Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River

Dennis Lehane’s novels may be shelved in the crime section, but what you begin to sense as you read his fiction is that many of his overarching concerns – in family, in community, and in how people use these things to define themselves and their decisions – would be at home in the “literary fiction” genre. To point this out isn’t to suggest that literary fiction is “better” than crime novels, but rather to say that Lehane is an extraordinary writer producing works that are at once accessible, plot-driven, and thought-provoking.

Mystic River is his best novel to date. Hand this one to anyone who speaks about genre fiction with their nose in the air and you’ll have a convert to the world of mass market paperbacks. Mystic River is as well-plotted as any of Lehane’s Kenzie & Gennaro detective novels, but because he follows his three main characters from youth he is able to explore more deeply those issues of community that have appeared in his other works.

Mystic River opens in 1975, with three friends who will in time be divided by community (who’s from the Point? who’s from the Flats?), differences of personality, and what happens when one of them, Dave Boyle, gets into a car driven by “policemen” who are in fact child molesters. After Dave escapes his captors, we leave them until 2000. All three remain in Boston: Dave, married with a child; Sean, a police officer separated from his wife; and Jimmy, an ex-con whose daughter is murdered the same night Dave comes home to his wife covered in blood, claiming to have been mugged.

Lehane’s narrative loops us back in history, pointing to the ways long-ago events (not just the day Dave got into the car when the other two boys wouldn’t, but Jimmy’s two-year sentence for robbery and what got him there) color seemingly unrelated moments in the present. Near novel’s end Jimmy reflects on the karmic nature of his daughter’s death, how her seemingly random murder can in some way be viewed as the only natural response to something Jimmy did shortly after his long-ago release from prison.

Lehane’s skill lies not only in carefully plotting so that these loopings through time and history read as naturally as actual events, but in fully exploring his characters’ motivations and the ways they’ve been formed. There’s Dave, who initially seems not greatly affected by his molestation as an eleven-year-old, but who, as novel progresses, reveals himself to be a scarred and flawed man seeking some form of redemption; Sean, who is unable to let go of his pride to find a way to get back the wife who left him a year earlier, and who has to investigate the lives of two childhood friends; and Jimmy, whose grief over his daughter’s death is coupled with a desire for some revenge, as well as a redemption for his community.

After Jimmy’s daughter, Katie, is found murdered after a night out, the police speak to Dave Boyle only because he happened to be in one of the bars she visited with her friends. Long before Jimmy begins to suspect that Dave was involved in Katie’s murder, Lehane reveals the ways Dave’s seeing Katie is painful, somehow wrong, to Jimmy:

It was this knowledge – that someone other than Jimmy possessed an image of Katie that postdated Jimmy’s own – that had finally allowed him to weep in the first place. (263)

Although we see Jimmy’s grief for his daughter, it’s the married couples that gain most of Lehane’s attention, and where we see the most powerful relationships taking place. Jimmy and Annabeth compare themselves to Dave and his wife, Celeste; they are able to mark themselves as different, better, than the other couple, because of the strength of their belief in one another.

No character in Mystic River is entirely clean or free of blame in either Katie’s death or Dave Boyle’s story. Lehane explores their degrees of guilt without judgement, and while the characters pass judgement on one another there is little temptation for the reader to do the same. Lehane writes, as ever, about deeply flawed individuals who are trying to somehow better themselves and their worlds. Lehane suggests, at the same moment, that there is little possibility of his characters escaping their pasts and their communities, and that these ties and faults are what make them worth knowing.

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30 Day Book Meme, Day 28
August 29, 2011, 4:40 pm
Filed under: 30 Day Book Meme | Tags: , , , ,

Favorite title:

Oh my god, I don’t know. Clearly I didn’t look too closely at these prompts before I decided to devote the month to farting on about my favorite books. But I do remember thinking, at times while reading, that the title of Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned was better than the rest of the book.

