Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Sarah Dessen’s What Happened to Goodbye

Sarah Dessen’s latest offering, What Happened to Goodbye, fails not so much because it’s an objectively worse book than any of her previous nine novels, but because it never emerges from their shadows. Dessen’s made a career out of revealing the interior lives of teenage girls, surrounding them with “quirky” friends or co-workers and one sweet and long-suffering boy of the type that’s never been seen in a high school, placing her characters in schools and towns familiar to her long-time readers. Dessen doesn’t shy from family drama or classic moments of teenage self-doubt or introspection, but What Happened to Goodbye reads like a novel written from a mold. While the book provides a comforting read it’s not one that’s comparable with Dessen’s earlier efforts for the simple reason that it tries too hard to reimagine what those books had.

Dessen here follows Mclean Sweet, the daughter of a former restauranteur and the wife who left him for the basketball coach of the family’s favorite university team. Doing her all to avoid her mother and her new family (which includes two new half-siblings), Mclean moves across the country with her father,Gus, spending a few months in town after town as he attempts to resuscitate failing restaurants bought by his friend Charles’s company. In each town Mclean renames and remakes herself, becoming “Liz” or “Eliza” or whatever iterations her middle name offers; but in her latest move, she is stymied in her efforts at self-recreation and becomes, again, simply “Mclean.”

The quirky characters are in full force here, from the staff of Luna Blu, the restaurant Gus has been brought in to work on, who on paper have no positive qualities but in life are what draw people to eat there, to the friends Mclean finds herself collecting, almost against her will, before she’s decided which version of herself she’ll be in this new town. Her parents’ divorce having proven, to Mclean, that relationships can’t last and will only hurt her in the end, she’s been in the habit of forming only the surface-level friendships that gather her friends on Dessen’s reimagined facebook, Ume.com, but no one she regrets leaving behind as she slips out of town after town.

With the family issues and Mclean’s reaction to her parents’ divorce and her mother’s new life, Dessen is her usual self, confident in envisioning the impact the (very public) break-up of Mclean’s life had on her. But that’s the problem, maybe; Dessen is simply revisiting her usual territory of broken or breaking families, of teen girls meeting that first boy who will at end help them through their often hidden feelings about their families. What Happened to Goodbye often reads as though Dessen did nothing more than trudge through her old steps as she wrote it.

Dessen is a skilled writer of young adult, and she has undeniable talent when it comes to the interior lives of girls in high school. It’s not a talent that she’s growing, however, and her earlier books read as fresher than this one because she hadn’t yet fallen into the mold that now defines her books. Dessen’s last few offerings read as though they might have all been built on the same plot; simply edit character names and quirks and the specifics of family and you have, at heart, a string of books about teenage girls finding themselves in markedly similar ways. What Happened to Goodbye may be a comforting read, but it’s not one that will stand time as well as Dessen’s earlier novels, particularly That Summer and Someone Like You.

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Story Sundays: Cat Rambo’s “Magnificent Pigs”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Cat Rambo’s “Magnificent Pigs” is, at its heart, a story about loss and a young man’s attempts to protect his younger sister from the knowledge of where her cancer will lead her. The narrator’s parents, died in a car accident, leaving him the parent to his sister Jilly, whose increasing stomach pains are diagnosed as cancer.

There are so many eerie elements to this story that are heightened by the central figure of Jilly, a girl who’s going to leave life almost before she’s been in it. Pig farming isn’t enough to pay the medical bills, and the narrator decides to take his interest in art and work on opening a tattoo business. There isn’t much demand for tattoos in their town, though, and he quickly runs out of friends to practice on, so he begins tattooing the pigs. This comes together with Jilly’s illness as they read Charlotte’s Web; the scenes in which the narrator tries to show his sister that Charlotte isn’t ever really dead, because they can turn back to the start of the book, or in which he tattoos some of Charlotte’s words across a pig, are heartbreaking.

