Comfortable Ambiguity


photo: Jill111, creative commons license

Uh-oh. I have to lead a book group discussion today of Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You—which I read and reviewed three years ago, and I can’t find my copy of the book! And the library doesn’t have one. I feel so unprepared. But at least I have this:

In a perceptive Glimmer Train essay, summarized here, Celeste Ng talked about “comfortable ambiguity,” and how in Everything I Never Told You, she tried to give readers space to enter the world of the story and enough clues to come to their own conclusions about the fates of the characters. Since so many of her early readers had strong—and differing—opinions about what those fates were, her efforts were clearly successful. I’m hoping my book club members came to different conclusions too. A lively discussion should ensue!

If you’ve read this book, you’ll recall that the story takes place in the 1970s and centers around a family living in a small town outside Cleveland (modeled on Ng’s home town of Shaker Heights): honey-blonde Marilyn, the mother, estranged from her own mother, her would-be career, and the future she thought she would have; James, her Chinese husband in an era and a place where being Asian made him—at least in his mind—the perpetual outsider; and their three black-haired children, the only Asian-Americans in their school. Hannah, the acutely observant youngest, Nathan, the oldest, on his way to Harvard, and in the middle, Lydia—serious, responsible Lydia—her parents’ favorite. Their hopes are pinned on her.

But something goes drastically wrong, as we learn in the book’s first irrevocable sentences: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” In the aftermath of her daughter’s disappearance, a desperate Marilyn finds the dozen diaries she’s given Lydia to see what clues they may hide. She jams the flimsy locks open. Every page is blank.

As the story’s point of view shifts among family members, and each tries to piece together what happened to Lydia and why, the secrets, the alienation, and the deceptions in their own lives emerge. Even in this crisis, little is shared among them. Each must come to an understanding of Lydia’s tragedy in a unique, highly personal, and for some, devastating way. In my experience the novel skillfully drew me into deeper and deeper waters until I realized the surface was far above. I will be interested to see whether the book group members are comfortable with its lack of a final clarifying answer.

Everything I Never Told You was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and named a “best book of the year” by many reviewers. Ng’s second book, the 2017 Little Fires Everywhere, also delves into family secrets when a custody battle erupts in a “progressive” Cleveland suburb (you-know-where) over the adoption of a Chinese-American baby. It’s an exploration of race, class, and unconscious privilege that also received extravagant praise and is being turned into an eight-episode television series. Less ambiguity in the story here, but also less comfort.

What I Learned about Book Reviews (from writing them): Part 2

reading, beach

(photo: El Coleccionista de Instantes Fotografía & Video, creative commons license)

Component Parts

When I review a novel or memoir, I look for basic elements of character development, plot, and setting. (“Plot” in memoir is achieved by the selection of life events included.) Lack of believability in any of these undermines my confidence in the story as a whole.

It doesn’t matter whether a book is set in 1800, 2015, or 4500, I look for characters who act and speak believably, certain human psychological patterns held constant. A character from pre-Christian Britain will not think like a hipster living in London today. This other-mindedness is what Lauren Davis achieved so well in Against a Darkening Sky. Even people who are alike in many ways—siblings, even—will not all think and react the same way. Characters need to be individuals, growing organically out of their time and place, with yearnings, weaknesses, and strengths unique to themselves.

Since I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, the plot needs to be tight, too, with all major questions answered. I’d rather have a character admit “we may never know,” if something is truly unknowable within the confines of the story, than think the author led me on with certain plot points or clues, then forgot about them.

An interesting setting—place or time period—is always welcome, but even the most unpromising settings can come alive and in some cases can become almost a character in and of themselves—Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Dickens’s 19th c. London, Hogwarts. These stories could not exist anywhere else.


A writer’s style can add enormously to reading pleasure, and an engaging style can sometimes distract the reader from problems in theme, plot, and characterization. In the end, though, style without substance may feel like the literary equivalent of empty calories, or the movie you enjoy but during the closing credits ask yourself, “what was that, anyway?”

