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Snarking Nostalgic: Sweet Valley High #4 Power Play

Hi Guys–Sorry the only pic is the book cover.  I’m on vacation and the internet is unreliable and slow.

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 3.27.16 PMSweet Valley High #4: Power Play

All SVH were written by ghostwriters.

Alternate Title–Why bullying fat women is totally a good thing to do

Hate does not begin to describe the level of contempt I have for Sweet Valley High #4: Power Play.  I don’t suppose a series where ghostwriters seem to have been contractually obligated to mention the twins “perfect size six” bodies in every book was ever going to be sympathetic to a fat girl, but this book is deplorable. (Side note—they’ve since redone SVH to be all hip and modern, which fails about as hard as the BSC updates—and the twins are now described as slender or slim, because a size six is now a heifer in Francine Pascal’s world.)

I read a few SVH book blogs because you couldn’t pay me to go back and read #1-3 to find where Robin is first mentioned, and they say she gets a brief nod in book 3 to set up for book 4. This is Robin. She’s smart, funny, and fat. So fat. Horribly fat. And she wants to be BFF’s with Jessica.

Robin is apparently the new girl in school. She believes Jessica is her BFF, but isn’t happy. Which we learn through the most bizarre conversation between her mother and Elizabeth. Mrs. Wilson says that having the Wakefield twins as her BFF’s is the best thing to happen to Robin since the move to SV, but then immediately flips it around and says that Robin is thinking of quitting school! Why?  Because she’s fat, and because she’s fat no one likes her (even though she’s smart and funny and kind).

Drinking Game I should’ve played to make the book more palatable–drink every time my blood pressure goes up a point.

Robin arrives with Jessica’s dry cleaning. Friendship is Robin running errands for Jessica! Apparently while she’s one of the smartest girls at Sweet Valley, she doesn’t know the difference between friendship and being someone’s servant.

Robin plopped down on the sofa, rummaged around in her purse for something, and finally came up with a large chocolate bar. She unwrapped it and hungrily started munching. (DRINK)

‘You’re really lucky, Liz, having a terrific sister like Jessica.’ The chocolate bar was disappearing fast.  (DRINK)

‘That’s me, all right, lucky Liz,’ she replied dryly, hypnotized by Robin’s rhythmic chewing.  (DRINK)

‘Robin, doesn’t eating that make you’—don’t say ‘fat,’ she warned herself—‘break out?’  (DRINK)

‘Oh, no,’ said Robin, licking her sticky fingers. ‘I never get zits, just pounds. But I just wasn’t meant to be slim like you and Jessica. It’s got something to do with my bones—or is it my metabolism? Anyway, it’s just my sad fate.’

Elizabeth looked at Robin dubiously. She was convinced Robin’s heaviness was due to the way she ate—especially if this was typical.  (DRINK)

Though Elizabeth and Jessica certainly didn’t have Robin’s figure problems, they still watched their diets carefully.

Elizabeth is a concern troll. She doesn’t really give a damn about Robin, but she enjoys patronizing her and the feeling of superiority she gets from being so “nice.” I hate her.

Robin begs Liz to remind Jessica to let her pledge the sorority. Liz decides to help her even though she’s “a lot overweight.” (DRINK) Robin is thrilled and practically dances out the door as Jessica arrives (although god knows the ghostwriter would probably call it shaking the house with each footstep).

Why was that fat wimp pawing at me and gushing all over the place?” Jessica demanded.

Jessica is a sociopath. First she plans to just “forget” to nominate Robin for membership. When Liz nominates her instead, Jessica is furious. She reminds Liz that the pledges must complete certain tasks before they can become members, and immediately sets out to come up with the most humiliating ones possible so that Robin will drop out and she can still look pure as virgin snow. (DRINK.  Forget it–just chug the damn bottle and go buy another one.  This is multi bottle book.)

After Jessica goes over to tell Robin that she’s going to be a pledge, she immediate goes home and, in the best sentence in the entire book, “Jessica was wearing leotards and exercising with Jane Fonda via video cassette.”  She’s scared that she might catch fat from Robin?

