Karen Joy Fowler is a Rule Follower

This is going to be a great break from writing syllabi and eating sour patch kids.  I’m either 12 or 62 this week.  I just can’t get my shizzam together enough to plan it all.  I learned earlier this week that instead of just a full 9th grade English block, I am now teaching Creative Writing, Newspaper, 9th grade English and 10th grade English.  Yea, that’s right, HOLY FLYING COCKATOO.  There will be lots of deep breathing and mirror dancing in my future.  Don’t worry though, I’m a beast and even more luckily, my students are beasts with swag.  We’re going to get through this.  In the minutes between schooling, I’ve been reading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves | Karen Joy Fowler

Two years ago (apparently), I read Sarah Canary, which was one of the most beautifully strange works of literary fiction I have ever read.  Now I don’t want to throw around the world “literally” like all the critics are doing these days.  If there isn’t a sentence in the novel that I want to devour and bore into my notebook like I’m carving literature, then that isn’t “literary fiction.” Literary fiction is meant to be poetic, people.  That being said, just because an author writes a really strong, but slow, piece of literary fiction doesn’t mean all of their books will be literary fiction.  This is the delightful line that Karen Joy Fowler has found.  She has written books for the hungry and books for the masses.  Neither are better than the other, but she can be on the New York Times Bestseller and become dusty on the bottom shelf of the short “F” section of fiction.  I’m just kidding, bookstore employees so obviously Swifter the stiff spines of books.

@ Pinterest

What I loved about this book was that it followed every single rule and start-up that I learned in Creative Writing 101.    A lovely woman on Goodreads said, “Unlike most novelists, Karen Joy Fowler begins her eighth work of fiction smack-dab in the middle of the story.”  Quite the opposite though, writers who are taught writing are taught to always start in the middle.  No one wants to hear a story from the beginning.  I can hear McCorkle saying, “This is how you hook them, Cassie, you start in the middle of the story.  You start in the field, in the clearing, in the cellular store after the phone has been slammed against a bathroom wall, or dropped from the back deck.  Start in the middle.”  Rookiemag even wrote 10 rules for writers and the middle rule got stuck (guess where) at Number Four.   She also uses that rule that says, if you can’t find anything to write about just tell them what’s happening in the year of your story or poem.  The first week of college poetry writing, the professor had us write who we were in a sentence for each year.

1988: Womb-woven and jellied.

1993: Rubberband pigtails on the front stoop of a salty Florida morning.

2001: A thing, not a girl.

2006:  Two feet dangling from a car window.

2013: Defining swag as an acronym.

I won’t harp on this though.   There were so many things I loved about this book.  I loved that the characters shared names with major literary heroines.  I love that the family is fractured even in dialogue.  I love that it’s not a traditional story and the effects of brief animal cruelty were more profound than seeing it on the television.  When a writer can surpass the visual competitor, than she’s made it.  I love all the parts, but the whole just wasn’t enough.  I thought the journeys of the different characters were stereotypical and the end was predictable (as all happy endings are).  I was just disappointed in how much this story could have been and just wasn’t.  I think I was taking it too literally though because readers that I absolutely trust have loved this book.

@ Pinterest

It’s funny that Karen Joy Fowler states so obviously that she starts in the middle and the middle of this story drags and drags.  Harlow’s character is suspiciously annoying even in her final act in the story.  Actually, that final act in the story was completely undeserved.  She didn’t do enough as a character to insure her space in the story as such a vital component.  It would have been just as dire and emotional without the character of Harlow at all.  And believe me, I understand devastation coming out in the oddest places.  In this story, it comes out in the lost luggage and in my personal story of college numbness, it came out in my locking my keys in my car about 11 times in one year.

Sisters @ Pinterest

While I’m going to anger enough people already, I just want to point out that this is NOT as much Fern’s story as it is Rosie’s story.  Fern and Rosie are sisters, but Rosie’s story is nothing without Fern.  Fern’s story is made caged by Rosie.   Fern is drawn into the story only when it is important to Rosie’s discovery.  I’m not sure I’m getting at what I’m trying to say.  Rosie needs Fern to complete her story, but has removed her.  Fern needs Rosie to end her story.  Still not there, but maybe my heads just not in it at the moment.  It’s clear that Fern is an intricate part to the family issues, but she is given a disproportionate amount of space and as her character is (without ruining it) a bit of a strange duck, she isn’t given a voice. I absolutely refuse to accept that Rosie’s voice is meant to be Fern’s voice.

One thing that you can learn from this story that you won’t learn in Creative Writing 101 is how to write the truth by showing the lies and forgottens of all of the characters.  Somewhere between the hazy memories, hiding, big moves, and shady friendships, there’s a truth of love between a family that had to give each other up in order to find each other again.  (That may be the corniest finish to a review I’ve ever written.  This wasn’t one of my best anyway).

20 thoughts on “Karen Joy Fowler is a Rule Follower

  1. Farah Ng @ Broken Penguins says:

    I’ve never heard that tip about starting from the middle! Sounds like an interesting book but not sure if it’s for me. I tend to shy away from books about siblings. Maybe because I don’t have any (and it secretly devastates me).