I’m drawn to books with a rather straightforward style typical of the thriller/mystery genre (Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos). But I’m a sucker for an apt metaphor (Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood) and enjoy their liberal use. The key is for the style to match the intent of the book. I’ve read Cormac McCarthy books with a spare—almost barren—style about loneliness in the Southwest desert, and the one I’m reading now (Suttree), set in Knoxville, Tennessee, is florid and looping and filled with unsavory bits, like the river the character lives on.

Cutting Slack

Finally, there’s something to be said for reader expectations. If a novel is by an unknown writer, readers may plunge in with few expectations, and I tend to cut debut authors a little slack. Points—and lots of them—for effort. But if the writer is famous, especially super-star famous, readers rightly have expectations. Which is why, though you couldn’t fault him on plot or style (some reviewers did ding him on character), Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes was a disappointment. It followed a tried-and-true—or should I say tired-and-true—formula. Expertly. But take me somewhere new, please. You’re capable of it.

A Note on Errors

Self-published books, print-on-demand books, small press books, and even books from the Big Houses these days contain more errors than formerly. There aren’t the eagle-eyed copy editors and proofreaders around any more to catch these things. The author had read the manuscript a hundred times–it’s hard to see them and out of the skill set, perhaps. Plus, new kinds of errors crop up thanks to spellcheck and auto-formatting. Occasional typos, changes of font, homonym confusion, and the like I can live with, but beyond a certain frequency, they distract and detract. In my reading experience, blatant carelessness about these “little things” inevitably spills over into fundamental aspects of the work—illogical plot choices, poor character development, tin-ear dialog, hackneyed description.

A recent book I read, by a highly regarded author, included a kidnapping accomplished with a chloroform-soaked handkerchief. Though an staple of old-fashioned movies and television, this method of knocking someone out actually doesn’t work, as I easily found out when fact-checking my own writing. (Yes, fiction does need to be fact-checked!) I had to come up with another method. This author didn’t check. The problem isn’t so much the error itself, the greater problem, again, is losing the reader’s confidence and exposing the fragility of the created world.

Your Criteria?

I’d be interested to know what aspects of a novel or memoir are most important to you. The uproar over Amazon’s new Kindle Unlimited payment method, which pays authors based on the number of pages of their book actually read, shows that Amazon and authors alike recognize readers often don’t finish books. What about them fails to hold your interest?

Further Reading

  • “What’s Wrong with Reading Only Half a Book?” by Lincoln Michel for Electric Lit.
  • “Amazon set to pay self-published authors as little as $0.006 per page read,” by Alex Hern for The Guardian, 2 July 2015; the comments are enlightening.
  • Yesterday’s post described my 1-5 star system, the primacy of the reader’s perspective, and some thoughts about the “bottom line.”

What I’ve Learned about Book Reviews (by writing them): Part 1

books, reading

5-star books of 2015 (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

You may have read some of the book reviews I’ve written for and Crime Fiction Lover. Perhaps you’ve wondered what criteria I use in assessing a book and assigning the stars. For one, you may have noticed that most books reviewed cluster in the 3-4 star range (good to excellent). There’s a reason for that. I really don’t read books at random; unless they promise to be pretty good, they aren’t on my reading pile. Another way to say this is, there’s so much good stuff out there these days, why waste time on schlock?

Offhand, I can think of only two one-star reviews I’ve given, and those books were gifts, well-intended, of course. At the same time, a book has to be really a cut above—usually by having strong literary qualities or a truly compelling story—before I give five stars. Proof of this “high average” is that I’ve reviewed 36 fiction/memoirs so far this year; of these, 18 were four-star, while five were five-star. In 2014, I read 56 books, and gave 22 of them four stars and only half that many five stars. The stars are explained on this website’s “Reading . . .” page, as follows:

Book Review Rankings

***** Highly recommended
**** Excellent read
*** Some flaws, but good
** Take it or leave it
* Save your $

While good reviews are important to writers, book reviews are mainly for readers, so I try to focus on the factors that make a book a good reading experience. And, because they’re for readers, **no spoilers!** in my book (and movie) reviews. This probably doesn’t please my friend who turns to the back of a new book and reads the last chapter first.

