While most are reveling in food, drink, and bad habits on this Fat Tuesday, we’re celebrating fat books. These 500-plus-pagers are an indulgence you can feel good about, even if they take you all 40 days of Lent to finish. From Tolstoy to Tartt, Rowling to Delillo, these wordy authors aren’t afraid to spend 1,000 pages or more to spin their yarns. And we shouldn’t be afraid to pick them up as a result. Happy Mardi Gras—and laissez les bons livres roulez!
Tell The Snail—what’s your favorite fat book?
The Snail is seeing red today in honor of National Wear Red Day and the American Heart Association. Women all over the country are wearing red on this special Friday as part of the fight against heart disease, which claims more women’s lives than anything else. So let’s sport some red, too, if not in our wardrobe then in our reading choices. Above is a stack of some powerful female-authored red selections from my library. But the bookstores have plenty of new red titles gracing their shelves. Here are a few new releases with a whole lot of heart between their crimson covers.
Rooms, by Lauren Oliver
According to the blurb: “The New York Times bestselling author of Before I Fall and the Deliriumtrilogy makes her brilliant adult debut with this mesmerizing story in the tradition of The Lovely Bones, Her Fearful Symmetry, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane—a tale of family, ghosts, secrets, and mystery, in which the lives of the living and the dead intersect in shocking, surprising, and moving ways.”
How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You, by The Oatmeal
According to the blurb: “If your cat is kneading you, that’s not a sign of affection. Your cat is actually checking your internal organs for weakness. If your cat brings you a dead animal, this isn’t a gift. It’s a warning. How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You is an offering of cat comics, facts, and instructional guides from the creative wonderland at The Oatmeal.com.”
A Map of Betrayal, by Ha Jin
According to the blurb: “A riveting tale of espionage and conflicted loyalties that spans half a century in the entwined histories of two countries—China and the United States—and two families. When Lilian Shang, born and raised in America, discovers her father’s diary after the death of her parents, she is shocked by the secrets it contains. She knew that her father, Gary, convicted decades ago of being a mole in the CIA, was the most important Chinese spy ever caught. But his diary, an astonishing chronicle of his journey as a Communist intelligence agent, reveals the pain and longing that his double life entailed—and point to a hidden second family that he’d left behind in China.”
Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull
According to the blurb: “For nearly twenty years, Pixar has dominated the world of animation, producing such beloved films as the Toy Story trilogy, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, and WALL-E, which have gone on to set box-office records and garner thirty Academy Awards. The joyousness of the storytelling, the inventive plots, the emotional authenticity: In some ways, Pixar movies are an object lesson in what creativity really is. Here, in this book, Catmull reveals the ideals and techniques that have made Pixar so widely admired—and so profitable.”
The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert
According to the blurb: “New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before. Interweaving research in half a dozen disciplines, descriptions of the fascinating species that have already been lost, and the history of extinction as a concept, Kolbert provides a moving and comprehensive account of the disappearances occurring before our very eyes. She shows that the sixth extinction is likely to be mankind’s most lasting legacy, compelling us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.”
A strong pen, even strokes, letters of an impressive length . . . Jane Austen turns up the heat today, on the occasion of National Handwriting Day, with a surprisingly sexy scene about penmanship from Pride and Prejudice. Focusing on courtship in a world ruled by manners, Austen couldn’t touch the subject of sex. Yet she managed to offer an occasional erotic moment, even if couched in a seemingly innocent conversation about, yes, handwriting.
The romance is all one-sided in this P&P excerpt, which has the characters whiling away an afternoon in the drawing room of the Bingleys’ manor house. Mr. Darcy settles in to write a letter to his sister, but he can’t escape the attention of his ardent admirer, Miss Bingley. Though her advances are mostly met with silence, she praises the length of Mr. Darcy’s letter, the speed of his hand, and the evenness of his strokes. She also volunteers to adjust his pen, an offer he quickly refuses, saying he can fix it himself. (Hmmm . . .)
Ultimately, flattery gets Miss Bingley nowhere—in this scene and in the course of the novel. Elizabeth Bennet, who keeps her eyes on her needlework throughout most of the exchange, is the one he ends up asking to dance that day, and the one he asks to marry at the end of the novel.
In a side note, how much should we read into the admission Miss Bingley’s brother makes about his own handwriting? Charles Bingley, Darcy’s likable friend and romantic foil, says his own writing suffers from the problem of premature expression.
The day passed much as the day before had done. . . . Mr. Darcy was writing, and Miss Bingley, seated near him, was watching the progress of his letter, and repeatedly calling off his attention by messages to his sister. . . . Elizabeth took up some needlework, and was sufficiently amused in attending to what passed between Darcy and his companion. The perpetual commendations of the lady either on his handwriting, or on the evenness of his lines, or on the length of his letter, with the perfect unconcern with which her praises were received, formed a curious dialogue. . . .
“How delighted Miss Darcy will be to receive such a letter!”
He made no answer.
“You write uncommonly fast.”
“You are mistaken. I write rather slowly.”
“How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of a year! Letters of business, too! How odious I should think them!”
“It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of to yours.”
“Pray tell your sister that I long to see her.”
“I have already told her so once, by your desire.”
“I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well.”
“Thank you—but I always mend my own.”
“How can you contrive to write so even?”
He was silent. . . .
“But do you always write such charming long letters to her, Mr. Darcy?”
“They are generally long; but whether always charming, it is not for me to determine.”
“It is a rule with me, that a person who can write a long letter with ease cannot write ill.”
“That will not do for a compliment to Darcy, Caroline,” cried her brother, “because he does not write with ease. He studies too much for words of four syllables. Do not you, Darcy?”
“My style of writing is very different from yours.”
“Oh,” cried Miss Bingley, “Charles writes in the most careless way imaginable. He leaves out half his words, and blots the rest.”
“My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them; by which means my letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents.”
. . . .
[Elizabeth said,] “Mr. Darcy had much better finish his letter.”
Mr. Darcy took her advice, and did finish his letter.
The Dead, by James Joyce
A Christmas feast lies at the heart of “The Dead,” the closing work in James Joyce’s inimitable collection called Dubliners:
A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a meat paper frill around its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these two rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blanc-mange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colors of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.
If you find yourself, in these days leading up to Christmas, assembling a legion of food and drink for your own guests, you will well relate to this description of a laden holiday table. The Misses Morkan’s annual holiday party is always a predictable, but lavish affair with dancing, music, and plentiful food. For one guest, their nephew Gabriel Conroy, this year’s party will prove far more bitter than sweet. We watch him as he spends the whole evening trying to live up to a certain vision he has of himself, but failing time and again. As the party draws to a close, the story narrows its focus to Gabriel’s relationship with his wife, Gretta. Already a little shattered by the events of the night, he wants to take comfort in their marriage, even hoping to rekindle some romantic excitement from their early days. But he senses something keeping them apart. When they return to their hotel after the party, she reveals a fact from long ago that will forever change him and his outlook on the world. “. . . how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife.”
Like all the stories in Dubliners, “The Dead” depicts a character undergoing an epiphany, a transformative awakening to a new sense of self. So, how fitting that the story’s Christmastime party actually occurs in the early days of January, around the time of the Christian Epiphany. For all of us, Christmas can be a time of renewal. For Gabriel Conroy, it may need to be a complete overhaul.