30 Day Book Meme:
Day 01 – The best book you read last year
Day 02 – A book that you’ve read more than three times
Day 03 – Your favorite series
Day 04 – Favorite book of your favorite series
Day 05 – A book that makes you happy
Day 06 – A book that makes you sad
Day 07 – Most underrated book
Day 08 – Most overrated book
Day 09 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving
Day 10 – Favorite classic book
Day 11 – A book you hated
Day 12 – A book you used to love but don’t anymore
Day 13 – Your favorite writer
Day 14 – Favorite book of your favorite writer
Day 15 – Favorite male character
Day 16 – Favorite female character
Day 17 – Favorite quote from your favorite book
Day 18 – A book that disappointed you
Day 19 – Favorite book turned into a movie
Day 20 – Favorite romance book
Day 21 – Favorite book from your childhood
Day 22 – Favorite book you own
Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t
Day 24 – A book that you wish more people have read
Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most
Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something
Day 27 – The most surprising plot twist or ending
Day 28 – Favorite title
Day 29 – A book everyone hated but you liked
Day 30 – Your favorite book of all time

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30 Day Book Meme, Day 27
August 28, 2011, 9:04 pm
Filed under: 30 Day Book Meme | Tags: , , , ,

The most surprising plot twist or ending:

I’d like you to all have an image of me spending hours a day struggling to think of what to write on this blog, so let me start by saying: man, I really struggled over this one. As I went about my day (killing mice, doing dishes, walking to the store with my host sister, coloring with my host sister, doing laundry, talking with my host sister about baklava [Bajram {best holiday ever, end of Ramadan, lots of coffee and baklava and “sugar money”} is the day after tomorrow], making falafel [falafel mix, whatever I want to think now that I live in a country without falafel, will never come close to real falafel {which I’m too lazy to attempt to make}], moving mouse traps, discussing potential Bajram outfits with my sister [just picture her going through my closet saying, “no, no, no”]) the question of my favorite plot twist was ever on my mind.

I couldn’t think of a thing, not a single answer. Do I read novels with “plot twists”? Am I ever surprised at the end of a book? Have I been surprised by the end of the novel since I was twelve-years-old reading a Nancy Drew mystery, or can I just write about a disappointing ending and return to Harry Potter to discuss the lame close to the series?

There are books with stunning ends. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Nabokov’s Ada, to name just a few that have been on my mind recently. None of them have surprised me, though, and I can’t think of a book I’ve read that closes with a plot twist. This isn’t a bad thing; I think it says something positive about the books I’ve been reading (Dennis Lehane! Dennis Lehane! Dennis Lehane!) and the quality of the writing, because if you’re shocked by a plot twist at the end of a novel it’s probably more a sign that the author didn’t do his job when it came to characterization and not-ridiculous plotting. I swear, I can recall reading books and being surprised by the end – but there’s a reason I can’t remember what novels these were, because I’m always disappointed when the end is something so nuts that I had no chance of predicting it. Sometimes, it’s the feeling of being let down and realizing that the world you’ve been immersed in was nothing but the author toying with you for three hundred pages. What’s the fun of reading a novel, then learning it was a dream? What would be the fun in Harry Potter if we learned at the end that Harry had turned to the dark side? Do you ever want to read a mystery in which the least likely suspect turns out to have committed the crime, for the simple reason that he or she was the only character no reader could pin as the killer?

Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone has a pretty good twist, though the movie has probably crushed the “surprise” out of it for most of the American reading public. Can you forgive me for offering an answer after all that moaning about how I couldn’t give an answer?

30 Day Book Meme:
Day 01 – The best book you read last year
Day 02 – A book that you’ve read more than three times
Day 03 – Your favorite series
Day 04 – Favorite book of your favorite series
Day 05 – A book that makes you happy
Day 06 – A book that makes you sad
Day 07 – Most underrated book
Day 08 – Most overrated book
Day 09 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving
Day 10 – Favorite classic book
Day 11 – A book you hated
Day 12 – A book you used to love but don’t anymore
Day 13 – Your favorite writer
Day 14 – Favorite book of your favorite writer
Day 15 – Favorite male character
Day 16 – Favorite female character
Day 17 – Favorite quote from your favorite book
Day 18 – A book that disappointed you
Day 19 – Favorite book turned into a movie
Day 20 – Favorite romance book
Day 21 – Favorite book from your childhood
Day 22 – Favorite book you own
Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t
Day 24 – A book that you wish more people have read
Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most
Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something
Day 27 – The most surprising plot twist or ending
Day 28 – Favorite title
Day 29 – A book everyone hated but you liked
Day 30 – Your favorite book of all time

