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: Megan McCafferty’s Bumped

Disclaimer: The publisher provided this book for review via NetGalley.

Megan McCafferty’s Bumped has been getting hype up the wazoo. I’ve heard almost nothing but good things about it – you know, good world building, topical issues, young adult dystopian (which instantly makes me think of The Hunger Games – I expect every YA dystopian novel to be as good as Suzanne Collins’s, I guess), inventive language – and I was practically drooling thinking of reading this book.

Only, then I got it, and I found that the things everyone was talking about and praising, like the way McCafferty doesn’t do an “info dump” at the start of her novel to explain her world and the lives and vocabulary of her characters, drove me nuts. Sure, giving a chapter of exposition isn’t the most gripping way to open a novel, but not everyone can pull off making this information an organic part of their story. Then there are some people who don’t even try, at all – and as a reader it felt to me that McCafferty gave up on building a strong world, resting her story instead of the questionable strengths of its storyline and wacky vocabulary.

Bumped takes place in a vaguely future version of our world, in which an AIDS-like virus causes most men and women to become infertile once out of their teens. Teenagers thereby become responsible for the propagation of the human race, “bumping” as amateurs or professionals to produce babies that are adopted or purchased by older couples. Pregnancy isn’t just a way of life but a fashion; girls can purchase not just t-shirts about “pregging” and being “fertilicious” but fake baby bumps to wear.

McCafferty’s narrative flips back and forth between Melody and Harmony, sixteen-year-old identical twins separated at birth who have grown up in cultures that treat teenage pregnancy differently. Melody has grown up in “Otherside”, as Harmony calls it, raised by parents who believe in the move to monetize pregnancy. She’s the first girl in her school to turn “professional”, though two years after signing her contract she hasn’t “bumped” and is nearing obsolescence.

Harmony grew up in “Goodside”, a strict community of “Godfreaky” (as Melody would put it) people who marry and preg young but raise their children themselves. Harmony contacts Melody and unexpectedly shows up in Otherside, where she hangs around with Melody and her friend Zen.

So, not a bad premise for a young adult novel, though aspects of it are contrived enough that I should have guessed I wouldn’t fall in love with the book the way everyone else has. McCafferty hasn’t formed her story around a cast of deluded teenagers as much as she’s thought of caricatures to place into her narrative. Melody, Harmony, Zen, Melody’s friends and their pregnancies, Melody’s parents, Harmony’s huge extended family – none of them feel real to me, but rather as if they’ve been put in this narrative to stand as examples of or for something.

McCafferty comes up with a lot of future words and slang for this novel, which I started writing down halfway through – “paps” for papparazzi, “foto” for photo, “Avatarcade” (future version of the arcade, with avatars!), “GlycoGoGo Bars” (energy bar), “US Buff-A” (restaurant), “Mi-Net” (crazy future internet, accessed with contact lenses and earbuds), “pro boner work” (instead of “pro bono work” – well, this one was kind of funny I guess), “procreationists” (Christians who believe in spreading the seed), “starcisstic” (instead of narcissistic), “breedy bits” (you know), “facespace” (speaking to a person in person), “MasSEX parties” (orgies). These words seem to stand in the place of world building (McCafferty doesn’t build a world as much as she suggests, via future words, that she has built a world), and McCafferty’s characters seem just as superficial as her world and its language.

Over at I Swim for Oceans there’s a pretty interesting interview with McCafferty in which she talks about some of these things, like why her characters speak the way they do and how that changes over the course of the novel. All my notes about this book are kind of disappointed scribbles (e-bookishly speaking) about how she goes for the most obvious ways to distinguish her characters. Harmony’s grown up in a Godfreaky community, so her internal monologue is filled with references to God and the Bible, while Melody’s is more along the lines of wondering whether she is “fertilicious” and what she will look like with a baby bump. McCafferty lays this on thick early in the book, and it fades away as time passes. Like she says in the interview, McCafferty used that sort of internal monologue to show character development – as the narrative progresses the girls are finding their own voices and freeing themselves from the voices their families and cultures have given them – but this reads, like so many other aspects of the novel, as superficial and contrived, because this use of the language is the only way McCafferty chooses to show character development, and also because Bumped takes place over such a short time period that this shift in internal monologue isn’t believable.