Task #1–Run (although it’s described as “lumbering”) around the track five times a day for one week.

Task #2–Robin has to go to the beach in a bikini and play volleyball. Robin doesn’t have a bikini but “it’s a two-piece suit that’s too small, so it looks like a bikini, kind of.” Liz says Robin can play on her team. On Saturday “Elizabeth knew it was going to be a difficult day for Robin—and her” (emphasis mine) because she thinks, just as Jessica does, that it’s embarrassing to be seen with the fat girl.  But she’s a concern troll and a martyr, so she’ll suck it up and be seen with the chubby girl.

Task #3—Robin has to get Bruce Patman to take her to the Discomarathon on Saturday night. Liz bribes Bruce to accept when Robin asks him by promising him an article in the newspaper. “All right. I’ll take her. But I want my picture in, see! A big one. And tell how I whipped that guy at Palisades.” (Is Bruce a small time gangster in a 40’s noir film?) Bruce brings her to the dance (she’s wearing a tent dress, if you were curious), but ditches her loudly in the middle of the floor, saying “Ok, that’s it. I brought you to the dance, Tubby. I’ve got better things to do now. Hey! Anybody want to steer the Queen Mary around the floor tonight? She’s all yours!

Robin leaves the dance humiliated and has a run in with a nerd named Allen Waters. He seems like a decent guy, who saw that she was upset and wanted to see if she was okay. Robin is hysterical, saying “I am a total outcast! I’m ruined!”  Allen convinces her to go back to the gym, and Jessica sweeps over and notes that PBA pledges shouldn’t be seen with their social inferiors. But they still dance (although, since he’s a certified nerd, he can’t really dance) and then he takes her home.

Furious that her scheme to get Robin to drop out of the pledging process failed, Jessica moves onto her plan B. There is a convenient loophole she can take advantage of—during the vote on pledges, if a single person puts in a black stone, she can’t join. All the PBA’s are too scared of Jessica to blackball someone she is “friends” with.  Yet a black stone appears—Jessica had to do it herself.  Jessica decides that this is all Liz’s fault because Liz was the one to nominate Robin in the first place

“It’s a secret vote—and nobody can challenge a blackball. It’s just one of those unfortunate things.” (SOCIOPATH)

Robin disappears for a week.  When she comes back she avoids the twins like the plague, although of course Liz tries to go and concern troll her some more. Liz watches her from afar, and notices that Robin is starting to run on the track every day, and that she’s starting to eat salads.

One day a week or two later Elizabeth almost bumped into her coming down the stairs—and was astonished to realize the transformation that was occurring. The excess pounds were going rapidly, and the Robin who was emerging seemed like an entirely different girl.

Well of course she’s a different girl. Thin girls can have personalities apart from pathetic, desperate to be loved fatty.

“I hope you’re doing it the right way, Robin.”

Robin fixed her penetrating eyes on Elizabeth. “Liz, I may have been stupid about almost everything—the Pi Betas, Jessica, and maybe even you. But if you’re asking me if I’m starving myself to death, I wouldn’t give any of the PBAs the satisfaction.”

Apparently something like 3 weeks after the blackball, there are mid-term cheerleader tryouts, and Robin is trying out. She not only makes the team, but is immediately made co-captain with Jessica.

What the Pi Betas had unintentionally done for Robin certainly was remarkable, Elizabeth had to admit. She had not simply avenged herself by losing weight. Robin had gone through a complete transformation. The old tent dresses had slowly disappeared, replaced with flattering and stylish outfits. The pale face had taken on a healthy glow, and all in all a totally new Robin Wilson was dazzling Sweet Valley Nigh. There were many kids, in fact, who swore she’d just moved to town. They’d never even noticed her before.  (BOOK I HATE YOU.  IF I HAD A PHYSICAL COPY I WOULD BURN YOU.  GHOSTWRITER AND FP YOU HAVE JUST TOTALLY EXCUSED AND LEGITIMIZED JESSICA BULLYING AND HUMILIATING A FAT GIRL.  FUCK YOU.)

