Unlike most fictional stories about an American’s experience abroad, the heroine of the Kat Vespucci series doesn’t seek to “find herself” in other countries or to “save” the natives. Rather, wide-eyed, curious Kat is thrown blindly into new experiences with little or no previous knowledge that could distort her observation of history and culture through the eyes of locals.
In the first book, Kat, a native of New Jersey who has never left the U.S., decides to study abroad in Berlin. The first few weeks in the city prove to be a trial through fire as Kat realizes how little she knows about current and past political history in Europe, the world map (she carries a small map of the world around with her for a while since she can’t place the countries of her fellow international students on the globe), the U.S.’s involvement in WWII, and even the workplace culture of the city. The title “Earth to Kat Vespucci” refers to a fellow student’s teasing about her ignorance.
But instead of accepting her continuous foot-in-mouth situations as the inevitable, Kat immerses herself in local culture, reads up on history and politics, and asks her fellow study-abroad students about their lives and experiences. By the end, she could almost pass a cultured Berliner.
This trial through fire and subsequent process of observing and asking questions continues in book two when Kat moves to Taipei after college (and a terrible experience working in pharmaceutical sales) to teach English at the “Happy Pupil Very Excellent the Good English Cram School.” She enters into her adventures, however, with greater maturity and less fear. By moving to a country where she doesn’t speak the language, Kat is forced to take chances and navigate her way through cultural and language barriers largely by herself. Her story of freedom and adventure is intertwined with one of her new love interest and foil, native Zhang Weiming (Wayne), as he struggles against his conservative family’s adherence to marriage traditions.
Some readers may find Kat overly naive or privileged — she clearly doesn’t research the history of a country before moving there, know much about international politics and history, and has a tendency to accept things natives tell her at face value — but with a series that makes the location a character in its own right, she’s the perfect protagonist. Through her astute observations and relationships with locals, Kat lets the locals tell their story as she takes the reader on a smart, vivid tour of Berlin and Taipei and inspires even the most unadventurous to consider traveling abroad.
With a dose of humor and charm paired with her more serious moments, Kat is a likable character who continues to grow through the series. It is clear that she will ultimately evolve to become an intelligent, cultured activist, but she’s not there yet. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what Kat discovers on her next adventure: this time in China.
[Full disclosure: I received a copy of both books to review for free.]
I have a crisis, scheme, idea or depression.. subway riders viewing my grotesque facial grimaces + head twisting staring me in the face in my 37th year. I prefer death, nothing less than the face of hate, the fate of hate, the stench of death. Live = Death
Life = Death
Death = Freedom
The first few pages of Beautiful Wreck: Sex, Lies & Suicide set the tone for the memoir’s raw, real look at the struggles Stephanie Schroeder, a self-defined “queer feminist dyke writer, mental health advocate, and activist for social and economic justice,” faced with depression, intimate partner violence, bipolar disorder, Tourette Syndrome, and three suicide attempts.
As the narrative of Schroeder’s life progresses from her move to New York City in 1990 as a young activist from Wisconsin through the aftermath of her last suicide attempt in 2006, so flows her understanding of mental illnesses, much the way her afflictions shaped her experiences through this period of her life.
Never in a tone of self-pity or with an attempt to twist events to show herself in a more favorable light, Schroeder writes as a true survivor: as one who has suffered through and risen above the most adverse circumstances and literally lived to share the tale. Beautiful Wreck is not intended to be a self-help book (though additional resources can be found in the appendix), but her detailed descriptions of how it feels to have a Tourette’s-triggered outburst, a partner who physically and emotionally abuses you, and a type of depression that makes you consider ending it all informs those without those experiences and reminds those coping with similar issues that they are not alone.
After years of therapy, hard work, and advocating on behalf her health to finally find the right doctors and treatment, Schroder ends the narrative of her tumultous journey on a high note:
The most important thing I’ve learned is that I always have options. And I am free to leave an unsatisfactory situation, whether it be personal or professional any time I want or need. I also know I can be me, just me, Stephanie Schroeder, and not something or someone anyone else wants me to be.
I highly recommend this candid memoir, particularly for Schroder’s strong voice that successfully balances life’s darkest moments with humor.
[Full disclosure: I received a copy of the manuscript to review for free.]
