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Judy Blume Revisited! Forever…

Welcome to my Judy Blume in July series! Ok, it’s now August. However, I read some classic Judy Blume novels throughout July and culminated with In the Unlikely Event, which I will review here as well.

The book: Forever…

My rating as a teen: 3-4 stars

My rating as an adult: 2-3 stars

Forever… was never my favorite Judy Blume book, though I knew several pre-teen girls who worshipped it because the story was a gateway into the life of a sexually active teenager. And even though I’m always a sucker for sex in a book, Forever… didn’t click for me as kid/teen. I actually have no idea when I first read it. I may have been 12. Or 15. I was fortunate to have parents with full-time jobs who didn’t pay any attention to what I read (just glad I was choosing to read) and so I may as well have been as young as 8.

I can understand why parents are so put off by this book. Katherine’s parents and grandmother all but give her The Joy of Sex for her birthday. I wish I had such cool and understanding parents at that age. I wish I could have talked to them so frankly about sex. And maybe this is why I had a hard time liking it as a young girl: Katherine’s family (and Michael’s sister) was  more progressive than my own and so her world didn’t resonate with me at all.

One thing that sticks out to me now is how prevalent “Judy Blume’s Message” is about safe and consensual sex throughout the book. As a kid/teen, I would never call Judy “preachy”. But seeing Forever… through wise (jaded?) eyes I see what she was trying to do. Judy was never one to tell kids NOT to do anything. She knew better. Kids are meant to explore everything- including sex- so why not provide the safest environment for them? However, this doesn’t mean that Judy was such a free-wheeling hippie that she couldn’t advise, and even warn, against engaging in pre-marital and teenage sex at too young of an age.

I was so surprised at how PUSHY I found Katherine’s paramour, Michael, when it came to sex. Don’t do it when you’re not ready! Stick to your guns! If it doesn’t feel right, it’s okay to wait! I can almost hear Judy’s near parental rant throughout Katherine’s struggle to come to terms with her body sensations versus her fear of engaging in sex. And yet Michael says he understands, but we know he really doesn’t. What shines through so clearly to me now is how YOUNG and IMMATURE these two are. I’m not saying they shouldn’t have sex, but I understand Judy’s point. You might think you are an adult at age 17/18, but think again.

Judy isn’t necessarily being preachy here, but her message is stronger in this book than in others. She understands kids. She understands the course and rush of emotions that permeate and affect every decision. Almost everything a kid and teen feels is guided by a strong emotion. They feel love more hotly. They feel fear and risk less acutely. They rarely think beyond tomorrow. They challenge, they cower. And then they grow up and things look a little more crystal.

It’s important to note that Judy isn’t making a judgement here about teenage sex. She is simply saying, “If you are going to do it, be smart”. The book is not without the pitfalls to sex. There is an unwanted pregnancy, talk of abortion, and an adoption. VD is discussed and soft drugs are used. In trying to cover them all, Judy plays a deft hand. The last thing she wants is to turn kids off and have them run headlong into the dark sexual arts uninformed, rebellious, and careless.

Still, the story of Katherine and Michael is underwhelming. I just kept waiting for them to do it. I wondered what they talked about, if anything, besides sex. Most of their conversations revolved around whether they were or were not going to do it. His aggressive pushiness frightened me and her sullenness depressed me. Was I like that at her age? Probably. I, too, thought I knew everything.

And yet, however young I was when I read it, I never took this book to mean I had permission to go out and have sex. Parents need not be afraid. If anything, this is a great book for girls who might fall in the trap of thinking they have to put out in order to be loved. And I think Judy is definitely not calling it a love story. She drills in the point that you will fall in love several times in your life, not once. I respect Judy’s insight and awareness of the teenage world, even though I didn’t find this book to have a very strong story.

