Hunger And The Universality Of The Fat Experience

I read Hunger by Roxane Gay in a day, couldn’t put it down. I rarely read memoirs because most of the people who write them have absolutely nothing in common with me and no emotional impact on my life.

Hunger left me crying.

I should clarify. It didn’t leave me crying by what Dr. Gay endured, even though anyone with basic empathy would be emotional after reading Hunger. No, it left me crying because I know what it feels like to endure a lot of what she went through and experiences to this day.

Man or woman, it’s hard being fat in this world. There’s a universality to what fat people experience that persons closer to “ideal” body types don’t understand, could never understand.

And when I say fat I’m talking about people the rest of the world would consider obese.

I was always the fat kid. Being born disabled with mobility issues I started off at a disadvantage and it only got worse. I spent much of my youth, from birth to at least nine years old, in corrective casts in an effort to get my feet to grow right, and even then they don’t work quite right making walking or standing for long periods extremely painful. Combine that with a genetic predisposition to be a larger than average and growing up with less than stellar nutritional examples, I was doomed to be the fat kid.

Since I was never allowed to be disabled it was always assumed my weight was because I lacked willpower or that I was lazy. Never mind that living with a disabled body drains a lot of your energy, even the boundless energy of a child, or that not taking into account my disability led to me doing too much, getting tired and/or hurt, and therefore discouraged from being active.

On top of this, once you’re fat the whole world notices and decides it’s their responsibility to make sure you know. I’ve had insults shouted at me from cars, been looked at with revulsion, and made to wish I was invisible. I’ve had friends and family tell me I just need to lose X amount of weight and I’ll look good, and endured the ordeal that was shopping for clothing while still expanding like the Roman Empire.

Add in depression and anxiety and you have a perfect cocktail for misery.

My trauma is different than Dr. Gray’s (seriously, go read Hunger) but we both ended up in the same place. As I read Hunger I kept seeing bits of my experience flashing before my eyes.

No matter your race or culture, fat is fat, and I wish more people understood.

Go read Hunger and maybe you might.

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Why I Love Libraries

When I got my library card, that’s when my life began – Rita Mae Brown

Before writing this I searched for quotes about libraries and the one I’ve quoted above spoke to me the most. I can’t imagine what my life, what everyone I know lives, would have been like without libraries.

A few things need to be understood. Growing up, while my family was never poor we were never rich either. Both my parents worked as soon as my sister was old enough and neither of them came from much wealth. I’m only a generation removed from working on a tobacco farm and only because my father managed to get to college and find work in a bank.

Because of my father’s work we moved around a lot. Between that and my family’s finances I didn’t own a lot of books growing up. Most of the books I own I’ve bought in the last decade when I finally landed a job that could support my bibliophile ways.

Libraries made sure I never lacked for reading material growing up.

I was the kid who checked out stacks of books every couple weeks and returned hungry for more. I was a voracious reader growing up, devouring anything I could get my hands on. The various libraries I visited growing up introduced me to Asmiov and Tolkein, and so many other authors.

Family trips stuck in the back of the car with my annoying sister were made tolerable by the numerous thick sci-fi and fantasy books I dragged along. I was even forbidden comic books because I read them too quickly.

Don’t worry, I’ve corrected that oversight now that I’m older, but my buying habits remain the same in that I’ll buy trade paperbacks rather than individual issues. I love seeing the full arc of a comic rather than getting it in dribs and drabs.

Without libraries I wouldn’t be in the position I am now to buy and support authors and friends. Without libraries hundreds if not thousands of dollars would have been spent on Nascar and nachos instead of books. Without libraries then bookstores and Amazon would be that much poorer (okay, probably not Amazon but I’m engaging in hyperbole here so just run with it).

Libraries will always have a special place in my heart, and I will fight you if you try and close them.

The New She Ra Will Be Awesome Because Of Noelle Stevenson

Early when my ex and I started dating she gifted me a copy of Nimona by Noelle Stevenson. To say that I loved it is an understatement, but I have a feeling I never truly expressed to my ex how much I loved that gift.

Nimona is the reason why I know the new She Ra will be awesome.

