Archive for the '2012 Books' Category

“Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell

Saturday, July 14th, 2012


This summer, I decided to revisit the books of my youth, guided by the selections in Lizzie Skurnick’s Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. (Currently only $6 at Amazon!)

For Chapter 6, “Girls Gone Wild: Runaways, Left Behinds, and Ladies Living off the Fat of the Land,” which we’ll discuss here on Monday July 16, I read Scott O’Dell’s Newbery Award-winning Island of the Blue Dolphins.

Here’s what I remembered going in, besides “girl left behind” trope: a highly polished necklace with painstakingly drilled holes for stringing. Again and again on this re-reading odyssey, I’ve been surprised by what I remembered and just how much I’d forgotten. Why the necklace, and not the skirt made of cormorant feathers, or the taming of animals?

This is a spare narrative, and the main character, whose “secret” name is Karana, is not overtly romanticized or idealized. Instead, she overcomes difficulty and sorrow in practical ways, by working hard. Any of the many things she describes in the book–gathering abalone, making weapons, storing food for winter–would have most of us modern folks on our asses from the physical work within days, if not hours. And what must have been the monotony! I can only imagine the reaction of my children, who complain of boredom so much this summer that I’ve made it a word for the swear jar.

And yet, this glimpse into the past and a different life is exactly what makes the book so involving. I certainly had a starry moment or two of imagining living off the land, having an island to myself, though the thought of an island without books fills me with horror. But the work? The loneliness! The costs to Karana’s existence are presented matter-of-factly. There are interesting sub-themes about caring for animals, vegetarianism, and ecology. Ultimately, though, Karana’s ending and the reader’s ending of putting down the book bring are similar–they bring more relief than not in the return to other people and the comforts of civilization.

“Go Ask Alice” by Beatrice Sparks et al.

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012


I foolishly bought and re-read the supposedly true diary of a teen drug addict, Go Ask Alice, as part of the Summer of Shelf Discovery reading project. Here’s a representative sample, so you don’t have to read it, too. You’re welcome.

9/16 Yesterday I remember thinking I was the happiest person in the whole earth, in the whole galaxy, in all of God’s creation….Now it’s all smashed down upon my head and I wish I could just melt into the blaaa-ness of the universe and cease to exist

7/10 [after being dosed with LSD] It was fun! It was ecstatic! It was glorious! But I don’t think I’ll ever try it again

8/13 It’s all I can do to keep from crying

8/26 What a wonderful, beautiful, happy day!

9/7 Last night was the bitter end

9/27 Last night…I smoked pot and it was even greater than I expected!

10/18 I can’t believe I’ve sold to eleven and twelve year olds and even nine and ten year olds. What a disgrace I am to myself and my family and to everybody

11/23 one of the men passed me a joint and…I wanted to be ripped, smached, torn up as I had never wnated anything before. This was the scene, these were the swingers and I wanted to be part of it!

12/3 Last night was the worst night of my shitty, rotten, stinky, dreary fucked-up life

[lather, rinse repeat for the next 150ish pages]

Epilogue: The subject of this book died three weeks after her decision not to keep another diary.

My friend Amy at New Century Reading has nicely eviscerated this book, since she read it too for the Summer of Shelf Discovery reading bender. I can’t BELIEVE we were gullible enough to believe it was a true story, which it’s not. Wikipedia entry, Snopes.

A few notes:

1. Notice the word “subject” rather than “author” in the epilogue. Oops, slipped up there, diary fakers.

2. “I’ve been the digger here, but now when I face a girl it’s like facing a boy…Then I get sick and I just wanat anybody and I should be out doing my digging.” “Digging” was a movement in Haight-Ashbury, where she never went, and it was giving away stuff for free. Here it sounds like prostitution or scavenging.

3. The Alice of the title refers to the woman on drugs in the Jefferson Airplane song, as well as a girl the “narrator” meetings in the novel. It’s theorized that the author is “Carla” as from p. 113: ”

Big Ass makes me do it before he gives me the load….Little Jacon is yelling, “Mama, Daddy can’t come now. He’s humping Carla.”

I can’t believe I believed this (and Jay’s Journal, and Diary of Kristiane H, etc.) and I can’t believe I was gullible enough to read it again. JUST SAY NO! (to reading this book).

