Our Flag Means Death is Anti-Fat

I have to preface this by saying that I loved Our Flag Means Death. I’m in my third watching of the series, rejoiced when it was renewed for a second season this week, have obsessively followed fan art and fan fiction about it, and my partner and I have determined who is cosplaying Ed and who is cosplaying Stede. But, in all of the articles and commentary I’ve read, not one person mentions the numerous fat “jokes” throughout, and some even claim that OFMD is body-positive.

While OFMD clearly celebrates being queer, and includes a couple of fat characters (Wee John, Oluwande, Spanish Jackie), one of whom gets a romantic storyline (Oluwande), there are too many references to fatness in a negative way to consider that it celebrates all bodies.

It’s primarily that all of the fat jokes about Stede are unnecessary. I’m not going to go through all of them because I don’t want to compound the anti-fat bias. There are many throughout the first couple of episodes, mostly from the terrible Nigel Badminton, but they are completely gratuitous. We could have gotten the idea that Stede was a tender-hearted, sensitive, daydreaming child who was relentlessly bullied because of his softness, without the idea that he was fat. Especially when the casting didn’t match the description. Neither the child actor (who happens to be Rhys Darby’s son) nor Rhys Darby himself are actually fat. So the writers are saying that being called “fat” is one of the worst things they can think of, nevermind what they think of those of us who are actually fat.

In the first episode, a random crewmember on the British Navy ship refers to Stede as a “heavyset woman in a dressing gown.” Later, in episode 8, Calico Jack asks Ed, upon meeting Stede, “Who’s the big gal?” and Ed seems a little embarrassed to be found with Stede by Jack. It clearly wasn’t because Stede is a man, as Ed and Jack have had their dalliances, so it must be that Ed is embarrassed by Stede’s appearance. I hate these moments in the show and I’m so disappointed that, for all of its celebration of queerness, the writers resorted to anti-fatness.

And it’s curious, then, when Jim allows Lucius to get out of the box where he’s confined him, Lucius is sweaty, and is found by Stede, that Lucius comes up with the excuse that he is exercising “to make his body smaller” since exercise for weight loss was not a thing in the 1700s. Why was that the excuse? If Stede had been a fat kid or even a fat adult, wouldn’t he have known that? I know that OFMD is not trying to be historically accurate–it’s campy and fun and brings a present sensibility to telling a historical story–so why did the writers need to bring today’s anti-fatness to the 1700’s, when such anti-fatness did not exist then? I want to love OFMD wholeheartedly, but as a fat person who doesn’t want to subject myself to more anti-fatness than necessary, I can’t.

I do appreciate that Spanish Jackie, played by Leslie Jones, is not referred to as fat and is a ruthless pirate in her own right. And that Oluwande is so well-loved by the crew and by Jim that no one thinks to call or consider him fat or unlovable. Wee John, a big crewmember obsessed with fire, just gets to exist as a fat man without any criticism of his size. Those are all good things.

I have complicated feelings about OFMD. I loved so much of it. And I was disappointed by many things as well. I hope for the second season that the writers can abandon the anti-fat bias.

My 2021 in Books: Favorites

Several books in 2021 have to be put on my “favorites” list, for different reasons.

I loved listening to both Rachel Maddow read her book Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth and Huma Abedin (Hillary Clinton’s longtime aide and wife to Anthony Weiner) read her memoir Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds. Both had horrifying moments but the behind-the-scenes information was enthralling.

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon was life-changing, and I’ve been trying to be fat-positive since 1989 (when we called it “size-accepting”). Gordon has written as Your Fat Friend and is one-half of the amazing podcast Maintenance Phase. This book deserves much more time than I’m giving it, but trust me, if you have any interest in fat politics or fighting diet culture, don’t miss it.

I discovered several queer romances that I loved, including Landing by Emma Donoghue; and a bunch of historical regency romances written by Cat Sebastian. I’ve read several (Unmasked by the Marquess; It Takes Two to Tumble; A Little Light Mischief), but have many more to read to get through her catalog. Each is a delightful escape, and in many she includes an author’s note about the characters and her choices about them.

I picked up We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan from the new shelf on my first trip to a new library system, and was not disappointed. The author tells the story of an Indian/Ugandan/British Muslim family, through the stories of a young lawyer, Sameer, and his grandfather, and how British colonialism affected the family and those close to them in Uganda, when those of Indian descent (originally brought there by the British) were forced to leave Uganda during the time of Idi Amin. The author illuminated a period of history I had not been previously aware of, through characters I wanted to know more about.