I’ll stop here, but the end of this story is extraordinary, at first almost grotesque as the narrator heads into the barn to tattoo the six pigs he gave to Jilly, her fill-ins for the runt of Charlotte’s Web, then, again, shattering. Rambo brings elements of the extraordinary into the close of her story, and it works so well because of her slow build and consideration of the more ordinary aspects of her characters’ lives.

Read “Magnificent Pigs”

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Mystery Showdown: Sue Grafton vs. Elizabeth George

A few days after reading this Book Bench piece about fiction that sells, I wound up in the Peace Corps office library waiting to see the doctor. In the best tradition of vowing not to take home any new books from the library I’d brought one with me, but I spotted a few Sue Grafton books and, curious about this “other world” of fiction that the author of The Book Bench piece refers to with such a doubtful tone, I picked up “A” is for Alibi and read the first hundred pages that day while wandering around Skopje.

I was surprised by how much I liked the book, and Grafton’s private detective Kinsey Millhone. “A” is for Alibi doesn’t land in the Dennis Lehane camp of crime fiction, but Grafton’s prose is tight and Millhone’s voice is clear and sharp and at times even reminded me of Mattie Ross from Charles Portis’s True Grit. Elements of the plot are far-fetched and the timing often seems too coincidental, as when Millhone is on the phone with a woman she’s going to interview when the woman is shot; or when Millhone goes to the woman’s house to see what happened and gets out just before the police arrive. But still, there’s the voice, which Grafton gets so absolutely right that I was willing to ignore plotting faults that otherwise would have stopped me finishing the novel, let alone looking forward to reading the next, “B” is for Burglar. (And the titles, god, the titles are lame – but again, I liked the first book enough that I can’t get worked up over this. Any shame I might have had to be seen reading Grafton vanished about a chapter into “A” is for Alibi, and I flaunted this book all over the city and in front of volunteers who will probably forever look down on me for my reading choices.)

The other mystery that I just finished, Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph, was a long, hard slog, not comparable to the few days I spent reading Grafton’s novel. This is probably the fourth or fifth book I’ve read by George, and the second time I’ve felt let down by her writing. The mystery in Missing Joseph is peripheral, with George spending most of the novel’s 550 pages following Lynley and Helen, St. James and Deborah, a bunch of townsfolk and a bunch of tween girls around their personal lives. George’s interest here, as in What Came Before He Shot Her, slips from the mystery to the personal, to ways of parenting and the social services system, and it’s a mistake for her to shift her attention in this manner. For one, readers come to George expecting a mystery; for two, George’s skill doesn’t lie so much in character development as it does in plotting. As much as I praised the fullness of her characters in the first few of her mysteries, I can’t praise her now that she devotes so many more pages to them. What George did well before, what she fails to do here, is to show that her characters continue to have personal lives in spite of their work (with the exception of Barbara Havers, who has no personal life apart from caring for her parents and being described for her frumpiness and lack of sex appeal – a topic for another day) but to keep the focus on the work. The mystery in Missing Joseph is lame and cobbled together, and comes so late in the novel that I can’t even describe it to you, other than to say that a vicar dies of poisoning, the poisoning is declared accidental, and that this turns out to be subordinate to the bigger mystery George will toss in towards novel’s end, to be miraculously unraveled by Lynley and St. James while Havers mostly cleans out the refrigerator in her old house and makes a couple of phone calls.

Not that I’m in the habit of placing authors in competition with one another, but this round with George was so lackluster (it took me months to finish Missing Joseph, and only an intense desire to get the book out of my house finally pushed me through) that I’m going to give her a break in favor of more Grafton.

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The State and Future of Book Blogging
May 25, 2011, 10:21 am
Filed under: On Blogging | Tags: , ,

The Reading Ape is wrapping up his fantastic series of post on book blogging with a call to bloggers to give their thoughts on book blogging and its future. Here are my answers to his questionnaire.

1. What does book blogging do best?
Express the sheer love of reading. When I first found that people wrote book blogs – that I wasn’t the only person wanting to devote my free time to writing reviews or reflections on books – it seemed odd and miraculous to me. It still does.

