Sunday, January 22, 2012

Holt & Leib, Fat Girl in a Strange Land (2012)

Kay T. Holt & Bart R. Leib (ed.), Fat Girl in a Strange Land. Crossed Genres Publications, 2012. Pp. 125. ISBN 978-0615569710. $11.95.

Reviewed by Peter Damien

The premise of this anthology of short stories is very simple and is laid plainly in its title: stories about women who have some weight on them (varying from obese, to merely heavy, or solid) put into stories of speculative fiction where, usually, it’s rail-thin women, or men. I was excited to get my hands on the anthology, first because I had already reviewed a previous anthology from Crossed Genres—titled Subversion—and had found it excellent. But I was also excited because something I take frequent issue with in books, movies, TV shows and comics is the lack of thought put into how people look. Yes, someone in a film might be having a rough life, but they look like Reese Witherspoon, so there’s that going for them.

On the whole, this is a strong anthology, although my one problem with it straight up front is that it’s tiny. It’s 130 pages long. Not only because it’s a terrific topic that I would’ve liked to have seen explored at even greater length, but also because it is quite expensive. That’s nobody’s fault—being a small publisher means money is tight. I merely note it up front. Some of the stories work, and some don’t. When they do, they’re excellent. When they don’t, they really don’t. But we’ll see what I mean as we dive into the stories themselves.

Opening the anthology is ‘La Gorda and the City of Silver’ by Sabrina Vourvoulias, a brief story about a heavyset, strong woman who enters into the world of Luchadores—Mexican Wrestlers—and also the world of costumed heroes, in a way. Both of these are fundamentally men’s fields (“but there are female superheroes” you might argue, and I could argue quite easily that no, there actually aren’t). The story is brief in length and spare in how it’s told, but works beautifully by including only necessary details, full of excellent and telling brush strokes.

Although La Gorda, and all women, are excluded from the world of Luchadores and their wrestling, none of the male characters in the story are actively repressive or particularly sexist. There is no hostility, it just hasn’t occurred to them, really, to make any changes to the way things have always been done. I like this in a story, when you can feel the author’s sympathy and interest in all of the characters. It reminded me of Love & Rockets, a very long-running comic series of which I’m a tremendous fan. They share many elements, from strong women, to the Latin influence, and female wrestlers, to the topic of weight gain and actually treating the weight of the woman as a relevant detail and not just an unsightly handicap. All of this leads to an excellent, well-done short story.

We follow this with ‘The Tradeoff’ by Lauren C Teffeau, which is a very clever science fiction story about the mission which precedes the colonization of new worlds. We follow a group of scientists who go to the mostly uninhabited world and trigger reactions that will make it become habitable over time. Part of the required preparation for this mission, we learn, is to gain a lot of weight. In a world of controlled rations and thin people, this is a crew of people who are very obviously fat. It provides not only warmth, but extra calories.

The main focus of the story is the mission itself, and also the lives and relationships traded for the job... but the matter of weight hangs over the whole story and is somewhere inside nearly every scene and conversation we witness. We get some very smart observations, never harped upon, but brought clearly to light. For one, the way someone carrying a lot of weight can feel trapped in their own body, constantly self-conscious. And secondly, we look at how very differently society treats men and women with some weight on them. The weight will be ignored on a man, but fixated on if it’s on a woman, and this will in turn lead to all sorts of unfounded judgments about her. This is as true in a science fictional future-based story as it is in the modern world we live in, and it’s unpleasant in both.

The only problem I had with the story was that in the moments when events took a turn for the worst, the writing maintained its tone and pacing without a single waver, did not quicken or convey the urgency of the moment to me at all. But this is a brief problem, and leaving it aside, we still have an excellent piece of straight SF.

Unfortunately, moving onward, this small anthology begins to stumble with ‘Cartography, and the Death of Shoes’ by AJ Fitzwater, a story with too many problems to ever take off. First, it’s hampered very badly, I feel, by the second-person point of view. It’s distracting and contributes nothing to the actual narrative itself, but serves as a distancing device for no reason. The story never engages with its own main character, or the world around her. The plot simply occurs, then stops, leaving no particular emotion or idea in its place. Somewhere underneath the problems are the pieces of a clever story, but they never click.