A writer and blogger who writes primarily fat-positive personal essays, Kim Brittingham’s first novel Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting, and Live Large brings her refreshing tales of self-acceptance and fat-positive feminism to the world of memoirs. Each chapter reads much like a standalone essay in Brittingham’s lifelong journey to accept her body. In some ways this style was jarring, because it is not linear — we learn about her experiences in middle school, high school, college, young adulthood, and present day in no particular order. But as a whole, all of these experiences and realizations helped to form the positive body image that Brittingham has today, much like how individual moments and experiences form our current selves.
Not considered overweight myself, I did not personally relate to all of the book’s narratives (particularly her experiences on the bus or frustrations with plus-size catalogs), but I share her “radical” fat-positive views about the human form, which believes that women of all sizes should be accepted and treated equally, with no size discrimination. However, this book is inspirational to all women, regardless of size and their relationship with their bodies because the “fight” with food and weight is something that all of us have in common, whether we acknowledge it or not.
We all have been either teased or harassed for being overweight or underweight, been guilty of judging other women’s bodies against our own, or glanced at the magazines at grocery store checkout counter that promise to tell us which celebrity has the “hottest body” and who has cellulite. We live in a culture obsessed with weight, food, and dieting. The shame associated with “failing” to be the “perfect” size primarily affects women (though certainly some men as well). Brittingham’s words about body acceptance, a healthy relationship with food, and her dislike of traditional exercise seem radical compared to most memoirs on body size which generally equate weight loss with inner growth. Her experiences with dieting, binging, and self-hatred are ones that most readers can relate to (as troubling as that is) and Brittingham’s eventual overcoming of negative body image is inspirational to all women, regardless of their current relationship with their bodies.
A good example of our culture’s obsession with weight comes early in the book when Brittingham tries carb-free and Edie JeJeune (a pseudonym for a weight loss group I presume was Jenny Craig) diets and her friend hears about weight loss tea: “Look what they had. This tea. Look, it says it can help you lose ten pounds in seven days. And it’s all natural. A lady in the store saw me with the box in my hand and said she tried it. She said she lost a ton of weight the first week, but it gave her explosive diarrhea and stomach cramps. I think I can live with that, though, as long as it works.”
Funny? Yes. Serious? Also yes. Crash dieting and quick fixes, regardless of health consequences, are prevalent in today’s society, so much so that studies reveal how far women are willing to go to lose weight:
"One in six women say they would rather be blind than obese, a survey has found. Others would prefer alcoholism or catching herpes to being massively overweight. Researchers in the U.S. interviewed 100 women and asked whether they would rather be obese or have one of 12 other socially stigmatized conditions, including depression, which was chosen by one in four.” (Daily Mail)
I responded to this Daily Mail article last week, saying that if we stopped fat-shaming and equating a woman’s attractiveness and worth to unreasonable, media-driven standards of beauty, maybe women wouldn’t prefer blindness over obesity.
Brittingham also writes about the plus size clothing industry, its marketing (using thinner models and primarily selling grandma-like ”big A-line dresses” and Teddy Bear sweatshirts), and expectations for larger women to cover up their bodies so onlookers won’t be subjected to seeing a “cankle” or “roll.” This is one of the worst forms of oppression — restricting the way that women express themselves through clothing, lest onlookers be repulsed by their bodies.
Most of these concepts of how a woman’s body should appear in clothes, or how to dress for your (somehow unfortunate) shape come from the mainstream media and non-plus size clothing companies. In one anecdote, Brittingham discusses her former fear of baring her bare legs: “Even in the late 1980s, when I was at my lowest adult weight, I refused to show off my legs. I believed the white fish-belly skin on the back of my calves and thighs made them look huge and swollen. It limited my wardrobe choices and forced me to find creative ways to work around my ‘misfortune.’”
When she finally gives herself permission to wear light wash jeans, Brittingham writes: “It hurts to realize that for years, I tossed aside so many authentic parts of myself and dressed like an old lady instead, just because I was trying to protect other people from my appearance. But the very people I was trying to protect — the most judgmental among us — were the people whose approval I wanted the least, though by wrapping myself up, I was only perpetuating the idea that larger, curvier, lumpier, thicker, softer bodies arent meant to be seen. The more we show a variety of bodies and the more we show ourselves being relaxed with our own “imperfect” bodies, the less taboo and imperfect they will seem to others.”