2. If you write a book blog, why do you?
I started my book blog because I don’t have anyone around me I can talk to about books. This is the first time in my life I haven’t been able to talk to my friends or family about what I’m reading, and after about a year of reading in a vacuum I started this blog so I could make the internet listen to my thoughts on my reading.

3. What do you think the future of book blogging is?
I suspect that the current trend of publishers providing review copies to any and all willing book bloggers (including myself) won’t last long. Publishers and bloggers alike are trying to envision what book blogs might become in terms of influencing opinion, and I like that publishers are taking a leap and testing this idea that book blogs are a viable review market. The number of book blogs taking review copies seems unsustainable to me, though, and I suspect that some book blogs will veer off in a more professional direction and some, most, will remain the realm of hobbyists. Given how often I’ve been posting lately, you can guess which camp I see this blog falling into, though my aspirations may be for the other.

4. What do your favorite book bloggers do?
My favorite bloggers are the ones who write honestly and fully about what they’re reading, who may include personal anecdotes but keep the focus on reviews. I understand and respect the argument that things like weekly memes promote community (hell, I occasionally do them), but my favorite bloggers are the ones who have built their “communities” around quality reviews and discussion of those reviews.

5. If you could tell all book bloggers one thing, what would it be?
Be friendly, don’t take things personally. I find it unnerving that some people responded to The Reading Ape’s series as defensively as they did; that over the past couple weeks I’ve been stumbling across comments like, “Maybe they say they don’t like memes, but they’re really just jealous of how many more hits we get than them.” Posts like those over at The Reading Ape were never an attack on any blogs or styles of blogging; they were a starting point for a conversation that has ended up feeling very one-sided to me because some people opted to attack rather than participate.

6. If you could change one thing about book blogging, what would it be?
I’d like to see more honest reviewing. Many people seem unwilling to express negative opinions on books, especially when those books are review copies; but reviews that include phrases like, “I didn’t like this book so much but it’s probably because I’m too young/a woman/am from New Jersey, and other people will definitely like it” – that’s not illuminating, that’s not helpful to readers, and that’s not being honest. If you like a book, tell us why you like it. If you don’t like a book, tell us why you don’t like it. Just tell us what you really think.

7. How do you think book blogging fits into the reading landscape?
Book blogging is almost always the home of people who are really, truly, nuts for reading – the people who as kids would lay inside all day with a pile of Nancy Drew books rather than going outside and doing, well, whatever other kids did. Book blogs give a voice to the average reader, and I view them as a sort of answer to the major publications doing book reviews; they’re a chance for readers to tell other readers what they should read, and that’s empowering.

8. What about your own book blogging would you like to do better/differently?
Some of my goals are conflicting, which may suggest that I don’t really know what I want to do with my blog. Still, I’d like to bring the focus of my blog around some to reading the classics that I’ve missed out on. I’d like to bring more attention to authors who aren’t receiving notice from people who are more important than me. And although I’d like to keep some of my personal anecdotes around here (who am I kidding, if I think that I’m not going to write a post about my first visit to a bookstore [in two years] when I travel to America this summer), I want my focus to remain on reviews.

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Story Sundays: Robert Coover’s “Going for a Beer”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

One of my friends has been bugging me for months to read Robert Coover. Before that, the McSweeney’s store was bugging me to read Robert Coover. Then, finally, OhEmGillie posted up a list of short stories, including one by Robert Coover, last week.

Some writers hover on the edge of my consciousness for years before I read anything by them. The short story OhEmGillie linked to, “Going for a Beer”, has me convinced (at last) that I should follow the advice of my friend and McSweeney’s and seek out more of Coover’s work.

“Going for a Beer” is one of those rare short-short stories that does it all right. Coover gives us the sense of a life in the story, but it’s ours to fill out and complete. He grabs this idea of time rushing by, of life passing before any of us realize it’s on its way out, and centers his story on the life of his narrator, passing so quickly he hasn’t managed to figure where he’s been. In the story’s opening lines it’s nothing more than beers and beer-fueled flirtations that are rushing past, but then it’s marriage, the birth of a child, divorce, a life in its entirety.

