Real Talk Book Review: Why Wuthering Heights is one of the most messed up books I’ve read…ever. But it’s worse in this political climate.

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[Image credit: Wuthering-heights.co.uk]

Happy 200th death-i-versary, Jane Austen! I feel my high school erred in adequately prepping me to become a Jane-ite. I read not one, not two, but FIVE Shakespeare plays in the course of my high school education, yet not a single Austen or Brontë novel. Come to think of it, most of the other esteemed, literary books I read in K-12 (with a few exceptions, like the iconic Toni Morrison) were written by old and/or dead white men. Hopefully high school curriculum has diversified since then, though I wouldn’t hold my breath. Anyway, I came to love Austen in my early twenties, in addition to other fantastic writers of the 1800s such as Charlotte Brontë, the well-regarded author of Jane Eyre.

Having long been a Jane Eyre fan, I thought it only fair that I give the other famous Brontë sister, Emily, a chance and read her most famous (and only novel) to-date: Wuthering Heights.

Oh boy. I’m not sure I regret reading Wuthering Heights, but this might be one of the most messed-up books I’ve read of all time. Upon finishing the book, I actually sat silent in bed for several minutes, trying to process the gravity of all that I’d read.

Heathcliff, the leading male character and “love interest” of leading lady Catherine Earnshaw, AKA Cathy, is one of the most disturbing characters I’ve ever glimpsed on the page. And I’m a fan of the true crime genre and have read up on the likes of H.H Holmes (read Devil in the White City), so I know what I’m talking about. He is evil embodied in human form. Sure, he was abused severely as a child, and I know Brontë is trying to make a point about how our environment molds us into the terrifying adults we grow up to be, yada, yada, yada but that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable to read. Take a look at the quote below, when Heathcliff refers to his new wife, Isabella Linton, a woman he not only does not love, but hates with an intensity that shocks the senses.

“The first thing she saw me do, on coming out of the Grange, was to hang up her little dog; and when she pleaded for it, the first words I uttered were a wish that I had the hanging of every being belonging to her, except one: possibly she took that exception for herself. But no brutality disgusted her: I suppose she has an innate admiration of it, if only her precious person were secure from injury!…If she desired to go, she might: the nuisance of her presence outweighs the gratification to be derived from tormenting her!”

Now, Heathcliff hates Isabella primarily because she has the misfortune of being the wrong person. Her only crime is that she is not the only person he has ever cared about or desired in this world: his supposed soulmate and once-upon-a-time childhood friend, Catherine. Catherine similarly loves Heathcliff, for reasons I cannot fathom other than he is apparently her ‘soulmate.’ God. Now I get why all the Twilight kids used to love Wuthering Heights. Edward and Bella are the modern day version of Heathcliff and Catherine, though unfortunately, unlike their English predecessors, they do not meet an untimely death. Young adult literature would be so much better for it if they had.

Twilight cover image

[Image credit: IMDB.com]

Normally, my motto is that truth is stranger than fiction, but in the case of Wuthering Heights, I’m prepared to throw that slogan out the window. How Brontë, a sheltered clergyman’s daughter, came up with this shockingly abusive, demented character is beyond me. Moreover, she decided to pair him with Catherine, a wholly selfish young woman who had little regard for anyone’s feelings but her own. Despite loving Heathcliff, she says that marrying him would bring her status down in society, causing him to run away for three years before he returns to her — at which point, she is already married to her other childhood friend, Edward Linton (and also pregnant with his child). Most of the time she regards her husband as a nuisance, if an unfailingly kind one. Here is how she speaks to him after he rightfully criticizes his wife for receiving Heathcliff into their home:

“Have you been listening at the door, Edgar?” asked the mistress, in a tone particularly calculated to provoke her husband, implying both carelessness and contempt of his irritation.

Catherine was not merely someone who had no hope of inspiring Heathcliff to better himself, but also someone who would only impel him to give in to his most violent vices. It was a match made in hell. See how Heathcliff refers to his ‘beloved’ after he’s gotten into an altercation with her “lamb” of a husband:

“I wish you joy of the milk-blooded coward, Cathy!” said her friend. ‘I compliment you on your taste. And that is the slavering, shivering, thing you preferred to me! I would not strike him my fist, but I’d kick him with my foot, and experience considerable satisfaction. Is he weeping, or is he going to faint for fear?”

I digress. There are too many ‘Heathcliff is a sadistic asshole’ quotes for me to list them all for you.

Wuthering Heights_Heathcliff Cathy

[Image credit: IMDB.com]

But I have to give Bronte credit for creating incredibly unlikeable characters and sticking to her guns in following their miserable stories through to the end. As an aspiring novelist, I’m definitely taking notes. I mean, can you imagine the kind of shocked reception this book must have received in seventeenth-century England? I’m sure the editing world was shocked and scandalized by the “immoral” nature of the book and its inhabitants. I figure that Brontë imagined such a reaction, and so she actually initially published the book under a male pseudonym (though a lot of that was probably because discrimination against female authors was still very prevalent at the time — and still is to this day, in some literary circles).

