Book Review: Popular-Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Care Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships by Mitch Prinstein



You’re gonna be popular!
I’ll teach you the proper ploys
When you talk to boys
Little ways to flirt and flounce
I’ll show you what shoes to wear
How to fix your hair
Everything that really countsTo be popular
I’ll help you be popular!
You’ll hang with the right cohorts
You’ll be good at sports
Know the slang you’ve got to know
So let’s start
‘Cause you’ve got an awfully long way to go”

-Popular from the musical Wicked

The word popular, one that must send shivers down most of our tailbones. It’s one of those words that take us back to our teen years when popularity was everything. And whether you were part of the “in-crowd,” a rejected outsider or somewhere in-between, the concept of popularity probably still affects you even though high school is now in the review mirror of life.

And that’s why Mitch Prinstein’s take on popularity is such an interesting and informative read with his book Popular-Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Care Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships.

According to Prinstein we are most likely familiar with two types of popular. On type of popularity is based mostly on wealth, status and fame. Back in high school the most popular kids were the athletes and the cheerleaders. Today this type of popularity is best portrayed by people like President Trump and reality stars like the Kardashians or world famous celebrities like Taylor Swift or Kanye West. This popularity is considered controversial because even though these people have their admirers, they  often quite detested and often, deservedly so.

And then there is another kind of popularity based on actual likability, wealth, status and fame notwithstanding. To me, these include people like the Pope, President and Mrs. Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and so on. Sure, these people have their share of “haters,” but for the most part, these people are admired for their contributions to society. Wealth, status and fame are a by-product.

Of course, looking back at high school a lot of the athletes and cheerleaders were completely likable. And I don’t hate the Kardashians as individuals, I’m just not fond of them as a concept…but I digress.

In the book Popular Prinstein goes to great lengths to explain how popularity affects us personally and professionally, especially in the age of social media, where far too many of us are too dependent of followers, likes, retweets and so on to assess our worthiness.

To get us past the digital high school halls of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat, Prinstein offers compassionate ideas on how to be genuinely likable that will bring us true happiness and gratification and will affect society in a positive way.

Prinstein also doesn’t shy away on how not being popular in both childhood and adulthood can leave scars and how people can heal, whether they have experienced moments of neglect or rejection during those unpopular moments.

In Popular, Prinstein uses studies, interviews and other assorted methods of research to write about popularity in an audience-friendly way. He also asks readers carefully chosen questions on how on how popularity affects one’s sense of self. Popular has its academic moments, but is never dry and boring. It took me only a couple of days to read Popular and it’s still food for thought, especially when I get hung up on how many followers I have on Twitter.

I especially recommend Popular to parents and teachers.


Book Review: Shrill-Notes From a Loud Woman by Lindy West

I’ve been a fan of writer Lindy West since her days. Whether she was writing about pop culture or social issues, I found her writing voice to witty and wise,  a welcome relief from tiresome clickbait and lazy listicles.

So it was a thrill to read West’s memoir Shrill: Notes From a Loud woman.

Growing up,  West was nerdy, shy and fat, not exactly a recipe for success. Yet, she was able to find success, both professionally and personally, once she became an adult and found her voice.

And though her voice brought her admirers it also brought her haters,  mostly obnoxious trolls.

You see West is a woman with an opinion. She’s also fat. How dare she!

Through her feature articles and opinion pieces, West expressed her disdain for rape jokes and the struggles with body shaming. In response, she often faced horrific comments telling her she should be raped and ripped her apart for not being a tiny size two.

West fully describes in Shrill what it was like to be caught up in hail storm of hatred. It was a time of loneliness and tears,  vulnerability and anger, but it was also a time where West found support, decency, empathy and a the will to go on as a writer and just person trying to live her life

But in the end West triumphed. She triumphed so much a troll even reached out to her to apologize.

Today, West is having the last laugh. Shrill is gaining lots of praise, including praise from two of my faves, Caitlin Moran and Samantha Irby. Now based in Seattle West now writes for GQ,  The Guardian,, and other assorted highly respected publications. She founded the advice blog for teenagers called I Believe You/It’s Not Your Fault. West is also blessed with a loving family and a happy marriage. Hmm, maybe being shrill isn’t such a bad thing.

Though Shrill is West’s story, it’s also the story of every woman with an opinion and  one who doesn’t fit into our society’s slender notion on how to behave…and look like. I highly recommend it.

Taking One for the Team: Right for a Reason-Life, Liberty, and a Crapload of Common Sense by Miriam Weaver and Amy Jo Clark

right-for-a-reason-life-liberty-and-a-crapload-of-common-sense-198x300Has this election season made you a nervous wreck? I know it has me at the end of my tether, and with my bad allergies, morbid depression, and chronic insomnia, I don’t know if I should make a plate of brownies, charge my smart phone, or buy a truckload of Xanax. Either way this election goes (I’m going to plug my nose and vote for Hillary Clinton), by this time next week we will have a new President-Elect.

Anyway, here is my latest installment of “Taking One for the Team,” Right for a Reason: Life, Liberty, and a Crapload of Commonsense by Miriam Weaver and Amy Jo Clark, two Indiana-based conservative pundits who go by the name of Chicks on the Right. The Chicks have a radio show on WIBC in Indianapolis, an occasional newspaper column for the IndyStar, their own website featuring their opinion pieces (under the pen names Mockarena for Weaver and Daisy Jo for Clark), links to other like-minded conservative websites and memes well-versed in the radical right mindset. Their social media has plenty of followers and they are often profiled and interviewed by more mainstream media outlets.