“Deenie” by Judy Blume

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012


You remember Deenie, right? The Judy Blume book the pretty girl who has scoliosis and has to get a brace? If you were a girl in the 60s/70s/80s (and if any of you were earlier or later than that, chime in) then you probably do. But do you remember this:

As soon as I got into bed I started touching myself. I have this special place and when I rub it I get a very nice feeling. I don’t know what it’s called or if anyone else has it but when I have trouble falling asleep, touching my special place helps a lot. (55)

I sure as heck didn’t. Maybe I didn’t get it and just didn’t notice when I was young, I thought. But later in the book, when Deenie frets about the scoliosis, she says:

I touched my special place practically every night. It was the only way I could fall asleep, and besides, it felt good. (82)

Re-reading this, I was amazed that I didn’t remember this part of the novel at all. Why hadn’t my friends and I been as OMG! over this as we had over Margaret and her friends bust-increasing exercises in Are You There God It’s Me, Margaret? or the guy’s erections in Then Again Maybe I Won’t?

Maybe it was just these two short passages, I thought, and I’d been oblivious. Yet it immediately becomes overt in the book. When her gym class is asked to submit anonymous questions as part of a monthly discussion, Deenie writes:

Do normal people touch their bodies before they go to sleep and it is all right to do that? (82)

Deenie’s gym teacher Mrs. Rappaport, the same one who identified her spine issue, asks them if they’ve heard otherwise. Several girls say yes. She asks if they know what it’s called, then they name it together: masturbation. She then assures them:

“Nobody ever went crazy from masturbating, but a lot of people make themselves sick from worrying about it.” (84)

This scene takes up a full three pages in my edition. It’s straightforward, not in coded language that I might have skated over if I didn’t get it.

The last mention is toward the end of the book:

Usually I take showers and get in and out as soon as possible. But the hot water was very relaxing and soon I began to enjoy it. I reached down and touched my special place with the washcloth. I rubbed and rubbed until I got that good feeling. (132)

I find it interesting how Blume chose to name the act but not the “special place” or the “good feeling.” She took care to name and break down the term “adolescent idiopathic scoliosis.” And I find it really interesting how many details I recalled about the book, like Deenie being named after Natalie Wood’s character from Splendor in the Grass, and cutting off her hair, but didn’t remember a significant sub-theme of the novel, especially one I think would have kids tearing the book out of one another’s hands to find out more.

I read Deenie for my summer reading bender, where I’m choosing titles out of the chapters of Lizzie Skurnick’s reading memoir, Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. (WHICH YOU SHOULD GO BUY NOW NOW NOW BECAUSE IT’S ONLY $6 AT AMAZON!) It’s one of the titles in Chapter 5, “You Heard It Here First: Very Afterschool Specials.” Perhaps the Problem in the novel, scoliosis, was so front and center that it eroded the female masturbation from memory.

“Don’t Hurt Laurie!” by Willo Davis Roberts

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012


I remember checking out Don’t Hurt Laurie! by Willo Davis Roberts from the Worthington, Ohio library, probably soon after it came out. It was probably recommended to me by a librarian in a similar scenario to the one narrator Laurie describes in the book, minus the child abuse in my case:

“My goodness, what happened to you?”

Laurie swallowed. She wondered what the lady would say if she replied, “My mother hit me with a butcher knife.” But of course she didn’t say anything like that. She knew it would only make things worse.

“I cut my hand and had to have stitches in it,” she said.

“My, that’s too bad.” The woman took Laurie’s card and began to check out the books. “We’ve got a new book here you might like. It’s about a little girl whose parents are being divorced. The girls your age say it’s very good. Would you like to take it?”

“No, thank you,” Laurie said politely, averting her eyes from the cover. “I have all I can read in two weeks, I think.”

That wasn’t true at all. She could read twice as many books as she was taking out, without half trying. But she didn’t like books aboutkids and their problems with div orcing parents or alcoholic fathers or extreme poverty or troubles, troubles, troubles. She had enough problems of her own, and she didn’t want to think about anyone else’s, even in a pretend world where you knew everything was goign to turn out all right in the end.

What she liked were fun books, where it was not only all right at the end, but all the way through the book. (p. 7-8)

Reading this book at 44 rather than at 9 years old makes a big difference. I still was horrified at the brutality of Laurie’s mother. But I also cringed at the overly determined story, e.g., Laurie wishes her mother would die, then she gets hit by a car though doesn’t die.

