Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, May 2009
Number of Pages: 288
Book Category: Memoir
Pick out a book based SOLELY on the cover. First, write about what you expect the book to be about based on the cover art. Then read the book and write about how the book was different from and/or similar to what the cover art led you to expect.
This book caught my eye because the photo on the front cracked me up. Nothing says funny like a giant poofy hairdo. Also, the title and its lettering seemed to promise a funny story—perhaps something about a “fish out of water.” To me, the cover seemed to indicate that perhaps the story was about a white girl who was pretending to be or aspiring to be African-American. The fact that it was a memoir also caught my eye; I’m a huge fan of memoirs with a sense of humor. And if this was cover photo was a school photo, I knew I was in for a chuckle or two. After all, I have my own bad poofy hair photos so I know what I’m talking about. (See photo at right. That is me in high school with a horrible horrible perm.)
As it turns out, I wasn’t too far off the mark.
When her dad enrolls the girls in summer camp, Mishna is out of her element and regularly terrorized by the other children. But her quick wit and smarts help her find a survival strategy that works for her: capping. Capping is the fine art of “yo mama” jokes where participants engage in trading escalating insults. Mishna excels at capping, and it is her lifeline in the hard-knock world of kid society.
I was becoming a machine—or at least I thought I was. All I know is I had purpose:
1. Me ruling.
2. You sucking.
I had aspirations. I had goals. I had a lot of friends, and a lot of bruises.
But just as Mishna begins to fit in at the neighborhood, her mom steps in and gets her transferred to a school for gifted children. Feeling she has found her place in the world at last, Mishna is excited—even thought attending the school means a long commute on city buses. Alas, although Mishna finds herself with children who have the same skin tone, she is still an outsider. Now she doesn’t fit in because her family is poor. Her survival method of capping doesn’t quite work at her new school, and she is forced to find another way to fit in. Eventually, she finds a small group of friends who bond over drawing and fantasy stories (think elves and wizards). But she finds an escape for her increasingly difficult home life at her friends’ homes.
Sleepovers were like mini-vacations for me. I got to step out of my family responsibilities and into my friends’ homes where I was catered to like a crippled person. Dad wasn’t in the habit of asking if he could make me something to eat, or if I wanted him to rent me something while he was at the video store. In fact, the last time I’d had Zwena over, he got her to clean the kitchen after I made dinner.
Besides documenting her struggles to fit in to “kid society” in the neighborhood and at school, the book also chronicles her difficult and confusing relationship with her father, who she alternately loves and loathes. Mishna is torn between loyalty to her father and her wish to escape the lifestyle he inflicts on the family. He dates a series of successful and attractive black women, and each one seems like a potential lifeline to Mishna—an escape from the dirty, uncertain household her farther provides. Here is Mishna describing the visit to her father’s new girlfriend’s apartment:
And the whole place was covered in light cream carpet—which I tiptoed onto like it was hot lava. I knew that cream was for careful people, and no matter how Dad was acting, that wasn’t us. We were the kind of people who needed dirt-colored things.
Eventually, her father remarries, and Mishna gains some new siblings. But, increasingly, her aspirations and dreams drive her to move in with her biological mother. In the end, Mishna is faced with a choice: staying with her sister and father in the life she is familiar with but never really fit or moving in with her mother and pursuing her dreams for the future.
I think part of the problem is that she hasn’t come to terms with her father. In fact, I felt the end of the book left things very unresolved between the two of them. I needed to know more about how things ended up between them. Although her father was a constant presence in her life, his wants and needs always seem to come first and many of his choices are just downright inappropriate and selfish.
Perhaps Mishna Wolff wrote this book without having had enough time to be able to see her father through more mature eyes. She seems to skirt the pain, suffering and sadness that seem to constantly bubble below the surface of her entire childhood. Although I’m glad she was able to find comedy in her upbringing, I feel she owes it to the reader and herself to find the truth of her family life. Some of the best memoirists (I’m thinking of Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls) are able to recognize and write eloquently about both the comedy and the tragedy of their lives—thereby creating a piece of writing that fully describes and embraces the human condition. This memoir falls a bit short.
Where I Got The Book
I bought this book with my (husband’s) hard-earned money and read it on my Kindle so unfortunately, no giveaway on this one.