Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Salinger’s Franny and Zooey

J.D. Salinger evokes such strong response in people that I am never quite sure what to make of my middling opinion of him. I, too, was forced to read The Catcher in the Rye during my formative years (twice! once by my mother, once by a teacher), and after not getting it the first time, when I was maybe twelve years old, I liked it on the second read.

But everything he’s written, while striking me as “good” in a broad sort of way, doesn’t stick in my mind for more than a few days after I finish reading. When I can reread a book and not realize until halfway through that I’ve read it before, I tend to think there is something wrong with the writing rather than me. (You are free to disagree.)

Not to say that I don’t like Salinger. Franny and Zooey got the things I like about his writing (his ways of describing people) along with the things I dislike (his “tic-y” writing [all those italics and “goddamns”], lack of any significant storyline), thereby landing in the “not bad to pretty good” category of “books i been done read,” or something.

The book contains a short story, titled “Franny,” about Franny Glass and a lunch she has with her boyfriend, Lane, who thinks she is an “unimpeachably right-looking girl” who is not “too categorically cashmere sweater and flannel skirt” (11). Throughout the story Lane asks about a book Franny is carrying, which she claims to have checked out of the school library but actually took from her dead brother Seymour’s room. Franny begins, in this story, to break down, which continues into the following novella about her brother, Zooey.

Occasionally Salinger comes out with these descriptions that are so apt or funny that I don’t think anyone else could have written them, as when Mrs. Glass, “a dedicated medicine cabinet gardener,” brings a package into the bathroom where Zooey is: “It appeared to contain an object roughly the size of the Hope diamond or an irrigation attachment” (73). Or later, when describing Franny’s crying: “She was in fact crying now, but in a very local sort of way, as it were; there were tears but no sounds” (150).

All to say that I think there’s a lot of needless hatred of Salinger, inspired mostly by high school English teachers, but that while there are some things he does well there are a few too many he doesn’t. If I could go back in time I wouldn’t not read Salinger, but I probably would have erased the period when I tried to write like Salinger by inserting “goddamns” into the mouth of all my characters and italicizing words or parts of words in about every goddamn sentence I wrote.


Story Sundays: Robert Olen Butler’s “The Ironworkers’ Hayride”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Each Sunday I’ll write about a short story available online. If you read the story, please add your thoughts in the comments!

Apart from one of his story collections, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Robert Olen Butler has never made much impression on me; but one of his stories, “The Ironworkers’ Hayride,” I’ve remembered ever since I read it seven years ago.

The story centers on Milton, an employee at an ironworks in 1911. In the period details Butler sometimes seems to be throwing things in (a hayride, Model-T, women’s suffrage) just to throw them in, to point out that the time is not our time, but he does such a good job with the main character as to recover from this fault.

Milton is an accountant, and throughout the story you catch his sense of out-of-placeness; he doesn’t fit with the other men at the ironworks, which is probably what leads one of the furnace men, Zach, to push him to take his sister-in-law, Maggie, on the ironworkers’ hayride. Maggie is missing one of her legs, and as Milton figures, this is the sort of detail that Zach doesn’t want his friends from work to learn about.

Butler gets Milton’s tendency to over-think and over-analyze, as well as the feeling of first meeting someone and realizing that, you know, this could be someone. The writing goes kind of stupid when Milton first sees Maggie, as you’d expect.

She is swell looking. She’s wearing a blue sailor dress with the big collar and the wide, knotted tie hanging down the center of her chest, and her head is bare, her hair all gathered up there with a wide, dark ribbon circling the crown, and there is a radiance all around her—thanks to the Ford, but radiance nonetheless—her whole head is surrounded with a bright glow, like a saint, a martyred saint who has lost her leg to an evil duke—a partially martyred saint—and her face is very pale and delicate of nose and brow and ear and so forth—my eyes are dancing around her, not taking her in very objectively, I realize—her mouth is a sweet painted butterfly.

It’s a short story, and a fun one, and a sometimes weird one. A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain is the one to read if you’re looking for a book of Butler’s, but this story is a lighter introduction than the stories in that collection.

Read “The Ironworkers’ Hayride

My Love Letter to Beverly Cleary

Maybe this isn’t the most nuanced statement, but whatever. Beverly Cleary is awesome, and she gets better the more I read her.

I grew up on Cleary. (Aside: some cats are fighting below my window, and they sound almost like people. When I first heard them I thought my host sister, Ava, was alerting me to her return from school.) Ramona, Beezus, Henry Huggins, Ribsy, Ellen Tebbits, and to a lesser extent Ralph S. Mouse, formed the backbone of my library when I was growing up. But unlike Roald Dahl, I didn’t reread Cleary’s books once I got old enough to read “grown-up books,” or whatever my eight-year-old self would label “old people books.”

