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.

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Review: Xiaolu Guo – I am China

IMG_3423I actually finished this novel at the end of last year, so quite a long while ago. Back then, this book blog did not exist yet and I also didn’t take down notes for a review like I do now. But I recently came across a video of a talk the author gave and hearing her speak about her work and the politics and history of her country made me want to write a belated review of the novel I am China. I have thought about it often since I have finished it and Xiaolu Guo also introduced me to other great authors like Eileen Chang.

The novel is set both in China and in the West (England and USA). The young translator Iona is asked to translate the love letters and diary extracts of a young Chinese couple. The rebellious and political punk musician Jian and his girlfriend Mu, the poet, have exchanged letters for over 20 years. The letters depict tumultuous times, both for the couple and the country they come from. But now Jian is being held in an asylum centre:

“Dearest Mu, The sun is piercing, old bastard sky. I am feeling empty and bare. Nothing is in my soul, apart from the image of you. I am writing to you from a place I cannot tell you about yet…”

Xiaolu Guo shows snapshots of the Jasmine revolution, the Chinese punk scene, police riots and the realities of being exiled. While Jian is being held in a detention centre in Dover and Mu travels further and further away from him, both in pursuit of her own creative and political identity, Iona has only little time left to reunite the two lovers.

The style of the book is very creative. Diary entries, letters and flash backs are woven together to create a very personal story of the three main characters. Through telling the story this way, Guo is able to not only show where the different characters are coming from but also how they react to each other’s realities. When Iona the translator is confronted with Jian’s experiences of being held as an asylum seeker in Dover, she subsequently questions her own life and her experiences:

 “If you spend enough time reading someone else’s thoughts, after a while their thoughts infect you. You grasp on yourself becomes tenuous. Or you begin to see that you never were the essential you in the first place […]”

The issues that this novel deals with are oftentimes very bleak. Political exile, coming to terms with your identity and how this is connected to your nationality, revolution and responsibility are just some of the things these characters have to deal with.

 “Revolution happens when the water in which the citizens swim is frozen. The ice breaks and shatters and the fish are cast out onto the dry land, gasping for air.”

Guo herself has made quite a few of the experiences that the characters go through in the novel. She moved to England and was also confronted with having visa issues. Jian’s time in England therefore seems all the more real.

Guo also has had to come to terms with a new language, one in which she would start writing and by doing so redefine herself as a writer. The characters in her book reflect her struggle with political, national and artistic identity. They are stand-ins for different points on a spectrum. Where Jian wants to stay and fight and change the society that he grew up in, Mu is looking for a universal truth and therefore something bigger than the political struggle she encounters. Both are valid points but only one will turn out to be the slightly easier to endure.

Another interesting aspect was the entanglement of beat poetry, punk music and Chinese culture and history. Guo manages to tell a heart breaking love story, give insight into Chinese history and question an artist’s role in shaping politics:

“Now the artist must deal with politics. That’s why art is always a political thing. […] Art is the politics of perpetual revolution. Art is the purest revolution, and so the purest political form there is.”

The novel definitely touched me on many levels and even after all this time, I still think about it from time to time. Sometimes a novel doesn’t let you go that easily.

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.”

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: Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

IMG_2763Christina Goering and Frieda Copperfield are going all out. Christina, who is a little too obsessed with religious habits and washing away other peoples sins (“Do you want to be forever condemned?”) is embarking on late night visits to men she has just met, which makes her question the moral framework of her upbringing:

“[…] it is against my entire code, but then, I have never even begun to use my code, although I judge everything by it.”

She ends up selling her house and living with in an awkward constellation of a newly acquired friend, a possible suitor and his father. She also stumbles into being a high–class call girl. Frieda on the other hand has travelled with her husband to Panama but soon exchanges their hotel room for a brothel and the company of prostitutes.

Social conventions might be something to consider for other people but these two are certainly not going to live by them. Not only are Christina and Frieda extremely headstrong and independent; they also don’t really take anyone’s advice.

Female freedom in all its messy and confusing glory is what this quirky novel is all about. These two women might be making a lot of questionable decisions, but at least they make their own. If however the paths that Christina and Frieda have chosen for themselves are paths that will lead them to happiness I am not sure. I am however convinced that this is beside the point. They are unhappy as it is and their happiness is only met with dismissal and even disbelief:

“I’m unhappy,” she said. “Again?” asked Mr. Copperfield.

The things they could loose, like their public image, their wealth and health are of no value to them. They are concerned only with their happiness. And it is a happiness that can’t be bought:

“What makes me happy I seem to catch out of the sky with both hands; I only hold whatever it is that I love because that is all I can really see.”

To me a lot of the novel is a reflection on manners, moral convention and etiquette. The choices that society allows Christina and Frieda are minimal and extremely restrictive. And even though the novel portrays such interesting female characters and questions the destiny that a lot of women had (have?) to face, the story line does at times unfortunately become a little random. Things just keep happening without reason and I have felt a bit lost in the meaning of certain aspects of the story. In the end the characters were a little two-dimensional, sometimes there wasn’t that much reasoning for their actions, apart from the fact that they wanted to do it. I did have the urge to grab Christina by the shoulders and shake her, but maybe that was just me. I wanted to like this novel, but I must admit that I only liked certain aspects of it. The idea might have been great but its execution was not as engaging as it could have been.