the evolution of calpurnia tateThe lone girl sandwiched between six brothers, Calpurnia Virginia Tate—Callie Vee—is more comfortable romping the woods and swimming in the stream than knitting or sewing in the parlor. When a drought gets Callie wondering about grasshoppers—most summers she only sees one kind of grasshoppers, this time she’s seeing two—she faces her fear and talks to her grandfather, a rather forbidding amateur naturalist who generally ignores the children in favor of experiments in his laboratory. On finding a kindred spirit in Callie he makes an exception to his child-ignoring rule and teaches her about science, nature, and the distillation of liquor. (She finds that whiskey may cause coughing.)

It’s also the summer when it starts to sink in how differently boys and girls are treated in 1899, how few options she has, and how little she likes those options. The realization sits heavy on her, to say the least, and on her grandfather, too; he teaches her about Marie Curie and other lady scientists, but he knows that he’s making it harder for her to settle for the life her mother wants for her and the world expects of her, and that rejecting that life would take her down a very difficult path.

Callie is an appealing, energetic narrator, applying her wit and newly-trained skills of observation to the natural world and, with less consistent success, to her family. She is a product of her times and of her grandfather; her take on gender roles does not spring up fully-formed simple because she is the heroine of a modern volume of historical fiction and we expect our heroines to be sympathetic from a modern point of view, but rather we see it developing naturally through the conflicting influences of grandfather, brothers, best friend, mother, cook, and the telephone company. Memories of the Civil War frequently remind us how much Callie is the product of her time and place; with her friends and brothers, she maintains a reverence for Confederate soldiers, and no one likes the Federals.

It’s a slice-of-life book, covering the six months surrounding Callie’s twelfth birthday. It’s a pivotal six months of her life, and the book is a consistently interesting and enjoyable read, but as is so often the case with such books, the ending is abrupt and irresolute. We’re left with the hope that Callie will grow up from an unusual girl to an unusual woman, but with a lingering melancholy and a view of the obstacles that stand in her way.

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The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate ~ Jacqueline Kelly

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The Humming of NumbersAidan is a novice, nearly ready to take his vows as a monk, despite some lingering difficult with obedience. Obedience may trouble him, but he’s learned not to mention the humming of numbers—he hears numbers buzzing from everything—lest he be accused of witchcraft. People hum low numbers—anxious, unpleasant ones; steadfast, loyal threes; confident eights— while animals and objects hum higher numbers.

Abruptly brought to the monastery for punishment, Lana hums an eleven, the highest Aidan has ever heard from a person. A beautiful, energetic, playful eleven. Lana is all of those things, not to mention highly knowledgeable of the less-mundane uses of wood—what protects, what threatens, what gives knowledge— and skilled at causing trouble for Aidan.

And then the Vikings come.

The writing is nothing special. Aidan’s way of perceiving the world is interesting and well-explained. Lana’s way of seeing the world, the way she senses trees and works with them, is less unusual but at least as interesting. Lana’s life is also more interesting than Aidan’s; he was a youngest son sent to a monastery because there would be no land for him, while she was the bastard daughter of the local lord, gifted nice things periodically but rarely enough to eat, raped—and probably impregnated and led to have an abortion— gossiped about as a noble but not respected as one. Unfortunately, we see Lana only through Aidan’s eyes, and the limitations of the writing keep her from becoming thoroughly fleshed-out and realized. We know she is energetic, trusting, and playful; but we’re not given enough to see how she maintains this lightness in the face of all she’s been through. She and Aidan both seem unrealistically young, for their ages and for their existences.

(Spoiler time!)

But they are in their late teens and this is YA about a somewhat-loner guy thrown together with a somewhat-loner girl in stressful circumstances, so there must be sexual exploration. Lana's part is done well; the combination of excitement and nervousness, and the survivor's need to know that she can say stop and her partner will listen. And Aidan does stop However:

“Couldn’t we . . . couldn’t you just hold me and that’s all?” . . .

“I don’t know if I can do that, Lana.” He made the mistake of looking over his shoulder at her. Just the shape of her form in the gloom and the prospect of feeling her skin against his once more sent a tingle along his skin.

A hopeful smile flicked onto her lips, not sure it should stay. “I can slap hands that travel too far.”

Glad that the wounded creature [upset Lana] had slipped back out of sight, he replied gentle, “I’m serious. I don’t think I can. You are too overwhelming up close. Better if I stay a short distance away”¹

Sorry, kid. Holding your girlfriend without the possibility of sex when you’re really horny is likely to be exceedingly frustrating. Difficult. Possibly even painful. But you can do it. You may decide it’s not worth it, but you can. And the implication in this passage that men really can’t control their impulses, that they’ll turn into rapists if their girlfriends want hugs but not sex, is ridiculous and insulting to men. It also perpetuates an untrue idea of why rape happens: because men cannot control themselves around beautiful women. And from there it’s easy to get to the slippery slope of “she was wearing a short skirt so it’s her fault.” In reality, rape is less about sex than it is about power.

It’s bizarre to see that attitude in a book that, in other place, deals well with issues of rape and of being a survivor. It’s possible that the mediocre writing is to blame, that the author meant Aidan’s “I don’t think I can” to mean “I don’t think I can without being exceedingly uncomfortable” instead of “I don’t think I can without forcing sex on you.” As written, it comes across questionably at best.

(No more spoilers!)

Otherwise, it’s a quick, relatively fun, if unexceptional, book.

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¹p. 176-177

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The Humming of Numbers ~ Joni Sensel

Johnny’s mostly punk, with some goth folded in for good measure (and eyeliner). He’s also an alcoholic at seventeen. After a very bad night at the club followed by a very bad morning in the hospital, he gets shipped off to rehab and then to his uncle in South Carolina.

I picked this one up because I’m a sucker for YA books with queer themes, and Johnny doesn’t just think Debbie Harry (lead singer of the 80s rock band Blondie) is hot and a great singer, he kind of wants to be her. He wants to be beautiful and confident, just like her. Like Boy2Girl, Debbie Harry Sings in French looks at teenage confusion and angst over gender and identity issues without trying to force it too much into neatly defined boxes – or at least, that’s what the publicist who wrote the book blurb wants us to think. While Boy2Girl does raise some interesting questions about gender stereotypes, Debbie Harry Sings in French is actually much more about identity in general, and about how we try to understand people. Johnny dresses up as Debbie Harry not because she’s a woman, but because she’s a symbol of beauty, confidence, and strength. If he’d heard David Bowie for the first time at the crucial moment in rehab, he’d’ve been wearing tight pleather pants and oddly-colored hair instead of a dress and a blond wig, and it would have filled exactly the same role. Well, it might have confused his family less. And it might be about adjectives other than “beauty” and “strength,” though I suppose that’s a matter of opinion. But the effect on Johnny would have been much the same. We take our liberation where we can get it.

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Debbie Harry Sings in French