Tag Archives: clothes

Fat Girl by Jessie Carty #Poetry #Poems

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*This book is part of my 2017 search to find positive representations of fat women in fiction or nonfiction, and that positive representation will not hinge on weight loss and falling in love. Thus, books will either meet or not meet my criteria, which will factor overall into my recommendations. I purposely use the word “fat” because it is not a bad word. Using plump, curvy, plus-sized, fluffy, big-boned, shapely, voluptuous, or any other term suggests that fat is bad and thus needs a euphemism.


Fat Girl by Jessie Carty

published by Sibling Rivalry Press, 2011

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Though I don’t often read poetry because it’s not been the focus of my studies, I’ve come to realize that I know more about poetry than I think I do, and that my opinions on it are not worthless. I’m especially a fan of line breaks, clever rhyming (not the Hallmark stuff), and poems that make me want to do something. A fellow faculty member likes to say, “Poems have the power to change the world.” Well, I agree only to that extent when a poem changes my actions. A lot of what I read in college was alphabet soup burped up on paper, and I wasn’t behind that.

Carty’s poems aren’t gastrointestinal afterthoughts, but they don’t meet any of my other criteria for a good poem, either. The first poem, “Woman of Willendoff: The Artifact” threw me off immediately. She’s Willendorf, not Willendoff. This statue is often referred to as the Venus of Willendorf, but Carty writes, “She predated Venus mythology by millennia.”

Willendorf

Venus of Willendorf. Photo from Wikipedia.

A symbol of fertility, Carty asks how this woman, were she alive, “hold up an infant? Her tiny arms — crossed / over her chest — have no palms.” The focus on this fertile woman wanders to the statue’s hair, which reminds the speaker of “the weaving of baskets.” Strangely, the connection made next is to Easter egg baskets and looking inside “you” like an egg. Who is the focus — the fertile fat woman, or who “you” really is? At best, I  was left wondering what the point was.

The rest of the poems read more like thoughts, perhaps even ones I’ve had myself as a fat woman, with line breaks that don’t end on moments to create anticipation for the next line not to create alliteration, nor rhymes or slant rhymes. Poems included are “The Fat Girl on Grooming,” “Fat Girl’s Wedding Picture,” “Fat Girl on Air Travel,” and “Fat Girl at the Drug Store.” Each poem is very short; the collection is only 45 pages. What this means, though, is each word must have the weight of 20 to make such brevity matter. Instead, the “Fat Girl’s Wedding Picture” notes the bride’s off-white dress, her brown shoes with the low heel, the way she holds her bouquet by her hip. Very much an observation instead of something layered. The image itself, had the photographer considered lighting, tone, a theme, and angles, would be more meaningful.

Mainly, it was the way Carty succumbed to a chicken dinner approach to a fat woman’s body: pick it apart piece by piece.

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a) Separate the parts, b) Name them, c) Criticize

Big thighs are shameful, suggest promiscuity. Breasts inhibit the ability to bend over and trim toenails, are even cumbersome during an autopsy. Clothes are problematic: they’re too small, hard to find, or look just everyone else’s except they don’t because they’re on a fat body.

I’m staunchly against dissecting the fat female body like a frog in biology, and I’m starting to learn that writers, both fat and not, only see the bodies of fat women, and that fat women have brains that match their sad, fat bodies. One poem, entitled “I Love My Biceps,” looked positively at a fat female body. The arms still “sag and jiggle,” but the speaker is proud of them and is reminded of a fat art teacher whose biceps enabled her to sculpt clay like nobody’s business. Since the poem moves into an image of a strong woman working with her hands, I appreciated it more, it still picks one piece of the body and inspects it. Where are more of these moments of strength? Fat is not weakness, but even fat writers are reassuring everyone that it is, and that it’s all fat women think about: a deficit in abundance.

As a result, I don’t recommend Fat Girl by Jessie Carty, though her other poetry collections may be quite different.

Dietland by @QueSaraiSera #BookReview

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Dietland by @QueSaraiSera #BookReview

Dietland by Sarai Walker

published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. (2015)


*This book is part of my 2017 search to find positive representations of fat women in fiction or nonfiction, and that positive representation will not hinge on weight loss and falling in love. Thus, books will either meet or not meet my criteria, which will factor overall into my recommendations. I purposely use the word “fat” because it is not a bad word. Using plump, curvy, plus-sized, fluffy, big-boned, shapely, voluptuous, or any other term suggests that fat is bad and thus needs a euphemism.


Dietland is a book unlike any I’ve read before. When I read the end acknowledgements, I wasn’t surprised that Walker claimed Fight Club was an inspiration to her. The novel begins with Plum, a fat woman who can’t say “fat” who works as a ghostwriter for a huge media corporation. Plum’s job is to respond to emails sent by teen girls who write in to the magazine Daisy Chain with their various teen girl issues. The woman who runs the column, the gorgeous Kitty, hired Plum to write back to thousands of messages that don’t make it to the pages of the magazine. Plum is told to work from home (it’s suggested her “look” doesn’t fit in the media world). People laugh at and make fun of Plum, but she ignores them. Every day she heads to a cafe to sit and respond to emails. She does nothing else.

Until one day she notices a girl in colorful tights is following her. And everything goes insane. The girl points her to a feminist organization run by Verena Baptist.

Verena’s mother, Eulayla Baptist, had been a powerhouse in the diet industry (perhaps like Jenny Craig). Plum had been on The Baptist Plan when she was a teen. It was her dream to be thin, and Eulayla was the dream weaver. When Eulayla died, though, daughter Verena wrote a tell-all memoir about how awful dieting was for Eulayla: the fridge was padlocked, a cook was hired so she wouldn’t see food, she stopped going to restaurants and church and seeing friends. Eventually, she had her stomach stapled to save her diet industry.

Yet, Eulayla gave fat women thin promises packed in tiny low-calorie dinners and shakes that tasted like cardboard. And Verena shut down the diet industry her mother had created, leaving women and girls like Plum pissed.

This part of the book is interesting. It shows how women like Plum and millions of others put their faith in a diet and a spokeswoman who promise thinness, which means happiness. The employees who run the meet-ups and weigh-ins make promises and keep the dream alive. When Verena crushes the dream, women feel out of control of their lives. The feel like they’ll never be happy. Author Sarai Walker captures both sides of the dieting industry. I understand and relate to Plum’s dreams. I understand and relate to Verena’s work to expose the horrors of dieting industries. It’s also worth nothing that several real-life diet companies are not-so-subtly hinted at: Weight Watchers, Nutri-System, Slim Fast.

When Plum meets Verena in the present, about 15 years later, she’s still mad at Verena. Plum has bariatric surgery scheduled in a few months, but Verena says she’ll give Plum $20,000 to do the new Baptist Plan, which will change her life and mind about the surgery. Verena sets up difficult, sometimes humiliating tasks for Plum to teach her (sort of like V for Vendetta).

Unlike other books with fat women, readers know Plum weighs 304lbs. Bravo, I say. Authors claim they don’t give their characters a specific weight so readers can imagine themselves as the main character, but not every reader is a fat woman, nor should only fat women read books about fat women. Plus, we have this tendency to say:

I’m fat, but I’m not THAT fat.

Having an idea of what is “too fat” is basically setting up a cut-off mark for how acceptably fat a person can be. Some women say 200lbs. I used to say 400lbs, back before I thought more about weight and society. We’re saying we accept fat, but “Day-um! Not that much fat!” Don’t do that.

