Book Review: Knocked Out by My Nunga-Nungas

My breasts are making me a mockery of a sham.  They are like two sticky-out beacons attracting all the sadsacks in the universe.

Knocked Out by My Nunga-NungasAfter reading two books about World War II, I decided I needed something silly and fun to read, so when I saw Knocked Out by My Nunga-Nungas, the third book in the Georgia Nicolson series by Louise Rennison, at the library I picked it up.  I’ll admit that I read the first two books years ago but got annoyed by Georgia and never bothered to read any of the others.  But my daughter and I watched Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging the other weekend, and it definitely charmed me, so I decided to give book three a try.

What I Liked

– As a friend of mine pointed out, the voice is pitch perfect.  Georgia sounds exactly like a teenager who is concerned with teenager things.  By which I mean, authentic teen voice without the hint of Trying Too Hard.  Plus, since I saw the movie, I heard movie Georgia narrating it and that made it even more fun.

– Lots and lots of funny moments.

– I like all of the parts with her little sister doing toddlery things.  Because why do they need to bring every toy they own along wherever they go?  Also, those parts are always kind of sweet.

– I like that the book is just for fun.  Because sometimes you need that.  From Louise Rennison’s site:

I wrote the book to make myself laugh. I always wrote what I remembered making me laugh when I was that age. I didn’t attempt to teach.

– I liked the direction the book takes with Robbie (aka the Sex God).

– I loved Georgia comparing herself to a red-bottomed baboon.  All of those bits made me laugh.

What I Didn’t Like

– The reason I stopped reading after the second book is that Georgia started to annoy me.  A lot.  That did not change with this book.  She is really annoying in this one as well.  There is self-absorbed and silly, which is fine, but Georgia really pushes the line for me.

– Georgia is still mean to Jas.  But.  I figured out that they are both equally self-absorbed, so Jas was probably thinking the same mean things about Georgia, so that made it better.  Also, best friends can be infuriating.

– At the beginning of the book, Georgia gets groped by this guy.  When she calls Jas to complain, Jas basically accuses Georgia of doing something to make the boy grope her.  Not only that, but she says the equivalent of “No one was there but you and this has happened before.  Are you sure you’re not doing something to make boys grope you?”   And Georgia is mad about it, but briefly and it totally goes unchecked/unargued.  THAT IS IRRESPONSIBLE.  And I don’t care if Rennison wants to teach or not, accusing a girl of “asking for it” without challenging it is NOT ON.  Oh, it made me so mad.

– I think, after reading Anne Frank and Summer of My German Soldier, that Georgia was a mite too shallow.

In conclusion:  I should’ve read something by Meg Cabot instead.

YA challenge:  6/75

Book Review: The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition

Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me.  Not only because I’ve never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl.

Oh, Anne Frank.  If only you knew!  Although, you did kind of know there, didn’t you?  Because I read The Diary of a Young Girl:  The Definitive Edition by Anne Frank (edited by her dad, Otto H. Frank, and Mirjam Pressler), and it’s based on both of Anne’s diaries.  The foreword of the book explains that the first diary was written for herself, and the second was revised and edited in response to a radio broadcast wherein Gerrit Bolkestein said he hoped to collect eyewitness accounts from Dutch people under German occupation, and he specifically mentioned letters and diaries.  So Anne planned to have her diary published as part of that account.

I really don’t know what to say about the book.  I read it for the Women Unbound challenge because it’s a memoir that I haven’t read yet (I’ve seen bits of the movie and read some excerpts).  And, I’ll be honest.  Part of the reason I wanted to read it is The Freedom Writers movie.  I wanted to know why it had such an impact on the kids Erin Gruwell worked with.  And I get it now.  I do.

Because Anne is just a girl.  A girl who fights with her mom and feels frustrated by the perceived favoritism of her sister and likes boys and is curious about sex and has ideas and feels deeply and thinks deeply.  And all of that is compounded by the horrors of war, by the fact that she can never escape her parents and the suffocating feelings she gets being around them all the time.  She feels ganged up on and misunderstood and cries a lot and fights a lot and…Anne is just a teenager.  Who, as my daughter said, had a really hard life.

Memories mean more to me than dresses.

The book starts when Anne is thirteen and ends when she is fifteen.  As the book goes on, she becomes less of a petty self-involved teenager and more of a thoughtful young woman–which is to be expected.  In the beginning it’s all, “Nobody understands me!  Nobody listens to me!” but by the end, Anne has a handle on what she adds to these situations.  This clarity probably would’ve come much later had she not been, essentially, imprisoned in the Secret Annex, but because she has nothing to do but think and consider her actions, she has that depth of thought and feeling at fourteen.  (It took me until I was in my twenties to even think that way.)

