: 2014

This series was first conceived in 2004 as a way to get a fledgling website about books through a busy holiday season. Realizing I had spent much of that year with my nose in books that were two, 20 or 200 years old, I was wary of attempting to compile a list of the year’s best books that could have any hope of feeling legitimate. It also occurred to me that a “best of” list would not have been true to the reading I did that year.

Instead, I asked some friends to write about the best books they read that year and was struck when each one seemed to offer up not just an accounting of books read, but glimpses into transporting and revelatory experiences. For the reader, being caught in the sweep of a book may be one of a year’s best memories. It always feels like we’ve hit the jackpot when we can offer up dozens of these great memories and experiences, one after another, to close out the year.

And so now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, please enjoy these riches from some of our favorite writers and thinkers.

For our esteemed guests, the charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.

We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2015 a fruitful one.

As in prior years, the names of our 2014 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way.

Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See.
Haley Mlotek,editor of The Hairpin.
Jess Walter, author of We Live in Water.
Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
Isaac Fitzgerald, editor of BuzzFeed Books and co-founder of Pen & Ink.
Emily Gould, co-owner of Emily Books, author of Friendship.
Blake Butler, author of 300,000,000.
Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander.
John Darnielle, vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats and author of Wolf in White Van.
Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams.
Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves.
Eula Biss, author of On Immunity.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Laura van den Berg, author of the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth.
Hamilton Leithauser, frontman for The Walkmen.
Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of Good People.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Ben Lerner, author of 10:04.
Jane Smiley, author of A Thousand Acres.
Phil Klay, author of Redeployment.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of Station Eleven.
Tana French, author of Broken Harbor.
Yelena Akhtiorskaya, author of Panic in a Suitcase.
Philipp Meyer, author of The Son.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California.
Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark and Termite.
Maureen Corrigan, author of So We Read On.
Porochista Khakpour, author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects.
Tiphanie Yanique, author of Land of Love and Drowning.
David Bezmozgis, author of Natasha: And Other Stories.
Lindsay Hunter, author of Ugly Girls.
Dinaw Mengestu, author of All Our Names.
Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
Caitlin Moran, author of How to Be a Woman.
Rabih Alameddine, author of An Unnecessary Woman.
Walter Kirn, author of Blood Will Out.
Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Kaulie Lewis, intern for The Millions.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-creator of Six-Word Memoirs and co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House.
Gina Frangello, author of A Life in Men.
Hannah Pittard, author of Reunion.
Michelle Huneven, author of Blame
Lydia Millet, author of Mermaids in Paradise.
Michele Filgate, essayist, critic, and freelance writer.
Carolyn Kellogg writes about books and publishing for the Los Angeles Times.
Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers.
Ron Rash, author of Serena.
Darcey Steinke, author of Sister Golden Hair.
Tom Nissley, author of A Reader’s Book of Days and owner of Phinney Books in Seattle.
Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans.
Scott Cheshire, author of High as the Horses’ Bridles.
Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth.
Bill Morris, author of Motor City Burning.
William Giraldi, author of Busy Monsters.
Rachel Cantor, author of A Highly Unlikely Scenario.
Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of You Should Have Known.
Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, writer and project assistant for The Millions.
Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Michael Robbins, author of The Second Sex.
Charles Finch, author of The Last Enchantments.
A Year in Reading: 2014 Wrap-Up

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Are You My Mother? On Maternal Abandonment in Literature

When I write fiction, at least a first draft of something, I try not to think too much. Or maybe it’s that I try to keep my thoughts small: words, images, rhythms, a character’s particular way of holding a key. I try not to think about the symbolic meaning of said key—if keys keep showing up, I try not to think about why. In revision, sure. The keys will have to go. But for the first draft I willfully maintain a half-state of ignorance. This is how I was able to write basically the same short story twice. (I like to think the second “version,” published years later, is better.) It’s how I build parallels and thematic arcs into my work before I recognize them as such and risk overdoing them. It’s how I got many drafts into my first novel, The Little Bride, before I realized—when my editor brought it up, as a simple matter of fact—that the two central mother figures in the book leave their husbands and children. They don’t say goodbye, or leave notes, or send word of where they’ve gone. They just disappear, and don’t come back.

Initially, I was drawn to Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, by its premise: the book tells the story of the Lees, a multiracial family in 1970s Ohio reeling from the mysterious death of their middle child, Lydia. I found myself reading late into the night, fascinated by Ng’s imperfect characters working their way—imperfectly—through grief, moved by her restrained yet startlingly emotive prose, in awe of her masterful use of an omniscient narrator who switches points-of-view mid-scene as soundlessly as Marilyn Lee opens the door to her daughter’s empty bedroom. Then, mid-book, I found myself holding my breath as the narrative flashed back to one summer, years ago, when Marilyn cooked her family’s favorite meals, dug out her textbooks from her long-abandoned college career, and without a word moved an hour away to Toledo, where she rented an efficiency apartment and attempted to start again as a student.