Let’s be honest, the original She Ra was just as terrible as all the other 80’s cartoons; high concept with poor execution. It’s okay to admit that most of the stuff we watched in our youth, the foundational stories that shaped us, were utter garbage. That doesn’t invalidate the effect they had on us.

Thankfully the world has changed since the 80’s, much for the better as far as I’m concerned, and a new She Ra needs an artist that can capture the essence of the original’s concept without the baggage an existing creation brings with it.

In Nimona, Stevenson created a powerful and interesting female character that was at turns violent and vulnerable, delivering an emotional gut punch by the end of the story. As a writer I can appreciate the craftsmanship needed to accomplish that.

There’s been a lot of talk on Twitter recently about how the character design for She Ra in the new cartoon is “boyish” or “butch”. All I have to say to that is, so what? The look is in the same mold as Nimona or Stevenson’s other major work, Lumberjanes (another comic I would recommend, especially for your daughter if you have one). I appreciate the fact that the new She Ra looks like she could actually put up a real fight and is wearing practical armour instead of resembling a skinny model in a corset.

The new design riffs on the old while retaining the crucial iconic elements, a worthy update. If you don’t like it, that’s fine, that just means the character or even the show is not for you. Live with it.

I know I’m not the target market for the new She Ra, but with Noelle Stevenson at the helm I’m certainly going to check it out when it drops on Netflix in November.

Deep Dive: The Poppy War

I’ve already written a review of The Poppy War, which can be found here, but I feel this work deserves a deeper critical examination. When I write reviews my main goal is to express why you should pick up a book, what about makes it worth spending your time on, without any spoilers or an intense analysis. Mostly that’s due to time and energy. Not having much of either I tend to be parsimonious with both, and hold them for my own fiction writing. However, The Poppy War has struck a cord with me and I’m going to do my first Deep Dive on it. Who knows, this may become a regular feature.

CW: Spoilers and discussion of sexual assault/excessive violence.

The core idea of The Poppy War is violence and the trauma it inflicts, with a focus on violence against women. A major part of the book is the destruction of Golyn Niis, a take on the Rape of Nanjing. R.F. Kuang has declared as much in this blog post. The parallels are plain to see to anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of Chinese history or has spent any time focused on the Pacific Theater of WW2.

However, the obliteration of Golyn Niis is not the inciting incident of the book. Rather, it’s Rin, the main character, passing the Keju, a government-run examination to recruit and place young people in the appropriate schools, that first introduces how systemic violence actually is in the empire Rin occupies. Never mind that the level of self-harm Rin must perform to ace the Keju, the reward for her excellence isn’t admission to the fantasy equivalent of Harvard, or more appropriately a job as minister in a pastiche Chinese bureaucracy, but admission to the equivalent of West Point, Sinegard.

Yes, the reward for being a good student is to get sent to military school where she will be further brutalized before, ultimately voluntarily mutilating herself in order to compete in a system that’s stacked against her before being thrust into a military conflict that will push her to embrace a fiery spirit of pure destruction.

If that was all this book did that would be enough to make it worth reading. What interests me and prompted this deep dive was how The Poppy War deals with colonialism in its world-building.

The fantasy counterpart China and Japan are there without an equivalent European colonial power involved. Yes, it could be argued that Hesperia stands in for Europe or the United States, but it doesn’t fit the role as a colonial power. In fact, in The Poppy War the true colonial power is the Japan equivalent, the Mugen Federation.

This intrigues me because it can be questioned in actual history if Japan would have been a colonial power without the influence of Europe and the United States. The isolationist policy under the Tokugawa was forcibly ended by the intervention of colonial powers, but even before then Japan had a history of foreign adventures, such as the invasion of Korea in the 1590’s.

In the end, The Poppy War is fiction, even if it is steeped heavily in historical events. It’s an interesting thought experiment to wonder how East Asian history would have shaken out without the influence of Western colonial powers, and R.F. Kuang has crafted an intriguing tale. I reiterate my recommendation that you should read this book and I hope this deep dive has provided some points to consider while you do.

 

 

 

 

The Dork Review: The Poppy War

One of my influences as a writer growing was David Gemmell, especially his book Legend. I still remember being swept away by that book, in it’s tragedy and heroism and brutality.

R.F. Kuang is a worthy successor to Gemmell, as she’s proven with The Poppy War.

