Fat Books & Thin Women


Half-Assed Reading Journal

I’ve always regarded those “what’s in my mailbox” posts as the book blogger’s equivalent to stories about dreams: fun to talk about, no fun to listen to. It is always safe to assume that no one wants to hear about your dreams, and that no one cares what you got in the mail – unless you are going to share the wealth.

That said, I got a package! A package that I am not sharing, but that I wanted to tell you about because (a) I was really charmed by the way my parents used Fiber One bars in lieu of packing peanuts, and (b) I have been waiting on this for weeks, increasingly anxious, because the package was full of books for my research project. (The funny story here being that the package arrived in Tirana a week after my parents mailed it, but that I didn’t get the package slips for another ten days. Oh, Albania!)

Anyway, lots of reading and preparation for the upcoming Fulbright conference here. My personal reading has been a lot of Cloud Atlas, which I just finished and – not to spoil my review or anything – loved. This is the third novel I’ve read by David Mitchell and the third I’ve loved, so fair to say I’ll be reading more by him soon.

Okay, I’m almost done. But Kit wrote this very fun (and somehow necessary, I think) open letter to Bridget Jones. Because, you know, she’s not fat and the movie strips away some of the book’s pointed humor about Bridget’s weight loss attempts, as when she hits her goal weight and everyone very gently tells her that she looks terrible. Which brings me to this other point, and I guess what I should recognize is the natural result of unwisely naming your blog “Fat Books & Thin Women,” without an eye to googlers the world over: the eighth most popular search term for this blog is “Kat Dennings fat.” (Leading, disappointingly I’m sure, only to my book vs. movie thing on Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.)

“Kat Dennings fat”? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!

Back to Kosovo: A Short History

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#Longreads: Atul Gawande’s “Letting Go”

Occasional posts highlighting some of the best longreads on the web. Trying something new this week, and posting on Friday. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Atul Gawande’s “Letting Go” comes at the issue of dying from a few directions: the story of a new mother and woman with incurable cancer, Sara Thomas Monopoli; home visits with a hospice nurse; a look at the changes medical innovation and the intracies of health insurance have wrought on death in America; and Gawande’s own attempts to discuss the end of life with his patients.

Gawande’s essay succeeds because he never hesitates to ask questions that can’t be answered, or to condemn even himself for the way he discusses (or doesn’t discuss) death with his patients. Gawande illuminates a part of life that few of us want to think about until it’s inevitable. As he points out here, that reluctance to discuss the end of life may well be making the ends of our lives, in America, more miserable, fraught with false hope and painful treatments, than they should be. This hasn’t always been a problem; until relatively recently, Gawande notes, people took it as a fact of life that some people would be suddenly stricken by illness and, as soon as a few days later, leave this mortal coil. But now, in part because of the seeming conflict between the doctor’s job of curing patients (even from the incurable) and helping patients to die, we are lost.

I wasn’t even sure what the word “dying” meant anymore. In the past few decades, medical science has rendered obsolete centuries of experience, tradition, and language about our mortality, and created a new difficulty for mankind: how to die.

This is fascinating and gorgeous writing about a topic too many of us don’t want to touch. Gawande elegantly shifts between Sara Monopoli’s story (which by end will have you wanting to scream, to tell her family how to treat – or not treat – her incurable and spreading cancers, even as you know that were she your own relative you would be desperately googling for the miracle cure) and ideas for how we might find our way back to knowing how to die. What Gawande suggests, that little more than discussion may be the key to reducing needless treatments at the end of life, is simple and revelatory at the same time, as is his consideration of a few cases in which insurance companies and health systems have reduced end-of-life costs while increasing the satisfaction of patients and their families. Attempting to bring these questions into the open, and making them a standard part of end-of-life care, has got to be better than our current system, of which Gawande writes:

We’ve created a multitrillion-dollar edifice for dispensing the medical equivalent of lottery tickets – and have only the rudiments of a system to prepare patients for the near-certainty that those tickets will not win. Hope is not a plan, but hope is our plan.

Read Atul Gawande’s “Letting Go”

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Review: David Goodis’s Dark Passage

Disclaimer: This novel, part of a five-novel collection (Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s) was provided by the publisher for review.

David Goodis’s Dark Passage was first published in 1946, serialized in The Saturday Evening Post before being published in hardback and adapted for a film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Dark Passage was Goodis’s big break as a noir writer, and is being reprinted as the first of five novels in The Library of America’s David Goodis collection.