Not living in Indiana, I first became aware of the Chicks when they wrote a scathing screed for the IndyStar lambasting liberal feminists for wearing vagina costumes or thinking tax payers should pay for their birth control pills or being all-around entitled, whiny, crybaby harpies. They claimed they were the true feminists because even if their husbands left them for “younger models” they would just pick themselves up by their bra straps, soldier on, and not expect any type of safety net to bail them out. And for some odd reason, stiletto shoes were also involved in the world of Chicks-fried feminism.

Well, as one of those liberal feminists the Chicks love to hate. I can’t recall seeing anyone in a vagina costume, and I don’t exactly expect anyone to pay for my birth control; I just believe there should a safety net for people who are struggling and a woman’s reproductive issues are a very important component of health care. I hardly think this makes me a virulent shrew. And I have to remind the Chicks, even this libtard, feminazi in sensible sling backs, pays her fair share of taxes.

This opinion piece went viral, picked up by other media outlets including Bust, Jezebel, We are Libertarians, and Democratic Underground. My curiosity piqued, I decided to learn more about the Chicks. I found their website, which included a high-heeled shoe in the logo (because the ladies love their shoes, amirite?). The Chicks’ apparent goal is to give conservatism a “makeover” because when people think of conservatism they think of old, white, silver-haired, dour and boring men. Well, actually I think of skinny blonde women talking smack…and writing smack.

Which finally brings me to Right for a Reason…

In Right for the Reason, the Chicks go deep as a Jimmy Choo in-step when it comes to serious topics regarding capitalism, race, feminism, guns, abortion, political correctness and LGTBQ issues.

On the surface, Right for the Reason’s first chapter, Capitalism is a Good Thing, isn’t exactly something I disagree with. I am very grateful for living in a country where entrepreneurs of all kinds from my friends Laura and Myra making a living designing jewelry to domestic diva, Martha Stewart, can hone their skills, talents and expertise and become successful. But capitalism is not without its faults whether it’s the malfeasance found on Wall Street or CEOs making 400 times what the average worker and treated to a golden parachute worth millions even though they make decisions that sink a company and screw over employees, clients, consumers, shareholders and other invested interests.

And then then there is their take on Occupy Wall Street, which to the Chicks, pretty much was made up of dreadlocked hippies pooping in the streets while updating their Twitter feeds on their iPhones. Sure, there were quite a few members of Occupy Wall Street that fit that tired stereotype. But if one looked any further, you would also find knitting grandmas, blue collar types and suit-wearing professionals. They also found one ridiculous Occupy Wall Street manifesto that they use to sum up the entire movement. That’s like me saying all members of the Tea Party can’t spell, are total bigots and dress like Paul Revere. I wouldn’t because I’m pretty sure the Tea Party types have a variety of people in their ranks, too.

When it comes to the poor here in the United States, the Chicks compare the poor in a first world country versus those in a third world country. Well, of course there are differences! We talking about a first world country compared to third world countries, where there are vast differences in policies, infrastructure, education, and so on. But the Chicks never delve into those complex topics. Instead, the poor in America often own TVs, DVD players, stereos, kitchen and laundry amenities, and even cars! Well, a lot of the poor live in apartments where kitchens come fully equipped and there are laundry facilities. One can buy certain luxuries like a TV used or have they been given as gifts. And if someone doesn’t live in a place with reliable public transportation a car is a must to get to work, school and to run errands. Yes, a lot of poor people work and/or going to school. Not everyone who is poor is lazy, popping out babies, uneducated, not working, watching “Jerry Springer” and fully dependent on the taxpayer. And it seems to the Chicks the only people who pay taxes are themselves and their fellow conservatives.

As for corporate welfare? The Chicks briefly refer to corporate welfare was the bailouts, which mostly happened in 2008—when Bush was still President.

In this chapter, the Chicks bring up the idea of “mincome,” which apparently all of Canadian liberals played around with back in the 1970s and it was a huge failure because everybody became a lazy slug or something like that. I had heard of mincome so I did some investigating. Turns out mincome was something relegated to mostly Manitoba, and the only people who pulled back on working and earning a paycheck were teenagers and mothers with babies and very young children. Most citizens continued to work regular jobs while also receiving a decent minimum income from the government.

And just who were among these unwashed hippies who came up with the idea of mincome? Milton Friedman, yep, that Milton Friedman.

In America is Exceptional the Chicks go all neener, neener on liberals who have the audacity to point out America’s flaws, both past and present. And Weaver tells the tale of her father coming to America as an immigrant and having nothing but good things happening for him, not quite owning up to the privilege he already had in place—being white and highly educated. He certainly had it better than some immigrants coming from places like Mexico and Syria, or what my great-grandfather, Max, faced coming here as a poor orphan from Germany when he was still a teenager. Anyway, the vastly smarter and funnier, Jimmy Dore, sums up what’s great about America in the final chapter of his book, Your Country is Just Not That Into You.

Other subjects where Chicks have all the intellectual heft of a feather include the idea of hands up, not hand-outs. I guess you’re alright to get some help if you’re a single mom who identifies as a conservative. The rest of us can just die in a fire.

