Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch by Haven Kimmel

A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel
Copyright 2001
Doubleday (Memoir)
275 pages

On Christmas Eve, watching my parents got dressed for the party, I felt my stomach turn over with dread. There were a few things I had avoided facing that were now pressing down on me like snow clouds. 1) If Santa actually came down our chimney he would go straight into the coal stove, which had only a little round door in the front, not big enough for half of his fat, rosy face to get out. The larger ramifications of this I decided to avoid until some future date. 2) Even if Santa worked in such mysterious ways that he himself could get out of the red-hot coal stove, he could never get a piano through that hole, no matter how much I implored upon his mighty powers. 3) What if Santa was actually mad at me for asking him to carry such a thing as a piano all the way from the North Pole? What if flying it around caused one of the reindeer to founder, and Santa had to stop and shoot it in the head? How could I ever forgive myself?

A Girl Named Zippy is Haven Kimmel's first entry in a series of books about growing up in tiny Mooreland, Indiana. I've heard there's a third book but I'm too tired to go investigate.

Here's how I ended up reading A Girl Named Zippy - a book which I successfully ignored and walked past in a dozen bookstores for about a half-dozen years. I saw the title of Kimmel's second book, She Got Up Off the Couch (from now on, referred to as simply Couch). It just sounded like . . . well, like something I ought to do, myself. Except for the fact that we actually no longer own a couch. Point being, the title grabbed me and wouldn't let go. I wanted to read about how Kimmel's mother succeeded at breaking out of her rut. Because I'm trying not to buy books, I looked Couch up in the library, discovered Zippy next to it and checked them both out.

Now, here's where it gets tricky. I just couldn't figure out who all those people were, when I started reading Couch. So, I set it aside at page 26 and picked up Zippy. I absolutely loved Kimmel's writing style and enjoyed her reminiscences, once I began reading the first installment. I can't say I would have traded my family for hers - or her life. Adventurous as she was, I had a terrific childhood of my own. But, there were times I would have loved to step into her shoes. Or, I guess, her bare feet.

In general, it's about growing up poor but happy with a sharply intelligent but depressed mother who read book after book and did little else, a gambler father whose coming and going baffled everyone, and a much older brother and sister who were smart, good-looking and witty. All this in a town of 300 that was packed with what I'd refer to as characters. Kimmel makes everyone three-dimensional and memorable in a light-hearted, engaging and refreshing way. Midway through Zippy, I did get a little weary of Kimmel's "voice", but I was determined to move on to Couch and actually began to enjoy it, again, after a brief break when I couldn't read because I was on the road and then left the book in the car. I hate it when that happens.

I raced through Zippy to get to Couch and was actually kind of surprised when Kimmel ended Zippy on a very touching note that had me reaching for the tissues. On, then, to She Got Up Off the Couch . . .

She Got Up Off the Couch by Haven Kimmel
Copyright 2006
Free Press (a division of Simon & Schuster) Nonfiction
302 pages

Both Dan and Melinda were in the marching band with the director who they called Mr. M. Mr. M. was in all ways the model of a band director, and by that I mean he could have led an assault on an innocent nation, enslaved its peoples, and had them marching in pinwheels, all in the course of one profoundly hot afternoon.

I had to include that quote because it is so completely accurate as a description of just about every band director I've ever encountered - with one exception. My junior high band director was a total sweetheart (the one who didn't throw music stands, not the other one) and, unfortunately, unbearably good-looking. Then again, I probably had at least a mini-crush on all the male teachers who weren't tremendously old, crotchety, annoying or weight-challenged. I think I just eliminated about 75%.

She Got Up Off the Couch picks up where A Girl Named Zippy ends, although I'm not certain exactly how old Kimmel was, at the point Zippy concluded. Around the end of Zippy, Kimmel's mother saw a commercial advertising CLEP tests (I don't think she ever refers to them directly as CLEPs, but that's my assumption), which we also knew of as "testing out" or acquiring college credits by proving you already had the knowledge required to earn them and avoiding the actual class requirements toward a degree. Her mother called a meeting of her prayer group and Mrs. Jarvis (Zippy's mom) then watched for a sign.