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Story Sunday: Dennis Lehane’s “Until Gwen”
August 14, 2011, 8:15 am
Filed under: Story Sundays | Tags: , , , , ,

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

To get this out of the way early, I’m not sure that Dennis Lehane can do any wrong. I’ve yet to read a word by the man that doesn’t have some truth to it, and he brings the best of literary writing to crime fiction. As my mother said after she finished Gone, Baby, Gone, “I’m never going to be able to go back to John Grisham.” That’s who Dennis Lehane is: the writer who ruins you for other writers.

“Until Gwen” was published in a 2004 issue of The Atlantic. The story, of a man picked up by his father after four years in prison, is told in the second person. Lehane crushes this, of course, and instead of feeling stilted like so many stories do when told out of the typical first- or third-person, Lehane’s story feels more immediate because of his narrative technique. Just check out the story’s first line:

Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.

Lehane’s narrator is something of an enigma, the effect heightened by turning the reader into a sort of dual narrator. This is a man without a name, without a history beyond the failed robbery that led to his imprisonment and the day of and following his release from jail. This is a man who doesn’t know where he was born, what his date of birth is, who doesn’t have a social security number, who doesn’t know much other than that he loves this woman, Gwen, who was with him the night of the robbery.

Now that you’ve been in prison, you’ve been documented, but even they’d had to make it up, take your name as much on faith as you. You have no Social Security number or birth certificate, no passport. You’ve never held a job.

Gwen said to you once, “You don’t have anyone to tell you who you are, so you don’t need anyone to tell you. You just are who you are. You’re beautiful.”

And with Gwen that was usually enough. You didn’t need to be defined —by your father, your mother, a place of birth, a name on a credit card or a driver’s license or the upper left corner of a check. As long as her definition of you was something she could live with, then you could too.

The narrator’s father is more interested in recovering the stolen diamond, hidden by the narrator, than even the narrator is, and Lehane’s skill at showing the lowest rungs of humanity, at giving these people a weight and heft that sometimes occasions sympathy, is his greatest skill as a writer. If you haven’t read Lehane before, “Until Gwen” will probably be enough to have you running to the store to pick up all his books. If you have, well, the story is a good reminder of what the man can do, the sort of singular characters he can create.

Read “Until Gwen” online

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#fridayreads: Dennis Lehane


One of my favorite new (to me) book blogs, Picky Girl, is doing a new meme, #Fridayreads take me away. I’m pretty much reading solely for escapism right now so can’t claim that the books I read on the weekends are any different from my Monday – Thursday books, but still….

I’ve been going through a big Dennis Lehane thing lately. I read A Drink Before the War in late February, then took a respectable break – but I’ve been sick, with lots of time to lay around reading, and in the past week or so have put away Darkness, Take My Hand, Sacred, and Gone, Baby, Gone. The last was my “fridayread” for this week, only it’s halfway through the day and I just finished it, so I guess I’ll be moving on to the fifth book in his Kenzie/Gennaro series, Prayers for Rain.

At some point I’ll probably do a real post on Lehane, an improvement over the review I did of A Drink Before the War. For now, I can’t say a whole lot except that it feels good to remember the way it feels to discover an author with a healthy backlist, to fall into the lives of characters who I know I’ll be able to read about for two more books. Lulu over at What Book Today? is pretty crushing in her appraisal of the focus on the personal lives of Kenzie and Gennaro in the latest installment in this series, Moonlight Mile, but for now it’s something I’m enjoying. Lehane is great at character development, and the occasional glimpses into their private lives adds something to the books – it makes it easier to understand why Kenzie and Gennaro treat their work or certain classes of criminals the way they do.

