Category Archives: review – already read

Annie on My Mind, Nancy Garden

Ed. note: I wrote this several months ago and have read many books since, but just thought i’d give an update. Contains spoilers.

It probably undermines my credibility as a literature blogger to admit that books rarely move me to tears. They move me, truly and often, but very rarely to the point of actually crying. Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind is one of the few that can.

Avery gave me this book as a birthday present last year, as a much-needed addition to my ever-expanding collection of LGBTQ (emphasis on L) books—Annie, after all, is more or less the premiere lesbian young adult novel. And as such, it broke many, many rules.

The book takes place during its protagonist, Liza’s, final year of high school. As student council president and all around good girl, she’s very involved in her small, private high school, and only happens to meet Annie, an oddly playful but intriguing fellow senior from another high school, at the Met one afternoon. The two become fast friends and, eventually, end up kissing at Coney Island and realizing that their feelings exceed friendship.

This whole process is extremely organic, contrary to what one might expect. When a book is so obviously—notoriously, if you will—queer, you might expect that the queer relationship will seem forced, or obvious, or inevitable. Garden, however, manages to create such a natural trajectory from strangers, to acquaintances, to friends, to lovers, that it is nothing short of the beautiful, pure young love—love that even the most straight-laced would have trouble finding qualms with (i’d imagine).

Annie and Liza become progressively closer and more comfortable with their love, with one another, and with identifying as gay though neither of their families or communities—Annie’s Italian immigrant parents and inner-city school, and Liza’s kind but conventional family and insular private school—would approve of any of it. After several months of dating in secret, Annie and Liza decide to have sex. Yes, sex, young, lesbian sex.

This, of course, sends so many alarms blaring. You may recall an earlier discussion of Judy Blume’s Forever, which still graces top banned books lists thirty years after its publication for its inclusion of adolescent (premarital) sex. Between a young woman and man. So if that was bad, one can only imagine the taboo against the same situation with two young women. And further, Garden blessedly refrains from portraying the sex as confusing (though, realistically, feelings of confusion do play into the girls’ relationship), or destructive, or empty, or frightening—it is portrayed as warm, sensual, loving, safe, and, yes, beautiful. However, it is not explicit; the descriptions of the sex are appropriately vague, able to strike a balance between age-inappropriate detail and total unnecessary sugar-coating. I’d like to commend Garden’s guts in not only writing one of the first lesbian YA novels, and not only including sex in that novel, but also portraying the sex as ultimately positive.

Inevitably, however, shit does hit the fan, and the girls are discovered—won’t say how or by who in case you decide to read it, and this part is surprisingly intense even though you saw it coming from a mile away. After all, the novel is set up as Liza looking back on her relationship with Annie a year after they first meet, after Liza is already away at MIT and—for reasons unknown to the reader initially—has not spoken to Annie for several months. Which brings us full circle, to the reason for my tears: after going over the story of their relationship in her mind, Liza decides that she is secure enough in her sexuality and love for Annie to call her and hope that things can be resumed after the long hiatus. And things end happily.

In this, Annie perhaps breaks the biggest rule: that gay love stories have to end unhappily. And so, so many do, especially when their characters are young and have even less control over their lives. And of course this is understandable: many real gay love stories, due to unfortunate and unethical forces of culture, society, and prejudice, end unhappily. But it is nice to have happy models out there, especially when they are designed for young people’s consumption. Even better, Annie is not mindlessly happy—Liza and Annie face many complications, including their comfort in labeling themselves as gay, not being able to spend as much time as they want together, coming out to their families and friends, etc., not to mention universal relationship drama. But in the end—even after a lengthy separation—they find each other again, and the reader is left with reasonable hope that they will stay together for as long as the relationship is happy for them. Which is what brought tears to my eyes.

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Go Ask Alice, “Anonymous”

This is a bit of a cheeky post.  Though never explicitly stated, an implied rule of this blog was that i’d read books by women that would enrich my life, or educate or inspire me in some way, or be considered a worthy work of literary fiction.  Go Ask Alice falls under none of these categories, but it is a very entertaining—and, in many ways, captivating—book.

