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In Famous Last Words by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski, sixteen-year-old Samantha D’Angelo has death on the brain. Her summer internship at the local newspaper has her writing obituaries instead of soaking up the sun at the beach. Between Shelby, Sam’s boy-crazy best friend; her boss Harry, a true-blue newspaper man; and AJ, her fellow “intern scum” (aka the cute drummer for a band called Love Gas), Sam has her hands full. But once she figures out what—or who—is the best part of her...
In Famous Last Words by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski, sixteen-year-old Samantha D’Angelo has death on the brain. Her summer internship at the local newspaper has her writing obituaries instead of soaking up the sun at the beach. Between Shelby, Sam’s boy-crazy best friend; her boss Harry, a true-blue newspaper man; and AJ, her fellow “intern scum” (aka the cute drummer for a band called Love Gas), Sam has her hands full. But once she figures out what—or who—is the best part of her summer, will she mess it all up?
As Sam learns her way around both the news room and the real world, she starts to make some momentous realizations about politics, ethics, her family, romance, and most important—herself.
"A satisfying office romance set against the backdrop of tight deadlines and a changing media landscape."— Publishers Weekly
"A smart, compact, and pleasurable read." — Booklist
"Fast-paced, light entertainment." — School Library Journal
The Obit Page
Samantha Elisabeth D’Angelo, the Herald Tribune’s youngest-ever obituary writer, died Friday. She was 16. Born and raised in Chestnutville, New Jersey, D’Angelo would have been a senior at Chestnutville High School in September. She is survived by her fabulous-looking and infinitely cooler mother and father, Christina and David D’Angelo, and her quirky grandmother, Alfonsina D’Angelo. A funeral mass will be held Saturday at 9:00 a.m. at St. Rose of Lima Church. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Snore, the D’Angelo family foundation for other extraordinarily boring high school students whose lives are so dull, they make up their own obituaries.
I’m not dead. But sometimes I feel like I might as well be.
I stare at my computer screen one second more before quickly highlighting select all and hitting delete. I don’t want Bernadette, the copy-desk editor, to catch me screwing around with my own fake obituary when I should be working. My second day here, she dubbed me the bane of her existence because of my atrocious spelling. I’m now halfway through my third week, and our relationship hasn’t improved. Not even a smidge.
“How many obits we got so far?” asks AJ Bartello, the college intern who has been training me since the beginning of June.
“Only seven,” I tell him.
We’re having a slow day.
“If we don’t double that number soon, Bernie is going to make us write a freakin’ feature,” he says.
At nineteen, AJ is a two-year veteran of the obit desk and has earned the right to call our boss Bernie. She told me, however, that I must address her as Bernadette.
“Not another feature. I can’t make the so-how-did-you-feel-about-your-dead-husband phone call again,” I say.
Standard obits include the same basic information in the same order. Name, age, hometown, date of death, survivors, and services. But on days when there aren’t enough regular obits to fill the page, Bernadette picks the standout death du jour for a feature. That means we have to call a surviving family member, chat about the deceased, and gather enough interesting quotes to write a lengthy profile, complete with a photo. Yesterday, I made the mistake of asking her why we couldn’t fill the space with some famous person’s obit, someone outside our coverage area.
“Can’t we run an AP story?” I asked Bernie.
What good is having an international news-gathering agency at our disposal if we don’t use Associated Press wire copy on the obit page?
Bernie was irritated by my question. “AP reporters already know how to gather news. Their well-documented expertise dates back to the Mexican War,” Bernie said with a less-than-hospitable southern accent. “You’re here to learn something.”
So far, what I’ve learned is that most people are not feature-obit material. Take me, for instance. My life is definitely lacking superlatives. At school, I’m not the head cheerleader or class slut or teacher’s pet. Just one of the nobodies who will graduate in approximately twelve months without a special mention in the yearbook. I’m going to be seventeen at the end of the summer, and nothing big has ever happened to me. I’ve never tried illicit substances, engaged in premarital anything, or attended a prom. I don’t have a driver’s license yet, and I still sleep with a night-light. But if I keel over while I’m working here, I’d finally have some real headline potential: SAMANTHA D’ANGELO, THE HERALD TRIBUNE’S YOUNGEST OBIT WRITER, DEAD.