The novel is a claustrophobic, sometimes downright trippy, following of Vincent Parry, a man who escapes from prison after being incarcerated for the murder of his wife. Parry has claimed his innocence all along, and in his escape hopes to find his wife’s real killer. This is a novel in which nothing, and no one, is unimportant. Every person that Parry meets is somehow central to Goodis’s plotting, even if they at first seem little more than background color. There’s a sort of hyperrealism at play here, as Parry’s history, his relationship with his wife, his relationship with the woman who aids him after his escape, and every event between his escape and novel’s close, is exaggerated. Characters’ speech somehow has an element of terseness even at its most verbose, and there is a serious pleasure to watching the speed with which characters are drawn and developed in the pressure cooker environment Goodis has loaned to them.

Goodis early establishes not only Parry’s innocence, but an innocence to his spirit that provides a sharp contrast to his surroundings.

He had an idea that he might be able to extract some ounce of happiness out of prison life. He had always wanted happiness, the simple and ordinary kind. He had never wanted trouble.

As clearly as Goodis here draws Parry’s character for the reader, other characters of Dark Passage are able to guess at his motives and movements. Most notably, there’s Irene: a woman whose father was wrongfully convicted of murder and died in prison, and who has followed Parry’s case since his trial. Hearing of his escape from prison, she manages to intercept him and drive him to her apartment in San Francisco, where she urges him to remain in hiding until the manhunt dies down. Irene and Parry develop an odd and intense intimacy, forced by Parry’s lack of options, her money, and her inexplicably strong desire to see his name cleared.

Things, of course, can’t be so simple for Parry as holing up for a couple weeks in the home of a beautiful woman. Insistent that he leave her apartment, he finds himself in the backseat of a cab whose driver has his own interest in helping Parry – and who has a backstreet plastic surgeon for a friend. After getting his face redone, Parry goes to the apartment of his best friend only to find that he’s been murdered. It’s here that Goodis moves into high gear, as Parry attempts to evade law enforcement, the murderer of his friend (and presumably, also, his wife), negotiate his relationship with Irene, and learn who murdered his wife, and why.

The energy coursing beneath Goodis’s writing sometimes belies the coarseness of the prose; but this, like so many other elements to the story, seems perfectly fitting here. The descriptions of violence, the attention Goodis gives to blood in all its shades and spatters, are both gorgeous and representative of his prose:

There was blood all over Fellsinger, blood all over the floor. There were pools of it and ribbons of it. There were blotches of it, big blotches of it near Fellsinger, smaller blotches getting even smaller in progression away from the body. There were flecks of it on the furniture and suggestions of it on a wall. There was the cardinal luster of it and the smell of it and the feeling of it coming up from Fellsinger’s busted skull and dancing around and settling down wherever it pleased. It was dark blood where it clotted in the skull cavities. It was luminous pale blood where it stained the horn of the trumpet that rested beside the body. The horn of the trumpet was slightly dented. The pearl buttons of the trumpet valves were pink from the spray of blood.

Dark Passage is a novel that asks its readers to suspend belief, and rewards them, handsomely, for doing so. This is a novel that bristles with tension, in which every character and every moment is of the utmost importance. It’s one so heavy with atmosphere that it at times feels hard to catch a breath. And whether Goodis takes Parry anywhere other than we expected, it’s a joy to accompany this character as he struggles to clear his name and find freedom, or even happiness.

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Check back over the coming weeks for reviews of other novels from the new Library of America Goodis collection, Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s.

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Review: Ismail Kadare’s The Accident

Ismail Kadare’s The Accident is a brief novel that explores, sometimes obliquely, the ways stories are told, how relationships develop and shift over time, and the life of Albanians following the collapse of Communism. The story centers on the accident of the title, which is detailed in the first of the novel’s three sections. A man and a woman leave a hotel and get into a taxi for the airport. Something happens – something distracts the driver – and he goes off the road. The man and woman are seen in the air, sometimes clinging to one another, sometimes seperate. Both die. The driver survives, but is unable to describe what he saw that caused the accident, other than to say, time and again, that just before the accident the man and woman tried to kiss.

There doesn’t appear to have been any foul play, but because the accident is a strange one it is marked as an “unclassified” type, which gives to it a longevity as Serbian and then Albanian spy agencies come across the file, and later as a researcher opens the file and tries to understand the nature of the relationship between the man and woman. The attention given to the accident is remarkable; as Lisa Hill writes in her fantastic and detailed review of the novel, the novel shows the “excess of agents and analysts with not enough to do after Tito had gone and Yugoslavia had been dismembered.” See how the accident is forgotten, briefly, before being brought back to life by these young Balkan governments:

Three months later, the archivist could not hide his astonishment when the governments of two Balkan countries, one after another, asked to inspect the file on the accident at kilometre marker 17. How could the states of this quarrelsome peninsula, after committing every possible abomination known to this world – murdering, bombing, setting entire populations at each other’s throats and then deporting them – find the time, now that the madness was over, instead of making reparations, to enter into such minor matters as unusual car accidents?

