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

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“Popular!
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: Mom, Have You Seen My Leather Pants? The Tale of a Teen Rock Wannabe Who Almost Was by Craig A. Williams

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Many a teen boy has dreamed of strapping on an electric guitar, joining a band, playing to cheering crowds, getting it on with groupies and achieving both fame and fortune. For most of them, this is just a dream. But for Craig A. Williams, this dream was nearly a reality, and he documents his experiences in his book, Mom, Have You Seen My Leather Pants?

While still in his teens, Williams played lead guitar in an LA-based heavy metal band, Onyxx (later, Onyxxx). Originally called Onyx, the band added the extra xx-s to avoid copyright infringement due to a hip-hop group also named Onyx. And perhaps because their band was just too much rock for one measly X. Managed by a Loni Anderson look-alike, Onyxxx journeyed from small school gigs to the hottest clubs on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.

Williams first embraced his musical dreams when he wrote a song using his Casio keyboard. The seeds of musical greatness were sown, but Williams knew making music on a Casio keyboard was too dorky for words, so he picked up an electric guitar. Soon he joined forces with some high school chums — lead singer Tyler, bassist Sunil and drummer Kyle — and formed Onyxxx.

Laying the groundwork for rock and roll stardom, Onyxxx went from playing for their classmates in suburban LA to less than enthusiastic audiences at seedy dives. Despite these humble beginnings, Onyxxx’s manager believed they could make it big, and be the New Kids on the Block of glam heavy metal. It was the pre-grunge days where Guns ‘n Roses, Poison and Motley Crue were MTV staples. Before long Onyxxx were playing shows at such notable venues like the Troubadour and the Roxy. Their shows garnered them a sizable fan-base, including some very willing groupies. Williams thought he had reached the pinnacle of rock and roll paradise when he autographed a girl’s breast for the very first time.

But like lots of other rock bands on the verge of fame, Onyxxx had to deal with their share of problems. Tyler, though a charismatic frontman, was often a total jerk to those who crossed his path. Sunil was frequently bullied due to his East Indian heritage. And despite being a drummer, Kyle didn’t have the best sense of rhythm. Onyxxx also dealt with trials familiar to anyone who has seen at least one episode of VH-1′s “Behind the Music,” including rampant drug use, unsavory club managers, psycho fans and fighting among band members.

But Williams had other issues that probably weren’t bothering Axl Rose or Tommy Lee at the time: the life of a teenaged boy. When he wasn’t rockin’ out on-stage, Williams argued with his parents about doing his chores and his homework, studied for exams, and tried to maneuver the halls of his high school. Williams lived in two very different worlds, which kind of made him the Hannah Montana of glam heavy metal (egad, remember a time when Miley Cyrus was known as Hannah Montana and not a girl who uses a foam finger the way the inventor never intended?).

Sadly, Onyxxx was not meant to be. Even without the drug use, mismanagement and squabbles among the band members, glam heavy metal was about to be toppled by flannel-clad grunge bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots. By their senior year, Onyxxx was on the verge of breaking up. They were also on the verge of adulthood, which included college, jobs and other not exactly glamorous responsibilities.

Onyxxx’s loss is our gain. Williams proves himself to be an entertaining writer. He is able to look at his rock and roll past with both insight and humor. He’s self-deprecating and at the same time he is truly proud of almost grabbing the brass ring of stardom. Any rock fan who treasures his or her copy of Appetite for Destruction will get misty-eyed over days gone by. And kids who think of Bret Michaels as a reality TV star, not the lead singer of Poison, will be able to relate to a teenage Williams’ desire for freedom and fun. Williams is a fresh new voice, and has written a very honest book about the music industry. Mom, Have You Seen My Leather Pants? is a head bangin’ good time.

Guest Review: Ball Don’t Live by Matt de la Pena review by CoBalt Stargazer

Ball Don't LieBall Don’t Lie was Matt de la Pena’s first book, published in 2005, and it was developed into a movie of the same title starring Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Rosanna Arquette. de la Pena is a California native, with an MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University. He currently resides in Brooklyn, teaches creative writing and visits high schools across the country.

de la Pena has written ten books, and whatever your opinion of Young Adult books is, Ball Don’t Lie is one of the better examples of the genre. The author won the Newberry Medal earlier this year for Last Stop On Market Street, and I am gradually working my way through the rest of his novels. I recommend trying to locate his work at your local library, or perhaps online at Amazon.