Bumped deals in issues that are pretty heavy – questions about who owns the rights to their own bodies, how teenagers’ bodies are taken advantage of when it becomes the only way of surviving as a race, monetizing sex and pregnancy – but the tone of the novel doesn’t fit these issues. At novel’s end the characters are rethinking their world and their places in it and how they treat their bodies, but the decisions they reach about these issues largely take place behind the scenes. As readers, we see little deeper than the slang they use to express themselves. The disconnect between the subject matter and the voice is huge and distracting, and lets down this story and the potential it had. McCafferty drowns what could have been an interesting and thought-provoking story beneath her top-heavy world – developed in terms of language and fashion but feeling barren in every other way.

Bumped is released on April 26th, and judging by the ending (or lack thereof) there’s a Bumped v. 2.0 on the way.

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Review: Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy

Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy was my post-GRE reward: after months of (kind of) breaking a sweat, reading wise, I could chill out and read some solid young adult lit, which if you if you read my blog you know is a genre I can’t shake my interest in.

Only The Hunger Games, despite being an engrossing, fast-paced, well-written series, wasn’t as light as I’d been imagining. Now that I look back on the basic plot, which is that every year the Capitol of Panem (the nation that has replaced the former United States) selects a male and female tribute from each of its twelve colonies to participate in the “Hunger Games,” a fight to the death, as a reminder of the total control the Capitol has over the colonies and their people, I am not sure why I thought this would be a light read. There is nothing light about that description.

Katniss Everdeen’s younger sister, Prim, is drawn as District Twelve’s female tribute in the trilogy’s first book, but Katniss volunteers to take her place. It’s hard…well, impossible…to describe the general arc of the plot without totally giving away the first book, to those of you who haven’t read it yet (and you should! You really really should!), so I’m going to skimp on plot summary this post. Although any of you who read my reviews on a semi-regular basis already know that I skimp on plot summary all the time.

The three books are tightly plotted, but what impresses me most about Collins’s plotting is how all-encompassing it is – how the shape of the three books as a whole becomes horrifyingly apparent in the third book, this idea that even outside of the Hunger Games’ rings, there is nothing but another version of the Games. I found the third book harder to get through than the first two, not because I thought it was a poorer book, but because the plot was so hopeless. I could guess, generally, where things were headed, and I didn’t want that to be where things were headed. Like Katniss in the first book of the series, I wanted to believe that once the Games were over, they were over; that she and her family, and her two friends or boyfriends, Peeta and Gale, could go back to District Twelve and “normal” life.

They can’t, of course, and I’m not giving too much away by saying that. Collins does a stunning job of showing the good and bad in everything she writes about. There are no characters or political groups in this book that are wholly good; everything is mixed. Katniss, by her own probing analysis, makes most of her decisions based on her own self-interest and on the theory that others (usually Peeta) will act in ways to her benefit, will continue to love her long after she has become both unlovable and unbearable. Haymitch, the only living victor of the Hunger Games in Disctrict Twelve before Peeta and Katniss, and their mentor in the Games, is an emotionally crippled alcoholic who manages to guide the pair through the Hunger Games, though often playing them off each other in order to suit his interests, or the interests of those he works for.

This trilogy answers in force the plea, examined in earlier posts here, to write “round” characters in young adult literature. There is not a single character in this book that struck me as false or lacking complexity. Like her mentor Haymitch, Katniss frequently is incapable of handling her emotions, her sadness and anger at being involved in the Games and used for others’ means. She tries to shut out the people she is closest to in an effort to strengthen her chances of winning and getting back to them, and the tragedy here is that while she can shut them out, she can’t ever reach the end she dreams of, the point at which she can allow them back in. Even these moments, though, are coupled with her desire to protect those around her, particularly her sometimes boyfriend Peeta and her sister, Prim:

Too heartsick to cry, all I want is to curl up on the bed and sleep until we arrive in the Capitol tomorrow morning. But I have a mission. No, it’s more than a mission. It’s my dying wish. Keep Peeta alive. And as unlikely as it seems that I can achieve it in the face of the Capitol’s anger, it’s important that I be at the top of my game. This won’t happen if I’m mourning for everyone I love back home. Let them go, I tell myself. Say good-bye and forget them. I do my best, thinking of them one by one, releasing them like birds from the protective cages inside me, locking the doors against their return.