And also, Bronte perfected the literary device of using weather and geography to mirror the turbulent human condition. Pretty sure they teach Brontë in all those fancy creative writing classes in college that I never took. Check out the great paragraph below:

“It was a very dark evening for summer: the clouds appeared inclined to thunder, and I said we had better all sit down; the approaching rain would be certain to bring him home without further trouble. However, Catherine would not be persuaded into tranquility. She kept wandering to and fro, from the gate to the door, in a state of agitation which permitted no repose; and at length took up a permanent situation on one side of the wall, near the road: where, heedless of my expostulations and the growling thunder, and the great drops that began to plash around her, she remained, calling at intervals, and then listening, and then crying outright.”

But more than the actual story, I find it interesting to read Wuthering Heights during this political climate. I know, eyeroll. “You can’t link everything to Trump!” I know you can’t, but I’m sure going to try.

Seriously though, it’s hard not to find parallels everywhere. We have a man that openly bragged about sexual assault who is now our president. Heathcliff, a violently abusive blowhard (and likely rapist), is considered in some circles to be merely a tormented, tragically romantic soul. Give me a break. There is a whole set of characters in Wuthering Heights, too many characters with the same first and last names, and a very confusing family tree that may or may bear some traces of incest (?). I’ll spare you all that, but just to know that pretty much every single one of these characters is mercilessly tormented by Heathcliff throughout the course of the book, including his own beloved’s daughter, who is also named Catherine. Heathcliff forces her to marry his son under a series of very spurious, and most likely, illegal conditions. Thankfully, Heathcliff ultimately passes into the netherworld to join his dear Cathy in death, leaving some semblance of peace for the souls who he tortured for so long on these dark and gloomy moors.

Beyond the fact that misogynistic men can rise to influential positions, whether those be in the White House or in the moors of rural England, violence against women is nothing new.  But it seems like every day, I see articles on my Facebook newsfeed about women being stalked, raped, bludgeoned and killed, often by their spouses or partners. The summer before I moved to New York, three female joggers were killed in the span of a few weeks while running near their homes. I read just an article today about a woman whose ex-boyfriend progressively stalked her before hiring a third party to dump toxic acid all over her body, leaving her permanently scarred. It’s enough to make a modern lady dump all dating apps in the garbage and live the life of a solitary hermit.

Normally, I don’t mind bleak literature. Hell, the darker, the better. I’m a Game of Thrones fan, after all. But when I’m reminded day in and day out of how being a woman in this world is a frightening thing, sometimes I just need a respite from that in my literature and television. True, Heathcliff torments men and women alike. But in Wuthering Heights, the women are held captive — in one case, literally — to particularly violent fates at the hands of this tormentor. With all this being said, I’d sooner place Wuthering Heights in the horror category than the romance aisle.

For that reason — and also, because to be honest I find Emily Bronte’s writing style exhausting and dull — I’m not sure if I’ll pick up Wuthering Heights anytime soon. But what the story reveals about the depravity of the human condition — that will stick me for a long time. The soulmate thing? Ehh, not so much.

Review: 3/5 stars

Real Talk Book Review: ‘Hunger’ made me think deeply about the world as Roxane Gay lives in it – and about my own fatphobia

Roxane Gay Hunger

(Image credit: Amazon.com)

“I do not know why I turned to food. Or I do. I was lonely and scared and food offered an immediate satisfaction. Food offered comfort when I needed to be comforted and did not know how to ask for what I needed from those who loved me. Food tasted good and made me feel better. Food was the one thing within my reach.”

There was a lot I couldn’t relate to in renowned author Roxane Gay’s new book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. As it well should be.  I have never lived in Gay’s body. Only she has. But the paragraph above hit the nail on the head for me–in a way that I didn’t expect.

I have been fat on and off for the better part of my life, and I still struggle with my weight to this day. As a child, I would gaze down at my thunder thighs with their running lines of cellulite, and imagine what it would be like if a meat cleaver could somehow bloodlessly slice my jiggling fat away. I would huff and puff as I struggled to finish the standard one mile run in fifth grade gym class, clocking in at eleven minutes or more when most classmates finished around eight minutes or fewer. I would be tormented endlessly for my weight, sometimes by other schoolkids, sometimes by friends, and oftentimes by my own relatives.  I loved food, and it loved me back. But it was (some days, still is) also my worst enemy.

And please note, when I’m using the term ‘fat’ here, it’s not as a pejorative. I think of it as classification of one’s body type, and should be no more considered an insult than words like thin, skinny, tall, short, etc. Although I realize that that’s far from the case in the real world, though movements centered around fat positivity are trying to re-embrace the word.

Anyway, this book review is more than just a critical analysis of Hunger: it’s also a time for me to take stock of my own internalized fatphobia.