I read many brilliantly-written memoirs by African-American authors, including How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones; Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey; and Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley Ford. I learned much that I did not know in both Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo and How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning of the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith, that these two books should be on every anti-racist reading list. A necessary anti-racist memoir and kind of workbook, specifically written for white people, is Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving, although it does have some cringy moments. And I read Seven Days in June by Tia Williams, in one sitting on a Saturday night because I couldn’t put it down. It’s a romance featuring two authors, one with debilitating migraines, a robust fan base, and an 11-year old daughter named Audre and another who is famously reclusive. The world doesn’t know that they once knew each other when they were in high school, before they were each famous. It’s steamy, hilarious, and a fascinating look at New York’s African-American literary scene.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Lesa Cline-Ransome’s young adult historical fiction trilogy: Finding Langston, Leaving Lymon, and Being Clem. She illuminates the Great Migration through the stories of three young boys who attend the same middle school in Chicago at the same time in the late 1940s. I read them backwards, but loved each of the boys in their own ways, and understood them so much more since they each had their own story. Highly recommend for middle-grade readers or anyone who loves historical fiction.

Finally, I was delighted by several books set in Great Britain: The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan (What happens when a downsized librarian buys a van, makes it a traveling bookstore, and moves to Scotland?); Mr. Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (How does a 75-year old married father of two adult daughters tell his wife of 50 years that he is gay and been involved with his best friend since before they were married?); and One Day in December by Josie Silver (Will the girl and the guy who locked eyes on a bus ever be single at the same time?).

I discovered I Was Told It Would Get Easier by Abbi Waxman at just the right time–as my only daughter was off at college for the first time, the single-mom lawyer in this book was taking hers on a college tour up and down the East coast with the hopes they could learn to talk to each other again. It was hilarious and heartwarming, as to be expected from Waxman.

Others I loved with reviews already on Reading While Fat:

My 2021 in Books: Analysis and 2022 Goals

Of the 85 books I read in 2021, here is the breakdown of what exactly I read:

  • 47 (55%) were written by non-white authors
  • 70 (82%) were written by women
  • 63 (74%) were fiction
  • 38 (44%) were audiobooks
  • 4 (5%) were obtained courtesy of NetGalley
  • 41 (48%) were obtained courtesy of my public library
  • 16 (19%) were read for one of my 2 book groups
  • Genre breakdown (some categories overlap):
    • 8 Young Adult
    • 6 Science/Speculative fiction/ Fantasy
    • 7 Mystery/ Thriller
    • 11 Romance
    • 17 Historical fiction
    • 14 Memoir
    • 17 Queer storylines or author
  • 30 (35%) were the subject of reviews on Reading While Fat.

I exceeded both my overall total and percentage of diverse authors goals–I had hoped to read 80 and I read 85; and I had hoped to read 40% from diverse authors, but I read 55%. I was willing to cut myself some slack, but my habit of reading diverse authors now seems to be ingrained.

I had planned to publish a review every week but life, specifically moving into a new house with my fiance and sending my daughter off to college, got in the way, and so I didn’t even publish 60% of what I had hoped. I started off strong, but slacked off in the spring and never got back into the groove of weekly posting. I have several books I still want to post reviews for but will consider how that affects 2022’s goals.

Interesting tidbits:

  • I only read 14 different male authors, and I only would have read 10 if it hadn’t been for my book groups. I don’t gravitate towards male authors anymore if I can choose freely.
  • I read a lot more romance than I have in recent years, perhaps because I found a great author of queer historical romances–Cat Sebastian–and another great author of fat positive romances–Olivia Dade.
  • The vast majority of my audiobooks were read through Audible, but I have also started using my library’s Hoopla service for audiobooks.
  • For the first time I went on a book spree specifically because I loved the audiobook narrator–Dion Graham did such an amazing job in Lesa Cline-Ransome’s Being Clem that I had to go back and read the beginning of the trilogy that he narrates (Finding Langston and Leaving Lymon), and then Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising, which had been on my list for a bit and I was thrilled to see he was the narrator. He inhabited the three boys in the trilogy so well–I could listen to him read anything.
  • I read 9 books in each of September, October, and November, but only 4 books each in May (moving prep) and December. The average was just over 7 books a month.

2022 Goals:

  • At least 80 books, half of them diverse.
  • Publish the equivalent of one review a week on Reading While Fat–52 reviews during 2022.

My 2021 in Books: The List

I’ve reviewed about 1/3 of these (review links on titles) on my other blog, Reading While Fat, but here is the full list of everything I’ve read during 2021. Each book marked below with (D) was written by an author who is not white. Books marked (A) were read to me as audiobooks, and (BG) were read for one of my book groups. You may see reviews of some of these show up in early 2022 over on Reading While Fat, but I also plan to do a round-up of some books I want to highlight but don’t want to do a full review.