When it comes to the first amendment the Chicks bitch their right to free speech is being violated due to one set back on Facebook, not quite acknowledging they have a radio show, a newspaper column, an active social media presence and a book. If that’s called having one’s first amendment rights being trampled on, sign me up! They also call political correctness stupid with all the maturity of kindergartners in a sandbox, claim they don’t see color when it comes to the thorny topic of race, stomp their stiletto-shod feet for their right to own things that go Pew-Pew-Pew (to the uninitiated they are talking about guns, not Pepe le Pew). They think the war on women is a load of crap (yep, these two classy dames love to use the word crap), but throw plenty of insults when it comes to women they disagree with, often using hateful dialogue to disparage a more liberal women’s looks. They are proudly pro-life and are convinced that all clinics that provide abortion services resemble the horrors of Kermit Gosnell’s clinic; most clinics don’t resemble Gosnell’s clinic at all.

And if you happen to be gay? Well, quit being so obvious about with your same sex wedding announcements, gay pride parades and suing Christian bakers. Yea, like the heterosexuals have to hide their lifestyles and loving with abiding shame.

In the final chapter the Chicks offer their declaration on why it’s time for a conservative makeover. They claim it’s not cool to be a conservative, not mentioning conservative ideas and opinions can be found all over in print, televison and digital media. As I write this, one of the hottest pundits in right wing media is yet another skinny, blonde, Tomi Lahren. Heck, she’s so hot she’s allegedly dating a cast-off of The Bachlorette!

But just how do the Chicks plan to give conservatism a make-over. Well, according to the cover and the contents of Right for a Reason it has to do something with Christian Loubatins, clothes from the MILF Collection at Forever 41 and calling out Nancy Pelosi for using Botox. Actually, the Chicks call conservative makeover consist the following:

1) Discuss conservatism with young people
2) Stop being prudes (it’s okay to cuss)
3) Remember the 80/20 rule (it’s okay if other people agree with only 80% of the time)
4) Stop with the labeling (interesting, considering the Chicks have a pretty strict guideline for what makes a true conservative)

As for the GOP, among the things the Chicks suggest include being offensive (no problem there with Trump as a possible next president—shudder) rather than defensive, use limited government, the Constitution and personal freedom when it comes to messaging, empower women and minorities, use all media platforms, and fight fire with fire.

Okay, the Chicks do have a point on certain things. I think they bring up interesting concepts when it comes to messaging. And they call out both Todd Akin and Todd Rokita for their positively boneheaded remarks, Rokita making condescending compliment regarding CNN’s Carol Costello’s looks and Akin’s opinions regarding rape. And though the Chicks are pro-life, they are also in favor of contraceptives and Plan B.

But ultimately, Right for a Reason is just a shrill and malicious, with writing on par with a middle school mean girl’s Twitter diatribes against various liberals, feminists, progressive activists, not to mention President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Sandra Fluke, Beyoncé, Al Franken, Sheryl Sandberg, and Whoopi Goldberg. They offer no promise of hope and how to reach across the aisle to truly improve the state of the USA in the 21st century. Right for a Reason is also devoid of carefully honed research on issues that are crucial to us as citizens at one of the most critical times in country’s history. In the end, you aren’t left with the feeling conservatism doesn’t need a makeover; it needs a complete do-over, a total reboot, the kind of boot that can’t be found at any pricey shoe boutique.

Right for a Reason: Life, Liberty and a Crapload of Common Sense is right on one thing. It is a crapload.


Book Review: Under the Affluence-Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America by Tim Wise

under the affluenceEvery once in while there comes a book that makes me want to shout from the roof tops, “Everybody, please read this book if you truly care about humanity and society!” Tim Wise’s book Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America, is one such book. And though it may sound melodramatic, I truly think Mr. Wise’s book is an excellent primer on exactly why our nation seems so skewed, confused and messed-up, especially during one of our most scary, yet important presidential election years ever.

Scholar, activist and writer, the aptly named Tim Wise, has focused on societal issues since college and one of his first jobs was working against former KKK grand wizard, David Duke’s presidential bid. Since then Wise has worked on behalf of many progressive causes and has written several books, Under the Affluence being his latest.

In 2016 Wise wonders why do we (as a nation and a society) shame the poor (and let’s face it, anyone who isn’t mega wealthy) while praising the super-rich? And what does that say about us and what impact is this having on society?

Wise calls this detestable movement “Scroogism,” and, yes, based on Ebenezer Scrooge from the Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. And it is a theme that has shaped our thinking about the haves vs. the have-nots and have-lessers, much of it encouraged by big business, Wall Street, billionaires and millionaires, CEOs, the radical right political pundits, the current state of the GOP, conservative Christianity, mainstream media and often, ourselves. And yes, that includes the have-nots and have-lessers. And Wise offers evidence through nearly 40 pages of end notes to give gravitas to Under the Affluence.

Under the Affluence and its theme of Scroogism is divided into three well-researched, scholarly, yet audience friendly, maddening, heartbreaking and in the end, cautiously hopeful chapters. These chapters include:

  1. Pulling Apart-The State of Disunited America
  2. Resurrecting Scrooge-Rhetoric and Policy in a Culture of Cruelty
  3. Redeeming Scrooge-Fostering a Culture of CompassionIn Resurrecting Scrooge,

Wise carefully researches how in the 21st century the United States is a society that bashes the poor, blames victims, the unemployed and underemployed, embraces a serious lack of compassion and celebrates cruelty while putting the wealthy and the powerful on a pedestal. And Wise examines the origins of class and cruelty in the United States, the ideas of the Social Gospel and FDR’s New Deal, the myths and realities of the War on Poverty from its inception to Reaganism (and how liberals responded), and the concept how culture of cruelty affects who receives justice and who receives nothing at all except horrifically de-humanizing insults, both in rhetoric and reality. It is probably these two chapters that truly stirred my rage, and at times, I had to put Under the Affluence down and take a few deep breaths.But just as I was about to chuck Under the Affluence across the room and spend a week in the corner rocking back and forth, I read the final chapter, and felt a bit of hope. Perhaps, as nation things aren’t as bleak as they seem. In this chapter, Wise reminds us to look for possible roadblocks on the way of redemption. He also mentions that besides facts, use storytelling because behind every fact there is a very human face with a story that must be heard. He behooves us to create “a vision of a culture of a compassion” and how we can help communities to control their destiny.