Stray Observations:

  • For some reason my only memory of this book, before I reread it, was that Katherine was a Candy Striper. I’m not sure why that detail stuck with me, as it’s only mentioned once.
  • Attention if you’ve read Judy’s In the Unlikely Event: The Papermill Playhouse first makes an appearance in Forever…!
  • Michael chooses “Ralph” as his penis name. Katherine should have known then that the relationship was doomed.
  • The suicide side-plot threw me… almost seemed like it should have been a separate book.
  • Judy writes strong and caring parents well. Is she modeling them after how she perceives herself?
  • Judy hates the term Young Adult Novel, yet that’s how it’s categorized at my library. Do we need a redefinition on the YA genre?

Judy Blume Revisited! Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret

Judy Blume wisdom…

[I]t’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.

It’s “revisit my childhood” month in July. For the entire month I am reading the classics- Judy Blume’s that is- and finishing with her latest release for adults, In the Unlikely Event.

I’m rereading her books in no particular order and will review them all here. So let’s start with my thoughts on her most “seminal” tale of a girl’s road to womanhood!

Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret

My rating as a kid: 5 stars (excellent)

My rating as an adult: 2-3 stars (so-so to good)

First of all, this book floored me as a kid. I think you have to be about 12 or 13 for the story to really hit home. Every single girl I knew, including myself, was obsessed with three things: boys, boobs, and getting your first period. Judy Blume covers them all.

I probably read this book at least 10 times as an adolescent. And it seemed like such a saga! She’s starting a new school in a new city, she likes a boy who doesn’t like her, she has no boobs to speak of, and all her friends are getting their periods and she’s not. To top it all off she talks to God, even though she’s of no religion. The real stinker is she doesn’t even get to go on the special trip with her Grandma Simon because of her other pesky and hyper-relig maternal grandparents! These are all the things that can consume a kid- and boy, did I relate to her.

I even did a special project inspired by Margaret’s when I was in high school. My family was also of no religious persuasion, and I was curious to find out what religion meant to other people. I had to write a paper on different cultures, but I turned it into my own religious project. I went to a Jehovah’s Witness meeting, a Church sermon, and talked to a person I worked with at the local pizza joint who was Muslim. Just like Margaret, I didn’t find all the answers I was looking for but I was awakened to a new sense of spirituality and what it means to simply ask a higher power for guidance.

As an adult, however, the book doesn’t quite hold the same resonance. I was surprised to discover that Margaret is, pardon my French, kind of a bitch! Must be due to being a hormonal, pre-menstrual kid but I’m still shocked at how almost unlikeable she is. I kept having to put myself in the shoes of a pre-teen girl. Remember when you thought your best friend was a horrible person? Remember when you made of that girl or that boy? Remember what it felt like to be an outcast, or misunderstood, or left out? My having to remind myself that no girl at age 11 or 12 is very likable, and it took me out of the story.

Also, however dated the book is (Pads with belts? Velvet hats? Plaid bedskirt, your mom says “gads”- yuck to all!), this is STILL a revolutionary book for its time and now. Is there another book that really makes it ok to talk about your period with fervor and excitement? Judy Blume is so skilled at capturing that unique age right between childhood and adolescence and all of the things that girls SHOULD be talking about, and questioning. Judy never subscribes her books to the “Young Adult” genre and I agree. It’s like saying this book is only good for a certain age range and not others, but who decides that anyway? Moms should talk to their girls about periods, boobs, and boys at a younger age than we think. Because, as Judy subtly points out, us girls are already talking about it by age 11, which isn’t considered to be under the Young Adult age range.

The God piece in the book felt out of place for me as an adult, but again, I had to remind myself that being a kid is all about figuring things out. A kid’s deep thoughts might seem trite and silly to us grownups, but how else will we learn about ourselves? I used to talk to God too. And I asked him to make my butt smaller. I think I was about 8 or 9.

As Judy says: “I had a very personal relationship with God. I talked to him about all my worries, concerns, and feelings, the way Margaret does. My readers are always asking how I know all their secrets. After reading this book you’ll know some of mine!”

