I love fat books and I cannot lie: Dietland (review)

Diet Land
Sarai Walker
Mariner

There may not be a woman in the Western world who hasn’t, at one time or another, had an issue with her weight. I know I have. For years I was too skinny. Then just right. Finally got a little-meat-on-my-bones okay. Putting-on-some pounds-better-watch-it. Downright overweight. Plenty has been written about The Struggle.

In her first novel, Dietland, writer Sarai Walker dives head first into empowerment and body image. (For women, that is. Do men even think twice this stuff?) Before I get too far into writing about Dietland, let me say it’s not for everyone. Walker’s characters curse plenty and slang is used instead of proper anatomical terms. There are descriptions of porn and a little self-pleasuring goes on. There’s also some pretty graphic descriptions of men who have been kidnapped and murdered. So this is where you decide whether or not to bail or read on. But unfiltered though it may be, Dietland covers some important territory.

Plum Kettle has tried it all since she was sixteen. Waist Watchers.  A famous diet of frozen meals and pills supplemented with meetings of evangelical proportion, called the Baptist Plan after founder Euylayla Baptist. Nothing has worked. Now pushing thirty, Plum is awaiting bariatric surgery. She’s apprehensive, but after a life of dieting, willing to take the risk. Plum works from home answering emails for a ‘tween beauty magazine Daisy Chain, spending hours a day responding to girls’ questions about cutting, small breasts, creepy stepbrothers, and more. When editor Kitty Montgomery calls her into the office one morning, Plum falls into a rabbit hole of revolutionary feminists whose goal is to bring the system down. Some of the revolutionaries are social justice workers with a positive, albeit radical, outlook–and others, not so much. (Which is where the kidnapping, murder, and dismembering–usually with the emphasis on “member”–of those men comes into play.)

Plum’s first awakening is to let go of her obsession with food–instigated by an offer of $20,000 if she follows a transformative “diet” plan suggested by Verena Baptist, daughter of the late weight loss guru. Plum finds community at a women’s cooperative. She sleeps (and eats) a lot. She develops a fashion style. Plum, like so many women who finally come to terms with their bodies, recognizes she needs to change from the inside out.

Walker alternates the stories of the characters’ present with their past–and we discover that even the women who resort to violence are driven by our culture’s misogynist response to them. Dietland is a difficult book to read in many ways–one that tells the truth, but tells is slant, as Miss Emily Dickinson would say.

If you’d like to pair your reading of Walker’s fiction with a good memoir, be sure to read Half-Assed by Jennette Fulda. Plum and her feminist band would love Fulda’s honesty, wit, and sass–I know I did.

So there you have it. Feminism and weight loss are not mutually exclusive. I know–because when my own weight loss was an inside job it was empowering, not repressive.

My Book Breakup: The Shadow Land (review)

The Shadow Land (NetGalley)
Elizabeth Kostova
Ballantine Books
release date: April 11, 2017

I’ve never read horror –or monster–stories. (Except I do love my Frankenstein!) Most teens go through a scare-the-wits-out-of-me reading phase, but not me. So you wouldn’t think I’d fall for a book about shadow landDracula, but I did. And let’s face it. The Historian got so much buzz when it was published, how could I not? The adventures of Paul and Helen searching Vlad the Impaler’s burial place in Bulgaria and Budapest–the mountains, the monasteries, the countryside–were just as thrilling as the tales of Dracula. The novel was myth layered over history layered over politics and even at 647 pages I didn’t want it to end.

