Jen Larsen’s critically acclaimed memoir Stranger Here detailed her own choice to have weight-loss surgery and the unexpected highs and lows that followed losing 180 pounds. In her teen fiction debut, Larsen tackles weight-loss surgery again in Future Perfect.
Ashley Perkins is the type of kid that any parent or grandparent would be shouting about from the rooftops: class valedictorian, AP student, on the volleyball team and now she’s set her sights on getting into Harvard. All of her friends and family know she is a shoo-in for admission. In her grandmother’s eyes, though, the main thing setting Ashley back is her looks: she’s fat.
Every year since her 13th birthday, Ashley’s grandmother presents her with a card: 50 pounds lost equals a trip to Disneyland, 80 pounds lost equals a shopping trip to Paris, 100 pounds lost equals a brand new car. Every year, Ashley has turned down her grandmother’s offer, but when this year’s card offers her Harvard tuition for the cost of having weight-loss surgery, Ashley struggles with the decision more than she ever has. Should she give in to her grandmother’s demands for how her body “should” look to get everything she’s ever dreamed?
Between the Covers recently caught up with Jen to talk about her novel.
Between the Covers: (No spoilers, please!) While you were writing this novel, did you know what choice Ashley was going to make? Did it change for you while developing her character?
Jen Larsen: I did know! Because her final choice is completely central to why I wrote this book. I wanted to write a character who was everything I wanted to be, and as brave as I wish I were, when I was her age. I wanted to write a book that was the book I needed when I was struggling with my own body issue demons, fear, doubt and isolation.
BTC: You documented your own weight loss surgery and its impact on your life in your memoir Stranger Here; what influence did your own weight loss have on this novel?
JL: When I chose to get surgery, I thought it was my only option—that I had no other choice, because it would be impossible for me to be fat and happy and lovable. That idea is dangerous and so incredibly wrong and yet so prevalent. Future Perfect is a counter to it, an argument for the fact that the body image standards that get pushed on us by the media and even by our own well-meaning family are limited, bigoted and cruel. There's no loving yourself "despite" your flaws, because your body isn't flawed. Not looking like a Victoria's Secret model is not some kind of defect.
BTC: Unlike other teen heroines "of size," Ashley never hides behind her body as a suit of "fat armor." She's not separate from her body, she just is. That is so refreshing! In developing Ashley's character, what pitfalls did you want to avoid? How did you reconcile those pitfalls with having to write a teenage character?
JL: It was really, really important that Ashley's voice be authentic. She rejects the idea that fat is a dirty word. She is fiercely, defiantly happy in her body, almost defensively so — because I think when you're a teenager you are very much still in a role where your beliefs and feelings feel challenged by your adults and your peer group. You feel as if you always need to be on guard, fighting back.
But Ashley also has ordinary doubts and fears and worries that nag at her. She compares herself to other girls, she has fleeting moments of self-doubt when she wonders why her boyfriend thinks she's beautiful, she struggles with her family's nagging and comments. When you're a teenager, your family's opinion is both the most important and the opinion you feel like you need to reject or rebel against. And that's part of what fuels her need to push back as hard as she can.
BTC: This novel could've easily translated to an adult trying to decide if this surgery was for her, so why teen? Teen voice can be very hard to capture, and these kids were very realistic. How did you transition your writing style to suit teen, if at all?
JL: Because I believe teen fiction is so, so important. There's this huge number of brilliant, hungry kids out there looking for themselves in the books they read, wanting their worries, interests, hopes, needs understood and validated. I choose teen because I thought this story and idea and message is so important for teens to hear when they're in the throes of their own struggles with the expectations of the adults around them.
BTC: Ashley's group of friends could each have a wonderful novel in and of themselves! In writing these characters, why was it important for you to stress how, in a lot of ways, these friends were her family perhaps more than her family was?
JL: Thank you! I love her friends very much. I wanted to talk about what happens when the family you have isn't the family you need. It's so important to surround yourself with people who give you strength, who love you and support you. It's okay to push back against your family's expectations if they don't understand you, or care for you the way you need, and create your own community to help give you the strength you need and support your sense of identity and self-worth.
BTC: I've seen a lot of people comment that "No loving grandmother would ever do this to a child!" Do you agree? Why is Grandmother so hard on Ashley when she gives others such love and attention (her dad, Jolene, etc.)?
JL: That kind of direct criticism and pressure on kids about their weight and size is incredibly common, from the really subtle stuff I used to get as a kid ("Why don't you just butter one piece of toast and then press it against the other piece?") to flat-out disapproval and condemnation. Parents and caregivers are roped into The War on Obesity by doctors, and forget that study after study shows that shaming and coercion is useless and, in fact, incredibly harmful. It can cause life-long eating issues, disorders, depression and even more weight gain. It is real and it is common and it is horrific.
