April 2009

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

My Little Red Book edited by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff

Every girl has a period story, just like every boy (probably) has a story of getting an unwanted hard-on or having his older sister’s prettiest friend discover his wet-dream-covered sheets. The difference is that, apparently, boys aren’t socialized to commune about these stories. There aren’t boy’s magazines with columns about “My Most Embarrassing Erection Moments” beside “How Do You Know If She Really Likes You” features. There aren’t Penis Monologues. If we can gauge what’s going on from popular publishing outlets (and of course that’s a big if), boys immediately channel anxiety about their changing bodies outward, enjoying over-airbrushed cheesecake and misogynistic humor. Girls, in contrast, turn the anxiety inward, stewing and obsessing over puberty, Judy Blume-style.

My Little Red Book is a collection of first period memories written by women of different ages. There are 88 stories in the slim volume, some only a line long. Like most first periods, the book is more rusty spotting than heavy red flow. There’s a short appendix of “Euphemisms and Code Words,” a brief bibliography headed “Learn More” (with selections like The Red Tent and the ubiquitous Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret), a subject index that gussies the stories up to look more multi-culti than they really are (“The African American Experience,” “Native American Stories,” “Muslim Stories”), and a “Do More” section that informs us the book’s royalties will go towards helping women in Kenya. It’s published by Hachette, not Alloy, but that “Do More” bit has a faux-progressive tween magazine flavor. The editor is an 18-year-old recent Choate graduate headed off to Yale, and the collection is heavy on rich, white, semi-Jewish people from Connecticut, and light on those African American, Native American, and Muslim stories. Gloria Steinem endorses the book (is it my imagination that she does this for all of the children of Connecticut’s elite?), Erica Jong over-shares about her daughter Molly Jong-Fast yet again, and Joyce Maynard appears from the dust to complain that most people weren’t nice about her tell-all Salinger memoir.

But, grousing aside (yes, I am on the rag, why do you ask?), for the menarche-ridden, My Little Red Book is a big improvement over Judy Blume’s oeuvre, which to me at eleven, was just depressing. At my school, no one wanted breasts or periods, and the highest-status girls were the ones who stayed preteen the longest, so Are You There God? was just evidence that even back in my mom’s era, there were all sorts of girls luckier than I was. The chorus of voices in My Little Red Book ensures that every girl will find a soothing story. Better still, most of the stories don’t try to be more or less than what they are. They’re simple. Many lack closure, details, clarity, or happy endings -- just like womanhood. Few are about showy writing. Few are preachy. Even the poems have a certain humility. Few complicate the issue by adding in a lot of other issues, which is sure to be a blessing if you are eleven and feeling all alone in the world. Rachel Kauder Nalebuff does a nice job, and the earworm of Katie Roiphe, Elizabeth Wurtzel, and (weirdly) Kaavya Viswanathan comparisons running through my head whenever I think about her really isn’t her fault.

As a reminiscing grown-up, it might be more interesting to read a whole collection of literary masterworks by genius women using menarche memories to generate revolutionary prose. But as a perplexed preteen, even though I was weird and obsessed with Camus, this simpler book would’ve made me happier than a bunch of edgy, threatening stuff by Dorothy Allison or Toni Morrison. It would’ve made me feel more normal. At eleven, normal is good.

My Little Red Book edited by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff
Twelve
ISBN: 0446546364
240 Pages