I read this as part of my summer reading bender, Summer of Shelf Discovery. Lizzie Skurnick, in Chapter 5: “You Heard It Here First: Very Afterschool Specials,” writes about the pull of these Problem-with-a-capital-P novels:

It is part of the perverse logic of childhood that, as far as the fictional world goes, the greater the horror of the story, the greater the greedy reading glee…it goes without saying that a story that can tell us an entirely new horrible things we’ve never heard has unparalleled possibilities for enjoyment. (193)

What does it say that in 2012 books about child abuse, as well as after-school specials, very special episodes of television shows, and Lifetime movies, has become something of a cliche? That’s potentially a benefit. No one now would be unaware or ignore the symptoms Laurie experiences. Skurnick reminds us, too, that

in its day, both the revelations of the problem at all–to say nothing of its features–were largely unknown by the public, including young readers. (205)

Nonetheless, this book seems more a relic from a time capsule than something that continues to resonate, especially in its willingness to empathize with the mother:

“Her own mother mistreated her very badly, Laurie, and somehow that’s why she’s the way she is. She told the doctor some really terrible things that happened to her as a child…maybe when she gets that all out of her system, she won’t have to hurt you anymore.” (163)

Yes, children today still suffer at the hands of authority figures. And yet, this book seemed more like a careful description of what kids, teachers and health workers should notice, rather than a story of a complex character. It was more about the Problem than about Laurie.

“Bridge to Terabithia” by Katherine Paterson

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

Another entry in my summer reading bender, Summer of Shelf Discovery.

Chapter 4 of Lizzie Skurnick’s reading memoir, Shelf Discovery, is “Read ‘Em and Weep” about books we read as kids that made us cry. Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved was my first choice, and her Bridge to Terabithia was my second.

What I was surprised to find on this re-reading: IT’S NOT BEES! (”You never can tell about bees,” said Winnie the Pooh.) I’d thought the reason for the Tragedy in this book was bees. Nope. That’s A Taste of Blackberries, and the movie My Girl. No, the child death happens for another reason entirely. I paused in my reading of the book where the accident is announced. I thought this might have been like cutting off a sneeze, so I wouldn’t cry. Nope. As with Jacob Have I Loved, it was a slow accumulation of sadnesses at the end that had me leaking tears for many pages.

“Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself” by Judy Blume

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

I skipped back to a book from Chapter 1 of Lizzie Skurnick’s reading memoir Shelf Discovery, on memorable heroines, to re-read Judy Blume’s Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. In Week 1 of the Summer Shelf Discovery reading bender, several readers had commented on how enjoyable it was, and one reader noted a Blume character pattern of difficult mom/nice dad, which I can confirm in this book.

Sally is, indeed, a terrific heroine, with her imaginative stories, her incessant curiosity (asking her parents exactly WHAT kind of disease she could catch in a bath house) and using words and phrases she doesn’t know, like ‘bordello’ and ‘love and other indoor sports’. In post-WWII New Jersey, Sally’s dentist father rents the family a place in Florida. Sally’s older brother has been sick, so the rest of the family moves south for the winter: Sally, her mother, brother and grandmother nicknamed Ma Fanny. Sally has to adjust to a new school, new friends, and frenemies, who often inhabit Blume novels. She copes by telling herself stories, one of which is how a strange neighbor, Mr. Zavodsky, is really Hitler in disguise. ,

The book is often laugh-out-loud funny, and is entertaining in the lack of OVERT THEME other Blume books have. (Margaret: periods and religion; Blubber: bullies and friendship; Deenie: scoliosis; etc.) Set in the 1940’s, it’s supposed to be Blume’s most autobiographical book. Of the ones I’ve re-read on my summer reading bender, this is the Blume I’ve enjoyed best by far, perhaps because it’s about a complex, engaging character rather than a less-interesting every-kid dealing with a particular issue.

“Jacob Have I Loved” by Katherine Paterson

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

As part of my summer reading bender Summer of Shelf Discovery, Chapter 4 of Lizzie Skurnick’s reading memoir, Shelf Discovery, is “Read ‘Em and Weep: Tearing Up the Pages” about the books we read (and re-read) that made us cry. The first book of the chapter and the first one I chose to re-read was Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson, a book which has followed me through all my moves.

Written from an adult perspective looking back on childhood, it’s narrated by Louise, the elder of twins who resented her younger, prettier, musically talented twin. There was a part in the middle about an inappropriate crush that I’d utterly forgotten. As a girl, I identified fiercely with Louise, and found myself right back with my younger self as I read this, which reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Joan Didion, from “On Keeping a Notebook”

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.

