I was wandering in a dream-like state around my local library recently when one of the librarians, known to me as an aspiring writer of dystopic Young Adult fiction, made a very strong recommendation for me to read a book she had just finished. She doesn’t often do this because we usually have quite different reading tastes. But she was so enthusiastic about this book, spoke about reading it as soon as she opened her eyes in the morning, and how she loved the author’s voice. The title of the book, she told me, was Death by Dim Sim and was by a local author, Sarah Vincent. In fact her husband worked in that very library system.
Crime, I thought, and the title intrigued me because I could quite imagine someone dying after eating a dim sim. For those who live in more civilised climes, a dim sim is a pseudo Chinese food item, full of cabbage and mince meat, very fatty and either steamed, or, as is the favourite method of preparation for those who love them, deep fried. It is popular with football fans, who like to eat it from a greasy bag soaked with soy sauce on a windy winter’s day.
The book wasn’t available at the library, so I laid out money and bought it on my Kindle. I had only glanced at it when I realised there was no murder. What we had here was what is so often called ‘a weight loss journey.’ In order to have a basis for comparison I bought another book more upfront about its subject matter, Over 50, Overweight and Out of Breath: A Year of Going from Super Fat to Super Fit by Laura Sinclair.
Sarah Vincent begins by declaring her weight, 122 kilos, sizeable in any one’s language, or as she found when reading her doctor’s notes, ‘morbidly obese’. She put that down to her regular afternoon snack of dim sims, to obtain which she had to make her way through a hospital car park past patients had ‘come out for a smoke.’ As she says, ‘pale and gaunt, and sometimes missing a limb, they would stay for five minutes and then shuffle back to the ward.’ She felt quite superior to those people as she waddled past; didn’t they realise it was smoking that had them in hospital? But one day she had a flash of insight. ‘If they were doing death by cigarette then surely I was doing death by dim sim.’
But did this cause her to immediately change her ways? Not at all, it just sent her off on another crash diet, then she moved on to Garcinia Cambogia (I don’t know either, some kind of appetite suppressant I imagine) then she bought a $500 gym membership and went twice. As she calculates it worked out at $250 per visit. She got her husband to take pictures of her in her underwear that she pinned to her fridge, but took down very quickly. Unfortunately she has these pictures at the back of her book.
So far so typical for this kind of book, the insight, the yearning to improve, the various self-destructive tricks before finding a good mentor and a way of exercise that is enjoyable. That is surely where we are going.
Not so fast, there is more here. We have already learnt that Sarah has had a cancer removed from her bowel and made a complete recovery, but now out of the blue her husband learns he has a very nasty advanced cancer. That lump in his groin is not a primary as hers was, but a secondary cancer from a primary skin cancer. Immediate surgery is essential.
But now the added problems begin. Her husband is a homeopath and has little time for conventional medicine. He decides to cure himself by homeopathies and meditation. As he wastes away Sarah crams herself with food. Chocolate, Tim Tam biscuits, all the fattiest, sugariest foods she can gather up in her brief trips to the supermarket.
Then she discovers her husband has been hearing voices, in fact he soon has full-blown psychosis. He is in and out of psych hospitals and when eventually he is given a form of medication that works, he consents to have the life-saving surgery and makes a good recovery. This excruciating episode is described in great detail and this is where I began to think. Why, why? I am happy to read about one aspect of the woman’s life, her struggle with weight, but do I want to hear the intimate details of her husband’s health, body, and behaviour? No, I don’t. And it caused me to think how we have come to accept this self-exposure in life writing.
Sarah Vincent can write, she has had plays performed, she had also written a real detective novel, so why does she have to expose every detail of her private life to anyone who picks up her book? Because there are more revelations about her own problems; her panic attacks, her parents’ flaws and mental illnesses. Enough, I say, it’s just not relevant.
Her book is an odd mishmash; a jokey story about her quest for health, mingled with tragic details about her family and relationships.
Is it because of reality TV that we have come to accept this? The Guardian recently reviewed a book by a woman who had just had a baby and decided after four months her sex life wasn’t up to scratch, so she writes of her visits to sex therapists and the progress she and her husband made. They also printed another lightweight article about a woman who spent a week in her home cooking and mopping quite naked. So what? Do we care? Keep it to yourself, I say.
Sarah Vincent’s book is also odd in that the second half of it is given to recipes and details of her eating program. I wish her every success. I just wish she hadn’t felt the need to bare all.
As for Over 50 Overweight etc…… the most intimate thing we hear about Laura Sinclair is that she broke her leg in three places ‘a trimalleolar fracture’ and that caused her to start life anew. She repeats this many times. She comes across as disciplined and hard-working, she gets into weight training and a no-sugar diet and that’s her story. She gives very little personal information, although she does say, on the strength of this book she now has a career in motivational speaking.
I guess if you’re going to write about ‘my weight loss journey’ you have to have some kind of angle, but please don’t drag in every detail of your most private life.
Image: Wikimedia commons