There’s still book left to go, but this is the moral of the story. Bullying is good because it’s a motivational tool. Also, losing weight will give you a tan.

Elizabeth goes up to congratulate Robin a few days later and they have a talk. Robin calls it like it is—that Jessica is an awful person. Liz, of course, defends Jessica, even though she knows better than most what a conniving witch she really is.

“You just don’t want to face up to what kind of person Jessica is. She and I were never really friends. I used to pretend to myself that we were because I wanted to believe it was really true. It must have given Jessica a few good laughs.”

Welcome to reality, Robin. Nice of you to join us.

Bruce is panting after the new cheerleader. However, he has no clue that it’s the same girl he was an evil bastard to as the dance. It’s a good thing he’s rich because he’s a moron.  (Sidenote: he’s also a rapist)

The final showdown between Robin and Jessica is yet to come, though. Both go out for Miss Sweet Valley High, and it quickly becomes a two woman race that divides the high school. It even divides the football team!!!!

“The Gladiators’ offensive line and backfield paraded through the lunchroom carrying a big banner: Jessica is Just Right!”

Then the defensive line came through the auditorium with a huge placard: Robin Has Us Throbbin’”

Robin has us throbbin’ has me rolling with laughter. (You know, like us fat girls do—we roll, we laugh.)

At the homecoming game—Robin wins!

It seemed to everyone that Robin had achieved absolute top status at Sweet Valley. She was the football queen, and now she would take her triumphal tour in Bruce Patman’s black Porche.

At least she gives Bruce the metaphorical middle finger and is escorted by Allen Waters.  The Pi Betas invite her to join the sorority and she tells them to fuck off.

The end.

While I appreciate that Robin doesn’t become one of Jessica’s prettier lackeys, I found the book reprehensible. Robin could and should have learned those lessons without becoming the homecoming queen. But somehow, the external transformation of weight loss is what legitimizes her internal transformation. Which is a terrible message.

Yet this is the key message of the multi-billion dollar (annually) industry of weight loss. Losing weight will make you thin, pretty, and popular. You will be deserving of love then. You will be a more confident and BETTER person.  I’ve been to a Weight Watchers meeting–and this is the message they sell, too.

The truth is that fat to thin, thin to fat…you are still you. If you hated yourself fat, you will still have emotional drama and poor self image thin (truth—many women have body dysmorphia). If you had issues with your husband or parents before you lost weight, losing it won’t fix those.

Any girl who thinks about reading this should be handed a copy of Two Whole Cakes by Leslie Kinzel instead.

Next week we return to the warm embrace of Stoneybrook with “The Truth About Stacey”

Book Review: Diary of an Expat in Singapore by Jennifer Gargiulo

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.07.43 PMDiary of an Expat in Singapore by Jennifer Gargiulo

Rating 1/5 stars

Since becoming an expat in 2010, I have enjoyed reading expat memoirs.  They’ve helped me feel less alone when I feel isolated.  Culture shock and confusion are a common experience, not something that makes me a “bad expat.”  Seeing them come to terms with and part of their new home culture is encouraging.  Considering that, “Diary of an Expat in Singapore,” by Jennifer Gargiulo should be a natural addition to my bookcase.  It isn’t.

We are both expat mothers of two children.  Neither of us expected to stay in Singapore long.  As I approach my 4th anniversary, Gargiulo is approaching her 7th.  We both write about our experiences in Singapore, but we do so in very different ways.

I was hoping for an exploration of the transition to expatriate, acclimation to Singapore, and the difficulties one can have reconciling your culture with that of Singapore’s.  I got oversimplified top ten lists and casual racism.

The racism was particularly problematic for me.  I learn that Swedes are most likely to be training for a triathelete (pg 21), Japanese stick together (pg 89), and that it’s surprising that there are so many skin whitening products on sale in Singapore since Singaporean kids are always inside studying (pg 91).  As the mother of half-Indian daughters and the wife of an Indian American, I was unamused to find out that she thinks

The Indian expat launches websites, compares ways to best store a sari in Singapore…[and] lengthy discussions on where to buy gold.” (pg 24)

and that everyone loves India except Indians because they want to get PR in Signapore(pg 157).  All of these are brushed off as “humor” and “political incorrectness.”  They’re not—they are white privilege at its worst—and blatantly racist.

