My Little Red Book. By Rachel Kauder Nalebuff. Hachette/Twelve Books, 217 pp., $14.99.
By Janice Harayda
This is a messy collection of 90 true stories about a messy subject, girls’ first periods. There’s certainly a place for a book that might clear up some of the confusion about menstruation that lingers decades after the publication of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Our Bodies, Ourselves. And Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, a student at Yale, tries to provide one in this anthology packaged like Mao’s Little Red Book (a device that, perhaps inadvertently, implies that women belong to a biological proletariat, a theme that most entries don’t support).
My Little Red Book collects reports from girls and women of many backgrounds — Korean and Comanche, feminist and traditionalist, and Christian and Muslim. It also includes Gloria Steinem’s essay “If Men Could Menstruate” and poems by Maxine Kumin, Jill Bialosky and others. But if its entries are at times interesting, the book as a whole is disorganized and perpetuates the kind of misinformation it seems intended to correct.
The lack of consistency shows up quickly. Kauder Nalebuff says in her first line, “Every woman remembers her first period — where and when it happened, who, if anyone, she told, and even what she was wearing.” This untruth soon takes a hit from novelist Michelle Jaffe, who writes, “I don’t remember my first period. At all.”
The most egregious misinformation comes from the novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard, who tells a daughter who asked if she could play sports when she had her period: “Best thing for it. That way you’ll never get the kind of cripple cramps girls used to get back in the day.” Menstruating girls can play sports, but the rest of that comment is scientifically inaccurate and contradicted in entries by women who describe getting cramps despite participating in vigorous sports. And in some cases Mitchard’s view would amount to blaming the victim. Take that, all you suffering teenagers who have made a priority of studying for your AP English exam or babysitting to save money for college! If only you’d joined that travel soccer league, you’d never have those “cripple cramps.”
The causes of menstrual cramps have always been poorly understood in part because they have been little studied — that’s an implicit point of Steinem’s essay. But research suggests they are caused by contractions related to the release of prostaglandins and other substances when the uterus sheds its lining each month. Cramps intensify when clots pass through the cervix. That’s especially true if the cervical canal is narrow or woman has a “tough cervix,” one that doesn’t dilate easily, which is why it’s an old wives’ tale that a woman who has severe cramps will have an easier childbirth. A tough cervix can make both periods and childbirth more difficult.
Some research suggests that sports may help to ease cramps for some women, but it is cruel and misleading to imply that they are a cure-all for a condition that can involve many factors. And My Little Red Book offers little hope to girls and women who suffer from them. It has appendices such as a list of Web sites and a glossary of slang terms for menstruation — from warhorses like “falling off the roof” to the newer “rebooting the ovarian operating system” — but nothing on relief from pain or other physical symptoms. This book would have benefited from an afterword by a doctor or at least from the inclusion of a phrase such as “prescription-strength Advil.”
The sex of the editor of a book is usually irrelevant, but it’s perhaps worth noting that this one was edited by a man, the respected Jonathan Karp, who writes in the foreword to the advance reader’s edition: “When literary agent Susan Ginsburg asked me if I wanted to read a book about first periods, I assumed the subject of the work was punctuation.” Female editors may well have wanted to buy My Little Red Book and have been outbid by Karp. Even so, you wonder if some might have had the same reaction to this book that more than a few female readers may have: This is a book about menstruation that only a man could love.
Best line: The entire poem “The Wrath of the Gods, 1970” by the gifted poet and editor Jill Bialosky. And Gloria Steinem’s modern classic “If Men Could Menstruate,” first published in Ms. in 1978, which argues with tongue-in-cheek that if men could menstruate and women could not, menstruation would become “an enviable, boast-worthy” event: “Men would brag about how long and how much.”
Worst line: Mitchard’s line about how you’ll never have cramps if you play sports, quoted above.
Editor: Jonathan Karp
Published: February 2009
Furthermore: My Little Red Book comes from an adult division of Hachette but has, throughout the book, cutesy taglines for authors and other writing that appears pitched to adolescents, such as, “Is Jacquelyn Mitchard the chillest mom ever, or what?”
Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material may differ in the finished book. Kauder Nalebuff’s last name is not hyphenated on the ARC cover but is hyphenated in images of the cover of the finished book.
(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.