And probably I would never have reread Cleary, and her books would have remained vague childhood memories of some mouse who rode a bicycle, or something, except that I made the fantastic decision (for my reading life, in any case) to put together an English-language library at my school. My moments of (frequent) doubt regarding this project are always assuaged when a new box of books arrives holding Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, or The Witches, or The Janitor’s Boy (by Andrew Clements, a first-time read, awesome), or Henry & Ribsy or The Mouse and the Motorcycle.

What strikes me now, what I don’t think I ever noticed when I was reading Cleary as an uncoordinated, chubby, leggings and wolf-imprinted t-shirt wearing eight-year-old, is how funny she is, and how spot-on her descriptions are. I should have written about this after reading The Mouse and the Motorcycle. In my endless dedication to actually getting books to my school in a timely fashion, I didn’t.

Lucky for me, then, and you (ha, ha) that I found a copy of Ribsy in the library yesterday. This is one of the Greatest Things to have happened to me in Macedonia, because Ribsy isn’t even one of the books I recruited for the library; one of my co-workers brought in a solid 100+ books over the school vacation. (Also including Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World. Yessssssss!)

Ribsy is written from the point of view of Henry Huggins’s dog, Ribsy. As I started to realize when reading about the adventures of Ralph S. Mouse, Cleary excels at writing about animals. She gives them enough human emotions and thoughts that you identify with them, but not so many that they ever stop seeming like animals; when she writes something like “Ribsy was what you might call a well-adjusted dog” (7) it’s funny because it’s such a human statement to make, but one that is entirely appropriate and correct given what we’ve learned of Ribsy’s friendly nature (keeping the mailman company, following Henry to school, greeting the milkman). Ribsy, who finds himself lost after hitting the power window button in the Huggins’s new station wagon and jumping out to chase a dog, travels through a world that is largely composed of smells (coffee, hot dogs, peanut butter sandwiches, that special boy smell possessed by Henry) and his attempts to find Henry by following those familiar sights (schools, mailman) that he associates with his boy and family.

Ribsy finds himself in the possession, briefly, of any number of people as he tries to find his way back to Henry. As the “mascot” of a second-grade class, Ribsy one day tries to chase a squirrel (brought in for show & tell) around the room. “Nothing that interesting had happened since Billy Amato had brought a live clam to school” (104). Cleary knows just when to leave something unexplained; the comic possibilities of a live clam in a second-grade class grows because it is mentioned so casually.

Near book’s end Ribsy ends up in an elevator, or, in his mind, “a small square room without windows” (168).

There was a whirring noise, and suddenly Ribsy had a feeling he had never felt before. He felt as if he was going up while his stomach stayed down. He did not like the feeling one bit. He did not like this strange little room. He wanted out right now. (168)

I am pretty sure that this is what a dog would feel on being left in a “frightening room that made him lose his stomach” (170). All of Cleary’s descriptions, like when Ribsy is trying to run away from the violet-scented bubble bath he’s been bathed with, are pitch-perfect.

Much of the reason I am so in love with Cleary, and Ribsy in particular (he’s always been one of my favorite characters of hers) is that he reminds me of my old dog, Sunny. Maybe she didn’t share his enthusiasm for boys, or playing football, or playing catch, but Cleary gets the essential nature of a mutt perfectly. Rereading Ribsy makes me feel a little closer to my own dog; in a perfect world, where dogs could tell us what they thought, I’m pretty sure they’d sound a lot like Ribsy.


Also, judging by this photo, it seems that Sunny was, like Ribsy, a “southpaw,” or “left-pawed.”

Review: Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea isn’t required reading for Peace Corps Volunteers but it might as well be, since half of each year’s training group seems to arrive in Macedonia with gifted copies of this book. It being a truth universally acknowledged that if there are enough free copies of a book floating around I will pick it up, I finally read the damn book. I wish I hadn’t.

This is no doubt a rude-ish statement to make. Judging by the hagiographic tone of the book, supposedly co-written by Greg Mortenson, there’s a solid amount of hero worship for the man, and sometimes probably for good reason. He’s doing work that’s undeniably good-spirited, in a region of the world that doesn’t get its share of international aid. I’m not arguing that providing education to thousands of girls who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend school is a bad thing; mostly, I’m arguing that Three Cups of Tea is a really, really poorly written book.

This is purportedly a memoir, but in some indescribable way (like, I don’t know, that he clearly left all the writing to “co-author” David Oliver Relin, or that I can almost feel Relin’s pain as he trudges through event after event, belaboring Mortenson’s heroism…unless that’s my own pain I was feeling) it doesn’t read like one. It’s a piece of journalism, plain and simple, like Rebecca wrote over at Rebecca Reads. Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly good piece of journalism, in part because of the writing quality, in part because the focus is so often on relatively insignificant details (more on this later), in part because Relin isn’t remotely close to objective. The book reads as hero worship, and by the end, no matter how objectively good Mortenson’s mission may be, I wanted to tear the book in half and proclaim to the world, “This is not how it should be done!

