Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

This Diet Book Has No Flavour and is Kind of Cardboardy

Monday, March 5th, 2007

I call it Operation Look Less Like a Dalek. It’s not a particularly catchy name, nor does it lend itself well to acronyms, but for me it’s better than ‘diet’. The name fits in well with some particular goals of mine: I would like people I am chasing to stop being able to escape me merely by climbing stairs. I would like my personal theme song to be something like ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ or ‘Superfreak’ (not as done by Bobby Flynn from Australian Idol, or I might cry), rather than the Timelords’ 1988 classic ‘Doctorin’ the Tardis’. Also, even though he has not said as much, I suspect Stuart would really appreciate it if I would stop yelling “EXTERMINATE!” during intimate moments.

I’m trying to establish a healthy point between making lifestyle changes (quite easy, so far), and becoming completely and ridiculously obsessed, as is my wont with any new hobby. I just don’t want to go overboard in one direction, lest I swing back even faster in the other, and I fear that composing poems in my head called ‘Ode to Stomach Crunches’ may be just that wee bit on the obsessive side.

So, while this will by no means become a diet blog (that’s what my secret anonymous new blog is for!), allow me to pontificate, for a moment, on the weight loss industry.

Although I’ve been overweight for longer than I care to think about now, the presence of the weight loss industry left me uninspired to do much about it. A short spell at Weight Watchers a few years ago left me unimpressed with the diet factory approach to weight loss, and although I’ve mostly been okay at exercising regularly, I lacked the knowledge to make sustained changes in my life. Dieting and weight loss are so much a part of Western culture now, and there is so much emphasis on good vs bad that it’s like a new religion. Well, I resent the idea that there’s virtue in literally, physically being less, I resent the idea that as a woman I should be small and meek and not take up space. I’m deeply cynical of the purposes that keeping women majorly obsessed with their appearances (and those of others) serve: the money and energy women spend on trying to make themselves acceptable, the sheer mental, emotional and physical energy that the average woman – let alone the eating-disordered woman – spends thinking about food and her body. It annoys me that a woman’s worth is still judged so majorly on her physical appearance and sexual desirability to others, and that rather than changing this so that women are judged on the same basis as men (brains, ability, character – all that pish-tosh minor stuff), men are now increasingly being judged as women have always been, their insecurities being played on in different but similar ways. So, because I refuse to pay $15 per week plus a joining fee to get weighed and be told stuff I already now, and untold more dollars to eat fake food, I’m doing it on my own now.

But the industry still rears its head. Much as I try to escape it, my interest in fitness and weight loss affects my perspective on things, and has become a hobby in itself. And when I am interested in something, I read about it. And I ask you, reader, a genuine question: is there anyone out there writing books about this stuff who manages to do it without sounding like a sadistic no-life loner or a sanctimonious harpy? Over the years the number of diet books I’ve read have melted into an amorphous memory-mass, with a few stand-outs, like the one telling people to never, ever eat cheese again (because forbidding something is an effective way to stop people from wanting it!). Just the other night, however, I finished reading The Clothesline Diet, by one Karen Gatt. It sounded promising – all the clotheslines you can eat – and Ms Gatt made headlines a few years ago by literally losing half her body weight. I liked the idea that she’d done it without buying into the weight loss industry and its myriad products, although the fact that she’d used her experience to make a weight-loss product (and start an online business) did not escape my attention or amusement.

But holy hell, I can see why she didn’t call the book The Take Some Personal Fucking Responsibility Diet. Gatt is a prime example of why someone should not be held up as a role model just because they’ve managed to lose weight. After a lifetime of being miserable about her weight but refusing to do anything about it, which leads to her leaving school in year nine after physically assaulting a student who teases her about her weight, Gatt marries young and becomes a housewife. Which isn’t necesessarily a bad choice per se, but she emphasises how happy it made her while glossing over the fact that she was so bored she turned even further to food. Not an uncommon thing, certainly, but Gatt is so sanctimonious in her views and judgements of others that it was hard for me not to respond in kind. Desperate for a baby, she discovers she is infertile, a problem linked directly to her weight, but rather than try to lose weight, she and her husband elect to undergo IVF. When this fails, she tries to adopt a child through a private adoption (ie, a friend of a friend goes through an unwanted pregnancy), and completely loses her shit at the 18-year-old birth mother when she decides to keep the baby – long before anything has been officially decided. While undoubtedly a difficult and heartbreaking experience, Gatt’s account of this incident in the book is accompanied by a sermon on how if someone is going to have sex, they should take responsibility for their actions. Um, lady, you’re the one who was too fat to have a baby and wouldn’t do anything about it. Pot. Kettle. Hypocrite. (Later, after her weight loss, she also undergoes cosmetic surgery because she can’t wait to look good any longer – but let’s not forget, this is an “inspiring journey” of a woman who did it all by herself.)