  1. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
  2. Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (D, A)
  3. Joyland by Stephen King (BG)
  4. Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse (D)
  5. The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan (D, A)
  6. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (D, A)
  7. The Cutting Season by Attica Locke (D, A)
  8. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson (A)
  9. The Awkward Black Man by Walter Mosley (D)
  10. Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin (D, A)
  11. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (BG)
  12. This is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel (BG)
  13. The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis (A)
  14. The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo (D)
  15. Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin
  16. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (D, A)
  17. Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson (D, A)
  18. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami (D, A)
  19. Lightning Men by Thomas Mullen (BG)
  20. Bellwether by Connie Willis (A)
  21. Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok (D, A)
  22. Selection Day by Aravind Adiga (D)
  23. Blowout by Rachel Maddow (A)
  24. Fat Girl Finishing School by Rachel Wiley (D)
  25. Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse (D, A)
  26. Bears in the Streets by Lisa Dickey (BG)
  27. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (BG)
  28. Big Girl plus The Pill by Meg Elison
  29. The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis (D)
  30. Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo (D, A)
  31. Landing by Emma Donoghue (A)
  32. The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan (BG)
  33. The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness by Kyung-sook Shin (D, A)
  34. What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon
  35. The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson (BG)
  36. Sitting Pretty: The View From My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body by Rebekah Taussig (BG)
  37. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison
  38. Blue Highways by William least Heat-Moon (D, A)
  39. The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin (D, A)
  40. O Beautiful by Jung Yun (D)
  41. Starfish by Lisa Fipps
  42. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (D, A)
  43. The Black Hour by Lori Rader-Day (BG)
  44. Seven Days in June by Tia Williams (D, BG)
  45. Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid (D, A)
  46. We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan (D)
  47. Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin (A)
  48. Afterlife by Julia Alvarez (D, A)
  49. How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones (D)
  50. That Summer by Jennifer Weiner (A)
  51. The (other) F Word edited by Angie Manfredi (D, A)
  52. The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill
  53. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (D, A)
  54. The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey (D)
  55. A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev (D, A)
  56. 77 Letters: Operation Morale Booster: Vietnam by Susan P. Hunter (BG)
  57. Unmasked by the Marquess by Cat Sebastian
  58. A Little Light Mischief by Cat Sebastian
  59. Bad Fat Black Girl by Sesali Bowen (D)
  60. How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith (D)
  61. Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey (D, A)
  62. Waking Up White by Debby Irving (A)
  63. I Was Told It Would Get Easier by Abbi Waxman (A)
  64. Being Clem by Lesa Cline-Ransome (D, A)
  65. The Bollywood Bride by Sonali Dev (D)
  66. Mediocre by Ijeoma Oluo (D)
  67. A Burning by Megha Majumdar (D, BG)
  68. It Takes Two to Tumble by Cat Sebastian
  69. Black Water Rising by Attica Locke (D, A)
  70. Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade
  71. Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome (D, A)
  72. Mr. Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (D, A)
  73. When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O’Neal (BG)
  74. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig (BG)
  75. Old in Art School by Nell Painter (D, A)
  76. The Satapur Moonstone by Sujata Massey (D)
  77. Leaving Lymon by Lesa Cline-Ransome (D, A)
  78. Find Layla by Meg Elison
  79. The Maid by Nita Prose
  80. All The Feels by Olivia Dade
  81. Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley Ford (D)
  82. Both/And by Huma Abedin (D, A)
  83. Red At the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson (D, A)
  84. One Day in December by Josie Silver (BG)
  85. Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge (D)

Next post . . . the analysis!

2020 Queer Books

In 2020, I read many books written by queer authors or featuring queer characters.

I blogged about I Have Something To Tell You by Chasten Buttigieg and The Deviant’s War by Eric Cervini in the 2020 nonfiction post. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado was a completely original memoir, and the story of the author’s relationship with her first girlfriend, who was abusive. It’s not in a traditional narrative structure–each chapter is titled and told using a different narrative trope, such as “Dream House as Fantasy,” “Dream House as Second Chances,” “Dream House as Unreliable Narrator.” It was really well-done, and the author narrated the audiobook herself.

You can find my other thoughts on The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar on the 2020 Diverse Books post and in my Goodreads review. It’s so queer!! There are at least three separate queer romances embedded within the book; the main contemporary character is transgender, and there are numerous LGBTQ characters throughout. Including in the historical storyline!

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern surprised me when the main character turned out to be gay. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was thrilled because it was unexpected. It’s nice to read a Fantasy novel that’s not billed as “queer fiction” but just so happens to have queer characters. As I mentioned in the 2020 Book Group Favorites post, while I loved it because the writing was gorgeous and the idea so intriguing, it’s not for everyone, especially if you need a clear narrative structure.

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus was a mystical, heartbreaking young adult f/f romance novel, told from alternating perspectives. Mentioned in the 2020 Best Body Positive Books post, it certainly belongs here as well. I noted Faith: Taking Flight by Julie Murphy in the same post, and here, because the main character is figuring out her sexuality, which is likely bisexual or pansexual.

Books that get Honorable Mentions for queer supporting characters: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman; 96 Words for Love by Rachel Roy and Ava Dash; and, Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy.

Catch and Kill should also be listed here because the author, Ronan Farrow, writes about maintaining his bicoastal relationship as he’s reporting the Weinstein assaults, and proposes to his partner in a draft of the book.

Please visit my new blog at Reading While Fat, where I’ll be reviewing a new book every Sunday, with a focus on whether it is fat-positive, fat-neutral, or fatphobic.

