Children’s: What picture book did Faith Ringgold base on a painted quilt depicting picnickers on a city rooftop?
Classics: What play, Chekhov’s last, is set at the debt-ridden estate of Madame Ranevsky?
Non-Fiction: What newspaper, the subject of Gay Talese’s expose The Kingdom and the Power, inadvertently helped boost sales with a savage review?
Book Club: What novel by Michael Chabon lets Josef Kavalier and Sammy Klayman escape from the horrors of war by creating a comic book?
Authors: What British public school hired John le Carre as a teacher before he went on to write spy novels?
Book Bag: What light-hearted Douglas Coupland book follows a gaggle of Microsoft workers who escape to form their own company?
There’s a three-part round of awards ceremonies for the high school around here, and mostly the same group of kids get all the awards. Eleanor was one of those kids, and now Walker–who we found out last night is number three in his class–has been on stage a lot, receiving accolades (and, last night, a scholarship!). It is of course fun to see, and it’s fun to trade congratulations with the other parents, especially the ones who haven’t seen Walker much since his elementary school days or his traveling soccer team days. It’s interesting to find out where the other seniors are planning to go to college, or what they plan to do next.
What is the most fun is seeing Walker and his friends crossing the stage, being celebrated repeatedly as the best and brightest. I never get tired of that.
Once I told Walker that the deadly sin I am most prone to is pride. Is there anything bigger and more obvious than a mother’s pride for her youngest child? All these ceremonies are the last ones, and the splendor of his accomplishments has whisked us through them with a sense of culminating triumph. I hardly even have the decency to act modest, which reminds me of the opening line of “On Distinction” by A.F. Moritz:
We won’t pretend we’re not hungry for distinction
but what can ever distinguish us enough?
This country, this language won’t last long, the race
will die, later the cockroach, earth itself,
and last this beer bottle: silicon fused by man,
almost indestructible, like a soul:
it will go spinning ever farther from the nearest thing
until space, continually deepening, drowns in itself.
Yet we keep a hungry eye on old schoolmates
and everyone born in the year of our own birth,
and spend the nights in ranting over them,
their money, fashionable companions, pliant critics.
To live just a little longer than they do:
that would be triumph. Hence exercise and diets,
and the squabble over who will write the history
of this paradise of demons casting each other out.
After all these years of noticing whose kid appeared in a photo in the local newspaper, next year I won’t be at the awards ceremonies, to write about the accomplishments of the kids Walker started school with. They will blaze for a moment, while he will be finding his way in a bigger world, where the other parents will not remember the song he sang at the fifth grade talent show or who wore the plastic breastplate at his sixth birthday party.
When I asked Harper Collins for an advance copy of Big Brother, by Lionel Shriver, I thought it might have something to do with the post-1984 world, but this novel is only obliquely about who is watching you. It’s about how we look at someone’s body size and jump to conclusions. It’s about how we think so much about food and enjoy it so little. It’s about an ascetic who finds out that her brother has become a glutton, and the lengths she will go to in order to “help” him lose 170 pounds.
Dieting is something I know about. My first experience of it was at six months old, when a pediatrician told my mother I was too fat and that she must start me on low-fat milk. When I was a child, my eating was continually commented on and restricted. At the age of 12, I started skipping lunch. Here are the ages at which I succeeded in losing a significant amount of weight, 50 pounds or more: 15, 19, 29, 37, 50.
During the past year, I gained back 70 of the most recent 80 pounds I had lost. I see people look at me and assume that I’m weak-willed and probably not very smart, when I am actually one of the most strong-willed people you will ever meet, and I’ve read and thought about most of the books about eating and dieting that have been published in my lifetime. Many of them were from the library, but here’s a sample of the ones I found when I looked around my house:
Fat Is a Feminist Issue I and II, Susie Orbach. On Eating, Susie Orbach. The Beck Diet Solution, Judith Beck. Weight Watchers’ Complete Food Companion. The Philosopher’s Diet, Richard Watson. The Joy Diet, Martha Beck. The Four Day Win, Martha Beck. The Stress-Eating Cure, Rachael and Richard Heller. The Secret Is Out, Lisa Davis and Bradley MacDonald. 100 Days of Weight Loss, Linda Spangle. The New Me Diet, Jade and Keoni Teta. Also many books about eating, like Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Critser’s Fat Land, and Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food.
Only rarely am I not thinking about how to control my eating, which evidently puts me in the majority according to the New York Times (I found the article from this humorous overview at Cracked.com). Most adults move up and down what I call the spectrum of food thoughts over their lifetimes, from “trying not to eat” to “eating when hungry.” The middle part takes the most thought, as my chart shows:
Because staying in the middle takes so much thought, there are people who slide off on either side, giving up by either trying to eliminate the need for eating entirely or eating everything without regard for the future.