I glance at the clock in the corner of my computer screen. It’s already 3:15 p.m. Bernadette usually makes the feature call by 4:00.
“Moronica!” she yells across the newsroom. Damn. Bernadette’s not wasting any time today.
“She’s using the feminine,” AJ says without looking up from his terminal. “She means you.”
Harry Walters, the editor in chief, may be the big boss at the newspaper, but clearly, Bernadette is the boss of me.
“Does she call everyone Moron or Moronica, or just the people she doesn’t like?” I ask.
“For Bernie, it’s all the same. She doesn’t like people. She’s a riot during our annual sensitivity training,” AJ says.
“And she just gets away with it?”
AJ peers at me through glasses so ugly, they’re cool.
“She’s been here for, like, a hundred years. I don’t think Harry has the heart to fire her. Maybe he thinks she’ll just keep coming in anyway, like Bartleby. It’s like she holds up that wall behind her,” he says.
I glance over at Bernie/Bernadette, who’s inhaling a supersize meal. With spiky champagne blond hair and a substantial belly, she’s Heat Miser meets Ursula the sea witch.
“She’s certainly big enough. It wouldn’t kill her to lay off the fries,” I blurt out before covering my mouth.
I hope only AJ heard me. My inner monologue has been slipping out lately. I have to admit, though, it feels pretty good.
“Moronica!” Bernadette says again. “How many?”
Lucky for Bernadette, I also have an inner censor.
“Seven!” I yell.
“That’s not going to cut it. Come over here and give me a rundown.”
Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap, my mind screams. I take the ponytail holder off my wrist and pull my long, brown, style-resistant hair into a messy twist before heading over to the copy desk. I cut through the Nerf basketball court behind me, swing around the group of desks that serves as the features department, and arrive at her corner desk.
“Read me the list,” she says, only half looking up as she alternates between editing copy and taking bites of a greasy burger.
“Um, civil engineer, teacher, homemaker, pastry chef,” I say.
“Stop! The pastry chef—male or female?”
“Male. Does it matter?”
“Not really. Where did he work?”
“The Waldorf Astoria.”
“Let’s do him,” she says. “Call the funeral home and get a number for the family.”
“Okay,” I say, afraid to argue that we still have a couple of hours and some more obits might come in.
Even though I get a byline, it doesn’t compensate for the stomach pains that accompany merely thinking about writing feature obits. This probably sounds pretty bad, but I keep hoping more people in our northern New Jersey coverage area will die. Not a lot of people. Just enough to fill the darn obit page. Before I started working here, I got nervous every time I called Vinnie’s Pizzeria to place an order. Now I phone grieving families on a daily basis. It’s like I’ve been living my life in dog years.
As I recross the Nerf court, Harry bounces the orange ball off the back of my head.
“Still here, D’Angelo?” he asks. “I thought Bernie would have broken you by now. You’ve written a record number of feature obits since you started. Must be your name. People don’t seem to die when you’re at the obit desk.”
As I slink over to my seat, Harry starts singing “Hark, the Herald D’Angelo Sings” as he takes a jump shot. Lean, with unruly black hair and a goatee that’s turning gray, Harry looks more like an aging 1970s rock star than an editor.
I sigh and reach for my desk phone just as my cell vibrates in my pocket. I replace the receiver on its cradle and sneak a glance at my phone’s screen: a new text message. I’m sure it’s from my friend, Shelby. We haven’t been getting along so well lately, and I’m choosing to blame her. Apparently, prompted by the excessive consumption of Mike’s Hard Lemonade at a party in early June, she strutted (or maybe staggered) up to the most popular guy in our class, Rob McGinty, and confessed my longtime crush on him.
Ever since then, my bestie has been calling me relentlessly and begging forgiveness. Not only am I angry about her newfound party-girl ways, I’m pissed about how her drinking is affecting me. Rob lives in my neighborhood. What if I run into him? What about when school starts again? He has a girlfriend.
“You’re scowling,” AJ says, interrupting the cloud of fury building in my head.
“Am not,” I say. Now I’m a defensive first grader.
“Don’t worry. Harry likes you,” AJ says.
“How can you tell?” I ask. I don’t bother to correct his misread of my scowl.
