Tag Archives: women

Clara Callan: In which I start writing the review ambivalent, and end up not liking the book; or, the merit of writing reviews

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Oh I don’t know. It’s hard sometimes to summon a review. Sometimes you read something and think ‘yes. that was just fine.’ And in the case of Richard Wright’s (why does he insist on the middle initial?) Clara Callan, I have no solid argument against reading it, but I also can’t muster a persuasive case for picking it up. So sure, if you find yourself in a hostel with a free copy (or in my case, a used bookstore with a copy in the $1 bin and your only other reading material is the very boring A Brief History of Seven Killings) then by all means: go in. Continue reading

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Governor Generals

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl: If I had a less complicated relationship with ‘fat’

I requested Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl because I wanted to be the kind of person who could read a book about body image and body size and not have it be a fraught experience. Alas. I am not that kind of person (yet) (ever). So my review here is coloured (aren’t all reviews?) by my experience hating-learning-and-now-force-loving my body (“Force-loving” your body is my term for my practice of aggressively defending my body’s right to do whatever it wants, even while I have niggling doubts. Like I can force body postivity on myself with a combination of determined repetition “soft bodies are beautiful!” and strategic disavowal “diets are tools of the capitalist patriarchy!” and yet somehow am always left wondering about the why I’m running 5km at 5am: where lies the border between enjoying an active body and policing it?).

I DIGRESS.

The book, the book. So probably it has 13 chapters. That would make sense with the title. It follows Elizabeth/Liz/Lizzie/Beth over her lifetime of hating her body. Born to a fat mom, Lizzie grows up fat. The first chapters are her as a teenager experiencing a fat body in a world that it still very okay with fat prejudice. In fact, part of the project of the novel seems to be exposing just how pervasive this prejudice is, and the societally sanctioned cruelities that accompany. As Lizzie ages she experiences different sizes of body and the way her body is read and interpreted by others. That her own internalized sense of self is at odds with how other people see her should be no surprise to anyone who has experienced an eating disorder or body dysmorphia. Or you know, has been a person in the world at all, really.

It has some fabulously rendered scenes made sharp for this reader by poignant details balanced against and occasionally undercutting, but often perpetuating, stereotypes about how women treat themselves and one another. The relationships between groups of women and food is explored with nuance: not just the dynamics of a social gathering, but the ways friendships are made (and broken) by body size and the (innumerable) activities that surround keeping a body just so. Lizzie’s frequent inability to see past how other women are presenting themselves in relation to food, and how she allows (all) her relationships to be shaped by what, how and who is eating is as sad as it is familiar.

So if you’re a person who has experienced a fraught relationship with body or food I’d suggest reading this one for the moments of recognizing yourself and feeling understood and seen. But more if you’re a person who has an untroubled relationship with food or body (who *are* you and how did you get to be this way?!) I’d urge you to read this one as it offers a – if only from one, fictional perspective – view into a life led in body distress. And might lend you some tools – and empathy – for encountering bodies differently.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Reader Request

Red Rising: Fantasy Mashup and Bestseller Bonanza

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I described Pierce Brown’s Red Rising to C. as a cross between Hunger Games, Divergent and Game of Thrones and then as she was reading the back, she pointed out the same description was on the cover. Probably because it’s an apt way of capturing the plot and theme points. And because I’m a book reviewer genius and the Kirkus Review has nothing on me.

Right… so like the Hunger Games in that we’re set in a dystopian society of stratified classes. Instead of Districts we have Colours (like the Divergent factions) each associated with a different professional role in the Society (capital S on purpose). Like HG the young must do battle with one another in an arena (or sorts) though instead of killing one another the quest is to establish dominance over the land (think Game of Thrones battles, strategy and endless betrayals). It’s a battle within a battle (sort of like Enders Game come to think of it) with our hero – Darrow – working to infiltrate the upper echelon of the Society so he can take it down from the inside and free his people.

There’s some pretty silly bits. In the early chapters Darrow’s realization of his captivity and subsequent awareness of the wider world reads as an obnoxiously similar description of Plato’s cave: like there’s an actual cave and actual fire. There’s a lot of searing pain (think Harry Potter and the interminable descriptions of How Much His Scar Hurts) and teenage hormone.