Eventually, Marilyn returned. The family moved on, not speaking of her disappearance—when we meet them at the beginning of the book, we hear nothing of it. Marilyn’s great defection has been silenced. But of course it hangs over them, as it hung over me. Ng’s portrait of ambivalence is heart-breaking: “often, when she opened her books, Marilyn’s mind whirled. Equations jumbled and rejumbled, hidden messages jumping out at her. NaOH became Nath, his small face wide-eyed and reproachful…” Marilyn begins calling the house to listen silently to her family’s voices, to get just enough of them to shore herself up—not to face a lover or a boss, but herself.

Literature is full of disappearing mothers. Many of them die—think of all the orphans. A significant number commit suicide, including Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier, and Helen in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Others are forced away by war (Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Amy Bloom’s Away), or oppressive governments (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). Other mothers only imagine killing themselves, or leave for a couple hours (Laura Brown in The Hours does both) only to pretend neither happened. Less common are the women who are neither psychically wrecked nor physically threatened but simply and unbearably torn between motherhood and selfhood, tormented by their feeling that the two can’t coexist. These are characters like Marilyn Lee, or the narrator in Alice Munro’s story “Nettles,” whose separation from her husband costs her her daughters, or Leda in Elana Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, whose explanation for her three-year abandonment of her young daughters speaks to the central, wrenching paradox all these authors explore: “I loved them too much and it seemed to me that love for them would keep me from becoming myself.”

Why so much motherly abandonment? It makes for good conflict, of course. It can help define characters and set plots in motion. Most importantly, it’s an act that even in 2014 remains, in many ways, the ultimate taboo.

Granted, plenty of literary fathers leave, too. But when Rabbit goes running, when Francis Phelan tragically drops—and kills—his newborn son and leaves town in William Kennedy’s Ironweed, a reader (at least this reader) feels sorrow, disappointment, grief, a certain amount of anger, but not shock. Their leaving, it seems, in these and countless other stories, is part of their condition. Whereas when a mother leaves, we assume she must defy her very nature.

Celeste Ng –– who was kind enough to correspond with me, via email –– wonders if this assumption lies partly in our—limited—notions of what’s “natural.” She points out: “Plenty of animal mothers leave their offspring as a matter of routine. Harp seals abandon their pups early on. Cuckoos notoriously lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and abandon them—tricking other birds into raising a chick that isn’t theirs. Even cute, cuddly, pandas often have twins and then abandon the one that seems weaker. And many animals, when stressed or starved, abandon their young—or eat them.”

Our tendency to forget this, Ng says, shows up in the first stories we’re told. “Look at the classic children’s book Are You My Mother? The baby bird goes looking for his mother, and because he’s never seen her, he thinks a cat, a dog, a cow, a hen, a plane, a car, and even a boat might be his mother. So from a very early age, we get the idea that without a mother, you have no real sense of self—you have zero idea who you are or what you’re supposed to do in your life. I’m being a bit facetious here—and I’m not saying that we’re wrong about how important mothers are, either—just that mothers hold a very revered place in our culture and our psyche. Maybe that’s why this plotline appears so often in literature. Losing the one person who’s supposed to nurture and protect you in your most vulnerable years—what a fundamental fear.”

This fear belongs primarily—and primally—to children. Which may be why telling the story of a mother’s leaving not from a child’s point-of-view (Where’d You Go, Bernadette, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) but from the mother’s can feel risky. Writers are all too aware—however hard we may try to ignore it—of the reading public’s impatience with “unsympathetic” characters, and it can be tempting to put sympathy before truth. Ng says that in an earlier, “melodramatic” draft of Everything I Never Told You, Marilyn’s frustrations with her life led to a breakdown and visit to a mental hospital, until Ng took the leap and rewrote her as “a stronger character, with particular desires, who made the choice to leave her family.”

It’s striking, too, that Marilyn bolsters her resolve to leave by thinking of her mother’s old, spine-cracked Betty Crocker cookbook, while in The Hours, Laura Brown urges herself on—and ultimately comforts herself—with Mrs. Dalloway. Emma Bovary, of course, chain-reads romance novels. It’s as if the authors of these books, knowing the challenges they face in portraying mothers who call it quits, brought in iconic texts as units of cultural precedent, backsplashes for the mothers to fling themselves against, asking what they want, and facing what they are.

A mother abandoning her children is an inversion of the orphan tale. It may even feel to some readers like a perversion. It’s a story that’s easy to read and say, without thinking, “I can’t imagine.”

