Review: Dietland by Sarai Walker

img_4524Dietland is a progressive, angry book about a feminist guerrilla group called “Jennifer”. Their plan is to change the sexist society we live in by taking pretty drastic measures. Rapists are being thrown off overpasses or out of airplanes. They want the public to wake up.

The novel however starts off at a very different place. It begins with 29-year-old Plum Kettle, a fat and lonely woman who works as a ghost-writer for a teen magazine. She spends her days in her friend’s café or at Waist Watcher [sic!] meetings, eating unappetizing and little meals while shopping for her soon to be thin self. She weighs 300 pounds but is scheduled for gastric bypass surgery so that she can begin the (thin) life she has always dreamed of. Dinner parties, dating, making friends, everything is postponed to her imaginary future as her thinner self. But things are about to change when she is being followed and recruited by “Jennifer”. Little by little she gets drawn into a different world and she ends up on quite a different quest to self-love. The women she encounters confront her with her ideas of beauty and perfection. They shatter the world she used to live in.

But the novel is not only focused on Plum, it’s also a very dark portrayal of today’s society. Half way through the book, the story switches from Plum to “Jennifer” and through her/their eyes we see a world that is shockingly hostile, sexist and violent. At this point the novel takes a completely different course: Gang raped teenagers are being avenged, media moguls are being kidnapped and stark naked men are replacing the infamous page 3 models.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard you look, the description of Plum’s and Jennifer’s world does not read as a satire. The instances of everyday sexism and misogyny that are being described are not at all unrealistic. What I was reading was not a description of a dystopian world but ultimately the world you live in as a women. “Jennifer’s” reactions however, the violence, the anger and bloodshed is depicted as over top and absurd. It can be interpreted as a contrast to the powerlessness that most women feel.

Sarai Walker radically questions society’s double standards and obsessions with beauty and thinness. Plum, the book’s main character, realizes that there is a freedom in not caring about the judgement of others:

“We’re different in a way that everyone can see. We can’t hide it or fake it. We’ll never fit society’s idea for how women should look and behave, but why is that a tragedy? We’re free to live how we want. It’s liberating if you choose to see it that way.”

Throughout the novel Plum radically transforms herself. Her struggle with self-love, looks (and weight) and the expectations to be perfect are, what Dietland really focuses on. Yes it is also about a feminist terrorist group, but it is mainly about how the mere existence of such a group affects the women who come in contact with them. In that way Dietland is a call to arms:

“The police and the “justice” system don’t take violence against women and girls seriously. If you’ve been assaulted or harassed, take the law into your own hands. Form vigilante groups with other girls. Sign up for self-defense classes, but don’t just use the skills defensively. Go on the offensive!”

The novel has a lot of different influences, ranging from Foucault to Fight Club. Women in the novel are exercising extreme control over themselves and their bodies; they have created strict regiments to fit a social norm, which was only created to keep them down in the first place. When Plum breaks free, starts to eat, enjoy her life and be herself, she sheds this self-imposed regimen of rules and deprivation:

“[…] Dietland, which meant control, constriction—paralysis, even—but above all it meant obedience. I was tired of being obedient.”

As it mocks the less violent and certainly less angry chic lit that preceded it, Dietland transcends the genre itself. It will also be turned in to a TV show by no other than the genius Marti Noxon from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a TV show that was also well known for it’s feminist and empowering approach.

Also, here’s a little snippet from npr about Sarai Walker and Dietland including an article she wrote for the New York Times. And finally the blog post that made me aware of Walker and her book.

Review: Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

IMG_3199When Cassandra Edwards, the gay heroine of this 1962 novel, returns to her bohemian family home, a lot of things turn out differently than both Cassandra and the reader might have expected.

The novel opens with a spotlight on Cassandra, who is currently writing a thesis on French female writers at her Berkeley apartment, which until recently she used to share with her twin sister Judith. They shared not only their apartment, their piano and their carefully collected antique furniture but also their life. Over years they had carefully constructed an identity, in which both of them were only half a person, could only be a whole if they were together. But now that Judith has moved away and is about to get married, this identity and life that Cassandra needs so desperately to function is being threatened.

The reader immediately gets a sense of the smart but erratic, lonely and nerve-wrecked Cassandra as she travels home to sabotage her sisters wedding. As she arrives on the farm, set in the foothills of the Sierra, everyone in the family has a part to play. Often quirky, sometimes comical, the interactions follow the well-rehearsed behaviour that the Edwards family has constructed over time. But this façade of interaction is only a thin veil, which covers a much darker truth. Cassandra hides behind a shower curtain, spies on her sister and lies to her grandmother. She also hides her true feelings about the wedding and her new life without her sister. This pain, felt only in secret, will lead to disastrous consequences. Through the possibility of losing Judith, Cassandra has to redefine her whole identity as well. She has to reset the goals in her life. While once plans and decisions were made together, she now has to come to terms with what she herself really wants in life. And this means facing the reality of wanting different things than Judith does:

“Same thing everywhere I’d looked. Large amounts of safety; very few risks. Let nothing endanger the proper the proper marriage, the fashionable career, the non-irritating thesis that says nothing new and nothing true.”