Ashley's grandmother genuinely believes she's doing right and good—that she is taking care of her granddaughter in the best way she knows how, and actually helping her to achieve her identity. She thinks if Ashley wants to be successful, she can't be fat. That she'll be denied opportunities and struggle in her career. She thinks she's helping Ashley fight back. And in that sense, she's helping Jolene fight back against the people who reject Jolene's sense of self, unaware of the irony in celebrating Jolene's body autonomy while dismissing Ashley's.
BTC: What's next for you and your writing? (Please, please tell me there's a Jolene book somewhere.)
JL: I love Jolene and would love to write a book about her! But currently I'm working on a couple of new teen books—my first fantasy novel ever, a retelling of the "Princess and the Pea" and a book that's incredibly important to me, about two girls in love and San Francisco and social justice.
Thank you so much for such awesome questions!
A fascinating read that focuses on both local and internationally important histories, Breakthrough! Is the record of the surgeon Alfred Blalock, his assistant Vivien Thomas and Dr. Helen Taussig, who teamed up to invent an operation to save some of their tiniest patients. Previous to the innovation of Blalock, Thomas and Taussig in 1944 there was an affliction known as “blue baby” syndrome, in which the patient’s color would change and their breathing would gradually decrease This syndrome was almost always fatal, and affected mostly patients between birth and 5 years of age. Dr. Taussig often worked with and attempted to treat many of these Blue Babies and was the leading expert on the disease but she needed the help of an experienced surgeon to develop and perform what she thought could be the cure. She, Vivien Thomas and Dr. Blalock were all working at Johns Hopkins at the time and although Blalock was reluctant to take on the task at first, he eventually agreed. Essential to the story is the fact that Thomas, who because of his African American heritage had been kept at the level of assistant instead of given schooling and credentials that would have promoted him to surgeon, was the main developer of the operation, which involved re-routing veins in the heart in order to increase oxygen flow in afflicted patients. The incredible delicacy and skill Thomas possessed could not be put into practice in the operating room directly, but he did assist and direct Blalock every step of the way on the revolutionary day that all three of their efforts paid off and their first young patient was permanently cured.
Breakthrough! is a fascinating piece of local history that discusses how much medicine has advanced in this century, the racial and gender barriers we have overcome and those still left to tackle on the horizon. It’s excellent reading for personal interest or for research on the topic of the blue babies disease or any of the individual doctors the account centers around.
Helen Ellis’ American Housewife is a satirical collection of 12 short stories featuring a group of enthralling, outrageous and disturbing women. There are humorous vignettes, such as “Southern Lady Code,” which offers biting translations of benign Southern phrases and “How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady,” which provides tips on how to do just that. There are fleshed-out stories full of characters and situations that are just a little too bizarre to be real — a relocation program for child beauty pageant contestants, an email exchange between neighbors that escalates into all-out war. In “Dumpster Diving with the Stars,” we meet a has-been writer who leads the competition in finding the best deals at yard sales and estate auctions, to the annoyance of the producers who would rather feature the Playboy bunny. “My Novel is Brought to You by Tampax” stars a writer working hard (or hardly working) on her next novel, sponsored by Tampax. A Tampax representative will do anything to make sure she meets her daily writing goal — starting with bribing her neighbors into bringing the writer meals in exchange for feminine hygiene products. The tales feel true enough to make readers uncomfortable even as they’re laughing at the absurdity. Don’t inane parodies of reality shows actually sound like plausible reality shows? And is it such a stretch that a tampon company could make the leap from sponsoring daytime television to sponsoring novels?
These stories are a fictional alternative for people who enjoy humorists like Jenny Lawson and Laurie Notaro. Ellis even received a nod from Margaret Atwood as one of her favorite books of the year: “Surreal tales of American weirdness, with details that ring all too true.” You probably haven’t murdered your neighbor over the tacky décor in your common area…but maybe you’ve briefly considered it.
There’s something magical about the fandom of Sherlock Holmes. For over 100 years, the fans have refused to believe that the detective isn’t real. They send him letters and marriage proposals, form historical societies around him and pay tribute with that most earnest form of flattery, fan-fiction. Otto Penzler’s The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories is the mother lode of such tributes, collecting a whopping 83 short stories from such literary heavyweights as J. M. Barrie, Kingsley Amis and P.G. Wodehouse.
