My fourth book for 12 Books, 12 Months was supposed to be Young, White, and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties by Wini Breines. Unfortunately, when I went to begin this book, I couldn’t find it. Anywhere. It wasn’t on any bookshelf. It wasn’t in any of the dozen or so boxes of as-yet unpacked books stacked up in my office. I’m sad to say I don’t think it survived the move. I did a huge book purge before we left Austin, and it must have been purged.
I could have bought another copy, of course, but it seemed to me that it would be more in keeping with the intention of the 12 Books, 12 Months project to simply pick another book from the “to be read” pile that’s always growing under my bedside table. So I did. And the book I picked was Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave, edited by Ellen Sussman.
As the title suggests, Bad Girls is a book of personal essays by female writers, all centered on the broadly defined topic of misbehavior. The best essay in it, and the reason I bought it, is Pam Houston’s heartbreaking and funny story about flirting with an attendee at her father’s funeral. There are, however, other high points. I was particularly impressed by Joyce Maynard’s defense of writing in her autobiography about her affair with J.D. Salinger. My black horse favorite of the essays, however, was Ann Hood’s “Lying,” which is all about making up stories about ourselves to tell to strangers, just because we can. That’s the kind of bad I can sink my teeth into–not really salacious, and not hurting anybody, but just…naughty.
That said, a lot of the book’s essays fell pretty flat to me, especially those from better-known authors. Erica Jong’s explanation of how the bad girl she’s always peddled in her fiction is…fiction? Left me with a big, “duh.” Mary Roach’s exploration of the power of confession didn’t really work for me either. That said, the essays are all quick, easy reads, and I bet it took less than two hours total for me to get through the whole book, so it’s not like you’ll be wasting a ton of time if you read it.
One last note, which I hadn’t even thought of until looking at the book’s page on Amazon, but is a good point: if you’re looking for “bad” to mean “sexy,” you’re in the wrong place. A few of the book’s essays deal with sexual themes, (including editor Ellen Sussmans’ “Consider the Slut,” which is pretty great), but most don’t. Misbehavior here is not always adult misbehavior (there are several stories about the authors’ childhoods) and the subject matter it not always titillating (see Jennifer Gilmore’s bulimia essay). The upshot, and I think the point, is that, especially for a woman, “bad” can mean almost anything.