I’m making progress on the books I got for Christmas! This month I read two novels with independent-minded female protagonists, a history of American culture’s panic over child sexuality, and a collection of essays on individual American experiences.
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
Lillian is eighty-five years old and has plans for New Year’s Eve 1984: She will wear her mink coat and her yellow tights; she will enjoy dining alone at a favorite restaurant; she will walk, alone, in the dark, by whatever route catches her fancy, to a party hosted by a much-younger photographer she befriended in a park. Over the course of the evening, some of her plans are adapted, and Lillian ultimately walks more than ten miles, meandering around Manhattan and talking to many different people, passing places she’s been before in her decades in the city and reflecting on what happened there. She looks back on her career as an advertising copywriter, her late marriage and motherhood, her divorce, her mental illness, her second career as a poet, and all the many inspirations and setbacks and relationships and places that have shaped her long life.
This would be a great book to read all in one night when you can’t sleep! It took me about three days, walking with Lillian in all my spare moments. I loved the writing (sentences like, “His expression was sheepish enough to supply a Highland village with wool and milk.”) and the vivid evocation of 1930s-1980s New York. Lillian has a lot of interesting things to say about life and work as a woman in that era. Her ongoing interest in everyone around her introduces the reader to lots of different people. I loved the scene in which a group of Black teens attempt to mug Lillian but end up trading coats with her and chatting about her interest in rap music. I wish Grandma could read this book! She loved walking around New York and talking with people.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
Frankie is a 15-year-old girl attending an elite boarding school. Her father is nostalgic about his own years at that school and often gets together with his school friends, who were members of a secret society called The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds that kept a secret notebook called The Disreputable History. Returning to school for her second year with a newly curvy body, Frankie attracts the interest of a senior named Matthew, who invites her to a secret party. They begin dating, but Matthew repeatedly cancels plans with Frankie in order to hang out with his male friends . . . so she follows him and discovers that the Bassets continue as an all-male secret society, but they no longer know about the Disreputable History; in fact, they seem a bit lost about their purpose.
Frankie realizes that although the school now allows female students, they don’t really get the same networking opportunities or role models as the boys. She’s enjoying hanging out with Matthew and his friends but sees that they consider her a girlfriend rather than an equal. What can she do to prove that she is just as interesting and worthy as they are?
I’m glad that I persevered with reading this book, because the first 173 pages were awkward and uneven, with a sort of preachy omniscient narrator opining on what “we” see about Frankie, who seemed to be a strange blend of innocent child, elderly intellectual, and incipient anarchist. Pages 174-329 were much better! And then the last 12 pages were trying too hard to make the point of how very much Frankie had matured.
Still, I ended up liking Frankie and hoping that when she finished prep school, she went to Carnegie Mellon and joined KGB, which is just the place for geeks of all genders to band together for silly shenanigans.
Harmful to Minors by Judith Levine
This 2002 bestseller has the subtitle The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, which probably helped to provoke the intense negative reaction to its publication detailed in the afterword. I wish the publisher had found a less shocking way to convey the book’s main point, which is still failing to get through the biases of mainstream American society two decades later: Trying to prevent children and teens from knowing anything about sex does not prevent them from being molested, being exploited, engaging in consensual sex, getting pregnant, or getting STDs.
This book covers the changes in American policies and attitudes over the 1980s and 1990s regarding sex education, pedophilia, children who have sexual contact with other children, teenagers who have sex with young adults, abortion, and acknowledgment that sexual activity can be pleasurable. The result is a country in which many people turn 18 having been taught almost nothing about sex except that it is dangerous, and many parents believe their children are very likely to be raped and murdered by strangers if not constantly supervised. It’s horrifying to see how much attitudes changed in just 20 years and how little they have changed in another 20 years since then!
Levine explains many decades of research showing that having plenty of information from an early age helps teenagers make safer decisions about how to manage their sexuality as they get older, and it also helps children to recognize when they are being coerced into things they don’t want to do. She explains how our societal zeal to prevent child molestation has been misdirected into “stranger danger” (most molesters are people a child knows well, not strangers) and fear of genitals and sexual feelings. Did you know that, compared to criminals in general, people who have been arrested for sexually assaulting a child are about one-sixth as likely to commit another crime after they’re released, and the odds are even lower if they get treatment along with punishment? I believe that coercing anyone into unwanted sexual activity is wrong, and that the consequences should be stricter when the victim is a child, but making the perpetrator into a lifelong “registered sex offender” does not make anyone safer. (Here’s some recent information on this issue.)
Sexuality is complicated because different people are ready for different things at different ages. That’s why it’s so important for children to grow up gradually learning about sex, safety, relationships, affection, and personal boundaries. Parents want to protect our kids from everything that could harm them, but the knowledge itself is helpful, not harmful. (Recent research indicates that learning that sex is supposed to be pleasurable increases safe-sex practices.)
One good thing about my reading this book is that it motivated me to ask my 17-year-old in more detail than before about the sex ed he has received in Pittsburgh Public Schools. I am pleased that in this district, anyway, students are getting some real information on physiology, contraception, and STD prevention and are learning about the importance of consent. He says some topics (masturbation, GLBT orientations, abortion) are only very briefly mentioned as alternatives to baby-making sex, but at least they’re mentioned. I was startled to realize that, because they focus on the present standards of HIV prevention and treatment, my son did not know that AIDS had been such a horrible disease when it was new! This nudged him to learn some history that they probably won’t teach in school.
American Like Me edited by America Ferrera
Thirty-two Generation X and Millennial Americans of non-European ancestry contributed essays on their experiences of living simultaneously in their ethnic culture(s) and in the wider American culture. They are actors, politicians, athletes, artists, and other public figures who each have experienced some combination of being valued for their individual skills vs. being valued for “diversity,” some combination of being seen/heard and being pushed aside as “not normal enough,” and each has something different to say about it.
My favorite line in this book is from actress Uzo Aduba’s mother, when young Uzoamaka asked to be called Zoe because her teachers and classmates had trouble pronouncing her name: “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoevsky, then they can learn to say Uzoamaka.” I will add that they can learn to spell those names, too! (I see that my computer’s spell-checker knows all of those European names.) Pronouncing and spelling a person’s name correctly is a matter of basic respect for the person’s identity and the family who named her, whether it’s a traditional name in their ancestral culture or it’s a unique new name they invented. One of my favorite things about being a Census enumerator was the interesting names of my fellow Americans!
I especially enjoyed figure skater Michelle Kwan’s essay, too. I’m not much of a sports fan or television viewer, so I didn’t know her backstory; I was impressed by the financial sacrifices her parents made to support her skating and moved by their efforts to make it her choice rather than something they pressured her to do. She makes it clear that achieving the American dream is a matter of working hard to be who you are, not of being entitled to the same things as everyone else.
Overall, this book is a celebration of people finding their unique places in America while also being part of one or more subcultures larger than themselves. It was a lot of fun to read.
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