Monday, March 9, 2009

A Girl Named Zippy & She Got Up Off the Couch

I owe Jenny big for introducing me to Haven Kimmel. I loved my first taste of her writing in The Solace of Leaving Early, but didn't enjoy her newest Iodine. That disappointment was more than reversed when I finally sat down to read her first book, A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana. I resisted reading Zippy initially because I couldn't get excited about a memoir. Which just proves how limiting genre prejudice can be!

I loved Zippy! It was a witty collection of stories that were absurd, delightful, and sometimes almost too painful to read because they resonated so deeply with tender childhood experience. Kimmel blends both the heart-breaking and the heart-warming aspects of small-town life, achieving a sincerity that avoids cliche and sentimentality. And all done in her gifted prose that turns it into almost a tactile experience.

I listened to the audio version of Zippy, read by Kimmel herself. This was a disadvantage in some ways, because I would be so struck by something she said that I'd have to replay it in an effort to let the language sink in. It would have been so much more effective if I could have read the printed word directly. But the advantage was hearing it told in her own voice, complete with Midwestern drawl and lisping demonstrations. It added an authenticity to the stories that made them even more inviting.

Then came She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana. This Zippy sequel continues in a similar vein as a collection of personal essays from Kimmel's childhood. But as Zippy grows up (these stories cover her early teenage years) there is a slight edge as she begins to develop an awareness about the world around her. While there are many stories about Kimmel (all delightful and witty as you would expect), She Got Up Off the Couch is really about her mother who turns the family's world upside down by getting off the couch and going back to college. As you watch Zippy try to understand what her mother is doing and why, you also see her coming to grips with her parents' troubled marriage and unhappy home life; all told with characteristic self-deprecating humor and insight that's all the more striking for its understatedness.

In the preface to She Got Up Off the Couch, Kimmel writes:
Indiana is not the state our national eye turns toward for fascinating narratives, strangely enough. Mooreland is definitely not a mecca for the literary arts, although it is rich with crafts. And no one cares about the reminiscences of one more child with one more set of parents and neighbors and friends. I myself have been known to wince as if stabbed with wide-bore needles when faced with yet another coming-of-age memoir.
This is how I felt before reading A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch. Been there, done that, not interested. Keep your tedious childhood stories to yourself. But this is not the experience that awaits you in Zippy's story. Funny, poignant, and true in the deepest recesses of your childhood self, you will find yourself disappointed to reach the last page, and will carry a taste of her story in the days to follow.


  1. "You will find yourself disappointed to reach the last page" describes it perfectly. These books may be just more coming-of-ages memoirs, but they are nothing like the norm and it comes down to how Kimmel tells the stories. I'm so glad you read and enjoyed them! Now I have a few more thousand or so people to convert.

  2. Okay, okay, I'll read them. I have Zippy sitting on my shelf with a bookmark on page 3. I was pregnant when I started it, and decided I wasn't up for anything too moving, since everything reduced me to tears. I will try again. Thanks for the gentle prod.

  3. I very much enjoyed it as well, though I got the benefit of the audio version as well as the Caren-reading-it-out-loud version—sans the drawl.