First, a confession: I didn't find this book on my own. In fact, I hardly ever select books in a vacuum anymore, depending on cover art and my own whims to lead me to something good. While it can be fun to walk into a bookstore and happen upon an unknown but promising volume as you browse the shelves, that kind of hunting has proven to be hit or miss for me, and is best left to lazy Saturday afternoons or out-of-town vacations. I find I can not only avoid duds but discover hidden gems by looking to certain trusted sources for recommendations.
Some of the best sources are writers themselves. The first time I heard Middlemarch touted was in one of Barbara Kingsolver's books, probably one of her essay collections, though at this point I've read just about all her stuff so it's anyone's guess. What I do remember is thinking, “Hmm, I really like Barbara Kingsolver's work; if she likes this Middlemarch book, it's probably pretty good.” Twelve years later, here we are—I've not only read Middlemarch, but I've made a big ol' production of it. One of these days I might even finally stop talking about it.
I found this book via YA author John Green, who with his brother posts short videos covering a variety of subjects on YouTube. Recently he posted a video in which he lists great books that most people haven't heard of. This is just the kind of golden opportunity I'm always on the lookout for, so I quickly made a note of the titles I wanted to check out. Tayari Jones's The Untelling is the first one I was able to get my hands on.
Green points out that Jones is better known for another novel, Leaving Atlanta, but his claim is that sometimes authors' more obscure titles are just as good, and I have to agree with him. The Untelling is haunting and sad, but beautifully written. Narrator Ariadne has been deeply scarred by a childhood tragedy: her father and baby sister were killed one day when the family car hit a magnolia tree. Aria and her remaining family members all suffer their grief in different ways. Her mother becomes erratic and accusatory, locking Aria and her sister Hermione out of the house and calling them sluts. Hermione leaves as soon as she can, marrying a much older man when she is only 18. Aria deals with her guilt by burying it, keeping it hidden from everyone who is important to her.
Aria is now 25 and living with her best friend Rochelle in a run-down neighborhood in Atlanta. They teach literacy classes at a nonprofit. Aria has a comfortable, solid relationship with her boyfriend Dwayne. All that is about to be disrupted, though, when Aria learns a shattering truth about herself and reverts to her old secret-keeping method of coping. Eventually she comes to realize that telling her secrets might actually be the only way to protect herself and salvage her relationships.
I'm really glad John Green recommended The Untelling, and I'm looking forward to trying out some of the other titles he mentioned. I highly recommend you check out Green's other YouTube projects: The Art Assignment, which is co-hosted by his wife Sarah for PBS, and Crash Course, which is absolutely amazing in breadth and scope and which I would definitely be using in the classroom if I were still teaching. Just be careful clicking those links—I estimate that this post took approximately 45 extra minutes to write because I got sucked into all the magical content. You think I'll just click this one little link, and 30 minutes later, there you are watching a ten-minute synopsis of the Reagan era with a detailed breakdown of supply-side economics. Keep an eye on the time, is what I'm saying, or you run the very real risk of missing lunch.
Though when I think about it, I'd probably take being educated and hungry over the alternative.