“He talks to you,” AJ says. “You’re on his good side. I’d try to stay there if I were you.”
“Why? Is his bad side that bad?” I ask. I ignore a second text from Shelby. I can’t deal with her neediness right now.
“Bernie’s annoying but harmless. Harry goes off. We really need to keep one of those tranquilizer guns around here. You know, like the kind they use for rabid animals?”
“So far, he just seems a little goofy to me,” I say.
“Goofy? Where do you get goofy?”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe that collection of windup toys he keeps on his desk, next to his Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots?”
“And when he hired me, he told me to put my palms flat on the desk. Then he whipped out this rubber ink stamp and put a red armadillo on the back of each hand. It was just weird,” I say.
“Not if you’re a bouncer. Did he say anything?” AJ asks.
“He said, ‘Welcome aboard. Armadillos are my favorite animal. They’re so misunderstood.’ As if that explained everything.”
“I don’t know about the hand-stamp thing, but he once threw an AP style manual at the back of my head for not getting to the phone by the third ring,” AJ says. “Then there was the time he came storming out of his office and swept everything off a reporter’s desk. There were pens and notebooks flying everywhere.”
“What did the reporter do to piss him off?” I ask.
“Made a mistake on a big story. We had to print a retraction. Harry was like a polar bear on crack. He kept screaming, ‘Sloppy desk, sloppy reporting,’ over and over again. I seriously thought his head was going to spin around and we’d have to call in a priest for an exorcism.”
I sneak a glance at Harry, who’s happily playing basketball with Dan, one of the pressmen. Harry just seems like a fortysomething overgrown kid to me. AJ is not the type to exaggerate, though. With his nearly shoulder-length brown hair, ripped-knee jeans, and seemingly endless collection of classic-rock tees, AJ is the embodiment of laid-back. He’s starting his second year at Rutgers-Newark this fall, but I gather he’s more interested in playing drums with his band, Love Gas, than in working for the New York Times someday. Sometimes I think he might seem a lot cuter if he just tried a little harder.
The phone rings. Maybe it’s a funeral director with, like, seven or eight obits. That would be sweet. Then we can deep-six the pastry-chef feature.
“Obit desk,” I answer.
“You sound so friendly when you say that. It’s creepy, you know?”
Ugh. Shelby. Not sweet.
“Do not call me on this line. I told you that.”
“But when I call your cell, I don’t get to hear you say ‘obit desk.’ Besides, you’ve been screening me all day.”
“I’m busy,” I say.
“You’re not still angry about the Rob McGinty thing, are you? Because I thought I was helping, really. You’re always so afraid to talk to him, and I think you’d have a chance with Rob if you’d just—”
“Look, we’ll talk later, okay?” I say through clenched teeth. Please, oh, please let her summer job at the mall come through.
“You’re not going to let this ruin our last real summer, are you?”
“Not the last-real-summer thing again. I’m hanging up now.”
“Was that your spacey friend again?” AJ asks.
Shelby’s right about one thing, I’ve always been shy around most guys. Not AJ, though. On my first day, AJ and I did these mock interviews of each other as part of my training. The exercise lasted only an hour, but the Q&A between us never stopped.
“Yes, she calls the obit desk almost as much as your girlfriend, Jessica,” I say. “Call, text, do something. Communication is the key to any healthy relationship.”
“She’s not my girlfriend, she’s my … I don’t know,” he says.
“I’m sure Jessica appreciates you referring to her as your I-don’t-know.”
AJ just shrugs. “Things are unclear at the moment.”
“Right. I understand completely.”
I don’t, really. In fact, I’ve been trying to get a read on this situation since I started working here. AJ says this Jessica person is not his girlfriend, but he wears a black leather cord around his neck with a plain silver ring that looks, well, girlie. Is it Jessica’s? Would a guy wear a girl’s ring? Seems odd. When it comes to dating, though, what do I know? I’m more familiar with the surface of Mars (thanks to NASA’s excellent website).
We stare at each other for a few seconds before I continue. “Anyway, if Shelby calls on the obit line again, can you do me a favor and pretend you’re my boss and tell her you’ll fire me if she doesn’t stop calling?”
“No problemo,” he says. “If you didn’t sound twelve, you could probably do the same for me with Jessica.”