Clever ideas that never click is the problem of our next story too, a piece called ‘Survivor’ by Josh Roseman. It’s a good premise, which suggests that running to avoid the approaching dawn of a burning hot alien sun might not be so easy if you don’t actually look like Vin Diesel. A starship has crashed on the world, and the only survivor is a teenage girl who is overweight, and who has no choice but to try and run the long distance from the crash site to a bunker where she’d be safe from the approaching sun.

I mentioned Vin Diesel, because this was more or less the premise of a scene out of The Chronicles of Riddick, a movie which I dearly love, no matter how dumb people might think it is. I liked the idea of a story which might have looked at that scene and questioned how it would work if everyone wasn’t Vin Diesel-fit. Unfortunately the story never engages with this central idea, or indeed with its central character. She never gives any indication that she’s out of shape—she doesn’t seem to move slowly, doesn’t seem to run out of breath, or actually have any problems—and she never seems to be frightened, or hesitant in the slightest. This means we just can’t connect emotionally with her at all, and thus, it winds up being an action story about Vin Diesel, in the end.

The stumble continues with my least favorite story in the collection, ‘The Right Stuffed’ by Brian Jungwiwattanaporn, a story which I spent a great deal of time puzzling over after I had finished reading it. I can’t quite decide if it’s actually offensive, or was trying to make a point and failed, or if I somehow failed to make sense of it.

The plot as I see it is this: Two overweight women are recruited by the military to be intel-gathering agents in a Matrix-style virtual reality. The best way, we are told, to get information out of the virtual reality intact is to eat it. Regular soldiers, with their fitness and nutrition are just no good at it, so they bring in two fat women ‘cause they’re good at eating a lot.

Not only did I find it an offensive idea, it also doesn’t make a lot of sense. The story is full of holes. While reading, I was given a very blurry view of the real world, the virtual reality, how people fit into any of it, and why this information needed retrieving. I’m entirely unclear on the impetus behind any of the events in the story. But the biggest problem is that recruiting two non-soldier fat girls made no sense. I’m a skinny guy with a very high metabolism. Much to the consternation of my wife and our food budget, I eat more or less constantly. Surely, within the ranks of these soldiers, there must be a few already-trained men or women who can eat a ton? Is there a legal system in the world of this story? Because I can only imagine the lawsuits and repercussions of the military trying to recruit people based on their weight. Whose information is it? Why is it food? None of it adds up, and that left me, briefly, dreading continuing my anthology-reading.

But happy, that dread was dispelled instantly by the next piece, called ‘Tangwystl the Unwanted’ by Katherine Elmer. Tangwystl lives in a tower, kept there by a witch, and the story is about what happens when circumstances force her to leave and go out into the world for the first time, searching for a family she hasn’t seen since she was a baby.

I loved everything about the story. It begins as a riff on the story of Rapunzel (or, as I will forever happily think of it, Tangled) but quickly moves into its own unique territory, as she heads into a world full of wonderfully inventive, genuinely clever creatures and ideas. I am not much for high fantasy stories or fairy tales, full of creatures and made up lands (it’s just not my cup of tea), but was quickly enamored with this world, here presented in a clear-eyed writing style which I would expect from someone who had sold a lot more than one story. It’s a beautiful piece. I wish it were longer, but that being said, it doesn’t actually need to be. There’s not an ounce of flab in the story, and it ends precisely where it needs to. I just wanted more.

From there, we roll into another stronger story, the anthology having regained its stride for the moment. In ‘Flesh of my Flesh,’ Bonnie Ferrante introduces us to Alina, one of the few humans who can psychologically manage to live on the world of Seth with the alien inhabitants, and we see what happens to her life when her fiancé—an appalling, controlling man—comes to town.

