Friday, February 24, 2012


By K.M. Walton. Young Adult. Simon Pulse, 2012. 312 pages. Hardcover.

Buy the book on Amazon

K.M. Walton's debut novel is a fast-paced character study of a high school bully and his chief victim. William Mastrick, better know as Bull, beats, taunts, and terrorizes Victor Konig on a daily basis. In an early scene, Bull comes up behind Victor in the cafeteria and punches him so hard he spits out the chocolate milk he is drinking. The reaction from nearby teachers and lunchroom staff is very telling: nothing. Walton does not even mention them. After the recent spate of teen suicides in Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin school district, brought on by a misguided policy of gay neutrality, it is hard to say Walton is being unrealistic. Those teachers were afraid of losing their jobs if they stood up for a troubled teen. Perhaps those in Victor and Bull's world have similar anxieties.

It is one of literature's jobs to help us face and perhaps overcome our anxieties. Victor and Bull are given ample opportunity to do just that. Bull fears his grandfather's drunken abuse. The old man blames Bull, loud and often, for his grandmother's death. Bull's mother, the old man's daughter, also drinks, neglects Bull, and once slaps him. Thoughtful readers can gain a whole new perspective on Bull, and kids like Bull. Of course teens are responsible for their own actions, but they are not to blame for adults in their lives who make sure they never develop any self-respect. Bull goes from being a mean-hearted sadist to being someone who might be able to change... if he ever gets the opportunity.

As for Victor, a note from his mother on page 93 tells us almost everything we need to know about his seemingly privileged home life. She and his father leave for an extended trip to France. Victor has to stay behind, under his elderly grandmother's care, because his score on the SAT was less than perfect. As the note explains, the parents leave early to get lattes en route to the airport. "We didn't want to wake you," mom writes. She leaves Victor a list of chores and tells him "I've made a drug counseling appointment for you," even though Victor has never touched drugs.

No "Dear Victor" or "love, mom", Victor says in response. I can't believe they didn't even say good-bye... Not even good-bye.

Soon afterwards, Victor and Bull find themselves together in a teenage psych ward for would-be suicides. Victor tried to kill himself, swallowing his mother's antianxiety pills after his beloved dog died. Bull, having found a handgun stashed in a closet, tried to shoot his grandfather. Bull winds up with a gunshot wound in his leg. It puts him in a wheelchair. In his only act of kindness, Bull's grandfather lies to police and says Bull tried to kill himself.

Being roommates does little to improve Victor and Bull's relationship. But they finally meet adults who care for them with no expectations of a reward. They also meet other teens who are just as troubled as they are: abandoned or humiliated by parents, teased and harassed for being obese, locked into private worlds nobody else can enter. Even though they cannot change their parents, the boys learn to change their own attitudes. They form meaningful relationships with peers. They stop hurting themselves; Bull stops harming others. They learn that feelings are not fatal, that circumstances are temporary, that they are capable or giving and receiving love. They grow up. While they are not fully healed from their trauma- this is not a fantasy book- they are equipped to weather any future setbacks with dignity.

This book is useful for teens, both high school and certain middle school students. It is also good for parents and teachers. When kids are traumatized, they act out. A responsible adult must look beyond the outer behavior. We might never know a kid's whole story, but we can still make ourselves a positive part of it.


By Gaby Rodriguez with Jenna Glatzer. Simon and Schuster, 2012. 218 pages, hardcover.

Buy it on Amazon

By now there are probably few people who have not heard of this book or the Lifetime movie based on it. Gaby tells of being hounded by news crews almost as soon as she shared her project with her school. That attention leads to one of the book's many unanswered questions- how did Good Morning America get a 17-year-old girl's cell phone number? Gaby doesn't know, and neither do we.

