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When my nephew was much younger and not yet acclimated to the pretend-gender-wars dynamic of family Game Night, he started to cry when my sister and I taunted the “boys” team with chants of “Girls rule, boys drool!”
(It’s okay. We apologized and explained, he felt better, and nobody remembers who won or lost because that’s not the point of Game Night, anyway, is it?)
But it reminds me of what it’s like to be a child – boy or girl – and how confusing, overwhelming, and lost you can feel when you’re expected to know the exact rules of each new situation.
Two novels that capture these deep feelings and frustrations best, in particular of young women in 1970s America, are Hillary Hamann’s Anthropology of an American Girl and Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville .
Turn to any page of Hamann’s epic masterpiece and you’ll find something lovely and deep and true, written in a poetic language of careful observation that doesn’t push the reader away but brings you closer – closer to the narrator, and closer to an understanding of what the narrator sees and feels.
Here’s one description I chose at random (seriously). Read it and tell me you don’t see/smell/feel this. Marilyn is the narrator’s stepmother.
“We knelt at the open window, reaching to feel the rain. Cars swished dreamily up Elizabeth Street. Tangerine strands of hair broke free from Marilyn’s braid and fluttered in the breeze like kite tails. Her skin was powdered. It’s always nice to kiss her cheek; it brings to mind the gentler things.”
Or this (also randomly chosen), about gym class and its familiar humiliations:
“The worst thing about the ropes was the panic you felt when you stood up, knowing everyone was staring. Though I sympathized with whomever was up there, I would stare too, since you were wise to feign interest. Ellie rose reluctantly, yanked her T-shirt down around her hips, went dutifully to the swinging rope, tilted her head as if wondering how to begin, then looked pathetically to Coach for some kind of break. But coaches never give breaks. They take their jobs seriously – you can tell by the way they wedge their clipboards into their bulging bellies, blow silver whistles up close and indoors, and wear neat-looking Adidas sweat suits, though they never break a sweat.”
Beard’s novel is shorter and sharper, but just as evocative in description. She places in the eyes and mind of her nameless narrator as she babysits a difficult family with her friend, goes to football games at school, and fights with her mother.
And, most memorably for me, she is a reader herself who gets lost in books and even has a special place in her home, wedged behind an easy chair, saved just for reading.
So, for all of you (grown-up) boys out there who want to know what it’s like to be a girl – or the (grown-up) girls who want to re-live the experience – these lovely novels will take you there, with no actual (only literary) pain, periods, or pimples.