Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach is one of those books I should have read a long time ago, but didn’t get around to. It’s an experience akin to reading The Lord of the Rings, in that I’ve read lots of things derived from it so it seems quite familiar.
The central premise is that women’s relationship with their bodies is shaped by their experience of living in a male dominated society in which they are valued primarily for appearance. She is mainly talking about women living in rich, western countries, and acknowledges that she is not expressing a universal experience. Much of women’s energy centres around attempts to meet the beauty standard, which is currently to be very thin.
This has a number of effects including that women have disordered eating patterns and perceptions of their bodies. In terms of eating, if you have spent your life eating according to a diet plan, then eating when you’re hungry is not something you may be used to. The book talks about the associations women have with being fat or thin and both states of being have positive and negative connotations.
Much of this book is excellent. One thing that undermines the good stuff is that Orbach continually asserts that by learning to eat intuitively women will lose weight. This reinforces the message that losing weight is desirable rather than supporting the message that a healthy relationship with your body is more important than what it looks like.
If you’re interested in body issues and eating disorders this is essential reading.
I discovered I could edit on the train so I wasn’t reading for a while. I’ve got as far as I can with editing the current work-in-progress; it now needs more writing and I can’t do that on the train quite so well. That does mean I’m reading again which is no bad thing as active reading leads to better writing.
The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison‘s first novel. I wanted to read it as it deals with the impact of cultural conceptions on beauty on people who don’t, and can’t ever, be beautiful on those narrow terms. And Toni Morrison is an important writer whose work I haven’t before read.
In the introduction to the edition of The Bluest Eye that I had, Morrison talked about what she had tried to achieve and how she felt that she’d failed. She’d tried to tell the story of a person who is smashed by rejection, who had no self from which to speak because she had internalised the dismissal and hate. To do this, she used a variety of voices to relate a number of incidents that build up to a picture of the child that results. Morrison doesn’t feel she succeeded. As I don’t know what she was trying to do, I can’t say, but it seems to me that what she wrote was exceptional.
What I particularly took from this novel was the way in which Morrison manages to convey accent and rhythm of speaking with word choice and sentence structure. She doesn’t rely on dialect spellings to give her characters authentic voices, meaning the reader doesn’t need to work out how things are supposed to sound. She uses words that were contemporary to 1950’s Black America and structures her sentences in ways that mimic the rhythm of this type of speech. She allows the world of the novel to be built up quickly without distracting the reader from the story.
The second learning point for me was around structure. The novel has four sections which correspond to the seasons and in each section a part of the story is told by a number of different characters. It isn’t chronological for the seasons aren’t necessarily in the same year. Each event adds another layer to the story of the life of a child until you see just how brutalised she is, and just how unintentional most of it was.
In her introduction, Morrison says that few people were moved by The Bluest Eye – I certainly was.
Plot. I have issues with plot. I have a mental block when it comes to getting my characters from one big event to another via smaller events. Perhaps it’s just a confusion, a lack of being able to see the big picture, and the plot really is there and I just can’t see it. If it is there, it won’t be because I did it deliberately.
With this in mind, I picked up The Hard Way by Lee Child. It’s heavy on plot, one of those thrillers that’s all plot and not much else. In actual fact, it’s more of a detective novel with the emphasis on gathering the little clues and interpreting them to fnd out what really happened. The ending is sufficiently explosive with Jack Reacher dispatching the bad guys at a breakneck pace that makes it rather exciting.
Characterisation is on the light side. This is the second Jack Reacher novel I’ve read and I don’t think I know him any better than I did after reading the first one. The rest of the characters are fairly thin. The bad guys are bad and several of the seven-man crew have only names and a couple of physical features to describe them. Reacher hooks up with an ex-FBI agent turned PI, who is a woman in her fifties given an active role and is the love interest, so kudos to Lee Child for a positive, powerful representation of an older woman. Unfortunately, her role is limited to being a foil for Reacher and at the end she is tied up waiting to be rescued.
It is good to see that there isn’t a high body count amongst the female characters, and a theme of strong sisters fighting for their families runs through the book. It is done rather unsubtly but is a nice touch in a genre that is often misogynistic. There is also a drop of social commentary on the privatisation of the defence and security industries. It’s not great literature, but it is fun and is better than several thrillers I’ve read recently.
In non-fiction I turned for help to The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman. I got this because it was mentioned by a panelist at alt.fiction 2010 and I have been worrying about plot lately. It has some useful suggestions in it and a couple of things I hadn’t read before, so it was worth it’s purchase. What I didn’t like was the highly gendered use of pronouns when talking about characterisation techniques. At the beginning, Lukeman says he will use he as a generic term, which is lazy at best, but ok. Except that’s not what he does. He sometimes uses he and sometimes uses she. If he had just alternated that would have been ok, but he doesn’t. He only uses she when talking about things that are associated with women in traditional gender stereotypes and never uses she outside of talking about children, attractiveness and domesticity. Grating, and enough to spoil the book, especially as it was written in 2001.