What we do know is that Gaby grew frustrated with the negative attention surrounding her and her family, who live in the small town of Topenish, Washington. Her mother gave birth to her as a teen. Like too many teen moms, she had to raise Gaby mostly alone after Gaby's father took off. Unfortunately, Gaby's siblings also had children young, before they were emotionally and financially prepared. This was in spite of Gaby's mother's constant warnings and exhortations not to follow her path.

But Gaby heeded those warnings, and the unspoken one she saw every day in her mother's struggle to make ends meet. When offered the chance to do a senior project, Gaby decides to fake her own pregnancy. With her mother's help, she fashions a prosthetic baby bump to go under her clothes. She goes to a clinic and learns how pregnant women work- the weight gain, mood swings, sickness, erratic appetite, and pregnancy brain. Only her mother, her boyfriend Jorge, close friend Saita, and a handful of teachers and administrators know the truth.

By taking on this role, Gaby gains an empathy for teen mothers she might never have learned otherwise. Friends reject or gossip about her, thinking she cannot hear. Her older brothers, all former teen dads, threaten Jorge with physical harm. Gaby experiences real loneliness and depression. She comes to understand why so many teen dads do leave; they are given almost no positive messages or support. There are few role models, either- successful fathers who can mentor those whose paths they have walked.

Why is that? Nearly everyone agrees that it is a mistake for teenagers to have babies. Why are so few of us willing to help? It seems easier to stand on the sidelines and judge or deride people for their unfortunate choices, like so many of Gaby's classmates. But she teaches us how to do the hard things. Hopefully the attention surrounding this well-written, engaging book will encourage us to ask questions with no easy answers, and to change our thinking about some of our culture's most helpless members.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Thanks to Anne, aka the Lit Bitch, for this post. You can read Anne's views on classic and contemporary novels on her website.

Exploring the New Woman in Jane Austen’s Novels

Jane Austen began her literary career in a time when society just began to explore what is known as ‘the woman question’. The woman question most often refers to specific constraints imposed by society such as sexuality, gender roles, suffrage, and employment. By the early nineteenth century, society began exploring these issues in depth with the common avenue being the literary medium. Literature became a safe and popular way to subvert society’s traditional expectations of women and explore concepts which appealed to women readers. As female authorship increased, many embraced the new feminist views regarding the woman question. Through the novel, readers could live vicariously through the heroine allowing them to experience new situations and thought without threat. This growth and enthusiasm is most notably seen in works by Jane Austen. Austen’s legacy can be seen in her most popular heroines who all tend to follow the same pattern of new woman meets old world expectations.

Austen wrote about what she knew. Austen’s social class hovered just outside the gentry and most of her education was self-taught. Having never married, Austen had a unique outlook on marriage. She maintained that marriage should be about love--if not the deciding factor in the match--a radical concept in the early nineteenth century! Readers can see Austen’s views echoed across the pages of her novels and most notably in the heroines. All of Austen’s novels reflect the same type of heroine which follows both feminist and patriarchal models.

In Austen’s novels, the heroine typically desires improvement through marriage and in many cases the family encourages her to use marriage as a means for improving their position in society, demonstrating the patriarchal influence of the age. The new feminist approach is seen in the final decision. The deciding factor in all the matches of an Austen novel is always love-- wealthy was considered an added bonus. By doing this, Austen is both subverting social norms and maintaining acceptability. Critics of Austen note her early novels such as Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice depict a traditional idealized version of women while her later novels such as Emma and Persuasion present a ‘new woman’.

As ideal women all of Austen’s heroines are conventionally feminine with desirable traits such as modesty, delicacy, sweetness, and gentleness. Most agree Austen’s depictions of women in her early novels were the most socially acceptable; due largely to the basic representations of the heroines and plot. In Austen’s world, many felt literature should encourage proper values and model characters, however female novelists felt women’s writing should be based on the nature and experiences of women rather than society’s expectations or idealization of women.