I think the unfairness of the story really resonates.  I went into the book knowing Anne would die, which made it hard to read at times.  I found myself thinking how unfair it was, and how I wished she would survive. And while it’s good that Anne personalizes the experience for the reader because we’re attached to her, it also made me stop and remember that Anne’s story doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  She is one of millions of Jews who were unfairly and systematically murdered to further racist ideology.  And it makes me sick to think of it.

I love that Anne plans for the future, even as it makes the book even more devastating to read.  That she and her sister focus on education, so that when the war is over, they can pick up where they left off, go back to school, and become productive members of society.  I love that Anne longs for school, not only for the book learning but because she realizes it provides a much needed break from her family.

I found all of the quarrels that broke out in the Annex fascinating.  Not because they were fun to read about or anything, but because it was so clear that the fighting was so petty and always about control.  Well, not always.  Sometimes there were very real things to be upset about, like the arguments over food.  But others were so ridiculous and Anne would point out how they were ridiculous, and it was the type of thing that could probably be blown over if they were living in ordinary times, but they weren’t in ordinary times.  They were trapped in a house, terrified for their lives.

I really liked that Anne explained everything that I wondered about (bathroom schedules) and things I wouldn’t even think about.  Her descriptions of the bombings, of the terror they lived in was so real and palpable.  I liked when she made fun of how scared they were because it was clear that if they couldn’t laugh about it sometimes, they would surely die from the tension.  I liked knowing the bathroom schedules because I wondered how they worked that out, but I hated when the toilet would break or they couldn’t flush the toilet for fear of being overheard.  And usually when that happened it was because they were terrified, so everyone’s stomach was a mess.

A good hearty laugh would help more than ten valerian drops, but we’ve almost forgotten how to laugh.  Sometimes I’m afraid my face is going to sag with all this sorrow and that my mouth is going to permanently droop at the corners.

The friendship/romance with Peter was something I thought was just in the movie (for Hollywood tension, you see), but no, the two were drawn to each other.  And why wouldn’t they be?  Anne points out that she would’ve sought out Peter’s company if he were a girl because she longed so much for a friend.  But Anne is also aware of her own (sexual) power.

And she has her own ideas about sex.  She is all for comprehensive sex education–from parents.  The danger of learning about sex is not the facts of life, but getting information from your classmates who don’t understand anything.  She thinks parents are scared to talk about sex with their kids because “purity is a bunch of nonsense.”  She thinks it’s okay if a man has experience before he gets married, and she also knows that she wants more for her life than being an “ordinary housewife.”  Anne is, in short, a budding feminist:

One of the many questions that have often bothered me is why women have been, and still are, thought to be so inferior to men.  It’s easy to say it’s unfair, but that’s not enough for me; I’d really like to know the reason for this great injustice!

…but how many people look upon women too as soldiers? […] in childbirth alone, women commonly suffer more pain, illness and misery than any war hero ever does.  And what’s her reward for enduring all that pain?  She gets pushed aside when she’s disfigured by birth, her children soon leave, her beauty is gone.  Women, who struggle and suffer pain to ensure the continuation of the human race, make much tougher and more courageous soldiers than all those big-mouthed freedom-fighting heroes put together! […] I don’t mean to imply that women should stop having children…What I condemn are our system of values and the men who don’t acknowledge how great, difficult, but ultimately beautiful women’s share in society is.

Ultimately, though, Anne is relatable.  She wants to be a writer and a good person.  She wants a better life.  And she wants people to stop being so stupid.

To be honest, I can’t imagine how anyone could say “I’m weak” and then stay that way.  If you know that about yourself, why not fight it, why not develop your character?

I have often thought the very same thing!  Oh Anne.

My favorite bit in the book comes near the end when Bep, one of the women helping to hide them, gets engaged, and Anne talks about how it is a Bad Idea.  Because Bep wants to get ahead in the world, but Bertus is holding her back.  Sound familiar?  Then there are the arguments about the proper way to raise a child and how parents are stupid and boring and grown ups are lame and everything you’ve probably ever thought when you were 13, 14, or 15.