Dietland gets you thinking, a lot. At first, I didn’t like that Verena is thin and always has been. What does she have to say to fat women that is valid? But all women are attacked by a patriarchy. Things start happening around the globe; rapists are dropped from a plane, abusers are thrown off bridges, the media changes pictures of nude women to nude men in the same poses after family members are held hostage. The attacks seem in response to forcing women to be “fuckable,” either through sexual assault or images that perpetuate “fuckability.”

motorcycle

Verena thinks locally: she doesn’t help Plum see that fat is fine, she helps Plum see that all women are under attack. When Verena shows Plum how to be “fuckable” because that’s what Plum thought she wanted, Plum learns that being “fuckable” is exhausting: waxing, make-up, clothes shopping, tummy tucking underwear, push-up bras, hair and nail appointments, etc. When I read the pages in which Plum was getting made over, I was exhausted myself! Women can’t only be thin, the must behave, be sexy, be agreeable. Plum learns that thin women aren’t better off:

Because I’m fat I know how horrible everyone is. If I looked like a normal woman…then I’d never know how cruel and shallow people are. I see a different side of humanity. Those guys I went on blind dates with treated me like I was subhuman. If I were thin and pretty, they would have shown me a different side, a fake one, but since I look like this, I know what they’re truly like.

While the story is told from Plum’s point of view, the story isn’t totally about her. What she does is a larger message that ties into these feminist/terrorist acts around the globe. For instance, clothes. Plum had been buying small clothes for her post-bariatric surgery body. Fat is temporary, she thinks, and that’s why fat women keep old clothes they used to fit into and won’t buy new clothes. Eventually, she buys bright clothes and doesn’t apologize (fat women are told to wear black).

Most of us struggle with clothes. Why? Is it because we’re trying to look like someone else in the mirror? We worry about the number on the size tag? The message is your body is not on its way to Thin Town and this is a temporary stop in Fatville. You’re life is now; the body you have is the one you live in now.

Dietland reads like a feminist fat-activist companion novel to Fight Club and gets you thinking. Truth be told, I quit wearing make-up after reading Dietland when I confessed to myself it takes time to put on and runs in my eyes by mid-afternoon.

#AnneofGreenGables #20BooksofSummer #readwomen

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#AnneofGreenGables #20BooksofSummer #readwomen

When I reviewed Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, I was under the assumption that most of my readers had read it and thus included spoilers. Turns out, I was wrong! Anne of Green Gables (1908) by L.M. Montgomery is the beloved classic that has sold over 50 million copies world wide. Despite it’s success, I’ve decided to not include any spoilers — I’ve learned from my mistake! I want to add that I’ve seen the made-for-TV miniseries of this book many times; therefore, I knew the plot.

Green Gables is a farmstead located in Avonlea on Prince Edward Island in Canada. Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert are a brother and sister (a fact not blatantly stated until the very end) who never married or had children of their own, and thus they live together. They’re getting old, though — Matthew is 60 and has a bad heart — so they tell a friend who tells a relative who is going to an orphanage to pass along the message that the Cuthbert’s want to adopt a boy of about 11 to help on their farm. Not exactly a realistic way to initiate an adoption!

Terribly shy Matthew sets off in his buggy to pick up the orphan boy at the train station only to find a girl — a redheaded, skinny, freckled, highly-talkative girl! Will Marilla consent to keep her, when they don’t have any use for some girl? Based on the title of the book, you can assume yes, they do, but the delight of the novel is getting to know Anne and her strong personality, and seeing how people react to her.

Much like in the first chapter of Rebecca, there are numerous descriptions of foliage. Should a person not like Rebecca, it’s thanks to all those plants! The novel smooths out, though, and focuses mostly on rhododendrons and azaleas, which were easy enough to Google. But Anne of Green Gables has all the plant life — flowers, trees, and ferns alike — and it gets overwhelming if you’re like me and can name/recognize almost no plants. Thanks to the TV miniseries, I could picture Avonlea, though plant-lovers would rejoice in the words alone.

Many reviewers talk about Anne’s imagination (it’s huge) and her temper (it’s bad). I want to look a bit deeper at this book to give you food for thought. For instance, how we render children culpable unfairly. Notice that when Anne does something foolish, she is humiliated and must repent. Yet, many of the foolish things she does are the result of an adult’s misdoing. Example: Anne bakes a cake for the new minister and his wife, and she wants to do her very best! Despite a little cold, she bakes the cake with all the love she can muster. But it’s a disaster, and the cake tastes awful. Marilla scolds Anne to pieces, but it’s Marilla who filled an old vanilla jar with anodyne liniment (which, according to the National Museum of American History is not used for cake baking). Anne couldn’t smell the difference due to her cold, and label said vanilla! Other such blunders are Marilla’s fault, but Anne is repeatedly described as impractical, flighty, and sometimes bad. In the end, readers laugh at Anne’s mistakes, but the book also got me thinking about the way we treat children.

bad cake

Most everyone befriends Anne and finds her unique and delightful. While we’re told that she has very little formal schooling due to her orphan days, she’s very smart, creative, and uses a large vocabulary. Although I was totally enjoying Anne, I was also wondering if this book hurts the reality of orphans. Is everyone expecting the children they adopt to be the next Anne? I’m sure many children moved from home to home have deep emotional issues, mainly lack of trust and education (moving from home to home prevents regular schooling). It’s a romanticized novel for sure — why is Anne so smart without school or a stable home? — though when you are in the throes of Green Gables, it’s hard to care about reality.

In fact, you really need to let go of reality. Anne is friends with adults and children alike, and she has a “bosom friend,” the best friend ever, with whom she never ever fights or becomes jealous of.

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This disastrous 2016 combined with Anne of Green Gables made me on-again/off-again bitter. If only I moved to Canada, I thought, I could be happy and live a simple life. But that’s just silliness on my part. Avonlea (and Prince Edward Island) is so tiny that there is no diversity in Anne’s world. There are no people of color, LGBT characters, or families from anywhere beyond Avonlea (there are disparaging remarks about Arabs, French, people from U.S., Italians, even those from Nova Scotia). If people in Avonlea are fighting, it’s over small things, like whether or not they should say whatever comes to their minds, or be more tactful.

It doesn’t seem like I’ve said much nice about Anne of Green Gables. I think the magic of this book is that it’s escapism at its best, and it’s funny and endearing. I raced through the pages, sometimes letting my eyes go faster than my brain, requiring me to go back and re-read sentences. I was hungry to go faster because the book is so good.

Take for instance the characters. Two main characters are so stern that Anne’s creativity is sure to rile them up. There’s Mrs. Rachel Lynde:

“…for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed….”

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And then there’s Marilla:

“Here sat Marilla Cuthbert, when she sat at all, always slightly distrustful of sunshine, which seemed to her too dancing and irresponsible a thing for a world which was meant to be taken seriously.”

marilla

Compare these two stiff women to Anne:

“You’re not eating anything,” said Marilla sharply, eying her as if it were a serious shortcoming.

Anne sighed.

“I can’t. I’m in the depths of despair. Can you eat when you are in the depths of despair?”

“I’ve never been in the depths of despair, so I can’t say,” responded Marilla.

“Weren’t you? Well, did you ever try to imagine you were in the depths of despair?”

“No, I didn’t.”

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The shenanigans that ensue from the intermingling of these three personalities is worth the read alone! Anne of Green Gables is also very funny. When Anne falls off of a roof after being dared to walk it’s peak, bosom buddy Diana runs up:

“Anne, are you killed?” shrieked Diana, throwing herself on her knees beside her friend. “Oh, Anne, dear Anne, speak just one word to me and tell me if you’re killed.”

As if the dead can tell you they’re dead! Ha!

