excerpts that thrill me

from Bennett Madison’s September Girls


I kind of hate rating books with stars or thumbs-up or even just saying I’d recommend something, flat-out, because sometimes you’re in a mood for a book that engages you while you’re reading it, hooks you in, amuses you, and then the moment you finish, you sigh and say AHHHH with pleasure and then promptly forget everything about the book except that you liked it.

Those books? The AHHHH…Forget Books? Very important to me. In fact, I think they make up the majority of the books I’ve read. They are good because they amuse and entertain and grip you. That’s no small thing.

Then there are books that you can’t shake loose if you tried. They sort of cling to you. Not in a yucky way. But in a way where the story and the characters and the ideas raised keep tumbling around in your mind to a degree that you wish everyone around you had read the book so they could understand why you’re so befuddled/distracted.

Let’s call those HMMMM…Whoa Books. September Girls is definitely a HMMMM…Whoa Book.

Yes, the story is captivating and full of mystery and weirdness and entertainment. Yes, Sam, our narrator, offers many (often witty) insights on this endless-summer world of the beach and his broken-up family and douchey brother and the September Girls themselves.

But once I finished the book, I was left with a kind of aftertaste. Not in a bad way. Just, I can’t shake it: Bennett Madison’s September Girls and Sam and Jeff. I’m thinking about Things. With a capital T. Like, manhood. And motherhood. And femininity. And fate. And all the talking past each other the genders do. And sex. And posing. And desire. And stereotypes. And beauty. And the nature of time.

Here is an excerpt I adore, from the eponymous Girls themselves:

Since we have no word for beauty, we use the closest word we have. We call it the knife.

Our beauty is only our knife. Our beauty is our only knife. It’s just a knife: rusty blade, ordinary handle. But it’s sharp. It does its thing. Nothing special.

When is nothing special the most important thing? When it’s the only thing. Where we come from, beauty is so ordinary that we don’t even know we are beautiful. It is only after we arrive here that we begin to understand the knife that we clutch.

We crawl onto land naked. We learn which clothes to wear. We learn how to do our makeup, how to style our hair. How to toss it with sexiness that appears unconsidered. The women think we’re tacky, but we’re not interested in the opinions of women anymore. We learned long ago how unimportant the opinions of women are. We are here because our mother could not protect us. We are here because our father had an “opinion.”

So. We learn how to use our breasts, our asses, our eyelashes, our lips. We learn how to get what we want.

No. Not what we want. We never get what we want, do we?

We learn how to get what we need.

We crawl onto land naked. We learn to use our breasts (large but not cartoonish), our asses (heart-shaped, unblemished), our eyelashes (impossibly long), our lips (smirking, exotic, and always, always glossy). We learn how to dance, how to flirt. How to toss our hair and slam shots and play pool (we are exceptional pool players, but we know it’s best to lose on purpose) and how to talk about football. We learn to fuck, yes, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that it’s almost never the fucking that gets you anywhere. It’s the not fucking. Except in certain and very specific circumstances. Thrust, parry, thrust, thrust, kill. How are we to survive?

We learn quickly.

Rather, most of us learn. There are those of us who take a while to figure things out. There are those of us who never quite get it. And now and then there is a girl who is certain (certain!) of her skill until the moment she’s gutted by her own blade.

“I leave you with only one thing,” our father tells us–so we have been told–just before he casts us out. “I allow you your knife,” he says.

A knife is sometimes a tool. A knife is sometimes a weapon. You can eat off a knife if you don’t have a fork or a spoon. A knife can be used as a mirror, in a pinch. And if you’re lost in the woods, a knife is helpful for marking your path on tree trunks. But what the hell good is a knife, really?

Never trust a gift from your fuckface father.

–from pp. 84-86 of September Girls by Bennett Madison, HarperTeen, 2013.





From Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind Of A Funny Story

I’m often looking for stories that deal with the issue of mental illness in a way that’s real and concrete and graphic. I don’t often find them. There seems to be a glamourization of mental illness that grates on my nerves or a sugar-coating of it that infuriates every bit of me.

I know I’m rather late to discovering this, but Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story is the book I’m going to press into many hands of many kids who are dealing with depression. One of many great passages after the jump, where our main character Craig is being instructed to fill out his meal request form in the hospital’s psychiatric ward:

“If you want two of anything, put two-x by it.” I start putting 2xs.