2020 Fatphobic Books

First, how do I define fatphobia? It’s basically the fear and/or hatred of fat bodies and it perpetuates negative stereotypes that extend discrimination against fat people. More here.

Three of the 2020 books that I found to be fatphobic were read for one of my book groups, and most had positive aspects as well. You can find the positive aspects of Case Histories and Eleanor Oliphant in the 2020 Book Group Favorites post.

Despite being well-written and with a unique construction, I found Case Histories (2004) by Kate Atkinson to be fatphobic in a couple of ways. First, the main character in one of the storylines is a solicitor named Theo, who is very fat and described as unhealthy, as he huffs and puffs walking down the street and his daughters chastise him to eat better. Theo is one of the few purely good characters in the book, but he suffers through unspeakable grief. Although I appreciate seeing a fat character in a British book, Atkinson makes the assumption that Theo’s fatness means he is also unhealthy, which is not a given, and she also subjects him to some of the worst grief a person can experience, so he becomes a tragic character. Another character who is presumed to be fat is Amelia Land, one of the sisters in another storyline who teaches English and is a virgin in her mid-thirties. She has a crush on Jackson, the P.I., but it is unreciprocated. She is portrayed as frumpish and awkward, and Atkinson uses another stereotype–that fat women are really lesbians who can’t get men — to finish Amelia’s story.

I found some fatphobia in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (2017) by Gail Honeyman, another British book, but the main character works through it and seems to get over it. I would have hoped that Eleanor would have had empathy for fat people who are judged by the way they look, as she has a badly scarred face, but her emotional scars are too deep for her to have much empathy at the beginning of the book. She avoids sitting next to fat people on public transportation, having the same attitude as her abusive mother, who is snobbish and cruel. But later, after thinking about it, she realizes that they may be fat through no fault of their own, so she starts sharing her seat. And she has wisdom and insight about conventionally beautiful people, who she feels sorry for (or does she?): “Beauty, from the moment you possess it, is already slipping away, ephemeral. That must be difficult. Always having to prove that there’s more to you, wanting people to see beneath the surface, to be loved for yourself, and not your stunning body, sparking eyes, or thick, lustrous hair.” Is she talking about beautiful people or those who aren’t?

The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2008) by Muriel Barbery was first published in French and tells the story of a concierge, Renee Michel, at a high-end apartment building on the Left Bank in Paris and a 12-year old girl, Paloma, who lives in one of the apartments. Madame Michel is middle-aged, ugly, and has cultivated an appearance so that the tenants perceive her to be of low-class and not very intelligent, but actually she is brilliant and has refined tastes: she is an autodidact, enjoys gourmet food, and is a connoisseur of capital-A Art. Paloma is precocious and sensitive, and has decided to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. Things change for both Madame Michel and Paloma when a resident dies and a Japanese businessman moves into one of the apartments. It’s a very deep book, full of philosophy, character-driven, and not a fast read. And it is fatphobic because it is presumed that Madame Michel is fat. About herself, she thinks: “I greatly pity the handsome young man who is obliged to contemplate a one-hundred-and-fifty-pound toad named Renee.” She also thinks that “to be poor, ugly, and moreover intelligent condemns one, in our society, to a dark and disillusioned life, a condition one ought to accept at an early age.” Madame Michel and the Japanese businessman become friends, though, much to her surprise, and as they talk and find out how much in common they have, she begins to wonder if she might have found love against all odds. And of course, a fat and ugly character cannot find love, even if she does have friends and they remember her fondly. Ugh. The writing was beautiful, and I noted many quotes. But I found much of it offensive.

I read Is He My Son?: A trafficked Chinese child, discovered and lost again (2019) by Lin Chang, Bruce Humes (translator) through NetGalley and posted a review on Goodreads here. While I liked it overall, there was some choppiness and fatphobia. The birth mother says “I’d be massively overweight if I lived in the capital. So many delicious dishes,” and was asked “Not on a diet, are you? . . . As soon as I touched down in the capital I forgot the meaning of the word.” I don’t know how Chinese culture has regarded fat people historically, but it is clear that Western diet culture (and the accompanying fear of becoming fat) has spread around the world.

For the most part I really enjoyed Righteous: An IQ novel (2017) by Joe Ide. It’s the second of a series of (currently four) crime mysteries set in South Central Los Angeles. Isaiah Quintabe (IQ) has some Sherlock Holmes-ian characteristics. It also was somewhat reminiscent of the humor in a Carl Hiassen novel, except with less absurd characters. I only found fault in one scene where Isaiah wonders why “you would wear a miniskirt if your thighs were like two Beluga whales swimming side by side.” I was disappointed and wish he had avoided the fatphobic description. But I am willing to fall on my sword, read the others sometime to see if this is a pattern, and report back. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with thighs that look like Beluga whales–they are majestic! (And what if our thighs could echolocate like Beluga whales? Wouldn’t that be cool?)

2020 Best Body Positive Books

In 2020, I read two new fat positive books from one of my new favorite authors, one from the queen of body positive books, and some that I didn’t expect to be fat positive.

Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy is Murphy’s first middle-grade novel, published in October 2019. It was a delight! The characters are diverse, and she doesn’t assume that they are all white. For example, I’d never seen a character describe her parent as being “white, like me.” It was so refreshing and an excellent way to subvert the assumption that white = normal and any other skin color isn’t. Sweet Pea is a 7th grader whose parents are getting divorced, and she lives 1/2-time with each one. Her Dad has rented a nearly identical house two doors down from her Mom. Her best friend is Oscar, and she has a frenemy named Kiera. When the eccentric old lady next door (who also writes the town advice column) goes out of town, Sweet Pea, who is house-sitting, starts answering her mail. Things go awry, of course. She struggles with finding clothes that a 13-year old would wear when she’s about sized out of the juniors department, and her Mom goes on a rampage with store management about not having merchandise to fit all bodies. What would our world be like if all parents defended their daughters like this instead of telling girls that they should change their bodies? What I love is that Sweet Pea is a fat character, but the story isn’t about her being fat at all–it’s about navigating the changes from a parental divorces, changing friendships and being a good friend, and changing from one stage of childhood to another (middle school to secondary school).

Faith: Taking Flight by Julie Murphy, published in July 2020, is the YA origin story of the fat superhero also known as Zephyr. She’s a high school senior who lives with her grandma, works in animal rescue, is the secret author of a fangirl blog, and has just found out that she can fly. Her best friends are witchy (Ches) and queer (both Ches and Matt), she has a crush on her co-editor of the newspaper, and a huge possible scoop when her favorite show is filming in town. Of course there is a mystery to solve and criminals to expose, and there’s the matter of Faith not being sure whether she likes boys or girls or both. Again, though Faith being fat is a part of her as a character, it’s not the primary part–Faith is dealing with the possible dementia of her grandmother, competing crushes on a school friend and famous actor she’s just met, girls who are abducted and found later in a coma, and a strange drug that is showing up around town. I loved reading an entire book about a fat, bisexual superhero!

Big Summer was published in May 2020 and is Jennifer Weiner’s 17th book. The protagonist is Daphne, a plus-size “influencer” living in New York City who is also an afterschool nanny. Her parents are teachers at a private school in Manhattan, which she was able to attend, which put her in contact with people of a far different social standing. She had been best friends with Drue, an heiress, but their friendship was volatile and Drue asks her to be in her wedding although they haven’t spoken for years. Daphne’s parents have always supported her at whatever size she is, but diet culture and your inner critic is so difficult to clear from your brain. Weiner blends fat activism with social media influencer culture seamlessly. I loved that her supporting characters are becoming more diverse than in her earlier books and was thoroughly enthralled with what was going to happen next. There’s a huge twist in that the book starts out like Weiner’s other chick-lit, and then midway morphs into something completely different. It worked for me!

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them (pub. September 2019) by Junauda Petrus is told alternately in the voices of Audre, a Trinidadian teenager, and Mabel, who lives in Minneapolis. Audre doesn’t get along well with her mother, who has found Jesus, but has a kindred spirit in her grandmother, Queenie. She finds love with the preacher’s daughter on a secluded beach but is caught by her mother, and so sent to live with her father in Minneapolis. She meets Mabel there, as their fathers are old friends. Mabel has two amazing parents and is trying to figure out her feelings about other girls. Unfortunately, Mabel is having some scary health issues and has a kind of leukemia. But she finds a beautiful, mystical book written by a man in prison on her parents bookshelves and she starts corresponding with him. It helps her come to terms with her situation. I include it on this list because I got the impression that Audre was not a small teen, and there was a reference to Mabel’s mother being comfortable enough in her own body to do yoga outside in booty shorts. It was a beautiful f/f teen romance.

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes gets an honorable mention because I don’t recall any fatphobia in it, and one of the packhorse librarians, a minor character, is a chubby young woman who also uses braces to walk due to polio. After some initial hesitation, she is at home on horseback and even gets to be a hero during a flood! I love to see positive representation even when the main character isn’t fat.

2020 Book Group Favorites

With the pandemic, my college friends started our own book group. That makes two for me. Here are my 2020 favorites among both book groups.

The Giver of Stars, by Jojo Moyes, was one of my favorites of the year. It’s the story of a British woman who has married a Kentucky coal heir and moved to the Appalachians during the Great Depression. Not sure her marriage is what she expected but unsure what to do about it — she becomes one of the traveling librarians who deliver books on horseback to people who live in the hills and can’t easily get to town. It was a great story–full of strong feminist characters, beautiful descriptions of the mountains, with a subplot involving race, possibly a queer character, and the excitement of a “married love” book being delivered by the librarians. And it will make an appearance later in the week for having a fairly well-developed fat character who has a positive subplot. If you like historical fiction centered on women and based in events that really happened, don’t miss it! (Side note: I know there has been a controversy about similar plot points in Giver of Stars and in The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson. I plan to read Book Woman in 2021 to form my own opinions.)