Stray Observations:

  • MAVIS was apparently a sensational name circa 1970.
  • Even though not grading a year-long project is slightly lame and pointless, how cool was that to be trusted with a year long project at age 11?! Are we just less mature now?
  • I wanted to live and play in Nancy’s room: organdy skirted vanity, perfume bottles, and make-up.
  • Every time I eat a pickle, I think of Grandma Simon and say to myself “Mmm, nothing like the real thing!”
  • The size of pads back then were like bricks!

Library Memories

These past couple weeks have found me deep in reverie, looking back fondly on my childhood and time spent inside a library. For whatever reason, I keep conjuring up the library in San Jose where I basically spent the entire summer of my 14th year. There must be meaning in this somewhere…

The library I remember was not particularly inviting by any means. Picture the most institutional cinder-block gray building of the 1960s with harsh overhead lighting and you know what I mean. I even remember the old school 50s style no-frills large clock above the check-out desk. That clock was an ominous sign as to how long I could spend my entire day at the library.

What do I remember about those days? It was hot and steaming, for one. The library’s ancient air-conditioning system couldn’t quite keep up with the blast furnace going on outside. I didn’t care. That was the summer of jean shorts and the tiniest tops I could get away with. What I cared about was sitting in front of the Young-Adult and Horror sections, scouring the shelves for the latest Stephen King or Dean Koontz novel, which were, inexplicably, casually placed in either genre. I must have read two books a week that summer. I couldn’t seem to get enough of books, and I felt incredibly grown up for reading Koontz and graduating from the Judy Blume’s, the R.L. Stine’s, and The Babysitters Club series (although truth be told, I was a much bigger fan of the lesser known  Sleepover Friends series).

Each morning, my dad or step-mom would drive me to the library on his or her way to work and let me out right when the library opened. I stayed all day until about 2 or 3pm when my step-mom picked me up. I can’t ever remember leaving to get food, but the smell of all those books and the feel of the carpet where I set up camp for the day still conjures up fresh memories of pure happiness. Those were “simpler times” to say the least. It was also the first summer I equated books with music. I recall driving home one afternoon and a song came on the radio that completely tied in with one Koontz book I was reading that just so happened to take place during the summer as well.

Do I remember the name of the book or the song? No, but I heard it today I can bet you that I would be thrust right back into the middle of that book and the emotion I felt while reading it.

Books held power for me in that library and nothing was off limits. Having worked my way through all the interesting and new copies in Horror and YA, I wandered over the kids section, probably intending to scoff at was once my “youth”. The entire Dr. Seuss canon was reread that humid summer. I know I tried to read “The Prince of Tides” by Pat Conroy in the Fiction section, a once restricted area to me until that year when no parents were around, but even I was just a tad too young to really understand what was happening in that novel. No, horror and mysteries were my bailiwick and I couldn’t seem to get enough of anything.

It was also a lonely summer. I had just moved to San Jose to live with my dad and his wife’s family and I felt out of place a lot in that coming year. Despite my love of books and feelings of safety within that library, my life was slowly changing. I was no longer living with my mother and had been taken out of a life and routine I knew by heart. If that summer represented anything it was that fragile cusp between childhood and adolescence and what happens when you transition against your will from one part of your youth- rather carefree and light- into another, which starts to demand more and more of you whether you are ready for it or not. I don’t think it’s any secret why I crossed back and forth between the children’s and young adult’s sections so easily and freely. I still wasn’t quite sure who I was, and at the time I didn’t realize I was being forever shaped by the books I was reading and how I came to perceive literature as my savior and respite from the harsh realities waiting outside in the “real world”, a concept I didn’t fully understand back then.

Perhaps I’m in a reminiscing mood, or perhaps I’m longing for those days when I could very effortlessly be swayed and pulled into a book, but I can’t get over how much I’ve been thinking about that forlorn library lately. It comes to me at seemingly inopportune moments as well. I’ll be sitting at my desk typing away on some project or another and suddenly I’m right back on that carpet, nose stuck in a book, listening to the buzz and hum of those lights, feeling nothing except the emotions of the characters in the book. And hoping against hope that I’ll hear that song again on the way home that reminds me of a particular scene or a piece of the action in a chapter I read and get the chance to relive every moment.