Besides the character development, my god, Lehane pulls off the gore well. Darkness, Take My Hand has a serial killer torturing and butchering his victims, then leaving little bits of them scattered around, like when Kenzie finds a pair of eyeballs in his kitchen cupboard. I didn’t like Sacred as much as that second book (it would be hard to match it) but again, Lehane has this skill for characters who are almost out of this world in terms of their moral views, but who I believe in absolutely. He casts his net wide, too, and it’s alternately fun and disturbing to see the way those in power (politicians, the rich, the police) influence or mastermind the crimes Kenzie and Gennaro investigate.

I’m telling myself now that I’m going to read the Orange Prize nominee White Woman on the Green Bicycle next, but let’s face it – it’s going to be Lehane’s Prayers for Rain. I want to delay reading any more of these novels to make them last longer, but now that I’ve fallen prey to Lehane it is really, really hard to find my way out.

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Review: Dennis Lehane’s A Drink Before the War


A Drink Before the War, my second Lehane read and his first novel, has me convinced that the hype surrounding him is true: along with George Pelecanos and Richard Price, Dennis Lehane is not just one of the best American writers of crime fiction but one of the best American writers we have today, period.

A Drink Before the War is the first novel featuring the private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, best known for their roles in Gone, Baby, Gone. Kenzie and Gennaro are hired by a group of Boston politicians for a seemingly simple “find-and-a-phone-call” case. A cleaning woman, Jenna Angeline, has vanished along with some documents, and Kenzie is to find her so the politicians can recover the documents. He does this easily enough, but is swayed by Angeline to hold off on the phone call until she’s shown him one of the “documents” she stole: a photograph of one of the politicians in a hotel room with a pimp.

Angeline turns out to be not as much of an outsider as Kenzie was led to believe by the politicians. This is not a cleaning woman who made off with some documents by sheer chance; she knows the men in the photograph, and can guess what they might do to get these photographs back. The simple case that Kenzie signed up for becomes part of something larger – a full-scale gang war – and Lehane draws his narrative so carefully that not a line reads false.


The reason I’m so into Lehane is that it’s not just the plotting he’s good at; it’s his style, his characterizations, the voice he creates for Kenzie, everything. Kenzie describes one of the politicians, Brian Paulson, by his handshake: “He waited until Mulkern sat back down before he did, and I wondered if he’d asked permission before he sweated all over my palm too” (5). One of the men, a former client, who helps them track down Jenna Angeline: “Billy, like a lot of people who work in Western Union offices, looks like he just got out of detox” (47).

And Boston is as much a character, with Kenzie’s Dorchester background informing his view of the city. Of Wickham, Kenzie notes: “The streets are the color of a shoe bottom, and the only way to tell the difference between the bars and the homes is to look for the neon signs in the windows” (55). When he’s trying to get rid of a tail: “By the boathouse, I saw a group of BU or Emerson students, stuck in the city for the summer, passing around a bottle of wine. Wild kids. Probably had some brie and crackers in their backpacks, too” (51).

I don’t want to say that Lehane surpasses genre conventions, because just to say that is to suggest that genre writing is inherently “worse” than literary fiction (whatever I mean by that term). What he does do is bring together what I like most about crime fiction and literary writing: tight plotting, a unique voice, a current of humor running beneath the novel as a whole, a character who views the world as his world, who never seems an outsider to the action around him. If you haven’t read Lehane, read him. If you’ve read some Lehane, read everything you haven’t read. If you’ve read everything by Lehane, I don’t know, reread it all while I play catch-up. This guy is good.

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The Condition, and What Creative Writing Programs are Doing to American Fiction


It is perhaps unfair that I don’t devote an entire entry to reviewing Jennifer Haigh’s The Condition, but this book plays well into something I spend a little too much time worrying about: namely, what MFA programs are doing to American literature.

On the list of things it has going for it, The Condition is a skillfully written novel with well-drawn characters. Their actions are maybe 95% of the time believable and understandable.