This is not, anyway, the right book to give to a Peace Corps Volunteer. What Mortenson does is on a level apart from our work, and that’s one of the things that frustrated me while reading his book. The mission is admirable. You’d have to be pretty cruel to say that there’s something wrong in building schools where there weren’t previously schools. But there are so many questions unanswered, so many that aren’t even raised in this book.

How are these schools sustainable? The money to build the schools comes from Mortenson’s organization, the money to pay teachers and buy school supplies comes from Mortenson’s organization; so what happens to all these schools the day donations stop rolling in? Sustainability is of course “the” buzzword when you get into development work, and it’s something that’s very difficult to achieve; being in the Peace Corps has taught me that you need to aim low on the sustainability front, and that putting something in place (a contest, a classroom activity, a new section of the library) doesn’t mean it will be utilized once you leave or even take off for a week.

How are the schools organized, in a legal sense? Mortenson works apart from the government, and in the tortuously long build-up to the completion of the first school he builds it’s clear that details such as teacher selection aren’t foremost on Mortenson’s mind. There are clear advantages to working independently, as Mortenson does. He’s able to move across the country quickly, put up schools quickly, and make decisions without working with a possibly uncooperative government. But…. building a school is one thing, but to staff it and provide teaching materials and to form a quality education are different matters altogether. How are all these things handled? Admirable as Mortenson’s mission is, wouldn’t it be better in some ways to seek greater government involvement so that the schools could be part of a more sustainable system the day that Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute stops work?

My problems and questions with Mortenson’s work may, though, just be problems with how his work is described in the book. That Relin skips over such vast territory as “Where do the books come from, and what textbooks are used?” or “How are the teachers selected and trained? Are they trained?” is hard for me to understand. The lack of detail on these fronts, as compared to the space given to Mortenson’s relationships and life before starting to build his first school, is genuinely baffling.

All the same, there were parts of the book that I could appreciate for the way they reflect my working situation in the Peace Corps. I’m not working in the sort of volatile environment described in Three Cups of Tea, not by a long shot, but the frustrations of doing work in a developing country are all there. It’s hard work, and frequently messy, and sometimes projects need to be run in unorthodox fashion, and it’s strange and a little disconcerting for me to see it in print.

Story Sundays: Julie Orringer’s “Care”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Each Sunday I’ll write about a short story available online. If you read the story, please add your thoughts in the comments!

When I started thinking about writing more on short stories, and then started thinking about writing more on short stories by Writers Who Aren’t Dead, Julie Orringer was one of the first I thought of looking up. This struck me as weird, because although I read her collection, How to Breathe Underwater, years ago, I don’t remember thinking much of her at the time or in ensuing years. This may be in part due to my suspicion of Writers with MFAs (Orringer has one from Iowa), but her name and her collection have stuck in my head long enough that it seemed time to revisit her.

And man, am I glad I did. You can find a decent number of Orringer’s stories online for free, and if you have the time and inclination it’s worth seeking them out. (Word to the wise, though: make sure to check they’re complete, because I’ve stumbled over some that are excerpts. Lengthy excerpts, but excerpts nonetheless.)

My favorite reread story by Orringer is “Care”, which appeared in her collection. It’s about a girl, Tessa, who is babysitting her sister’s daughter, Olivia, for the day, but also about the misdirections of life. Orringer hints at how Tessa’s life has veered off course and how she is trying to find her way back, but without belaboring the point, and the narrative tone is perfectly matched to Tessa’s mental state.

She feels something going wide and empty in her chest, the Devvie slipping out from beneath the Sallie, the cartoon moment just before you fall, when the cliff’s already gone but gravity has not yet got you.

There are also some fantastic descriptions of characters. On Tessa’s brother-in-law: “he is devoted to the study of imaginary numbers and to the building of handy gadgets.” On Tessa’s niece, Olivia: “She is a child cared for in great detail.” And some lines that are, more generally, just pitch-perfect, like when Tessa tells Olivia: “I’m your adult today.[…] I make the rules.”

Orringer may be a graduate of a creative writing program, but rereading her stories makes me want to take back all the bad things (well, some of the bad things) I’ve said or thought about these programs and the writers who attend them. Anything that can produce this sort of story, this sort of writer, is worth it.

What have you read by Orringer? Do you have a favorite story by her?

Read “Care.”

Reread: Charles Portis’s True Grit

I’ve been out of Macedonia for a couple weeks on an awesome vacation, the kind so good that I didn’t want to come home and begin seriously considering abandoning the Peace Corps in order to keep traveling around Egypt. (I also went to Jerusalem and Jordan, where I had hoped to reenact Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade in its entirety.)

