Link Buffet: New Books

I’ve imposed a new book embargo until I have fewer deadlines on the docket and more money in the bank. It’s sad, though, because new and pretty and intriguing books keep coming out all the time.

+ Nicola Twilley at Edible Geography has a contribution in the collection Tutti Frutti from Bompas & Parr, and she gives an overview of the book on her blog. It’s a limited edition with what look like gorgeous images and illustrations, as well as some historical and sociological insights into the cultural connotations of fruit. I was delighted by the summary of Sam Jacobs’ explanation of “blue raspberry” as a flavor, which has always been a puzzle to me. According to Jacobs, raspberry candies were once colored with a dark red dye derived from coal, which was eventually declared unsafe for use. But with so many other shades of red already signifying other fruits–cherry, strawberry, and so on–it was easier to just go in another direction entirely. Hence, blue, and through standard use blue came to signal raspberry flavor in candy. It’s funny to think of the conflicting consumer psychology there: we like novelty, of course, but we also want our food to be recognizable. I imagine raspberry would be a much less popular flavor if some companies used blue dye, others purple, others green.

+ Novelist Lionel Shriver writes about beauty, youth, size, and characterization in this piece at The Cut. It’s a beautifully conceived essay in a lot of ways, but it left me feeling unsettled. Shriver is right about so many things: that, culturally, we tend to be obsessed with beauty; that fat characters tend to be absent from novels, and when they appear, their size tends to stand in for undesirable character traits like gluttony or sloth, and that this is a habit to be corrected. She relates how differently the world treated her when she had her teeth straightened. She writes, quite correctly, that “feeling beautiful” is an elusive feeling, entirely dependent and precarious, even for those who we imagine sit confidently in imperturbable beauty.
But I don’t quite understand how she leapt from these impressions to her attempted solution of Big Brother. If you do write fat characters into a novel, Shriver argues, it’s folly to have them be incidentally fat; fat will change the way they move through the world. Okay, no disagreement there, although fat is not always the major conflict in a fat person’s life, as it is in Big Brother.  Shriver’s most recent novel features a middle-aged jazz pianist, Edison, who has gained so much weight that his own sister doesn’t recognize him at the airport where she’s collecting him to stay with her for awhile. True to Shriver’s argument, Edison’s weight is not incidental–in fact, it is both the manifestation of his own character and the driver of his conflict with his sister. “Edison’s weight gain turns out to be a form of self-­vandalism,” Shriver writes in her piece at The Cut; that’s about when I stopped paying attention.

As it happens, Jami Attenberg made a similar case with Edie in The Middlesteins. I was overall inclined to like Edie as a character and as a product of Attenberg’s craft, because there are many ways in which she is an extraordinary fat character: she takes unapologetic pleasure in eating, in sex, in being unassailably herself despite her relatives who wish desperately that she would change. But I was always unsettled that Edie’s fat origin story, too, is self-vandalism; only vaguely and unconvincingly complicated by some childhood flashbacks linking food with love, Edie too is depicted as a self-harmer, eating herself to death in spite of her rich life.

I’m troubled that, considering the persistently slim-to-average-sized characterscape, the only two fat main characters we’ve been given this year (by slim-to-average-sized novelists) both embody the bogeyman of obesity discourse: the fat person who chooses to be fat in defiance of his/her family’s wishes and injunctions to take better care of health, who grows fat and sick specifically from eating enormous amounts of food.  In these novels, the law of calories-in-calories-out is a given, like gravity, even though it’s been challenged again and again. Consequently, the characters are not merely fat but are actively being fat at everyone else. I don’t say that’s a story that should never be told, or that it’s not a story worth telling; I question why it’s the only story being told.

Well, never mind, I know why: because it’s pat. In reality, many people never know the origin of their weight gain–most likely because it can be extremely complicated, some combination of calories-in-calories-out plus genetics plus plus metabolic health plus mental health plus medicinal intake plus environmental factors. When people do find out a singular cause of their weight gain, often enough the culprit is an illness or condition, like PCOS, that may go undiagnosed while a patient endures rampant fat prejudice in the healthcare system. Such circumstances would be a rich field for novelists to mine for character, even for a supporting character, if like Shriver they were bent on exploring obesity through fiction. Also, the story of how a character negotiates fatness in a fat-shaming world is just going to be so much more interesting than the origin story–that’s what I found compelling about Edie Middlestein. I do want to see more fat characters in fiction, but I really want them depicted with more diversity and humanity than we’ve been getting on the bestseller lists so far.

Regardless, if anyone has read Big Brother, I’d be interested to hear your take on it; I don’t plan to pick it up, myself.

+ Clearing out my web bookmarks. Friends often forward me news of food memoirs, and I always hang onto the recommendation even if I’m unlikely to read them–I have my hands full with the theories, histories, novels, and poetry that drive most of my writing. But if you’re a food memoir reader, you might be interested: Ghostbread, by Sonja Livingston, tells the story of a woman growing up in a poor region of Western New York and dreaming of bread when there was only soup; Cooking in Heels by Ceyenne Doroshaw is a Southern and Caribbean inspired cookbook and memoir that the author, a trans woman, began writing while in prison for prostitution.

+ Finally, this story from NPR about mysteriously shrinking avocadoes features an agricultural crime prosecutor, y’all, which is a story that should become a book if it is not already. This woman’s job is to investigate avocado crimes! I wish I knew that was an option when I was deciding what to do when I grew up.

You are always welcome to share links below.

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