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the Complete Review
the complete review - anthology



My Little Red Book

edited by
Rachel Kauder Nalebuff


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the editor

To purchase My Little Red Book



Title: My Little Red Book
Authors: various
Genre: Anthology
Written: 2009
Length: 224 pages
Availability: My Little Red Book - US
My Little Red Book - UK
My Little Red Book - Canada
  • Includes an index of Euphemisms and Code Words
  • With contributions by over ninety writers, including Meg Cabot, Erica Jong, Joyce Maynard, and Cecily von Ziegesar

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Our Assessment:

B+ : surprisingly good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times . 23/2/2009 Abigail Zuger
The NY Times Book Rev. . 15/3/2009 Alexandra Jacobs


  From the Reviews:
  • "At this point, male readers may want to go outside and toss a ball around for a while. No matter how sympathetic, how curious or how deeply interested in lifeís little yuck factors you are, this collection is unlikely to hold more than the mildest intellectual appeal for you. But it is hard to imagine any woman, from the most straitlaced and body-denying to the most uninhibited and body-embracing, who will not read right through it with pure enjoyment, small flashes of recognition and the urge to buy it for every female preteen in sight." - Abigail Zuger, The New York Times

  • "Indeed, My Little Red Book is as much a referendum on mothering styles as a mass chronicle of menstruation, whose details, frankly, grow mundane upon repetition: the widening surprise splotch, the cramps, the sense of lifeís great unfairness. Customarily told the news first, some moms laugh, others cry, others distribute supplies without visible emotion. They humiliate (by telling everyone in sight); or intimidate (issuing dire warnings about teen pregnancy); or celebrate, with florid gifts and arcane ritual. What they donít do enough of, it seems, is instruct." - Alexandra Jacobs, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       My Little Red Book collects some ninety accounts of what it was like for women to get their first period. As Nalebuff explains in her Introduction:

This book is an effort to bring periods into the arena of acceptable discourse so that all of us can gather and share these experiences without a smidgen of self-consciousness.
       Yeah, good luck with that.
       Not that My Little Red Book isn't a worthy effort -- or, indeed, that it doesn't serve a useful purpose. But there's also something to be said for keeping discussions of menstruation -- and of bowel movements, many aspects of personal hygiene, and quite a good deal else -- separate from dinner-table or cocktail-party talk. Bring it in to the 'arena of acceptable discourse', by all means -- but somewhere on the shady periphery, please. (The accounts suggest it is already a pretty common subject of conversation at slumber parties and in girls' bathrooms.)
       Nevertheless, there is a lot to be said for being more upfront and forthright about menarche -- that first period -- which is what this book largely focusses on (though the book also includes an updated version of Gloria Steinem's 1978 essay from Ms., 'If Men could Menstruate' -- it's a poor fit, but apparently was too good to pass up). Much as (most) girls are, to some (though obviously often very poor) extent prepared to start bleeding on a monthly basis, menarche still comes out of the blue. It comes largely without warning -- and, in some cases, takes its good time too: as Rachel Vail writes:
     I just could not get the thing, no matter how many white bikinis I wore, even on boats, without bringing a pad along just in case; no matter how many phantom cramps I willed into my uterus. Nothing.
       And it seems that the first time almost always involves some inconvenience and embarrassment (beginning with editor Nalebuff's own experience).
       Certainly one good argument for a book such as this is for girls to have some idea of what to expect, but that's obviously not as easy as it sounds. Clearly, some knowledge of what is going to happen is essential; thankfully, there are few accounts of girls who found themselves bleeding with no idea what that meant (though there are a handful whose first thought is that they are dying) -- but in other cultures that may still be an issue: Nalebuff cites a statistic that 87 per cent of girls in Pakistan "haven't heard about menstruation prior to their first period" (though that seems awfully hard to believe).
       However, even the most well-meaning sex-ed or mother-daughter talks apparently don't always yield the desired results -- or convey the proper information. One can certainly empathise with Elli Foster, who recalls:
     Ever since all the girls in my fourth-grade class were exposed to an enormous picture of a vagina with a tampon in it, I'd been terrified of getting my period.
        And as helpful as Judy Blume's books obviously were (they are widely cited by many of the women, Debby Dodds going so far as to say that, starting sixth grade: "I'd read all of Judy Blume's books, so I was pretty confident that I knew all I needed to know about getting my first period"), surely it's criminal that they didn't update Are You There God ? It's Me, Margaret decades ago regarding its depiction of feminine hygiene products; instead, apparently millions of girls (and a handful of boys) have long been mystified by the belts that she describes going with the pads .....
       My Little Red Book doesn't help with its title, either, as numerous accounts note the confusion caused by the evidence when it first presented itself: rather than cheery bright red many of the girls find splotches that are rust coloured (the most popular colour-choice among the contributors).
       Well-meaning parents should obviously also be attentive to how the information they impart is received -- or why it is asked for: Tamora Pierce (for whom it did, however, seem to work out well) admits taking advantage of her mother's enthusiasm for the subject:
Around about fifth grade, I discovered I could put off bedtime if I asked her to explain to me about the uterus and the ovaries again. (She drew pictures, which was time-consuming for her and more stay-up time for me.)
       Nalebuff hopes for openness and frank discussion about menarche, but even in the most enlightened households many of the girls don't necessarily want to announce it to the world (or, especially, Dad -- "Promise you won't tell Dad and, jeez, no rite-of-passage party, okay ?" one particularly enlightened Mom is told). At least Nalebuff keeps her sense of humour about her undertaking (and the obvious zeal with which she goes about it), as there's an account by Zoe Kauder Nalebuff, too, with a note at the end that:
Her first thought after getting her period wasn't where she could find a pad but that she would have to write down her story for her older sister.
       It's certainly clear from these stories that the feminine hygiene industry has some work to do in making girls' lives easier, and while many of the women mention relief at the discovery/use of tampons, quite a few have considerable and very awkward trouble trying to deal with those things the first time around. Pad disposal obviously also rates more discussion than it apparently gets -- though Joyce Maynard's solution (store them in a bag in her closet -- where Mom only discovers them after half a year's worth have accumulated) is fortunately extreme (and grounded in some additional home-life-issues).
       The accounts include several from other cultures, where menstruation is still considered unclean in one way or another -- Shobha Sharma's description of ostracism from the main part of the house during period-periods being the most extreme. (Kenyan Thatcher Mweu recounts that in Kenya poorer girls can not afford pads and hence miss school when they menstruate, and the proceeds from My Little Red Book are going to a foundation that is trying to alleviate this problem by making sanitary supplies and private toilets available in Kenya.) There's also a range of periods to when the periods took place -- one from 1916 is the oldest account, and there are several from the 1930s and 40s -- but while matters seem to have improved, at least as far as being vaguely prepared for what's coming, it's astonishing how often things still wind up being awkward and confusing.
       With varying cultural expectations and pressures from culture, family, and friends, and its mysterious timing, menarche -- and anticipating it -- can lead to considerabe confusion. On the one hand, there are girls like Tonya Hurley, who: "longed for the big day like a bridezilla after scoring an engagement ring. I would play dress-up, trying on my mom's belted maxi-pads like some girls try on jewelry and make-up" -- and then there are those like Joyce Maynard who writes: "before I started being ashamed of getting my period, I was ashamed of not getting my period". More communication seems like it would generally be helpful -- certainly the smoothest transitions seem to be made by those who are both well-informed and situated in a supportive family-environment -- but it's astonishing how many misperceptions and how much confusion lingers even where the adults have tried to do everything right.
       A book like My Little Red Book probably also helps -- though it also doesn't address some of the nitty-gritty, and hence also only helps so far. Certainly, there's some comfort to be found in these stories that reveal so many permutations of discomfort and embarrassment (through which they all make it pretty much unscathed). But while the we've-all-been-through-it approach has its reassuring appeal, it is worth noting that a major source of discomfort in many of the accounts is that too often menarche proves to be a too shared experience: sure, they're all willing to recount it again, admitting, as for example Fatema Maswood found: "Privacy ? Not a chance." But one does get the sense that many wouldn't have minded considerably more privacy surrounding the whole thing.
       My Little Red Book is entertaining, the short accounts -- almost anecdotes, for the most part -- quick, often amusing, and as often as not offering some useful insight. (Note, however, that several of the accounts are in verse; while a nice idea, we really could have done without those.) While we're not entirely on board with the whole get-this-really-out-in-the-open notion, it certainly seems valuable and useful enough in such book-form. Worthwhile.

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Links:

My Little Red Book: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Rachel Kauder Nalebuff will be attending Yale.

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© 2009 the complete review

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