I think the latter half of the book’s title (A Memoir of [My] Body) is so key. My Body. Because Gay’s perspective truly is her own. She doesn’t represent all fat people — nor does she claim to do so. I’ve never been deemed ‘morbidly obese’ by the medical community. I’ve never sat in a chair and worried that it would break under my weight. And although I’ve ridden on planes as a child with my now-deceased, obese grandmother, and witnessed the ridicule she bore when she required seat belt extensions, I’ve never borne the brunt of that gaze myself. All of these are the small, everyday humiliations that Gay endures and speaks to in Hunger.

And when I put aside my own reflections, I was able to see Gay’s perspective as one that was totally separate, heartbreaking and utterly unrelatable to my own. I was able to see how different someone’s relationship to food could be from my own. Although Gay and I both sought comfort in food, mine was borne primarily of a hearty appetite and perhaps, earlier on in my life, some low self-esteem issues. I had never thought about how a deep-seated trauma like that Gay endured — she was gang-raped by her boyfriend and his friends at the age of twelve and kept that secret close to her chest — could lead someone to seek solace in food. She associated being pretty with being thin, and thus, being susceptible to the unwanted advance of young men like those who sexually assaulted her. And so, she built a cage out of her body in order to keep the touch of men like those who raped her far, far away.

I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe. I buried the girl I was because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere. . . . I was trapped in my body, one that I barely recognized or understood, but at least I was safe.

She writes poignantly about the sexual assault in a way that makes your heart ache and want to hug teenage Gay. But really,  it’s the aftereffects of the rape and everything that followed which makes Hunger so powerful.

And part of its power was in forcing me to resist my own impulses as a (formerly) fat person to talk back when Gay narrates parts of her experience that are foreign to me. When she mentions doctors who dismiss her other valid health concerns and just tell her to lose weight. When she mentions strangers taking items out of her grocery cart. When she talks about how chairs with arm rests painfully constrict her form. When she rolls her eyes at women like me who are have only ever been twenty or thirty pounds overweight. When she mentions that staff at Housing Works — a local New York nonprofit bookstore where I occasionally volunteer, in full disclosure — failed to take into account her physical needs for an event at which she was speaking. Gay struggled to climb onto a stage and then hover above a chair that could not accommodate her body for the entire event.

I learn to bite my tongue. I learn to listen. I learn to accept that the narratives of other fat people are different from my own. I understand my own internalized fatphobia and reluctance to embrace the fat-positive movement better.

But most importantly, I understand Roxane Gay’s story.  She has made her readership — which I presume is includes many thin women who have never known what it is like to be mocked for their body weight — understand what it means to be large in a society that deems her to be the Other. A thing to be ridiculed and mocked. She does this through sparse writing that sings. And that’s a powerful thing.

Book Review: 4/5 stars

Real Talk Book Review: “First They Killed My Father”

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The book cover of “First they Killed my Father” by Loung Ung. Image from loungung.com.

First they Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers: What a fiercely powerful, gripping book. Loung Ung makes a bold move by revealing a massive spoiler in the book title, but even with that knowledge, this book remains heart-stopping and horrifically compelling until the very last page. Revealing the brutal Khmer Rouge through the eyes of a middle-class, five-year-old Chinese Cambodian girl from Phnom Penh is the perfect lens to understand the terrible impact of a totalitarian, repressive regime upon generations of Cambodians from 1975-79, during which nearly a quarter of the country’s population perished as a result of execution, torture, and oftentimes, starvation.

Loung Ung is an incredible storyteller, and you as the reader can vividly understand all the emotions and tactile senses she experiences–the overwhelming, scorching heat of the Cambodian sun as she labors in the rice fields, the terror as she awkwardly shoots into the darkness at Vietnamese soldiers (Youns) and phantoms after becoming a child soldier, and of course, the ever-present, terrible aching hurt that comes from a belly that is never full.

I am impressed and moved by her honesty, particularly the way she describes herself, such as the guilt she feels after stealing a bit of the family’s meager share of rice to quell her hunger as she looks on at her utterly malnourished younger sister Geak, as well as the all-consuming rage and desire to kill those responsible for harming her family and shattering her innocence. She makes no effort to sugarcoat her own human failings, which become amplified during the Khmer Rouge regime; her courage is admirable and it helps us understand the unromantic realities of the human condition during starvation and oppression.

Loung Ung occasionally transitions to the point-of-view of her separate family members, as if she were a bird flying high above her family members, witnessing their suffering but completely unable to alter their tragic fate. This may seem jarring at first, but it quickly becomes a powerful rhetorical device to demonstrate a five-year-old’s all-encompassing love for her family and sense of injustice at those who would take them from her.

Loung Ung, author of "First They Killed My Father." Image taken from loungung.com.

Loung Ung, author of “First They Killed My Father.” Image taken from loungung.com.

You may cry, you may be angry, but whatever the case–this book is entirely unforgettable. In both the best and worst sense of the word.

Go buy it today. You won’t regret it.

Check out Loung Ung’s website for more information about this book, and also Lucky Child: a story of Loung’s assimilation to  American culture alongside the parallel life of her sister Chou, who endures hardships in Cambodia.