    P.S. How do you teach newspaper?

    • Cassie says:

      I think this will just make you feel like you would suck as a sibling. I mean majority of the read, I was like “Man, I should really call my brother.”

      I’m running the student newspaper so my students are taught how to write different newspaper styles, apa style, layouts for newspapers and magazines, etc. Honestly, I’m driving the plane while I fly it because this is my second year teaching ever and my first teaching newspaper. So, it will be a challenge. I’ll let you know a different answer when I know the right one. Haha.

  2. Brianna Soloski says:

    My newspaper class was one of my high school (and college) favorites. In fact, I’ll be majoring in journalism when I go back to school in January. I know you’ll do fine.

  3. Angela says:

    The book sounds interesting, Cassie. I’d not heard anything about it.

    And girl, I’m right there with you — up to my ears in planning for my classes and waiting for the Calgon bath to take me away for a bit. Running out of time and running on empty — thanks for giving me a reality check. :)

    • Cassie says:

      Me too, sister. Ya know what- you can do it because until it’s the end, it’s not the end. So, I know you have more to give and more push. We will keep each other motivated and humble! :)

      • Angela says:

        Roger that! :) Keep on keepin’ on and all that. It’s so much work to do all the prep and then I end up changing things constantly as I get to know the kids… but I love it. You’re going to have a great year with newspaper. Can’t wait to hear all your stories.

      • Cassie says:

        That’s exactly what I do. I will start the week with all these big plans and then go home at night and find something awesome googling or just think of something that fits better. It’s wonderful to have that kind of flexibility at work.

      • Angela says:

        It is wonderful…and it’s also what keeps us from becoming talking heads up in front of the room, it keeps us human in our practice and keeps things interesting and alive for our kids. Love that! :)

  4. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    I love the premise of this book (which you’ve been very cautious about saying, so I won’t say it either) and probably wouldn’t have picked it up if I hadn’t heard, er, specifically what’s up with Fern. I’m reading it next month and am very excited.

    • Cassie says:

      I hope you really like it because I just couldn’t get all the way there with her. I thought something was missing. The emotional impact is strong though.

  5. bea says:

    You really have your hands full this year. Instead of planning for 9th grade English, you will be planning for 4 different classes…..EEEEEK!! I am sure that your brain is semi-fried at this moment, and yet you did find the time to read and review this book. That is a good thing, because you have found the time to do what you love, read and write.
    Thanks for the book review, it does sound like a strange book, but also a good one.

  6. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    All those extra classes are testament to your great talent, so congratulations Cassie and good luck with figuring out creative ways to keep some time for yourself, while remaining an inspiration to your students. The newspaper class and project sounds like a fab opportunity that will attract many enthusiastic minds like yours for sure.

    There’s nothing like pressure and feeling overloaded to make us come up with innovative preparation techniques. I remember sinking under the burden of preparation and realising that instead of printing and copying lots of things for my students (often that I didn’t need) I decided to send them the links so they could be responsible for bringing the necessary articles to class, suddenly I didn’t need to panic when the photocopier broke down or the ink cartridge had run dry! True, my students are mature motivated adults and have jobs in an office so may have better access to resources and be more inclined to do what the teacher asks, in your case I might perhaps bribe/hire a student to help. :) Good Luck & Bonne Courage!

    Reading your review reminds me that sometimes it is necessary to break the rules, following them might get us to the finishing line, but doesn’t necessarily guarantee inspiration or success. I don’t know the rules to creative writing, but starting in the middle of a situation and being introduced to the conflict or dilemma can pull in the reader, but must then keep up a moderate pace, how many books are abandoned in the first 50 pages, not by me – but I feel like I have heard that mantra too often to ignore it.

    • Cassie says:

      I’m going to post “Bonne Courage” really large in my classroom and wait for a student to look up what it means. YAY! You’re wonderful, darling.

      I’m going to try to blog a bit more about my teaching experience because I think I’m one of the lucky ones who found a job that I want to go to everyday (I’m ecstatic to go everyday) and who also can see the success in their job almost everyday. My students show me it’s the little things all the time and I just want to share their joy and mine. Plus, it’s damn hard being a first year, or just beginning teacher. I mean, I’m nowhere near where I want to be, but I want to talk about how it feels more and things like that here. So, Books & Bowel Movements & Blackboards. : ) You’re encouragement helps so much in this.

      Luckily, because of my new newspaper gig, I get 9 laptops in my classroom which is going to go so far in helping my students succeed and getting to where I’m killing far less trees. I think my 9th and 10th graders are going to be really lucky because they reap the computer benefits. WOO.

      I always read books until the end and if I don’t finish it then there’s some awful reason that I didn’t. I mean, I’ve been reading Swamplandia for like 8 months, but I WILL FINISH IT. Haha. I think I still love Karen Joy Fowler and I understand why people love this book and this review may be the outcomes of a book rut that I’m currently in. I just can’t find anything that’s breaking me open at the moment and I really rely on authors to do that. I guess I need to get back to searching. : )


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