As Anne grows and matures and does her best in school and at home, she is recognized for her efforts. Mrs. Rachel Lynde says, “You’re a credit to your friends, Anne, that’s what, and we’re all proud of you.” And isn’t that a great feeling? I can’t remember a time in my life when doing good meant I reflected well on my friends. Competition to be the best is a selfish, angry beast, one we’ve cultivated to the extreme. For me, in high school, it was getting 1st chair violin, regardless of how well the orchestra did. In grad school, it was who wrote the best stories and published the most, despite writing not being a competitive activity. Even while blogging, I’m aware that we’re all working to have the most likes and comments and shares. I want to be a credit to my friends and community. And that’s the beauty of Anne of Green Gables. It’s an unrealistic world, but you want to emulate it to be a better person.

My copy is part of an eight-book box set released from Bantam Books in 1998. There is a map of Prince Edward Island and a brief biography of L.M. Montgomery in the back.

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#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th. Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore

Rebecca #20BooksofSummer #bookreview #readwomen

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Rebecca #20BooksofSummer #bookreview #readwomen

Welcome to my review of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier! Since this is an older book, published in 1938, I’m going to have lots of spoilers. I don’t feel bad about this, as many of you have mentioned how much you love Rebecca already. I’m also going to share images from the film, as images are awesome and the book and film follow each other fairly closely. But this is the book review.

My introduction to Rebecca came only recently. It all started with my immense hatred of the horrible movies coming out these days, which led me to my local library, where I began checking out old black-and-white movies like a crazy person. I skipped social events to watch them in the dark (you can’t watch black-and-white movies with the lights on. Everything looks wrong). And then I got to Alfred Hitchcok’s Rebecca, a gorgeous film with the indescribably expressive Joan Fontaine and the handsome (I can easily describe why) Laurence Olivier. I told my husband Rebecca is a ghost story with no ghost.

Rebecca

The novel begins with a narrator describing Manderley and how “we” can never go back. The wilds of nature have taken it over. To my knowledge, readers aren’t told who “we” is at this point. Then she explains how “we” sit in boring hotels and talk about boring subjects for the sake of their nerves, which are shattered at any memories of Manderley. Then, the narrator remembers how it all happened. Nice hook, du Maurier!

A young woman (our narrator), who is a twenty-one-year-old paid companion, travels to Monte Carlo with her employer, Mrs. Van Hopper, a gossipy, fat lady (my fellow fatties, please forgive me). There, the narrator meets Maxim de Winter, the forty-two-year-old owner of the renowned Manderley, an estate so grand it’s all anyone talks about. After Mrs. Van Hopper is laid up sick, the narrator is asked by Maxim to spend time with him. Over the course of a fortnight (that’s two weeks, folks), the narrator falls in love with him, and Maxim asks her to marry him (though he expresses no love). Should we be suspicious? Is this a shotgun wedding? Snoopy Mrs. Van Hopper certainly wants to know!

the naughty

As Mr. de Winter explains to Mrs. Van Hopper that she’s out  a paid companion, the narrator holds a book Maxim had loaned her earlier. It’s signed “Max from Rebecca.” Yes, that Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife who tragically drowned at sea ten months ago! The narrator, in an odd moment of defiance, tears the page out, rips it up, and lights it on fire. And now we’re done with Rebecca, right? Wrong.

She’s everywhere at Maderley. The servants tell the narrator how “Mrs. de Winter” did things (I put it in quotes because the narrator is also Mrs. de Winter). The woman who runs the house is the skeleton-like Mrs. Danvers, a villain in this novel, who mechanically obeys the de Winters but also schemes to get the narrator out of Manderley, even encouraging her to commit suicide! Maxim is distant, possibly because he’s twice the narrator’s age; the housekeeper is a sabotaging nutbar; and it’s always Rebecca, Rebecca, Rebecca. If only Maxim could stop loving Rebecca and love our poor narrator!

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Rebecca gets to be the title, and a woman, bur the current wife doesn’t even get a name, she’s so insignificant to Manderley. At twenty-one, she’s constantly referred to as “the child” because she’s half everyone else’s ages.

When they first met, the narrator expresses her love like that of a child:

“There’s a cold wind this morning, you had better put on my coat.”

I remember that, for I was young enough to win happiness in the wearing of his clothes, playing the schoolboy again who carries his hero’s sweater and ties it about his throat choking with pride, and this borrowing of his coat, wearing it around my shoulders for even a few minutes at at time, was a triumph in itself, and made a glow about my morning.

This scene was so familiar to me and recalled how important it was in high school to lay claims on your boyfriend’s sweatshirt, one that said his name so everyone would know you were involved. You felt like a superhero all day long in that sweatshirt.

Near the end, a sailing boat is discovered at the bottom of the sea near Manderley…and Rebecca’s corpse is in the bottom. Someone’s jabbed holes in the boat and the seacocks were opened, which you never open while afloat because the water pours in. Rebecca was an expert sailor. Was it foul play? Did she kill herself? Was she really just careless for one moment and the sea ate her up?

The pacing of the plot of Rebecca is, for the most part, spot on. Daphne du Maurier knows just when to summarize an event for us, like much of the time Maxim and the narrator spend together when they first meet. She knows when to let the plot linger. Maxim is convinced to have a fancy dress ball at Manderley, just like he and Rebecca used to do all the time, and the narrator decides her costume will be a surprise. Problem is, she can’t think of what to dress as! Mrs. Danvers suggests she copy one of the family portraits hanging on the wall, and the narrator thanks Mrs. Danvers for her kindness.

the costume

Unfortunately, as she descends the stairs on the day of the party in her costume, Maxim, his sister, and brother-and-law are shocked and appalled! It’s the same costume Rebecca wore to the last fancy dress ball! Dammit, Mrs. Danvers and your shenanigans! The narrator spends the whole night standing near Maxim, not talking to him and responding the same way to everyone who thanks her for hosting the party: “I’m so glad.” This “I’m so glad” scene goes on for several pages, lingering in this horrible moment during which Maxim is distraught and won’t comfort his poor, deceived young wife.

The ending, however, gets a little slow, and I wondered if I felt this way because in the movie so many things are squished together to make the ending speedy. Maxim reveals he shot Rebecca and stuck her in the boat, there’s an inquest, Rebecca’s death is ruled suicide, Rebecca’s favorite cousin calls foul play, the police get involved, they track down a mentally disabled witness, they play with the telephone a lot, they track down a key witness, wait a day, go to the key witness, talk to him, drive home, stop at a gas station….it was so long compared to the quick dashing around in the film, in which everything is resolved in one day.

Many of the pages of Rebecca are devoted to setting. It’s not hard to picture Manderley. The rose garden out the east wing, the angry sea at the west wing, the morning room, the library with the China cupid, the brazen rhododendrons up the driveway, Happy Valley and the azaleas, the shingle beach. In many books, so much description would seem extraneous to me, but in Rebecca, the appearance of Manderley is important, not only because everyone loves it so, but because it’s appearance is all due to Rebecca’s demands: where things were placed, which flowers grew, what to hang on the walls. It’s lovely, indeed, but our narrator doesn’t care for much of it, and the decorations only remind everyone of Rebecca, emphasizing the focus of the book — REBECCA.

