Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Dietland by Sarai Walker (2015)

Plum Kettle lives a constrained life. In the morning, she gets up and eats a Waist Watchers breakfast, before heading to the cafe where she works at her job where she responds to emails from young girls in her role as pretending to be Kitty, the magazine editor of teen mag Daisy Chain. Once a week, she goes to a Waist Watchers meeting, where she is weighed and picks up the latest Waist Watchers recipes. Always dressed in dark-coloured long shirts and ankle-length elastic-waisted skirts, Plum lives her life within a five-block radius, living a half-life while waiting for her real life to begin. You see, Plum is fat and waiting for lapland surgery, after which her inner thin person (called Alicia) will emerge and her life will really begin.

That all changes when Plum notices that she is being followed. She hates being looked at, being seen,  so is incredibly aware of the strange girl with dark eyeliner and bright tights who watches her, always taking notes. One day the girl slips her a book called Adventures in Dietland. Adventures in Dietland is a expose of the diet industry written by Verena Baptist, whose parents found the Baptist Diet, an unhealthy restrictive diet Plum was on as a teenager. Rich from the money her parents made but cognisant of the damage that the Baptist Diet caused, Verena has formed a feminist collective in the heart of New York City. Upon finding out that Plum is planning on doing lapland surgery, Verena offers Plum $20,000 if she agrees to go on the New Baptist Diet, a special plan designed for Plum by Verena which forces Plum to look at her life, how she treats her body and how she feels about herself. Plum agrees, starts the plan and her life begins to change.

While these changes are happening in Plum's life, a terrorist group called Jennifer are enacting violence on misogyny and misogynists - kidnapping and murdering men who have got away with enacting violence on women and using violence to change how women are represented.

I haven't described the plot of this book very well. It's a fascinating exploration of the impact of diet culture on an individual. Like Plum, I have had days where I thought "If only I were x kgs thinner/my boobs were bigger/I was taller/my hair was more blonde then my life would be better." I've tried Weight Watchers, the Liver Cleansing Diet, the 5:2 Diet (actually, I just borrowed the book for that one from the library - the fasting seemed really unhealthily). Every time I turn on the TV or the radio there are ads for meal replacement shakes or Michelle Bridge's 12 week transformation or I Quit Sugar programs. Women are bombarded with images of female perfection all the time while at the same time being told that they aren't pretty/smart/sexy/fuckable enough. Plum's sense of self is so closely tied up with her weight and her idea of what her weight should be that it is emotionally paralysing for her. It is literally stopping her from doing what she wants; not because she physically cannot, but because emotionally she can't. Breaking the years of Dietland training and damage is incredibly hard but so fascinating to read about. The New Baptist Diet challenges Plum breaks out of her shell like a dieting caterpillar into a gorgeous butterfly with a healthy sense of self and relationship with food; Dietland chronicles her journey and whether or not it is even possible to break out of a lifestyle so deeply ingrained.

One of the beset things about this book is that makes explicit the connection between the way women's bodies are portrayed in the media, advertising and television and both the violence women experience and diet culture. Sometimes it does feel like the only way to fix the problem is to tear everything down and start again. I don't think it will happen, but this book raises very interesting questions about misogyny, patriarchy and the everyday treatment of women. Every girl should read this book as a teenager. Five stars.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

I want to open this review by saying that I am absolutely not qualified to review a Milan Kundera novel. His books are complex, multilayered and amazingly evocative, none of which I have to skills to capture in my brief 300 word "this is what I liked" book review posts. So, rather than posting a proper review, I am going to write about some general thoughts I had upon reading Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Milan Kundera is one of those writers I think just about every cultural studies student discovers for the first time in their second year. I can't even remember which class had The Unbearable Lightness of Being on its reading list but once I read it I was a Kundera convert. It was so smart! So cleverly constructed. So elegantly written. So fascinating and (best of all for your standard 20yo Arts student wanker) so very quotable. I frequently dropped into conversation (and even class, such was my a complete wanker thing to do) such nuggets of obnoxiousness such as, "That reminds me of the observation Milan Kundera made in The Unbearable Lightness of Being about Freud's theory of dreaming." I was such a cliche! But, while I regret being so obnoxious, I don't regret the time I spent reading, thinking about and absorbing the work of Kundera.

The story contained within Unbearable is hard to explain clearly. It opens with a philosophical discussion of Nietsche's conception of eternal return as the heaviest burden. This begins the discussion of the concepts of lightness and heaviness and their relationship to goodness, sadness, happiness, meaning and burden that recurs throughout the book. This section also introduces the author as a character of the book, an "I" who had family killed in the Holocaust yet felt strange empathy with the watercolours of Hitler, the engineer of his family member's demise. Tereza, a barmaid in a small town, turns up on the doorstep of Tomas, a surgeon, who she met briefly a few weeks ago. They immediately make love and then she becomes very sick, requiring him to look after her and forging the love bond that is the central thread of the the book. While it does centre around the love between Tereza and Tomas, it is about so much more than that. It is set in the Communist-run Czechoslovakia of between 1968 and 1980 and much of the book deals with life in Czechoslovakia. It is these sections from which I learned the most but, at the same time, made me feel most inadequate because I know so little about that time and the politics of it.