As Couch begins, Mrs. Jarvis receives that sign - a repeat of an anecdote from Zippy, but necessary for set-up - and she manages to test out of a whopping 40 hours, a full year's college credit. That alone is impressive, but the book goes on to describe how she managed to bum rides until she acquired a car, earned two degrees and began teaching. The title is a little misleading, though, as the book is really more of the same kind of storytelling as that of Zippy and not entirely about her mother. Rather, the book tells how Kimmel's life entered a new phase as her mother took charge and made some serious alterations that affected the entire family. I was accustomed to Kimmel's style, by the time I reopened Couch, so it was no big deal to me that she continued in the same vein. You get the full story of her mother's metamorphosis with some pretty fun reading about Zippy's life through 13 years of age.

This is one of my favorite bits, about her cat PeeDink:

I'd been the one to find the hat at Grant's last winter and it was like stumbling on a pile of rubies. It was just a white yarn bowl, like a white ball cut in half, elastic around the rim, but coming from the crown, where on a normal hat there'd be a puffy ball, there was a long red yarn braid. This was a hat that came with its own hair. I don't know why it hadn't been thought of before. In many ways it was better than my wig (which was a "fall," and so held on with a comb) because the cats were less likely to steal it. I couldn't count the number of times I'd seen my wig flying out the door in PeeDink's mouth. Sometimes he just sucked on it and sometimes he tried to kill it. I think it was a combination of a rat and a baby to him. Of course, he had fallen out of many a tree, and so his relationship with a wig was bound to be complicated.

And, two sentences from a cat story that is a little out of context but tickled me so much I actually had to put the book down for a minute:

I knew that on one morning her parents woke up and turned to give each other a kiss hello and at just that moment their cat, Snowball, raised his head between them and they ended up kissing his cat cheeks. That story had caused me to fall down laughing.

I can't say I'd give these two books my absolute highest rating, if I was into numbers (which, for some reason, I'm still avoiding - I just don't feel like assigning a rating, at the moment) but I'd definitely say they were both immensely entertaining and well worth the time. Just don't go into the reading of She Got Up Off the Couch expecting it to be a story that is only about Zippy's mother. It's not; it's about Zippy and her life. Her mother's action was the catalyst to change for everyone in Kimmel's family and served as the slate upon which their changing lives were sketched but Zippy herself was the chalk scribbling all over the chalkboard, so to speak. That's a terrible analogy. Oh, well. Like I said, I'm a little bone-weary, here.

Thumbs up to Haven Kimmel. I will definitely look for a third installment, if there is one, and dip into her fiction. I recommend both, but advise flipping through a bit to see if you like her voice before dragging either book home.

This was a good day, but a long one so Wahoo! Wednesday is about to morph into Thrilling Thursday. In other words, I'll do my wahooing tomorrow. I'm off to soak my weary self in a tub full of bubbles.

UPDATE: I can't bear it; the numbers are attacking me. I think both books were excellent and would rate them 4/5. Okay, now I can start the bathwater.


  1. Anonymous8:49 AM

    didn't... throw... music... stands?!


    eek! the fact that you need to make that distinction is disturbing.

  2. You know, I have successfully passed over both of these books, until now!! I think I was turned off by the covers (yes, I'm really that shallow!), but it looks like I will be picking them up in the near future!!

  3. I think I'll keep my eye out for "A Girl Named Zippy". Your review really hooked me with this one and the two cat passages from "She Got up off the Couch" cracked me up!

    I'm glad to hear that you're sleeping better now that you've given them 4/5 ratings ;) I do the same thing to myself. If something's bothering me and just sitting on my mind, I can't rest easy until it's out of my head and "onto the paper" so to speak.