Big Brother is the first novel I’ve ever read that goes clear from one end to the other of the spectrum of food thoughts. The protagonist, a woman named Pandora, starts out by realizing “I’d come to squander an appalling proportion of my mental time on empty vows to cut down to one meal a day, or on fruitless self-castigation over a second stuffed pepper at lunch. Surely on some unconscious, high-frequency level, other people could hear the squeal of this humiliating hamster wheel in my head, a piercing shrill that emitted from every other woman I passed in the aisles of Hy-Vee.”
This is an issue that Lionel Shriver has evidently spent a good bit of her time pondering. In the linked article, she sounds very much like her character Pandora, who worries on the morning after her brother Edison’s arrival because “no one…had addressed my brother’s dimensions head-on. I myself had not once alluded to Edison’s weight to his face, and as a consequence felt slightly insane. That is, I pick him up at the airport and he is so—he is so FAT that I look straight at him and don’t recognize my own brother, and now we’re all acting as if this is totally ordinary. The decorousness, the conversational looking the other way, made me feel a fraud and a liar, and the diplomacy felt complicit.”
Shriver does get some things right about the desire to get fat, but always insists that the longing for a grand gesture must be mixed with an impulse towards suicide: “his appetite for Cinnabons and suicide alike, his insistence on building his life along such drastic lines that thinking big had manifested itself in his proportions.” In order to make Pandora seem more sympathetic she gives her an even more ascetic husband who “did experience Edison’s overeating as a form of assault.” Whenever I started to pull away from the story, Pandora would say something so full of insight that I would be pulled right back in:
“Confronting a photograph of oneself is always a fraught business, for one’s own image doesn’t merely evoke the trivial fretting of ‘I had no idea my nose was so big.’ This sounds idiotic, but every time I see a picture of myself I am shocked to have been seen. I do not, under ordinary circumstances, feel seen. When I walk down the street, my experience is of looking. Manifest to myself in the ethereal privacy of my head, I grow alarmed when presented evidence of my public body. This is quite a different matter from whatever dissatisfaction I may harbor over the heft of my ass. It is more a matter of having an ass, any ass, that other people can ogle, criticize, or grasp, and being staggered that to others this formation, whatever its shape, has something to do with me.”
I would suggest that people who get very fat are even more prone to this kind of thinking than thinner people are; there’s a sense that you must get very big to be regarded at all. As Edison himself observes, later, about being fat, “when you walk down the street, it’s all people see. You big as a house, but in any meaningful way you’re invisible.”
Pandora believes that a person who thinks too much about food has to find a way to stop, like an alcoholic reaches a point where he has to go to AA. When Pandora gets Edison to admit that nothing besides eating gives him pleasure, she “wondered if that wasn’t the answer to the mystery, countrywide. It wasn’t that eating was so great—it wasn’t—but that nothing was great. Eating being merely okay still put it head and shoulders above everything else that was decidedly less than okay. In which case I was surrounded by millions of people incapable of deriving pleasure from anything whatsoever besides a jelly doughnut.”
This strikes me as a privileged point of view–lots of things give me pleasure, but few of them are available for less than $2, the price of a jelly doughnut at the local Tim Horton’s.
Because of her privileged position, Pandora can afford to put herself and Edison on a liquid-only diet for months, and even rent an apartment where they won’t be confronted with the need to prepare or socialize over food. When she has lost all the extra weight she can afford to lose, though, Pandora panics when she has to learn how to eat again, and says
“I wasn’t alone in this hysteria. You could see the same frenzy all over the Internet: diatribes about sugar, clever tips about using tiny plates or drinking lots of water, profiles on celebrities who claim to have ‘eighty meals a day,’ the charts listing the glycemic index of parsnips and potatoes. You could see it in the accelerating demand for extra-wide caskets, roller coasters reinforced with I-beams, and elevators redesigned to carry twice the load. You could see it in burgeoning retail sales for ‘bountiful’ apparel, in the return of the corset. You could see it in the market for airline seat-belt extenders….”
Have any of you ever seen anyone ask for a seat-belt extender? I’ve seen (and been among) a number of people who quietly pretend to fasten it, rather than single themselves out any further.
There’s a surprising reversal at the end of the novel, a might-have-been scenario that the author says is written out of pain and guilt over what she failed to do for her own brother. I think she should feel less guilt; losing weight isn’t just about “becoming more attractive or less prone to diabetes” but about finding ways to control yourself, and other adults can’t help you with that. The fictional brother “proved it possible to reverse the most nefarious of misfortunes: those that you’ve authored yourself.” Shriver’s real brother evidently did not reverse them, and I don’t think there’s much she or anyone could have done to help that process along.