The story opens at a place called Lincoln Rec, which is a local hangout for professional amateur basketball players. Dreadlock Man, with his fierce fists and suspect jump shot, sets his stuff ($1.45 sandals, key to bike lock, extra T-shirt) on the bleachers and holds his hands out for the ball.  Most of the characters go by nicknames, which they were given when they first started playing at the rec center. The exception is Sticky, the book’s protagonist. Sticky is seventeen years old, and he’s been in and out of foster care since he was a kid, due to either behavioral problems or adults who don’t really want the responsibility of taking care of him because he isn’t what they had in mind. At the time the book opens, he’s on his third or fourth set of foster parents.

Sticky has a fairly severe case of a likely un-diagnosed OCD, which affects him even when he’s on the court. He often becomes fixated on sounds, the tone of things, repeating actions over and over again until he’s satisfied with the “PING!” or the “PONG!” Despite the fact that he’s white, this is no story of privilege. While basketball is our hero’s passion, he feels as if that’s the only thing he has going for him. That is until he meets Anh-thu, a pretty Vietnamese girl who works in a clothing store. That he meets her while trying to shoplift from the store where she works is mostly beside the point, although his penchant for theft comes into play later.

The overall point of the book is, Sticky can ball, and the book is full of urban slang on that note. Ball, baller, daps, hoops, etc, but it never comes off as patronizing or condescending. Sticky and his friends, who are mostly older, live the game in between their days at school and at work; but the kid isn’t sure there’s life beyond the court. Skin color aside, society has an impression of him and kids like him; and while he wants to be the “Eminem of hoops” he needs to rise above the self-defeating belief that he can never be anything other than a semi-thug on a basketball court. When Anh-thu enters his life, he becomes almost immediately smitten, even if he isn’t always capable of expressing it.

As the book progresses, his episodes of OCD continue, and as his girlfriend’s birthday approaches he decides to buy a fairly inexpensive stuffed bear, but steal a more costly bracelet as gifts. But although he changes his mind about the bracelet, he ends up using the knife he found to hold up an older man. He finds himself in possession of a little over four hundred dollars, more money than he’s ever seen in one place at one time. He counts it out once, slowly and deliberately….and then his condition kicks in. He’s locked in place, fixated on the bills in his hands, the compulsion to count them out a second and a third time holding him there until someone else comes along and steals it from him, shooting him through the hand in the process because he tries to resist.

Sticky wakes up in the hospital with Anh-thu asleep in the chair beside his bed. The reader gets a potent flashback into his childhood and how he decided his name was always going to be Sticky. His mother, who is only referred to as ‘Baby’, was an off and on drug user with a history of bringing boyfriends home. The reason he ended up in foster care is that she committed suicide while he was the only one in the house. Only he was locked in an episode then as well, concentrating on splitting out of a window while trying to hit the fender of a truck parked outside.  The sound of his mother shouting his name, “STICKY! STICKY! STICKY!” got stuck in his head on a loop. After that his given name, Travis, fell by the wayside because that’s the last memory he has of her.

But the upside is, the memory triggers a breakthrough, and as cliché as it sounds, Sticky and Travis merge for a brief time, and he begins to cry, likely for the first time in years. He loses his cool, the hard shell between himself and the world around him, finding catharsis.

The book ends with Sticky returning to the rec center after spending three weeks at a summer basketball camp, playing up and down the West Coast in front of college coaches and scouts. The scar on his hand resembles a purple spider, but he can still ball. More than that, he’s discovered that he isn’t nothing without the sport; he has friends and family and love. A future, which he didn’t know was possible until he let go of the preconceptions of not only society, but his own preconceptions.

In the end, Ball Don’t Lie isn’t a perfect book, but it’s such a triumphant story that the flaws it contains make it even more worthy of a read. Sticky is every boy with aspirations, finally bringing those aspirations within reach. Give it a look. You won’t regret it.

Book Review: Meet Me Halfway-Milwaukee Stories by Jennifer Morales

Meet-Me-Halfway-coverJennifer Morales is a former Milwaukee-based activist focused on education, and once acted as a board member for Milwaukee public schools. Now she can add published author to her list of accomplishments with the release of her interconnected collection of short stories in Meet Me Halfway-Milwaukee Stories.