But these silly parts are endurable for the well-paced plot and the genuine interest and care cultivated for Darrow and his quest (cultivated in no small part in that Darrow is a very well developed character with complex and unpredictable reactions – except when it comes to women, more on that in a minute). I liked reading this one so much I couldn’t wait to order it from the other library and (actually) waited outside the bookstore for it to open this morning so I could get the second installment (it is, of course, a trilogy).

*light spoilers to follow*

I liked reading it even while I was troubled and annoyed with the representation of women. Darrow’s wife, Eo, is a singular martyr and Darrow’s romanticization of her throughout the rest of the book put me off as it made Eo’s entire purpose the inspiration and motivation of her husband-man: “They didn’t create me. She did” (115). His later love interest, Mustang, is more developed as a character, but similarly defined in relation to Darrow: she is a traitor, she is loyal, she is helpful, she is destructive all in terms of what she does to or for him.

A related sticking point is the representation of bodies. The women are – without exception – only loveable or worthy of character development if they also happen to be slight and wispy whiffs of a person: “Though she’s swaddled with wolfcloaks as thick as my own, she hardly comes up to my shoulder. And when we walk through deep snow, it’s almost a laugh to see her try to keep apace with me. But if I slow, I earn a scowl. Her braid bounces as she keeps up [for real. her braid bounces]. When we reach easier ground, she glances over at me. Her pert nose is red as a cheery in the cold, but her eyes look like hot honey” (309-310). Okay, this passage probably won’t make you want to run out and get the book (it really is a fun read and worth checking out). I highlight it because it’s an example of the fragility-made-tough that women are meant to have in the book. And the way our ponytails should bounce. Contrast with the male characters who are worthy of veneration for all kinds of body types and shapes.

All that said it really was a romp of a fun read with Allegory and Importance thrown in for some fun. You could easily enjoy on the beach, a plane or wait until – inevitably – the blockbuster movie comes out (unless you’re in book club, in which case you have to read it because we’re reading it).

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Fates and Furies: Gone Girl Meets East of Eden

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For years I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden every spring. I read it in the spring because its setting was the lush Salinas valley (okay – “Eden”); I loved it because it held the idea that we can choose the direction of our life. (I also probably loved it because it was one of the first books I read during the end of highschool/undergrad that I recognized – on my own! – the way the book was artfully (though not subtly in this case) making meaning: all of the A names are good! The C names evil!). I wanted to believe then (just as I do now) that we humans can make choices (within the constraints of our circumstances…).

Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies (as the title suggests)also explores this idea of the limits of choice. The novel follows the marriage of Lotto (short for Lancelot – as if we needed the reminder that the name of characters signifies something about their thematic role) and Mathilde as they navigate a life of literal and figurative theatre: he is a playwright, they both perform for the world and one another. Attempting to be on the stage of life what they think will earn them the most love (and applause), eschewing honesty for its risk: loss. The novel did not succeed (for this reader) in bringing anything new to the idea of a fated life or one full of intention. It plays around with the ways deception (both the explicit lie and the untold truth) frustrates and enables choice with some interest, but for the most part circles familiar territory.

In its form it recalls Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train in a sort of repressed hysteria of women-can’t-be-trusted and the self-satisfied triumph of revealing as much in a formal break in narrative voice midway through the text. The first half of the novel gives us a third person limited on Lotto: his love for Mathilde, his tortured relationship with his mother and family inheritance, his need for approval and adoration. The second half brings us something like a Gone Girl explosion. Mathilde is not what she seems! Women are mostly temptress, seductress whores unless they are beacons of goodness (*cough* another East of Eden parallel…). Under the calm exterior of every woman is a roiling example of evil incarnate and barely controlled fury. Throughout both section the narrator/authorial voice interrupts in parentheses to let us know what is really going on – the playwright inserting the intended reading. It is, at moments, a compelling device, however it is unevenly deployed (almost as though it’s been forgotten at some points and at others with little effect except to be novel). I suppose that’s my complaint about the form of the novel: it reads like a overly workshopped story, intent on being taken seriously, a little too satisfied with the creativity of its changing narrative voices.

Unlike Gone Girl there’s merit in this novel. There are interesting ideas about choice and deception, and moments of great writing and formal play. The caveat is that you have to muck about with a bunch of obvious Symbols and handwringing Theme for those moments. A good one to take on a plane or to the beach in that it reads quickly and requires very little of the reader. Plus there’s a bazillion sex scenes. Because you know, women. They’re so sexy. And furious.

 

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Book Club, Fiction, Prize Winner