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by Aimee Liu


One of the thoughts that occurred to me many times when writing Gaining was the cozy relationship that appeared to exist between religion and eating disorders. My research took me into books like Rudolph Bell’s outstanding Holy Anorexia, which chronicles the lives of hundreds of anorexic and bulimic Catholic saints. I was fascinated and deeply moved by the memoir Spiral Staircase by the renowned theologian Karen Armstrong, who wrote about the frequency of anorexia among nuns – herself included before she left the convent. And I read biographies of the mystic and philosopher Simone Weil, who died of anorexia in 1943. I also learned about Manichaeism – a religion founded around 300 A.D. that combined elements of Zoroastrian, Christian, and Gnostic thought into a belief that spiritual purification came through the denial of appetites for food and sex.
At the same time, I was learning that 60% or more of our susceptibility to eating disorders is genetic. So, I wondered, could it be that people with the genetics for eating disorders were guiding some of these religious “ideals”? Or, could it be that religious leaders looked around, saw what was temperamentally driving people, and incorporated rituals within the church that played on those natural tendencies? I kept thinking how perfect rosaries are as a device for people who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorders…
Finally I interviewed Jack Miles, a former Jesuit and the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of God: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. Jack was dumbstruck by the news that genetics play a role in eating disorders, but the more he thought about it, the more sense it made to him. When I asked him if he though there was a connection between eating disorders and religion he said sagely, “The Church employs affliction.”
I wanted to write about all this in my book, but I am a confirmed agnostic with no religious background to speak of, and I would be wading into quicksand if I stepped too far in this direction. So I was delighted to hear recently that a theological scholar had written a book called The Religion of Thinness. Finally, I thought, someone who really understands this territory is going to see how the latest knowledge about eating disorders lines up with religious thinking.
I really wanted to love this book. I wanted to learn from it. I wanted to feel galvanized by it.
Before I tell you why I didn’t, let me tell you a bit more about what the book does deliver. It breaks down the essential tools of religion – mythology, iconography, rituals, moral principles, community, and redemptive promises – and demonstrates how our culture has framed the idealization of thinness in much the same way. It presents the practices of mindfulness and cultural criticism as means of deprogramming ourselves from this religion. And it deconstructs numerous advertisements and magazine covers to show how this cultural criticism is done. I did not disagree with one word in this book. Unfortunately, I kept thinking that many in our culture will treat anything – from politics and vegetarianism to the right to bear guns – as a religion. And maybe mindfulness and cultural criticism would help those folks, too. But that idea didn’t make it into the book.
I felt as if I was trying to get comfortable on a four-legged stool that was missing two legs. The author, Michelle Lelwica, did not mention the role of genetics in eating disorders, much less the role of genetics and temperament in one’s susceptibility to religion. Even more astounding to me, there was no substantial or probing discussion of the individual circumstances that nudge – or propel – people into eating disorders. Not until the last 20 pages of the book does the author even mention that personal and sexual trauma often precede these illnesses. It wasn’t until page 172 that she allowed as how the desire for physical perfection “masks a host of deeper spiritual needs”!
Instead, many pages here felt as if they were lifted straight out of the work of feminist scholars such as Susan Bordo, whose 1993 classic Unbearable Weight contained similar images of advertisements deconstructed in much the same way. Like Bordo, Lelwica explicitly and implicitly suggested that our culture makes us eating and body image disordered. “In the end,” she writes, “both the present-day quest for thinness and the medieval pursuit of holiness reflect a common struggle for purity and power in societies that view women’s bodies as a source of immorality and shame.”
But, I kept wondering, what about all the people I’ve interviewed who developed their eating disorders after losing a parent or child? What about all the men with eating disorders? What about people who are blind who develop these illnesses? I’m all for boycotting designers and advertisers that use anorexic models, or magazines that tout unhealthy diets, but that’s only part of the solution.
Sadly, Lelwica’s suggested mindfulness practices also circled the obvious. I am a true believer in the power of mindfulness, but I’m not sure readers will grasp that power through the repetitive instructions in this book. And again, the most important aspect of mindfulness for people struggling with eating disorders was buried at the back of the book. The real magic of mindfulness occurs when we allow ourselves to feel what we are suffering without judging it or trying to escape it. By sitting with it we can examine and learn to manage it. I was on page 264 by the time I got anywhere near this magic, and it felt like too little far too late for people who are actually suffering. Also, in my experience, the biggest blind spot for most of us is temperament -- how we’re emotionally wired for anxiety or depression or love. But there was no discussion of becoming mindful of one’s temperament.
I’m afraid that Lelwica and I are looking at the same picture from two very different perspectives. She’s standing at a distance and painting the landscape with a broad brush, while I’m looking close enough to see the actual faces and lives of individuals. She’s including every woman who looks at fashion magazines or thinks twice about having a hot fudge sundae. I’m interested in the factors that distinguish those who easily maintain a healthy weight from those who are psychologically enslaved by their obsessions. The Church may employ affliction to lure more followers, but the critical questions that then follow are, what is that affliction, where does it come from, and how can we prevent it. I’m afraid The Religion of Thinness does not go there.

