social commentary

Dietland by Sarai Walker

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Dietland. I have so much to say.

I had heard of Dietland a long while ago, but for some reason I thought it was just a novel about a woman losing weight and I didn’t give it much attention. I only recently picked it up because Andi gave a really fantastic blurb of it over on Book Riot, and I immediately borrowed it on Overdrive.

Plum is overweight, and has been her whole life. She’s in her thirties now, working from home for a teen magazine where she’s an advice columnist of sorts (though her writing is never published, and she writes as Kitty, the magazine’s editor). Plum avoids socializing, and avoids being in public where she can feel people staring at her and saying horrible things about her size. She has a weight loss surgery planned and is purchasing clothes for her new skinny self, when her “real life” can begin. One day she notices a girl following her, and that leads to her falling down a rabbit hole of self-discovery, feminism, and international terror as men are suddenly held accountable for the way women are viewed and treated in society.

There is SO much I loved about this book. I was enjoying it well enough for the first quarter, when you’re getting to know Plum and trying to figure out who this girl is that’s been following her. Plum’s body image issues are intense, but I think relatable for most women who have ever tried to diet – the constant thinking about food, the adding up of calories, the doubt and guilt and hunger. And then came probably my favorite part of the book, in which there’s kind of a news report about a kidnapping and how the kidnappers don’t want money – they want naked men to replace naked women in newspapers and magazines. That piece was hilarious, insightful, and a bit satisfying. I mean, not that I want anyone hurt or kidnapped… but something that forces such a complete reversal of roles and exposes what life is like as a female… I’d love to see that. “The default Londoner, the implied viewer of everything, was no longer male.” Perfect. I really loved the different current event updates throughout the book.

I won’t go into spoilers, but the rest of the Plum’s journey and the discovery of what is actually happening in the world is great and entertaining, although it ended a bit abruptly. I’m hoping that’s so that there is room for a sequel, which I would read in a heartbeat. However, there are two main things that would keep me from 100% loving this book.

This excerpt is from a bit where Plum is watching TV, and on this news show they’re discussing how the CEO of the 24-hour TV music channel American HipHop had been threatened and that in response they would no longer show videos that degraded women:

“Commentators wondered what the channel was going to show instead, since all day long it was bitch this, bitch that and there was an endless supply of booty moving through space like smooth brown planets. Cheryl Crane-Murphy and her roundtable of experts wondered if the station would go bankrupt. I turned the channel to American HipHop and saw they were broadcasting a test pattern with a message on the screen reading WE APOLOGIZE FOR THIS INTERRUPTION TO OUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED PROGRAMMING.”

I don’t think I need to explain the racism that goes into saying that a hip-hop music channel has literally nothing to play that doesn’t degrade women. The situation here is strange, because it seems like commentators are voicing some opinion but some of the opinion and phrasing there seems to be from Plum herself. Either way, it’s all coming from the author and it’s extremely careless to make this broad assumption about hip hop music – something I’m guessing she doesn’t listen to herself. I feel very not okay with this section.

The second thing that gave me pause was near the end, in which Plum is responding to an email from a young adult female (18 or 19) who is an A-cup and thinking about getting breast implants. Plum, now more confident and experiencing the anger that comes with being awoken to feminism and cultural body image issues, responds back with a long imaginary scenario in which the girl gets breast implants and her life is ruined. Maybe this is showing how much more Plum has to grow, which could be explored more in a sequel novel. But by itself, this was judgmental and ridiculous. In most situations my opinion is that breast enhancement surgery is a bad idea, but I also think that women can make these choices themselves and that as long as they are completely comfortable making that choice, then they should go for it. I also really hate it when people use fear tactics, which is what Plum did here (don’t even get me started on Go Ask Alice, that lousy book that ends up on teen reading lists to scare kids away from drugs).