“Shut up,” I say. “Just be thankful no one can tell how short you are from the sound of your voice.”
“Short? I’m not short. Five-nine is average. Like you should talk.”
He’s right. People who are five-one should not throw stones.
“Sorry. It’s just that Shelby is making me insane. Her foreign-exchange-student boyfriend returned to his homeland, and she suddenly remembered she’s the yin to my yang,” I say.
“So, your friend turned into a total ho this year, and now you don’t like her?”
“Nooo. I told you. The party? She blabbed to that guy and made it sound like I was totally crushing on him. Plus, she abandoned me all year long while she strolled the halls holding hands and making out with Olaf,” I say.
Maybe I am. A boyfriend—and perhaps some help in the boobage department—would make it so much easier to navigate the slim passageways between high school social circles. If Chestnutville High is as good as it gets, I’m going to pull a Sylvia Plath. Last real summer? I’m still waiting for my first real summer. My first real everything.
“Why don’t you get started on that feature obit while I make a coffee run?” AJ says.
“Why don’t you get started on the feature while I make the coffee run?”
“Because I can drive through Dunkin’ Donuts, which is faster than walking to the deli. Plus, you’re a way better writer,” AJ says.
“Flattery will get you nowhere.”
“Yes, but my car will get me to Dunkin’ Donuts.”
“Fine,” I say, silently cursing the state of New Jersey for making the legal age to drive without an adult seventeen, and my guidance counselor for hooking me up with this summer job after my parents expressed their concern that working the Snack Shack at the community pool wasn’t challenging enough. Honor Society and Advanced Placement classes just aren’t enough for those two. It’s not easy being the sole offspring of two lawyers. A little sibling diversion would have been nice. Still, I’m a people pleaser by nature.
So in April I went to Mr. Arbeeny for some advice about finding a summer job that would look good on my college applications. I told him I like to write—my straight-A grades in all my English classes prove I’ve got some skills in that area. So Mr. Arbeeny mentioned my “flair for writing”—how very guidance counselorish of him—to his old friend Harry, and here I am. At first I was excited to have a summer job doing real writing. I’ve harbored secret dreams of starting my own blog for a while now. But, somehow, I didn’t anticipate I’d be fetching coffee for editors and writing about dead people all day.
On the upside, here’s what I’ve discovered: High school, if you live long enough, doesn’t mean all that much when you’re dead. Obit writers don’t get to say a lot about a life in four paragraphs. There just isn’t space to mention GPAs or SAT scores, honor rolls or varsity letters, Chess Club or in-school suspension. But were my life to end right now, at best my own obit would be short, like me. At this point, all I’ve got is a decent headline.
I search for the funeral home’s number so I can get the scoop on the pastry chef. I sigh and pick up the phone.
Oddly enough, even though I’m surrounded by death all day, this gig is tons easier than high school. I enjoy being the youngest person in the room. It’s like I’m the foreign-exchange student around here.
“Moronica! Where’s my feature?” Bernadette yells.
Except I’m not Olaf. I’m Moronica.
Text copyright © 2013 by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski
Posted December 25, 2013
The beginning drags a little and too many characters were introduced in general. I lost track of them sometimes. Otherwise, I loved the story. The ending is super sweet, and I couldn't put it down!
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Posted November 27, 2013
FAMOUS LAST WORDS is set over the course of one summer, my favourite time for YA contemporaries to be set. Samantha D'Angelo is sixteen and interning at her local newspaper, The Herald Tribune. We get to follow Sam from week one on her journey from obituary writer to investigative journalist star. This is her chance to live her dream and write the story of her life even if she doesn't know it yet.
Sam's story is much about personal development and growth. Writing obituaries proves to be not as bad as she thought. Her work at the local newspaper is teaching her to be more open and curious, also to stand up for herself.
Obits are not just some random collections about boring facts that have to be said about people who passed way. They are each a new chance to tell stories about lives, about people who affected us. FAMOUS LAST WORDS is about learning to appreciate every person, their varied lifestyles and knowing that every person's life can be special in its very own way.