Through the trilogy’s first book, The Hunger Games, the reader, like Katniss can mostly comfort him or herself with the thought that it is, after all, just a game; that every game has to end. But Collins is writing about a game that extends beyond the borders of a ring, one that is very much a part of the political control the Capitol has over its people. District uprisings that begin in the second book, Catching Fire, take hold in the third, Mockingjay, and Katniss and her childhood friend and, well, maybe someday boyfriend Gale, along with her family, are drawn into the resistance movement in the rogue District Thirteen.

And here is where I fought, where Katniss fights, against the fear that this movement might be no better than what it seeks to replace. As a Hunger Games victor who “defeated” the Games by her romance with Peeta, with her appeal to the “hearts and minds” of the Capitol’s people, Katniss has been a tool of propaganda for over a year before finding herself in District Thirteen. But as part of this district and the rebel movement, Katniss finds herself a propaganda tool for the other side. Just as in the Hunger Games, her romance with Peeta is mined for its propaganda value:

When I confront Plutarch, he assures me that it’s all for the camera. They’ve got footage of Annie getting married and Johanna hitting targets, but all of Panem is wondering about Peeta. They need to see he’s fighting for the rebels, not for Snow. And maybe if they could just get a couple of shots of the two of us, not kissing necessarily, just looking happy to be back together–

I walk away from the conversation right then. That is not going to happen.

Collins writes some horrifying scenes in which the attempt to create propaganda is juxtaposed with the war itself. Victors of the Hunger Games might be sent into combat, but as Katniss says, “I’m not even a real solider. Just one of Plutarch’s televised puppets.” Even that fiction of the televised puppets can’t last, though; sent into a fairly inactive and tactically unimportant area of the Capitol to stage some war scenes for the propaganda reels, a “pod” (think a landmine, only more high tech) is triggered and all hell lets lose.

We take turns reenacting our responses. Falling to the ground, grimacing, diving into alcoves. We know it’s supposed to be serious business, but the whole thing feels a little ridiculous. Especially when it turns out that I’m not the worst actor in the squad. Not by a long shot. We’re all laughing so hard at Mitchell’s attempt to project his idea of desperation, which involves teeth grinding and nostrils flaring, that Boggs has to reprimand us.

“Pull it together, Four-Five-One,” he says firmly. But you can see him suppressing a smile as he’s double-checking the next pod. Positioning the Holo to find the best light in the smoky air. Still facing us as his left foot steps back onto the orange paving stone. Triggering the bomb that blows off his legs.

[…]

It’s as if in an instant, a painted window shatters, revealing the ugly world behind it. Laughter changes to screams, blood stains pastel stones, real smoke darkens the special effect stuff made for television.

Okay, I’m giving in to my usual temptation to quote half a chapter rather than a sentence or two. But this scene encompasses so much of what is central to the trilogy – the ongoing attempt to shatter the painted window and find what is reality, only to discover that what seemed to be reality is another painted window. How can anyone react against that? How do you find your way out of a Game when it makes up your entire world?

At end, many of the major characters are dead, lost to the cause of either the Capitol or the rebels or The Hunger Games itself, but those who remain have changed and grown enough to underscore Collins’s skill at character development.

The Hunger Games are those types of books that, though classified as “young adult literature,” seem to be there as a matter of convenience as much as anything else. Where else to place them? Every aspect of these books is so well imagined, though, that I’m glad the books have found their way out of what could be the purgatory of sparkly vampires and are, from what I can tell, being read by about every English speaker on Earth. (I hope this is true and not just some fantasy I’ve dreamt up thanks to my lack of access to US news or bestseller lists.) Not exactly the light read I was looking for, but they’re something all right.