The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler

Reasons why The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things could get you into trouble if you try using it for 7th grade book clubs:

  1. The narrator is seeing this guy who is trying to get to second base with her.
  2. The narrator kind of wants him to get to second base.
  3. He gets there.
  4. The narrator has serious problems with her mother.
  5. The narrator goes to Seattle against her mother’s wishes.
  6. While in Seattle the narrator and her best friend get piercings.
  7. One is a tongue piercing.
  8. Several girls at the narrator’s school have serious eating disorders.
  9. She hears one of them in an adjoining bathroom stall.
  10. The narrator’s best friend has a slight crush on a boy who turns out to be gay.
  11. The narrator’s visits her brother’s dorm where he has a keg of beer for a ‘sluts and virgins’ party.
  12. The narrator’s brother is accused of date rape.
  13. He’s guilty.
  14. The narrator discusses masturbation.
  15. Characters in the book listen to feminist leaning musicians and read banned books.

Reason’ why I loved The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things so much I almost wish I taught high school where it would be totally appropriate to use with book clubs:

  1. The narrator is a wonderful person.
  2. The narrator has a weight problem.
  3. She’s strong enough to deal with her problem; she just doesn’t know it yet.
  4. She has a winning sense of humor, really. I’m not just saying that because she’s overweight.
  5. She makes several lists. I like lists.
  6. She’s brave enough to get a piercing. I once went to a piercing parlor with a friend who got one but I was too chicken. No tattoos on me either, but my brother has several.
  7. The narrator is brave enough to face the truth about her brother and still keep him in the family.
  8. The author is brave enough to make him guilty. I thought it would all turn out to be a misunderstanding. A lesser writer would have taken that route.
  9. While the narrator’s parents are far from perfect, the author gives the novel two other adults who actually know more than the teenage narrator does. How often does that happen these days.
  10. The narrator still lives with both of her parents.  They’re all trying to work things out.

 

I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2010.  Since then, I’ve stopped reading quite so much Y.A.  Things may have changed within the genre over the years so I’m not sure if I would update any of the items I’ve listed above.  Maybe.

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Caucasia by Danzy Senna

 It’s Danzy Senna week here at James Reads Books.  I’ve been migrating my old reviews from Ready When You Are, C.B. for about a year now.  After posting one about Danzy Senna’s Symptomatic yesterday, I thought why not do the rest today.  I’ve read only one other novel by her, but I remember loving it as much as I did Symptomatic.   So here is my review of Caucasia.

I want to say that Danzy Senna writes about the margins of race.  Does that convey what I’m thinking?  Towards the end of her novel, Caucasia, several characters discuss whether or not race really exists.  Is it something real, or just something society has constructed?

This question is vitally important to Birdie Lee, the narrator of Danzy Senna’s novel Caucasia.  Birdie’s mother is white, the daughter of Boston Brahmans, born to wealth and privilege.  Her father is black, an academic and radical who teaches at Harvard.  Birdie looks white like her mother.  Her older sister, Cole, looks black like her father.

While Birdie is favored by their rich white grandmother who only refers to Cole as your sister, Cole is favored by their father and by many of their black family and friends.  The novel is set during the fading years of the 1960’s and 70’s Black Power movement which both of Birdie’s parents are heavily involved in.  They send their daughters to an all black school with a Pan-African curriculum.   In spite of her nearly white skin, Birdie is basically raised as a black girl.

When her mother goes into hiding to escape the F.B.I. who want her for her involvement with violent radical groups she takes Birdie along.  Her father keeps Cole.   Years go by and Birdie never hears from either.  Meanwhile, her mother gives her a new identity,  as a Jewish girl named Jesse.  The two settle down in rural New Hampshire where Birdie finds a kind of normalcy attending the local public schools and making friends with the white girls she meets there.

Because they think she is white, the people she meets, even her close friends, feel free to openly be their racist selves.  Since she believes her mother will be in danger if anyone ever finds out who she really is, Birdie must keep quite while her classmates make fun of the only black girl in the school and while her mother’s boyfriend makes a casual remark unaware of how racist he is.

But none of this is why I like Caucasia so much.  At its heart Caucasia is a book about family.  What makes the first half work so well is the wonderful relationship between Birdie and her sister Cole.  The two are fully drawn, complex believable characters, but there is a fantastic element to them, something kind of magic.  Big sisters protect little ones, little sisters look up to big ones, but these two have a secret language.  Their bond goes much deeper than blood, certainly deeper than skin color.