Now we’ve come to my two favorite aspects of the novel: the characters, and the imagining. All of the characters are memorable, distinct, and unique. Bravo! Mrs. Van Hopper is the first memorable character. She’s a gossipy fake, whose “one pastime, which was notorious by now in Monte Carlo, was to claim visitors of distinction as her friends had she but seen them once at the other end of the post-office.” Our poor narrator is embarrassed by Mrs. Van Hopper, but “there was nothing for it but to sit in [her] usual place beside Mrs. Van Hopper while she, like a large, complacent spider, spun her wide net of tedium about the stranger’s person.” I almost lost it when I read “net of tedium.” What a funny way to think of someone! When Mrs. Van Hopper is saying something especially stupid, the narrator thinks, “…she ran on like a clumsy goat, trampling and trespassing on land that was preserved…”

Maxim’s older sister, Beatrice, is my favorite after the narrator. She says any and everything she’s thinking, and she’s antagonistic to her brother, like all siblings. After meeting the narrator the first time, Beatrice ends the visit with “Come and see us if you feel like it….I always expect people to ask themselves. Life is too short to send out invitations.” When the narrator and Beatrice travel (Bee driving at break-neck speeds), the narrator feels a bit down. Beatrice wonders if she’s been experiencing morning sickness, and the narrator tells her no. Beatrice continues:

Oh, well — of course it doesn’t it always follow. I never turned a hair when Roger was born. Felt as fit as a fiddle the whole nine months. I played golf the day before he arrived. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about in the facts of nature, you know. If you have any suspicions you had better tell me.”

And in that moment, thanks to her matter-of-fact personality, I loved Beatrice and her shame-free talk with her new sister-in-law.

Jack Favell, who is Rebecca’s favorite cousin and her lover, is a slinky, memorable guy, but also a “bounder” (thanks for that word, British friends!). When Favell explains to Maxim why he’s not embarrassed to admit he was sleeping with a married woman, his sexist nature rears it’s ugly head:

All married men with lovely wives are jealous, aren’t they? And some of ’em just can’t help playing Othello. They’re made that way. I don’t blame them. I’m sorry for them. I’m a bit of a socialist in my way, you know, and I can’t think why fellows can’t share their women instead of killing them. What difference does it make? You can get your fun the same. A lovely woman isn’t like a motor tyre, she doesn’t wear out. The more you use her the better she goes.

Even the way Favell drinks is unique to me: “Favell drank it greedily, like an animal. There was something sensual and horrible about the way he put his mouth to the glass. His lips folded upon the glass in a peculiar way.”

Jack Favell.gif

I’m not surprised the actor who played Favell also voiced Shere Khan in Disney’s The Jungle Book.

Have I ever told you that my imagination once almost killed me?

Yes, I was riding my bicycle up and down our long dirt drive way, which led to a dirt road. Up and down I went, and I began to imagine, though I don’t remember what. Suddenly, I found myself underwater, looking up into the sun beams shimmering through. (If you think I’m making this up, I have two witnesses). What happened: I was so deep in my imagination that I never made the turn at the end of the driveway and instead went right across the road, into the deep ditch full of water, and lay at the bottom with my eyes open (to think this is the only time I’ve had my eyes open under water). I didn’t breathe in water, I wasn’t destroyed by a car.

Long story short, I absolutely deeply relate to the narrator of Rebecca.

She’s constantly so lost in her imagination that whole mini-scenes play out. Frequently, she refers to how things would have happened in a book, but more often she imagines the scene. When she’s changing out of her costume — after the big humiliation of wearing what Rebecca had — into a new dress for the ball, she overhears the workers on the lawn who are checking bulbs on the party lights. She imagines the man’s continued narrative:

Later in the evening he would stand with his friend in the drive and watch the cars drive up to the house, his hands in his pockets, his cap on the back of his head. He would stand in a crowd with the other people from the estate, and then drink cider at the long table arranged for them in one corner of the terrace. “Like the old days, isn’t it?” he would say. But his friend would shake his head, puffing on his pipe. “The new one’s not like our Mrs. de Winter, she’s different altogether.” And a woman next to them in the crowd would agree, other people too, all saying, “That’s right,” and nodding their heads.

“Where is she to-night? She’s not been on the terrace once.”

“Mrs. de Winter used to be here, there and everywhere.”

“Aye, that’s right.”

And the woman would turn to her neighbors, nodding mysteriously….

“Of course I have heard before the marriage is not a wild success.”

“Oh, really?”

“H’m. Several people have said so. They say he’s beginning to realize he’s made a big mistake. She’s nothing to look at you know.”

And this scene continues a page and a half. The imagined voices stir up the narrator, she confirming her own worst fears: that she’s not good enough, that she’ll never be the real Mrs. de Winter, that everyone is judging her like “a prized cow.” If the narrator were real, we’d both have Xanax.

Rebecca is absolutely a must-read book. It’s funny, mysterious, vivid, tragic, and well written. I don’t often look for books to relate to me, but this one really did. However, the fears and anxieties of this curious younger person will relate to any number of people, regardless of their unique identities. My only hesitation is that if you decide to buy a copy, the Avon mass-market paperback edition has a dozen or more typos.

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#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th. Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffetaby Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore

Harley & Me #bookreview #readwomen #harleydavidson #20BooksofSummer

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Harley & Me #bookreview #readwomen #harleydavidson #20BooksofSummer

Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy

published by Counterpoint Press, May 2016

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Harley and Me is a memoir about what it means to take risks. For Murphy, her risk-taking most noticeably began when she was a skateboarder in California. But a teen pregnancy followed by her baby’s adoption led Murphy into the arms of safety: marriage at 22 to a stable guy, 3 kids, house, university job, and what she calls a blanket of estrogen that kept her from doing anything too risky. But at 48 and contemplating divorce, Bernadette Murphy feels something unusual — something she wouldn’t image over the past 25 years of wife and mother — she wants to be fully alive, fully present, and not risk averse. Furthermore, she doesn’t want to do a “song and dance” to please men anymore.

I’ve been a passenger on motorcycles for 26 years. My parents have been riding my whole life. Before that, it was my paternal grandparents. You could say it’s a family thing! Go through my thousands of family photos and you’ll find dozens of motorcycle pictures from through the years, including strangers’ motorcycles (hey, if a bike looks good, you never want to forget it).

Far left: me leaning on my brother’s motorcycle circa 2004. Going to the right is my dad, brother, and granny on their newest rides circa 2016.

But Harley and Me is about a middle-aged woman getting a motorcycle, which isn’t terribly common — unless you’re my mom. Which is why I felt a great desire to read Murphy’s book when it popped up in my Twitter feed. I wanted to see how other women with nearly grown children felt about driving a “death machine,” as some paranoid people call them (as if we don’t die in cars).

Left: my sweet ma as passenger in the early 80s. Right: 4 motorcycles and 120,000+ miles later, my sweet ma today with her own award-winning motorcycle. I love the skeleton hands on the mirror!

Murphy really captures what it means to start riding a motorcycle. Her good friend Rebecca inherited a Harley dealership, which is how Murphy is lured into signing up for her motorcycle license. First, she must attend a week-long class. While most people have down the “look” of a biker (and I see this all the time — people who don’t own a motorcycle but do own an entire closet of leather and Harley-Davidson T-shirts), Murphy feels she does not. She shows up to class:

In baggy men’s Levi 501s, a stained T-shirt, gardening gloves, and hiking boots. I look more like a hired hand than a biker chick. At this moment, I’d love a pair of killer motorcycle boots.

Because I get what Murphy is saying about “the look,” I really enjoyed her descriptions and comparisons. Even when she dumps her bike the first time, she makes the scene come off the page:

I sit on the curb in front of the gas station’s convenience store. My hands shake. My mouth is dry. It feels as if all my blood has been exchanged for electricity. I am awash in shame. I don’t look like the badass biker chick I’m trying to become, but some kind of poseur who can’t control this machine, a pathetic girl trying to do something beyond her ability.