I’m not suggesting that she couldn’t have tried, or that the discouraging studies mean that no one should work on ways to take off weight that makes them physically unable to do things they want to do. Anyone who is fighting to keep their weight from going out of control always has to spend a lot of time somewhere on the spectrum of food thoughts, weighing, planning, and selecting, People who have been fat can’t quit eating entirely for the rest of their lives, nor can those people ever eat when hungry again, because they’re almost always hungry. The hardest thing to do is not to go overboard, to enjoy a measured amount of food day in and day out without having to demonize it.
Shriver’s novel shows extreme behavior on either end of the spectrum, the places where people stray so far from being able to enjoy human interaction over food that they isolate themselves. It’s a warning sign for an individual to want to eat alone. The novel is trying to show that it’s a warning sign for a society, too. How many of us eat alone, before or after occasions for eating with other people? Our stacks of diet books tell us to “eat just a little before” so we can keep control when faced with party food, but how many of us keep better control over our desire for food when other people are watching?
Children’s: What horror writer sends Chickentown teen Candy Quakenbush into the land of Abarat?
Classics: What new name did Larry McMurtry’s first novel Horseman, Pass By get in 1963, to cash in on a popular Paul Newman movie adaptation?
Non-Fiction: What unique items were featured in Fred Albert’s 1999 photo book, Barkitecture?
Book Club: What Chuck Palahniuk book gets rolling when an angry young man demands of his roommate: “I want you to hit me as hard as you can”?
Authors: What British writer is famed for her strong female characters Martha Quest and Anna Wulf?
Book Bag: What novelist claims her fictional sex-crime prosecutor Alex Cooper is much like herself, only “younger, thinner and blonder”?
Since Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, I don’t read a new book by David Sedaris in public, lest the volume and duration of my laughter leave me helpless and subject to scrutiny. So I sat down with Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls at home and read through the first couple of essays without even cracking a smile. I put my bookmark in and went to do something else, thinking maybe Sedaris had lost his touch. After a while, I came back and got to one called “Easy, Tiger,” which started to make me laugh, at this part:
“In the beginning, I was put off by the harshness of German. Someone would order a piece of cake, and it sounded as if it were an actual order, like, “Cut the cake and lie facedown in that ditch between the cobbler and the little girl.” I’m guessing this comes from having watched too many Second World War movies. Then I remembered the umpteen Fassbinder films I sat through in the ‘80s, and German began to sound conflicted instead of heartless.”
After that, I turned a page and there, in print, was my favorite essay which I’d only ever heard before on an audio collection, “Laugh, Kookaburra.” It is so beautifully written. I’m glad to have it in print, especially because now I can refer more easily to the metaphor about the four-burner stove: “’One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.’ The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful, you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful, you have to cut off two.” I like to ask people which burner they’ve turned off.
As usual, he makes me feel a little of what’s it’s like to be a person like him:
“I was in London during the inauguration and watched the ceremony on the BBC, which reminded me every three seconds that Barack Obama was black and would become American’s first black president. At first I thought this was for blind people, a little reminder in case they forgot. Then it became laughable: Barack Obama, who is black, is arriving now with his black wife and two black children, a group that will form American’s first black First Family, which is to say, the first group of blacks elected to the White House, which is white and not black like them.
It got on my nerves, but then I thought, If America elected its first gay president, I might want to hear it a few thousand times. It might take a few thousand mentions just to sink in.”
A favorite new to me in this collection is “Understanding Understanding Owls,” the title of which comes from a bit that David and Hugh evidently like to do, referencing a book they’ve owned for fifteen years:
“You know,” I’ll say. “There’s something about nocturnal birds of prey that I just don’t get. If only there was somewhere I could turn for answers.”
“I wish I could help you,” Hugh will say, adding, a second or two later, “Hold on a minute…what about…Understanding Owls?”
There follows a story about what a taxidermist showed David when he was shopping for a present for Hugh, and then the most beautiful conclusion, one that makes me think about Ron and about my friends who often notice the same kinds of things I do (yes, Ben, I mean you):
“Hugh and I don’t notice the same things either. That’s how he can be with me. Everything the taxidermist saw is invisible to him: my superficiality, my juvenile fascination with the abnormal, my willingness to accept and sometimes even celebrate evil—point this out, and he’ll say, “David? My David? Oh no. He’s not like that at all.”
It’s the loveliest little love story.
I thought of a bit from this collection last night at an awards ceremony, whispering to nearby parents who got the “best dress” award and having one of them look at me sideways like “is that a real award?” to which I responded that I give it every year, whether the kids are aware of it or not. Hugh and David evidently talk like this too: “as if our pronouncements hold actual weight and can be implemented at our discretion, like we’re kings or warlocks.”