The stories in this collection vibrate with a kind of perfection that is beyond rare in literature today. Susan McCallum-Smith writes with absolute authority about every breath her characters take, every inflection of their sometimes Scottish, sometimes all-American speech, and every faultline in their physical and interior landscapes, which also straddle the Atlantic. She has a keen eye and a searching heart, and uses both to exquisite effect. These are stories about hardy and careworn souls grappling with the random inequities of existence. But there is nothing random about the structure of these stories. Each is crafted and composed as precisely as a Bach concerto. And that precision is what made me hold my breath as I read, for the suspense that McCallum-Smith weaves into her plots mounts from the very first line and does not cease until you gasp at the poignant surprise she inevitably delivers with the story's parting words.
This may be a first book, but it is the work of a true master.
Pick it up; you will not want to ever put it down.

"In her stunning debut novel Shilpa Agarwal takes on the ghosts that bedevil young Pinky Mittal�s extended family and dispatches them with rambunctious wit and affection. The result is like a finely wrought mirror work, a glittering tapestry of vibrant contradictions, characters, and mysteries. Haunting Bombay flirts deliciously with the true spirit of India."
-- Aimee Liu


The global travelers in 'Unaccustomed Earth' are battered by the journey

Reviewed in the San Diego Union-Tribune by Aimee Liu

April 6, 2008

Loss stalks Jhumpa Lahiri's characters like a solemn child. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Interpreter of Maladies” and her debut novel, “The Namesake,” losses of home, love and identity seemed as innocent as they were perplexing to her Bengali protagonists. But there were also flashes of humor, even whimsy, especially among the eccentric sweepers and guides who welcomed expatriated families back to India in Lahiri's early stories. In “Unaccustomed Earth,” the undertone of grief is decidedly elegiac.

The eight tales (three of them linked loosely into a novella) that comprise this collection cover vast geographic distances, from Seattle and Boston to Italy and Thailand, yet the emotional terrain is constricted. In the title story, Ruma, a young mother newly settled with her American husband in Seattle, seems to speak for the book's entire cast when she laments, “Where had her mother gone, when life persisted, when Ruma still needed her to explain so many things?” The notion of mother here encompasses the accustomed earth of Ruma's Bengali homeland, her extensive but distant family, culture and community.

It is also literal, as parent and child relationships, for better and for worse, dominate this book. The death of Ruma's mother has rendered the persistence of her visiting father particularly inexplicable. Exile is the shifting sand on which Lahiri builds her fiction – specifically, the exile of children who struggle within the upwardly mobile expectations of fathers and mothers who have carried them around the world in pursuit of opportunity.

Sons and daughters regard their “parents' separation from India as an ailment that ebbed and flowed like cancer.” Yet class plays at least as troubling a role as dislocation in these characters' identities. In “Only Goodness,” a conscientious sister tries to make sense of her brother's plunge into alcoholism – and to deflect her own guilt for casually introducing him to beer in high school – by tracing the patterns of parental pressure that had shaped the two of them: “Her father had no patience for failure, for indulgences. He never let his children forget that there had been no one to help him as he helped them, so that no matter how well Sudha did, she felt that her good fortune had been handed to her, not earned.” Drinking becomes a signal of rebellion, forced assimilation and the futility of aspiring to exalted hopes and dreams.

Love, too, seems an exercise in futility for these global travelers. Reaching across cultures for a mate only invites misunderstanding and betrayal. Yet when romance connects Lahiri's Bengali characters, the results tend to be even more devastating. In “Hell-Heaven,” a wealthy, effervescent MIT student fresh off the plane from Calcutta captivates an older Bengali wife whose husband is so remote that he never notices her infatuation with Pranab Kaku – or her fury when, after years of her lavish, if chaste, attentions, the young man takes an American wife: “He used to be so different. I don't understand how a person can change so suddenly. It's just hell-heaven, the difference.”

In “A Choice of Accommodations" similarly twinned senses of guilt and abandonment hang over the middle-aged husband who brings his American wife back to a reunion at his elite New England boarding school. Amit has been admirably educated but also marooned by his privilege. Thanks to his father's renown as an eye surgeon, his parents have lived all over the world. Decades after being abruptly dropped at Langford Academy at age 15, Amit still is wary of the precariousness of life; “A brief glance in the wrong direction, he knew, could toss his existence over a cliff.”