Here, I really felt for Murphy. Though pretty much everyone dumps their bike at one time or another, a woman doing so with witnesses serves as evidence that motorcycles are just “too much” for women. It’s scary to face those people shaking their heads, Murphy notes, wondering if she’s gone crazy and this is her mid-life crisis. A year later, she is divorced,and people wonder if the “crisis” caused Murphy to give up stability and comfort. The ability to take a chance, change her life, and try something brave had me nearly in tears for how safe and squishy I want to make my own life — truthfully, I felt like a wuss.

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Harley and Me provides plenty of commentary on feminism. Sometimes a whole book on feminism can be great, but when it’s woven into a personal narrative, the author can accomplish connections that might otherwise seemed forced. For instance, Murphy shares her love of Fonzie. Later, when talking to a male biker, he says he wishes he were the Fonz, and Murphy says she wanted to date the Fonz. But as the conversation changes direction, Murphy boldly confesses:

Actually, I take that back….I wanted to be Fonzie, too.

If Fonzie is cool, powerful, and slick, is he only a role model for men? Murphy proves no, and again I related to her inner complications about assigned gender roles. I often wished I had the power and energy and chaos that the men in my favorite rock bands, like the guys in Metallica, or Chris Cornell, or Tom Morello. Don’t we all wish to be seen and in control? For women, being seen is harder than men might think. We’re either invisible or on display like a prize cow.

Murphy breaks down stereotypes of women on bikes and how she doesn’t fit:

Just to get on a bike is to break prescribed gender roles even in this postfeminist age. By taking it one step further, refusing to be constricted by the typecast of the sexy biker mama or the hard-ass butch rider, is to accept one’s true sense of self. I like my motorcycle simply because I like to ride.

Her examination of stereotypes comes up again and again when she notes that her friend drives a pink motorcycle with Barbies attached to the sides, so everyone pays attention to her (and wants pictures). At biker events, women are almost always on the back (known as the “bitch seat” in biker culture) and are sure to have lots of skin showing, riding along in ridiculous spiked heels. After her divorce and bonding experience with her motorcycle, Murphy realizes she has a strong libido, and that to embrace it is not promiscuous or doing men a “favor,” but has to do with sex in biker culture.

There is a lot of useful information in Harley and Me, but this isn’t a book about discovering the love of riding. It’s about risk-taking. Murphy shares many (perhaps too many) articles and studies on the effects of taking risks on brain chemistry, how we strive our whole lives to create safety, but when safety is assured, our brains grown sluggish. We lack the brain chemistry that comes from risks, like learning a new language, taking up an instrument, sky diving, competing in a sport, getting a new job, dating, changing homes — or riding a motorcycle. I felt less wuss-like when I learned that “risk” isn’t defined by the activities from the X-Games; it’s what we personally consider risky.

I appreciated all the research Murphy did, but it really slowed down the memoir. Chapter 8 was terribly slow when she explained risk taking in a scientific sense, because she keeps explaining it. Basically, once we do something that makes us anxious because we took a risk, we get a hit of feel-good chemicals and want to do it again. This concept is restated at least a dozen times over the next 150 pages.

Part of reinforcing the theory that taking risks has made Murphy a dopamine fiend comes from personal evidence. There are many scenes in the 3rd part of the book: Murphy living in French Polynesia for three months, Murphy running a marathon there, scuba diving in the ocean, paddle boating, rock climbing, ice climbing. Each example comes with its own descriptions of how afraid she was, how she knows she can conquer fear, and how taking the risk will make her take new risks because she received those feel-good chemicals. Science was scattered throughout this section, too, and the book got so repetitive that I was forgetting the focus was Murphy’s relationship with her Harley-Davidson. I felt impatient and spacey.

The book ends with Murphy reiterating all the risks she’d experienced (though I’d just read them!) and taking a blood test to see if riding a motorcycle increases oxytocin. It was more science to prove that riding a motorcycle changed her life because it changed her chemistry, but I didn’t need it. I wanted more personal insights, more intense description that came earlier in the book, both when she described her current life and childhood. Including the numerous typos I spotted, I felt a stronger editor could have culled the best parts and made this into an educational, inspiring, feminist memoir.

I want to thank Bernadette Murphy and her publicist at Counterpoint Press for sending me a reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review. To learn more about Murphy’s writing, please check out her Meet the Writer feature!

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#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th. Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  4. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (*might change ranking due to when book club meets)
  5. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  6. Of Zen and Men by Robin Stratton
  7. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  8. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  9. The Thirteenth Earl by Evelyn Pryce
  10. Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
  11. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper (*might change ranking due to when book club meets)
  12. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of Avonlea
  14. Anne of the Island
  15. Anne of Windy Poplars
  16. Anne’s House of Dreams
  17. Anne of Ingleside
  18. Rainbow Valley
  19. Rilla of Ingleside
  20. The Brothers Karamzov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

 

Only Ever Yours #bookreview #readwomen #YAlit

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Only Ever Yours #bookreview #readwomen #YAlit

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

published by Quercus in 2015

procured from the library

At a chunky 406 pages, Only Ever Yours is longer than I usually like to read for Grab the Lapels. However, in a search for friendship, I found a book club in my area advertised online. I was in luck; their next meeting would be 9 days later, and many of the books they had read, such as Furiously Happy and Between the World and Me, I had read too. The library, I discovered, kept O’Neill in the Teen section, which is when it dawned on me that Only Ever Yours is a young adult book. What’s the big beef, you might ask? While I don’t condemn young adult literature, I find that most of it takes societal problems and makes the issue so obvious that the book feels like a JUST SAY NO campaign. Why read YA when I can get my hands on the more nuanced adult versions? I know that YA is often an issue of sellers labeling a book a certain way, but when there are billions of book choices, I’m not really willing to take the chance.

Basically, without my new book club, I would not have picked up Louise O’Neill’s novel.

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This was the cover of my library copy

Only Ever Yours is a dystopian book about women and girls (called eves). They are genetically modified and hatched in a school for the use of men and boys (called Inheritants). These girls are brainwashed through propaganda for 16 years to follow mantras, like “I am pretty. I am a good girl. I always do as I am told” and “I am happy-go-lucky” and “I am appealing to others. I am always agreeable.” Whether they become a wife who bears sons, a concubine, or an unsexed teacher in the girls’ training school, they are told to be grateful that they weren’t naturally born and conceived, because girl babies are thrown in graves. Girls and women are property, totally at the disposal of a man’s desire to procreate or get off. The unsexed school teachers are not necessary, we’re told, but they’re important because they dispense the training to be wives and concubines. Their 16th year of life, the eves are told which role they will play. Whatever a girl’s role, it is expected for boys to get married and have a lot of sex with various women.

There are rules for eves:

All eves are created to be perfect, but over time they seem to develop flaws. Comparing yourself to your sisters is a useful way of identifying these flaws, but you must then take the necessary steps to improve yourself. There is always room for improvement. — Audio Guide to the Rules for Proper female Behavior, the Original Father

The focus on Only Ever Yours is the girls about to graduate school, at age 16.  To maintain the perfect weight (about 118 lbs) they all have eating disorders aided by pills. The main character is freida, #630. Each week, she and the other eves are ranked by how attractive they are. The top ten eves are most likely to secure a wife role. While eves have zero choices, because choices mean being burned on a pyre or experimented on —  Inheritants don’t have to compete for anything, so they are spoiled, fat, greedy, and demand sex. I kept thinking this whole society is driven by the throbbing penis.