Now, I am a realist. I know for the most part Under the Affluence is a book that preaches to the choir, especially in 2016. But maybe, just maybe, Under the Affluence will open minds, soften hearts and act an agent for, as Elvis Costello so aptly put it, “peace, love and understanding.” Under the Affluence is not only one of the most important books to come out in 2016; it is one of the most important books to come out in the 21st century.

Wise also takes a look at the world of the working poor and the non-working rich, the myth of meritocracy, horribly mean-spirited remarks, much of it coming from the radical right, including pundits and politicians, excessive CEO and big business pay, the devaluing of work that truly benefits all of society-nursing, teaching social work, protecting the public, improving our infrastructure, creating art, taking care of the elderly and disabled, and so on. And let’s not forget the very valuable work that doesn’t pay-parenting, eldercare, volunteering, etc.

In Pulling Apart, Wise takes a hardcore look at our current state of joblessness, wage stagnation, underemployment and how they affect us in this stage of “post-recession recovering” America. He investigates today’s realities and the long-term effects of income and wealth inequality. Wise contemplates who and what caused these problems and how race, class and economics are involved.

Book Review: Girls and Sex-Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein

girlsexWriter, author and all-around cultural critic, Peggy Orenstein, has pretty much focused her career on the complex worlds of girls and women. She wrote about adopting her daughter Daisy in her memoir Waiting for Daisy. She wrote about the girls and their sense of self-confidence in Schoolgirls and the current state of women’s lives in Flux. And her last book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Orenstein took a hard look at the marketing of “Princess Culture” and how it affects little girls.

Now we are at the next phase, and it is a doozy, Girls and Sex. Our little girls are now in high school and college and they are dressing provocatively, waxing their nether regions, hooking up, having sex and doing all kinds of titillating things. But are they actually experiencing any joy, any pleasure? Are they having orgasms? In Girls and Sex, Orenstein does her homework, and what she finds out is at turns shocking, depressing, intriguing, heartbreaking, but in the end proves there is hope.

Girls and Sex is divided into several well-researched and well-written chapters. In the first chapter, Orenstein examines how girls willingly choose to be sex objects, often via their outfits, instead of being fully-actualized sexual individuals. In chapter two Orenstein asks if girls are enjoying sex as much as they should. Sadly, the answer is no, not exactly. But they make sure the boys are enjoying themselves. Chapter three wonders “what exactly is a virgin these days?” The answers the girls give you will surprise you…or maybe not. Chapter four examines the world of hook ups and hang ups. Chapter five takes a look at sex and all of its complexities especially when it comes to girls and boys, both online and in real life. Chapter six tackles the thorny topics of drugs, alcohol and rape, especially on school campuses. And finally, in chapter seven, things get real when girls and boys are finally given the straight dope on sex and can fully embrace who they are as sexual beings.

Orenstein interviewed over 70 girls and women about their hopes and dreams, and about their sex lives, both literally and figuratively. A majority of these young women are bright, educated, have promising futures and often consider themselves to be strong feminists (or at least, feminist-minded). Some are virgins, some are not, and some are everything but “that kind of virgin” (I think you get the gist). Most of them are straight, but a few identify as lesbians or question their sexual preferences.

A majority of these young women want to look sexually alluring, which includes provocative outfits, plastic surgery and waxing one’s private parts. Yes, today, young women feel the pressure to look like porn stars. Unlike ages ago, porn easily invades our lives via the Internet. And though there is some women-positive porn out there, most of porn found on-line is very exploitive of women (Orenstein describes certain acts that nearly made me sick to my stomach, and I am no prude). And it is the latter porn that shapes both young women and men and how they should be sexually.

At the same time, the abstinence-only educational curriculum, which includes purity balls and shaming seminars, gives our young people mostly false information when it comes to sex. This false information does nothing to deter sexual activity. And it often leads people to make bad sexual choices, which leads to unintended pregnancies and STDs.

In other words, thanks to both porn culture and abstinence, girls are either seen as “sluts” or “prudes,” and neither words are very apt descriptions to describe the intricate landscape of female desire.

What’s that, female desire? Sadly, so many of our young women feel it is necessary to be sexually desirable but feel no sexual desire. Many women admitted to never masturbating or being strangers with their clits, a fact I find hugely depressing. Ladies, you have this wonderful bundle of nerves between your legs that is made solely for pleasure. Embrace it!!!

But I digress…

Orenstein also goes into length about everything from casual (and often unsatisfying) sexual hook ups. She examines the culture of rape on our college campuses and on how alcohol abuse often leaves both boys and girls at horrific sexual risk. She is also quick to point out, how far too many girls think if they are raped or sexually assaulted they asked for it and how young men often find these sexual violations entertaining, using social media to further exploit the violation of these women. It is these passages that truly made my blood boil.