This precariousness is reflected in the points of view that zig and zag through these pages like a series of tacking sails. In the linked stories that conclude the book, a Bengali Latin scholar and an orphaned photojournalist take turns narrating their memories of each other and their families first in childhood, then in their teens, and finally in a chance midlife encounter in Rome. Like many of Lahiri's American-born characters, Hema and Kaushik recount years of sad estrangement from their families, their roots and themselves, only to acknowledge with maturity the powerful magnet of cultural identity: “Their parents had liked one another only for the sake of their origins, for the sake of a time and place to which they'd lost access. Hema had never been drawn to a person for that reason, until now.”

The force of common origins is accentuated by Lahiri's decision to narrate every story but one from a Bengali-American point of view. The exception is “Nobody's Business,” in which Paul, a Harvard Ph.D. candidate with straw-colored hair, watches his housemate Sang deflect a parade of Bengali suitors in favor of a dubious Egyptian lover. Paul's tendency to exoticise Sang borders on the cliche, and this diminishes the story in spite of its gratifyingly Chekhovian ending.

Lahiri's eye for detail never falters. Whether describing the “trapezoid of sunlight” in a flat in Trastevere or “clusters of swallows like giant thumbprints swiping the sky,” she lifts each scene to vivid life. Her language pulses with the subtleties of love, sorrow and longing.

Some readers nevertheless may close this book with a sense of frustration. These characters are so uniformly well educated, privileged and well traveled that the stories feel like sketches of a single family. Unlike the tales in “Interpreter of Maladies,” none of the stories are set in India, which is perhaps why they lack the quirky unpredictability that livened that first collection. Unlike the Ganguli family in “The Namesake,” the characters here are not united by a common skein of secrets or misunderstandings, and so the thematic repetitions from story to story threaten tedium instead of building to effect. In “Going Ashore,” the seasoned photojournalist Kaushik observes that “with his camera, he was dependent on the world, stealing from it, hoarding it, unwilling to let it go.”

But sometimes an artist must let one world go in order to discover another. One cannot help wonder if it is time for Jhumpa Lahiri to make a similar leap.

The literature of the underdog has many masters. William Burroughs, William Kennedy, and Charles Bukowsky, to name just a few, embrace what Nelson Algren described as "the hard necessity of bringing the judge on the bench down into the dock." The best writing about abject antiheroes lifts society’s skin to expose the emotions common to all suffering – thereby forcing the judge in every reader to experience compassion.

Award-winning poet Kim Addonizio attempts to secure her place as a writer of hard necessity with her second novel, My Dreams Out in the Street. This book is a prose sequel to her 1997 poetry collection, Jimmy & Rita, about two young San Franciscans who seem doomed to live as losers.

Bibi Chen’s ghost is a novelist’s dream. In Saving Fish from Drowning, Amy Tan enlists the specter not only to report the thoughts and feelings of Bibi’s fellow characters, but also to deliver omniscient and frequently biting insights as their picaresque journey unfolds. The result is an inventive blend of comedy and adventure, with just a soupçon of the macabre.

From the “note to the reader” that prefaces this multi-worldly novel, we learn that Bibi alive was “a petite, feisty Chinese woman, opinionated, and hilarious when she didn’t intend to be.” Alas, just days before she is to lead a group of eleven friends on a tour of western China and Burma, the sixty-three-year-old art collector is found dead, apparently murdered. The grief-stricken tourists must proceed on their own, with Bibi joining them “in spirit.”

One hundred six years ago this month, Sigmund Freud began treating an 18-year-old girl named Ida Bauer, whose symptoms included the loss of her voice and a mysterious choking sensation. She also claimed that “K.,” husband of her father's mistress, had sexually molested her at 14 – a claim that K. and her father both denied. Freud challenged Ida's memory, suggesting she had been excited rather than disgusted by K.'s advances. When he proposed that K. divorce his wife and marry Ida, she terminated analysis. Freud subsequently used her case as a primary model for his theory of female “hysteria.” He gave her the pseudonym Dora. Dora has since become an icon for feminists who claim Freud's treatment of her proves the patriarchal and coercive nature of traditional psychoanalysis. But is their moral certainty any truer than Freud's? Isn't all memory essentially suspect? Whom can we trust to reliably narrate stories of the self?

These are the questions that haunt Heidi Julavits' dazzling new novel, “The Uses of Enchantment.” Julavits last proved her expertise in flexing perception in “The Effect of Living Backwards.” There, she marshaled the ghost of Lewis Carroll to help her fabricate Wonderland on a hijacked plane bound for Morocco. Now, she summons Freud's Dora to New England to help construct a house of mirrors lit by the doubt – and possibility – that fuels imagination.