It takes white privilege to be blissfully unaware that many apartment vacancies specifically say “no Indians.”  Gargiulo is blissfully unaware that my biracial family is carefully billed as “American” when we’ve apartment hunted because our agent would never have gotten to American if she had started with Indian.

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.41.53 PMScreen shot from Property Guru in a Wall Street Journal article about discrimination in the Singapore housing market

White privilege and class privilege combine to take potshots at a certain type of expatriate—the foreign domestic worker (FDW–aka maid/helper).

For example, revealing one’s maid’s nickname is Slow Mo (as in slow motion) because she washes salad so slowly she gets to know the leaves on a first-name basis” (pg 38).

Here, even the maids have maids. Seriously.” (pg 59)

How domestic workers manage to have not only better phones than the rest of the population but better phone plans as well. They must be working for SingTel. This is the only possible explanation for the amount of time cleaners spend talking on the phone.” (pg 179)

From the descriptions, you would think that FDW’s have it made here.  The truth is that they work for pennies (the average salary range is 400-600 sgd a month), that many are on call 24 hours a day, and that the government isn’t particularly interested in their rights.  An FDW must get a pregnancy and AIDS screening twice a year, and will be sent home if she tests positive for either (Gargiulo and myself have access to hormonal birth control and abortion by contrast).  An FDW may not marry a Singaporean.  An FDW may be fired and deported without cause.

None of these rules apply to an expat like Gargiulo or myself because we’re wealthy enough to be the employer as opposed to the employee.

The complex dance of cross-cultural expectations and understandings are missing, as is the awkwardness of having a stranger live inside your home.  The only thing she discusses about cultural issues is what nationality of maid you might hire

Filipina, Indonesian, or from Myanmar (in other words: speaks English, acts like she speaks English, or really has no idea what you are saying) (pg 38) 

Construction workers are another invisible expat.  In fact, she doesn’t mention them directly at all, rather she only discusses that construction noise inconveniences her (pg. 7) without any thought to the men who work at that site.  She’s thrilled to share that “unemployed immigrants are nonexistent” (pg 65) but doesn’t seem to know or care about the construction workers who get hurt on the job and are summarily fired and deported without compensation.  Although the book was published in late 2013, late enough to include jokes about the hazardous haze in June of that year, there is no mention that construction workers had to continue working outside when the PSI was over 400 (hazardous).

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.45.02 PMNo Haze (pic of myself and a friend)

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.45.07 PMHaze PSI of 300+ (hazardous) taken by my husband from his work window

There is also no mention of how over 150 bus drivers went on strike in 2012.  Four drivers were jailed and then deported, 29 were deported without jail time, and 150 others were given notices by the police—most of them expatriate foreign workers from the People’s Republic of China.

For Gargiulo, expats aren’t maids, construction workers, or bus drivers.  They’re Wealthy, White, and Western (except for the occasional reference to Japanese, Koreans and Indians—the presumption is that they are white).  They have non-black hair.  Expat children go to international schools.  Expat husbands work all the time, and travel even more.

There is nothing the expat spouse likes less than having the working spouse out of town on the weekend. During the week, it’s fine, almost routine. Early dinners with the kids, late-night snacks in front of the TV, no fighting over the remote… but Sunday, that’s another story. (pg 11)

Let’s not joke about solo control of the remote, Jennifer.  Instead, let’s have an honest discussion about how isolating it can be to be the trailing spouse and the effect that can have on a relationship.  Expats have a higher than average divorce rate, and according to my husband’s company the trailing spouse is the most frequent reason an expat employee will leave Singapore.  We spouses (most often wives) are the ones who interact with Singapore the most—we grocery shop, we need to figure out how to get the kids to school, where to send them for a doctor’s appointment, and so forth.  We argue with the building management, with our agent to get whatever’s broken fixed, and more.  Our spouses go to work and come home.  It creates an odd, potentially new, power balance in a marriage, and it is one of the hardest parts of moving to a new country.