Published in 1971 under the byline of “Anonymous,” Go Ask Alice made a valiant effort in scaring impressionable teens away from the drug culture very prevalent at the time.  The book is framed as the real-life diary of an anonymous, fifteen-year old middle-class girl who gets mixed up in the mean world of drugs. After unknowingly ingesting a coke(-a-Cola, that is) spiked with LSD at a party, the protagonist tries crack, heroin, and various amphetamines and pharmaceuticals within weeks, eventually ending up running away twice, living as a vagrant giving blow jobs to buy drugs, and getting raped while on smack.  After deciding to go clean, users at her school continue to harass her, (*spoiler alert*), succeeding in drugging her and leading her to such a bad trip that she pulls out large quantities of her hair, scratches her face raw, and claws at a closet door so adamantly that her fingernails fall out.  After a stay in the psych ward, she appears to be on the road to recovery and decides to discontinue keeping her diary.  In an abrupt, disturbing epilogue, the reader is informed that three weeks after the final entry, the protagonist mysteriously dies of an overdose.

The individual who claimed editing credit (and, presumably, royalties) for the book was one Beatrice Sparks, a Mormon therapist and youth counselor.  Two years later, Sparks “edited” another teen diary about a young man who purportedly became involved in Satanism, which, according to the book, contributed to his suicide at age 16.  After the publication of Jay’s Journal, however, the family of the boy whose story Sparks had manipulated came forward and stated that the vast majority of the publication was fiction passed off as fact.  The late young man’s brother even wrote a book about the fraud.

It’s been proposed by many that Sparks is fond of fabricating these cautionary tales in order to advance conservative religious values which she espouses, which would follow if one observes Sparks’ bibliography: the various teen diaries she’s claimed to have edited all deal with such hot button issues as AIDS, teacher/student relationships, teen pregnancy, and teen homelessness.  In later diaries, Sparks is audacious enough to include herself in the course of the story. For example, in the journal about AIDS, the “diarist” writes something along the lines of: “Today i met a nice therapist named Beatrice Sparks.  I told her i would give her my diary after i die so she can publish it and fewer kids will have to go through what i’m going through.”  Yeah.

I’m not sure which claim is less plausible: that multiple teenagers or their families would submit such personal diaries to Sparks (taking for granted the fact that teens in such dire straits would even bother keeping a diary), or that she simply “discovered” the diary that would become Go Ask Alice, as is advertised on the cover of Jay’s Journal.

The text of the diary itself fishy, too.  The very language of the diary seems far too proper for the average fifteen-year old in many respects—granted, some young teens (myself once included) tend to write with their own overly-dramatic brand of eloquence in personal journals, but Alice takes it a little too far at times.  One of the most unbelievable parts to me occurs toward the middle of the book: when the protagonist has fled from her home and is hitchhiking around the west is a drugged stupor, she still manages to keep a record of her goings-on (“on loose paper, paper bags, etc.,” a footnote knowingly explains) and that these records survive her month of aimless, hazy galavanting.  Not to mention the incredibly rapid descent from young teen totally ignorant of the drug world to a savvy, shameless addict shooting up heroin and pushing acid to nine-year olds…

Some plot points are transparently moralistic, such as how it is a priest who reconnects the protagonist to her family after her month of hitchhiking, and how, when the diarist is clean, she has no greater wish that to grow up to be a prim, proper wife and mother who can clean, cook, and sew.  Indeed, when she accidentally suffers through her insanely terrible trip (after eating apparently drugged chocolate-covered peanuts), she is babysitting and caring for a male neighbor whose wife has been injured; she is “so excited” for the chance to practice such domestic skills.  And while it goes without saying that drugs can be dangerous, Alice treats the matter in an extremely overdone, unrealistic way that, in the end, is far less useful to young readers than a truthful account would be.

In short, Go Ask Alice is a phony, moralistic, overly-dramatic cautionary tale designed to scare kids away from any drug use.  And scare me it did when i first read it as an eighth grader.  So why would i chose to read it again? (This isn’t the first time i’ve re-read, either.  Call it a guilty, hypocritical pleasure.)  I guess there’s something oddly intriguing about this diary that has captured the attention of so many teens—and parents—over the years, both in America and internationally.  It’s become somewhat of a cultural icon, a bridge between our (my) generation and that of our parents, all united against that ubiquitous antagonist.  It’s certainly dark, and one gets a sense of voyeuristic pleasure from reading the entries, even if one is aware that it’s a fake.  And, quite plainly, it’s fun to read about a time and place so frequently romanticized and pondered. (Though, as the Sparknotes context section on Alice notes, while the book is, of course, very attentive about including the drug culture of the late 60s/early 70s, little of the rest of the time’s culture is mentioned—not even music, which played such a huge role in the counterculture Alice demonizes.  Perhaps Sparks thought it wise to exclude such references so that her magnum opus would transcend any certain time period.  If so, she succeeded.)  Despite its considerable flaws, it’s pretty certain that Alice will remain part of America’s psyche for some time to come.

(So, that turned into a bit of a dissertation.  Sorry about that.)

White Rabbit 🙂

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