I absolutely loved The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman, which was picked by our library facilitator as something light for December. I usually know pretty quickly whether I will really love a book by how soon I break out the tabs to mark a sentence I will want to note a quote. I only made to to page 8 on this one before I had to tab, and quickly followed with another on page 11. Nina is a millenial book store clerk, an only child of a single mother, who has anxiety, a competitive trivia team, her life planned to include plenty of reading time, and who lives in a walkable neighborhood in Los Angeles (who knew there was such a thing!). One day she finds out that she actually has a quite large and dysfunctional family through the father she never knew. And she seems to keep meeting up with the guy on the trivia team that gives hers the most competition. I was thoroughly amused and entertained by how Nina navigates these changes, and recommended it from one book group to the other. It will also make an appearance with an honorable mention in my queer-friendly books post later this week.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson is the first in the Jackson Brodie mystery series, which can be found as a TV series on Vudu with Jason Isaacs playing the detective. First, I will admit that I will read anything Kate Atkinson has written–she is one of my favorite authors. I liked this one–the structure is unusual in that you don’t get to meet Jackson until a long way into the book, as Atkinson sets up three different situations with different murders, and it’s unclear how they are going to be connected until much later. You just have to trust that she will connect them and it will all make sense later. There were tough situations to read–the disappearance and possible abuse of a child, stabbing, and breakdown of a mother with possible postpartum depression. But Brodie is a great character. I am going to try to read the other books and/or try out the TV series. One caveat: this book will also make an appearance later in the week because of its fatphobia.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman exceeded my expectations. Eleanor is a twentysomething clerk at an ad agency in Great Britain, whose life is regimented by work and weekends. She has facial scarring, and no friends–she doesn’t know if it’s the scarring or her lack of social skills. But she wants things to change, and they do when she stops to help a man who has collapsed on the street. Helping him to the hospital, she makes a work friend, and so it begins. It struck me that Eleanor’s lack of social skills may have been either from the trauma she’s been through or because she might have been on the autism spectrum. But she is a totally unique character, and the book also describes therapy pretty well. There’s a twist, and something of a satisfying ending–I loved it. Another caveat: some fatphobia to be discussed later in the week.

Almost one month before Indiana’s stay home order for the pandemic in March, I read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Because it is set in a North America that has been profoundly changed by a pandemic that killed more than 99% of the population, that was probably not the best time to have read it. Nevertheless, it was beautifully written, with a story within the story and seemingly disparate characters seamlessly woven together. There is a traveling Shakespeare company and orchestra that goes from town to town through what remains of the upper midwest, but those that are left are wary because horrors are always near. Don’t read it right now, but maybe in a year or two when anyone who wants to has been vaccinated for COVID-19.

I was apprehensive about Darktown by Thomas Mullen, because it is historical mystery fiction, with lead black characters, centered on the first black police officers in Atlanta in 1948, and it was written by a white man. But, having read a lot of fiction written by black authors, I think he did a pretty good job highlighting this little-known part of Atlanta history and writing whole, well-developed black characters. Dr. King makes a cameo appearance, as one of the cop’s fathers is a prominent minister at another black church. The black cops are not allowed weapons or vehicles, and are subjected to horrific racism perpetrated by the white cops. But there is one rookie white officer whose experience growing up during WWI with a German mother, and liberating a concentration camp during WWII has given him more empathy towards black folks than nearly all white people in 1948 Atlanta. If not exactly an ally, he at least has empathy, which none of the other white characters do. The mystery was well-done and kept me guessing until the end. I think there’s a sequel, which I will seek out.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler was completely original. Told non-chronologically, it’s the story of Rosemary, raised in Bloomington, Indiana, with an older brother and a sister named Fern. What we don’t find out until well into the book is that their father is a psychology professor, the house is full of graduate students, and Fern has been sent away, fracturing the family forever. You see, Fern is a chimpanzee.
Although there were some tough themes, such as the ethics of animal experimentation, difficult family relationships, and forgiveness, I loved it! One quote: “When there is an invisible elephant in the room, is from time to time bound to trip over a trunk.”

I list The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern last because while I loved it, I was the only one in my book group who did. It is hard to describe, but I’ll try: Imagine that every story also exists in an underground fantasy land–harbors that are connected by the Starless Sea. Events in the real world affect the story-land and vice versa. The protagonist is Zachary Ezra Rollins, a 24-year old Emerging Media Studies graduate student, who finds a book in the library one day that tells the story of an event that actually happened in his childhood–finding a door painted on a brick wall that he was afraid to open. It’s not for everyone, especially if you need a clear narrative thread, because it jumps around between multiple stories and you’re not totally sure what’s going on or what has actually happened at the end. I was enthralled. Morgenstern’s writing was beautiful, and I kept many quotes, including: “A book is an interpretation . . . You want a place to be like it was in a book but it’s not a place it’s just words. The place in your imagination is where you want to go and that place is imaginary. . . You could write endless pages but the words will never be the place.” And you’ll see this one again when I list my favorite Queer-friendly books of the year.