However, not is all lost for our nation’s young women, and this is explored in the final chapter. Fortunately, there are educators who want to tell our young people the truth when it comes to sex, and their lessons are done with wisdom, compassion, the facts and a dose of good humor. In this chapter, girls realize it is okay, in fact, it is wonderful to both feel and fulfill one’s sexual desire. And many boys realize it is okay not to treat girls as sexual objects and it is also okay to want to find meaning in sex, not be the mindless horndogs they are often encouraged to be. I believe this chapter will be of comfort to girls, boys, parents, and educators. I know I found it comforting, and though I’m not a mom, I’m glad this book was written.

Book Review: The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs by Matthew Dicks

the perfect comebackIn Matthew DicksCaroline Jacobs is not the type of woman anyone would call feisty and assertive. She is an admitted wimp who stands on the sidelines and doesn’t stand up for herself, let alone for anyone else.

But then Mary Kate Denali, the twin-set wearing queen bee, alpha bitch of the local PTO goes off on a condescending verbal smackdown towards another member. Not liking how this member is being harassed, Caroline defies Mary Kate and her rude remarks using the rather colorful word-yes, that one-the King Kahuna of cuss words.

Mary Kate, not used to be called out on her middle-aged mean girl schtick, clutches her pearls in shock. How dare anyone defy the grande doyenne of the PTO with such crude language. But instead of backing down and apologizing, Caroline gets fired up. Her daughter, Polly, defends her mother by getting physical with Mary Kate’s daughter. Polly is called into the principal’s office and threatened with suspension.

When Caroline collects Polly from the principal’s office she makes a split decision that sets The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs in motion. Without stopping back home for even a change of clothes or a quick explanation to her husband on her scheme, Caroline decides to drive back to her hometown to confront old school chum turned high school tormentor, Emily.

While on this many mile road trip, Caroline tells Polly the tale of how she and Emily were as thick as thieves through most of their childhood until Emily became friends with one of the most popular girls at their high school and rejected Caroline in the most humiliating and public way-within the confines of their school’s cafeteria. Shudder.

Or as Obi-Wan Kenobi aptly put it in Star Wars:
“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

Caroline and Polly can’t exactly be described as close, especially considering Polly is in her difficult teen years and Caroline is a self-described wuss. But during their journey to Caroline’s hometown, mother and daughter begin to bond as Caroline describes how this moment of teen betrayal affected her and continues to affect her. Polly is a bit troubled by her mom’s confession and at the same time wants her mother to grow a pair; in other words, Polly totally wants Caroline to confront that trifling bitch Emily.

Before Caroline confronts Emily she makes a pit stop at her mother’s house. To say Caroline’s mother is a character is putting it mildly. She runs a pet burial service and has a host of wacky friends, including a boyfriend named Spartacus.

But Caroline doesn’t have time to bond with her mom. She finds out Emily is still living in her hometown. Caroline picks herself up by her bra straps and confronts Emily and her teen-aged traitorous ways. But as much as Caroline despises Emily, she also feels some compassion for her as she learns why Emily conducted herself the way she did back in highschool and how she is coping with a family life that isn’t all what it may seem on the surface. Furthermore, Polly does something that sets the story in another direction and helps repair the frays of Caroline’s hurt past feelings.

To say I loved The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs is an understatement. Dicks is a masterful writer, fully empathizing with his characters, shading them with rich details that never come across as false. It probably helps that he worked in education and has some perspective on the high school experience. But I also think he is a very empathetic person, and having empathy is desperately needed when writing a novel. I can easily see The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs (someone call Tina Fey’s agent, stat!) but for now I will appreciate this treasure of a book as one of the best works of fiction I’ve read in a long time.


The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos

16068954Meet Harbinger Jones, who goes by the less weighty name of Harry. Harry is in his last year of high school and applying to various colleges. To impress the “Faceless Admissions Professional” (FAP for short), Harry eschews the standard 250 word essay on his application and instead writes over 200 pages about his short but eventful life, which makes up Len Vlahos’ YA novel The Scar Boys.

When Harry was eight years old, the neighborhood bullies tied him to a tree. The tree caught fire when it was struck by lightning. Harry was burned by the fire and is now hideously scarred and disfigured. This doesn’t exactly make him Mr. Popularity, and Harry pretty much believes he’ll face a life devoid of friends.

Then he meets Johnny McKenna when Johnny’s family moves to town. Johnny isn’t put off by Harry’s scars and soon the two boys become best friends. Harry goes from a life of isolation and bullying to one where he feels a bit of hope. If a popular, handsome kid like Johnny likes him, then he can’t be so horrible after all.

While in high school, Harry is rejected by a girl. To comfort Harry, Johnny comes up with a great idea. “Let’s start a band,” claims Johnny. Hmm, a band? Maybe being in a band is what Harry needs. Musicians are cool, right? And it shouldn’t matter that neither Harry nor Johnny know how to play an instrument. They’ll figure something out. So Johnny decides to sing and Harry picks up a guitar and begins lessons. They name the band The Scar Boys and bring on a drummer and a bassist. Now they are ready to rock!

The Scar Boys hone their skills and start performing. It is on stage where Harry truly feels he can shine. He’s no longer a disfigured freak; he’s a rock star! The Scar Boys become more popular and get more local gigs, including one pivotal gig at New York City’s iconic CBGBs. And when The Scar Boys lose their first bass player they replace him with Cheyenne, a beautiful young woman who both Harry and Johnny take a strong liking to.