It’s generally helpful to signal the genre of the book (some people love sci fi and other hate it, for example) and provide a short synopsis of the book’s set-up. This lets prospective readers know whether it’s the kind of book they would like in general, and whether the subject matter is likely to interest them.

Summary Judgment

First, I think about the overall impression a book makes. When I reach the last page and think, “Now THAT was a good book,” assigning the stars is easy. But it isn’t enough to tell other readers “it’s awesome” or “meh” and be done with it. Writing these reviews has helped me figure out why I have these overall impressions.

An important component of this summary impression is the idea or theme a book explores, which is accomplished by bringing together all its elements (plot, character, etc.) in a coherent, if sometimes invisible, way. Invisible or barely visible, because no reader wants to be lectured at. Ideas and themes must be presented artfully, something numerous critics (not me) felt Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior did not achieve, and which Neal Stephenson’s novels do so well. As the old Hollywood saying has it, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

Ideas and themes are what a book is fundamentally about, and what it is about is not the same as plot. It took me a long time to learn that in my own writing. People would ask, “So, what’s your book about?” and I’d say, “It’s about a New York City architect who finds his mistress murdered and then what all happens as he tries to figure out why.” Now I say some of that, but I add “and what it’s really about is a man trying to regain his self-respect.” The “what a book is about,” stripped of plot intricacies, is the universal that readers respond to.

Tomorrow: Component Parts, Errors, & You

Best Reads of 2014

2015-01-04 10.28.26This is the season when the lists of “Best Books” published in the previous year sprout like mushrooms after a wet week, and the Wall Street Journal has produced a handy consolidated list in different categories. (Scrolling down that web page I encountered the surprising revelation that Lena Dunham is “friend” of the WSJ.) Other lists take into account that people actually read books in years other than the one in which they are published, and this is one of those. I read and listened to 56 books last year, and here are the 11 very best: Links below are to my full reviews.

The Cowboy and the Cossack by Clair Huffaker – I hope I’ve worn you down sufficiently in my praise of this novel to make you give up and read it for yourself. An adventure tale when life was, if not without complexity, less ambiguous. As refreshing for today’s reader as cool morning air after a sleepless night in a smoke-filled room.

Down by the River by Charles Bowden – this nonfiction book describes the failings of the U.S. War on Drugs and the consequent destruction of Mexican society. In the 12 years since the book was written, the situation has worsened. Bowden died last summer, and my review includes links to remarkable reminiscences about his work and fearless character.

Miracle Boy and Other Stories by Pinckney Benedict – a collection of amazing short stories by an author whom I met recently at a celebration for his former teacher, Joyce Carol Oates. (Got his autograph, too.) Benedict’s viewfinder is just one click away from reality as you see it. Unforgettable.

Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling – caught up in Monuments Men fever, I found this novel hit just the right note of adventure story, intellectual interest, and writing style. A bit of a sleeper.

His Excellency George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis – historian Ellis set out to write a readable, not over-long biography of Washington and for the first time succeeded in making him interesting—no, fascinating—to me.

The Fragrant Harbor by Vida Chu – I would read more poetry if it were as satisfying as the work in this slim volume. Poems to revisit and savor.

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris – a novelization of the Dreyfus case, in which anti-Semitism ran amok in late 19th c. France. I never could keep straight what this case was all about. I’ve got it now.

The Civil War of 1812 by Alan Taylor – having spent so much time in Upper Canada (Ontario), I was captivated by historian Taylor’s descriptions of the motivations and tactics of people on both sides of the St. Lawrence. A much more interesting war than you probably think (!).

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy – To preserve my mental health, I allow myself only one Cormac McCarthy novel per year, given his bleak plots and searing (here’s a case when that word legitimately applies) writing style. Wouldn’t have missed it.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – Some readers found this novel hard to follow. I listened to it, which can make continuity problems even more difficult, but had no trouble. A contemplation on “how things might have been different,” from the perspective of a hall of mirrors. The author must have cornered her local market in post-it notes.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – OK, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has received mixed reactions, and it’s the only Big Book on this list (Big also in terms of its 775 pages). I’ve read and liked her other books, and I liked this one a lot. Especially Boris. See if you don’t end up speaking with a Russian accent . . .

Off to a great reading start in 2015, with four new book reviews to post soon.