Schedule for the rest of my 2020 book reviews:

After that, I plan to transition book reviews to my new blog, Reading While Fat, where I will review a book a week, and primarily discuss fat positive or fatphobic themes in the books that I read. I may still keep this blog for other writing, but I’m not sure yet.

2020 Best Diverse Books

More than 50% of the books I read in 2020 where written by authors who are not white. Here are just a few–you’ll find that just about all of my lists for 2020 have non-white authors.

Bluebird, Bluebird and Heaven, My Home, by Attica Locke, take place in East Texas along I-59 (a route I know driving back and forth to Houston from the midwest to visit family most Decembers) and center on Darren Mathews, a black, native Texan, Texas Ranger who is drawn, in Bluebird, into a murder of a white supremacist after a confrontation with a family friend. He’s suspended but has to testify to a grand jury, and also gets drawn into a double murder–of a black man and a white woman–which he informally investigates, accompanied by the man’s widow. In Heaven, Darren’s problems continue when his mother finds evidence that might incriminate him in the family friend’s confrontation. These are both so good--and well-done treatments of race relations in the south, in the context of genre police procedural/ mystery stories. Locke is a superb storyteller–you may already be familiar with her work adapting and producing the Celeste Ng novel Little Fires Everywhere for Hulu, and the shows Empire for Fox and When They See Us for Netflix. I’m going to seek out all of her other novels.

I found The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen to be completely unique, as the narrator is addressing a “Commandant” but you don’t find out the context of who he’s telling the story to and why he’s writing it until much later–nearly the end of the book. It won many awards in 2015-2016, including a Pulitzer. The narrator is aide-de-camp for “The General”–a South Vietnamese military leader–but we find out quickly that the narrator is actually a mole, working for the North Vietnamese. He is the child of a teen Vietnamese mother and French Catholic priest, and was never accepted in his village because of his parentage. He learned English so well he was able to go to Occidental College in California before returning to Vietnam before the war. When Saigon falls, he escapes on one of the last planes, and ends up back in Los Angeles, where he remains in contact with his handler through writing letters in invisible ink, reporting on the actions of the General in preparing a regiment to go back to South Vietnam. Some of it was hard to listen to, especially the descriptions of a couple of rapes, and the murders the narrator is involved in, which he rationalizes as part of the cost of war (although he is haunted by the ghosts of the men he kills). Though difficult, I think it is important to read, as Nguyen deliberately rejected the majority (white) American perspective of the Vietnam War and provides the perspective of those whose country was left broken and reeling afterwards when the United States left. It’s not all difficult reading, though–it was full of dark humor and the writing was beautiful.

I really loved Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile and plan to watch the TV series it inspired. Charley, a young African-American widow from Los Angeles with an 11-year old daughter, moves to Louisiana after her father’s death because she has inherited his sugarcane farm. She stays with her grandmother, and soon her brother, Ralph Angel, arrives with his 6-year old son to stay, as well. Charley finds expert help to manage the farm, since she’s never run a farm before, and the book is primarily Charley running against time to keep the farm from going under while dealing with her grandmother’s and Ralph Angel’s expectations that Charley will help her brother out despite his drug habit. There’s a romance subplot, but don’t expect a happy ending for everyone.

I reviewed The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar on Goodreads here. It is one of my top five of the year–I loved it. His Map of Salt and Stars was one of my favorites of 2018, so it’s no surprise that I loved this one as well.

The Yellow House is a unique and powerful memoir, winner of the 2019 National Book Award for nonfiction. The author, Sarah M. Broom, tells the story of her family through the story of the house her mother bought long before she was born, the youngest of twelve children, and which was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. She dives into historical records, such as deeds and newspapers, finding out how East New Orleans was developed, and tells the stories of how her brothers survived Katrina and how her fractured family finds each other when the house they all knew is gone.

Home Body by Rupi Kaur is a beautiful, short book of poetry, with themes of recovering from abuse, dealing with mental illness, and learning to love yourself and the skin you are in. It’s her third book; I will seek out her other two.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez features a strong teen voice, and deals with grief, depression, and a suicide attempt in a thoughtful and sensitive way. Julia, a writer, lives in Chicago and is the only remaining child of undocumented Mexican parents. Her older sister Olga, the “perfect” daughter, recently died in a car accident, and Julia never seems to meet her parents’ expectations in the same way Olga did. But she finds some things in Olga’s room that make her think Olga may have been keeping secrets from her parents. Julia tries to find out what she can, with the help of her best friend, but of course things backfire and she is punished. Depression overtakes her, and she gets therapy before her parents send her to Mexico to spend time with her grandmother. This helps, and when she returns to Chicago, she is able to solve Olga’s mystery and leave home to go to college in New York. I loved the Chicago setting, and if you read it, you won’t forget Julia easily.

