Phoebe Rothschild is a slightly awkward girl, friends with the popular girls but not sure she wants to be, confident in her family—especially her millionaire super-successful mother—but not always in herself. You might go so far as to call her ordinary. Still, it takes courage to dump your clique and befriend the new, awkward girl in school, who’s wearing all the wrong clothes and projecting an attitude of pride and disdain—and that’s what Phoebe does.

Several years later, Mallory’s brother appears in Phoebe’s life, just as unexpectedly as Mallory had. And Ryland not only pushes Phobe and Mallory apart, he causes Phoebe to question everything—her world, her sanity, herself.

It’s fantasy, by the way. Interspersed with chapters of Phoebe’s life in Boston are conversations with the faerie queen, and eventually excursions into the realm of Faerie. The conversations are stilted and initially distracting, couched in formal language, a sharp contrast with the smooth, captivating writing of the real-world narration. Still, they serve a purpose: we need to know that all is not right in the realm of faerie.

The core of the book is Phoebe’s relationship with Ryland. The destructive, emotionally abusive relationship. It is plausible, realistic, and sickening as he takes this young woman and tears her down, bit by bit. Ryland is hateful, but the conversations with his queen remind us that he is doing this because he thinks it is necessary. That doesn’t soften the blow of his manipulation and abuse, but it muddies the waters and in many ways makes the book harder to read: we can’t just dismiss Ryland as unadulterated evil.

There’s family history at work, too, in the way characters must deal with our legacies: inherited money, taught beliefs, ancestral support and demands. Phoebe is Jewish—of the secular, not-particularly-theistic variety—and her relationship with her Judaism is dealt with quite well: rarely on her mind, but deeply important when it comes up.

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Extraordinary ~ Nancy Werlin
My review of Nancy Werlin’s Impossible

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Frankie wants in. Now a sophomore at the elite New England boarding school whence her sister and father graduated, now dating one of the most popular guys in the senior class, she’s sick of her dad’s dropped hints about the secret society at the school and she doesn’t like her boyfriend dropping her every thirty seconds when his best friend, another alpha-male senior, calls. She’s started noticing all the little thing people say or do that lessen women, put us in our place, degrade us, etc. She’s starting to get interested in civil disobedience.

She wants in, and all it implies: she wants her boyfriend to recognize her worth, her intelligence. To not be just adorable. To be on equal standing with his best friend. To be delible¹ to her boyfriend as his friends, not someone who ceases to exist when he isn’t around.

Frankie’s an excellent, full-fledged character, intelligent, gutsy, and ambitious. The book – which won a Printz honor when I was 30 pages in – is quite well written. It does make the reader extra-conscious of the little things people say and do which keep girls and young women on a more juvenile social level than their contemporaries – you can’t walk on you’re own but a boy can, everyone’s glad you have a nice boy to take care of you, your legitimate concerns are dismissed as your being sensitive, your arguments are dismissed as your being adorable. It’s infuriating, and it’s everywhere – not just in the book.

Of course, when a book’s gotten me primed to notice the subtle manifestations of sexism, I’m not particularly inclined to ignore them – even when they show up in that very book.

Yep, Lockhart slips up, damn her.

Passage A, straight from Frankie’s mouth:

Once you say women are one way, and men are another, and say that’s how it is in other species so that’s how it is in people, then even if it’s somewhat true—even if it’s quite a good amount true—you’re setting yourself up to make all kinds of assumptions that actually really suck. Like, women tend to cooperate with each other and therefore don’t have enough competitive drive to run major companies or lead army squadrons.²

She’s on a good track, though I’m on the “in all things moderation (including moderation)” side here – it’s not that we can’t draw conclusions about tendencies, it’s that we need to respect and recognize variations and let people find ways to use their traits to find success in their own ways.

But that’s actually not the point I’m trying to make. I want to show you Passage B:

If she were not a strategist, Frankie would have reacted like most girls do in the same situation: with tears, with anger, with pouting and sulking and petulant responses like “What is it that’s so much more important than hanging out with me, huh?”³

What? What? For one thing, she ranted a hundred pages earlier about people doing exactly what she’s doing now. For another thing… no. Just no. We do not all react to a boyfriend (or girlfriend) canceling a date at the last minute with tears, with anger, etc. Some women do; some men do. We react as individuals, not as monolith gendered blocks.

