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Free Sample Essay Example - Book review of Jane Vandenburgh's A Pocket History of Sex in the 20th Century

This sample books review on Jane Vandenburgh's A Pocket History of Sex in the 20th Century was written for a creative writing class. Vandenburgh's memoir, which ranges from funny to profound, examines how she dealt with her father's suicide and her mother's mental illness. This example English book review looks at how Vandenburgh uses language and humor to discuss such a serious topic. It would be a useful reference for a student who wants to evaluate how an author uses diction and anecdotes.

Sex and suicide: Exploring the dark, funny mind of Jane Vandenburgh

Readers are often counseled not to judge a book by its cover. They also shouldn't judge a book by its title. Jane Vandenburgh's memoir, A Pocket History of Sex in the 20th Century is neither pocket size nor about sex - it is however a powerful story about the ripple effects of suicide. While Vandenburgh's life story is a fascinating one, it's really her language - often funny or profound - that keeps you turning the pages.

Vandenburgh's memoir is divided in two sections. The first, "The Pull of Gravity" is arguably the most enjoyable part of the book, as it explores her childhood and teenage experiences. Within the first few pages, Jane's family is beset by tragedy - her father, a closet homosexual, commits suicide and her mother is sent to a mental institution. These events would be difficult for any child, but Vandenburgh captures the raw emotion she experienced at a young age. She finds herself crying one night and tries to stop. "But I will not," Jane tells herself, even though her brothers may try and stop her. "The two of them can't make me. They have no way of understanding what I've lost. They're not crying because they still have each other, but it was my father who approved of me. Now I have no one but Geo and my dog (Vandenburgh 33). Jane occasionally has even more dangerous thoughts. As a fifth grader, she sees the Bible as a "literal portal to a literal hell from which live snakes might begin to writhe and crawl" (44). Likewise, the thought of suicide seems to haunt her constantly. "You know, I told my aunt as we were pinning the crap on the pineapples, even the sound of the word Hawaii somehow makes me want to kill myself. That when she told me to go to my room and not come out, saying that would be enough of that" (72).

As Jane grows older, she realizes the deeper impacts of her father's suicide. Jane's relatives, a wealthier, more conservative group, look down upon Jane and her two brothers. That these children must carry on the esteemed Vandenburgh name is humiliating: "since our father is the only son of an only son, we, these guttersnipe-ish orphaned urchins, will actually be the ones to carry on Our Important Family Name, one that is registered with the Holland Society, since Vandenburghs first washed up on these shores in 1644" (47). Indeed, her family was always regarded as the runts of the litter. "Our little beach house is full of big, heavy, old-fashioned furniture that our parents inherited from Various Dead Rich Relatives Who Never Gave a Damn About Us When They Were Alive," she recalls (6).

Amid all this hostility from her relatives, Jane tries to preserve the memories of her parents, which she describes as "fragile, like woodsmoke on a windy day - never do Will or I say a word against them" (81). One of the more poignant scenes in Vandenburgh's book involves Jane recalling her mother. Now living with her aunt, Jane lovingly keeps her mother's record player in her room. "I miss my mother, so I open the top of the console, where the record changer is, and breathe in deeply the air that stays in there because I never leave it open. By keeping the lid down all the time, I'm saving the air she breathed and that still belongs to her, as it contains her smell" (71). The images in this scene are delicate and tinged with emotion, a technique Vandenburgh will often use when describing scenery.

Vandenburgh balances her somber inner-thoughts with humorous moments. Vandenburgh's humor, often punctuated by profanity, gives the reader relief from the darker parts of her work. Jane's teenage years are especially great to read about, as she discovers boys and begins to define for herself what it means to be a woman. The reader soon learns that there are many men in Vandenburgh's teen years. Among the first mentioned is Robert Burlingham. Vandenburgh's language seems to mimic the rapid-fire speech of a teenage girl when this boy is mentioned:

So Reggie and Steve can't get Aunt Nan to change her mind; then a ton of people come over to hang out before going off to the party, so I go to my room, as I can't actually stand it, since I will not be going and one of these friends, is of course, Robert Burlingham, that shit fuck asshole, whom I still secretly like. (92)

This freight-train sentence drives the reader through teen-Jane's warp-speed thoughts until they arrive at the punch line. Jane's trouble with relationships -and Vandenburgh's humor - is also seen later in the novel. Jane recalls "the era of the two Simultaneous Davids, these being boyfriends I had who were named the same, so when I got a dozen roses with a card at Christmas I didn't know which to thank?" (217-218).

Similarly, Jane's transformation into a teenage proto-feminist is highly entertaining. Jane comments on how her friends will be different from the uptight folks of her parent's generation. She rails against the "twin-bedded lives of American women in which they are told they both Do and Do Not like sex, equally and in the same measure, which is why they giggle at the word." Jane later adds, "Grown women who giggle make me so angry I want to stride over and slap their faces whenever they giggle behind their upraised hands, as if modestly. I hate giggling as much as I hate modesty" (112). But this sense of womanhood also drives her into isolation. At one point in the novel, Jane and her friends find themselves walking along the highway, "which is the abyss as boys and men sense what we are, which is dangerous, and slow their cars to speak at us." But they walk away from the civilized world because "we are propelled by tragedy - the early death of a parent - there is nothing to hold us here, so I feel that each of us may escape" (118).

The second half of Vandenburgh's memoir takes the reader into her adult years. In many ways, Jane the adult is the same as Jane the child, still haunted by her shattered childhood:

I am porous, clinically sensitive, and the stress of anyone's special needs make me marginally psychotic. I am balanced pieces that move in the wind and have no proper spatial boundaries. I am a chameleon and the elements are reflective; they mirror the surroundings, enabling me to disappear so completely that any group becomes yet another place where I can lose my mind (271).

In addition to these reflections, the second half of the book explores Jane's decision to start her writing career - "What now, for fuck's sake? I have to go be a writer? (233) she asks herself when she is fired from a more conventional job - and her relationship with her publisher, and ultimately husband. While the language is still wonderful, Vandenburgh sometimes gets carried away here. For example, in a chapter devoted to a near-brush with death, Jane and her husband are hit by a car. This intense moment draws the reader in, but Vandenburgh strays away from the subject by commenting on unrelated topics. After the traumatic accident, she spends several paragraphs discussing the validity of mantras, while the reader wants to know whether her husband is okay.

Despite veering off topic on occasion, the second half of Vandenburgh's memoir is full of powerful chapters. The only sex scene in the book is a rape scene, which forever alters Jane's life. Afterwards, she longs for the time "when a girl didn't have the experience to know that sex and violence might mean SEX AND VIOLENCE!" (285). Notably, this chapter is followed by a poignant chapter on a friend's death. These chapters follow each other on purpose - one describes the end of innocence, the other the end of life itself.

In the hands of another author, Jane Vandenburgh's story might come across as too heavy handed or perhaps too irreverent considering the subject matter. But Vandenburgh's gift is timing the reader's mood - she senses when they need to laugh or willing to explore her narrator's fractured psyche further. Jane is quite the character: complicated, funny and reflective, she's worth getting to know. This makes sense, given Vandenburgh's comments at a recent reading. She explained that writing for her is a "kind of ventriloquism" and she enjoys trying to "make people sound right." Her main character reflects that desire to find a unique voice that will stick with the reader until the end. Readers appreciate such writing and should have no problem diving into this rich memoir.
1,450 words, 5 pages

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