In Amnesty, by Aravind Adiga, we meet Danny, a Sri Lankan immigrant house cleaner in Sydney who discovers while on a housecleaning job that a former client has been murdered. He learns on the news information that leads him to believe that another client may be a suspect. The two were having an affair, and he may be the only person with knowledge about the pair’s connection. But he has a problem–he is undocumented and if he comes forward with information about the likely killer, he risks being deported. It is so well-done, taking place in a single day while Danny texts back and forth with the possible killer. A quote, which I relate to because I set my clocks in a similar way: ” . . . the time was four minutes fast, by design. The goal was to alternate anxiety — late late late — with relief — four extra minutes, remember, four extra — a pattern that intensified Danny’s sense of duty.”

2020 Notable Nonfiction

2020 was a great year for nonfiction, ranging from sociology to history to memoir.

Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memor of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In by Phuc Tran was read on audio by the author. Phuc’s family left Vietnam when he was a baby, during the fall of Saigon, and settled in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Growing up in the 1980s, he had to deal with significant racism and an abusive father, but was saved by finding a tribe of skateboarders, listening to punk rock and reading great literature.

I Have Something to Tell You by Chasten Buttigieg was also read by the author, the spouse of former South Bend mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. I’ve followed Chasten on social media, and enjoyed listening to his background in 4-H and drama in Traverse City, Michigan. He writes with heart about the difficulties of being gay in a conservative, rural area, even if your immediate family loves you. I read Mayor Pete’s book a couple of years ago, and loved hearing the story of their meeting and courtship from Chasten’s perspective.

I read The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio through NetGalley and reviewed it on Goodreads here. It also made it onto Barack Obama’s 2020 book list, so you should read it based on those two recommendations alone.

I found The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual v. the USA by Eric Cervini on the new shelf at the library. It’s the story of Frank Kameny, who obtained a PhD in physics after serving in WWII and began to work with the precursor of NASA before being fired from his civil service position because he had been arrested in a California public restroom while at a conference years before. He began the first gay social organization in the United States, and marched for gay rights before Stonewall. With his logical mind, he never bought into the idea that being gay was a bad thing, because if he had attraction to men, and he knew his own worth, then there couldn’t be anything wrong with being gay. So he marched with signs saying “Gay is Good”. He assisted with others and brought many lawsuits himself protesting the termination of government employment or security clearances because being gay was seen as a security risk. It was a fascinating look at a part of history I wasn’t familiar with at all.

A book group friend recommended The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery a couple of years ago, and our facilitator put it on our list for 2020. I will admit to not having much knowledge about octopuses, or much interest in them, before reading this book. But Montgomery writes with such fascination and love for them, it made me want to visit the nearest aquarium to watch one! Did you know they can fit through any space that their beak can? And that they are put together so differently from humans as to be the closest thing to an alien that we might ever see? And that scientists think that each arm might have its own sort of brain?

I heard Robin Wall Kimmerer on Krista Tippett’s On Being several years ago, and read her Gathering Moss in 2019. In 2020, I listened to her earlier Braiding Sweetgrass and loved it so much I had to buy the hard copy of the book. She’s a professor, a botanist, a mother, and a member of the Potawotami nation. She weaves native wisdom seamlessly with science. Sweetgrass is considered the hair of Mother Earth, and is mindfully harvested and braided to use for smudging ceremonies. I need to re-read and mark the book because I couldn’t catch everything I want to remember by listening.

I first heard of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore when the local high school performed the play with the same name. It’s the story of the young women who went to work in factories painting numbers on watch dials with radium paint, the health issues and deaths they later experienced, and the lawsuits they brought to have their problems acknowledged as related to the work they did. It was hard to listen to at times, because the author graphically described their sicknesses and deaths, and I cringed every time she described how they “pointed” the paintbrushes with their tongues and lips in order to make the fine letters, taking radium into their bodies bit by bit. One of the factories was in Ottawa, Illinois, where there is a monument to the dial painters and not too far for a visit, even in COVID times. I hadn’t realized that their lawsuits influenced the establishment of OSHA and workplace safety laws.

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow read like a novel–I found myself listening to Farrow’s narration every chance I could, even though I knew from watching the news how it ended. And the subject matter–assault–was difficult– but I loved listening to his portrayal of the women he interviewed, their accents and different inflections. His story shows that power protects power, but I’m glad it got told to hopefully prevent more women from getting hurt.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson is worth a second listen. I loved her earlier book, The Warmth of Other Suns, and Caste is exceeded those expectations and is even more important. She identified how race in the United States is an unspoken caste system that is similar to the Indian caste system and the caste system of Nazi Germany. She illuminated it in a way I’ve not seen before and which makes so much sense I wondered why it’s not been written about in this way before. There is no question in my mind that she is absolutely correct.

In Attention: A Love Story by Casey Schwartz, she recounts her decade taking Adderall, how she stops, and how she later seeks to understand attention. I was very interested in the subject, having my own attention issues after surgical menopause, and finding some success with occasional use of ADHD meds. A quote, quoted from Tristan Harris in the Atlantic in 2016: “You could say that it’s my responsibility to practice self-control over digital devices but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.”