Anyways, so Dietland has its flaws but I did really like it and would recommend it to others. I saw something about it being optioned for TV, and I would watch the shit out of this. I want more books about feminists going on the offensive – maybe not quite as radically, but I admit I would really enjoy seeing a secret group of feminists forcing the media industry to play by different rules and inflicting some vigilante justice on rapists. *shrugs* Here’s to hoping for a sequel!

~Sarah

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The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

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I finished this book a few hours ago and I’ve been sitting here for over an hour, theoretically to write the review, but instead I’ve been scrolling through Twitter, reading blog posts, deleting categories and tags I haven’t used in forever, and generally just procrastinating. So, you know, this may not make sense, but just roll with me.

The Intuitionist (which for DAYS I mistakenly kept thinking of as The Institutionist, because apparently I didn’t look at the title very closely and just assumed) takes place in an earlier New York City, a city full of tall buildings that use vertical transportation, i.e., elevators. Racial integration is a hot topic, and black people are referred to as “colored” (or worse). The book surrounds Lila Mae Watson, the first black female elevator inspector, and the story takes off when a high-profile elevator that she inspected just days before fails and crashes. She is of the “Intuition” school of elevator inspecting – that is, she rides the elevator and intuits it and its systems to detect problems. The rival school of inspecting is Empiricism, who inspect elevators the traditional ways with tools and physically testing its parts and functions. Lila is being framed for the elevator accident, and she’s on a mission to find out who’s behind it.

The book is about who framed Lila, and the hunt for the “black box” – the idea of the perfect elevator. But within that is an entire work of social commentary on race relations during that time – that time I’m guessing to be something like the 1940’s. You know, back when girl’s legs were “gams” and the Mob was a big thing. The book did a good job balancing mystery with racism and the effects it has. The Intuitionist had a great noir feel, like a black-and-white detective movie. Lila Mae is an great character – a little rigid, but necessarily so, intelligent and quick-thinking and ballsy. The idea of this world where there’s this whole rival elevator-inspectors thing is odd, but it’s what led me to pick up the book and it was an interesting choice.

Overall, it’s not exactly a quick read, even those it’s only about 250 pages. I read 10-20 pages a day initially, and then read the last 150 pages throughout the day today. Some parts definitely picked up the pace and had me hooked, wanting to know what was going on. I want to insert some quotes here, because I really enjoyed Whitehead’s writing, but the best ones are a little spoiler-y, so I won’t. Just know that there’s some great stuff in here. I’m glad I read this… it was good. I don’t think it’ll be a favorite of mine, but I want to read some of Whitehead’s other books (this was his debut novel). And this may turn out to be a book that I come back to thinking about again and again… it’s too early to tell.

 Sarah Says: 3.5 stars

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)

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I am a ridiculous person. I’ve owned The Cuckoo’s Calling for a long time now, because I found it in hardcover for like $2. But then I requested it on Overdrive one night (no real reason why), and then it became available, so THEN I finally read it. Very silly, Sarah. Anyways, I finally started J.K. Rowling’s new series! Which I guess isn’t so new anymore, since the second book is already out (The Silkworm) and the books are going to be made into a BBC show. But still.

Cormoran Strike is a P.I., whose life seems to be crumbling around him. His debt collectors are after him. He’s broken up with his gorgeous girlfriend, this time for good, so he’s living in his office. He has a new temp, Robin, starting that he can’t afford to really pay. And then in walks John Bristow – brother of the famous supermodel Lula Landry, who was found dead outside her apartment. Her death was ruled a suicide, but John doesn’t believe that she jumped off of her balcony, and he’s willing to pay Strike handsomely to find the murderer. Strike doesn’t believe that Lula’s death was a murder, but he agrees to take the case.

In the end, I really liked the book. Cormoran really grew on me, and Robin as well, though not as much. (The introduction to Robin was her walking around being constantly distracted by her awesome new engagement ring, so it’ll take a bit more to completely recover from that.) Cormoran has some of those typical down-on-his-luck P.I. tropes going for him, but he has his own quirks that make him more “him”. He lost half of a leg in Afghanistan, and has some trouble with that still. His unique parentage is common gossip. He tends to have real compassion for other people. He just forms into this lovable, kind of grumpy old-ish man that I ended up really liking.