Kadare’s prose here is marked by its opaqueness. When one researcher – the one who provides us much of the lovers’ story, as he can imagine it from reading their letters, speaking to friends, piecing together their movements over the years – details their affair, the language of it is often combative, not so dissimilar from the language of war. Much as the novel centers on and spins off of the central event of their accident, the lives of the lovers Besfort Y. and Rovena St. spin around the collapse of Hoxha’s Communist government, that shared history explaining, for some, their off-and-on relationship. For Rovena St., the end of the dictatorship is imagined as a sort of dividing line, not just between past and present but between the impossible and the possible.

The rattling of the chains dragging the dictator’s statue through the centre of Tirana kept interrupting her thoughts. It was this sound, louder than any earthquake, that divided past from present. Everything that had once been impossible had suddenly become real, such as his invitation over dinner, a week after they had met, to a three-day conference in a Central European city.

As the researcher reconstructs their relationship, Besfort Y. and Rovena St. reference their relationship in regards to Albanian folklore and Cervantes. Mystifying references in their letters to meeting “post-mortem”, and descriptions of their meetings that suggest they have shifted from romance to the relationship of that between a call girl and her client, become easier to understand when viewed through the lens of attempts at reconstruction. Sensing their relationship is coming to an end, the lovers attempt to find some new way of understanding their relationship, a new way of being. This is, as Lisa wrote in her review, not so different from the attempts of new Balkan nations to build themselves after achieving a first or reformulated independence. There are depths to which every relationship is unknown and remains unknowable, or appears differently to each person, as Kadare suggests via the very structure of the novel, in which certain sections are acknowledged to be entirely imagined. And yet, there is also the suggestion that all these things can be tethered to another, older story, that there is a reference point for each and every story, as with Besfort Y’s request for three days’ leave from work, just before his death.

He could not forget what a colleague had said a long time ago, when he first mentioned the inquiry to him. In such cases of law, the English refer to remote history, Muslims to the Qur’an and emergent African states to the Encylopedia Britannica, but in the Balkans they find every precedent with little effort in their ballads. Three days’ leave to carry out a duty, normally something left undone? There will certainly be a well-known paradigm for this.

At end, The Accident is an elliptical and often frustrating novel. These frustrations, though, are coupled with moments of intense beauty. Though Kadare offers no clear guide to his goals with the novel – though there is no real path to understanding the relationship of Besort Y. and Rovena St., or the interest of the spy agencies with their accident, or the interest of the researcher in the couple’s story – he does offer a story that is as gorgeous as it is baffling, as it shifts through time and space and myth in seeking an answer to this couple’s story. That there doesn’t seem to be an answer, that their lives are as enigmatic at the end of the research as they were in the moments following their deaths, doesn’t weaken the novel, but rather serves as encouragement and inspiration to explore it for a second time.

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Story Sunday: Salman Rushdie’s “In the South”

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

Maybe it’s just the books I read, but there seems to be a dearth of fiction dealing with the end of life; stories of childhood and coming of age appear to be, on the whole, more marketable and desirable to readers. It’s always a surprise and a pleasure to come across a story or novel that considers the end of life as closely as many books consider the beginnings. In his story “In the South”, Salman Rushdie writes of his near-death characters with a surprising compassion, and provides even their thirty-minute walk to cash their pension checks (a walk that would take a younger man five minutes) a certain dignity.

Junior and Senior are men who are “like characters in an ancient tale, trapped in fateful coincidences, unable to escape the consequences of chance.” They find themselves living side by side, each morning emerging to their balconies at the same moment, conducting their lives with such a close (if spiteful) proximity that Senior’s relatives at one point suggest knocking down the walls between their apartments. These are men aware of how close they are to the end of life, and Rushdie offers their histories in concise paragraphs. The men are, near story’s end, described as shadows of one another, but any affection they feel for one another takes time to emerge, as they are opposite in almost every detail of their beliefs and pasts.

Senior, for instance, feels trapped by the number of relatives he has (204, though many are no longer living – he isn’t sure of the numbers) and the ways they interfere with his life.