Soon the Scar Boys go on a summer tour where in-between gigs they face car problems, money woes, in-fighting amongst the band members, petty jealousies, girl trouble, organizational issues and other dilemmas fledgling rock and rollers face.

But most of all, Harry just faces the usual problems of growing up. He seriously crushes on Cheyenne, but of course, she just likes him as a friend. And besides, she and Johnny are hooking up.

And speaking of Johnny, Harry is slowly beginning to realize maybe Johnny isn’t so much of a friend as much as a “frenemy.” Until now, Johnny was the leader to Harry’s follower, but is Johnny worth following? Harry is beginning to question his devotion to Johnny, which pisses Johnny off. Johnny proves to be just as messed up as Harry only his messes are easier to cover up under a handsome visage and boat loads of self-confidence. Will the Scar Boys survive all this turmoil?

The Scar Boys never quite make it to rock and roll glory, but being in a band is a catalyst for Harry. Sure, he’s hideously scarred, his parents don’t always understand him, he can’t get a girl and his best friend is a total dick. But hey, he was in a rock and roll band and he spent one glorious (and yes, very trying summer) touring the country while a lot of his peers toiled at McDonald’s or at the mall. That’s got to impress the FAPs at Harry’s chosen colleges, right?

Well, I hope the FAPs are impressed because I certainly was. No, Harry isn’t perfect. He could be just as irritating as any other teenage boy, and I wasn’t going to cut him any slack just because of his scars. But in the end I couldn’t help but like the kid. I applaud him for taking up an instrument, forming a band and touring the country even if it was for a short time. I also liked how he bypassed the typical 250 college entrance essay (boring) and wrote something actually interesting. Harry is an original, with an engaging voice that kept me captivated. Sure, I wish Cheyenne was a more developed character, but I do understand we are seeing Cheyenne through the lens of Harry’s experiences, not who she really is.

I also loved how The Scar Boys used the title of songs to head each chapter, many that will make any rock and roll lover misty-eyed with musical memories. Including amongst these titles were songs by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, The Violent Femmes, Van Halen, Pat Benatar, Joy Division, REM and The Rolling Stones. I thought it was only fitting several of the chapters were the titles of songs by the Ramones considering I was reading this novel when I found out about the death of the last original Ramone, Tommy Ramone (RIP). And as a rapidly aging Generation X-er, I loved the fact that The Scar Boys takes place in the 1980s. Furthermore, when he was younger, Vlahos was in a band called the Woofie Cookies. He knows what he’s writing about.

Apparently, The Scar Boys is Len Vlahos first novel. I hope it’s not his last.

Colors Insulting to Nature by Cintra Wilson

Colors Insulting to Nature“Fame! I’m Gonna Live Forever!….Remember My Name! Fame!”—lyrics from the Oscar-winning song, “Fame” from the movie Fame (original recipe, of course), could be Liza Normal’s theme song. If she could grasp the gold ring of fame, her life would be perfect and everyone would love her.

Of course, the road to fame never runs smoothly and Cintra Wilson covers Liza’s haphazard quest to stardom her debut novel Colors Insulting to Nature, and it’s one hell of a roller coaster ride.

Like a lot of fame-hungry youngsters, Liza’s talent as a performer can best be called “negligible.” She often wears inappropriate clothing that rival Jodie Foster’s in “Taxi Driver.” And she’s saddled with a stage mother named Peppy who makes Mama Rose from “Gypsy” look low-key. Peppy is determined to make her children (Peppy has a brother named Ned) super stars. She believes one way she can do that is to enroll her offspring in New York’s High School of the Performing Arts.

But before she can do that, the Normal family moves to California (yep, a full continent away from New York City) where Peppy starts her very own dinner theater (which doesn’t serve dinner) called The Normal Family Dinner Theater. Not only are Liza and Ned roped into Peppy’s scheme so are some other more talented kids and their unsuspecting parents. Peppy’s idea of wholesome family fair is doing a bawdy and campy version of “The Sound of Music” featuring drag queen nuns. You can only imagine how well this rather unorthodox version of the stage and screen classic is received.

When not entertaining the masses with an alternative take on “The Sound of Music,” Liza makes her mark at her upper-crust high school. She trades insults with one of the A-listers and then later on trades in her virginity to him. Her classmates mark Liza as a slut and make fun of her glittery dreams of fame. Fortunately, Liza also befriends a kindred spirit in a girl named Lorna who gives her the support and encouragement Liza desperately needs. And yes, it did take me a while, but I do realize Liza and Lorna are the names of the late Judy Garland’s daughters, but I’m not sure if Ms. Wilson meant this.

But I digress…

Liza never does make it to the iconic “Fame” school, but she leaves high school with the same dogged dream to become a star. She entertains coffee shop customers with her unique renditions of Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam covers. She gets romantically involved with a washed-up former member of a boy band. And she even finds some success writing slash fiction featuring a fearless dominatrix named Venal de Minus.

Liza also faces other potholes; her shut-in, ski mask wearing brother finds some fame and success as a light-box artist, she gets involved with a drug dealer, she spends time battling drug addiction and a stint in rehab, she faces countless rejections, and Liza’s maniacal mother who goes from rampage to rampage.

As mentioned, Liza’s performing talent can best be described as “meh,” and she doesn’t exactly embrace her success as the creator of Venal de Minus. However, Liza does have one amazing skill—the skill to survive whatever obstacle is thrown in her way. She is scrappy and indestructible. And despite making some rather unfortunate decisions, she is fully human and very sympathetic. I found myself rooting for Liza time and time again even when she was in the gutter (especially when she was in the gutter). Liza is a survivor with a capital S! And I don’t mean a survivor in the weepy, “remember your spirit” Oprah-esque kind of way. I mean in the Gloria Gaynor anthem, “I Will Survive” sung by the most fierce drag queens on the planet.