  4. You are a brave woman to tackle two non-fiction books by the same author, one right after the other. Especially memoir type books. I find myself getting really tired of spending time with the same author for too long...even an author as interesting as Kimmel. I haven't read 'Couch', but I did love 'Zippy'.

  5. Just like you, I have seen ZIPPY for years and ignored it. Now, I may have to pick it up!!!

  6. Heather,

    The one who threw music stands was very, very scary. But, in the end, the parents forced the school system to fire him for making inappropriate advances on certain young and innocent female musicians. I wasn't one of them. I was one of the ones who spent my time ducking.

    Did I say he was scary?


    It's possible you and I are just that shallow. Oh, well. I think I was under the impression that Zippy was a moan, groan impoverished childhood memoir. While obviously poverty figured into her stories in many ways, it was just mentioned as a fact or an annoyance, but seldom a barrier. The author had a happy childhood, for the most part (the second one becomes a bit sad at the end, although there are hints that her father would eventually leave them in the first book) and her mother's resourcefulness and determination are pretty amazing. I thought both books were awfully fun.

  7. Chris,

    Those particular quotes caught my eye because they either rang a bell (we had no fireplace and I always worried about Santa - would he figure out that he had to sneak in through the unlocked door? Would he and the reindeer break their necks trying to figure out how to get off the roof?) or made me chuckle. But, I think they're fairly representative of her style and she's very consistent throughout the two books. So, I'm sure you'll like them if you enjoy the quotes I used. Go for it. :)

    Exactly! I'd have never gotten to bed if I didn't make it clear that the number 4 for excellent was hammering me repeatedly. Isn't that nutty? Nice to know I'm not alone in that!


    It wasn't so much bravery as determination. I wanted to read about Kimmel's mother and how she managed to get herself back to school. She had a lot of obstacles to overcome - not the one I've got (who will drive my child to swimming and band if I don't . . . and it can't be a teenager) but not knowing how to drive, not having a car or much money. It's pretty impressive how she used a little ingenuity and a whole lot of gumption to get what she wanted.

    Normally, I can't bear to read two books in a row by the same person. But, I really wanted to read Couch so I barreled through them to find out the answers to my many questions and it was a surprisingly pleasant experience.

  8. I'm really glad to get your take on these since I'll be reading Zippy in preparation for hearing Kimmel speak at UNC-Wilmington. Wahoo for author readings! lol

  9. Amy,

    Isn't that funny? The covers of those two books aren't exactly grabbers - maybe that has something to do with the fact that several of us have just walked right past them without a second thought. If you do read Zippy, let me know what you think!

  10. Andi,

    I think you'll gobble Zippy right up. And, I am so totally jealous that you get to hear Kimmel speak. I have a feeling she'll be an excellent speaker. You can't always say from the writing, but I just have a feeling. You have to tell me all about it! Or write an Estella article. Are you planning to write about her?

  11. I've only read Zippy but I quite enjoyed it. Something about Zippy reminded me of my daughter; it helped me see how she sees things. I found it amusing.
    Great review too.

  12. Raidergirl,

    Well, I have boys, so Zippy just made me hearken back to my youth in small-town (but not *that* small) Oklahoma. Amusing is a good way to describe Zippy - not usually "laugh out loud" funny, but I smiled quite a bit.

  13. I've also avoided these books - there was just *so much* press surrounding the first one. I should give them a look. Thanks!

  14. Tara,

    I didn't even notice the press about Zippy, although it must have gotten prominent placement because I *knew* the book existed and paid it no heed. Really, I think it's a great book - probably a matter of taste, whether or not one enjoys her particular style, but it suited me well. :)

  15. Nice review. I liked "Zippy" just fine, but thought I'd wait a bit (maybe a year) before tackling "Couch". I think 2 "Zippy"s in a row would have been too much for me. I like to mix it up.

  16. Lisa,

    That's what I usually do. I like to space out books by the same author. Actually I tend to hate a second book if I space them together too soon (not always, but most of the time). Fortunately, I liked Kimmel's style enough that it didn't drive me nuts, this time. :)


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