One other thing that kind of made me like this book – there were black characters. At first I was concerned, since the first three introduced were either suspected murderers or car thieves. But as the story progressed, more black characters were introduced, one even pretty fully fleshed out. It was refreshing to see more diversity in a book by a white person, in which their ethnicity isn’t exactly the whole point of their existence. In fact, the black characters seemed more real and genuine than some of the white characters – there were a lot of stereotypical mean, rich, white people. I’m not sure if Rowling had any real intentions built around this or not, but it was something that stood out to me. She also had a couple passages that remarked on feminist issues – that awareness and caution that women feel working in close proximity with a man, and how deceased women with any sort of trouble in their lives are written off as just a tragic result of the life they lived, and not afforded the same amount of grief and attention as deceased women who lived “safe” lives. Rowling, man… she just brings SO much to the table when you’re not expecting it.

As a mystery novel, I’m not a good judge. I never see it coming, I never guess correctly who the bad guy is, and this was no different. It was a fun though, and I enjoyed seeing Robin get really excited at the intrigue surrounding working in a P.I.’s office on a high-profile case. I think her and Cormoran will make a great detective team.

And now I’ll leave off with just a couple of the highlight-worthy pieces:

“How easy it was to capitalize on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.”

“Seven and a half million hearts were beating in close proximity in this heaving old city, and many, after all, would be aching far worse than his.”

I’m excited to read The Silkworm, hopefully sooner rather than later.

~Sarah

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

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Hooray, another book off of my Classics Club list! And I kind of loved it.

I read Vanity Fair along with a great group of people for a readalong, so you may have seen the posts for the first and second halves of the book. But those are full of spoilers and random thoughts, so this here my spoiler-free review for the book as a whole.

Vanity Fair (often subtitled A Novel Without A Hero) is a classic revolving around the lives of two women in Vanity Fair – the modest, simple Amelia Sedley and the ambitious, scheming Becky Sharp. The novel follows their lives through the ups and downs, while making fun of society and it’s ridiculous rules, morals, and hypocrisy. It’s a satire in the finest sense of the word, and still has a lot of relevance in today’s world.

I could sit here and pick apart the messages in the novel and discuss the author’s criticisms of society, but I’m not going to do that. Besides, Thackeray is pretty open about it – he breaks the fourth wall constantly to talk directly to the reader, and refers to the characters as if they’re actors in a play we’re watching. Personally, I loved that he talks directly to the audience – it was usually entertaining and witty. His use of humor and satire made this book a really fun read.

The characters and their drama are definitely what drive the story. Becky is mean and conniving – her goal in life is to climb as far up the social ladder as she can to secure some wealth and position for herself. Cliff’s Notes says she’s a bit of a sociopath – while she’s definitely cold and calculating, I don’t know if I’d go quite that far. Amelia is a pretty, innocent, naive little thing who only has eyes for one man – George Osborne.

George Osborne, Rawdon Crawley, and William Dobbin are also some main characters, and really add to the story whether you love or hate them. Personally I adored Dobbin – if this novel does have a hero, it’s him. You’ll see him on any future “favorite men in classic literature” lists I do.

It’s so hard to talk about the characters any more than that without spoiling anything! But there is drama and plotting abound in this book, with several laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled in. I liked how ruthless Thackeray was when it came to mocking the upper class, and how Becky is a character I rooted for even though she’s pretty much a horrible person.

I definitely recommend reading this along with a group, if you can. While I did enjoy it, there were a couple dull chapters here and there that might have made me want to quit. When Vanity Fair was released, it was in 3 or 4 chapter increments in a periodical thingy – I aimed to read one of those sections a day, which worked pretty well. It kept me from getting frustrated, and even built up my excitement – there were times when I wanted to keep reading, but made myself wait until the next day to start the next section.

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The sections of the novel as they were released.