And yet, most of us can. What parent hasn’t at some point longed to flee, even for a day? Parents who are passionate about their work perhaps experience this more acutely. I know I’m guilty of frequent mental abandonment, whether I’m wrestling with a plot problem as my daughter performs “Let it Go” or jotting notes in magic marker for the novel I’m now revising though I’ve promised to draw a tree. I’ve come to accept this as part of the deal, part of my commitment to being both a mother and a writer: I go away in my mind so that I can stay.

I should mention. That novel I’m revising? It begins with a teenage mother leaving her baby in a pear orchard. Don’t ask if I was thinking, when I first wrote this opening scene, about its resonance with my first novel, or all the other novels in which mothers disappear. I wasn’t. But I am now. And I’m thinking about how maybe my cultivated first-draft obliviousness is a little like the trips I take in my mind as a mother: a benign and necessary neglect. If you read the latest woo-woo about parenting, you know that “they” are now recommending we leave our kids alone more, not alone alone, but with enough space that they can figure things out, take risks, make mistakes. Maybe I’ve just known, all along, that my work needs space, too. In any case, I intend to keep up my willed inattention, and let all of us—the kids, and the books, and me (me!)—grow strong, and a little wild.

Image Credit: Irina

Hug Your Darlings, Give the Moon the Finger: Writers On Delight

Martha Graham once said, “No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time.” As extreme as it sounds, it’s often true; being pleased with one’s work can lead to complacency. In her latest novel, A Tale for The Time Being, Ruth Ozeki writes about the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, who compared truth to the moon in the sky. “Words are like a finger. A finger can point to the moon’s location, but it is not the moon.” Ah, how many times have I tried, and failed, and tried again, and failed again, to render the world into words! That pesky, beautiful moon!

As much as I wring my hands about writing, I also can’t deny the small satisfactions it offers me. Be it a turn of phrase, an image, a moment between characters — these are tiny but distinct pleasures that I can revisit anytime I flip through my work. It’s miraculous that these little darlings didn’t get killed in the rewriting process. My work never lives up to the dream I have of it in my head and that’s the way it should be; Martha Graham calls this “a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” It’s the tension between this “queer divine dissatisfaction” and the fulfillment of writing something that pleases me, however minor, that makes me want to write at all. The flaws of my novel, California, are in conversation with its strengths.

And no strengths are too small!  For example, I’m especially proud of my description of coconut cake: “She’d never much cared for the taste, but she loved how it looked: as if a cake had grown fur.” I also love the fact that a T-shirt bearing the words OFFICIAL PUSSY INSPECTOR made its way into a dystopian novel — because it makes me laugh, and because it’s a phrase from the poem “Valentine” by my friend Kiki Petrosino.

I decided to ask some writers I admire to share one or two little delights from their latest or forthcoming books. Their answers made me all the more keen to read their work. Darlings, indeed.

Cristina Henriquez, The Book of Unknown Americans:
Here are a handful of turns-of-phrase and full lines for which I feel unaccountable affection:
“…a traffic jam of silence…”
“Sleep was like wealth, elusive and for other people.”
About blame: “You could trace it back infinitely. All these different veins, but who knew which one lead to the heart?”
“Maybe it’s the instinct of every immigrant, born of necessity or longing: Someplace else will be better than here.”

Megan Abbott, The Fever:
For me, it was two things that found their way into my novel:
1) The mysterious weather of upstate New York, where I lived for a year, including lake effect snow and other meteorological oddities that struck me as more akin to Emily Bronte or Poe than to any experience I’d ever had in “real life.”
2) The inclusion of Rumple Minze, a favorite late-night drink first recommended to me by my friend, the writer Jack Pendarvis. The weird thing is he only suggested it after I’d finished The Fever, which gives the novel (or, more likely, Jack) a certain premonitional quality. I even got to include the fact that if you put Rumple Minze in a White Russian, it’s no longer a White Russian. It’s a Cocaine Lady.