Expat spouses are the ones who interact with Singapore, and thus Singaporeans more than our working spouses (who often are in an office full of other expats.)  To Garguiulo, this is like interacting with an alien species.

Singaporeans are obsessed with school; “If you do meet a mom, she is very likely carrying a heavy textbook to brush up on her math before tutoring her child. If it is the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Exam) time of year, you won’t see her for weeks.” (pg 25) 

Singaporean English—legitimate dialect of English, just like American English–is mocked; “Had I not moved to Singapore, I might never have known that the word off can be used as a verb: “Would you like me to off the air con?” (p. 63) 

The customs are weird; “It’s only 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade outside… who wouldn’t want a refreshing cup of hot water?” (p. 74) 

Singaporeans are such a puzzle to Garguiulo, who wonders “Why there are so many different types of skin-whitening products at shops in Singapore is a complete mystery to me.…They can thank their kids’ exams for their unblemished skin.”  (p. 91)

As someone who doesn’t live in the expat bubble I’m frustrated by these characterizations.  If Gargiulo made friends with Singaporean moms instead of mocking them, she’d learn about the Singaporean school system.  The PSLE exam determines the rest of the child’s life–what secondary school they can get into, the likelihood of their doing well on O level exams (british system), what Junior College they are eligible for and what A levels they’re likely to have access to, and then what universities the child is eligible to attend.  If you flub the PSLE, there’s no fixing it.  Further, she talks about how some Singaporeans moved into a condo because of schools–yes, they did move there because of the rules about who gets priority to apply into a primary school and those rules are incredibly complex (something I’m dealing with this year).

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.47.01 PMRhi’s birthday celebration last year at her school.  She is one of only a few non Singaporean Chinese children.

It’s not that you shouldn’t point out cultural differences or share that you’re baffled by something.  But there’s a difference between doing that and belittling–and too frequently it feels like the latter, not the former.

Living in Singapore, and interacting with Singaporeans (when you can find them, apparently) have an effect our your children.  Sure you wanted them to have an experience and learn Mandarin, but then they cross that line and become too Singaporean.

“When someone asks the kids where they’re from, they answer Singapore” (pg 48),

The kids’ preference for rice over pasta. (pg 50)

The answer to “What sign are you?” is not Sagittarius. It’s Snake (pg 56). 

Rather than discuss the very real ambivalence and concern over whether you’re giving a child “enough” access to their home culture, Garguiulo jokes that they’ve been in Singapore too long because “When asked how they are in Italian, they answer in Chinese” (pg 56).

Raising a third culture kid is hard, so let’s talk about what makes it hard.  I struggle with my children’s identity-my elder will tell you “I’m a little bit Indian, a little bit American, and a little bit Singaporean,” which is a step in the right direction–when she was three she insisted she was Singaporean.

IMG_1882E at the Natural History Museum in NYC, an hour before I flubbed her intro to US History

I’ve barely introduced the idea of the US and American history to Elanor (5).  We went to the Museum of Natural History in NYC, and when walking through the “Plains Indians” exhibit, I tried to explain early colonization–and as a historian I’m not willing to lie about the realities of European/Native interaction.  We have also read age appropriate books about Martin Luther King for Martin Luther King Day.  Elanor’s takeaway from these two pieces of history is that White People are mean–which shows how far over her head my explanations went.  Yes, but….  It’s really hard to introduce her to American History and culture when we’re so divorced from it (and given that I’m not a particularly flag waving type to begin with).

It’s a really touchy subject with me when I get crap from other Americans about sending my kids to local schools because they won’t be “American.”  While I do have the fury of a thousand suns over that, it’s also true that I have some ambivalence and worry over it too.

Sure, I laughed at some of her observations and jokes.  But that doesn’t mean I think that they balanced out the racism and cheap stereotypes.  Being an expat is hard, and I prefer a far more honest and contemplative narrative.  Without serious content to balance the jokes, and a removal of the racism, this just isn’t my kind of book.  I wasn’t familiar with her blog going in–if I were, I probably would’ve passed on the book.