The story is well-written, and the twist at the end is well-executed. It’s an interesting look at the great trouble we’d have coming to terms with alien races, especially if some of their social practices are considered tremendously wrong by humanity. It has the feel of an old-school science fiction story by someone like Damon Knight (who wrote a similar piece, the title of which has escaped me). The problem I have with the story is, as with many stories in this anthology, they are barely connected to the anthology’s central theme. Here, it seems mostly irrelevant that Alina has gained some weight during her time on Seth. There were a number of stories in this anthology, and this is one of them, where one could remove the matter of weight entirely from the story and it wouldn’t suffer any collapse at all.

‘How Do you Want To Die?’ by Rick Silva is a very small story about a gladiator woman who has escaped and is dying in the desert. Very little happens in the story, save for glances back at her life. Again, as with the previous story the reference to her weight is maybe one line long, and then plays no further part in the story. But then, there is virtually no story for it to play a part in.

Of the stories mentioned on the back cover of the anthology, ‘Nemesis’ by Nicole Prestin was the story I was most looking forward to reading. I have a deep love of superheroes, tightly woven with an intense dissatisfaction at how shallow and cookie-cutter the characters and stories frequently are. The premise of this short story, though, is very much like superhero plots I am endlessly dreaming up. A woman from Omaha—45 years old, size fourteen—joins a superhero team in a big city, and the first problem she has is that she isn’t 19 years old and size zero (with a DD-cup chest size, of course). Also, she doesn’t want to wear a spandex costume (and is therefore sane. I mean, who would?)

The story proceeds from this initial conflict and does not disappoint. It is exciting and well-written, and best of all, she remains not only a compelling superhero, but also a consistent one. We are given what is nearly a right-of-passage crime for her to deal with (a bank robbery turned into a hostage situation), and when the action kicks off, she doesn’t suddenly begin moving and fighting like a 19-year-old action star.

So it’s an excellent story. I not only left it wanting more, but wanting more in an ongoing comic form. When I finished reading the piece, I spent the rest of my afternoon not only writing this short story as a comic script in my head, but also making up other stories and plot-lines and ideas for what would come next. In the comic medium, in the super-hero genre, this premise would have some razor-sharp things to say, and would also be funny and a blast to read. I really hope this isn’t the last I get to read of Flux.

Onward we go, to ‘Davy,’ by Anna Dickinson, which is a simple story that conveys a great deal in a few pages. It’s the story of Laura, who has just had a baby and is now dealing with all the excess weight that didn’t just disappear when her son was born, not to mention a deep depression which keeps her mostly in bed, and also the frustration, despair, and occasional fury that comes along with trying to deal with a newborn. And also, the strange gray things which are coming out of the painting on the wall, fixated on her son Davy.

This is an extremely well-written piece which—like ‘Nemesis’—makes a topic out of Laura’s weight and uses it thoughtfully and properly throughout the story. This is also a story I found genuinely frightening and harrowing to read, something I just hadn’t expected anywhere in this anthology. I have two young sons myself and am their stay-at-home parent, have been since infancy, and thus identified very much with the exhaustion, despair (which is accompanied by the certainty that one is an unfit parent, both in life and in the story). Like all parents, the thought of something coming and taking my children is the stuff of my nightmares these days. So I was immersed and spooked by the piece. Dickinson deals with a lot of plot and a lot of characters and ideas in a very small space, and ends the story perfectly. It’s a story I can see myself re-reading more than once, which is always a high compliment for a piece of writing.

Another stumble in the anthology is ‘Sharks and Seals,’ by Jennifer Brozek. This is a very small story, in which the leader of one magical order is brought to talk to the leader of another magical order, and that’s pretty much it. It’s a problematic story, which never adds up to anything. Major events are hinted at—a failed ceremony in the past, the calling in of a debt sometime in the future—but neither event appears in the story or is elaborated on.

Nominally, this is a story about self-confidence, but this doesn’t work either. Corelli is worried they won’t take her seriously as the new leader of her magic order—because she’s not only new, but a woman and overweight—but this is an unfounded concern, because except for one henchman in the story, everyone takes her completely seriously. And there’s no element of actually standing on her own, either, because at each instance where she might need to, she uses magic to quickly deal with the problem. (And the use of magic is also irrelevant: one instance of magic makes her seem cold and cruel, another instance of magic is meant to help her speak correctly in a tricky conversation, followed by a very brief and completely clear conversation which requires no magic at all.)