Justin Taylor, Flings:
There’s a story called “A Talking Cure” in my forthcoming story collection about a pair of engaged academics, and I had a great time making up their respective Ph.D. projects. The male protagonist, Zachary, is working on a dissertation about “ideations of Confederate masculinity in late 20th-century Southern fiction,” which gave me an excuse to pay tribute to a couple of writers I admire — Padgett Powell and Barry Hannah — while also having a little fun with them. (Powell’s novel Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men is bracingly clear about its disdain for precisely the kind of academic work that Zachary does, and it’s hard to imagine Hannah getting past the word “ideations” without reaching for a drink, and maybe a handgun.) But the true depths of self-reference are plumbed not by Zachary but by his fiancé, Lacey Anne, whose work “concerns the appropriation of mythological and folk motifs for use in massive multiplayer online role-playing games.” This is a real thesis idea — quoted verbatim — that I had when I was an undergraduate and tempted to pursue academic theory instead of creative writing. Figuring out that I had exactly nothing to say about this topic beyond the single sentence fragment quoted above was a crucial step in my coming to terms with the fact that I was not cut out to be an academic. But where did such an ill-starred idea for a thesis come from in the first place? Some readers will doubtless pick up on the fact that the particular MMORPG Lacey Anne studies/plays bears more than a passing resemblance to the original Everquest, which I played in sickly earnest around the end of high school and the beginning of college — basically, from the time I decided I was “over” my hometown to the time I made friends where I’d moved. I had a gnome necromancer who worshipped the God of Pestilence and was eventually sold on eBay, at level 31 or 32 with decent-but-not-great gear, for $250. Turns out I wasn’t cut out to be a gamer or an academic, though of course the second revelation was several years in following the first. Still and all, what can I tell you? Madame Bovary, c’est moi.

Emily Gould, Friendship:
There’s a line about how one of the protagonists has a bank account that’s linked to her parents’ account and how it’s like a “bedraggled, half-rotten umbilical cord that snakes all the way up 1-95” that she refuses to cut. I don’t even know what I like about it so much. I guess I like that it’s disgusting.

Cecil Castellucci, Tin Star:
The most fun thing that I manage to fit in are Tuckerizations! In my older novels it was fun to name contemporary characters after long lost friends. Mostly it would be teachers and I’d use the last names of friends from middle school. But with Tin Star (and its upcoming sequel A Stone in the Sky) the best part was naming alien species, spaceships, and celestial objects after friends. Every time I see one in the book, or write one in the new one, I smile. Kind of like I’m hanging out with my friends. Watch out, Lepucki! You might become a planet!

Emma Straub, The Vacationers:
My favorite weird little thing in The Vacationers is a fake movie — in my first novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, I had to make up lots and lots of fake movies, and I guess I just couldn’t break the habit. The movie in the new book is called Santa Claws, and it’s a Christmas-themed werewolf movie for which one of the characters is the accountant. It was fun to think about things the production would have to spend money on — fake fur, fake snow, etc. It’s really hard to get over making up fake movies. I don’t think I’m done yet.

Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You:
Marilyn, the mother in Everything I Never Told You, grew up longing to become a doctor, but — as many women did in the 1950s — gave up those dreams when she married and had children. Midway through the book, haunted by disappointment, she visits a hospital and makes a decision that will upend her life and devastate her family. In the scene, she watches with a mix of envy and resignation as the doctors make their rounds: “They were all men, Marilyn noticed: Dr. Kenger, Dr. Gordon, Dr. McLenahan, Dr. Stone. What made her think she could be one of them? It seemed as impossible as turning into a tiger.” All of those characters are actually named after friends who are women doctors. It makes me quietly happy to read my little private joke and think not only of my friends — now accomplished physicians — but also of how much more is possible for women today than in Marilyn’s time.

Brittani Sonnenberg, Home Leave:
I like this line: “Even the brightest of Shanghai’s blue fall days had been compromised by a thin line of haze, like the giveaway bloodshot eyes of an alcoholic.” Having spent three years in Shanghai, as a kid and then later, after college, I always felt bullied by the pollution. It was so satisfying to come up with a description of the haze that emphasized the underlying sadness and helplessness of its presence, the way it could drag even the most gorgeous days down.

Adam Wilson, What’s Important Is Feeling:
I was very satisfied to have snuck in a character wearing a handmade T-shirt that says Kill Me I Love Love, which was the un-ironic title of a wildly over-the-top piano crooner/jam band album — think Billy Joel on MDMA — self-produced by a guy I used to know.

Julia Fierro, Cutting Teeth:
The scene where character Rip talks his 4-year-old son Hank through a wicked bout of constipation in the beach house’s tiny airless bathroom was one of my favorites to write. And I was pretty darn proud of myself for finding a way to let breast-milk have a surprise appearance in the book’s sex scene.

Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams:
There’s a moment in one of the essays — a piece about a crazy ultramarathon in Tennessee — when I confess that I snuck away from the action for a little while to watch a few episodes of the Real World Las Vegas, sitting in my car at a campsite in the woods. I loved admitting this: that while all of these people were doing this impossibly challenging thing, I was watching Steven and Trishelle hook up. It was a way to admit my own fallibility as an observer and a narrator, and I was also glad to go on record saying I’d wanted Trishelle to hook up with Frank instead.

Image via Coralie Mercier/Flickr

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