Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles

Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles is another entrant in the seemingly endless string of YA dystopian and apocalyptic novels parading their way across bookshelves recently. It’s been a few months since I’ve read any, because there is such a bleak sameness to so many of these novels. Apart from The Hunger Games, which in the third novel delves into the politics of Panem, there’s rarely any exploration of the dystopian world or system beyond what it does to the lives of one character and her friends and family; the dystopias are always created by humans, with the strong suggestion being that there are, then, people who may fix the system; and they end on notes of hope, so different from the uncertainty of the final words of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Many of the most advertised dystopian novels are really “dystopia-lite.” There’s Megan McCafferty’s Bumped, in which a virus causes people to become infertile once they’re out of their teens, so that teenagers become responsible for the survival of the human race; but most serious questions raised by this premise are brushed away in favor of questions of style and insipid teenage conversation, with the Serious Religious Issues treated more as an accessory than a real issue. Slightly heavier is Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, in which love is treated as disease; but though Oliver here suggests a brutal regime, and shows a willingness to imprison or kill off her characters for the greater good, there is throughout the novel a sense that the dystopia is already crumbling, that there is more hope for her characters than a true dystopia could provide.

Enter, then, The Age of Miracles, which happily avoids so many of the problems with YA dystopian literature by placing its characters in an apocalyptic, rather than dystopian world – a world that, by its very definition, has severe limitations in the Hope department. Walker shows us the infancy of a newly apocalyptic world, tracking what these changes and uncertainties do to people, rather than presenting (as so many of the earlier mentioned YA dystopians do) a world that, seemingly so far past saving, is finding new possibilities and hopes.

The world of this novel is changing rapidly for reasons that no one can explain or understand. As The Age of Miracles opens, days are growing longer for no readily apparent reason. Julia, the narrator, is a girl who can sense no change in her world, who even after learning that the earth’s rotation has slowed can sense nothing wrong in her world, or begin to understand why one day, which feels like the day before it and the day before that, is so different from all others. As she writes,

I was eleven years old in the suburbs. My best friend was standing beside me. I could spot not a single object out of place or amiss.

Walker never offers a real explanation for what is happening to the world, which seems fitting given the age of the narrator and the nature of the catastrophe. That the world is slowing, every day, doesn’t make sense, but also doesn’t need to, given that it serves simply as a device to force humanity into a situation from which there is no escape. At first many people attempt to ignore the changes in the length of days (Julia’s mother is the only member of her family who seems to grasp the seriousness of the problem, though her declamations are treated more with rolled eyes than sympathy), and America manages to stay in sync with the new days. School and workdays are pushed back, and Julia begins each morning by the TV, waiting for the school’s starting time to be announced. Julia’s father reassures her that this problem, whatever its source, will be fixed soon enough:

“I want you to think how smart humans are,” he said. “Think of everything humans have ever invented. Rocket ships, computers, artificial hearts. We solve problems, you know? We always solve the big problems. We do.”

Of course, this is one problem that can’t be solved, and that’s where The Age of Miracles finds much of its strength. Walker asks not how her characters can fight back against an unjust society, but how they learn to live with the fact that their world is falling apart around them. Although Julia’s father tells his daughter that humans always solve the big problems, Walker creates a world in which the biggest problem can’t be solved – in which humans have to, instead, answer the smaller ones, like how to grow food as the days become so long that Clock Time is totally disjointed from night and day, and how to deal with the temperature changes that result from 72 hours of light followed by 72 hours of dark.

Julia’s concerns are those of any 11-year-old girl, though, so that while this is an apocalyptic novel it is, just as much, a coming-of-age story. When the family of her best friend Hanna, a Mormon, moves to Utah, Julia is left in a social environment she cannot navigate without her friend. The absence of a true 24-hour day doesn’t free Julia from the cruelties of her peers or from the weight of her first crush or from her uncertainty over what to say about the dying mother of that crush, or from her confusion over what to do when she sees her father in the house of a neighbor who used to be Julia’s piano teacher. For all the ways in which life has stopped, with birds falling from the sky and plants refusing to grow, Walker shows us that life also continues, in much the way it always has. And rather than offering her readers a world of unmitigated horror, in which all characters realize what they’re facing, Walker writes of the thrill that disaster can hold, especially for a pre-teen girl like Julia.

We were girls in sandals and sundresses, boys in board shorts and surf shirts. We were growing up in a retiree’s dream – 330 days of sunshine each year – and so we celebrated whenever it rained. Catastrophe, too, like bad weather, was provoking in all of us an uneasy excitement and verve.