During the course of the novel Baker brilliantly shifts the perspective of one sister to the other to give the reader not only a deeper understanding of the situation but also the unique view of how both of the sisters perceive their bond and relationship. Where Cassandra perceives herself as part of a whole and has not found a way to live without her sister, Judith the emotionally stronger and much more mature of the two, understands that were they to stay together, their union would lead to their destrucion.

To me, reading this novel felt like watching a classic movie. Baker followed the characters, mostly in real time, through their emotional struggles without censoring their experience down to a few selected flashes. Sometimes however Bakers slow paced style requires some patience from the reader. Also the way Baker hinted at Cassandra’s sexuality reminded me of mid-century Hollywood movies. You sometimes had to read between the lines. But even though Cassandra’s sexuality was not as openly discussed as I imagined from the text on the jacket, it is nonetheless a book that features a lot of strong women characters.

I enjoyed reading this book and must say that certain scenes stayed with me long after I had finished it. I appreciated that she allowed the reader to make their own interpretations of the emotional states of the sisters by giving them both very distinct voices.

Quote: Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

“With men I feel like a bird in the clutch of a cat, terrified, caught in a nightmare of confinement, wanting nothing but to get free and take a shower. “Birds don’t take showers,” Jude said, and I had to give her instances of birdbaths and lawn sprays and sprinkling systems and fountains in parks, before I could get to what I had to tell her, which was nothing so simple as the cat-and-bird relationship, even without the shower, because I’m not afraid of women; they don’t terrify me slightly. Up to a point they fascinate me, and I said so.”

Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

image2Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel A Little Life spans 60 years of friendship, love, suffering and hardship in the lives of four friends. There is the handsome actor Willem, the creative and sometimes selfish artist JB, the architect Malcom and finally Jude, the successful lawyer with a lot of dark secrets. They have met at University, when they weren’t successful or rich, but rather living in shitty apartments, going to parties and cheap restaurants. But then careers develop, friendships change and sometimes secrets are revealed. The focus of the novel definitely lies on the relationship between Willem and Jude and maybe even more so on Jude’s past. The descriptions of Jude’s ordeals in the past and his current struggle with it are probably the most horrific things I have ever read. I won’t say too much, as a lot of things are only revealed after many pages, but some of the themes of the novel are violent abuse, addiction, extreme self-harm and crippling illness.

Interestingly, even though this 720-page novel spans 60 years, it is stripped entirely of historical or technological landmarks. The story is focused exclusively on the personal histories of the characters and even though there are some slight references to art and politics it is never enough to link the events in the novel to a specific year. Even though it is mainly a New York novel, there is no mentioning of 9/11, or any political or social event of the city.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is Yanagihara’s treatment of friendship: The role that the four men play in each other’s lives, are often times more important then any other connection they have. They are not only friends but partners, confidants and family. Their friendships are the support system of choice, one that evolves and changes over time:

“They were inventing their own type of relationship, one that wasn’t officially recognised by history or immortalised in poetry or song, but which felt truer and less constraining.”

Before starting the novel I was wondering why Yanagihara had chosen to write a book almost exclusively about men. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to connect with the characters. I could not have been more wrong. It took the genius of a female writer to give four men an emotional portrait of their love (and friendship) for one another. And she has through her novel created positive role models (not only) for men.

Emotions run high in this novel, everything is enhanced: love, sadness, cruelty. I do wonder if this extreme way of telling a story is a comment that Yanagihara is making in regard to trends in our current society? Why do I crave such a story? What draws me to that much pain and suffering on the one hand and that much success and money on the other? It wasn’t that the characters did not feel three-dimensional; actually I have seldom felt that characters were actually real people and not mere characters in a book. And yet they were also caricatures of both themselves and people in real life. But is there something in this contradiction? I am not sure why the characters in this book can be over the top and believable at the same time. And I am not sure how emotions can be outrageously excessive and still be the only thing that ever made me feel such a connection at all. It was like Yanagihara opened a door to characters that not very many people have dared to even acknowledge.

This doesn’t mean that I was in any way able to distance myself from the story while I was reading it. The intense emotion I have felt, the tears of sadness, rage and compassion I have cried and the urge to physically hurt characters in the novel because of their wrongdoing was overwhelming. The emotionality in this story was so unusually strong that I couldn’t read the novel in public (I once did, cried a lot and got some odd looks), and sometimes I couldn’t even read it at all. At times I literally could not stop sobbing. I have never felt like this with any other book. Have never cried so much. Never felt so many emotions. Yanagihara never holds back; she drags you through the darkest memories, the scariest thoughts and the loneliest hours. The tragedy that is the life of Jude St. Francis probably transcends all tragedy you have encountered in contemporary literature. And just like the characters in the novel, I felt helpless, forced to deal with issues I usually wouldn’t:

“He had looked at Jude, then, and had felt that same sensation he sometimes did when he thought, really thought of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn’t a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it.”