One of the last books I read before going (or maybe the last – at this point, let’s face it, I don’t remember and am too lazy to check my reading list) was Charles Portis’s True Grit. Although I’ve written about plenty of other things on this blog lately, I feel like it’s been all about Charles Portis – that everything I write has a Portisian undercurrent. “You think you want to read Never Let Me Go because the characters are so well developed? Forget that, read True Grit, which has probably two of the greatest characters ever written.”

If you’re familiar with True Grit it’s probably because of the new Coen brothers film based on the book. The novel is a short one, and in typical Portis fashion revolves around a quest, though it’s unique for its setting in time and place. The book opens with Mattie Ross describing the death of her father at the hand of, well, a hired hand, Tom Chaney. Mattie travels to recover her father’s body and deal with the business (buying ponies) he left incomplete, and to hire a marshal to help hunt down her father’s killer and bring him to justice. She selects Marshal Rooster Cogburn because she hears he is a man of “true grit,” and they are joined by a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, who has for months been hunting the killer of Mattie’s father.

I can hardly be an impartial reviewer of this book, because I am a raving fan of Charles Portis. He is one of the best writers in America, and that so few people are familiar with his work continues to torment me. He is funny but without ever appearing to try too hard, and in Mattie Ross he has probably written the greatest character, the greatest voice, ever. Just look at how she describes her father’s killer:

Tom Chaney rode his gray horse that was better suited to pulling a middlebuster than carrying a rider. He had no hand gun but he carried his rifle slung across his back on a piece of cotton plow line. There is trash for you. He could have taken an old piece of harness and made a nice leather strap for it. That would have been too much trouble.

Stepping back from the ledge of unconvincing if enthusiastic fandom, if only slightly…Ross is writing True Grit as an older woman, and Portis perfectly captures this crotchety tone of her voice, the frequent biblical references.

I had hated these ponies for the part they played in my father’s death but now I realized the notion was fanciful, that it was wrong to charge blame to these pretty beasts who knew neither good nor evil but only innocence. I say that of these ponies. I have known some horses and a good many more pigs who I believe harbored evil intent in their hearts. I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, that is superstitious “claptrap.” My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26 – 33.

Without straining it or making too pointed motions (“relationship developing here”) he shows how Mattie and Rooster gain mutual respect for each other – he saves her life, she buys him a headstone for his grave.

There’s really no way I can convince you to read this book, but please: read this book. You won’t regret it. You won’t regret anything you read by Portis. Some quotes, to do a better job convincing you than I can.

Captain Finch looked LaBoeuf over, then said to Rooster, “Is this the man who shot Ned’s horse from under him?”

Rooster said, “Yes, this is the famous horse killer from El Paso, Texas. His idea is to put everybody on foot. He says it will limit their mischief.”

Or another LaBoeuf focused one:

[LaBoeuf] said, “You are lucky to be traveling in a place where a spring is so handy. In my country you can ride for days and see no ground water. I have lapped filthy water from a hoofprint and was glad to have it. You don’t know what discomfort is until you have nearly perished for water.”

Rooster said, “If I ever meet one of you Texas waddies that says he never drank from a horse track I think I will shake his hand and give him a Daniel Webster cigar.”

“Then you don’t believe it?” asked LaBoeuf.

“I believed it the first twenty-five times I heard it.”

Man, does this make me want to read True Grit again.

Story Sundays: E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Each Sunday I’ll write about a short story available online. If you read the story, please add your thoughts in the comments!

When I first “discovered” E.M. Forster, back in high school, I didn’t like his short stories much, particularly those with a sci-fi bent. I wanted him to be writing little Rooms with a View, and that he wasn’t at the time seemed unforgiveable.

But his story “The Machine Stops,” made up of three chapters, is prescient and creepy even if it is sometimes preachy. Mankind has shifted life underground, where everything from the air people breathe to the food they eat is handled by machine. People don’t interact face-to-face with other people if they can help it, but remain in their own rooms and communicate via the Machine, as do Vashti and her son Kuno:

He broke off, and she fancied that he looked sad. She could not be sure, for the Machine did not transmit nuances of expression. It only gave a general idea of people – an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes, Vashti thought.

People believe, of course, that this way of life is the most correct and that those who came before were vulgar in their movements and the physical affection they showed to other people. Those who challenge the Machine become “homeless,” which is to say that they’re put above-ground to die.

Aspects of the story presage the internet – this idea of communicating not in person but via a vast network other people are connected to at nearly all times – which is what got me interested in rereading it. Vashti’s son Kuno wants to see life outside of the Machine, to see what lies on the surface, to see the hills which, he discovers, are themselves “alive”; and it’s his experience that makes the last two-thirds of The Machine Stops a quick if unnerving read.

“Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops – but not on our lies. The Machine proceeds – but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die. […]”

Read “The Machine Stops”