One of Austen’s most famous critics was fellow author Emily Bronte who suggested she lacked the passion necessary to write successful love stories and the experience to create modern feminist heroines. While this might be true, Austen chooses not to completely challenge society’s expectations so that she could reach a wider audience. This was why it was necessary to follow a carefully prescribed formula which is what Austen did in her earlier novels with her later works such as Emma and Persuasion begin to embrace a new modern woman. Interestingly enough Austen’s most popular heroine is neither Emma Woodhouse nor Anne Elliot of the later novels but rather Elizabeth Bennett of the earlier Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s most well liked heroine, not only respects herself but she does not care if the man she marries has wealth as long as he loves her and is not prejudice against her class. She stands up for herself but is not afraid to admit when she is wrong.

From the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice it is clear marriage and fortune will be dominant themes: “It is a universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”. Mr. and Mrs. Bennett have five daughters and no sons, meaning upon Mr. Bennett’s death all of his small fortune would be entailed to the next surviving male heir, Mr. Collins. For the Bennett daughters the only way salvage their family legacy would be to marry well or for one of them to marry Mr. Collin’s. Mrs. Bennett finds the latter a most agreeable option and encourages Elizabeth to consider it. Elizabeth refuses and explains to her mother she does not love Mr. Collins so she will not marry him. Mrs. Bennett is desperate for her daughters to find husbands who will insure the future of the family since there are no sons. Mrs. Bennett’s rational is aligned with traditional patriarchal thought that women can only find definition and security through marriage. While Elizabeth views marriage as a means of emotional fulfillment and enjoyment, demonstrating the new woman ideology.

When Elizabeth first meets Mr. Darcy she sees only a man who values money and is also required to marry well as a requirement of his status. When he asks her to marry him she adamantly refuses because he insults her family and financial position. Though she knows he is rich and would more than secure her future, she does not accept because he does not consider them an equal match. The idea of refusing a perfectly good marriage proposal from a gentleman would have been scandalous in the Regency period to say the least. Only when she is convinced of his love, commitment, and respect will she agree to enter into an understanding.

Elizabeth demonstrates a prototype for the new woman who is willing to stand up for herself placing importance on character rather than wealth. But Austen is careful to maintain within society’s comfort zone by emphasizing other story lines of other women characters--such as the indifference question between Jane and Bingley and the uber scandalous marriage between Wickham and Lydia. Many women readers were in positions such as Lydia and all the other Bennett women. Austen ends the novel with every implication that Darcy and Elizabeth will live ‘happily ever after’ in love--which suggests independence through love.

Austen knew what it was like to be a woman during the English Regency period, with no money, property, and position. Austen would have had to marry well if she hoped to be of any value to her family, which of course she did not. Austen, like Elizabeth Bennett had little money and was not part of the gentry, her only hope was marriage.

With the increasing amounts of female authors in Regency England, Austen’s heroines became the prototype for future generations to interpret and address the growing woman question. Through the novel readers live vicariously through the heroine allowing them to experience new situations and thought without threat. Unlike other popular genres of prose, Austen put heroines in positions of independence or control over their futures which drew attention to issues surrounding class, sexuality, and gender roles. Austen produced novels which incorporated patriarchal ideas while at the same time subverting tradition. Because Austen wrote about what she knew she was able to properly address the woman question while maintaining within societal expectations appropriate of the era.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Book Club Update

We have switched two books. We will be reading Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, in March to coincide with the movie. We will read Nina Revoyr's Wingshooters in December.

It is still not too late to get a free review copy of Michelle's book, These Days Are Ours, in time for the February twitter meetup. Contact Michelle on twitter @MichelleHaimoff.

February: These Days Are Ours- Michelle Haimoff

March: The Hunger Games- Suzanne Collins

April: Play It As It Lays- Joan Didion

May- The Age Of Innocence- Edith Wharton

June- Bad Behavior: Stories- Mary Gaitskill

July- People Are Unappealing: Even Me- Sara Barron

August- It Chooses You- Miranda July

September- The History of Love- Nicole Krauss

October- Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name- Audrey Lorde

November- Sarah's Key- Tatiana De Rosnay

December- Wingshooters- Nina Revoyr

Thursday, February 9, 2012


Pre-order from Amazon

This is Michelle Haimoff's first novel. Michelle is a freelance writer, a co-author of this blog, and a founding member of Women's Lit Book Club.