So I was so excited to get an advance digital copy of Elizabeth Kostova’s third novel, The Shadow Land. The publisher’s blurb said only that a young American in Bulgaria is left holding an “ornately carved wooden box” and inside? “… an urn filled with human ashes.” The girl, it seems, mistakenly takes the bag of a handsome gentleman she bumps into in a taxi line. Sounded to me like I might go on another romp to Vlad’s stomping grounds–could this be another (true) vampire story? Because, remember, at the end of The Historian, the narrator gets a small velvet book that isn’t hers …

But no. This is a story about that American, Alexandra Boyd, and her attempts to return those ashes. She’s befriended by taxi driver Bobby Iliev, who drives her from the city of Sofia to a monastery to the mountains to another village … and they’re always just behind (or maybe it’s ahead of) the Man Who Lost His Bag. Kostova alternates several tales: the race to return the ashes, Alexandra’s childhood, Stoyan Lazarov (he of the ashes), and, eventually, Bobby’s background. The only horror in the novel is the horror of Bulgaria’s past as a Soviet bloc country. For my reading taste, it was a patchwork of stories that never quite came together. And, sadly, didn’t hold my interest.

I’ve become quite familiar with the disappointment of reading books that don’t meet my standards for good storytelling. So I think what bothers me the most is this–was my dislike of Shadow Land based on the story itself–or the writing–or the fact that for months I had been anticipating a return to The Historian? It’s happened before. I was captivated by The Thirteenth Tale and then aghast at Bellman & Black. (Maybe “aghast” is a little strong … ) If you read enough, you’ll read plenty of clunkers.

The Shadow Land will be released on Tuesday, April 11, and I’m impatient to read what other reviewers have to say. Who knows? Maybe it’s just me.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley: review

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley (NetGalley)
Hannah Tinti
Dial Press
release date: March 28, 2017

The story opens with Samuel Hawley teaching his twelve-year-old daughter Loo how to shoot a rifle. While she knew not to touch tThe twelve lives of Samuel Hawleyhem, guns were part of the backdrop of her life, hidden all over the house and cleaned nightly at the kitchen table. Her father never left the house without one, and he was always “listening for something else … always watching. Always waiting.” So it probably shouldn’t surprise the reader to learn that those twelve lives referred to in the title parallel twelve bullet scars that Samuel carries.

For as long as she can remember, Loo (short for Louise) and her father have rarely stayed in one place longer than a few months. They’ve crisscrossed the country in his truck, settling down in hotels long enough for her to attend school, often picking up and moving on before the year is over. They live on ramen noodles and take-out Chinese, play card games at night. At each stop Loo unpacks her few belongings while Samuel sets up a shrine in the bathroom to her dead mother’s memory: a bottle of shampoo and conditioner on the edge of the bathtub; a lipstick and compact; a parking ticket, shopping list, and scribbled notes propped on the mirror. The “dead woman” we learn, “was an ever-present part of their lives.”

Samuel and Loo finally come to settle in Olympus, Massachusetts, her mother Lily’s hometown. A house in the woods, ocean fishing, grandmother nearby–it sounds almost idyllic after twelve years of gypsy living. But that grandmother won’t acknowledge Loo, and the girl is often in trouble at school. Samuel is shunned by the small town and at odds with more established fishermen. Alternating chapters between Loo’s present and Samuel’s past, writer Hannah Tinti uses the bullet scars to tell Samuel’s back-story. And it’s not a pretty one.

Since he was barely sixteen, Samuel has made his way in the world by stealing and killing. The loving father and grieving widower is a criminal on the run. (I tried to figure out a way to slant that fact–some way to tell the truth a little more gently–but there it is.) Samuel Hawley has delivered stolen goods and been a hit man. He’s a runner for mob types and has good reason for all those guns. It seems that criminals keep score.

Now I’ve never shot a gun, and I can hardly think of a situation in which I’d shoot one. I don’t like violent movies–even those that get critical acclaim. I’m a law-abiding school teacher. (How’s that for status quo?!) But I was riveted by The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley. Tinti created a character I loved, whose actions I despised … but maybe came to understand.

And as luck would have it, yesterday’s Weekend Edition on NPR featured an interview with the author that might also pique your bookish interest. Published this week, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is an engaging read.

Flash Fiction Friday

Elle leaned against the fender of the Plymouth watching fireflies blink over the field across the highway. She had pulled onto the shoulder over an hour ago with a flat tire; it was nearly nine, but the air was still close. Her tank top stuck to her back where it had been pressed against the vinyl seat. She pulled her hair into a pony and rolled her neck.