Unlike the authors of so many other YA novels, Walker doesn’t offer false hope to her readers. Whatever Julia’s father says early in the novel, no member of Julia’s family seems to truly expect things to improve. They know things will change, but only expect those changes to be for the worse. What Walker does, really, is to take the nightmares of being eleven years old – the way that other people can make decisions (to move, to have another child, to divorce) that change your entire world, with nothing you can do to return things to the way they used to be – and write them on the scale of the world as a whole. In following Julia’s attempts to grow up in a world that offers no certainties, Walker has written a novel that is often bleak, but just as often finds moments that are much the same in Julia’s dying world as in the world of the reliable, 24-hour day. The Age of Miracles finds its best moments in these intersections of the apocalyptic and the mundane; and taking all these moments together, the novel is a happy proof that there are writers eager to test and play with the conventions of both the popular dystopian or apocalyptic novels and coming-of-age stories.

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Review: Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall

Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall is an unabashedly moral book, all the better for the ways its author never attempts to hide or brush over its moral code. The novel is a sort of Groundhog Day high school story, with its narrator, Sam, living the same day again and again. At the end of that day she dies in a car accident, after leaving a party with her friends. The novel tracks her as she runs through the gauntlet of emotions (despair, anger, sorrow, acceptance) about what seems to be her inevitable fate as she wakes up, again and again, on Friday, February 12th. While Oliver overdoes certain images, coming back time and again to the idea of the “butterfly effect”, her ability to revisit and subtly (or significantly) change moments that Sam and the reader have already lived is remarkable.

Before I Fall opens with the car ride that ends with Sam’s death. Sam’s beyond-the-grave narrative voice appears throughout the novel, suggesting that there’s a limit to what Sam can change as she relives that Friday, though it’s hard to suppress the desire to see her wake up on Saturday the 13th, having somehow found a way out of the loop of time she’s been trapped in. She reveals herself early on to be a classic mean girl, albeit one who’s keenly aware of the ways in which she and her friends – in which everyone, really – works to blend in. Right down to the bagels they eat and the way they take their coffee, Sam’s friends strive for a sameness. Oliver seems to take some pleasure in highlighting the ridiculous nature of high school’s delineations between what’s cool and not cool, setting out a hierarchy even for lunch meats.

A few characters outside of Sam’s social circle make their appearances in each telling of the day. Sam realizes, a few days in, that these people are of more importance to her and her story than she would have thought on the first day she died. There’s Anna, a girl who for months has been sleeping with a boy dating a girl saving herself for marriage, but who long before that was marked as a slut and white trash by Lindsay, one of Sam’s best friends. Painfully, Sam comes to realize that to Lindsay that designation doesn’t mean anything, writing of the “AC=WT” (Anna Cartullo=White Trash) grafitti markered in all the girl’s bathrooms, “I’m pretty sure Lindsay wrote it on a whim – four measly letters, stupid, meaningless – probably to test out a new marker and see how much ink it had. It would have been better, almost, if she’d meant it. It would be better if she really hated Anna. Because it matters. It has mattered.”

Then there’s Juliet Sykes, labeled “psycho” – again by Lindsay. It’s Juliet who is at center of the story, a sort of vision of what Sam herself might have been if, in the seventh grade, she hadn’t been plucked out of obscurity by Lindsay, the same girl who for years had been tormenting her with cruel rhymes. On the day of her death, Cupid Day, Sam and her friends send Juliet their annual rose, with a message taunting the fact that she never has – that she probably never will – receive a rose from someone who cares about her. And finally, Kent, the boy Sam was friends with as a child but tossed off when she became popular, in favor of her skeezy lacrosse player boyfriend.

Sam isn’t a likeable character when the novel opens, but she’s aware of that, even directs that line of thought back at the reader.

I know some of you are thinking maybe I deserved it. Maybe I shouldn’t have sent that rose to Juliet or dumped my drink on her at the party. Maybe I shouldn’t have copied off Lauren Lornet’s quiz. Maybe I shouldn’t have said those things to Kent. There are probably some of you who think I deserved it because I was going to let Rob go all the way – because I wasn’t going to save myself.

But before you start pointing fingers, let me ask you: is what I did really so bad? So bad I deserved to die? So bad I deserved to die like that?

Is what I did really so much worse than what anybody else does?

Is it really so much worse than what you do?

Think about it.

