Fat Books & Thin Women


Reading Journal: Holy hell, George R.R. Martin

Have you noticed that every couple weeks I put up a post berating myself for not posting more often? I sure have! But, you know, it’s getting hot and humid here in Tirana, which takes away my desire to do much of anything, especially write reviews of The Help or Salvage the Bones or even the books I’m reading for work and have to write about…

Excuses, excuses! I’m back today because I’m on the third book of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Storm of Swords, and…holy crap, guys! One of the things I like about Martin’s writing is that he doesn’t show his characters an unrealistic level of mercy – in moments in which a real person would die or have a hand lopped off or be forced to marry someone they hate, Martin just GOES FOR IT. But I’ve been reading this book most of the day, mouth hanging down to nearly my belly button, because Martin is killing off SO. MANY. of my favorite characters. I won’t name any names, so as not to be that asshole, but there are times when I think, “Right on. Go ahead and flay that character, inch by inch, and deliver scraps of his skin to people around the kingdom” but there are many more moments lately when I am just sitting here, knowing that it’s been way too long since he’s killed one of my favorite characters, and terrified of who will be next to go.

So, there’s another reason for no reviews lately: I have been way too busy reading to bother writing about my reading. And there have been some great longreads lately, which I’ve been too lazy to write up – namely, “S/He”, a piece about how parents deal with transgender children at New York Magazine, and a New Yorker piece on facial transplants, “Transfiguration.”

Very New York-centric, publication-wise, but hey: what a great segue into this next topic! (Would it have been better if I didn’t point it out?) I’ve given up on twitter because everyone is talking about Book Expo America, which leads me down a scary rabbit hole of thinking: (a) holy crap, in eight weeks I’ll be back in America; (b) and then I will find a job and an apartment; (c) and as a Philly-area book blogger, I will pretty much have to go to BEA, right?; (d) and then be awkward around other book bloggers. But more seriously, I am kind of jealous that I can’t go and drink beers with other book bloggers, or whatever it is you guys do while you’re up there.

I think I’ve gathered enough strength to return to A Storm of Swords now, but before I go, a couple questions:

(a) It’s hot and gross and I don’t want to cook dinner. What should I do? Eat a popsicle? Ugh.

(b) What are your audiobook recommendations for someone (me) who tends to daydream and forget that she’s listening to an audiobook?

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Reading Journal: Vacation Edition!

Holy moly, have I been a bad blogger lately. I would like to pin this on a lot of things, namely travel and how much time I spend every day nodding off over books on Albania, but this may just be my natural laziness showing itself. Still, I want to highlight a few of the books I’ve been reading but probably won’t get around to reviewing.

First up is Jessica Anya Blau’s The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, which I had picked up during a 99-cent ebook sale ages ago. I finally got around to reading it while I was in Greece. After a four-day conference in Thessaloniki I went to Santorini for some quality time stuffing my face with Greek food and sitting on beaches reading. Blau’s novel is a sort of perfect coming-of-age story, and finds that rare spot between totally mindless beach read and smart, clever look at (in this case) being a teenager. The novel’s main character, Jamie, is a teenaged girl who watches, with a healthy amount of disgust, her parents and their friends as they conduct the naked swim parties of the title. It’s the ’70s in California, and Jamie is more conservative than her parents, who she describes as “burnouts.” Blau leads the novel to an obvious conclusion, but it’s fun to read and find how she gets there. Jamie’s voice is so strong and earnest and honest that I can’t imagine reading this novel anyway but how I did – getting caught up in it until it becomes the only you can think about. (When you are not thinking about the next time it’ll be acceptable to eat more tzatziki, anyway.)

It was a great trip for YA, I guess, because the other book I read was Lauren Oliver’s dystopian novel, Delirium. I kind of fell in love with Before I Fall, and Delirium didn’t live up to my expectations. It’s not that it doesn’t have its moments; as Oliver weaves the history of Lena’s world into the story, telling us how the United States came to define love as a disease and force people to have a procedure to free themselves of the curse of love, there is a lot for the reader to explore and consider. When the story opens Lena is approaching her eighteenth birthday, when she’ll have her procedure, and dealing with all that comes before it – finishing high school, running through exams to determine her future mate – is for most of the novel her focus, rather than the question of what it means to “save” herself from the possibility of love. As with the above novel, it’s never hard to guess where Oliver will take the story, but it was sometimes frustrating to watch as Oliver puts Lena through her paces in the chapters leading to the close.

I’ve backed off from the YA recently, but I’ve been leaning a lot on the beach reads sort of books to help my brain recover from the reading I do for work. Unfortunately (for everyone who doesn’t have a deep and abiding interest in Albanian literature) there are probably a few more reviews of Ismail Kadare novels on their way, before we’re back to regular reviews.