The characters in Only Ever Yours are terribly familiar. If you’ve ever been a devoted fan of the Sweet Valley Twins books like I was, you’ll remember the cast: Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, perfect size sixes, matching golden blond hair, blue-green eyes. No one can tell the twins apart, except their family and dearest friends. Only Ever Yours has Liz and Jessie, “exact replicas” with “golden-blond hair” and “aqua-colored eyes.” If you’re thinking, the eves are genetically modified…how did they get twins? then I would say, I know, right?! The only explanation seems to be that the parallel between the two books was what Louise O’Neill was going for.

Just like in Sweet Valley, Only Ever Yours has a “bossy bitch,” a girl who wants to better than everyone else. In Sweet Valley, we’re talking about Lila Fowler. In O’Neill’s novel, it’s megan. Such girls give compliments like, “You’re so brave for wearing any old thing! I admire that!”

The eves in this book are painfully annoying because all they focus on is what they look like. This is how they’ve been trained their whole lives. They’re ranked by appearance. There are mirrors everywhere. They are weighed. One person hit 125 lbs, the FATTEST anyone’s ever been!! Then, I think back to Sweet Valley. The first book, Double Love, opens with this paragraph:

“Oh, Lizzie, do you believe how horrendous I look today!” Jessica Wakefield groaned as she stepped in front of her sister, Elizabeth, and stared at herself in the bedroom mirror. “I’m so gross! Just look at me! Everything is totally wrong. To begin with, I’m disgustingly fat….” With that, she spun around to show off a stunning figure without an extra ounce visible anywhere.

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Double Love, September 1984

And the eves in Only Ever Yours are exactly the same way. There’s the teeter-totter of competition for prettiest, but the recognition that both concubines and wives are part of society and please men.

Honestly, I can’t tell the eves apart. freida says the eves are “almost interchangeable.” The diversity, she points out, is in “skin tone and hair color.” freida is brown, but her color is only mentioned about 4 times. At one point, frieda’s skin is compared to that of an Inheritant named Mahatma. Perhaps she’s Indian, I thought, but remembered the eves all look exactly the same. There’s no ethnicity.

But as frieda takes more and more drugs to help her sleep, she feels that she looks terrible. Is that true? I’m not sure. Like Jessica Wakefield, most eves think they look terrible (except megan). freida is our biased, brainwashed narrator. One way O’Neill tells us eves are different is by their clothes — so. many. clothes. But I don’t know kitty heels and sweetheart necklines, so it didn’t mean much. And do clothes matter on identical perfect bodies?

Half of the book is backstabbing, manipulating, and alliances created between eves. It’s catty. It’s Sweet Valley Twins galore. Girls record any tiny wrongdoing a fellow eve may commit and immediately post it on social media. I kept telling myself the author is doing this on purpose. Just go with it. It’s a brilliant choice the author made to showcase contemporary jealousy and female objectification. But, ew.

Eves are told how NOT to feel: no crying, no loving boys, no persuading boys. Eves don’t even see Inheritants until a couple of months before the big ceremony. At the ceremony 16-year-old dudes just choose 16-year-old girls to be wives based on their smokin’ hot bodies. O’Neill suggests, this just means give birth to sons and feeling superior to the concubines, who were not ranked top ten. The arrival of the boys is actually where the story gets interesting because there is less focus on hotness rankings.

The author effectively plays with the reader’s feelings. We know who the top-ten hottest eves are. But after the boys show up, eves aren’t ranked anymore. They aren’t allowed to tell the boys how they were ranked. Why? Competition kept them fit and working hard to please, perhaps? Enter Darwin: he’s the only handsome Inheritant, and the son of a judge. He’s the Bruce Patman (if you’re still following my Sweet Valley Twin comparison). Darwin shows interest in our scrappy freida — it’s like there’s some Todd Wilkins mixed in there! Hooray, I thought! Darwin can save freida! Things can turn out okay! HE’S NICE.

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Bruce Patman VS. Todd Wilkins — same person?

Um, hello? Hey, self? Yeah…since when are we interested in a boy saving a girl? And ultimately, isn’t he going to use her body to have sons while having porno relations with concubines? And isn’t he going to set her on fire when she turns 40?? And isn’t she trained to be okay with all of this??? I actually rooted for Darwin and freida for ages before my brain caught up with me. The eves are so emotionally and sexually abused (and they don’t know it) that I thought a good old-fashioned romance between teenagers was the answer. The ending of Only Ever Yours was unpredictable. It kept changing directions, which kept me interested.

If I wanted the grown-up version of this book, I could have read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. But that’s not what book club picked. Despite the aspects that annoyed me — and let’s be fair; they were necessary for the story — I would recommend Only Ever Yours.

Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology

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Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology

Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology

edited by Donna Jarrell and Ira Sukrungruang

320 pages

published by Mariner Books, Jan 2005

Donna Jarrell’s and Ira Sukrungruang’s anthologies (they also have a fat fiction anthology — see below) have become important to me. Fall of 2013 I taught from the fiction anthology as part of a Contemporary Fiction class. None of my students were even chubby, let alone fat, so the anthology meant little to them–at first. I found that some of them were so thin because they had obsessive parents. One young man’s father was obese and constantly trying to work it off. Another your woman’s mother was a personal trainer who warned over and over the dangers of eating the “wrong foods” and becoming fat.

However, when I read this nonfiction anthology, I felt a deeper connection because these were real people explaining in words that I often couldn’t put together the way they felt about fat. The authors are not all fat or obese; some are quite thin, but write to explain how they feel about seeing or being with fat people.

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Donna Jarrell

In “Letting Myself Go,” Sallie Tisdale weights about 165 lbs, a weight many fat people would kill to be. She is a frequent dieter. She notes, “The pettiness is never far away; concern with my weight evokes the smallest, meanest parts of me. I look at another woman passing on the street and think, At least I’m not that fat.” I myself have had such thoughts, and so Tisdale made me consider how I internalize the bodies of others.

Natalie Kusz writes in “On Being Invisible” that she takes up more space, but is less seen. She points out, “The fact is, the old racist attitude that ‘all black (or Asian or Latin) people look alike’ also applies to fat people, with the same main corollary: We look alike to other beings because they cannot see us at all.” I was surprised by this comparison and began to reassess the way I look at people I see who take up more room. Do I look away? Do I see these people as all the same because they have one shared quality?

“Tight Fits” by Ira Sukrungruang is more like a guide with examples. How does an obese person get around the challenges of getting into small places, like airplane seats or sacred temples in Thailand. The goal seems to be to avoid embarrassment, and I felt embarrassed that I’ve considered such tactics myself (only in different scenarios). The accommodations for others can feel endless when you are abandoned for being “too big.”

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Ira Sukrungruang (pretty much the only man allowed on Grab the Lapels so far)

Atul Gawande describes “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Eating” from a doctor’s point of view. Gawande is always concerned that his patient will regain all of the weight lost after gastric bypass surgery. It turns out that he learns the patient is also concerned. Is this problem bigger than his desires? I really liked seeing the exchanges between the doctor and patient outside of the hospital because the doctor could give facts from a medical standpoint while still engaging with the human patient who fears for his life and wonders how quality it can be if he remains morbidly obese.

I thought it was a fantastic choice on the part of the editors to put Sondra Solovay’s piece “Now You See Me, Now You Don’t” right after Gawande’s essay. While Gawande describes the high success rates of G.B. surgery and how it is the best option medical science has, Solovay points out immediately that she had a friend who was 310 lbs looking happy in on the steps of a pyramid in El Salvador. And how that friend had G.B. surgery and died. What this achieves is showing readers that no matter which option is the best in terms of losing weight, they can all be dangerous. Should the 310 lb friend have continued her life at 310 lbs? A friend of mine who had G.B. surgery and became pregnant and then regained most of the weight pointed out to me that she cut up her insides to get society to look at her. She has a lot of health problems now, and I’m not sure how long she’ll be a mother to her toddler.