Oliver pulls no punches in asking her reader to identify with Sam’s character, and to question their own actions, in this way. These asides, either directed at the reader or commenting on Sam’s own actions as she relives “Cupid Day”, become a sort of pleasant break from the petty incidents of the novel, the name-calling and gossip-mongering. Sam’s authorial voice in these moments is strong, but always believably that of a teenager. Although Sam only lives this one day seven times, Oliver develops her character well throughout; she changes, at times gradually and at times quickly and at times seemingly not at all, but she is always developing and rethinking her actions as anyone would at her age. The idea around which the novel centers, that Sam is somehow bound to relive the day of her death until she is able to change something, improve herself, has Sam turning into a more feeling and sympathetic character during the reading. Even as she becomes a better person, though, she makes missteps, issuing a number of mild cruelties that she intended to be kind.

So many of Sam’s observations are typical high school fare, but Oliver gives them a new weight and meaning. In a sense, Before I Fall offers Sam an opportunity to engineer her own funeral. Even as she becomes a fuller and more caring person, she is concerned in part with how people will think of her after she dies. She wants them, she writes, not just to remember her, but to remember her as a good person. She focuses, too, on the way people change, and how quickly and slowly that change can come. After just a few days, Sam feels that she is becoming a different person than her friends, that something is inalterably different in their interactions because she, unlike them, has been given the opportunity to shift her actions and view their effects on this single day. Oliver, again, grounds her novel well in keeping Sam’s thoughts on this point so much like those of any other high school girl:

It’s weird how much people change. For example, when I was a kid I loved all of these things – like horses and the Fat Feast and Goose Point – and over time all of them just fell away, one after another, replaced by friends and IMing and cell phones and boys and clothes. It’s kind of sad, if you think about it. Like there’s no continuity in people at all. Like something ruptures when you hit twelve, or thirteen, or whatever the age is when you’re no longer a kid but a “young adult,” and after that you’re a totally different person. Maybe even a less happy person. Maybe even a worse one.

Oliver does an creditable job of combining the typical high school story with this metaphysical one of change and growth and opportunity. Sam never seems to think of herself as not-dead, because she is so keenly aware of what is coming at the end of each of her relived days; but in the development of her actions and thoughts, she is absolutely alive, absolutely human, absolutely believable. In Before I Fall Oliver finds a new way of telling this story of high school popularity and redemption. In doing so, she’s given us a world that is recognizable (sometimes, too recognizable; prepare to relive some of your own more humiliating high school moments) but also, despite the repetition of events and stories, new and remarkably fresh.

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Review: Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus

With a book as hyped as Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, it’s impossible not to wonder how your reaction is tied up with the massive advertising campaign devoted to the novel. Reading about the novel as some sort of one-shot Harry Potter, of a movie deal before publication, of circus events set up to advertise the book, makes the book hard to see for itself. On one hand, you’re only reading the book because of the hype machine; on the other, the book can never live up to all the pre-publication praise; from another angle, you want to love the book so you can join the crowds that are heaping praise on it; from another, your inability to love the book the way you’ve been told you should makes you resent the reading experience more than you otherwise would.

In some regards, The Night Circus is a gorgeous book. Revolving around two illusionists, Celia and Marco, the book follows them and the competition they’ve been bonded to. The night circus, which moves from location to location with little notice and is closed during daylight hours, is the canvas for their competition, which over the years morphs into a collaboration of sorts between the illusionists. They don’t compete against each other Harry Potter-style, dueling with their Ollivander wands, but rather work as if they’re playing a chess game; one creates a new tent or attraction for the circus, and the other responds in kind.

Morgenstern takes chapters from four views: Celia’s, Marco’s, Bailey’s (a boy who visits and falls in love with the circus, eventually being pulled into the competition), and the second person. What she seems to be aiming for, with those last two views – the “you” and Bailey – is a sort of wonder with the circus; by telling us what the circus is, what it means for its guests, she attempts to imbue the novel with the same magic Bailey feels when he visits the circus.

