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: The Nazi and the Barber

IMG_4307The Nazi and the Barber is the novel about Max Schulz, barber, SS man, mass murderer and later a fighter for the Jewish state of Israel. If you think this sounds pretty bizarre you are not mistaken, it really is.

The novel describes the course of Max Schulz’s life: his childhood friendship with his Jewish friend Itzig Finkelstein, the beginning of the Second World War and his active involvement in the SS and how he assumes his dead friends identity to avoid punishment. The plot of the novel is definitely very absurd, moving from hair salons to concentration camps and later to a new life in Israel.

The German author Edgar Hilsenrath, who wrote the novel, was a Holocaust survivor. Even though the book was originally written in German, it was first published in many different countries. In Germany, publishing houses had a hard time with the content and were worried how the German readers would react to the novel. It did get published eventually and it is of great importance that it did. The book forces the reader to look at the Second World War through the eyes of an active participant in the holocaust and a committed National Socialist. The story often takes very extreme turns, Schulz does not seem to have a sense of how absolutely horrific his crimes are, especially at the times when he is still in the middle of committing them. I felt that this, in its absurdity and unparalleled cruelty was actually a very accurate picture of the mindset of many people during the Second World War.

Max Schulz is continually trying to blame other people for his behaviour. It was the state, his mother, his stepfather, whoever it is, he never truly claims responsibility but continues to hide behind other people. So when Schulz talks about his horrific crimes, he hides behind orders without showing any feelings of remorse, isn’t that exactly what happened far too many times?

I thought this novel was difficult to read. It was unpleasant to be with this opportunistic and spineless, yet absolutely devoted Nazi who is also “just a normal guy”. Also I was questioning the reactions I had to the content and the book’s often satirical form. Is this funny? What is it, he is really saying? A lot of times it was not easy to see clearly. I felt that because of the form of the novel, I, as the reader. was asked to engage with it even more. Somehow a satire often requires more reflective thinking because it makes you question the relationship of fiction and reality. Hilsenrath presented a scale of moral and amoral decisions the protagonist is taking and through those actions he speaks to the reader. Where should Schulz have stopped? Where is Schulz crossing the line? The novel in that sense can be seen as a meditation on the banality of evil (to quote Hannah Arendt), the “normality” of the perpetrators and the cold rationality and bureaucratic thought they put into building a machine of repression and death. It is an important piece of literature that should be read and reread as an effort to contribute to some form of understanding of the crimes that happened during the Second World War.

I was also very fortunate to see the novel adopted into a theatre play in Cologne. The whole play was performed by only two actors, which set a strong focus on the theme of identity. Both actors performed both the role of Schulz and Finkelstein, taking turns being the oppressor and the victim, the Nazi and the Jewish friend. On stage the moral issues that the book raises came to life in a very uncomfortable way. It was a very small theatre and everyone in the audience was very moved by the play. In one scene the two actors debate what punishment Schulz should hypothetically get. He killed thousands of people after all. The two actors debate what form of death would be just. Schulz replies something like, “No matter how I die I can only die once. And even if I were to die ten thousand times this would not help either. I can not take their deaths, can not take their fear and can not bring back the lives they could not live.” The other actor replies: “In that case: you are acquitted.” They laugh.

Review: Bluets by Maggie Nelson

IMG_4098Bluets was given to me as a birthday present. I had heard of Maggie Nelson before but haven’t read anything by her. The Argonauts has been on my to read list, as friends keep recommending it but like I said, I haven’t read it yet. I am actually glad that I got to read Bluets first. It is such an extremely wonderful and unexpected little book, that surprised me in many ways, all the way till the end.

Bluets, part poetry, part memoir, is a book about the authors love for the colour blue, but it is also so much more than that. Each new page is a meditation, not only on colours but on life and emotions and how we live with them:

“Life is a train of moods like a string of beads and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in it’s focus. To find oneself trapped in any one bead, no matter what it’s hue, can be deadly.”

The book is structured into 239 very short pieces, each one dealing with a different aspect of blue. Some are historical or scientific facts, connections to religion, art and literature and others are biographical snippets of the author’s life. There is no order, neither chronological nor topical, the pieces could each stand for their own and yet in the end they shape a clear and concise picture. The connections between the short pieces are only evident in the end. The two main ‘story lines’ are a love that Nelson lost and a close friend who had an accident and is now unable to walk. Her feeling of coming to terms with these things infuses almost every page of the book.

Bluets is a brave book. Nelson opens up a great deal about her feelings in some of the pieces, describing a variety of feeling of which not all are pretty. Her journey to getting to the essence of what blue is, is therefore also a journey to her most inner thoughts. She writes about love, sex and friendship, sadness and loss and she manages to do that in a very heart-breaking way:

“I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.”