Steven A. Shaw celebrates being a chubby man in “Fat Guys Kick Ass.” This is mostly a list of ways that fat guys are better lovers and boyfriends who are stronger but more peaceful. This is a very fun-loving piece that makes me rethink what others feel internally. Not all fat people feel bad inside, I must remember.

Many other readers have commented on the remaining essays (written by giants like David Sedaris and Anne Lamott or that describe a thin person’s hate for fat individuals, like Irvin Yalom or the “hoggers”), but one that struck me was “Fat Like Him” by Lori Gottlieb. She was so happy when she didn’t know that Tim, who was on the other end of her email, was fat. When they are together, she is embarrassed that people will think she’s with him and she calls him a friend. At home, though, they have fantastic sex and she is very happy with him. However, I read that Gottlieb’s essay is mostly untrue. This could be the result of her stretching the truth, or it could be that her ex is humiliated, and why wouldn’t he be? This is the sort of thing that really requires prior approval since the situation is so specific (no one will not know who this guy is in real life whether we call him “Tim” or not).

Overall, this book made me assess myself and the way others perceive me and the way I perceive them, regardless of size, but with fat in mind.

My quick thoughts on the What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology

The stories in this collection were really great. When I read the title of the anthology, my first thought was the Raymond Carver story “Fat,” and it was in there. BUT! I kept wondering…is this all there is out there in terms of “fat-fiction”? No one else writes any? Makes me want to write more of it…also makes me wonder if people don’t really want to read it and that is why I can’t get any published. Also, I’m really surprised that most of the reviews of this book comment that the reader expected this to be an uplifting anthology. It can be really difficult to turn a physical/psychological problem into something feel-good. I wasn’t expecting that at all.

Anonymity

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Anonymity

Anonymity
by Janna McMahan
Koehler Books, 2013
291 pages

“I guess I just never really thought about how they live. I mean I’ve been downtown for years, and I supposed I just sort of think of them as background noise. You know they’re there, but you just tune them out.” These are the words of Emily–a twenty-something who is a bit directionless, single, and worried she isn’t keeping up with the young women with whom she graduated–when she learns more about the homeless youth in Austin. You see, Austin is a place that has a great party scene, and working at a bar and being promiscuous suits her just fine; she doesn’t care that she’s different from her corporate America-loving parents. Really, Emily’s made her own choices, and I say, “more power to her and her happiness.”

But when she’s made aware of the homeless youth population in Austin, she can’t look away ever again. Children who are living on the streets because they are mentally ill and their parents can’t deal with it; kids who aged out of the foster care system; kids who leave home because they have younger siblings and want to be less of a burden on their parents in a down economy. Janna McMahan shows the reader an in-depth look at the homeless youth to give them a better idea of why it happened, why the kids are tattooed, if they use drugs, and how they survive.

McMahan plays off of the reader’s expectations and shows us we’re wrong. Meet Lorelei, a young girl who arrives in Austin. She’s starving; she’s alone. When Austin is flooded and Emily, on her way to her own parents house in a safe area, finds Lorelei, “Emily couldn’t, absolutely wouldn’t take this girl to her parents’ house.” Who knows if Lorelei is a thief, violent, a drug user, “Crazy”…Here, Emily echoes our own thoughts. It’s really impossible to trust Lorelei to the point where she actually began to annoy me. When Emily takes Lorelei in for a few days, when David (the man who runs the homeless youth shelter) tries to give her a place to stay, when she runs away and tells others she doesn’t need them (clearly she does if she’s taking things from them): Lorelei can be completely frustrating and hard to understand. Even worse, she adds that her mother used to take her shopping at the mall and send Lorelei to summer camps, so the reader is left to believe that Lorelei is a selfish, ungrateful girl.

Emily’s mother Barbara serves as a foil to the homeless youth. She acknowledges that she and her husband bought things at a rapid pace, but when the economy collapsed, they were left with debt. In order to survive, she and Gerald must forge ahead, but they don’t do a great job. They’re still trying to pay off three cars, one of which is an enormous SUV. Essentially, because Barbara and Gerald have credit, they are able to remain in a home. Barbara is critical of the “gutter punks” with their facial tattoos, piercings, and bad smells. She tries to be helpful when she launders Lorelei’s clothes after the flood, but for the most part she talks badly abut the girl while she’s not around (what kind of person destroys her whole life by getting a tattoo on her face).

McMahan masterfully leads the reader to this place in order to prove her wrong. It isn’t until near the end of the book that the real reasons for Lorelei’s homelessness emerge, which left me feeling like a bad person, like I am just like everyone else who walks by children without a place to eat, sleep, or be loved. Homelessness continues to be a problem (of course), and Anonymity doesn’t pretend to solve the problems put forth in its pages, which makes this mainstream novel a more challenging read for those who might not have expected to be enriched.

Meet the Writer: Liz Prince

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Please be sure to check out my review of Tomboy on Grab the Lapels!

In Tomboy you depict yourself as a child drawing comics. When did you realize comics were something you could do as a job?

I’ve been pretty solely focused on drawing comics since I was 9 or 10 years old; before that I wanted to be an animator, (and before that, as referenced in Tomboy, I wanted to be a cartoon character), so cartooning in some fashion has always been a goal of mine.  It’s pretty cool that I actually did manage to be a cartoon character when I grew up, by drawing comics about myself!  3-year-old Liz would be in awe (or she would insist that it doesn’t count—who knows with 3-year-old logic).

Artist Liz Prince

It isn’t until you’re a teenager and you attend an alternative school that you find people who make you feel like you can be yourself. Do you think people who struggle with fitting in should try alternate education facilities? Or should teens look for a group within their own schools?

I think the benefit of alternative schools is that they tend to have a smaller student body, which means that there is less chance for there to be an overarching status-quo that kids are expected to conform to.  Not having organized sports and that culture of hierarchy definitely seems to keep an even keel in terms of who is valued as a student, but that isn’t to say that positive social situations don’t exist in larger educational institutions!  I feel like it really is wholly dependent on the student and the situation.

You note in Tomboy that having a boyfriend makes things easier because people aren’t questioning your sexuality. Help us all out: what is it that makes finding someone to date so darn hard? Are we just looking for that validation from our peers?

Well, that was a very specific to me situation, in that because of the way I dress and present myself, people have always assumed that I date women, when in actuality I have always been romantically attracted to men (or in the case of Tomboy, boys). It felt important to point that out, because it is a very damaging side effect of our gender stereotypes, that we have stereotypes for folks who don’t fit the stereotype!

I do think that a lot of what we consider to be romantic conquest in our teenage years is based more on what we’ve gleaned from pop culture, and less on what we actually want from a partner, but that’s totally understandable because dating gets easier with experience, and most people’s experience level when they’re 15 years old is very low.  Basically, I look back on my romantic experiences in my teen years as a total facepalm: it doesn’t mean I didn’t genuinely like the boys that I dated, but most of those relationships weren’t really all that beneficial to me beyond having someone to make out with (and hey, sometimes that can’t be discounted as a total PLUS).

Do you have many lady friends in the graphic novel/comics scene? What are they like?

Yes!  Nicole J. Georges (Calling Dr. Laura, 2013), Corrine Mucha (Get Over It!, 2014), Whit Taylor (Madtown High, 2013), Ramsey Beyer (Year One, 2012), Raina Telgemeier (Sisters, 2014). They are all totally inspirational to me, and it’s a bummer that most of them don’t live in the same city as me, because my favorite times of the year are when we’re together at a convention.