Keep in mind, I don’t intend to reduce her to a copy of a older male author. What she’s accomplished with her debut book is a success all of her own making, riding on the coattails of no one. What I mean is, if you enjoy Gemmell then I’d highly recommend checking out The Poppy War.

To call this novel brutal would be an understatement. It’s grimdark at its finest, seething with raw emotion and horror with nuanced protagonists and enough action and mystery to keep me turning the pages.

Additionally, if you’re a student of history, especially of China and Japan, you’ll understand the historical events Kuang draws upon that give The Poppy War a verisimilitude I’ve not experienced in ages.

Honestly, I could spend ages breaking down why this book is a masterpiece and why you should pick it up. Instead, I’ll just say so get it now.

Villain or Scoundrel?

So what makes a character a villain or a scoundrel? Let’s examine.

First some background. I fully admit I love what most would consider low-brow reading, including tie-in novels based on games and such, like Warhammer 40K. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to reading the latest or greatest literary gem in the SF&F field, but I’ll always have soft spot in my heart for trashy tie-in books.

The quality of these books can be dubious at best, but I have found some gems over the years, books that punch well above their perceived quality, and a clear gem is the Ciaphas Cain series by Sandy Mitchell. They’re 40K tie-in novels featuring an Imperial Commissar, think political commissars of the Soviet era but dialed up to 11, who by his own words is an avowed coward who somehow ended up a hero.

In the first trade paperback, Sandy Mitchell mentions the two main influences on Cain being Flashman and Blackadder. Now, I’ve been a fan of Blackadder for years before picking up the Cain books, and I can see a lot of the fourth series, set in WW1, in Cain but I wondered about the influence of Flashman.

As fate would have it, awhile back I found the first Flashman book and bought it, ending up reading it a little over week ago. I’ve been pondering the question of villains and scoundrels ever since.

The imprint of the Flashman books is clear in the structure and basic premise of the Cain novels, however that’s where it ends. Cain’s characterization owes a greater debt to Blackadder in the end because Cain is a scoundrel while Henry Flashman, main character of the Flashman series, is a villain.

The difference between the two can be razor thin, and scoundrels are perfectly capable of terrible things, but in the end they perform a redemptive act, some bit of heroism even if they deny it, that at least in some way tips the balance of karma in their favour while villains never do. Cain, for all his faults, does act heroically when the need arises, even if he denies his heroism and admits how pants-wettingly terrified he was at the time. Flashman never does this. He remains a reprehensible human-being from start to finish.

Context does play a role in whether a character is a villain or a scoundrel. The Flashman books were written in the late sixties and that would have an effect on Flashman’s characterization. If they’d been written today I’m sure they would be much different, possibly even unpublishable considering some of the content. (Seriously, don’t read them unless you’re prepared for horrible colonialism and worse sexual politics including sexual assault.)

Additionally, Cain exists in the Warhammer 40K universe which has it’s own problematic elements and a fanbase that can be just as problematic, in large part due to it starting as satire that started getting taken seriously instead of tounge-in-cheek as originally intended. One of the strengths of the Cain novels is they do deflate the 40K universe to a certain degree, but they still need to exist in that world so there’s going to be questionable bits remaining.

So in summation, look at the heart of the character, their actions in addition to their beliefs, to determine of they’re a villain or scoundrel. Always remember though, even villains think they’re the hero of their own stories.

 

The Dork Review: Head On

You know how sometimes the right book falls into your hands at the time you really needed to read it? Head On by John Scalzi is such a book.

So if you read this blog you may know I’ve been pondering my identity as a disabled person. I’ve been struggling with whether or not I wanted to talk about it publicly and it was after reading Head On that I decided to make a statement.

But enough mushy emotional stuff. On with the review!

I’ll fully admit to being a Scalzi fan. I’ve enjoyed just about every book of his published, some more than others (Collapsing Empire so far has been the one I’ve enjoyed least and I’m not sure why yet). Head On, the sequel to Lock In, continues in that vein.

The book is well-paced, remains interesting from start to finish, and possesses Scalzi’s trademark wit. Like all of his work this is a good novel to recommend to someone who doesn’t normally read sci-fi as the speculative elements are well-explained and while they’re vital to the story they don’t require understanding the last hundred years of SFF in order to see how they affect the story.