Sherlock fans of all walks of life will find something to enjoy in this collection, because by density of volume: there has to be! There are modern classics such as Stephen King’s “The Doctor’s Case,” in which Holmes is barred from a crime scene due to an allergy to the victim’s cats, and Neil Gaiman’s “The Case of Death & Honey,” in which Holmes sets out to solve death itself, and succeeds astonishingly. There are also historically fascinating pieces such as the story Conan Doyle wrote for the library of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, and contemporary parodies in which such clever lines as “Elementary, my dear God!” are uttered.
In the last year alone there’s been a plethora of new stories about the Great Detective such as Dan Simmons’ The Fifth Heart, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Mycroft Holmes and the film Mr. Holmes, adapted from Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind. It is altogether shocking to observe the similarities between the Holmes of the 1800’s and the Holmes still captivating audiences today, and reading this century’s worth of stories will give you the humbling feeling of watching a small torch pass from writer to writer across decades. Consider giving this to anyone who’s impatiently awaiting the next season of Sherlock. And really, isn’t everybody?
The following titles will be released next week. Select any title to learn more or to request a copy. Be sure to visit our Hot Titles webpage for more exciting upcoming titles.
In her new memoir Find a Way, long distance swimmer Diana Nyad tells of her epic swim from Cuba to Key West, which she completed at age 64 after failing to do so in her 20s.
The seeds for her extreme dream were sown when she was just a child. On his daughter’s 5th birthday, Aristotle Nyad opened the dictionary and pointed to their last name: Nyad (naiad), from Greek mythology, a girl or woman champion swimmer. Nyad doesn’t believe in fate, but she locked onto the word “champion” and knew that it would one day describe her.
She also became interested in Cuba as a child, when the Cuban Revolution brought an influx of refugees to her hometown, and her new friends introduced her to their culture. She recalls standing on the beach at age 9 with her mother and looking toward the horizon. Her mother told her that Cuba was so close that she could almost swim there.
After enjoying numerous other successes as a swimmer, Nyad began to plan and train for her Cuba swim when she was in her 20s. She made her first attempt from Cuba at age 28 utilizing a shark cage, but after swimming for 42 hours and covering 76 miles, strong winds and swells had knocked her so far off course that she was heading not for Florida, but for Texas. The following year, after training for a repeat swim but being denied entry to Cuba, she instead swam 102 miles from North Bimini Island, Bahamas, to Juno Beach, Florida, this time without the shark cage.
At age 30, Nyad figured it was time to retire as a professional athlete and instead pursued a career as a sports broadcaster and journalist. Then at age 60, a Mary Oliver quote forced her to reevaluate her priorities: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” After pondering that question, the extreme dream was reborn. Of course, it wouldn’t be easy. She no longer had the body of a world-class athlete. There would be grueling hours of training. There would be complicated logistics to work through. She would need to sell her dream to a support team of 35 people. There would ultimately be setbacks and failures and nearly fatal encounters with jellyfish. But Nyad’s mantra was: Find a way.
This isn’t just a story of an impressive athletic feat. Like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Andre Agassi’s Open, Nyad’s story also delves into her family history and personal struggles, and how they informed and shaped her future. Nyad is an impressive storyteller — here’s one of her several TED talks — and this book will leave you feeling inspired to pursue something amazing with your own wild and precious life.
James Bond, who? Meet Schuller. Josephine Schuller. Most people call her Josie and, although she may fit the description of a Bond girl, she's the type of woman who could take Bond down and end his days of drinking shaken, dry vodka martinis. Why and how, you ask? Well, don’t let this homemaker, wife and mother of two, fool you. She is a vicious assassin who knows how to work a knife inside and outside the kitchen. Josie Schuller is the Lady Killer in Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich’s graphic novel set in the early 1960s.
Josie Schuller reminds me of Angelina Jolie’s character, Jane Smith, in the 2005 film Mr. and Mrs. Smith and January Jones’ Betty Draper in AMC’s hit television series, Mad Men. In Lady Killer, Josie tricks her twin daughters, husband and friends into believing that she is just a stay-at-home wife and mother. What they don’t know is that she is also an agent working for Mr. Stenholm, who gives her assignments to terminate lives. Josie learns that she is on Mr. Stenholm’s target list when he sends her co-worker, David Peck, to execute her. Josie devises her own plan to eliminate them both.
This graphic novel is most definitely a treat. The eye-catching, vintage-inspired illustrations by Joëlle Jones and the delicious colors by Laura Allred lured me in. Lady Killer has everything you want in a graphic novel. Stunning artwork? Check. An interesting protagonist? Check. Brilliant colors? Check. A page-turning story? Check.