Brittingham shares a few personal stories of her experiences with not just overt disgust from onlookers due to her appearance, but verbal harassment as well, including an extremely rude woman on the bus who refused to sit next to her. This woman muttered that Brittingham should have to pay for two seats. Brittingham also recounts her famous experiment with a faux book jacket entitled Fat Is Contagious: How Sitting Next to a Fat Person Can Make You Fat and the reactions she received from fellow Subway passengers — everything from laughter, to genuine discomfort, to checking Amazon for the book’s availability.
Read My Hips did make some classic first novel mistakes, however. In addition to the occasional time whiplash between chapters, I found Brittingham’s tone varied sharply between a humorous, candid personal memoir and a self-help book. The self-help style phrases were a bit jarring and brought the story back to the reader and away from Brittingham: “Maybe you miss wearing things that make you feel good. Maybe you’ve never known what it is to dress the part of who you truly are inside… Maybe you want to break out and be free — but you’re scared. I was once too.” Perhaps some readers would appreciate this, but I found it took away from the rest of the intensely personal narrative.
All in all, however, Brittingham’s premiere novel was an engaging, strong argument for fat-positivity with her humorous and honest personal anecdotes.
Full disclosure: I received an advanced copy of this book to review for free.
Find & Read: Read My Hips
I just finished reading The Beauty Myth for the first time. Wow. Wolf certainly did a lot of research in order to write this book, and I appreciate much of it. The chapters “Work,” “Culture,” and “Sex” were especially interesting reads, citing statistics and cases about beauty standards at work (and how women lose by either being “too beautiful” or not “beautiful” enough); fashion, women’s magazines, and television; and how “beauty pornography” is linking beauty with sexual attraction and performance in very wrong ways. I’ll be adding more quotes and commentary on those chapters throughout my blog over the next several days since I think much of it is still relevant, despite the fact that this book was published in the early ’90s.
I do have many issues with this book though. First of all, broad generalizations are rampant with much of the focus on cisgender, white, American, middle-class women who can afford such things as $400 face creams and expensive cosmetic surgery operations. I think she could have delved more deeply into the longing (or non-longing) of those outside these categories to conform to beauty ideals that are primarily for white wealthy women. Another problem I found was a personal issue of mine: using the word “cult” repeatedly and under a very negative connotation. I don’t deny that there are new religious movements that are emotionally damaging and even dangerous, but adding this stereotype to legitimate new religions is completely uncalled for, especially as I doubt that Naomi Wolf is well-versed in any of these new religions, their followers, or their affects on the spiritual lives of their members. Likewise, I thought comparing the beauty myth to a religion was a bit of a stretch, considering some of the quite clearly uninformed commentary she had on religions in general. And finally, I found she occasionally pushed her points so far as to appear grasping for anything that *might* fit under her thesis. This was most troubling to me since it made the rest of her arguments appear weaker. I thought most of her points were valid, but the feeling she was “grasping,” ruined a lot of the book for me. Some comparisons just cannot and should not be made.
Overall, I’d give this a 3.5/5 because despite my (somewhat harsh) commentary, I did think this was an important book for raising awareness about the beauty myth and its affects on the lives of both women and men. Some of the statistics on the work force were new to me and I’m sure anyone who saw me reading this on the subway could note how frustrated and upset I became by reading some passages. Her points on cosmetic surgery I believe are right on (though I did not like her comparison of boob jobs to male and female circumcision), as are some of her points on anorexia and body image in women. I think here also though, she could’ve highlighted how body weight awareness and borderline anorexia affects MANY more women than the ones we see as extreme cases or those treated for the condition. I think she’d find that number much higher than those typically reported. Wolf might definitely have rethought some of her focus and worked on arguments where she was more knowledgable (and thus might appear less grasping for anything that fits under her overall thesis) in order to make this a stronger argument.
I finished Marilyn Monroe’s autobiography the other day after reading Fragments, a collection of her letters, notes, and poems that was only recently released.
Frankly, I’m not sure what to think. Everyone has their understanding of who Marilyn was based on her persona, her relationships, and her characters in films. Some believe she was secretly an intellectual, others think she was merely a “bimbo” who was used and abused by a variety of different (mostly famous) men. The circumstances surrounding her death have been debated for years.
These questions surround her life to this very day, and it is unlikely any of these questions will ever be answered satisfactorily, even (or especially) by reading her personal notes. That’s, of course, part of what continues to make her an interesting person to study. As anyone who studies history might know, it is the women who died mysteriously, committed suicide, and/or led interesting sexual lives who are most remembered (think Plath, Cleopatra). It’s unfortunate that Marilyn and these other greats are not first and foremost remembered for their work.