Wilson is a fabulous writer, mercilessly skewering our obsession with celebrities and fame while also giving Liza an interesting story. I also enjoyed her creative asides to readers that reminded me of the talking heads seen in everything from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to the TV show “House of Cards.”
Wilson is also well-versed in the pop culture that shaped Generation X (the book takes place from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s). As a card-carrying member of said generation I got misty-eyed over references to not only the 1980 version of “Fame” and Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam but also to such cinematic cheese as “Ice Castles” and “Breakin’.”

I must say the ending of Colors Insulting to Nature was a wee bit too pat, but I reminded myself that it was one hell of a roller coaster ride, with amazing twists and turns, heart pounding ascents and tummy turning descents. Colors Insulting to Nature is the literary rollercoaster that once it ends makes you want to shout, “Let’s ride this bad boy again!”

Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain with Lisa Pulitzer

BanishedUnless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Fred Phelps, the founder of the odious gay-hating “church” Westboro Baptist Church, died. When I found out about Phelps’ demise the mash-up, “Get Happy/Happy Days are Here Again,” featuring those two gay icons, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, played in my head. Then I thought to myself…

“What’s it like to be a part of church that spreads so much hate and despair in the world?”

Don’t worry faithful readers. I won’t join the Westboro Baptist Church. But, thanks to Lauren Drain, I now have an insider look at this church due to her eye-opening and disturbing memoir Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church (written with Lisa Pulitzer).

Until Lauren was in her mid-teens she lived a pretty standard all-American life. She got good grades in school. She hung out with her friends and flirted with boys. She enjoyed sports and outdoor activities. Then her father Steve (who fancied himself as a documentary filmmaker) decided to focus his camera on the Westboro Baptist Church and the notorious Phelps family.

Initially Steve was going to use his documentary called “Hatemongers” to expose the vitriol, hatred and bigotry of the church. But it wasn’t long before Steve got sucked into the world of Westboro and the Phelps. And what was supposed to be an exposé turned out to documentary in support of the church.

Steve decided to uproot his family, which Lauren’s mom Luci and younger sister Taylor, from their home in Florida to Topeka, Kansas to join Westboro. Steve’s turn from skeptical outsider to true believer is a head-scratcher. To me, it seems as if Steve was directionless soul who needed a sense of purpose. Apparently Westboro gave him that purpose.

Lauren goes from living a normal teenage life to picketing funerals and other events, carrying signs claiming, “God Hates Fags.” Lauren also becomes close to Fred Phelps’ daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper.

You’re probably familiar with Shirley, she with the evil grin and the severely damaged hair. After Fred, Shirley was pretty much the “face” of the Westboro Baptist Church, often interviewed by the media. Banished gives a very multi-dimensional glimpse at Shirley. Yes, Shirley is detestable and intolerant. She’s also very much a control freak, constantly lecturing people and admonishing them how to correct their behavior. But she’s also very human. She had a child out of wedlock, and when her son Josh left the church she became absolutely apoplectic.

However, Shirley was often very kind and maternal towards Lauren, often more so than Lauren’s actual mother who comes across as very subservient and weak. Shirley would give Lauren advice on how to live her life, often using misconstrued passages out of the Bible to extend the church’s message.

Lauren also becomes close to Shirley’s children, especially her daughter Jael. Lauren and Jael later attend nursing school together and work at the same hospital.
Lauren’s account of the church’s activities and how they managed to find so many venues to picket and also get out their message to the media is truly interesting. The church members are hugely well-organized, very disciplined, and experts at multi-tasking. They even put a lot of craft and care into the protest signs they carried. While reading these passages I kept wondering, “If only they could have used their skills for good and not evil.”

Lauren becomes a true believer and feels a sense of belonging amongst her fellow church members. If there is anything an impressionable, vulnerable teenager desires it’s a sense of belonging. At times, I wanted to shake Lauren and shout, “Just what are you doing young lady? Can’t you see how vile these people are?” And at times, I felt a great deal of compassion for Lauren. I know what it’s like to be a teenager just wanting to fit in.

However, Lauren is also an inquisitive sort and likes to ask a lot of questions. And as she got older she began to become less fervent and challenges many the church’s beliefs. She also wanted to find love and settle down. Needless to say, those in the church didn’t want Lauren to get involved with an outsider and let’s just say the pickings amongst the Westboro gang were pretty slim. And when Lauren begins emailing a young man those in the church become outraged and are convinced Lauren is sleeping with him.

Before long Lauren is kicked out of the Westboro Baptist Church; in other words, banished. After she was banished the church did everything to make Lauren’s life miserable, both personally and professionally. Furthermore, Lauren’s family completely shuns her, which by now included younger siblings, a sister named Faith and a brother named Boaz.

Towards the end of Banished Lauren describes the difficulty she had in losing her family, her place in the Westboro Baptist Church and navigating the outside world. Fortunately, Lauren’s determination, intelligence and work ethic allowed her to not only survive, but thrive. Today Lauren lives with her husband in Connecticut where she works as a cardiac nurse. And she has denounced her past and is now supportive of gay rights.