Once Birdie and her mother go underground together, the novel becomes a mother/daughter story.  This bond is certainly deep, but it’s not as wonderful.  Birdie’s mother is not someone who can be completely trusted.  We never know what she did, in fact we soon begin to suspect that the only F.B.I. agents chasing her may be in her head.  Birdie loves her, as any child loves her mother, but her love includes a healthy dose of hate.  Did her mother only take her along because she couldn’t go into hiding with a black daughter?  Was Birdie her second choice?  The second half of the novel is a portrait of this mother/daughter pairing.   I was reminded of Mona Simpson’s wonderful novel Anywhere but Here.  Like that novel, I found reading Caucasia to be like spending time with friends.  My favorite kind of character driven novel.

I picked Caucasia for my book club to read.  I’ve yet to hear from any of them about what they think.  I hope they all liked it, but even if they all turn against me and tell me they hated it, I’ll stand behind my choice.  I think it’s a wonderful book.

I’m afraid that in the five years since I first ran this review I have forgotten what my book club thought of it.  I think they all liked it and that a few of them admired it as much as I did.  I’m excited to say that I’ll be going to the AWP Conference in Lost Angeles this spring and that Mona Simpson is one of the featured speakers there.  I’ll have to read her latest book, and I think I should look for more by Danzy Senna, too.  Re-reading these two reviews has made me hungry for more.

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Symptomatic by Danzy Senna

Symptomatic by Danzy Senna reminded me so much of Notes on a Scandal that I started to wonder which story influenced the other. Symptomatic predates the movie but who knows how source material can influence an artist. (See Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields for a book that deals with just this issue.)

Symptomatic is the story of a young woman, on a writing fellowship and alone in New York for the first time, who forms an unusual friendship with an older colleague, Greta. Greta becomes more possessive and controlling as the novel progresses, eventually forcing the narrator to break off the friendship. Sounds a lot like Notes on a Scandal so far. The “scandal” in Symptomatic if there is one, is that both the narrator and Greta are of mixed race and can pass as either black or white depending on how they choose to dress and to act. The black people they meet assume they are black and the white people they meet assume they are white. The narrator is not exactly sure where she fits in or where she wants to fit in and her friendship with Greta does not make the situation any easier, though Greta sees her as a kindred spirit, someone who knows what she is going through.

Symptomatic takes on the tone of a psychological thriller early on. There is clearly something wrong with Greta from the beginning, but the narrator tries to convince herself and her readers that things are okay. The events of the novel, both those Greta reacts to and those she initiates, lead us to conclude that Greta is unbalanced well before the narrator finally ends their friendship. What happens in the end, seems to come out of left field to me, but you can decide for yourself. Overall, I found the issues of identity to be very interesting, not ones I had ever considered before, and the psychological suspense to be fairly gripping.

So even with an ending that was a little too Fatal Attraction for my taste, I’m giving Symptomatic by Danzy Senna four out of five stars.

 

After first publishing this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2008, I became something of a champion of Danzy Senna.  If you haven’t read anything by her, you should give her a try.  Caucausia, the other one of her books I reviewed, is also excellent.  I’m still surprised to see that I only gave this one four stars.  It’s a book that stayed with me for a very long time, as have Ms. Senna’s other novels.  She’s a very haunting writer.  You won’t see the world in quite the same way after you’ve read her.  That’s my definition of a great book.

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A Brave Vessel by Hobson Woodward

It turns out Shakespeare’s The Tempest was based on a true story.  Who knew?

Shakespeare wrote The Tempest at the end of his career– some say it contains his farewell to the theatre in one of Prospero’s speeches.  The year was 1609 and England’s Jamestown colony was the media sensation of the day.  Things had not gone well for England’s only New World colony.  London was full of satirical accounts, making fun of the on-going failure that was Jamestown.  This made it difficult for those running the colony to find investors and colonists.  One prospective colonist was William Strachey, a respectable gentleman who wanted to be a writer like Shakespeare.  Strachey hoped that by joining the colony he could become a chronicler of it and thereby make a name for himself as a writer.

It did not go well.  A few days from Jamestown’s shore, the expedition  ran into a hurricane.  The Sea Venture, the fleet’s flagship which housed Strachey and over 100 other passengers, survived the storm but did not make it to the Virginia coast.  The ship came aground on the shores of Bermuda, at that time an unihabited island claimed by Spain.  Everyone onboard survived the storm.  Previous explorers had stocked the island with pigs, hoping to make it a regular food stop for future use, so there was plenty of meat for the castaways along with abundant fresh water and various fruits.

