The Geography of Girlhood – Kirsten Smith

girlhoodTurns out The Geography of Girlhood was written by someone who knows a lot about teenage girls – at least in the movies. Kirsten Smith is the co-writer of some classic teen flicks including 10 Things I Hate About You, Ella Enchanted and one of my all-time, never-get-sick-of-it faves She’s the Man. (I can not stress how much I love She’s the Man. I’ve seen it many times and it still makes me laugh I love that I can share it with my students when we study Twelfth Night.)

When The Geography of Girlhood starts, Penny is just fourteen.  Having rowed herself out into the middle of the bay to contemplate her life she thinks: “One day, I’ll find my way away from here/ and go somewhere real/ and do something great/ and be someone wonderful.”

Of course, the problem with being a teenage girl is that there’s a whole lot of crap to wade through before you get that “someone wonderful.” Fourteen, Penny intones, “is like rotten candy.”

The novel, told in free verse form, follows Penny from the end of grade nine until just after her sixteenth birthday.

Penny is jealous of her  perfect, older sister, Tara, her “long torso,/ the breasts lodged high/ like tea cakes/ on her powdery skin.” She longs to experience “love” as she imagines it exists between Tara and Bobby, her sister’s boyfriend. “I look at her/ and memorize everything./ So when the time comes,/ and the boy’s eye glitters like a crime,/ I will know what to do.”  We learn about Penny’s complicated feelings for the mother who left her, who, in fact “always wanted to leave wherever she was.”

Readers will recognize themselves in Penny. While it’s true that fourteen was a L-O-N-G time ago for me, I can totally remember that feeling that  “you look good only once a week/ and it’s never on the day of the dance.”

Penny navigates the treacherous geography of  her girlhood, in language that is both  poignant and pointed.  She falls in and out of love in the way of all teenaged girls. She makes stupid choices and does stupid things, but she is also smart and resilient and open to all the possibilities life has to offer.

“If anyone tells you that life is predictable,/ DO NOT BELIEVE THEM,” she remarks.

I really enjoyed this book.



Our Daily Bread – Lauren B. Davis


Picking a book for my book club  is serious business. The way our group works, we have one opportunity to pick and host per year and so you don’t want to choose a dud. The women in our group our merciless [cough] The White Iris [/cough] and it sucks to be on the receiving end of a book choice gone bad.  Usually I spend a lot of time choosing my book. This year I thought I would choose something from my own massive tbr  pile, but the problem was that every book I selected from my shelf was unavailable at local stores. In the end, I headed over to Indigo to peruse the shelves. The only criteria at that point was that there were enough copies on the shelf for the members of my club.

In the end, I chose a book I’d never heard of but which was plastered with accolades and a bright red sticker proclaiming that it had been longlisted for the Giller in 2012. Feeling confident of its pedigree, I brought home Lauren B. Davis’s novel Our Daily Bread.

Davis’s novel owes some of its gripping story to the real-life Golers from South Mountain, Nova Scotia. But Davis is quick to point out that Our Daily Bread is not ABOUT the Golers. While it’s true that Davis’s fictional Erskine family shares some similarities with the real-life family, that is only one small part of this mesmerizing and beautifully-written tale.

Albert Erskine is not like the rest of his violent, drug and alcohol addicted, sexually deviant family. He has already separated himself from the pack by building himself a small shack away from the main buildings on his family’s “compound”  on North Mountain.  His uncle Lloyd comments on Albert’s ‘otherness’ by saying: “You don’t act like the family at all now, do you? Don’t come visiting. Live in your little shack. Course maybe you have your own parties. That it? You have kids come to see you?”

It’s near impossible to trace the branches of  Albert’s family tree. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of younger kids with questionable DNA and Albert regards them with a mixture of annoyance and helplessness.  When ten-year-old Toots stops by his shack looking for food,  Albert ponders the sticky question: “What would she be like, if she’d been raised in some other place?” Albert often wonders how he might be different if his circumstances had been different. It’s a painful road for both Albert and the reader to travel.

Down in Gideon is another family with their own struggles: Tom and Patty Evans and their children Ivy and Bobby.  Tom is a good man. He grew up in Gideon and is well-liked and well-known. His wife, Patty, is another story. For starters, she’s from away. And although Tom seems desperately in love with her, she seems detached and unhappy. No matter what Tom does, it’s not good enough. As the tension in the household escalates, Ivy and Bobby seek shelter elsewhere. For Ivy, it is with the benign widow Dorothy Carlisle; Bobby’s new friend and confidant turns out to be  Albert Erskine. The intersection of these lives makes up the bulk of the narrative of Our Daily Bread.

I am guessing that some of the women in my group will have difficulty with the graphic (but never, imo, gratuitous) nature of the subject matter. As a mother, it’s certainly upsetting to see children in peril. The interesting thing about this book is that peril means different things to different people. Is Ivy’s falling-apart life any less horrible because she has a warm bed to sleep in? The impact Bobby and Albert have on each other’s lives is astounding and heart-breaking, too. Bobby is filled with a fifteen year old’s rage and angst and it isn’t until the novel’s powerful climax that he understands the value of his father’s love.

It truly is the mark of a great novel when you can empathize with so many of the characters. I loved Ivy’s resolute determination and Albert’s jaded hope and Dorothy’s refusal to bend to the will of small-town politics. And I loved Tom. A lot. As he copes with his unraveling marriage, as he asked himself the question, “How can I ever trust myself again?” I just saw so much of myself in him. But, ultimately, it all comes back to Albert. I so desperately wanted him to get in his truck and just go. I will be thinking about him for a long time.

Our Daily Bread isn’t ‘light’ reading, but this is a book that will stay with you long after the final page is turned.

As expected, our discussion of this book was lively and we were SO excited to be able to Tweet with Ms. Davis about her book. Here is some of our conversation:

Lauren B. Davis:  Oh, that’s wonderful, Christie!  If you have any questions, just send me a tweet! Thanks so much. #Ilovebookclubs

The Ludic Reader: Lively discussion about Our Daily Bread. @Laurenbdavis girls want to know if you think Albert ever contemplated a sexual advance towards Bobby?

Lauren B. Davis‏:  Not consciously, altho I do think the conditioned response of his childhood arose (pardon the pun) a few times, including that moment in the cabin the night Bobby came up to the compound with him.

@bitebymichelle wants to know where the wife went.

Lauren B. Davis‏: At the very end of the book?  Ah, who knows.  She is a lost soul, I fear.  I wonder if she’ll  ever come back and finally make that long walk up to the door.  What do you all think?

The Ludic Reader: Nobody is going to love her like Tom did, but we don’t think she’ll come back until her life is shit.

The Ludic Reader:  We all loved Albert so much – why did he have to die? (Altho we do know the answer.)

Lauren B. Davis‏: Can’t tell you how I tried not to kill him.  In the first draft he survived, but it just didn’t work.  I suppose it’s the symbolic sacrifice, but to be honest, I still grieve him. I found the final scene difficult to write.

The Ludic Reader: Some feel the trial was not necessary. Why did you decide to include it?

Lauren B. Davis:  It is rough, isn’t it?  But I felt readers would want to know what happened to the abusers, and since the courtroom  dialogue was taken from trial transcripts, I felt I was bearing witness to the children whose story inspired me. There was so much more of the Goler case which I did not include, because it was simply too horrible. But the response of the townspeople was important to the meaning of the book  I understand the squeamishness.  I felt I, too.  But yes, I think it’s important to be fearless in our gaze and to speak  truth to power even if our voice shakes.