Doug Kerr @ Flickr.com

Forty-five minutes to home and now she’d be later still. Sighing, she kicked a gravel from her flip flop and shifted onto her hip. A tow truck slowed on the other side of the median and pulled into the emergency turn-around. She waved and he flicked on his flashers. As the driver pulled up behind her, she straightened. Smoothed her hair for whatever reason. Wiped sweaty palms on her skirt.

“You gotta spare?” he asked. The name stitched on his pocket said Wayne. She’d called for a tow, knowing the spare was circa 2000, same as the car, and probably shot to hell.

“Cheaper to fix it than have to drive you to the station and wait until we find a new one.”

“Well try then, I guess.”

Fifteen minutes later she was on the road again, Wayne following her as he’d promise.

“You’re right. She’s a bugger,” he’d admitted. “I’ll follow as long as I can back towards town in case this one blows.”

Two exits before her own, Wayne flashed his lights. She saw him wave as he pulled off the exit, so she gave her horn a couple sharp “thank yous” and hoped he heard. Most of the time she used a fictional husband to keep mechanics (and electricians and plumbers) honest. But Wayne’s quiet smile and the careful way he made his way over made her drop her guard from the first.

“I don’t get it,” she had told him while he worked. “This is the second flat I’ve had in the past month.”

“Probably potholes,” Wayne said.

“Shouldn’t be–I drive to work the same way every day.”

“Well, then, maybe you need to take a different road.”


[The flash fiction “The  Spare”, 2016 draft, appeared first on This Is My Symphony.]

Himself: review

Himself (NetGalley)
Jess Kidd
St. Martin’s Press
release date: March 14, 2017

himselfJess Kidd’s first novel Himself is a poignant and darkly funny story about a Mahony, a n’er-do-well Dubliner, who travels clear across the island to the idyllic village of Mulderrig to discover what happened to the mammy who (apparently) abandoned him on the steps of an orphanage when he was still a babe in arms and left without a trace. When an aged nun dies she leaves behind an envelope for Mahony with a photo of his mom Orla holding baby Francis–his given name. On the back is penciled “Know that your mammy loved you.”

But the quaint village, like small towns all over the world, is a place of rumors and lies and cover-ups. Mulderrig isn’t as innocent as it appears and Mahony soon suspects that his mother, rather than abandoning him, was killed. As Mahony sets about asking questions about Orla, he is greeted with disdain or curiosity, at best, and at worst, hostility. Orla was not a welcomed or respected member of the town. She was the “wild bad girl of the village” with a missing pappy and an drunk mam. By the time she was a teen, the wayward Orla had to survive using whatever means she could. And then there was her baby.

Mahony has the gift of second sight, and Kidd’s description of the world he sees is magical. Ghosts frolic on the lawn, play cards in the parlor, skip through the woods, and drift up to sit on the roof–and the author makes it seem so commonplace. The reader realizes about halfway through the novel, though, that those ghosts are clues. (Clues, I must admit, that this reader couldn’t unravel until the last few pages.)

Add to the other-worldliness of the story living characters who are endearing–or despicable. There’s Mrs. Cauley, the eccentric elderly actress who immediately takes Mahony under her wing; her winsome housekeeper and companion Shauna, who falls quickly under Mahony’s spell. There is a jolly barkeep, an unlikable priest, a grieving young mother, a mysterious recluse …

And darker forces are at work when someone first leaves a plate of poisoned scones for Mahony, then a bomb in the letterbox, and finally tries to bribe him to leave for America.

Kidd’s cast of characters–living and dead–are all brought together as Mahony and Mrs. Cauley stage a play, Hamlet-style, to flush out the killer. And, much like Hamlet there’s a fight, murder, a raving woman who knows the killer, and too many secrets to count.

If you’ve a friend who is a Hibernophile (Did you even know that was a thing?!), Himself would make a perfect St. Paddy’s Day surprise. Pop it in a bright green bag with a bottle of stout, a packet of crisps, and you’ll be fast friends forever.