This would have been a 5-star read except for two things – the dull chapters (there were only maybe 5 throughout the whole book, but they really were so slow and unnecessary), and Thackeray’s hints of racism. This occurred more in the beginning of the book, but it was noticeable and annoying. I know that it was pretty much the norm for the 1800’s, but it still rubs me the wrong way. It means I’ll never really consider him a favorite author, even if I end up enjoying some more of his books. 

I’m so glad I read Vanity Fair, and I can’t wait to check out some of the film adaptations.

Sarah Says: 4 stars

 

Classics Club March Question

Hi there!

Finally, a question I can answer that isn’t based on my sad little list of books read off of my Classics Club list! I’m sure I’ll eventually love those questions after I’ve made more of a dent, but I don’t want to talk about the same couple of books over and over again, you know?

Anyways, here’s the Classics Club question for March:

“Do you love Jane Austen or want to “dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone”? (Phrase borrowed from Mark Twain).

  1. Why? (for either answer)?
  2. Favorite and/or least favorite Austen novel?”

 

 

I totally love Jane Austen. Screw you Mark Twain (cause I’ve only attempted to read The Prince and The Pauper by you and found it super boring and tedious, but I’ll try something else by you later).

Anyways, Austen. Yes. The only book of hers I haven’t read yet is Mansfield Park, which I’m hoping to read later this year. I love her because she’s the master of witty insults masked in politeness, and she includes a lot of social commentary in her books about love. Her books aren’t the MOST romantic – characters rarely ever express their love or kiss or anything until near the end – but the parts that are romantic are EPICLY romantic. There’s a reason Darcy’s proposals to Elizabeth Bennett, Wentworth’s letter to Anne, and so on are so well known.

I also like that her novels are all so different from each other, in content and style. Northanger Abbey is so ridiculously different from Pride and Prejudice.

I haven’t been able to pick a favorite Austen. I love Emma because Emma is snotty and rich, I love Northanger Abbey because it’s dark and goofy, and I love Persusasion because it’s full of social criticisms and romance. I of course love Pride and Prejudice because come on… I just have to. It was the first Austen I ever read or saw, so it has a special place.

My least favorite Austen is definitely Sense and Sensibility. Edward is a lousy Austen hero – he’s boring and awkward and you have no clue why Elinor is so attached to him. Colonel Brandon is super awesome, but he doesn’t get nearly enough time on page. He’s the most romantic and his love for Marianne is the best, but all that gets glazed over. LAME.

So what do ya’ll think? Love it or leave it when it comes to Austen? Favorite Austen novel? Austen novel you can’t stand?

~Sarah

 

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

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Yay, another book read from my Classics Club list!

The Martian Chronicles is a book of short stories by Ray Bradbury about humans coming to Mars, starting with the first expedition and going chronologically from there. He wrote these stories in the 1950’s, but they’re set from 1999 to 2026.

It’s always hard to review a book of short stories, even if they do form one overall story. Plus I don’t want to give much away, because if you haven’t read it yet I think you should. Bradbury paints a bleak picture, but it’s one that I think it important. The main theme seems to be that humans tend to do whatever they want without concern for others (like Martians) or for future consequences. I hope hoping that this book would be more about humans and Martians interacting, but it didn’t turn out that way. It was definitely more about humans and how we tend to pollute and destroy pretty much everything.

My favorite stories were And the Moon Be Still As Bright, Way In the Middle of the Air, and Usher II. These were some of the longer and most sad stories, but they were also the strongest and made me feel stuff. And the Moon Be Still As Bright was kind of intense – it was about one of the first crews to land on Mars, and how one of the men realized that humans were going to come and ruin everything that remained of Martian culture. Way in the Middle of the Air was about racial tensions. Usher II was interesting because it’s a story about anti-censorship, and it’s obviously something Bradbury felt very passionately about.

If you’re looking for an interesting sci-fi read about space, this probably isn’t what you’re looking for. But if you’re looking for a book that explores humanity and how Bradbury thought of the world in the 1950’s, this is perfect.

Sarah Says: 4 stars