In other news, just got home from a great trip to Montenegro and Croatia. Yeah, I got to see Dubrovnik – perhaps better known as one of the locations for Game of Thrones! I also got to spend a night in a former Communist hotel in Shkoder, Albania, which was fun in its own special, dead-plants-lining-the-hallway, kind of way. While up there I read The Help, a book I may or may not have said I would never read, because I had a string of ideas about how the novel reinforced racial stereotypes and the idea that black women needed white women to speak for them in the Civil Rights era. But then, it turned out I really liked it, and thought Stockett dealt with some of the issues I was worried about in a pretty nuanced way, although there were clumsy aspects to the novel. As Matt pointed out in his recent review of the novel, a particularly glaring one was the way that the black maids would write or speak in dialect, while quoting the white women in perfect English. Full review of this coming soon, or soonish.

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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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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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Journaling Stories Short and Long

Lots of aspirational reading this week. I signed up for this great classics challenge hosted by Jillian. I use the word “challenge” about as loosely as I can here, because the whole thing strikes me more as, I don’t know, a collective effort to better our reading habits and read books we’ve meant to read for years…but haven’t. Over in the sidebar you can see a link to a list of classics I plan to…okay, will try to…read in the next five years. It recently occurred to me that these books average about 800 pages each and that I’ll be lucky to read half of them in five years, but it sure will be satisfying to knock a few of them off my Shelf of Shame, ie the collection of classics I’ve bought but never read. I’m already making great progress with this challenge – I moved my copy of Dickens’s David Copperfield to the end of my bookshelf, where I have to face down its cover dozens of times a day, from its former position wedged between my Albanian dictionary and GRE study guides.

Outside of work (more on that later), my reading lately has been focused about half on epic, immersive novels, and half on short and easily consumed essays and stories. Kit Steinkellner did a Book Riot piece a few weeks back, “Every Book I Read Needs to be at Least 50 Pages Shorter,” which makes the point that books need to be done like screenplays. The title of the piece is misleading, because Steinkellner doesn’t really say that every book needs to be fifty pages shorter (in that she does have a decent point; all I can hear right now is Kristen Wiig’s character from Knocked Up saying, “Tighten!”) but that novels shouldn’t be over 100,000 words – that there should be a clear limit for novel length just as there is a clear limit for screenplay length. It’s an interesting post (not least for the comments that follow), but also fundamentally off-the-mark. Because, hell, movies aren’t the only expression of film; you don’t even need to make an argument anymore that the best writing is in serialized TV shows because it is so obvious. Something like The Lord of the Rings (which I am still reading, and loving) or Game of Thrones or Stephen King’s Under the Dome is comparable not to the latest hour-and-a-half-long popcorn flick, but a fifty-hour TV drama. I swear, I am going to bring this all together at the end.

I’ve also been reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for this readalong hosted by Care’s Book Club and Melissa at The Avid Reader’s Musings. I tried to read Cloud Atlas last summer and failed miserably – I started right before flying home for the first time in two years, which explains a lot – and am so, so glad I gave it another try. I’m halfway through now and am so in love with the book I don’t even know where to begin. There will be more gushing and expressions of love for David Mitchell, later this week.

My reading’s also been tending to the very short. I picked up a Kindle copy of the 2011 Best American Science and Nature Writing on sale, and have been reading essays as a sort of reward/break from my reading for work. What I like about the collection is that it’s like having a zillion Kindle Singles for the price of one. (Speaking of which, recently read Mark Bittman’s new Kindle Single, “Cooking Solves Everything,” which probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know about cooking and eating real food, but is as much a pleasure to read as everything else that Bittman publishes.) Last week the New York Times ran a review piece on Kindle Singles, which I hope they’ll do again in the future.

Also read a couple of stories by David Gaughran (who writes the best, best blog about self-publishing – with a real focus on marketing and design and being professional; I don’t even self-publish and I can’t stop reading the thing), available as an e-book, “If You Go Into the Woods.” The two stories here are light and quick reads and – I am not quite sure how to put this – very popular-feeling. You know, these read like stories that were written for readers, not for fellow writers, and it’s a lot of fun to read a short story that doesn’t ask for five rereads in order to figure out what the hell is going on.

Anyway, reading Gaughran’s stories sucked me in in some way, so that now I can’t stop thinking of buying his most recent novel, A Storm Hits Valpariso, to read when I’m flying home. Because I am the sort of person who starts planning what she’ll read during nineteen hours of flights and layovers…over four months in advance. Make sure you look at Gaugrahn’s blog, and pick up those short stories (it looks like they’re free in the UK, 99 cents in the States).