The problem with this is that while some parts of the world are drawn gorgeously, fully, others are left so bare as to drag the story down. The competition that Celia and Marco are a part of is so vaguely defined that it reads as if the author herself doesn’t know what the aim or rules of the contest are. As if to keep the world of the night circus in the world of the fantastic, she never moors the world to any recognizable set of rules. This might seem appealing when you’re thinking of a fantasy novel – nothing to hold it back! – but reading The Night Circus serves to remind that one of the things that makes Harry Potter such a loved series are all the rules (to the magic lessons, to quidditch, to how Harry can interact with Voldemort), that the world of Lord of the Rings is defined right down to the grammar structure of each and every language, that what makes it possible to love the fantasy stories of our childhoods is not the lack of rules and boundaries but their clear and defining presence. Perhaps Morgenstern wanted to say something about the limitless nature of fantasy by not placing any limits on the contest between Celia and Marco; but it reads as though she was too lazy, or too consumed with the imagery of her text, to define the contest – if not for Celia or Marco, then for the reader at least. Celia at one point asks her father, “How can I excel at a game when you refuse to tell me the rules?” The reader, likewise, can’t be expected to experience the book as fully as he or she might, without knowing what guides the central conflict.

Morgenstern devotes much of her authorly energy to detailing, rather than illuminating, the world of the night circus. This is a novel that may well make an extraordinary movie; the best parts of the novel are Morgenstern’s descriptions of Marco’s and Celia’s illusions, but even these fall flat as Morgenstern is unable ever to show us why something is extraordinary, but only to tell us that it is. Celia and Marco’s love for one another, which is meant to stand at novel’s center, is hardly believable; we’re told that the power of their feelings for each other touches everything around them, even heating the air at a party, but that love never feels like more than a plot device.* We have ships made out of books, seas of ink, tents filled with cloud mazes, extraordinary clocks, but these images, every last one of them, read better as directions to a film director than as passages in a novel.

The verdict? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but The Night Circus is a book that I see doing better as a movie, with a director who will give credit to Morgenstern’s images while providing more shape to the plot. I’m in the minority in not loving this book, though, so be sure to read the reviews up at Words and Peace, Entomology of a Bookworm, and Confessions of a Booklush if you’re looking for a more positive opinion.

* I feel uncomfortable even using the phrase “plot device” here, as the greatest failing of The Night Circus is that its plot is so damn vague.

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Review: Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak
June 9, 2011, 7:17 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, YA Lit | Tags: , , , , , ,

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak is advertised as a classic of young adult fiction, but it’s one that only came to my attention about six months ago despite its 1999 publication date and my occasional enthusiastic forays into the young adult section of the library. This was an interesting time to read the book, given the recent Wall Street Journal piece declaiming against violence, sex and foul language in current young adult fiction.

Anderson’s book, although frequently banned, isn’t “offensive” in the way the WSJ piece suggests so much contemporary YA fiction is. Anderson deals with what my fifteen-year-old self would label some “heavy issues,” but she does so by exploring her narrator Melinda’s reactions to the events that shape her school year rather than the violence itself. Her novel is, literally, about a girl who refuses to speak, a girl who sees no way of expressing what has happened to her and finds herself abandoned by her friends, shunned by nearly everyone at her school, because what happened to her and what she did afterwards were so misunderstood.

Anderson’s prose is occasionally clumsy, as when she describes one teacher having a “[n]ose like a credit card sunk between his eyes” (10), but obscuring that fault is her skill at describing high school (“Every year they say we’re going to get right up to the present, but we always get stuck in the Industrial Revolution… We need more holidays to keep the social studies teachers on track” [7]), the cruelties of teenage girls (as when Melinda’s one remaining friend, a student new to the high school, matter-of-factly friend dumps her at lunch), and the mind of a student verging on collapse. Melinda is the sort of person, the sort of character, we shy from in life and fiction for the ways in which she refuses to simply “deal” with her issues or reshape herself into the sort of socially acceptable girl she was before the summer leading up to her ninth grade year. Anderson is unflinching in her portrayal of the character.

More than that, Anderson has given us a character who is not only nearly mute when dealing with those in her world, but one who is not capable of admitting to herself what has happened until halfway through Speak. Until that point the reader is left knowing only that something happened over the summer to define Melinda’s year, and her depression, her reluctance to speak and her fear of approaching old friends, are difficult to understand until Melinda herself thinks of herself in terms of “shame.” Melinda does, of course, eventually reveal to herself, to the reader, to one of her friends, what has happened to her, but even then it seems uncertain that she’ll pull herself out of the depression that for the school year has seen her sleeping through whole afternoons and skipping as many classes as she attends.

Anderson’s book should be required reading for teens, not just for the issues it examines but for giving a voice to the sort of high school student it is often easiest to ignore. Contrary to what the Wall Street Journal piece has to say on some other young adult offerings, Anderson deals with sex and violence and depression in an adult fashion, showing what Melinda’s life has become as the result of both what happened to her and her shame over what happened to her, but without glorifying the idea of being a down and out teenager.

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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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