I wish the world were like this, if I just woke up and marked the food I’d be eating and it came to me later in the day. I suppose it is like that, except you have to pay for whatever you want to eat, so maybe what I’m asking for is communism, but I think it’s actually deeper than communism–I’m asking for simplicity, for purity and ease of choice and no pressure. I’m asking for something that no politics is going to provide, something that probably you only get in preschool. I’m asking for preschool.”

from p. 266 of Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind Of A Funny Story, Miramax Books, 2006.

From Erica Lorraine Scheidt’s Uses For Boys

This book is like something whispered to you. Something that sings and rhymes but isn’t super obvious about it. Like a Suzanne Vega song. Or a bossa nova tune.

People have discussed Uses For Boys in terms of how it handles sex, which is brilliant, but to see it as a ‘steamy YA sex book’ is bullshit.

It’s not about boys at all. It’s really about being a girl. And wanting friends. And wanting your mother. Wanting, really.

One of my favorite passages, after the jump:

She says it first. “You’re my best friend,” she says and I feel something when she says it. I feel it in the tip of my fingers, under my fingernails and in the palms of my hand. I feel something so strong and so familiar that I want to take it home and show my mom. See, I want to say. I want to hold out my hands and show my mom so she can see it and remember.

I sit on the side of the tub and watch Toy get ready. She twists her hair up and catches it on top of her head. She curls her eyelashes, tints her cheeks. Pieces of dark hair escape from her barrette. I look at my own reflection, jagged hair and blue eyes. I want to be Toy. I want to climb into her and feel the ticking spiral of her thoughts in my head. But more than that, I want her to feel it too. I want her to want to be me.

from pp. 67-68 of Erica Lorraine Scheidt’s Uses For Boys, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012.

From Andrew Smith’s Stick

You’ve got to read this book. The story and the language are unbelievable. Andrew Smith makes me want to be a better man.

One of many beautiful passages below the jump…

“I’m sorry, Stick.”
And words like those, from my brother, were the kind of words that could get inside my head and whirr around like mad hornets trying to find a way out.

Sure he was sorry.
I knew what he meant.
He wasn’t sorry he busted 
that fucker’s face open.
He wasn’t sorry we got thrown out of a
goddamned basketball game.
Those were things you’d laugh about
and tell stories about over and over.
Things like that make normal boys normal
But goddamnit, goddamnit, GODDAMNIT
I knew what Bosten was sorry about. 
He was sorry about me, like he felt
some kind of responsibility for me being me.
Like he knew what she was thinking every time
Mom looked at me, so he was sorry for that.
Like he had to admit
that since nobody else was sorry for me,
he might as well do the job.

from pp. 26-27 of Andrew Smith’s Stick, Feiwel and Friends, 2011.

On D.H. Lawrence

D.H. Lawrence: He’s kind of a babe, unsurprisingly. 
Despite the facial hair, of course. Those were different times. 

I’m writing My Big Sexy Thesis which if it were 1/16th as fun as real sex, I would have written it by now and sent it off to every journal in the world wrapped in red satin.

I’m not a fan of analytical, scholarly writing.

Anyway, since I’m sitting here, plodding through to make page deadlines, I’m finding myself all up on D.H. Lawrence’s jock. Specifically, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Not shocking, I know. But still. Just listen:

“’The whole problem about the sexual problem,” said Hammond, who was a tall
thin fellow with a wife and two children but much more closely connected with a
typewriter, “is that there is no point to it. Strictly there is no problem. We don’t
want to follow a man into the W.C., so why should we want to follow him into bed
with a woman? And therein lies the problem. If we took no more notice of the one
thing than the other, there’d be no problem. It’s all utterly senseless and pointless;
a matter of misplaced curiosity.” 


“Why couldn’t a girl be queenly, and give the gift of herself?”


“He was the trembling excited sort of lover, whose crisis soon came, and was finished. There was something curiously childlike and defenceless about his naked body: as children are naked. His defences were all in his wits and cunning, his very instincts of cunning, and when these were in abeyance he seemed doubly naked and like a child, of unfinished, tender flesh, and somehow struggling helplessly.” 


“It was as if her whole soul and body and sex had to rouse up and pass into these stories of his.”

So, no point to be made, beyond Isn’t That Great? As you were.