He finds himself sitting in the neighborhood bar drinking a beer at about the same time that he began to think about going there for one. In fact, he has finished it. Perhaps he’ll have a second one, he thinks, as he downs it and asks for a third.

Read “Going for a Beer”

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What I want out of book blogs – or at least, out of my book blog
May 19, 2011, 12:11 pm
Filed under: On Blogging, Ways of Reading, Ways of Writing | Tags: , , , ,

The Reading Ape has been doing this fantastic post series on book blogging and styles of reviewing*, spurred by his observation that some book bloggers don’t review so much as they react to the books they’re reading. I did a post a while back about why book blogs matter, and mentioned that one of the things I like about book blogs is that the bloggers provide a more personal look at books than do professional reviewers. The Ape raises some good questions about the types of personal reflection and critical reviewing we do on our blogs, though, and if we’re thinking of book blogs as responses to the increasingly slim book pages of our newspapers there’s good reason to aim for a type of review that doesn’t focus so much on the “I” as on the “why.” That is, to write not, “I thought this book was awesome, go read it,” but to focus on what it is about the book that makes you like it so much.

When I started this blog in September, the other book blogs I came across were overwhelmingly focused on the social aspects of book blogging. I saw far more posts on what was showing up in the bloggers’ mailboxes, what they’d checked out at the library, who their ten most hated characters between the ages of 13 and 18 were, than posts actually reviewing books. It wasn’t until I started finding blogs like The Reading Ape, Sasha & the Silverfish, The New Dork Review of Books, that I figured out that there were bloggers out there doing what I was interested in doing, which was – well, reviewing books.

The Ape mentions this briefly in his most recent post, but I also noticed a divide between bloggers who were striving to write about books fully and in sometimes thought-provoking ways, and those who actively resisted this sort of writing. It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at any blogs like this, but I also remember reading a lot of disgusted talk about “English majors” and the ways that “academic writing” ruin reading. Like the Ape, though, I see a splash of that sort of academic writing as adding value to the discussion we have on our book blogs. My blog is here to track what I’m reading, but it’s also here so I can develop my thoughts on my reading in a way I haven’t been able to since college, and to take part in discussions that often change how I view the novels I’m reading. My review of The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, for example, was pretty negative; reading The Picky Girl’s more positive review hasn’t changed my views, but it has helped to develop them and get me thinking about ways the novel could have been better structured than it was. A more self-reflective, less review-y post wouldn’t give me as much to think about.

We all engage with our reading in different ways, of course. There are some bloggers who write fantastic posts that are as much reflection as review, and I’ve done a lot of posts that are as much about why I’m reading a certain book as what I think of that book. All these posts The Reading Ape is doing, though, have started me thinking more about why I started this blog and what I’m trying to get out of it. Part of my interest in book blogging, as I write on my “about me” page, is in the community; I don’t have people around me I can discuss books with, and having this blog has at times felt like a lifeline. It’s made me feel, in some way, a part of a literary culture again, and after two years of living on the linguistic level of a child (a child with bad grammar, no less) I feel like I’ve recovered a part of myself through writing about books. More than that, though, it’s an attempt to write and think about books critically again. I don’t like the feeling of putting a book down, deciding whether I liked or disliked it, and then tossing it in my book bag to return it to the Peace Corps library. I don’t like the feeling of not actively engaging with a book, or of thinking about it but not in much more depth than to decide, “I didn’t like this scene, I liked this character, I didn’t like the last fifty pages.”

