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Fat is a Feminist Issue

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.

Babel Tower

One of my top ten books is Possession by A. S. Byatt and so it stands to reason that I would like other books by the same author. I read Angels and Insects and wasn’t blown away. I bought Babel Tower and it has sat on my bookshelf for ten years. Part of the reason I haven’t read it is that it is a hardback and is 615 pages. The other part is that I was worried I wouldn’t like it. Oh, how wrong I was.

On the surface it is the story of Frederica Potter, a woman who was a Cambridge graduate in the early 1960s, then her sister died and while she was grieving she married an inappropriate man. At the start of Babel Tower Frederica has a two year old and is realising that she made a mistake in her marriage. When she runs into an old friend it accelerates this realisation. The cracks in her marriage widen and her husband becomes extremely jealous and violent. After he hits her with an axe, she leaves and begins a life in London.

There Frederica renews old friendships and makes new ones, including one with the author of a book which is tried under the Obscenity Act. At the same time, Frederica starts divorce proceedings. What the book is really about is the terrible position and treatment of women in the 1960s and it is very feminist. It is also about the nature of art and about obscenity, morality and freedom of expression.

The quality of the writing is astonishing. It was so rich and complex without ever becoming florid. I wish I could write like this. On every page I was in awe. It is the third in a series of four and, of course, I haven’t read any of the others but it easily stands on its own. Byatt is a literary writer who is gripping, tense and utterly absorbing. This was amazing and I could barely put it down. You should definitely read it.

100 Books in 2011 review: Edge

I was looking forward to reading Edge by Thomas Blackthorne. I liked the blurb (which you can see in the picture). It sounded like it was going to be an ultra-violent Running Man fun type of silliness. Predators in book form. But that’s not what it was. Bad Angry Robot. That’s the second time I’ve read a book from this imprint that did not contain what was on the label.

Edge is actually a thriller set in a near-future dystopia. The son of a wealthy and influential tycoon runs away from home so he hires an ex-SAS soldier with mad software skills to find the boy. Doing so reveals illegal activity on the behalf of the tycoon’s biggest rival in cahoots with a corrupt government. It’s set in a near-future UK where everything is tracked and recorded electronically all the time and getting off the grid is tough. Knife duels are legal and as a result crime is down but loads of people die in duels. And sports/reality TV is dominated by a duelling league where combatants die every week for your viewing pleasure. But the book doesn’t focus on that part of it. That’s the backdrop for the real story.

It was a good thriller. It was easy reading and fast paced. The protagonist, Josh Cumberland, is a fairly typical modern thriller hero; big, buff, beautiful, with special forces training (which in this world includes cyber warfare) and an anger management problem. What lifts Edge up from the mass is the cast of strong female characters that support the protagonist. Cumberland’s team of ex-SAS buddies are not all male – and the ones that are, have three-dimensional personalities. His insider on the force is a policewoman who gives free self-defence classes in her spare time. The ‘love interest’ is a psychologist whose skills are pivotal to resolving the central mystery. And it’s nice that her role as psychologist way overshadows her role as love interest. I thought the characterisation was real and sensitive, and I think this might actually pass the Bechdel test.

The near-future setting was rich and cleverly put together. It was distinctive, memorable and thoroughly thought through, and yet at no time did the setting overshadow the story. I was disappointed that the knife duelling reality show didn’t have more airtime, but that’s only because that’s what I thought the book would be about. But Edge is excellent, and it was a better story than that. I hope Blackthorne writes more stories set in this world.

Writing-wise, it was clean and competent. Blackthorne has a very understated style. The writing focusses on plot with description and characterisation subtly woven in-between dialogue and action. Ignore the blurb and give it a go.   

100 Books in 2011 review: Grass

Book number 1 in the 100 books in 2011 challenge is Grass by Sherri Tepper. It’s number 48 on the SF Masterworks list. The blurb says:

Generations ago, humans fled to the cosmic anomaly known as Grass. But before humanity arrived, another species had already claimed Grass for its own. It too had developed a culture… Now a deadly plague is spreading across the stars, leaving no planet untouched, save for Grass. But the secret of the planet’s immunity hides a truth so shattering it could mean the end of life itself.

Grass follows Marjorie Yrarier and her family as they go as ambassadors to Grass with the secret mission of finding a cure for the plague. There are two societies on Grass; the aristocrats, an ossified relic of old European aristocracy that spends its time hunting; and the Commons which is a vibrant, trading nation. Then there are the Hippae, who act as mounts in the aristocrats’ hunts, but who are far more than semi-intelligent animals.

I loved this. The central mystery is well-handled and the reveal is done slowly over the last third of the book. Grass as a world is vividly realised and it’s inhabitants and their relationships are well-drawn. The ideas about social organization are subtly woven in and the plot is always at the foreground. I actually couldn’t put it down. It’s nice to read something with a middle aged woman as the protagonist – especially science fiction, especially an adventure mystery. Marjorie is a wife and a mother, and yet she is portrayed as an individual, as active and as as driving the story. Marjorie is purposeful woman, driven to solve the mystery at the heart of the disturbing planet she finds herself on and, although she has love interests (three if you count her husband) they are secondary to the main plot. It’s worth mentioning because it strikes me that female protagonists, in this type of story, are pretty rare. Tepper avoids the traps of either making her female protag solely defined by her family and romantic relationships or making her a man in a lady costume. It’s so refreshing.

I only have two minor niggles, and seriously, they are tiny. First. the planet Grass is sharply drawn and the word picture is rich and vivid. The group of colonies that it is part of is quite fuzzy; I don’t even know whether to call it a galaxy, system or universe. Perhaps it doesn’t matter as most of the action is on Grass but it does feel slightly incomplete. The other niggle is the omniscient third person POV. Tepper handles it well so it doesn’t feel like head-hopping, but I did find it a little old-fashioned and in one or two places it is confusing.

So, Grass was excellent, overall. It was complex, deep and thought-provoking. It was beautifully written. It made me want to read everything else she’s written. Highly recommended.

Thoughts on reading: The Bluest Eye

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.

Thoughts on reading: The Hard Way

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.