I was reading this at the same time as Summer of My German Soldier and what struck me most is that both are, ultimately, about acts of kindness and how they can change your life.  Anne and her family get two extra years, even if they are in hiding.  They are as safe as they can be in a country filled with warmongers who hate them.  And it’s all because of the kindness of the people hiding them.

That’s something we should never forget; while others display their heroism in battle or against the Germans, our helpers prove theirs every day by their good spirits and affection.

Hiding Anne and her family is an act of heroism.  And an act of defiance.  These people are putting their lives on the line to help keep Anne and her family safe for as long as they possibly can.

But in the end, Anne dies.  Everyone hiding with her dies.  Except her father, who gets her diaries from the secretary who helped hide them, and decides to publish her diary–first heavily censored/edited and later in full.  The great tragedy is that Anne, Margot, Peter, Anne’s mom all die shortly before liberation.  And Anne and Margot are dumped in a mass grave.  She doesn’t make it.  But like I said, she’s one of millions.  Millions.  I’m just glad her dad was able and willing to share her story with the world.

I sometimes wonder if anyone will ever understand what I mean, if anyone will ever overlook my ingratitude and not worry about whether or not I’m Jewish and merely see me as a teenager…

Oh, it’s sad, very sad that the old adage has been confirmed for the umpteenth time:  “What one Christian does is his own responsibility, what one Jew does reflects on all Jews.”

One day this terrible war will be over.  The time will come when we’ll be people again and not just Jews!

Women Unbound challenge:  2/8; YA Reading Challenge:  5/75

Book Review: Summer of My German Soldier

“It’s truly extraordinary,” he said.  “Who would believe it?  ‘Jewish girl risks all for German solider.’  Tell me, Patty Bergen–” his voice became soft, but with a trace of hoarseness–“why are you doing this for me?”

Summer of My German SoldierI picked up Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene at the library book sale over a year ago, and finally got around to reading it this past week.  I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly, but I’m glad I read this story about a Jewish girl in America during WWII and her decision to help a German POW escape.

What I Liked

– THIS BOOK.  I liked this entire book from top to bottom.  Honestly, I kind of loved everything about it.

– The characters.  Patty and her housekeeper Ruth are the standouts here, but there’s also Charlene Madlee and her grandmother.  And while Patty’s parents are villainous, they are both pretty fully drawn and not flat at all.  Horrible, yes.  Understandable…not exactly.  But I understand their relationship to and with Patty and never felt like they were too anything, if that makes sense.

– Patty lives in an abusive household but the book isn’t really about that.  It’s not a problem novel at all is what I mean.  It’s part of the make up of her character, it’s part of the make up of her life, and it serves to explain, in part, her decision to help Anton (the POW).  I was a little nervous at first about what message the book would send to kids who live in abusive homes because there’s a focus in the beginning on Patty showing her parents her sweetness so they can be sweet to her, but it’s really well addressed at the end that, really, there’s nothing she can do about her parents because they just suck.  It’s done in such a great way, too.

– All of the relationships in this book were so well-handled and fully drawn.

– The overall themes about the importance of kindness and friendship and pride and love.

– Okay, everything.  I just liked everything.

What I Didn’t Like

– Just a warning that there is a lot of casual racism in this book that totally fits the time period, but it took a minute for my 2010 mind to adjust.  For example, Ruth is referred to as a Nigra, and the women in the novel see having “a Nigra” as a status symbol.  The black people live in “Nigger Bottoms,” and a “chink” is run out of town.  That said, the racism doesn’t go unchecked.  Patty, early on, says that Ruth is not uppity, just proud.  She knows that Mr. Lee’s family is Chinese and not Japanese, etc.  I think Greene does a fantastic job of setting the scene without reveling in racist language.

Pride.  Maybe that’s it, what Ruth has.  What makes her different.  Keeps her from looking down at her shoes when talking with white people.  Then it is all a lie what they say about her.  Ruth isn’t one bit uppity.  Merely prideful.

Women Unbound?

I think this book definitely takes a thoughtful look at the place of women in society, from Ruth to Patty to the spoiled mother to Charlene.  Not to mention, Patty’s decision to basically betray her country and family definitely qualifies her as girl/woman unbound.

In conclusion:  This book started as a bathroom read for me, but I would find myself reading huge chunks of it at a time.  By the end, I was so completely engrossed and swept up in the narrative.  I LOVED READING THIS BOOK.  I think this is my first unequivocal recommendation of the year.  It’s a book I want other people to read or have read so I can talk about it with them.