Banished was a fascinating read of a people that uses their “faith” in God to harm not heal. And as much as I hate the Phelps family, I find Lauren’s father an even bigger evil and a total failure as a father. I also believe bringing along former New York Times correspondent Lisa Pulitzer as co-writer was a huge help in writing Banished. Pulitzer co-wrote the best-selling Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs with Elissa Wall. Clearly, Pulitzer is well-versed in religious extremism and without a doubt she had a great deal in shaping Lauren’s story.

Banished is one book that shows how someone can get sucked into religious extremism only to be completely shunned, and ultimately live to tell the tale.

I Read It So You Don’t Have To: How To Rock Braces and Glasses by Meg Haston

How to RockMiddle school. It sucked, didn’t it? And for Kacey Simon, head Queen Bee at Marquette Middle School, middle school is about to suck big time.

In Meg Haston’s How to Rock Braces and Glasses, Kacey Simon and her coterie of mean girls rule the halls of Marquette. However, it is Kacey who is the Alpha and she won’t let you forget it. She’s got the lead in Marquette’s production of “Guys and Dolls” where her co-star is the school hottie, Quinn. She’s a budding journalist and has her own show at her school’s television network news program. On her show Kacey doles out unforgiving advice to Marquette’s lowly peons not blessed to be as cool as her. In other words, Kacey Simon is a bitch on wheels.

However, Kacey’s life takes a tragic turn when an eye infection due to some messed-up contacts requires her to wear glasses and some wayward wisdom teeth call for braces.

Glasses and braces, you ask? What’s the big deal about glasses and braces? Lots of kids (and adults) wear glasses and braces. It’s hardly a big calamity to be overcome.

Yet, for our young protagonist, glasses and braces are a one-way street to loserdom, and soon Kacey’s friends Molly, Liv and Nessa reject her. Due to a braces-induced lisp, Kacey loses her coveted lead in “Guys and Dolls” and her news segment is put on hold. And it doesn’t help that a video of Kacey and all her lisping glory goes viral and Molly is now Marquette’s new “It Girl.” That skank even takes over the lead in “Guys and Dolls.” The nerve!

Well, Kacey refuses to be usurped and is hell-bent on retaining her Queen Bee status no matter the consequences. To do this, Kacey recruits her old friend Paige, who she threw under the bus back in fifth grade. For some odd reason, Paige doesn’t hold a grudge against Kacey and using political campaigning skills that would make Karl Rove blush, comes up with some schemes to make sure Kacey reaches the upper echelon of popularity.

At the same time, Kacey befriends a fellow student and musician named Zander. Even though Kacey had derisively coined Zander with the nickname “Skinny Jeans” due to his choice of trousers, he introduces her to cool local music venues and vintage vinyl record stores. Zander also invites Kacey to sing lead in his band. And even though Kacey’s former bestie Molly has a major crush on Zander, Kacey finds herself drawn to this rock and roll rebel.

Throughout this ordeal, Kacey wonders if she will be a loser forever or will she grasp the golden ring of popularity that is so rightly hers. Will she realize she’s a mean girl and needs to change or will she claim her snotty remarks are just her way of “keeping it real?” And will she ever get rid of those pesky glasses, braces and that horrific lisp?

To be honest I didn’t care if Kacey got her comeuppance, regained her Queen Girl status or learned a lesson worthy of one of those old “After School Specials” I watched when I was her age. I found Kacey a loathsome character—shallow, malicious, rude and spoiled. However, I did get an idea of how “Chicks on the Right” got their start.

I don’t expect characters to be perfect and to make the best decisions. In fact, I prefer that they don’t. It makes for more interesting reading. But I do expect a bit more nuance and dimension; Haston doesn’t seem capable of doing this. For a brief moment, I thought Haston was writing a parody of a middle school mean girl, but parody seems something beyond Haston’s skill set.

Furthermore, I found a lot of the plot points and other characters totally unrealistic. First off, braces are pretty much a rite of passage for most kids, especially those from upper middle class families like Kacey’s. Also, glasses are downright fashionable these days so I couldn’t imagine a kid being teased. Even I didn’t get teased when I started wearing glasses as a middle-schooler, and this was back in the stone age.

And though some teasing of Kacey seemed a bit realistic, I couldn’t imagine Molly, Nessa and Liv abandoning her completely even though she’s kind of snotty towards them at times. And I was also perplexed on how Paige was so willing to help Kacey regain her popularity after being rejected so cruelly. I think it would be more realistic if Paige held a grudge and refused to help her traitorous former friend.

I was also befuddled by the lack of adult guidance towards Kacey and her friends. I counted around only two adults in this book. One was Kacey’s mother who rarely called Kacey out on her odious behavior. Instead, Kacey’s mom kept coddling her special snowflake and convincing her that everyone else wants to emulate her. I guess Kacey’s mom wanted to be a “cool mom.” The other adult was a teacher called Sean who’s pretty much just a cardboard cutout. With bullying such a pressing topic today you would think someone would try to discipline Kacey about her foul behavior towards her peers. Perhaps Marquette Middle School is just another “Lord of the Flies” but one with smart phones, fruity lip gloss, and skinny jeans.

According to How to Rock Braces and Glasses’ book jacket a sequel was slated to come out in 2012 and the book was made into a short-lived TV show for Nickelodeon. Needless to say, I won’t be reading the sequel or I’m glad the TV show was cancelled. There are countless books (and TV programs) that show young people in an honest and compelling way. How to Rock Braces and Glasses did not do this. In fact, it sucked.

Or as a lisping Kacey Simon would say, “It thucked.”