Thinking about book blogging, what we’re trying to get out of it, what types of reviewing we usually find on blogs, has gotten me to reassess what I’m doing at this blog. When I started going through old posts I was sometimes disappointed in what I found: not a lot of critical thinking, but more meditations on how I’d been sick/running spelling bees/missed America, then thoughts on how what I was reading at the time tied into this. There’s some value in this, sure, but it’s a largely personal one in that those posts allow me to look back on the past few months and remember where I was. They’re not posts that I see as being of particular interest of other people, or as adding much value to the bookish conversations going on online. What I want to do, what I wanted to do when I started this blog, is to wake my brain back up from its “I don’t have to speak English” stupor, to review in a semi-professional manner (that is, in a manner that will help a lot of high school students as they’re trying to plagiarize their essays on Native Son), and to be part of this book blogger community through actual critical discussions of the books we’re reading rather than by posting a meme a day.

The Ape deserves a good slap on the back for all the posts he’s been doing lately. This may be a discussion for another day, but if book bloggers are to continue receiving review copies from publishers, if they’re going to be a bigger part of the literary conversation, it’s going to have to be on the terms the Ape proposes – to write more analytical reviews without the “I,” to find some place between the professional reviewer in the Times and the “I found this book on a park bench while I was walking my dog who recently ripped off his dewclaw, but it was so good I couldn’t put it down to change his bandages…”-style reflections.

* The Ape’s posts: “The ‘I”s Have It” / “The ‘I”s Have It, Redux” / “An Offshoot of the Buzz” / “The Tyranny of Pleasure” / “Whom Do You Review For?” / “The ‘I”s Have It, Once More With Feeling”

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Is it wrong that I only like my own marginalia?
May 17, 2011, 10:25 am
Filed under: Ways of Reading | Tags: , , , ,

I often work myself into a state over the future of stuff related to books that are actually books – like, you know, loaning books to people, buying used books on the cheap, finding strange things in library books (I still have nightmares about what I found stuck to the pages of a children’s book I checked out when I was about twelve – maybe it’s good if some of these things pass away), dog-earing and marginalia.

Despite Amazon’s attempts to create a “community” around reading by sharing notes and markings created on its kindle reader, the habits of book bloggers when it comes to extensive quoting and philosophizing on what makes a book good, and the fondness of countless twitter and facebook users for posting quotes that “really, really represent their lives”, nothing, in my mind, replaces old-fashioned marginalia, the stuff you scrawl in your book and the sloppy underlining that manages to obscure surrounding passages.

It’s occurred to me, though, that despite my interest in the New York Times’s take on the dismal future of marginalia, I don’t have a whole lot of interest in what other people have to write in the books they’re reading. There’s the occasional exception, like my copy of Of Mice and Men in which every curse has been scribbled over, suggested replacements written in the margins, but I often act more like Rory Gilmore, seeking the used book that either hasn’t been marked up or is the former property of a lazy if enthusiastic highlighter who didn’t make it past the first chapter. Yet when it comes to my own reading, I dog-ear, underline and make notes freely, secure in knowing that my every thought as I read is of interest to future readers.

I picked up a copy of The Best American Short Stories (2001) from the Peace Corps library last Friday, and the markings are so unrelenting and obtrusive that I want to track down the book’s original owner and give her a talking-to. Once I start reading someone else’s notes on a book I can’t stop, in much the same way that I keep reading the facebook status updates of people I haven’t spoken to in years and didn’t like all that much in the first place. But some of this reader’s marginalia isn’t just redundant or stupid; it gets in the way of the story, as when she writes, “foreshadowing of future betrayal,” evidently getting some retrospective marginal notes in there to thumb her nose at the reader who, not having completed the story, has no idea that there is a betrayal on its way.

Sometimes, maybe in this short story case, marginalia is not good at all. Sometimes, as with Of Mice and Men or when a famous author writes something awesome in a book he’s reading, it’s very good. But do any of us have much interest in the marginalia of other people, or is it nothing but an intrusion into our reading? Is my interest in preserving my own marginalia nothing more than another example of my self-centered nature, or is this the way most people feel? And is it wrong that I feel strongly about the need to preserve marginalia, but only when I consider it insightful or when I write it myself (which is saying the same thing, really)?

What are your thoughts on marginalia – do you like it all the time, just when you’re writing it, just when famous people, friends, family (people you have some interest in) are writing it, just when it’s well-done, or never? And why?

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