YA Challenge:  4/75

Diversity Roll Call: Paradigm Shifts

The topic of the current diversity roll call is paradigm shifts, more specifically:

Have you ever read a book and the character’s perspective opened you to ideas, beliefs or realities that you had never considered? Tell us a about a work or an author whose body of work changed how you looked at the world, others or yourself. Have you ever read a book and had a paradigm shift because of it?

It took me some time to come up with my answer to this question.  I have read a lot of books.  A LOT.  My main love, though, is series fiction.  The Baby-Sitters Club was my gateway drug into the world of series fiction, and then I moved on to Sweet Valley High before stumbling upon Katherine Applegate’s Ocean City and then Boyfriends/Girlfriends (now Making Out) series.  And I liked Applegate a lot because she always featured a minority character, which was a welcome change from SVH and its focus on the blonde twins and their ultra-white friends.

I recently reread book one in the Girl Friends series, a ten-book series most people have never heard of.  It was extremely popular with me, of course, but one person does not a successful series make, and author Nicole Grey’s contract wasn’t extended, so the series ends on a wicked cliffhanger.  I had stumbled upon Girl Friends in 1993, voracious bookstore goer that I was.  And at first, I thought it was my pick for the paradigm shift because of what I said at the end of my review there.  Namely:

Empowerment through female friendships.  I’d be lying if I said that this series hasn’t inspired my dissertation topic focusing on female friendship.  If I didn’t love these books with all of my heart, I doubt very seriously that I would even think about or consider friendships between girls as much as I do.

But that’s not even it.  Because Applegate had strong female friendships, and the BSC is founded by best friends.  No, it’s more than that.

In his memoir Bad Boy, Walter Dean Myers talks about his experiences reading.  And he says that he read a wealth of writers, mostly white and male.  But it wasn’t until he read James Baldwin and Langston Hughes that his world changed because they talked about Harlem, and he so strongly identified with their writing about it because that’s where he lived.  He saw himself and his family and friends in their writing.  What he said, and I’ll never forget, is that reading Baldwin and Hughes gave him permission to write the stories he wanted to write about the people and places he knew.

And that’s what Girl Friends did for me.  I always wanted to write a book series because that’s what I liked to read, but I didn’t live in a world like BSC and SVH.  I lived in a world with lots of people of color.  A world where there would only be one white main character, if there was one at all.  (Janis, the only featured white character, is introduced last.  LAST.  Most of the series fiction I’ve read centers around a blond white female.  And if not blond, then still white.  The first character introduced in GF is Stephanie–who is Chinese-American.) It wasn’t until I read Grey’s series that I felt like anyone would read or write a series populated with girls of color or a series that talked about the things I saw going on with the people I knew.  It was the first series I read where it felt like a world I lived in, and that blew my mind.

So, not only did it impress upon me the importance of female connection (note:  none of these girls were ever in competition with each other over a boy), nor did it just open my eyes to true contemporary realism in series fiction, but it also showed me there was a place for me and the people and situations I knew in series fiction.  And that gave me permission to dream, for real, about writing my own series one day.

Which I may get around to doing one day.

Book Review: Angela Davis: An Autobiography

I was not anxious to write this book.  Writing an autobiography at my age seemed presumptuous.  Moreover, I felt that to write about my life, what I did, what I thought and what happened to me would require a posture of difference, an assumption that I was unlike other women–other Black women–and therefore needed to explain myself.  I felt that such a book might end up obscuring the most essential fact:  the forces that have made my life what it is are the very same forces that have shaped and misshaped the lives of millions of my people.

When I signed up for the Women Unbound Reading Challenge, I knew immediately that I was going to read Angela Davis’s autobiography.

I feel like I can’t even talk about this book without talking about why I wanted to read it.  So, a brief history.

I have seen this book practically my whole life because my mother owns it.  (It has a slightly different cover than the picture in this post.)  I never read it.

In college, I read Assata:  An Autobiography, and I absolutely loved it.  LOVED IT.  I was enthralled by her, wanted to know more about the Black Panthers.  So when my professor said he was going to teach a class on the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, I signed up.  [The Wikipedia page may be more accessible.]  And I read a host of literature by and about the Panthers.  We read Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown and George Jackson.  We read about Eldridge Cleaver and Li’l Bobby Hutton and the Soledad Brothers.  (My favorite book we read that semester was David Hilliard’s This Side of Glory.  I wrote a paper on it.)  I saw the movie. Still, I didn’t read her book.  (It wasn’t on the list.)