Here are some selected on articles about A Little Life:

The Subversive Brilliance of A Little Life

‘I wanted everything turned up a little too high’

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara review – unusual, uneven, unrelenting

Quote: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

“If I were a different kind of person, I might say that this whole incident is a metaphor for life in general: things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”

Review: The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

wallcreeper.jpg

Stephen and Tiff have a car accident because of a bird. And in the accident pregnant Tiff looses her baby. After the accident Tiff is no longer pregnant. What starts off as an emotional plot is actually anything but. All the pages that follow are an unemotional, cynical rambling about sex, bird watching and eco-terrorism. Stephen and Tiff move from American to Europe, or rather Stephen wants to move and Tiff follows:

“I wasn’t a feminist. […] I couldn’t come up with a step I’d taken in life for my own sake.”

They spend time in Berne and Berlin, try to save rivers and fail to get into Berghain. They have a lot of sex, rarely with each other and usually it is quite uninteresting, despite Nell’s obvious effort to make it somewhat raunchy.

Even though the characters stay two dimensional throughout the whole novel they still managed to annoy me. I just didn’t get why I should care about anything these two utterly annoying narcissists were up to.

I got the impression that the novel was written by someone who does not like women very much. Maybe this was an act that should get readers to reflect upon what is considered expected behaviour of women in general and in novels in particular but to me it failed to deliver that.

Also, due to the weak plot (if one can even call it that) I couldn’t make out the themes or purpose of this novel. It may have sounded bizarre and intriguing but I couldn’t connect to the story or the characters. To me Zink failed to deliver anything of substance. I would not recommend this to anyone.

The novel did however also manage to surprise me. In it’s stubborn refusal to give me what I wanted from it, it made me question what I expect from a novel. Why do I choose a particular novel in the first place? Why do I expect an author to deliver certain characters that will make me feel emotions that I imagined having when I picked out the book? Why does it anger me, when I am faced with characters that don’t fit in neat boxes of action and reaction? As much as I hate to say it, the disliking of this novel, has made me question my reading habits, my expectations and emotional involvement in novels and the responsibility of any author towards their readers.

Review: Re Jane by Patricia Park

IMG_2836In this modern retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, half-Korean, half-American orphan Jane Re is trying to figure out where she belongs. Trying to get away from Flushing, Queens where she has lived almost her whole life and now works in her uncle’s supermarket, she takes a nanny job for two professors, Beth Mazer and Ed Farley in Brooklyn. Here she is confronted not only with nine-year-old Devon but also her own identity, feminism and love. But a family crisis takes her back to Seoul and into her own past. Trying to belong to two worlds, never feeling home in either Jane Re has to come to terms with her heritage and take responsibility for her own future.

It felt a bit of an odd choice to have the “mad woman in the attic” be a feminist in this retelling. This could however have been a very conscious choice, as some of the women who have a strong feminist point of view are sometimes seen as “crazy”. To me Park was not only making a strong comment on “madness” in Jane Eyre but also on the treatment of women (in media) today.

Another interesting aspect was what exactly made Jane not fit in. Jane Eyre was much poorer than Rochester and yes, Jane Re is also not wealthy. But her lack of financial means is not her most pressing issue. She primarily lacks knowledge and self-perception. When Beth Fowler educates her in nineteenth-century novels and feminism, Jane is also ultimately given the tools, to change her own situation.

What I especially liked was the depiction of the Korean enclave in New York. Park made it come to life through lots of little details, both in her choice of words (a lot of Korean terms are important touchstones for the characters) and in her very detailed description of this part of the city. It served as a very embellished backdrop for this Korean American retelling of Jane Eyre. The issues that Jane Re faces in both countries highlights the emotions that can come with being an immigrant:

“Growing up, I often felt I would’ve been treated better if I were a hundred percent one or the other. If I were all Korean, I could have just blended in. If I were all white, I wouldn’t have been met with the same curious stares—What are you?—the same assumptions about my mother’s past. To be almost seemed to be worse than being not at all.”

It is exactly this 21st century melting pot identity that gives Jane Re it’s urgency. Where Jane Eyre was battling classes and religious morale, Jane Re is fighting racism and obligation.

I think I enjoyed this novel and it’s thoughts on identity, culture, class and gender but sometimes I felt that Jane was a bit too focused on men. A lot of times she was extremely submissive in her relationships. And even though this was probably necessary for the character arch it still made me cringe sometimes.