I’m pleased to report that this was a one-story-long stumble this time, because next up we get ‘Marilee and the S.O.B.’ by Barbara Krasnoff, which is an unbelievably catchy title to say out loud. The story begins very simply: Marliee—who is a bit overweight and unnoticed—has made a hobby out of following strangers to their destinations without them seeing her, for no other reason than to find out where they’re going (and really, to give herself some special knowledge and a special ability over which to have power). One day, she follows a beautiful young man off the bus, only to discover that he is well aware of her, and also not at all what he seems.

The story and its characters are easily likable and engaging. This might sound like an odd comparison, but Marliee reminded me of the character Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s novel Misery, but without the insanity or the terror. She is big, solid, practical, under-estimated, and seems a bit simple as a result (a mistaken judgment to make, we learn). I’ve said this before in the course of this review, but the one failing of the story is that it stops. I don’t just mean that as a compliment, either. I mean that there are interesting characters and ideas on display here, and it feels like the first chapter of an excellent novel, the surface of which this story barely scratches. Something along the lines of War for the Oaks by Emma Bull. I finished the story not only wanting to read more, but plotting how I’d write it as a novel as well.

Following the light-hearted previous story, we now come to ‘Blueprints’ by Anna Caro, which is an extremely powerful piece. Earth is an old, used up husk of a planet, and Terra Nova is a brave new world where dreams come true and the streets are surely paved with gold. Unless, of course, you’re poor, or sick, or overweight (how overweight? who cares?) and then you can stay behind on Earth, with the rest of those who are unfit.

This is a very powerful story which is nominally science fiction, but talks about nothing which hasn’t happened somewhere, sometime in our own history (and is happening even now). The story deals with a range of topics, from the feeling of being left behind, to the difficulty (and brutality) of the legal and illegal immigration experiences, to the inevitable discovery that the new world you’re escaping to is no paradise and might be much worse than what you left behind. The story is not only well-told, but handles these fairly heavy topics with an easy touch, never becoming tiresome or preachy. A very strong piece, which runs as long as it needs to, no more or less.

Finally, we have ‘Lift’ by Pete “Patch” Alberti, a short piece about a girl who is a bit heavy, and not rich, and who is not popular because of these things. So she works and patiently builds a spaceship of her very own, no matter how much the world seems to want her not to. There isn’t much more to the story than that, and that’s just fine. This is a wonderful story for the anthology to end on. It’s a fun, sweet, wholly optimistic story, which finishes off the book on a light note. Beyond being upbeat, though, it’s also well-told and engaging and if I don’t wind up saying any more about it, it’s only because I had no complaints.

So there we have it, a look at all of the fourteen stories in the book. My overall reaction was enjoyment. There were a lot of very strong stories in the book. Unfortunately, there were also a number of weaker stories, and in an anthology of only 130 pages and fourteen total stories, five weak ones is quite a lot. There simply isn’t room to spare for them. My overall complaint was, as I mentioned throughout the review, that too many of the stories seemed not to have much to do with the central theme of the book. The whole premise of the book is right there in the excellent title, Fat Girl in a Strange Land, but it seemed like some of the stories forgot to include both of those elements within the piece. If I can remove the weight issue from the story without causing any damage at all, then I don’t feel it’s had any relevance in the story.

Still, this is the second anthology I’ve read and reviewed from Crossed Genres Publications, and I’m happy to say that my esteem for them remains unchanged. They are publishing excellent collections of mostly strong stories, based around creative topics which I learn about and immediately want to read stories about. Two books later, I’m still of the opinion that I’d pick up any Crossed Genres anthology if I came across it.

Whether you wind up liking or disliking it in the same ways I did, I think Fat Girl in a Strange Land is well worth your time and money, if only so you can make up your own mind.

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3 comments:

Kenya Taylor Wright said...

This is really rather interesting!

Kenya Wright

Following the lede said...

Thanks for the nice things you said about my story!

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for your comments on 'Davy'.

(I wanted to say more but I couldn't work out how to avoid saying: 'I'm glad it scared you.' Which wouldn't have been a very nice thing to say)

Anna