This book is a perfect example of a characters who DOESN’T forget. It’s complicated, sweet, and sad without being a message or a SAD EVENT novel. I loved it all over again.

“Daughters of Eve” by Lois Duncan

Monday, July 2nd, 2012


Somehow I never read Lois Duncan’s Daughters of Eve back in the day. Its 70’s feminism is a fascinating compare/contrast with Beverly Cleary’s idyllic 60’s pre-Vietnam Sister of the Bride. I read it out of Chapter 3, “Danger Girls” from Lizzie Skurnick’s Shelf Discovery.

With Daughters of Eve, some things I saw coming, some things I didn’t. It reminded me of the after-school special The Wave, with its charismatic leader and students led down problematic paths. (Book version of The Wave here.)

Perhaps it was me, but I thought that it did a decent job of showing that bad people can represent decent causes and undermine them, though I think it can also be read as an indictment of 70’s feminism/feminists.

The post script was sad and thought provoking. I wondered what happened to other of the characters, but should probably go back and make those up myself, since I complained of how Raskin did that in The Westing Game.

A note of caution: Many of the Duncan novels were recently “updated” by sprinkling them with modern devices like cell phones and such in order to market them in admittedly attractive new editions. You can read takes on these updates from Amy at New Century Reading and M at Mental Multivitamin. I recommend seeking out the originals. Tech moves so fast these days that the updates are probably already outdated. While I heartily endorse keeping these books in print and am thrilled that a new generation is finding them (though I did discourage my nearly 9yo son from sniffing around them, which he did all the more intently when I tried to shoo him off; should I have done this? I was reading them when I was 9, I think.) I think readers can engage just fine with books set at a certain point in time. If Starring Sally J and Jacob Have I Loved are set in the 40’s, why not the Duncans set in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s?

“The Grounding of Group 6″ by Julian Thompson

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

Julian Thompson’s The Grounding of Group 6 was from Chapter 3, Danger Girls of Lizzie Skurnicks Shelf Discovery, part of the Summer of Shelf Discovery reading adventure.

In Group 6, five kids and an adult counselor find themselves on the wrong end of some plans by mean parents and nasty, caricatured by amusing, school teachers. They hide in the woods, live off the land, and amazingly, the 3 girls and 3 guys end up pairing up and getting all hot and bothered. There are several mentions of birth control here, which I appreciated, acknowledging teen hormones but not romanticizing them.

I would have found this book cathartic as a teen, with its persecuted-by-adults theme, but as an actual adult, I found it at times pretty silly. Enjoyable enough, but as a relic, not as an enduring classic.

Summer of “Shelf Discovery” Ch. 4: Read ‘Em and Weep

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

Sorry that this post is late but welcome to week four of the Summer of Shelf Discovery reading project (project sounds so stiff. Adventure? Diversion? Vacation? Book Bender?) in which we a chapter of Lizzie Skurnick’s book memoir Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading, and talking about the books she includes in each chapter.

Chapter 4 is “Read ‘Em and Weep: Tearing Up the Pages,” on the books that made us cry. Like the Kids-in-Danger trope of chapter 3, the Sad Book trope got me thinking: what is it that drew us to these books? What buttons did they push that were so alluring that we returned to these books again and again, knowing they made us sad? Is it like scratching a mosquito bite, or poking at a sore spot? Why did we watch The Champ and Terms of Endearment over and over? How did Lurlene McDaniel build a franchise on Dying Girl books?

For this week, I re-read Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved. I marveled, though, that I couldn’t remember why it had made me cry. After reading, though, it makes sense. The book made me cry because it was complicated, and it didn’t have easy lessons, and because the narrator, Sara Louise, unkindly nicknamed Wheeze by her prettier more talented twin Caroline, struggled with ugly and awkward emotions and no lessons were spelled out. There wasn’t AN EVENT, as there was in books like Bridge to Terabithia, A Taste of Blackberries, A Summer to Die, et al.

As the older, good-grade getting sister of a younger, cuter, more attention-earning sister, I had a fierce love and identification with Louise. I knew what those ugly emotions felt like. I’d enacted some of those nasty behaviors, like telling my sister she was adopted (absurd if you see our family together) and that on family trips she should stay awake, as Mom and Dad didn’t love her as much, and the rest of us just might leave her in the middle of the night. (Some of this might be apocryphal, but it’s entered into family lore as Truth, so I’ve stopped trying to defend myself.)