When he said that he was ready to die, which was often, their faces took on hurt expressions and their bodies sagged or stiffened, depending on their nature, and they spoke to him reassuringly, encouragingly, and, of course, in injured tones, of the value of a life so full of love. But love had begun to annoy him, like everything else. His was a family of mosquitoes, he thought, a buzzing swarm, and love was their itchy bite. “If only there were a coil one could light to keep one’s relations away,” he told Junior. “If only there were a net around one’s cot that kept them out.”

Junior, unlike Senior, hasn’t built what most would consider a desirable social circle. Even he recognizes that in most respects he has been a mediocre man, a man who has watched life move past him.

In all significant particulars, he had failed to be a participant in the parade of life. He had not married. The great events of eight decades had managed to occur without any effort on his part to help them along. He had stood by and watched as an empire fell and a nation rose, and avoided expressing an opinion on the matter. He had been a man at a desk.

“In the South” at first seems a humorous look at life coming closer to death, with Junior and Senior acting the part of a bickering married couple. Rushdie builds off this, though, so that their light remarks about death gain a new heft at story’s end. Rushdie gives us a story that is about life and death and the passing from one to the next, but more than that it’s the story of a great friendship and its inevitable conclusion.

Read “In the South” Online

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Readalong: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas

After a few failed attempts to read Cloud Atlas, I joined in to this readalong hosted by Care’s Book Club and The Avid Reader’s Musings. Fun! This week, my thoughts on the first half of the novel.

Last weekend The New York Times ran a review of Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men. The reviewer, Douglas Coupland, referenced David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas as an example of a new type of literature that in a single novel crosses huge swathes of time and literary genre. Coupland writes:

This new reality seems to have manifested in the literary world in what must undeniably be called a new literary genre. For lack of a better word, let’s call it Translit. Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present.

And yeah, that about gets at the heart of Cloud Atlas. I was passingly familiar with David Mitchell’s skill at literary ventriloquism, having read two of his novels, Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, before starting this one. Swan and de Zoet are about as different in style and theme and place and time as two novels can be, so that it’s hard for me to imagine the same author wrote them. But Mitchell seems to do it so effortlessly – he seems as comfortable capturing the voice of a clerk living at a Japanese trading post at the turn of the 19th century as he does with a boy watching a neighbor heading off to fight in the Falkand Islands.

The first section of Cloud Atlas is the hardest to get through. It’s a short section of the 1850 Pacific diary of Adam Ewing, so we’re going with the antiquated speech patterns. Mitchell does it perfectly, of course, and by the time the section ends – abruptly, as if part of the diary has been lost – I was upset to see Ewing go. This is a trick that Mitchell pulls off again and again. The first half of the novel follows five stories (Adam Ewing, Robert Frobisher [1930s, young composer/layabout], Luisa Rey [1970s, journalist for a tabloid magazine, with her first lead for a real news story], Timothy Cavendish [a vanity publisher], and Somni ~451 [a fabricant – a clone – who has achieved consciousness]) and as each story comes to its sudden end – not conclusion, but simply end – I felt torn up again.

I’ve only read half of the novel, so I’m going to hold off making any judgements or guesses about what Mitchell is doing with this structure as a whole. What I’ll say for now is that it’s gorgeous and captivating, and that I totally get, now, why so many people have told me to read this book.

Mitchell connects the segments of the novel loosely. That diary of the first part is found by Robert Frobisher in the library of a composer he’s working for. Frobisher mentions the diary in one of the letters he writes to his friend Rupert Sixsmith, who turns up again as an old man meeting the reporter, Luisa Rey. Luisa Rey’s story appears next as a novel in the hands of the publisher, Cavendish, and Cavendish himself reappears when Somni ~451 describes having seen a film of the story we’ve just read. All the characters express some curiosity for the lives of the characters they read of, and they are also linked together by the prescence of a comet-shaped birthmark they all have. (This comet thing doesn’t strike me as being particularly artful, so I’m curious to see when it will reappear next, and what Mitchell is going to do with this thread.)

The publisher Timothy Cavendish writes:

England could easily hold all the happenings in one humble lifetime without much overlap – I mean, it’s not ruddy Luxembourg we live in – but no, we cross, crisscross, and recross our old tracks like figure skaters.

That quote is, I think, as close as I can come to organizing my thoughts about the first half of Cloud Atlas. Mitchell’s characters interrupt and cross into one another’s lives. They seem marked by some sort of mission, by something they’re seeking: Ewing by the history of the Moriori; Rey by the coverup Sixsmith has told her about, that could be her first “real” story; Somni ~451 by the very ideas of consciousness and what distinguishes her from other clones and from humans. So far, though, they don’t appear to be searching for the same things. His characters do, however, take some comfort in the stories that have come before their own, so that a woman like Luisa Rey can read the decades-old letters sent to Sixsmith from Frobisher and find some suggestion of a life, and perhaps some commentary on her own life.