And, for his final trick, David Sedaris nailed what I’ve been trying to explain to everyone from my remaining Facebook friends to my friend Doug, the checkout clerk at Kroger, about how if I get too busy writing down everything I’m doing or shopping for, I won’t have time to actually get out there and do it or buy it, much less bring it in the house and cook it up for supper. I’ve always compared this to Tristram Shandy, unable to get up to the moment of his birth when trying to write his memoirs, or Walker Percy, who says (in The Message in the Bottle) that you can’t actually look at the Grand Canyon if you’re photographing it to look at later. David explains it in terms of keeping a diary: “It’s not lost on me that I’m so busy recording life, I don’t have time to really live it. I’ve become like one of those people I hate, the sort who go to the museum and, instead of looking at the magnificent Brueghel, take a picture of it, reducing it from art to proof. It’s not ‘Look what Brueghel did, painted this masterpiece’ but ‘Look what I did, went to Rotterdam and stood in front of a Brueghel painting!’”
So which burner do you turn off? And how often do you shop for groceries? If you live in my town, or the next one over, you’ll see me in there often, wandering around with a nine-item list and a full cart.
Book Bloggers International is featuring a blogger a day in order to introduce us to each other. I’m pleased to say that today they’re featuring me and Necromancy Never Pays.
When we first saw our cat Chester at the shelter, we’d come in from walking dogs in the cold and were sitting in the cat enclosure in our coats, petting cats and trying to warm up. He climbed up in a lap and purred and purred. We all loved him. We loved him so much we came home from the shelter and talked Ron into coming back to the shelter to meet him, and he climbed up in Ron’s lap and purred and purred until he charmed him into sharing our feeling that we must take this cat home.
We didn’t need another cat. We had two, Samson and Delilah, who we’d gotten at the shelter as 8-week-old kittens after deciding that our young children were bothering our old cat, Rossi, too much. We did need a black and white cat, though, because that color combination had been 4-year-old Eleanor’s wish before she fell in love with the gray-striped cat she named Delilah.
Chester’s shelter name was “Wiley” and even though it suited him, Walker, who was almost 2, said he needed a “yellow name,” the name of the yellow cat from the Bunnicula books. Chester especially loved Walker, mostly because he liked to be petted when he settled on a lap. Chester demanded attention. He would seize a pencil from your hand and bite it, and he liked to curl up with Ron, who would scratch his neck, up the sides of his face, and behind his ears. He would bump Eleanor’s hand when she was drawing and paw her pen. Every night he would follow me into the bedroom and wait on the bed until I would lie down with my book, and then he would put his front paws on my chest and demand petting while I read for the 10-15 minutes I usually read before going to sleep. When I closed the book and turned off the light, he would usually hop off the bed and go find something else to do.
Because he spent his first six months at the shelter, Chester had a respiratory infection that became chronic. After his first year, even our veterinarian could no longer get a pill in his mouth. Once when he got an infected bite, he had to go to the vet every day for a week to get an antibiotic shot. After that, though, he learned to let me squirt liquid antibiotic down his throat. He was smart.
He liked to sit out on our deck with the sun on his fourteen pounds of muscle and black fur, and then he would leap to life to catch bugs. He was good at it, too, with lightning-fast claws that would scoop them out of the air. He liked to play so much that when he was already ten years old and we brought home a new kitten, the two of them would chase each other around and take turns baiting both real and stuffed mice.
He was like the cat in this poem, “The Cat’s Song” by Marge Piercy.
Mine, says the cat, putting out his paw of darkness.
My lover, my friend, my slave, my toy, says
the cat making on your chest his gesture of drawing
milk from his mother’s forgotten breasts.
Let us walk in the woods, says the cat.
I’ll teach you to read the tabloid of scents,
to fade into shadow, wait like a trap, to hunt.
Now I lay this plump warm mouse on your mat.
You feed me, I try to feed you, we are friends,
says the cat, although I am more equal than you.
Can you leap twenty times the height of your body?
Can you run up and down trees? Jump between roofs?
Let us rub our bodies together and talk of touch.
My emotions are pure as salt crystals and as hard.
My lusts glow like my eyes. I sing to you in the mornings
walking round and round your bed and into your face.
Come I will teach you to dance as naturally
as falling asleep and waking and stretching long, long.
I speak greed with my paws and fear with my whiskers.
Envy lashes my tail. Love speaks me entire, a word
of fur. I will teach you to be still as an egg
and to slip like the ghost of wind through the grass.
Up until his very last day, Chester sang to us in the mornings, speaking greed with his paws and fear with his white whiskers. Love spoke him entire. We miss him.