Additionally, the main character, Chris Shane, is disabled and isn’t necessarily a walking or rolling motivational speech. He does have a history of being the poster boy for the fictional disease Scalzi creates for this story but only so that phenomenon can be examined as part of the book’s subtext.

I definitely recommend reading Lock In before picking up Head On if only because it’s just as good but it does more work on setting up the world. While Head On does give an explanation of the Hadens, the disease affecting Chris Shane, Lock In provides much more detail.

So if you’re looking for a pair of books depicting a disabled character solving crimes in the near future, I heartily recommend both Lock In and Head On.

I Was Never Allowed To Be Disabled

I am disabled.

You have no idea how long it’s taken me to come to terms with those words. For those of you who don’t know, I was born with clubbed feet. Right from the beginning of my life I started corrective procedures that included casts, splints, and surgery I’ll have scars from until the day I die.

I was never allowed to consider myself disabled.

Now some people might be thinking this is no big deal, and that if I had considered myself disabled I’d have let myself be limited or hold myself back. This is an unfortunate attitude the needs to die a quick and painful death.

Being disabled has never been the limiting factor most people believe it is, and I have the black belt in kendo to prove it. No, the limiting factor has always been not taking my disability into account and taking better care of myself because of it.

Not being allowed to consider myself disabled means I worked jobs I should have avoided, because otherwise I was a no-good, lazy kid. It meant taking anti-inflammatory medication later discovered to be connected to heart problems just so I could survive an eight-hour shift on my feet in a convenience store. It meant not getting orthotics until a month ago, doing who knows what preventable damage to my body.

It meant destroying myself to pretend I’m able-bodied.

Disability is not something we should ever be ashamed of or deny. It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with this, especially since my disability is still relatively minor.

Thank you for reading this.

The Dork Review: Gods, Monsters, And The Lucky Peach

One of the great things about being a writer, even a lowly unpublished scrub such as myself, is you get clued in to books you might miss or otherwise put off in favour of the latest blockbuster novel from Guy X. Thankfully I didn’t miss Gods, Monsters, And The Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson.

To be honest, I devoured this novella. Normally I have at least two books on the go, one I read at work and one I read at home. GMATLP was my work book but on Friday I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving it at my desk for two days was too much to bear.

Robson has crafted an engrossing read that follows the maxim of “leave them wanting more”. I must admit I’d love to see further adventures of the main character Minh, a cranky old lady with tentacles for legs. Similar to The Armored Saint there’s space for more after GMATLP ends but unlike it there’s enough of a feeling of finality that this book can stand on it’s own.

One thing I loved and will highlight is the world-building. Robson has done an amazing job crafting what feels like a living, breathing setting. I especially love the economic system she’s crafted. It has an authenticity and…potency is the only word I can think of to describe it. Reminds me of a lot of L.E. Modesitt Jr.’s science fiction, especially Adiamante.

This is the first book of Kelly Robson’s I’ve read. I can promise you, it shall not be the last.

The Dork Review: The Armored Saint

I was sold on reading The Armored Saint the moment I finished reading the novella’s first chapter as a preview online but waited to pick it up until I could get to Bakka-Phoenix Books in Toronto. I’m not sure if the wait was beneficial or not.

First off, I will say I enjoyed this book.  Heloise is an interesting character and it’s almost always nice to see an author step out what we as readers would consider their comfort zone. Myke Cole is known more for military urban fantasy, with two trilogies of that under his belt, starring male protagonists rather than fantasy stories about young women. Add in the fact that there’s good world-building involved and you have the elements for a very find read.

The issue I have is that this feels more like the first third of a larger work rather than a fully contained story. While the first chapter sold me on reading it, the ending left me asking where the rest of the story was and not in anticipation, more in a “WTF why did it stop there” kind of way.

I can’t help but compare the book to two other novellas by J.Y. Yang, The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Strings of Fate, that both felt like complete stories on their own and could have been read in any order and still made sense.

I’m sold enough to read the next book in the series to see how Cole moves the story forward, but I definitely need to add more novellas to my TBR pile to get a sense of the norms of their construction. Good thing I have another novella queued up to read right now.