Whom did you picture as your audience when you were writing Tomboy?

Tomboy is the first book that I’ve written where audience really came into play, since I was writing it for a publisher that specializes in books for teens.  At first I was pretty stunted by the idea that this book had to conform to some sort of code of what is “acceptable for young adult readers,” but I pretty quickly decided that I would just write the book the way I wanted to write the book, and worry about what was or wasn’t “acceptable” if it came up in the editing process, and surprisingly, nothing ended up on the chopping block!  That book is pure Liz, no pandering, and I’m really proud of it.

The first comic you drew that you were really proud of: what was it about?

Haha, if you ask me now, I’d say it’s called Tomboy, and it’s a memoir about my childhood and gender stereotypes.

Ok, I’m halfway kidding, but Tomboy is definitely the most important book I’ve written, but I’ve been drawing, and I’ve always felt at least semi-confident about the results.  I think that I’ve probably been proud of my output all along, otherwise I might not have found the energy to keep going.  Of course, in the case of some of my earliest published comics, which were in a local zine in Santa Fe, NM, when I was 13-years-old, they make me cringe now, but I was totally stoked to have had comics printed in a magazine when I was in the 7th grade: not many other kids can say that!

Tomboy

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Tomboy

Author: Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir

Author: **Liz Prince

Published: by Zest Books in 2014

Tomboy Cover

Thirty-one-year-old comic artist Liz Prince shares her history as a tomboy. She begins with her tantrum at age three when she didn’t want to wear a dress. All through elementary and middle school, Prince is tormented. No one wants to play with her, she hates all things girly, and classmates begin to question her sexuality. High school is a huge problem area until Prince finds a group of friends who are more open-minded. While the narrator (Prince at 31) could interrupt the narrative more regularly, Tomboy is a graphic memoir that will have readers nodding along in recognition as Prince analyzes what it means to be a tomboy in a society that tells men and women how to be from birth.

For me, a good memoir is analytical. A few weeks ago, I reviewed Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home and discovered that it was the most analytic memoir I’d ever read, in graphic form or otherwise. Whereas Bechdel is very much pulling apart her motives from an adult perspective, Prince’s story almost always sticks with her younger self’s point of view. For instance, Liz notices that heroes are always boys, and girls are always being rescued. When Liz draws a picture at school of her, Luke Skywalker, and her toy Popple, the teacher asks if she’s supposed to be Leia. Liz says, “I’m a JEDI.” After thinking about women who are saved by men–Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Repunzel–Liz Prince at age 32 pops in and adds, “So, it’s not that surprising that I would envy those born into boyhood.” Here is an example of the author interrupting her own story:

Tomboy pg 85

Adult Liz, the one drawing the comic, interrupts her own story.

It happens every so often; adult Liz shows up to add an explanation for or clarification of what child Liz is thinking. It’s almost in the style of Scott McCloud in his pivotal book, Understanding Comics.

Scott McCloud

McCloud, in cartoon form, explains how we see comics. Liz Prince does the same thing to her narrative set during childhood to explain more of what her younger self may not know.

Prince analyzes her childhood in a way that will have readers nodding along in recognition. She explains the reasons why children make fun of each other. Again, she inserts her adult self:

“Let’s take a timeout to review some of the reasons you can be made fun of in grade school. 1) Because you’re a girl who dresses like a boy. 2) Because you’re a girl who hangs out with boys. 3) Because you’re a girl. 4) Because you’re a girl who hangs out with girls. So yeah, you can get bullied for ANYTHING.”

A little later, Prince realizes that most of the time, kids are repeating what they hear: “My daddy says you bring lunch from home because you’re poor.” A classmate presents his report: “…and that’s why a vote for George Bush makes the world a better place to live.” Then, little grade school-age Liz says, “We sometimes repeat things we’re told without really knowing what they mean.” In fact, adult comic artist Liz Prince makes her younger self say that, thus proving the point that children repeat.

Tomboy Scott McCloud style

On the left is Liz Prince as a little girl. She says something grown up, then realizes that adult Liz Prince, the comic artist, made her say the grown up thing. Prince inserts herself into the story every so often.

It’s hard to be a tomboy in the world. Girls are told not only how to dress, but assaulted with ideas about how to behave and what gives them value in society. People–both children and adults–reinforce these ideas about gender without question. As a child, Prince buys into gender norms, too, and doesn’t even realize. Boys are cool, so if she looks and acts like a boy, she’s cool. Girls are not cool. But what Prince doesn’t realize is how boys see a girl trying to be a boy:

 

Tomboy pg 12

Liz Prince realizes that boys see her as an anomaly.

Tomboy is easy to relate to in a way that made me cringe. I think the camp was the most tragic passage in which many readers will see themselves. At Girl Scout camp, little Liz learns that it’s disgusting to shower naked, swim without a t-shirt, and change her clothes where others can see. The shame is heaped upon girls, perpetuated by other girls, who most likely learned from stupid comments said by parents (who most likely were criticizing other women) and weren’t aware that their children are always listening and impressionable. I remember girls in 7th grade humiliating their friend who got her first period and it leaked on her pants–they kept calling her “bloody butt.” I remember kids in 2nd grade tormenting a girl who picked food out of her teeth and swallowed it–and I was part of the tormenting crowd. We pick out the weak and humiliate them for reasons few of us fully understand.

Playing sports becomes a point of humiliation that readers may recognize, too. Liz plays baseball on the boys’ team for a number of years because it’s her favorite sport. When the coach hands out cups one season, the boys decide Liz needs to wear a chest protector, thus ending her baseball career. Similarly, some girl friends of mine and I tried to play touch football in 7th and 8th grades, but the boys said things like, “Hut, hut, dyke!” and the coach would say nothing. We were run off because we didn’t feel safe from ridicule, even in the presence of an adult.

If you’re about the same age as Liz Prince, you’ll easily relate to the pop culture references she includes. I felt thrown right back into some of the best parts of childhood when she mentioned Nintendo, Sega, Popple, Ghostbusters, and quotes from Wayne’s World. Heck, we even had the same Popple, which I thought was pretty cool and made me like Liz Prince even more. If you’re about 30 years old, you’ll have a good time traveling down nostalgia lane!

One of the biggest ways Liz Prince lets you put yourself into her story and relate to her is through the drawing style. By now, you may have noticed that the pictures are simplistic, basically line drawings without color. In Scott McCloud’s image above, he explains that a very specific image means viewers only picture one person. The more simplistic the face becomes, the more we’re able to insert different people into that one drawing. So, when Liz Prince shows picture of mean girls or boys who are picking on her, they’re vague enough that readers can stick in their own bullies. I immediately remember specific names of kids in grade school whom I hated because Prince’s drawings are not overbearing. The one character you can always easily identify is Prince herself, mostly due to a strange hat she wears in every frame.

If you read this book, you may find yourself experiencing some intense emotions you hoped you’d forgotten upon high school graduation. Yet, the analysis Liz Prince includes will help you think about why children were so cruel, perhaps why you were cruel, and that we all share a universal terrible time in grade school (even the popular kids are hiding something awful). Because Prince wisely makes use of a drawing style and narrative in which people will see themselves, Tomboy is a powerful memoir that will have you turning pages just to see if it gets better–for her, and perhaps even for you.

**Join me Monday, December 14th to read my interview with author Liz Prince! She was gracious enough to take the time to answer my questions about being a comic artist and about Tomboy.