Since I’m always mentioning reading for work, let’s explore that (slightly duller) direction, too. Last week finished Ismail Kadare’s The Accident – I’ll put up a review soon…soonish – which somehow manages to take on Balkan spy agencies, a long-running affair, and time in just a couple hundred pages. Now on Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, which is interesting but which I have to read standing up to keep from falling asleep.

And one quick comment on non-bookish stuff. I’ve been watching Shameless lately, which is (back to that Book Riot piece!) a long and funny and sad and immersive serial that has, at least momentarily, displaced Downton Abbey in my affections. I wasn’t expecting a whole lot out of it, but it is just unbelievable in the way it faces poverty, alcoholism, and limited opportunities (there’s this one moment when Fiona, who dropped out of high school her junior year to care for her younger brothers and sisters, is serving drinks to a table of men at one of many humiliating, temporary jobs, that is just gut-wrenching) without ever diminishing the family or their stories.

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Reading Journal!

Iris wrote this great post about reading journals and using our blogs to offer something besides straight reviews of novels. I don’t usually use this blog to do much other than review and post about short stories, but lately I haven’t been so much in the mood to review. To say, many thanks to Iris for reminding me that I can use Fat Books for whatever I like.

My reading lately has been a lot of Albanian history interspersed with comfort reading. I mean the Emily Giffin kick that I was on a few weeks ago, The Two Towers (which I just started rereading), and Sue Grafton. Plenty of Sue Grafton.

When I reread The Fellowship of the Ring last year, I had a hard time thinking of it in terms of anything other than comfort reading. It was such a great book to return to when I was sick (seriously, for like a month straight – that’s what happens when you should go to the doctor but don’t) and working on a huge project (a gazillion spelling bees). The Two Towers is just about the same. Reading the first chapter, I was surprised by how clumsy Tolkien’s writing seemed, but after a couple chapters I had slipped into the rhythm of it. I’d been debating starting on the second book of the George R.R. Martin series, but I’m glad I decided to stick with The Lord of the Rings. Gives me what I wanted out of Martin – that sense of a completely imagined and endless world – but with the added benefit of familiarity. Plus, this means that when I fly home (July 31st! [for good this time!]) I can buy A Clash of Kings in paper.

Reading this article on Nancy Drew’s “father” last week, one thing O’Rourke wrote really struck me – that no reader could ever solve one of the Nancy Drew mysteries. When you hit the end of the novel you could look back and say, “okay, I guess everything fits that solution” – but as you read, there was no way you could take the “clues” Nancy found and turn them into anything meaningful. The Nancy Drew books just aren’t the type of mystery designed so the reader can attempt to solve them as he or she goes along. While I was getting close to the end of Sue Grafton’s G is for Gumshoe, with no clue of what “solution” Kinsey was close to finding, or how the hell she had gotten there, I realized that Grafton’s mysteries have the same problem. I keep reading the Kinsey Millhone books because I’m getting fond of Kinsey’s character, but I’m more passive than I was when reading, say, one of Elizabeth George’s books (as frustrating as her books have become). What “clues” Kinsey deals with aren’t clues of the type that might lead the reader anywhere; we just end up waiting for Kinsey to have a flash of inspiration and tell us how she solved the mystery, going from clueless to closing the case in the last few pages of each novel. This is, actually, kind of frustrating for a reader.

In other news, I have a box of books on Albania and stuff relating to Albania on its way to Tirana. I’ll probably post about some of these things as I read them – expect a lot on Ismail Kadare’s novels – although it occurred to me, as I was looking at the nonexistent comments for my review of Kadare’s Chronicle in Stone and this longread on Albanian blood feuds, that exactly zero people, other than myself, are interested in this stuff.

Also, my Kindle had a baby. If I can pose this question to people who own one of the newest Kindles (which is so small I find myself tempted to buy one when I get home – imagine how easy it would be to use even with just one free hand!), how are you supposed to take notes on the thing? I appreciate how much smaller the Kindle got once Amazon dumped the tiny keyboard, but if I had to laboriously select the letters on the Kindle’s on-screen “keyboard”, one by one, using the up and down button, I would never, never take a note. It seems like giving up on the story that you can mark up an ebook just as easily as a real book. You can’t, which is why I coerced my parents into spending $50 to mail a box of books to me in Albania, rather than reading them on my Kindle.

In the same ereadery vein, The New York Times today ran a piece about digital distractions on tablet devices. The piece falls into the camp of NY Times pieces telling us things we already knew, using a small subject sample, but whatever – the idea of people struggling to read novels or other books on their tablets is both painful and obvious. One of the things I like about my kindle, especially since I’m in Europe and can’t access the internet on it (old timey kindle here), is that there are no distractions. I can’t go online, I can’t learn if I have a new email; I’m just reading. A tablet seems like an appealing thing to have for a subscription to the Times, and to play Angry Birds on, but I can’t imagine reading a novel on one. You?