The structure of the novel is postmodern. It jumps between timeframes and perspectives; diegetic events and philosophical explorations. Kundera often addresses the reader directly, for example to explain the inspiration for the characters. It is chaotic but it works - Tomas is an compulsive cheater. One of his mistresses is Sabina, a painter, who becomes involved with Franz, an academic. Each of them is affected by their upbringing in ways that are central to their character; for example, Teresa was punished by her mother for being the reason that she (her mother, the most beautiful of women) was forced to marry the most manly of men, who deliberately ignored her whispered requests to be careful when making love. Teresa's decision to stay with a man who cannot be faithful is influenced by her mother but never solely attributed to it. Just as important as her mum are the beautiful coincidences that cause one to fall in love - the music playing on the radio at the moment you first meet, the shared interest in books and the simple happenstance of being in the right place at the right time.

I don't know if you can tell but I love this book. The urge to quote it at dinner parties has (thankfully) left me but I was unable to shake the feeling that I should be taking notes so I don't forget a thing. I enjoyed reading this book such a lot I cannot wait for the new one (Festival of Insignificance) to arrive at my library. Five ardent-Arts-student stars.

Friday, July 17, 2015

West of Sunset by Stewart O'Nan (2015)

West of Sunset is a recently published book written by Stewart O'Nan that fictionalises the time that my literary boyfriend F Scott Fitzgerald spent in Hollywood. Now, I usually avoid both books that fictionalise the lives of real people and books written by men, but the cover for this title was so gorgeous that I just couldn't resist.

See what I mean? It's gorgeous. Now, having finished the novel, I kind of do and I kind of don't regret having picked it up. Let me explain.

The novel opens just as F Scott Fitzgerald (Scott) has been offered a contract at MGM for $1,000 a week to fix scripts. He is broke, in debt and struggling with an alcohol addiction. His wife, Zelda, is in an institution and his daughter, Scottie is at boarding school. He packs up his hotel room, gets on a train and moves to Hollywood.

Once there, he starts work at "the Iron Lung" - the MGM building named after its late head Irving Thalberg (whom Scott liked and on whom his final work, The Last Tycoon, was based). He bumps into his old friends from New York, like Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell, and moves into the same apartment block as Humphrey Bogart (Bogie) and his second wife Mayo Methot (what a name!). This frequent and excellent research/name-dropping is the absolute best bit of this book. I spent just as much time on Wikipedia as I did actually reading the text and I now have a huge pile of books and DVDs on my desk waiting for me to find the time to read and watch them, starting with Tender is the Night and including Parker, Hemingway and Zelda's novel for good measure. When my eyes are tired from reading too much, I'll watch early Bogart and Crawford films and then the original A Star is Born, which I have (shamefully) never seen but was partly written by the great Dorothy Parker. This book inspired me to re-enter this amazing period in literature and film and for that I am incredibly grateful.

But. BUT! The protagonist of this book is supposed to be F Scott Fitzgerald. It is not F Scott Fitzgerald. Like many Scott fans, my knowledge of him has mainly been cobbled together from articles in Sunday papers, Matthew J Buccoli's biography Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, and reading his novels nine million times. Scott had his faults but he is my true literary boyfriend and I love him completely. One of his faults was his alcoholism, which defined him for much of his career. However, in West of Sunset, booze is just not that big a deal. Sure, references are made to empty bottles of gin and a bender or two but there is no sense of the great thirst that F Scott Fitzgerald was reportedly believed to have destroyed his life and his literary promise. Once he got to Hollywood, he just drank a lot of Coke and had an occasional gimlet. I did not buy that for one second. Alcoholics just don't give up alcohol that easily and with that little drama. 

What's more, O'Nan's Scott just walks around feeling sorry for everyone all the time. He feels sorry for Dorothy Parker, because they slept together a few times in the 1920s and he thinks it's a mistake but she'd go another round if he was up for it (never! Dottie was divine and Scotty was gorgeous; hence, never a regret. He should have been flattered or amused.). He feels sorry for his daughter, his wife, Bogie, Dietrich, Hemingway, Joan Crawford, everyone, including himself. The author of The Great Gatsby, who so exquisitely captured human emotion and the sense of both a particular time and the human condition, would never be reduced to just one key emotion: pity. I would have bought him wallowing in a bit of self-pity, but not all-around self-defining directed-at-everyone pity. Also, Sheilah Graham comes off like a bit of a pill and I just did not get her appeal at all. I know the real F Scott Fitzgerald was infatuated with her but it just did not translate for me through this book at all.

So, I didn't hate the book. I didn't like it and I absolutely would not recommend it but I am thankful to it for reminding me about a period of time I had forgotten about. Three stars.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Sweater Quest by Adrienne Martini (2010)

"Had I not discovered knitting, I would not be the paragon of sanity that I am today."