Angela Davis came to speak at Iowa State University when I was a student there.  I went; I was enthralled by her words.  She is an eloquent speaker.  Still, I didn’t read her book.

When I went to Oakland this summer, I considered going on the tour.  I didn’t go for boring financial and time reasons.  And still, I didn’t read Angela Davis’s book.

Until the challenge came, and I knew there was no excuse not to anymore.  In fact, I was going to make it my first non-fiction read for the challenge.  So when I went to my parents’ house for Christmas, I asked my mom if I could read her copy, and she told me yes, and I started it the day after Christmas.

And finished it a month later.

I was kind of surprised by how long it took me to read the book.  It’s well-written to be sure, and I have read these types of autobiographies before (see above), but for some reason I couldn’t quite engage with the book.  Then I figured out what it was.  The last memoir I read was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, and the two books are vastly different in style.  For one, Angelou’s book reads like a novel.  There’s dialogue and scene building and characters.  Not so with Davis.  And that’s when I realized I was reading the book wrong.

Romanticizing the plight of oppressed people is dangerous and misleading.

This is an autobiography, but it’s intention is not to describe people and places.  It’s not even to provide a clear snapshot of Davis’s transformation into a revolutionary leader.  Her assumption is that the reader understands all of that (probably because it was first published in 1974, on the heels of the Black Liberation Movement).  When I guide my students in their reading, I always tell them they should be able to answer one question clearly at the end of a selection:  “What am I supposed to do, think, or feel after reading this?”  I know what I wanted to think and feel when I was reading.  But what I actually wound up realizing is that this is the chronicle of the events that led to Davis being on the FBI hit list.  It’s to show what she was actually doing and involved in while the charges were being trumped up against her.  It’s also to show the conditions of prisons and prisoners, the importance of communication between prisoners and those outside, the reasons we shouldn’t isolate their experiences from our own.  It’s to show the systematic oppression of blacks and women and black women.

Prisoners–particularly Black prisoners–were beginning to think about how they got there–what forced them into prison.  They were beginning to understand the nature of racism and class bias.  They were beginning to recognize that regardless of the specific details of their individual cases, most of them were in prison because they were Black, Brown, and poor.

When I finished the book, I didn’t feel like I knew Angela Davis the person or the adolescent, the way I felt I knew Marguerite after reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or even Harriet Jacobs after reading Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl or Frederick Douglass or David Hilliard.

But I do understand Angela Davis as an intellectual and a fighter.  I understand her approach to activism, the fact that she won’t tolerate bullshit from the people she works with or the people who sought to silence her. I also understand that there are benefits to being educated, to being a part of the intelligentsia, and to knowing and understanding our rights.

This is, in actuality, her defense.  She talks about her trial and that she and her legal team had set up a fantastic defense, intended to last days or weeks.  But it was condensed to three or so days once it became clear that the prosecution had nothing on her.  But the thought and care put into the autobiography shows what she put into her opening and closing statements of her trial.  This is the narrative to support her defense, not the narrative, necessarily, of her life.  It’s her story in her words and it paints a complete picture of the woman who stood trial, why she stood trial, and how she accounted for her time before and during her trial.

Jails are thoughtless places. […] The void created by this absence of thought is filled by rules and…fear.

When I saw Angela Davis speak at ISU, she spoke again of the importance of connections in prison.  She spoke about the importance of narratives, and how important it is for the voice of the people to be heard.  She talked about how the media shapes our responses and our forgetfulness.  All things addressed in her autobiography.

The tremendous energy of the movement which had so swiftly transformed my jail situation was energy my sisters and brothers had a more than equal right to.  I tried to assuage some of my pain by establishing contact with sisters and brothers in prisons all over the country. […] I answered letter after letter from prisoners…More than ever before I felt a need to cement my links to every other prisoner.  My very existence, it seemed, was dependent on my ability to reach out to them.  I decided then and there that if I was ever free, I would use my life to uphold the cause of my sisters and brothers behind walls.

I’m glad I got over my assumptions of what I thought the book should be and appreciated for what it is.  It’s a political document, not a story narrative.  It’s Angela Davis speaking in her own voice and constructing her own narrative and making sure her story isn’t forgotten.  But it’s also a call to not let other people’s stories be forgotten.  It’s a call to keep fighting for the rights of those who maybe can’t speak for themselves, especially political prisoners.  It’s a call for a continuing social justice movement.

What had just unfolded was incontrovertible proof of the power of the people.

Women Unbound Challenge:  1/8; POC Challenge:  1/15