And, you know, that’s where I’m going to stop for today. Discussing books at the midpoint has never been my strong suit. I’m curious where Mitchell is taking things, how he is pulling everything together, and whether it’s going to become more clear (as he says in an interview quoted over at Care’s Book Club) that these characters are all reincarnations of the same soul (which would sure explain why they all seem so drawn to these stories they pick up at seeming chance). But for now, I’m just enjoying watching the writer work with these huge stylistic shifts. Each of Mitchell’s characters is so fully and perfectly drawn, even in the brief spaces they’re allotted, and each of the genres is done so well. As I’m reading, I’m totally aware of the fact that this is a novel – it doesn’t feel like one of those collections of stories clumsily drawn together into a “novel” – but also feel that in many ways, the sections of Cloud Atlas are complete and perfect on their own.

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Review: Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The premise of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is so clever and surreal that it’s hard not to be taken in. A girl, tasting the lemon cake her mother has baked for her ninth birthday, tastes not just the cake but her mother’s emotions. She can barely choke the cake down. After this, she can taste emotions in everything she eats. She stands around the school cafeteria hoping that she’ll be able to pick up food from the lunch lady who adds to her food a solid sort of sadness, becomes a connoisseur of the vending machine, and one day ends up in the emergency room because she is trying to remove her mouth from her face.

Although the premise is presented to the reader with no real explanation, Rose realizes early on that she can’t tell anyone what she’s tasting in food. There is, really, an entire world in each bite that Rose takes, and from the first bite of that lemon cake, the blessing and misfortune of Rose’s gift are clear.

[…] as I finished that first bite, as that first impression faded, I felt a subtle shift inside, an unexpected reaction. As if a sensor, so far buried deep inside me, raised its scope to scan around, alerting my mouth to something new. Because the goodness of the ingredients – the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons – seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was beginning to push up from the bite. I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a crowded sense of her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost even taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary, a white dotted line of them in a row on the nightstand like an ellipsis to her comment: I’m just going to lie down…. None of it was a bad taste, so much, but there was a kind of lack of wholeness to the flavors that made it taste hollow, like the lemon and chocolate were just surrounding a hollowness. My mother’s able hands had made the cake, and her mind had known how to balance the ingredients, but she was not there, in it.

What is so horrifying for Rose in that bite of cake is the way her mother seems to be not entirely there – that Rose can taste not just that her mother is sad, but that she isn’t fully present in her life. At eight years old, though, Rose can barely understand what is happening when she eats food, let alone find a way to understanding her mother’s emotions. Although she knows even the most minor details and disruptions of the lives of those around her, Rose keeps her gift – or curse, depending on your view – a secret, only telling her brother and his friend George. Bender’s writing here, with George conducting “experiments” on Rose to test what emotions she can taste, and how accurately she can describe the people making her food, is entertaining but short-lived. George is a figure throughout the novel, though often in the background, but his interest in Rose’s abilities die off, along with the experiments and any hope Rose had of coming to understand herself.

The weakness to The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is this habit of Bender’s, of dropping details and stories into the novel but not following through. The text feels unbalanced particularly near its close, when Rose is drawn into her brother’s life and his own hidden talents. Hints about the lives of Rose’s family members are tossed to the reader in rapid succession, suggesting that Rose is not so alone as she’s long felt; but Bender never fully explores the lives of Rose’s family members and what their stories mean in relation to hers. The end of the novel is so sudden that it’s hard not to flip through the final pages, searching for something more than is given us; but there’s only a fading away of Rose’s story, not a conclusion to it.

When Bender’s writing is good, though, it’s very good, almost addictive. By the time the novel ends, Rose’s story has shifted into a traditional coming-of-age story, with her ability to taste emotions seeming not so different from someone else’s talent for writing, or painting, or business. Earlier in the novel, though, Bender does an extraordinary job of parsing Rose’s emotions and her unwillingness to see what is forced before her. Others, like George or a friend she has in high school, might view her talents with admiration, but for Rose they’re more of a curse.

I hated it; the whole thing was like reading her diary against my will. Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed-up people later in life, and I didn’t appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early.

Watching Rose grow, and the way she matures – sometimes earlier than she should, thanks to everything she has had to learn, so unwillingly – is fun reading. Bender’s novel may not remake the coming-of-age story, but it does fit itself into its strictures in new and sometimes exciting ways.

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