So begins Adrienne Martini's Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously. She tells us that after the birth of her first child, she experienced postnatal depression so severely she needed to be hospitalised. During that time, she discovered knitting and, long after she stopped taking the drugs she needed to get well, knitting stuck with her. She had a second child - less eventfully this time - and kept knitting, using knitting to help her get through the long nights and sleep-deprived days.

However, after raising her kids for a few years, Adrienne gets bored. The tedium of everyday life means an entire year has passed her by without anything interesting happening. This (for obvious reasons) sucks, so Adrienne decides to set herself a goal of knitting an Alice Starmore sweater in one year and chronicling her journey in what became this book.

I was quite disappointed with this book. Martini has a really engaging tone and at time her discursive excursions into parts of knitting history, like the history of fair isle, were really engaging. However, the book just didn't know what it wanted to be. It wasn't really a knitting book, because there's very little about the actual knitting of the sweater. There are also these really odd quite patronising sections in which basic knitting concepts are explained in detail ("remember, circular knitting makes a tube") but an understanding of the online knitting community is expected. It was a project that Martini obviously needed because some sense of excitement or purpose was missing from her life but it's not a memoir, because Martini never tells us much about her everyday life. What we're left with is a journal of Martini's travels to visit famous knitters and basically transcripts of the conversations she had with them, which I'm sure was super interesting for her but, for the reader, not so much. There's so much missing information in the storyline - why Alice Starmore? Why this particular Alice Starmore sweater? In one bit, she gets most of her wool in one brand but one colour only comes in a different base, which is a disaster...that is never mentioned again. Why did the editor not bring this to Martini's attention? Not good enough, team Sweater Quest.

The end of the book is really rushed - the last three months take up only 14 pages - and there is a sense that Martini is really bored with the whole thing. Most bewildering for me, is that *spoiler alert* the whole time she has been knitting a sweater that is not her size. She's spent hundreds,  maybe thousands, of dollars on a project that will not fit. WHY?!?!? Look, I think Martini sounds like someone who would be fun to have a coffee and a chat with, but this book needed a lot more work on it before going to print. Two stars.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Threads of Evidence by Lea Wait (2015)

After spending two years in Arizone, Angie Curtis is back in her home town of Haven Habor in Maine. She is taking over as director of Mainely Needlepoint from her grandmother, who is marrying Haven Habor's reverend. Her life is coming together: she has friends, is learning a new and interesting business, and finally feels at home again. 

Angie's world is made much more interesting when movie star Skye West moves into town. Skye has bought a huge run-down mansion Aurora and is renovating it with the help of her very handsome adult son, Patrick. Aurora fell into ruin after the death of its owner, Millie Gardener. Mrs Gardener had refused to leave the house after the death of her only child, Jasmine, in 1970. Jasmine's death had been ruled a accident, but she was convinced it was murder. Millie told Skye her beliefs before she died and Skye was determined to find out the truth of what really happened. After finding out Angie used to work for a private detective (and that her son Patrick thought Angie was the prettiest girl in Maine), she hired Angie to help her solve the mystery of what happened to Jasmine that fateful night 45 years ago.

I love a cosy mystery. If that cosy mystery is somehow connected to something crafty, even better. However, although Threads of Evidence contains needlepoint as a key plot point, there's not any actual needlepointing in it. I was a bit disappointed at that (cosy and crafty just go so well together...) but other than that I don't have any complaints. It was a well-put-together cosy murder mystery, with a compelling story and likeable characters. I read it on a cold winter's afternoon while drinking hot chocolate; I give it three cosy stars.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Sisters by Rosamund Lupton (2010)

Beatrice lives a comfortable life. She owns a nice apartment in New York, she has a nice finance with whom she enjoys buying nice things, and she has a nice job. Her comfortable existence comes to an end one Sunday, when a nice Sunday lunch is disturbed by a frantic call from her mother, who lives in London, telling Beatrice that her younger sister Tess has gone missing. Beatrice catches the next plane home and immediately starts working with the police to try and find her sister.

The search is incredibly hard for Beatrice, as she and Tess were very close, drawn together by the childhood death of their brother, Leo, from cystic fibrosis. The story is told as a letter, written from Beatrice to Tess, and as Beatrice "tells" Tess about the events following that fateful phone call, layers of truth are peeled back. As the narrative progresses, different layers are revealed: Tess is pregnant to her married lover, which she has not told her mother; Tess gave birth prematurely, which she did not tell Beatrice; and that her baby died, which she did not tell anyone in her family. Behind these events is an undercurrent of sadness and loss, as Tess's unborn child was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, the disease that killed her brother, who is still missed 20 years later.

I really enjoyed this book. I picked it up on a whim because I am really into female-driven thriller narratives at the moment and I saw a good review of it somewhere (that I can't remember, of course!). Beatrice is initially a difficult narrator - she's uptight, unbending and unsympathetic. But over the course of the story, she opens up and loosens up as the extent of her loss becomes evident. There is a twist (of course!) but I didn't guess it, which was great. To give you an idea of how much I was gripped by this book, I had a dinner reservation at 7pm and I had the book open on the last five pages while I was putting on my make-up. I give it four stars.