To read, and read anew: books to love over and over again

My second bookcase has been started!

My second bookcase has been started!

I got into a Goodreads conversation with a fellow book clubber about books that can be read over and over again, and whether or not they maintain the same magic as the first reading.

I contend that most books lose their luster after a second read, mostly because we already know the plot and the ending, but a few actually do get better after multiple reads. Kids books, for example, are wonderful to reread as an adult. So often new information is revealed, jokes are finally understood, and even seemingly tame story lines- Roald Dahl’s novels come to mind- appear darker the second read around.

So much of the magic we experience in books is created or defined simply by where are in our lives. I wrote on my Goodreads shelf “Books that Changed Me” that both American Psycho and The House of Mirth struck me so deeply based on where I was physically, and what I was going through in my life. As in the case of The House of Mirth, I was knee deep in a financial mess and therefore I identified strongly with Lily Bart’s plight, whereas had I actually been financially sound, I don’t think her story would have resonated with me in quite the same way. I did have the chance to reread the novel a few years ago, and while the characters are still beautifully and wittily written, the tone felt more melodramatic and Lily Bart a little more frivolous and stubborn to me than upon the first reading.

However, there are still some books which I have had the utmost pleasure in rereading over and over, and the magic behind the novels has increased ten-fold through the years.

Here is a shortlist of personal read again favorites:

Katherine Neville’s The Eight and The Magic Circle

The Eight, in particular, is an experience like no other. I’ve probably reread her novels (for many, MANY years there were only three. I see she has a new one that came out in 2008. Must read!) three or four times. Part historical fiction, part mystery, part high-tech intrigue, and part epic romantic adventure, these novels captivated me to no end and never lost their thrill. The only time I EVER talked to a stranger sitting next to me on an airplane was when I spotted a copy of The Eight in his seat pocket. I was desperate to find out if he was loving it as much as I had!

I happened upon a used copy of The Magic Circle in my mid-twenties, and having forgotten that I had already indeed read the novel, I voraciously dove into what I thought was an overlooked Katherine Neville. Half-way through I realized that it was a reread, but I was so engrossed that it didn’t even matter. The novel took on new meaning to me. Believe me, it is that gripping!

Part of what is great about Neville’s books is that they hold up incredibly well despite having been written more than 15 years ago. The Eight was written in the late eighties and is about a woman living in the seventies, so after a couple of rereads in the late nineties and early 2000’s you would expect the book to seem dated and irrelevant. Not so. The novels are rich and complex and with each reread I discover new aspects of the plot that I didn’t fully grasp on the first go-around. Each book is composed of characters so grounded in the fundamentals of human nature that you hardly notice the setting and background details, such as computers, transportation and fashions, which have definitely evolved over time.

Because the books are epic adventure stories in nature, it is possible to still feel the same zing of excitement with each new read. Exotic locales, simmering romance, and cloak and dagger intrigue never really go out of style. I feel almost comforted every time I reread The Eight. I know the plot and I know how the story ends, but it is the journey that I want to experience one more time.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series

Ok, disclaimer: I have read every Harry Potter novel at least three times with the exception of the last in the series, for obvious reasons. I mean, it’s the last one. Finito. Fin. The End, no more. I can’t seem to bring myself to close that series forever. Actually, that’s not completely true: I did reread the last chapter of the very last book a couple times, but mostly to convince myself it was truly over.

In some ways you almost have to reread these books in order to keep the story straight and re familiarize yourself with the characters and all the magic that is happening. But that is not the only reason I fell head over heels enchanted with these books enough to read again. Each volume gets funnier the more you reread. As is the case with kids books, a lot of the humor is lost on the very young. I don’t have much of an excuse; I started reading them as an adult. Still, the story got progressively more poignant and at the same time, humorous, with each new read.