So, what are you waiting for? Drop what you’re doing and get your hands on Lady Killer by Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich. You won’t regret it.
It’s Marci Thompson’s Big 3-0, and her life on this milestone birthday isn’t at all what she envisioned in M.J. Pullen’s debut The Marriage Pact. Instead of a successful career, a handsome husband, a couple of kids and a dream home, Marci is working a temp accounting job, having an affair with Doug, her married boss, and living in what used to be a motel room. But then Jake, one of her closest friends from back home in Atlanta, sends her a picture of a cocktail napkin contract the two of them drunkenly signed 10 years ago — they would get married if both were still single at 30.
The reappearance of this pact shakes Marci’s belief in her feelings for Doug, who is promising to leave his wife and start a real life with Marci. She puts Jake on the back burner, but is crushed when Doug unceremoniously dumps her because his wife is pregnant. While trying to stay strong at work, the depth of her pain is severe, and she finally realizes she needs to make big changes in her life to alter the bleakness of her future. She moves back to Atlanta where she has the support of family and friends, including Jake.
Jake is ready to pick up where they left off, but Marci's heart is still recovering. The two take baby steps toward a real relationship and even get engaged, but have they really grown up? This is a fast-paced, funny read with likeable and charming characters who readers will look forward to meeting again as Pullen adds to this appealing series. Fans of Emily Giffin, Lauren Graham and Jennifer Weiner will delight in a new author to add to their list of favorites.
In 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote an article for The Atlantic entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” addressing some of the challenges remaining from the second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s, particularly those that led to the devaluation of caregivers. In the article, she described how her transition from a career as director of policy planning for the State Department to professorship in the Harvard Law School for the sake of providing better care for her teenage sons was frequently viewed as giving up by her colleagues. Unfinished Business is a continuation of this discussion, allowing Slaughter the chance to address some of the criticism that arose from her original article and further refine her ideas.
Slaughter points out how necessary and valuable the work of caregivers is but how little respect and compensation they are likely to receive in exchange. While she primarily writes from her own experience in white collar labor, she tries to be as inclusive as possible, incorporating the responses to her article she received from people of different classes, industries, sexual orientations and race. She also makes a point of examining how trends have changed between the baby boomer, Gen-X and millennial generations. While she does not hide her own party affiliations, she shows how concern over caregiving transcends party disputes.
Her arguments are well researched and persuasive, and her suggestions for change are timely and practical. Employers are encouraged to fully utilize the flexibility now allowed by technology to accommodate the scheduling needs of their workers who are caregivers. The time people spend attending events in their children’s lives, supporting their aging parents and being present in communities outside of the office develop the soft skills highly prized in the modern business arena. For true gender equality to be achieved, there needs to be a destigmatization of men’s work in the home, allowing for men to care for their children without being emasculated, manage a household on their own terms and define how they provide for their family outside of the rigid constraints as a “breadwinner.” Anyone trying to juggle a career and family will want to check out this book for its empathy and encouragement.
Did you ever wonder if anyone else went down the rabbit hole like Alice did 150 years ago? Was anyone looking for her on that summer day? If so, your next must read has to be After Alice by Gregory Maguire, the story of another girl’s journey through Wonderland and the subsequent search for her and Alice above ground.
Told in two parts, Maguire first introduces us to Ada, Alice’s friend who is mentioned briefly at the beginning of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. She is the opposite of Alice. Stricken with severe scoliosis, she walks with a limp, has poor color and is not fanciful in the least. While looking for Alice along the riverbank, she comes upon the strange rabbit hole and down she goes! Just steps behind Alice, Ada encounters many of the curious characters familiar to us all – definitely a highlight for us readers! But will she find Alice in this strange underworld where everything is not as it seems? Will she make it home safely? Meanwhile, above ground, two people are searching for Alice and Ada that day: Lydia, Alice’s 15-year-old sister, and Miss Armstrong, Ada’s governess. The second part of the story deals mainly with their adventures. Their search leads us through the town of Oxford, the University and to both Alice’s and Ada’s homes. Mirroring the journey through Wonderland, they encounter many curious characters including Charles Darwin and Siam, a former slave who escaped via the Underground Railroad.
Take the time to get to know Ada, Lydia and Miss Armstrong. Join them on that summer’s day in Oxford. You will come away with a newfound understanding and love for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. You may also want to read (or reread) it. Trust me, it gets better each time! Other novels by Maguire worth a look are Wicked: Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, my personal favorite! I also suggest checking out Gregory Maguire’s October 25th interview with NPR, which is both entertaining and insightful.