Is “Social Reading” an Oxymoron?

Christo, New York City

The Gates (photo: the author)

It isn’t enough that people are discovering new ways—and new apps—to facilitate their digital reading, they are starting to explore the messy potential of “social reading,” fundamentally changing what for centuries has been a solitary endeavor—and pleasure.

The variations on this theme are nicely summarized in a taxonomy of social reading activities compiled by Bob Stein here. They range from the post-read book discussions on sites like GoodReads to ebooks with dynamic margins, where you can share annotations, comments, and questions, right alongside the text—commentary-as-you-go. You can see this last in action with a real-life example from a university English class.

Stein is a founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book, which aims to influence the shift of printed page to networked screen in a positive direction. (If you check out some of the more obscure links on the Institute’s website the accompanying photo will make sense.)

Some of Stein’s examples in the taxonomy sound kind of interesting, others intrusive. I can imagine feeling differently about how much social interaction I would enjoy and appreciate, depending on the book in question, not to mention the insightfulness of the commentators. For example, I’m sure I’d have benefited from external conversation and commentary while reading Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. But I wouldn’t have wanted any external voices intruding on my enjoyment of Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk.

In a weird way, the experience reminds me of reading a used book, in which the thrill of discovery is steadily devalued by the coffee stains and greasy crumb-prints of the person who’s been there before. Possibly—no, probably—a someone who is smarter and more perceptive than I.

While some book-scene observers may believe reading is inherently anti-social, it would seem the future of social reading, though still in formation, has appeal as a way for people to, as The Huffington Post says, “start book groups without even leaving their couches.” Which doesn’t sound very social to me.

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2-9-14 Readers, Writers, Booklovers Unite!

Reading, book, Budi SukmanaHugh Howey’s Rants

Everyone who buys, sells, reads, borrows, downloads, and LOVES books has a stake in moving the publishing industry into the 21st century. It won’t happen easily. Best-selling indie novelist Hugh Howey (Wool) launched a well-aimed missile of advice at the industry in his notorious 1/8 blog post, “Don’t Anyone Put Me in Charge,” in which he explains what he would do if he ran one of the big publishing houses. He followed it up with a new barrage on 1/12, “My Second Month on the Hypothetical Job.” Even if thoughts about publication are not your daily preoccupation, his ideas are lively and thought-provoking.

For Publishing: A Radical Makeover

They would radically change the culture and the economics of the book business, making it better for readers and writers in the process. Among his memorable suggestions: get out of New York to cut overhead and get some work done. From home, mostly. (He suggests Houston. Not in August.)  He wants them to invest in Print on Demand, which would keep authors’ backlists alive. And he’d devote greater attention to the midlist bulge of authors. As publishers whittle down their emphasis to manuscripts that are “sure-fire” best-sellers, reader choice withers. And these are not people you’d want standing at the rail next to you at Santa Anita or Churchill Downs.

These next three were picked up by Business Insider writer Dylan Love:

  • “Every format, as soon as the book is available.” The day a book is released, you could buy it in hardback or paper, or Kindle, Nook, or other e-reader formats. No more stringing people along with a hardcover release, and letting them lose interest while they wait for the Kindle edition.
  • “Hardbacks come with free ebooks.” This “would change my perception of e-books overnight,” Love says. At present, e-book Digital Rights Management systems restrict readers’ flexibility. Bundling a hardback with a digital file would increase it.
  • “No more advertising.” In Howey’s publishing house, the firm’s money wouldgo into editors [remember when books weren’t full of mistakes?] and into acquiring new authors,” not into bookstore promotions and pricy advertisements that he says “don’t sell books.”

How Publishers Shouldn’t React

Howey admirer Baldur Bjarnason has drafted a list of tips for publishing insiders to use in their inevitable responses to Howey’s assault. The last of these is to make the argument that traditional publishers are “somehow responsible for keeping the general quality of books high.” I’ll let you explore for yourself Bjarnason’s links that stick the needle in that bit of puffery. LOL.

(Thanks to Beth Wasson at Sisters in Crime’s SinC Links for pointing out Howey’s and Bjarnason’s great posts!)