Reading her autobiography My Story was illuminating, though I felt I had to take everything I read with a grain of salt. It has often been debated whether or not her autobiography (which was published 10 years after her death) was edited or tampered with before publication. I assume this is mostly because of the motif of her being “the type of girl you’d find dead in a hallway with an empty bottle of sleeping pills.” (What a haunting image.) Or it was because people didn’t think her bright enough to write such an honest autobiography?
Since I wasn’t about to read the entire book guessing what might or might not have been tampered with or edited, I took everything she wrote at face value — assuming that all of the words were indeed her own. If I were to go entirely on that, she certainly sounds like a quite ordinary girl in terms of intellect (often lamenting her “stupidity” on many occasions because of her lack of a higher education, though she knew deep down that she was smart), though certainly one with a difficult childhood that she had trouble dealing with. Her mother and grandmother were admitted as inpatients at a psychiatric hospital and she feared the same fate. She didn’t know who her father was. She was constantly in and out of foster homes. She married at 16 to avoid being thrown on the streets. She did without food and/or clothes on a regular basis as she struggled searching for an acting job. She was insecure about her talents and spent any extra money she had paying for acting and speech lessons. She cried. She often felt alone and abandoned. Her relationships were often masochistic. But she was strong-willed. She wrestled with the attention men gave her, but she refused to be taken advantage of by the Hollywood types who were only interested in “making deals under sheets.” She refused to work for one company when an executive hit on her. Especially for her time, she was a woman who stood her ground. I couldn’t help but respect her for that.
Marilyn also talks often about how men treated her, though she often seems puzzled by their reactions to her appearance. When she was 13, she borrowed a friend’s sweater (which was too tight) to cover her ripped blouse, and she couldn’t believe the attention boys at school gave her, especially those who had never before given her even a passing glance. She was given the same attention while at the beach. She seems to both love and loathe this attention. Although she wanted to be considered beautiful and attractive to men, she didn’t want them to disrespect her based on appearances. She didn’t want sex (at least during her early years and through her first marriage). She wanted to be left alone, but yet she wanted fame. She went to Hollywood parties to boost her popularity, but didn’t want to talk to anyone and felt everyone was a drone or a fake. She seemed lost, not really knowing what she wanted from men or from her fame. All she really seemed certain of was that she wanted to be taken seriously for her acting, and she wasn’t sure how to go about that when her appearance, which provided her with roles, often prevented her from landing serious parts or lines from directors.
Times when she didn’t try to be sexy, men told her she just gave off a “vibration,” which offended and infuriated women and enticed men. She believed they were projecting their own “vulgarities” on her because she presented them with an easy target. Maybe that was the case. As she wrote: “People had a habit of looking at me as if I were some kind of a mirror instead of a person. They didn’t see me, they saw their own lewd thoughts. Then they white-masked themselves by calling me the lewd one.”
Whatever this “vibration” was, sexual or otherwise, it followed her everywhere.. from the poor neighborhoods where she spent her teens, to the Hollywood studios, to a stage in Japan, to the pages of every biography.
If taken at face value, this book provides shocking insight into her world. I think it’s always important to hear the genuine voice of famous women like Marilyn Monroe, especially because these are the ones who biographers most often tend to exploit.
Up next on my women in history: Cleopatra: A Life (This is one of the most historically accurate portrayals I’ve read so far of her life, and the intro talks about how the Romans slutshamed her! They sold me there.)
The main character (AKA the Beast in this modern-day version) even goes so far as to not want to read “Belle’s” books because they’re “for girls.”
And she doesn’t get pissed off about that.
Here’s to hoping they’ll be a turn-around in the final chapter or something?
In other news, my first edition Anne Sexton came today. I put it on my shelf to read tomorrow since I think at that point, I’ll really be in the mood for REAL smart, feminist, modernized fairytale retellings.
ED: I also neglected to mention that it’s being made into a movie this year. Oy. Maybe I’m being too harsh on this YA book since I haven’t read the genre for awhile, but I don’t really think there’s any excuse for the sexism in this. For goodness sakes “Belle’s” father essentially SELLS her to the Beast for his drug addiction. Argh. And it’s all written from the Beast’s perspective. What are people thinking recommending this as feminist fiction? Please, everyone, if you’re in the mood for some YA retellings of fairytales, there are much better options out there. There must be.