Nelson definitely managed to make me see the world in a different light. She has sharpened my awareness for all colors, not just the blue. It is wonderful when a write is able to influence their readers in a way like this. Even after I had finished the book, something definitely stayed with me, influenced my way of seeing the world and made me question my perception of things. I think this is the biggest strength of the book. I am glad I read it. And I would definitely read it again, which I don’t say about a lot of books.

Review: The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin

 

IMG_4122Many years ago, Anatoly Sukhanov made a choice. He abandoned his life as an underground artist for money and security. Now, he is being hunted by the ghosts of his past.

When we meet Anatoly Sukhanov in his Russia of the 1980’s, it is a wintery world, filled with memories. He is leading a warm and fuzzy life, has money and a family. But everything changes when he is confronted with an artist that used to be his best friend 20 years ago. Suddenly he is forced to challenge the reasoning behind the choices he has made all over again.

In the beginning Sukhanov states that he doesn’t remember much of his past. He keeps a few isolated memories and therefore creates a curated version of his life that has almost no connection to reality. But through the encounter with his friend from the past, memories keep suddenly overwhelming him. Memories from his childhood, memories from his time as a poor and rebellious artist:

“[…] this stray little thought released in him some echo of the past, a solitary trembling note whose sound rose higher and higher in his chest, awakening inarticulate longings and, inseparable from them, a piercing, unfamiliar sorrow.”

He feels overwhelmed by these memories and is unable to save himself from the emotions that come with each new recovered memory. Oftentimes the memories are triggered by places and the reader is transported to a different time in the life of Sukhanov without much warning. The memories, characters, places and emotions create an eerie and claustrophobic mixture, where sometimes it is not clear what is real and what is not. Could some of the people he encounters be himself at different times in his life?

What I thought was done rather brilliantly in this book was the way that Grushin did not paint a black and white picture of Sukhanov. In many ways his character is quite flawed, he is a proud and opportunistic man where we get to meet him, but nonetheless Grushin got me to really care for him. Also she never simplifies the choices that Sukhanov has and had to make. His struggles are real and valid. When she gives reasoning for his decision to turn down life as an artist, they do not seem like choices that were done without thought behind them. In a lot of ways the reasons Sukhanov gave, made me care more about the character and not less:

“…the only life worth living was a life without humiliation, a free life, a safe life – and the only sure way to avoid having one’s wings clipped was to grow no wings at all.”

Obviously art is an important part of the book. The characters talk about it, they judge it, they create it and different artists are mentioned again and again to show the characters’ changing relationships to art throughout their life. Dali and Chagall play the most important roles here. Grushin also describes how art was perceived in Russia at various times in the last century. To me this opened up a new view on the connection between the artist and the environment that he lives in:

“Our days flowed into nights, our nights were endless and every single windbag who talked about Russia, God and art was a brother, every artist a genius, every painting a miracle – and the world did not know us yet, but we were together, we were brilliant, we were destined to light up the skies […].”

What impressed me most about this novel is the way Grushin writes. Her descriptions are almost like the script for a film, she creates a very detailed (and this in no way meant in a bad way) picture of where the characters are at any given time. The opening of the book is one of the strongest I have read this year. Her writing, clear and precise at the beginning, follows the inner life of her main character. When he finds himself in a swirl of memories, the writing also becomes more surreal. It jumps between timelines without warning and gets experimental where you don’t expect it to be.

The novel is like a painting. The longer you look at it and think about it, the more ways of reading it you can find. On the surface it is a novel about a man and his choices, but it is so much more. It is also a meditation on art and why we create it, what it is that we strife for and how much we are willing to sacrifice for it:

“But you were also wrong, because in spite of all the injustices and horrors and stupidity, beauty always survives and there will never be a higher mission than by adding more beauty to it, by making one single person cry like a child at the age of fifty three.”

Quote: The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin

“I was afraid. Not so much of prison or poverty or even unhappiness, though I thought about all that – we all did … But mostly, I was afraid of failure. I was so terrified that my reality would not measure up to my dreams, that I would never quite fulfil my promise.”

Review: The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

IMG_3637The Guest Cat is a short Japanese Novel by the poet Takashi Hiraide. It tells the story of a 30 something married couple that lives in a little alley in a quieter part of Tokyo. One day in the early 1980s their neighbours across the street adopt a stray cat. Soon the cat also starts paying them regular visits in their little garden cottage. Over time, both husband and wife develop a friendship with the cat, which they name Chibi. But then, change happens in all of their lives and the bond they had might be lost forever.

Interestingly, it is only Chibi the cat that has been given a name. All the other characters have abbreviations or are simply called the friend, the husband or the old lady. I thought this was an interesting way of showing how important and special the cat really is. This is especially true for the the main character, the husband. He is going through major life changes almost the same time as the cat enters their lives. He has recently quit his job as a writer and is suddenly, through a series of events, forced to deal with his own mortality:

“Looking back on it now, I’d say one’s thirties are a cruel age. At this point, I think of them as a time I whiled away unaware of the tide that can suddenly pull you out, beyond the shallows, into the sea of hardship, and even death.”