I am grateful to be one of the first people to read and write about this book. Michelle says in the Reader's Guide that it took her ten years to write. I believe people will be talking about this book for much longer than that.

The book follows Hailey, a 22-year old woman living in Manhattan just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She and her friends are born members of the upper middle class. Hailey is the product of exclusive private schools and expensive universities. But her family's money does not protect her from trauma. Her parents are divorced. She and her friends are aimless, drifting from one party to another, seemingly unable to commit to a job or relationship. And then there are the attacks- reminders to all Americans that they are never safe, that the next tragedy could be just around the corner.

The mood, when the book opens, is of a group of people biding their time, caught between their school years and adult responsibility. They spend much of their lives trying to hide their fear of another attack. Just as palpable is their fear of growing up. Hailey seems to have it all together, but on the inside she is insecure. She tortures herself over a boy who might or might not commit to her. Hailey's internal monologue ties all the characters, settings, and conflicts together. She is not an unreliable narrator; we can rely on her to be indecisive.

Hailey is self-obsessed, filled with angst, and usually insincere in how she presents herself. In other words, she is just like any 22-year old from her cultural background. The magic is how Michelle makes Hailey appealing. The reader wants to know more about her, to find out if she ever grew up, to see if there was any closure with the boy. Handled just a little differently, Hailey would have been a caricature of a rich girl. Instead, she is our guide through a world that, after the World Trade Center fell, was in danger of ceasing to exist.

This book is helpful to me because it teaches that privileged people suffer too. Perhaps the nature of their suffering is different from a poor person's suffering. Perhaps, like Hailey, they appear to be happy and well-adjusted. Perhaps their access to money insulates them from certain problems like not having enough to eat, losing their homes, or being victims of endemic violence. But the truth is that nobody gets a free pass through life. Trauma can reach out and strike us all. With this knowledge, and with the understanding that this book's major conflict is appearance vs. reality, I am able to empathize with Hailey instead of judging her.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


Warning: Contains Spoilers

So Becky does wind up with Luke Brandon. I accept it; it's called drinking the chick lit Kool-Aid. I accept whatever happens in the works of Sophie Kinsella or any other author of the genre, because to not do so would keep me from taking pleasure in these stories.

I even accept that Becky appears on television once, becomes a local celebrity, and is able to fix her financial woes in a matter of days. And I am glad to see her recovery is not perfect. At the end of the last chapter, she is already ordering expensive, unnecessary designer sunglasses from TV. That kind of behavior is closer to real life. It also sets up the next book. Becky's story wouldn't be any fun if she didn't have an internal conflict.

There are a lot of scenes and passages that stand out in the book, but my favorite is this one, Becky's internal monologue from page 292. She has just come home after moving in with her parents and appearing on Morning Coffee. She greets her roommate, Suze, then finds a pile of collection letters:

"I pick up my letters and bills and begin slowly to leaf through them. Once upon a time, this lot would have sent me into a blind panic. In fact, they would have gone straight into the bin, unread. But you know what? Today I don't feel a flicker of fear. Honestly, how could I have been so silly about my financial affairs?... I'm going to sit down with my checkbook and my latest bank statements, and sort methodically through the whole mess."

After reading that, I realized that I, too, was making silly decisions. I called a certain person in a certain office who I'd been avoiding for at least two weeks. She seemed genuinely pleased to hear from me, but not as pleased as I am to know I am cleaning up an old mess.

So that's the lesson I took away from Confessions of a Shopaholic: Act like an adult, you'll feel better. Have you ever decided to do something because of a book you read? Has fiction helped you grow up? I'd love to hear your story.