Perhaps all this wouldn’t have bothered me so much (oh, who am I kidding, sanctimonious fucks and the don’t-have-sex-if-you-don’t-want-a-baby brigade will ALWAYS bother me), if it weren’t for the fact that the book is marketed as a health/diet book and not the memoir that it is: Gatt spends less time talking about how she lost half her body weight (which, despite my opinions about her opinions, is a pretty remarkable feat and takes some doing) than she does talking about how inspiring people find her and how famous she got and how she even became a model. Read Margaret Clark’s wish-fulfilment YA novel Fat Chance instead – it covers the same ground but is far less irritating. In fact, after 150 or so pages of “I was fat, I felt bad, my husband and family loved me but I was too busy being a psychotic hosebeast to enjoy my life, boo hoo hoo LOVE ME”, the actual weight losing gets brushed off in a chapter or so (forgive the vagueness but it’s been a little while, and I returned the book from whence it came quick-smart so can’t refer to it directly). There is little mention of the struggles she must have experienced – the struggles anyone trying to lose weight experiences. I know weight comes off easier initially when you’re very overweight but that doesn’t mean it’s actually easy, and after being walked through Gatt’s psyche earlier in the book, it would have been interesting to get some insight here; perhaps a deeper treatment of Gatt’s weight-loss experience would have redeemed the book, but the effusiveness with which she writes seems offhand, perhaps even emotionally dishonest, and for me nullified what I had been lead to believe the book was about. I’m not sure I see the point of a book about a weight-loss “journey” (sorry for the quotes, I hate that fucking word at the best of times) that doesn’t actually talk about weight loss all that much. And sure, maybe it’s a topic that’s hard to write about – it’s personal and it leaves you vulnerable and I hesitated about writing about my own feelings even though a large percentage of the very small number of people who read this blog know me and have, obviously, seen me and know I am no waif. But still, writing a weight-loss memoir and glossing over the bit where you actually, you know, lost the weight is a little like writing a sex memoir about all the times you couldn’t get a shag.

A Book Review That Isn’t, Really

Saturday, October 8th, 2005

I have a headache, and it’s all Kate Holden’s fault.

Despite the fact that I work on Saturdays, I was up until all hours last night, until I finally finished Holden’s recently published memoir, In My Skin. If you live in Australia and have been paying any attention at all to the literary bits of the media, you’ll know that In My Skin is about Holden’s battle with heroin addiction, and her experiences working as a prostitute on the streets of St Kilda and, later, in brothels around Melbourne.
I went to the chat event/book signing Readings held for her on Wednesday night, and was treated to a lively and interesting discussion. I also got my copy of the book signed, because I am a fangirl like that, and yammered at her for a while in my usual awkward yet over-enthusiastic way. It turns out (and I did actually know this before I met her), that we share an Internet friend; that would be Melissa, whom I like to refer to as my evil Floridian twin. Small freakin’ Internet.
Anyway, I know there’s been a lot of publicity and good stuff said about In My Skin, and I’m going to add to it. It’s a beautifully written book that doesn’t flinch away from its subject matter. In doing so, it can be quite confronting, but also enlightening. The desciptions of heroin and Holden’s descent into addiction are mesmerising. Several years ago I lost someone I cared about deeply to an overdose; it wasn’t completely unexpected after the repeated unsuccessful attempts at rehabilitation and the jail time for the B&E he’d taken up to support his addiction, but it still came as a shock. I understood he was addicted and had little control over it, but I’ve never understood fully the choices he made, how he could keep edging further and further into the abyss even as everyone who cared about him tried to pull him out. I still can’t say I fully understand, and while I’ve learned to deal with the grief I doubt I ever will, but Holden’s descriptions of use and addiction spoke to me in a way that glamourous images of drug use haven’t. I feel like, through reading In My Skin, I’ve finally got a little more of a sense of understanding and closure regarding my friend. It’s kind of nice, if you want to use “nice” as a synonym for “tears my heart out”. Which I do.
I’ve read a few memoirs penned by women in the sex industry (primarily but not solely prostitution memoirs), and Holden handles her subject matter with more grace and less apology than many. She comes across as honest and likeable, two rather good things for a autobiographer to be, and was like that in person, too. I am smitten. Told you I’m a fangirl.
So anyway, you’ve probably read a lot about how good this book is by now, and I am going confirm that by saying: buy ten zillion copies because it’s a great book and Kate Holden is really nice and stuff.
Oh yeah, you sure can tell I’ve been learning me how to English all these years, can’t you? Thank your lucky stars I’m not planning on pursuing a career as a literary critic.

The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God, and Other Stories, by Etgar Keret

Wednesday, March 24th, 2004

A collection of short short stories and a short novella, and Keret’s first English-language publication, this slim volume showcases the author’s simple, often almost childlike prose style, which both compliments and contrasts with his preoccupation with the darker aspects of humanity. Touching tales of childhood innocence sit alongside dark treatises on racism and religious intolerance, and Keret’s use of language and imagery ensure that the stories stay with the reader long after they have put the book down. Keret’s black sense of humour and keen eye for the strange and ridiculous bring comedy to every subject he writes about. His understanding of how humanity works makes even his most political and heartless characters human. His knack for putting familiar characters in new situations – like the cold-hearted, efficient assassin hired to kill the man who saved him from an orphanage – keep the reader guessing until the last page of every story. The novella, Kneller’s Happy Campers, takes as its subject a road trip through the afterlife for people who have committed suicide, and manages to be touching, thought-provoking and humourous.
Keret’s dark sense of humour, warped world view and keen eye for the absurdities of people may not be for everybody, but those who like their fiction short, thought-provoking and off the wall may find that The Bus Driver… is what they’re looking for.

Book Review: Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen

Wednesday, January 21st, 2004

Comprised of three short stories and a novella, Tell Me a Riddle delicately explores the impact a harsh and frequently uncaring society has upon the family unit. Each of the stories shows the different experiences and points of view of various family members – from a mother’s heartbreaking tale of poverty and single parenthood in 1950s America, to a grandmother who wants nothing more than peace and dignity in her old age but is denied both by her husband and adult children. Originally published in the 1950s, the book remains a classic for its use of unconventional choices of narrator (the mother of the troubled teenager rather than the teenager herself; the “difficult” old woman rather than her exasperated and condescending children), and also for the sheer heartrending beauty of Olsen’s prose. Olsen has a keen eye for observing both the family and society, and a haunting, lyrical prose style. Highly recommended.