Also, if you start again at the beginning of the novels and read through to the end you discover the brilliance that is J.K.’s writing. She writes each volume according to reading level, as she understands her child audience is, in fact, growing up as they read the books. By the end of the series, the writing is more mature, the characters more conflicted and nuanced, and she definitely knows that by now her audience can handle more complicated plot threads.

I’m so delighted to rediscover her writing style and great skill with each new read.

Judy Blume’s entire Young Adult catalog, in particular Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, Starring Sally J. Friedman as Herself, and Just As Long as we’re Together

My childhood is full of reading and rereading the same books again and again. I started reading Judy Blume around age 11 and continued to read her novels until my early teens, probably as late as 14. Judy Blume wrote specifically for pre-adolescent and pubescent girls, and amazingly her novels stand the test of time because they  never stray from the issues that have plagued young girls since the beginning of time: getting their period, falling for boys, and dealing with peer pressure.

Trust me, when you are 13, the above is all you care about. I must have read Are You There God? more than ten times from age 11 until 13, hoping and waiting for my “magical” girl moment. I reread this book in particular mostly for reassurance that what I was feeling was perfectly ok. If Margaret went through it, then everything will turn out for me in the end, I told myself.

The novels got better the more I read them, and they became more pertinent to my life. Also, I reread them for clarification: what I didn’t understand at age 11 became more clear at age 14. With Just As Long as We’re Together, I remember rereading the chapter where Stephanie and Rachel go to the dance because I could NOT understand what type of top Rachel was wearing that was described as “an upside down lampshade”. Since I was at that age when somewhat risqué clothing was an option for me, I was dying to copy the look. And I was also figuring out my place with my friends too. Judy Blume’s novels became a refuge and a learning ground for what would be expected of me as I turned into a teenager.

Starring Sally J. Friedman, on the other hand, was a novel where I identified so much with the main character that I read the book over and over again for simple inspiration. I have a memory of when I was first told we were taking a trip to Florida and right before we left I thought to myself ,”Now I can go meet my sister Sally”. Silly, yes, but I must have read that book at least four times before our trip. She was spunky yet shy, and had a great imagination. I not only  thought of myself like her, I wanted to actually be her.

As a lark, I reread Are You There God? as an adult. Actually, the parent’s side story is what is more clear than ever, probably because I’m reading it as someone who could now understand where they are coming from. It’s a great revelation because it made me realize that this book in particular is not necessarily just a young adult novel anymore. I think anyone with young daughters who are “reaching that tender age” could learn a lot from these books.

Mil Millington’s Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About

I love this book, and I love to reread it, for one simple reason: it’s utterly hysterical. Whenever I finish a particularly heavy book and I need a “brain break” from anything too complicated before I go to sleep at night (prime reading time), I tend to pull out this book. And I laugh every single time.

I first came in contact with the novel- known hereafter as TMGAIHAA- at a yard sale in which the seller was a former manuscript reader for a publishing house. I’m not quite sure she had any right to sell these yet-to-be- published editions (lots of typos and errors in these books, but I still count the box I found of these gems a gold mine), but TMGAIHAA was among them and as I was told, “A great read”.

A “great read” is a bit of a stretch. I haven’t read the actual published version so certain details and plot points might have ended up hammered out in the final version, but the copy I read is basically a memoir/blog entry/rambling complaint based on life with his live-in girlfriend Ursula, who is also the mother of his children, with a side-plot involving stolen goods and the Chinese. It doesn’t actually “read” per se, but rather the story moves along like a screw-ball comedy caper feature film à la “What’s Up Doc?” or even “Romancing the Story”.

And I mentioned it was funny. Not just funny- absolutely rip-roaring funny. If you ever get a chance to read Mil Millington’s website, you will see what I mean, and all of that stuff on the website is completely separate from the book. But you will grasp the author’s tone that is the same in the book: frenetic, chaotic, whip-smart, and completely snarky. The book never fails to give me a great chuckle when I’m in need.

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