Maybe these life changes have also altered his receptiveness to the world around him, therefore allowing the cat, this new and strange being, to enter his life. The significance of his recent life changes is overlapping with this almost mundane event of a visiting cat. It is like they are influencing each other, one giving meaning and importance to the other. Just as he sees his life in a new light he also sees this cat in a light that he might not have before. This could signify the fluidity of our emotions. How we feel about things, people, and cats is closely linked to our current situation and not only (as we sometimes believe) to the thing itself.

The author hints at the possibility that the novel is autobiographical and the way the story unfolds on the page is as though he was writing down the memories as they arose in his mind He is transporting the reader into one particular moment at one particular time, describing everything that made up this moment, his surrounding and feelings, his thoughts and intentions.

The story spans many years but is set mostly in one place, the cottage and the garden that surrounds it. This place functions as a backdrop to the story. Almost like a theatrical stage, each new memory has a new season, a new set. Hiraide goes to great length to describe in detail these different points of time.

To me what stood out the most was his depiction of the relationship between humans and animals. The wife forms a very close bond with the cat and even goes so far as to equate the relationship to an animal to that to a fellow human:

“For me, Chibi is a friend with whom I share an understanding, and who just happens to have taken on the form of a cat.”

The way that the cat makes the couple question if it ‘belongs’ to them and if it can be shared with the neighbours. The way they love the cat reflects deeper question about what it means to love someone or something. Does loving someone necessarily mean that you ‘belong’ to that other person? And what do you expect in return? The couple discusses these issues, giving way to a deeper interpretation of the meaning of the guest cat:

“Then she told me about a philosopher who said that observation is at its core an expression of love which doesn’t get caught up in sentiment.”

It would be very easy to disregard this novel as a short irrelevant piece with hardly any plot. And that is exactly what I did. But because there was hardly any plot, I was forced to look beyond the usual way of reading and interpreting; instead I had to in a way decode it. I wanted to write a review about how much I had disliked it, because it made me uneasy. But this is of course were I was forced to see the contradiction in my reception of this work. If there is no plot, what is it exactly that is making me feel uneasy? The longer I think about it the less it is a novel about a cat but about mortality, friendship and memory.

Review: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

IMG_3353In this novel Arundhati Roy takes the reader all the way back to the 1960s, where a dark event in the state of Kerala in South India changed the lives of the twins Rahel and Esthappen. Having recently returned home after their mothers divorce, the twins find themselves having to settle into a new environment. Soon old conflicts within the family erupt again, affecting not only their mother Ammu but also Rahel and Esthappen.

The God of Small Things is a very clever novel about love, envy, fear and hatred. It is a story of a family as much as it is a story of a country:

“He explained to them that history was like an old house at night. With all the lamps lit and ancestors whispering inside.”

The novel reveals its story not in chronological order but through jumping back and forth, not only between the different characters but also between the 1960s and 1990s.

We see the family before “the terror” and we see what has become of them years later. Roy reveals the repercussions of what has happened early in the novel, showing its aftermath before explaining what caused it. To me this technique heightened the emotionality und immediacy of the story, as I felt that something horrible was always just a page away and the innocence of the characters always seemed threatened. This feeling of dread continues throughout the whole novel and it is only on the last few pages that the reader can piece together the whole puzzle. It was surprising that Roy left the last key piece, which allows the reader an entry point to the full scope of emotions, to be revealed only at the very end. Despite her overuse of metaphors and sometimes too flowery language, Roy left a few things to the imagination of the reader, which I liked. She let all characters speak without judgement or preference.

The themes of this novel, like sexual assault, extreme violence, graphic descriptions of abuse and incest, are sometimes difficult to think about and to be with as a reader. To me the characters that were going through these ordeals were also representing struggles on a much larger scale. The story of people who are in love but are not allowed to be also came across as a social comment on the society in which this novel is set. As close as she sometimes stays with the characters, she also ventures out into both contemporary Indian society and historic events. I liked this two-sidedness. It seemed both emotionally involved and analytically detached:

“’We’re prisoners of war, Chacko said. ‘Our dreams have been doctored. We belong nowhere. We sail unanchored on troubled seas. We may never be allowed on ashore. Our sorrows will never be sad enough. Our joys never happy enough. Our dreams never big enough. Our lives never important enough. To matter.’”

Even though the novel deals with so many important issues, I personally did not feel as involved with the story as I imagined I would. I was shocked by the violence and saddened by the loss, but in the end I still felt quite removed from the characters. The emotions I felt were more dutiful than honest. The essence of the characters was not easily accessible but hidden behind a highly structured plot and the calculated use of language. Despite the authors’ efforts, I felt there was something missing. Everything was too perfect, too thought through and too polished.