Last summer I had every intention of reading a whole stack of books. And if it hadn’t been for a thoroughly trashy book in German thrust upon me at a dinner party, I might have got through them all by the end of holidays. “It’s so awful, I couldn’t finish it,” she told me with a laugh and a roll of the eyes. “I want you to tell me what you think.”
Called Feuchtgebiete – literally moist regions, but due to be released in English next April as Wetlands - it had Germany’s entire literary scene wetting its pants for about a month last Spring. Written by Charlotte Roche, a young woman who is also a TV presenter, singer and actor, it is the most vile, disgusting piece of muck I’ve come across in ages.
Though I’d been warned of its content, I hadn’t expected to be actually sickened by what I was reading. It reminded me a lot of the raw footage of suicide bombings I’m forced to watch at work but know damn well will never make it to air: gaping trunk remnants, shredded limbs and heads blown away, spatters of flesh lumped in with shrapnel, soot and dust. There’s always enough peripheral carnage to tell the story without including the goriest segments, so editors leave them out.
The barrage of cringe material begins almost on the first page with the narrator - an 18-year-old woman - in the hospital for an operation to remove her hemorrhoids. What? An 18-year-old with hemorrhoids? Well, yeah. You’re asked to suspend disbelief a lot as she describes her restorative surgery in great detail, along with the sexual habits, gross neglect of personal hygiene and sloppy pubic hair shaving which led to her situation.
She’s in no hurry to get better, though, because the longer she stays in hospital, the better the chance that her divorced parents will manage to come and visit her at the same time, have some sort of miraculous reconciliation, and live happily ever after. Terrified that she will be released from hospital long before her parents come to see her, she deliberately re-opens the wound to prolong her stay… I won’t go into details, it’s just too sickening.
The author says that by talking so crudely about one woman’s neglect and abuse of her moist areas, she was out to make a statement about the squeaky-clean and perfumed view of personal hygiene that marketers have thrust on women, that if they aren’t slapping hundreds of products on and in their bodies, they’ll somehow stink. A cri de coeur against the oppression of a waxed, shaved, douched and otherwise sanitized women’s world.
But do people really stoop to such self-inflicted pain in an attempt to manipulate others? Yes, they do – and for me, that was why I hated this book. Far beyond feeling sorry for the plight of this character and her family situation, or getting me to think about the larger theme of how wrong it is to make women feel they have to sanitize their bodies – or even alter them – in order to live up to some marketing manager’s feminine ideal, I got the feeling that I as a reader was being manipulated – abused, even – by the author herself.
It’s like there really was nothing to this story than the shock value of its content. I suppose in a world where the dregs of rotten.com and 24/7 orifice gratification are only a click away, a writer has to scream to be heard above it all, but by the time I was half-way through I was already contemplating tossing it aside.
The only thing that kept me going was the expectation to find a little insert from the author saying: sorry, I know none of this can be taken seriously and the character I’ve created is perhaps the most unlovable you’ve ever come across. Nobody abuses her body to such an extent and expects to survive. This was just my idea of a little fun – hoped you liked it LOL.
If you’re curious, it’s going to go on sale in English on Amazon.com on April 9, 2009. I’m willing to bet it’ll be ignored in the States until some right-wing talkshow dick gets ahold of it and demand it be banned on moral or religious grounds. Always great for a sales boost.
Distraction over - on to that stack of summer reading:
Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare was a disappointment. There was hardly a shred of information I hadn’t heard off-hand about the man and his life at some time over the years, so it comes off as a compilation of disparate snippets nobody can confirm or deny thrown together to help fulfill some contractual obligation, or another work to further the Bryson brood’s university education fund.
Not only that, Bryson has completely reigned in his usual wit and humour, which is a such a waste. You have to wonder whether a reviewer quoted on the cover as calling it funny had actually said, “there’s no way in the world anyone could come to the conclusion this is anywhere close to being funny.” Read it if you have never heard of William Shakespeare or know little about him or his times, but don’t expect the usual Bryson laughs, or much new insight. There isn’t any, but to be fair, perhaps that’s the point.
Bryson’s Mother Tongue and Notes from a Small Island along with George Carlin’s BrainDroppings and Napalm & Silly Putty I’d read ages before, and brought them along to whip through again. Carlin’s are the sort of books you can pick up and start reading wherever your thumb happens to open the pages, perfect for five minutes of ah-hahs and giggles before nodding off or if you’re not in the mood to concentrate on anything longer than a trip to the john. Bryson’s pair are thankfully more true to form: funny, informative, insightful, and worth reading more than once.
When I said I was going to read Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, a reader commented that she hated that book and was interested in what I thought of it. Well Az, you and I must have the same taste, because I agree with you. Maybe I was weaned too much on the journalistic realism of George Orwell’s 1984, but I think if you’re setting out to write about a horrible world in the future in which people are born and bred to take care of those about to have their vital organs harvested until they themselves go under the knife, then at least describe it in harsher terms. I kept waiting for the young couple to have some sort of blow-up or at least get it on, but the book reads a like David Hamilton nude, all fuzzy softness hinting at something earthier but never quite allowing itself to go that far. The result is unsatisfying.
I liked Sarah’s Key very much. Set in Paris under German occupation, it is based on an actual event the French have for decades wished would just go away, because it makes them look like accessories to murder. A Jewish girl is rounded up with her family and kept penned in with thousands of others at a cycling track before the children are brutally separated from their parents, herded on trains and sent east to the gas chambers. In an attempt to save her little brother and not knowing she would be gone for ages, when the French police come to round the family up she locks her brother in a secret hiding place in their apartment. The story switches back and forth to the fate of the girl in wartime and the story of the family which took over the much-coveted apartment from the Jewish family forced to vacate it.
Planet Germany I recommended last time around as a funny book about life in this country without all the usual oom-pa-pa / Lederhosen stereotypes you find crammed into a lot of other books on Germans. It’s since been listed on Amazon, so if you haven’t picked up a copy yet, it’s never been easier. While you’re at it, visit the author’s blog.