That’s not all:

It just seems so funny to dress up your boobs. Like when no one is going to see them. Or even if someone is. It seems so undignified to deck out your private bits in flashy bits of lace you’d never where outside of your clothes in a million years.

And then she thought: Boobs.

Boobs are just inherently undignified.4

Let’s go through this one offensive passage at a time, shall we?

Yes, it might seem funny to dress up one’s boobs, but that doesn’t make it bad. Wearing sexy bras, or pretty bras, or brightly-colored silly bras, can have an effect on a woman’s day: it can make her feel sexy, or pretty, or fun, or confident, or all of the above. Even if no one is going to see them. Especially if no one is going to see them.

Underclothes and outerclothes have different purposes; it’s okay to have a bra you wouldn’t wear on the outside, or a scratchy sweater you wouldn’t wear right against your skin. And some of us find excuses to wear corsetry in public, and there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

Moving on…

Very few things are inherently undignified; dignity is in how something is used or treated. Boobs in ill-fitting, ugly, or unflattering clothing can be undignified, certainly, though some women can pull it off; it’s in the confidence. Boobs in flattering lingerie or clothing can be dignified, certainly, though some women can’t pull it off; it’s in the confidence. Naked boobs? It’s all in the confidence. Boobs are inherently boobs. That’s about it.

I greatly enjoyed reading The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and it has many good things to say. The more I think about it, however, the more pissed I become at the undermining of its overall feminist message. If you’re going to stereotype women, assume that we’re all desperate for men (“On what planet would a girl in her position refuse to go to a golf course party with Matthew Livingston?”5 Mine.), and insult our bodies, don’t try to pass it off as a feminist treatise.

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¹ The opposite of indelible. Also known as the neglected positive, or so The Disreputable History tells me.
² Page 162
³ Page 277
4 Pages 227-228
5 Page 70

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The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
E. Lockhart’s Blog

The Book Thief is very, very good.

Narrated by death, it follows Liesel’s adolescence in a small town outside Munich. From January 1939 through October 1943. Good times to be a German, eh?

Not so much.

Death tries not to pay too much attention to the humans – we depress him – but even so, he noticed Liesel each of the three times he saw her over those four years. And the last time, he took a book. Her book.

Now, in a way, our book.

The original Australian publisher classified The Book Thief as general fiction; it was the American publisher who decided that it was YA. I’m reviewing it here, yes, but I think as a whole I agree with the original publisher. Not that I feel it’s in any way inappropriate for teens – not that there’s much I think is – but it has strangely few of the elements I’ve come to think of as signifiers of YA. Liesel’s self-discovery has little to do with her coming-of-age; school is at most tangential to the story; first love is only slightly more central and its position of ‘first’ is hardly under consideration; I could continue, but that would be boring. I’m not sure it’s even really Liesel’s story, so much as it is Germany’s story, and even death’s story.

Whatever you call it, it is an excellent book.

Brooklyn Bridge

I will admit it, Brooklyn Bridge made my heart glad with all its obvious love of Brooklyn, especially Prospect Park, but that’s far from the only reason to like the book: it’s good, solid historical fiction with elements of the supernatural and an eye for the details in history. For the most part, it’s about Joe, son of the Russian Jewish immigrants who invented the Teddy Bear. His is generally a good life, and he knows it – he’s secure in housing, food, and family – but he’s a kid, and gets grumpy about the time he needs to spend making bears instead of, well, being a kid. Or going to Coney Island.

Opposite Joe are short sections about the homeless kids under the bridge. They’re short enough that the main focus stays on Joe, but long enough to make you care – and wonder – about the kids under the bridge, so that when the big reveal comes and links the two threads, you’re ready for it.

The narration is sappy at times, in both sections, but the book’s fast past keeps it under control; you’ve built up enough momentum to get through the sap without getting stuck in it. And I always love the sense of wonder surrounding Coney Island and the World’s Fairs in the early 20th century. It’s like magic and science, all rolled into one.