Strachey did keep an account of what happened to the castaways on Bermuda.  Eventually they built a ship and finished the voyage to Virginia where they joined the starving Jamestown colony arriving just in-time with a boat full of fresh pork.  Strachey sent detailed letters about the shipwreck and life in the colony to a mysterious woman rumored to be his benefactor.  He hoped she would publish them and later support his poetry as she had done for several other writers.  While she did not publish the letters they were widely circulated and appear to have come to the attention of William Shakespeare who may have based much of the action of his new play The Tempest on them.

Mr. Woodward presents impressive textual evidence to support this theory.  For example there are many striking similarities between the  wreck of The Sea Venture as described in William Strachey’s letters and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  However, while it is highly probable that Shakespeare was influenced by the letters, there is no smoking gun, nothing that forces the reader to accept Mr. Woodward’s evidence as convincing.  Reasonable doubt remains.

That said, A Brave Vessel is both an interesting and entertaining book.  If you’ve ever dreamed of being marooned on an island paradise, it may open your eyes some.  If you’re a fan of Shakespeare’s, there is much enlightenment regarding the origins of his plays and their production in A Brave Vessel.  I like the idea that Prospero may be based on fact.  He’s long been one of my favorite characters in Shakespeare.  I think maybe because he liked books so much.  After all, his library was one thing he made sure to save from the shipwreck that marooned him and his daughter.  The only thing Prospero valued as much as the life of his child was his books.

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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

pride and prejudiceIn just a few hours, Roof Beam Readers Austen in August Reading Challenge will come to an end.  I’m very pleased to say I made it to the last page of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice late last night.  I’ll have this review posted before sunset today, so I make it under the deadline.

Huzzah.

This  is my third, maybe my fourth, time reading Pride and Prejudice.  It’s one of those books most of us have read, or at least were supposed to have read, at some point in our schooling.  I’m going to assume that you’ve all read it or seen one of the many dramatizations and that I don’t need to go over the basics.  Five sisters in want of husbands.  Various young men with money in want of wives.  Hijinks ensue.

While I have read Austen before, all but Northanger Abbey, it’s been a while.  I had forgotten how funny she is, deliciously funny.  She has a wit that can cut in a delightful way; one I wish I had.  She knows how to create characters you love and characters you love to hate.  Mr. Wickham, Mr. Collins, Bingley’s sisters, the dreaded Lady Catherine de Bourgh, are all perfectly hateful in just the right way.  I loved every minute they spent on the page, especially those when Elizabeth was insulting them, usually in such a perfect fashion that they didn’t even know they were being insulted.

It was great fun.

But, a strange thing happened at the beginning of volume three.  Up until then Elizabeth had been a very strong character, one of the strongest young women in fiction. Self-aware, self-assured, she didn’t need anyone, certainly not a man, to validate her in any fashion.  Maybe her father a little, but not even him much.  Then at the end of volume three she realizes she has been wrong about Mr. Darcy.

Somehow, this transformed her into what I found to be a bit simpering.  She’s suddenly completely defferential to Mr. Darcy, when before she had stood up to him on nearly every meeting.  I know that she feels bad for misreading Darcy, and she should, but it began to look like the “love of a good man” was going to transform her into a “good woman” at last for a while there, a bit like The Taming of the Shrew.

What saved her character, and for me the book, was her fateful meeting with Lady Catherine, Mr. Darcy’s aunt.  Lady Catherine takes Elizabeth in hand, and during a private walk through the family garden tries to convince her that she is not a suitable match for Mr. Darcy.  Her family is too prone to scandal, she herself does not like him, he has been promised to another girl since they were both babies, her parents have a low social status, her sisters are not respectable enough, blah, blah, blah.

Elizabeth will have none of it.  Lady Catherine does not know that in Elizabeth Bennet she has met her match.  The old Elizabeth was back, claws bared, ready to fight.  She returns every one of Lady Catherine’s insults and wins the day.

Jane Austen–I really just should have trusted her all along; there’s no way she would let me down.

This book counts as book number 16 in the 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge.  I know that school has started back, but summer is not officially over yet, and it’s certainly hot enough to still count as summer.  Four more to go.

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