On the list of things against it, the plot of The Condition can be summed up in a sentence, because it’s only a plot in the loosest definition of the thing: the novel is about the McKotch family and how the genetic condition of one family member, Gwen (a condition that leaves her in the body of a child for her entire life) impacts the course of their lives.

Things do happen in this novel. People break up and come back together. People are married. Gwen’s father, Frank, has a drama at work. But at end, the novel lacks a center. Haigh splits her time evenly between the major family members (the parents, Frank and Paulette, and their children, Billy, Gwen and Scott) and the result is a certain lack of focus. Maybe their lives were impacted by Gwen’s medical condition, but to base an entire novel on this is a shaky proposition; and moreover, Gwen’s condition doesn’t seem to have had all that much impact on their lives. One widely held assumption throughout the novel is that Frank and Paulette divorced because of the stresses resulting from Gwen’s condition, but near novel’s end we find that those fractures in their marriage were present long before they split up. It may be more accurate to say that the novel is about how characters believe their lives have been impacted by Gwen’s life.


Haigh’s novel is undeniably a well-written one, albeit not one with reams, or even a few, sentences that leap out and grab hold of you. Having read The Condition after Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, a novel that is both well-written and well-plotted, the faults of a character-based, plot-free novel, written in the style of (hey!) a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, stood out all the more sharply to me.

On a sentence-by-sentence basis, Haigh is arguably better than the authors of some of the classics I’ve been reading lately – Kate Chopin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, even Fitzgerald in The Beautiful & Damned. They all fail sometimes to craft the universally pleasing sentences of her novel. But there is no question that all three of them are better writers than Haigh. Reading their books, I feel that there’s something real in them, that characters are being caught up in history, in life, unlike Haigh’s characters, who stew in their self-created miseries for nearly 400 pages. Their novels are not based around a template, a sort of product of the writing programs that are so popular now. How many novels have there been in the last five or ten years with a “plot” centering on how one event impacts the life of a family? How do you even begin to count such novels?

In her review of Mark McGurl’s The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing at the London Review of Books, Elif Batuman writes:

…McGurl ultimately falls back on the one thing the programme really does teach: technique. Countering Eliot’s dictum that ‘art never improves,’ he proposes that literature might, rather, resemble technology or sport, in which ‘systematic investments of capital over time have produced a continual elevation of performance.’ Hasn’t ‘the tremendous expansion of the literary talent pool’ and its systematic training in the ‘self-conscious attention to craft’ resulted in ‘a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period’? It has. If you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition, the level of American writing has skyrocketed in the postwar years. In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books.

On the whole, I agree with Batuman’s view of writing programs, and her article is a much more lucid consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of writing programs than anything I write can be. In that quote, she makes the point that I’ve been reaching towards, if not voicing, for years now: that there a lot of writers producing commendable work that I’ll forget about a week after I’ve read it. My abandonment of short story collections isn’t the result of a decreasing love for the story, but for having, a few too many times, gotten halfway through a collection before realizing, Hey! I’ve read this before!…but still being unable to remember any clear details of the stories. Does it matter how “well written” a work is, by the most objective measures we can imagine, if there’s nothing about the story that we will remember a year, a month, a week after reading it?

In her conclusion Batuman writes, “As for literature, it will be neither made nor broken by the programme, which is doubtless as incapable of ruining a good writer as of transforming a bad one.” And as Bill Morris concludes in his essay “Does School Kill Writing?”, “School can’t kill writing.” With Batuman and Morris, though, I don’t think this is a reason for celebration. Although McGurl may argue that we see fiction as increasingly mediocre only because it is, as a whole, so much better than it used to be, I think the mediocrity is more a result of the sameness of literature coming out of creative writing programs. It may be technically good, but I can’t care enough to read it anymore. The Condition, with its forgettable characters, forgettable sentences, forgettable plot, reminded me of why my shift to the classics, to young adult, to genre fiction, to histories, to anything that didn’t emerge from a writing program, has been such a pleasurable one.

Further reading: