Book Review: Dietland

I’ve been looking for Dietland by Sarai Walker since I discovered fat acceptance twenty-five years ago!

It’s the story of Plum Kettle, twentysomething fat girl writer who has limited her life to her apartment, the coffee shop where she answers work emails for the fictional teen magazine Daisy Chain, and “Waist Watchers” meetings.   At the beginning of the novel, Plum thinks that her “life isn’t real yet” because she is planning weight loss surgery and “the real me, the woman I was supposed to be, was within my reach.”

How many of us have done the same thing–limited ourselves because we perceived that we couldn’t do something we really wanted to until we lost weight?  Go to the beach? Travel to Europe? Have a child? Get that degree we wanted? Or something as simple as wearing shorts or a sleeveless top outside the house?

Plum realizes she’s being followed by a woman wearing brightly-colored tights and combat boots, and the confrontation with her follower sets in motion a series of events that cause Plum to question everything that she’s assumed about her life as a fat woman.

She meets a woman who wrote a book about the diet industry from the inside, and who runs Calliope House, a kind of feminist collective. Though she is reluctant, Plum meets women who haven’t let anyone else define their lives, despite horrific facial scarring, or being fired from their job because “Women don’t want to be you, and men don’t want to fuck you.”

While Plum is transforming herself, the world is abuzz with attacks on rapists and douchey men by an unknown “Jennifer.”  Is “Jennifer” a person?  A group?  No one knows.

I don’t want to give too much away, because you really need to read Dietland.  But Plum doesn’t lose weight OR find a man.  Hallelujah!  I love men, but it was so refreshing to read a book with a fat character who lives life on her own terms without losing weight and where the romantic “happily ever after” doesn’t happen.

On her website, Walker has included some fun extras, including a mockup of the very important Fuckability Theory and a fictional quiz from Daisy Chain that will tell you which Dietland character you are.  Of course, I’m Plum.

8 things I’ve learned from living ten years post-breast cancer

Ten years ago, on my 37th birthday, in the elevator on the way to pick up my 20-month old from daycare, the surgeon told me that “they found cancer cells,” and everything changed.

Did I imagine that I would survive and have the life I’m living now?  Did I have any idea that I would be working as an environmental lawyer for a state agency, living in a house in the suburbs, single, and with a middle-schooler who is learning to play the violin and loves detective and cop shows? Did I imagine that I’d actually write a memoir and start to take writing seriously?

I was afraid to imagine anything, afraid that my life would be snatched away and my daughter left without me, as an orphan.  I started listening to audiobooks in the car because I always started crying when I had too much time to think of the possible outcomes. All I knew was that I had to get through it.

I did get through it, through the slash, poison, and burn.  Through the “new normal.”  Through a number of boyfriends, an engagement, and then years of learning to accept my singlehood. Together, my daughter and I have made it through the terrible twos (and threes), kindergarten, elementary school, and ADHD issues for both of us.

But I am so grateful to have had these ten years.  Here’s what I think I’ve learned:

1. It takes more courage to be alone than to be trying always to meet someone.  I always thought I was being brave to put myself out there online dating and asking guys out, but dealing with rejection is easy.  There’s always someone new to distract yourself with, more profiles to scroll through, someone who may have just joined the site or walked into the bar.  What’s hard is to not have someone in your head to fantasize about, to think about what it will be like when you are together, or when the relationship takes that next step.  Not having someone in your head is the only way to truly get to know yourself, to take care of yourself.  When you’re always thinking about someone else, how do you know who you really are?

2. Flossing is important.  B.C. (Before Cancer), I was in denial and thought daily morning and haphazard bedtime brushing would be enough to keep my teeth and gums healthy. After diagnosis, I didn’t think I needed to floss at all because gingivitis is a long-term thing and so it wasn’t terribly likely I’d have to deal with it. But as the annual anniversaries started accumulating, I thought I’d add daily nighttime brushing, and then flossing.  Wow!  My mouth is happy, and so is my hygienist!

3. That restless feeling won’t kill you.  I remember feeling like I had to do something, anything, just to get out of the house.  God forbid I didn’t have plans on a Friday or Saturday night.  I would shop, or find friends to go out with. But now, it’s not that I don’t get restless.  I still do.  But I sit with it.  I pick up the notebook, write a little bit.  Or I go for a walk.  Or to the library.  Acquiring things or being with other people won’t calm my brain. My spiritual practices of reading, writing, and walking help the most.

4. Eat the ice cream.  Cravings don’t go away.  I try to practice intuitive eating, and life is too short to miss out on the pleasures of a quiet house, a good book, a soft bed with warm covers, and a bowl of Blue Bell to enjoy.

5. Don’t be afraid to question the assumptions you’ve made about yourself.  For years, I believed that I was an extrovert–I enjoyed being in front of people, talking to groups, and just interacting with other people on a regular basis.  But then I started to notice that when I walked with a friend at lunchtime, talking the entire time, I had a terrible time settling down and focusing afterwards.  I noticed how when the phone rang, sometimes I didn’t want to talk with the person on the phone, even if they were someone I cared about. I noticed how exhausted I was on days when I had multiple meetings scheduled.  It was like all of the interaction spun my brain out of control.  I tried putting my headphones on at work so I wouldn’t listen to the goings-on in the hallway and be tempted to join.  I started walking alone at lunch.  And so I honored the little girl who would rather read, alone, than do anything else.

6. Listen to your body.  There is wisdom there, whether it’s saying you need more movement or sleep or broccoli.  You just have to slow down enough to be able to feel it.

7. You can only do what you can do. Life is overwhelming, and sometimes things fall through the cracks.  We all make mistakes and don’t do things we’d committed to.  It’s OK.  Try better next time, or, don’t commit to doing so much!

8. You don’t have to say “yes” to every social opportunity offered.  This is related to #5. I used to never miss an opportunity to meet a friend for lunch, or dinner, or to do something with other people.  I still enjoy the time I spend with other people, but I’ve come to appreciate limited time as a hermit.  These days, a great Saturday is one where I walk to the park, get to the gym to lift weights, and finish a book.  My brain is clearer, and my life isn’t as frazzled.  Sometimes it’s better just to stay home and get a few things done.  It makes the week go much more smoothly when there are clean dishes and clothes, and food in the fridge on Sunday night.

Can you imagine all the wisdom I’ll be able to spout when I get to 15 or 20 years? Here’s hoping!

My 2014 in Books

I love looking at my reading trends for the past year!  At the end of 2013, I said that in 2014, I wanted to read more memoirs, and less books on writing craft.  I met those goals.  There is only one book on writing craft in the list below, and just about one-third, or 26, of the 75 books I read in 2014 were memoir (marked by an (M) in the list below).  My favorite memoirs this year were Autobiography of a Face, Truth & Beauty, LuckyBad Mother, Never Have I Ever, King PeggyOrange is the New Black, Couldn’t Keep It to Ourselves, The Road From Coorain, and Dark Star Safari, which was probably more travel than memoir but I still loved it.

Number two by the numbers were young adult or middle-grade fiction (YA), which is no surprise, because my 11-year old and I jointly read several from this category as audiobooks during long car trips.  And I read a couple she was reading for school. I especially loved The Witch of Blackberry Pond, Fever 1793, and Among the Hidden, but Hoosier writer Barbara Shoup’s Stranded in Harmony and Wish You Were Here were also great reads, written from the perspectives of almost-adult high school boys.

At least 7 books on my list were from my library book club (BK), 7 were historical fiction based on real events or people (HF), and 5 could be or are considered classics (C).  The list is rounded out with a smattering of nonfiction, mystery, popular fiction, and a graphic novel.

Recently, I came across a blogger who wanted to read books that year that were only written by non-white authors.  Because I think that reading fiction and memoir is one of the best ways that we can step into another person’s shoes and have some glimmer of what they experience, I thought that was a great idea.  So I decided to evaluate my list.  Without the specific intention to read authors of color, 10 of my 75 books in 2014 fell into that category: Clay’s Ark, This is How You Lose Her, Love, King Peggy, Couldn’t Keep It To Myself (many of the individual pieces were written by African-American or Hispanic women), The Gift of Rain, The Good Lord Bird, Miracle at St. Anna, Does My Head Look Big in This?, and Behind the Scenes at the Lincoln White House.  Another 6 had a primary story line that dealt with cross-race or ethnic relations or tensions: Strength in What Remains, Dark Star Safari, Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening, Kissing Outside the Lines, The Invention of Wings, and The Water is Wide.  I can still do better, but I thought it was a respectable start.

So what is the gender breakdown?  44 books written by women and 31 by men.  I’m not surprised by that, but if it weren’t for Michael Chabon and Carl Hiassen I would have only read 24 books written by men.  I don’t think I read any books written by a transgender person, or by someone who identifies as gay or lesbian in 2014.  I’ll have to make an effort to change that next year.

I love, love, love the new Robert Galbraith/JK Rowling mysteries featuring Private Investigator Cormoran Strike.  Carl Hiassen and Janet Evanovich reliably make me laugh, and I have a huge crush on Michael Chabon.  I am in awe of Sue Monk Kidd.  She wrote my number-one book of the year: The Invention of Wings.  If you like historical fiction at all, don’t pass it up.  She tells the stories of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, real South Carolina women in the early to mid-1800’s who were feminists and abolitionists before Elizabeth Cady Stanton and John Brown.  She weaves in the fictional story of Sarah’s slave, Handful, who was given to Sarah as an 11th birthday present. The result is fascinating, heartbreaking, and inspiring.

I am amazed when I read Willkie Collins and Charles Dickens how well their novels stand the test of time, and only wish more women and minority authors had been published then so we would have their wisdom and insight now, too.

I was most surprised that I liked Point of Impact.  It was a book club selection, and the story line centered on snipers, guns, and FBI/CIA conspiracies.  I didn’t have high hopes when it was passed out. There were only two female characters in the entire book!  But I couldn’t put it down.  I liked the main characters and wanted to see them win.

My goals for 2015? More authors of color, some LGBT authors, less young adult, more new authors.  Maybe a little less memoir, but not too much.  And I’d like to read 80 books by the end of 2015.

  1. Cherry, by Mary Karr (M)
  2. Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy (M)
  3. Bad Monkey, by Carl Hiassen
  4. Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, by Ann Patchett (M)
  5. Takedown Twenty, by Janet Evanovich
  6. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (C)
  7. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare (YA)
  8. The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
  9. Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City, by Eric Toensmeier (M)
  10. The Water is Wide, by Pat Conroy (M)
  11. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon (HF)
  12. Mountains beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, by Tracy Kidder
  13. The Woman in White, by Willkie Collins (C)
  14. The Boy on the Bus, by Deborah Schupack (BK)
  15. Clay’s Ark, by Octavia Butler
  16. Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, by Anne Lamott
  17. Destroyer Angel, by Nevada Barr
  18. Manhood for Amateurs, by Michael Chabon (M)
  19. Lucky, by Alice Sebold (M)
  20. Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food & Money, by Geneen Roth (M)
  21. Lift, by Kelly Corrigan (M)
  22. Walden on Wheels, by Ken Ilgunas (M)
  23. So Big by Edna Ferber (C)
  24. The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd (HF)
  25. The Final Solution: A Story of Detection, by Michael Chabon
  26. This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz
  27. Fever 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson (YA)
  28. Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace, by Ayelet Waldman (M)
  29. Behind the Scenes at the Lincoln White House, by Elizabeth Keckley (C)
  30. The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, by Michael Chabon
  31. Storm Front, by Richard Castle (BK)
  32. The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure, by Rachel Friedman (M)
  33. Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov (M)
  34. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi
  35. Fly Away Home, by Jennifer Weiner
  36. King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village, by Peggielene Bartels and Eleanor Herman (M)
  37. Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, by Piper Kerman (M)
  38. Top Secret Twenty One, by Janet Evanovich
  39. Labyrinth of Desire: Women, Passion, and Romantic Obsession, by Rosemary Sullivan
  40. I Love You, Miss Huddleston, by Philip Gulley (M)
  41. Kissing Outside the Lines: A True Story of Love & Race & Happily Ever After, by Diane Farr (M)
  42. Love, by Toni Morrison
  43. Couldn’t Keep It To Myself: Testimonies From Our Imprisoned Sisters, edited by Wally Lamb, by the women of the York Correctional Institution (M)
  44. The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
  45. Wish You Were Here, by Barbara Shoup (YA)
  46. Paris in Love, by Eloisa James (M)
  47. The Gift of Rain, by Tan Twan Eng (HF) (BK)
  48. Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening, by Carol Wall (M)
  49. Among the Hidden, by Margaret Peterson Haddix (YA)
  50. Stranded in Harmony, by Barbara Shoup (YA)
  51. Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah (YA)
  52. All Fall Down, by Jennifer Weiner
  53. One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One, by Lauren Sandler (M)
  54. Point of Impact, by Stephen Hunter (BK)
  55. Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date, by Katie Heaney (M)
  56. Bossypants, by Tina Fey (M)
  57. Flush, by Carl Hiassen (YA)
  58. Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue (HF)
  59. The Giver, by Lois Lowry (YA)
  60. The Art of War for Writers, by James Scott Bell
  61. The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride (HF)
  62. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green (YA)
  63. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs (YA) (BK)
  64. The Road From Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway (M)
  65. Basket Case, by Carl Hiassen
  66. Favorite Dog Stories, by James Herriott (M)
  67. Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, by Paul Theroux (M)
  68. The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin (YA)
  69. Miracle at St. Anna, by James McBride (HF)
  70. Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance & Forgiveness, by Tracy Kidder
  71. The Vanishing Violin, by MIchael D. Beil (YA)
  72. Still Foolin ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell are My Keys? by Billy Crystal (M) (BK)
  73. I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War, by Jerome Charyn (HF)
  74. Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens (C)
  75. The Hoarder In You: How to Live a Happier, Healthier, Uncluttered Life, by Dr. Robin Zasio

 

2014 Writing Project Done!

In May 2013, I was journaling religiously every day, and sporadically working on a book.  I wasn’t sure if it was going to be historical fiction based upon the life of my grandmother, or a memoir, or some combination of family history memoir and my own memoir.

I made the decision then that I would get the book done by the end of 2014.  Done.  I gave myself a year and a half.

Shortly after that decision, my job changed significantly, and eventually got a lot more stressful. I still enjoy it, but it takes up a lot more space in my head, that I had been using for writing.  A year-long search committee at my church also started then, which was extremely rewarding, but also took up tIme I had been using for writing.

In August 2013 my daughter and I both got smartphones.  Everything was at my fingertips!  Instead of my notebook being the first thing I touched when I woke up, it was now the phone.  And Facebook and Pinterest beckoned.

I stopped journaling daily, but I still made time occasionally to work on the book.  I had set that deadline, after all.  By the late fall, I realized that I had to make a schedule so that I had intermediate deadlines and could finish when I said that I would.  And it needed to be a memoir so that I could work out my own stuff before I tried a novel.

I changed the schedule multiple times, but I did it.

It’s January 1, 2015, and I have 246 double-spaced, typewritten pages of a memoir.  93,976 words.

It’s mostly a history of my relationships with boys and men, from my early crushes, to my marriage, divorce, and later boyfriends and fiance.  I online-dated, off and on, from 1999 to 2007. But I also went to college, taught high school, switched careers when I was 23, went to law school, switched careers again at 31, decided to and became a single mom by choice, and in quick succession in 2005 was fired from my job and diagnosed with breast cancer with a not-yet-two year old.

I’m going to take a few weeks off from thinking about my next steps with the memoir, and then I will print it out and see what happens with it next.  Stay tuned for my 2014 in books!

Writing Project 2014 Update



Sometime in late 2013, while I was figuring out what step to take next in my writing, I decided to take parts of a memoir I had started, and make a second draft.  Taking Seth Godin’s advice, I set a “shipping date” of December 31, 2014.

I figured out a process for each chapter, and set a schedule.

Life intervened, and work has become much more stressful over the past year.  I don’t have as much space in my head or energy for writing these days. But I have been plugging along when I can.

The schedule has been changed several times, but I am happy to report that I have one chapter left to edit, and it is only 8 typed pages.  And eighteen days left to finish!

Katie Heaney’s Memoir and My (Still Unfinished) Memoir

Katie Heaney wrote and published a memoir, Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date, before she turned thirty. Some people find that tedious, but I found it inspiring. See, Katie’s story is interesting because she has been single for her entire life. Yet she is heterosexual, and for most of her twenty-five years “there has been at least one boy [she] was thinking about and hoping to date, in the abstract….[and] there has been a specific theoretical boyfriend in mind more often than there hasn’t been.”

I wish someone my age had written this kind of memoir when I was in college, and that I had found it then.  I have twenty years on Katie, but I get her completely.  The writing that I’ve been doing is similar in scope and theme to her memoir.  She wrote about every crush from grade school forward, describing her experiences with boys and lack thereof.  I’m writing about every relationship, however ill-advised or doomed, to try to figure out why I’ve felt the need to do what Katie has done–have a specific theoretical boyfriend in mind most of the time–or go even further– have an actual boyfriend or husband a good portion of the time.

It’s funny how the image we have of ourselves when we are teenagers never seems to go away completely, or is really hard to change.  I was the boy-crazy one, the fat girl who was always chasing someone but never catching anyone.  Like Katie, I didn’t date anyone in high school, but in my case, it wasn’t for the lack of trying.  Many things came together so that it never happened for me.  And when it did happen, I wasn’t very picky about who was interested, how I really felt about him, and how he treated me.  That came much later.

Katie got to an “end to the era in my life when I might have felt the need to do something for the first time to get it over with” and ended up writing the book as a twenty-five year old who hasn’t had sex.  She refers to Tina Fey saying that she was twenty-four when she had sex for the first time because she “couldn’t give it away.”  I may not have had the exact same experiences, but I know the feelings.

Why am I writing and thinking about this now, more than twenty years later?  I’ve been deliberately single for more than three years.  This is the longest period of time since college that I haven’t been in a relationship or trying to get into a relationship.  I still think about men often, both specific men I might like to date and in general when I see them out and about.  But at the same time, being with someone after three years of not being with anyone makes it all seem theoretical, like it happened in another life to another person.  And I have a hard time imagining how a man would fit into my life with everything I have going on such as work, raising my daughter, my family and friends, and the things I want to do, like reading and writing.

But I’ve also realized that I’m writing about my sordid past relationships because I’m trying to change the story I tell myself about myself.  I’m not that fat girl who couldn’t get a date any more.  I have dated and married and divorced and broken up and been broken up with.  I’ve got almost two hundred pages with all of the gory details.  Katie’s memoir spoke to me because she has realized a lot of the same things I’m trying to, without the twenty-five-year detour.  That’s why I wish her book had been available to me when I was in college.

The status of a relationship, whether I am in one or not, or dating or not, does not define me.  Katie writes, about dating: “Why would I want to go out to dinner and a movie with someone I’m not completely crazy about when I already know how much I like eating dinner and watching a movie by myself?”  When a friend finally recovers from a bad breakup, she does so partly by realizing that “she could do whatever she wanted, work wherever she wanted, and live wherever she wanted…she didn’t have to think about anyone else’s goals or desires and then try to make them work with her own…It’s not that she wouldn’t do those things.  It’s just that she didn’t HAVE to. She could live for herself and herself alone.”  Katie realizes that her friend never felt this freedom before, but that it was “the same freedom I’ve always had, for my whole entire life.”

Last night, Friday night, there were two other possible things I could have done instead of what I did.  A female friend had an extra ticket to a gala that would have been so much fun, to get dressed up and go downtown to a fancy ballroom and people-watch.  And an online friend was in town with her husband and wanted to try to meet for dinner.  Either would have been enjoyable.  But my daughter isn’t old enough to stay home in the evening by herself, babysitting is expensive, and I am using a lot of my childcare “credits” with friends right now because of a two-week fall break.  So I didn’t do either thing.  Instead, after work, I changed into my sweatpants, made pizza from scratch, and then my daughter and I watched The Voice episodes we had DVR’d from the week, while I knitted a scarf I owe for a charity auction.  Then she went to bed and I read for a blissful hour of peace and quiet.  I don’t know how dating would fit into all this, and that’s all right.  Like Katie, I am “sure of who I am and what I want (and don’t want) in other people.”  I can take wisdom from anywhere, even from a tall, awkward girl twenty years younger than me.  Thanks, Katie.