So, what weepies did you read as a girl/teen, and why do you think we were drawn to them, often over and over? What are the modern weepies? John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars? Wonder by Palacio?

Hey, if you’re reading along, remember to comment, as Lizzie Skurnick has a signed copy and maybe a prize pack for one of you co-readers. And I HIGHLY recommend friending Lizzie on FB, to see many more covers and join the old-book lovers club.

“The Westing Game” by Ellen Raskin

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

I’m not sure when I first read Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game (before it won the Newbery Medal?), but I do know it was in the regular re-reading rotation for years. I’ve never learned to play chess, one of the central metaphors of the book. (My husband has tried to teach me several times, and my 6yo once, but it never sticks.) But it still was not necessary for me to enjoy this book, which I did yet again, as a selection from Chapter 3: “Danger Girls,” of Lizzie Skurnick’s reading memoir, Shelf Discovery, which a bunch of us are reading this summer (or reading along with) here at Girl Detective.

I smiled when I re-encountered Turtle Wexler, she of the flying braid and shin kicks. I was a shin kicker myself, back in 3rd and 4th grade, so I empathized with Turtle’s method of anger management, or lack thereof. I wonder if I was as horrified, as a child, by the flagrant disregard her mother had for her, as I was on this read. All of the adults in the book are interestingly flawed and damaged, but Grace’s active neglect of Turtle and overt favoritism to her elder knocked the air out of me. This did make it all the easier to cheer for her as she and the other fifteen heirs are challenged to discover who killed Sam Westing. The characters are given clues and partners, but the author gives the reader clues as well. We know when the characters are lying or telling the truth, and we also know, because we’re told up front, that one of them is a bookie, one a bomber, one a thief and one a mistake. I remembered who the bomber was, but not the thief or the mistake. Those were joys to re-discover on this reading.

It’s a marvelous puzzle, and I didn’t figure out the ending the first time I read it. Even though I remember “the solution” it’s such a joy to travel the path to get to it that I never mind.

A few things stuck out to me on this read, though, in addition to the astonishing neglect and favoritism of Turtle’s mom:

1. Mr. Hoo is a real jerk.

2. Many, perhaps most, of the characters are hastily sketched, as it’s a short book in which plot takes precedence.

3. Raskin chose to draw out the endings for all our characters, which reminds me of how the Harry Potter series ends. What happened to the characters wasn’t left to the readers’ imaginations. I like the fates she gave them, but I think leaving endings more oblique gives more credit to the reader.

Still, a thumping good read, and one I will encourage my boys to dive into.

“Blubber” by Judy Blume

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

Revisiting Judy Blume’s Blubber, about friendship and bullying, was more than a little strange. I recalled a few things about the book: one, that it wasn’t written from the Point of View (POV) of the bullied fat girl of the title, and two, to flense is to strip the blubber off a whale carcass, and three, there was a scene in which the main characters family had to scrimp to buy her a pair of huarache sandals that then the bullied girl got too, which the original girl noticed when the bullied girl walks to the front of the class and the new huaraches squeak.

So, imagine my surprise to find no huarache scene at all. Someone on the Shelf Discovery page at Facebook suggests is was in a book called Kitty in the Middle by Judy Delton that I don’t remember reading at all.

The other two memories were correct, though. The book is written from the POV of Jill, who goes along, mostly unquestioningly, with Queen Bee Wendy and her henchgirl Caroline, with the bullying of poor Linda Fischer, who has a potato-shaped head, a grey tooth, and is overweight. Jill is best friends with Tracy Wu, who was previously bullied for being Chinese, but stood up to her tormentors. Linda, however, caves immediately.

The book is complicated, in that it has no easy answers, and Jill doesn’t get a lot of insight by the end. In other words, it’s probably very close to real life. It was painful to read, and to be reminded of those vicious middle school days, when getting kicked out of a group was painful, yet didn’t prevent me from participating in kicking someone else out. I was guilty of the sins of Jill. The friends shift except for Jill and Tracy, and this, too, I found true to life.

The lack of overt lesson about bullying is troubling to me, as a parent, yet as a writer, I admire how Blume has made a complicated book. I agree with Jennifer Weiner’s essay in Shelf Discovery about it, though, that I don’t think Blume had a lot of sympathy for Linda. She is portrayed as no more sympathetic than the Queen Bee Wendy, in my opinion.

“Sister of the Bride” by Beverly Cleary

Thursday, June 21st, 2012


For Chapter 2 of the Summer of Shelf Discovery, I found Beverly Cleary’s