The busy newsroom buzz immediately gets into your bloodstream, injecting you with that curious and restless energy that seems to be appertain to journalists. Readers will be offered a fabulous chance to spend time in a newsroom, learn more about publishing and the dynamics of its internal and external relations. You'll also be supplied with a dubious case that should make a brand new sensational story for the newspaper, newsroom jargon included. Get ready for a meeting with the The Herald Tribune's team. Hard shell, yet always encouraging boss Harry, busy detective type Michael, ally Meg, snappy editor Bernie, always friendly intern AJ, and of course immediate crush material Tony.
Unsurprisingly Sam's focus is all set on features intern Tony. But what about fellow intern AJ, the sweet and supportive guy at her side?
I totally wouldn't mind a sequel to FAMOUS LAST WORDS to see where Sam's writing skills take her and what's her life like on the romantic side. Her love story was like one big research task and sadly it took her some time- too much- to see the important facts that would help her find happiness.
Jenniver Salvato Doktorski puts great emphasis on family and friendship. Sam's parents and her best friend Shelby are always there for her. Sticking together, caring about the other, worrying, setting boundaries, but also giving room for your own decisions and experiences.
Relationships in FAMOUS LAST WORDS might not be as complicated as in other current YA contemps, but it's a definite upbeat and feel-good read.
4/5 **** FAMOUS LAST WORDS - Noteworthy YA news! A light-hearted and endearing story that should be next on your summer reading list.
The The Herald Tribune's newsroom is where you'll be wanting to spend your summer. See how stories are made, intrigues spun and what a sixteen-year-old intern is doing at the obit desk. There's so much motivation and energy buzzing through the newsroom that you can't but feel welcome to take a look behind the scenes of publishing.
All together, newspaper development and romance parts, the story comes along a bit too predictable. Nevertheless it's still a lot of fun and a YA contemp I'd always recommend as a light and cute summer read.
Posted July 27, 2013
I LOVED Jennifer Salvato Doktorski's debut novel HOW MY SUMMER WENT UP IN FLAMES but I think I actually liked this one more. I love the voice of the main character, Sam. She's funny, sweet, and sometimes sarcastic. I related to the way she felt like she was waiting for her life to begin and I thought it was awesome that her summer job writing obituaries was the way she found her place in the world, not to mention love. She even solves a mystery! I couldn't put this book down and the story stayed with me when I eventually did. Oh, plus there's lots of fun references to John Hughes films like THE BREAKFAST CLUB.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 25, 2013
Famous Last Words is the second book I read by Jennifer Doktorski, the first being How My Summer Went Up in Flames, a road trip contemporary that I immensely enjoyed. I was very excited for Famous Last Words and overall it was enjoyable, however I felt it appeals to a younger age group in comparison to her previous book.
This book is all about Sam and her internship at the newspaper. Sam loves to write however she is stuck writing obituaries till the end of summer. We are introduced to AJ, another intern, but a college student. You can instantly sense that there will be a romance however do not expect much, it is not a major part of the book. This book centers more around Sam finding her passion as well as her independence from her friends and getting over the limits she usually sets for herself. I liked how dedicated she was and how she went after whatever she wanted. That is a great aspect in an aspiring journalist. What I didn't like is the way she treated her best friend.. and I know her best friend is a bit ditzy and somewhat shallow at times, she is still her friend and the way she always ignored her didn't bode well with me.
There is a big story that Sam uncovers throughout the novel, however it isn't a personal one. Sam's life isn't messed up, she has two loving parents as well as a happy home life. You also get to see some banter from time to time between Sam and AJ but in the end, it is all about Sam's realization of what her true passion is as well as the direction she ends up taking in her educational life. Honestly, it wasn't a novel I was really invested in since I just didn't feel that there was much to invest in to. Overall, Famous Last Words was an enjoyable read, however don't expect too much depth from it.
Posted July 10, 2013
This is the second book by Jennifer Doktorski and I can only hope that a third will be on the way soon. Sam D'Angelo, the main character, is a very likeable teenager trying to find out where she fits in in her world. Her situations truly bring home the teenage years, with all of its ups and downs. I picked up the book as soon as it was released, because the author's last book "How My Summer Went Up in Flames" was a great summer read and I couldn't wait to read another of her books. "Famous Last Words did not disappoint. Although it is a YA novel, I know that it will appeal to all ages. Loved It!!!! Get yourself a copy and enjoy.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.