Meet Me Halfway opens up with “Heavy Lifting.” In this story, Johnquell, an African-American teenage boy, is mortally wounded when helps his white neighbor, Mrs. Czernicki move a heavy piece of furniture in home. Feeling fully, responsible, Mrs. Czernicki feels compelled to connect further with Johnquell’s family that goes beyond attending his funeral. She becomes friendly towards Johnquell’s grieving mother and learns more about Johnquell from his siblings, learning though there are differences that divide us, there are also shared experiences that explain our shared humanity.

Thus, Meet Me Halfway, uses “Heavy Lifting” as a launching pad to share intermingling stories about various Milwaukee residents in one of America’s most segregated cities-Milwaukee.

In “Fragging,” a still alive Johnquell describes his experiences as a black student from a lower middle class family in a mostly white, wealthy suburban highschool.

In “Revision” Stu Reid’s limited ideas on young black men change when he feels compelled to attend Johnquell’s funeral after dealing with him in class as a substitute teacher. Perhaps Milwaukee’s answer to Rush Limbaugh, Clark “Psycho” Sykora, doesn’t have all the answers after all.

When flowers are “Misdirected” and accidentally sent to Johnquell’s mother Gloria that are meant for another woman, Gloria learns a long-kept secret of Donna Tillet, a white suburban matron, a secret that kept Donna estranged from her children for far too long.

And in the final chapter, “Pressing On,” Tarquan, Johnquell’s surviving brother navigate the difficult aftermath of his brother’s death, putting up with the questions from concerned adults, his siblings, and high school friends and peers. If adults can’t explain life and death, how can Tarquan? Perhaps, some day he’ll have the answers.

Morales’s empathetic and vivid writing is both thought-provoking and inspiring. In a city like Milwaukee, so segregated amongst all races,  Morales is able to fully evoke the multi-dimensional characters with wisdom and grace. She doesn’t just feel for these men, women and children; Morales’ feels with them as truly masterful writers should and do. Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories is a slim book that spoke to me in volumes. And I hope it is not the only book Jennifer Morales has within her. I want more books from such a talented writer.

Shelf Discovery-The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick

shelf discovery“We Must, We Must, We Must Increase Our Bust”

In her “Fine Lines” column on the website Jezebel, Lizzie Skurnick re-read many of the novels she loved as a young girl, looking at them through the eyes of an adult. Now many of these (somewhat altered) essays are in book form in Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. Ms. Skurnick is no stranger to young adult books. Not only is she a reader but she’s also a writer of some of the Sweet Valley High books. She also brings along writers like Meg Cabot, Jennifer Weiner and Cecily von Ziegesar for the ride down memory lane.

Shelf Discovery does not cover the books we had to read for school, books by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eyre and Austen. No, this book covers the books that weren’t on any teacher-approved reading list. These are the books that kept us up long after our bed time or the books we hid behind our text books during social studies. These are the books we loaned to our friends only to get them back with tattered covers and dog-eared pages. Well, at least this happened to me when I loaned my copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by uber-goddess Judy Blume to all my friends in Miss Wilson’s fifth grade class.

Not surprisingly, Judy Blume’s books are reviewed in Shelf Discovery as are the Little House books. Skurnick also takes a look back at books like A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene, The Cat Ate My Gym Suit by Paula Danziger and I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier. Shelf Discovery covers books that were considered too old for us but we read them anyway like Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear and VC Andrew’s My Sweet Audrina. And books that I thought only I had read like To All My Fans With Love, From Sylvie by Ellen Conford and To Take a Dare by Paul Zindel and Crescent Dragonwagon are also covered.

These essays are thoughtful, reflective and funny, and brought back a lot of memories. Not only of reading these books, but also how they made me feel and how they inspired talk among my gaggle of girlfriends. I loved reading the Little House books, feeling some cheesehead pride because Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in Wisconsin. And I was quite comforted to know I wasn’t only the one who found Laura’s sister Mary an insufferable prissy-pants though I never went as far as to call her a “fucking bitch” like Skurnick does.

And where would we be without Judy Blume? Sure, some people want to ban her books, but to most of us, we loved Judy Blume because she introduced us to characters we could actually relate to. These were characters who experienced divorce or the death of a parent. They dealt with sexism, favored siblings and peer pressue. They questioned religion. They also dealt with the difficulties of growing up, physically, mentally and emotionally. Blume did not hesitate to make her main characters somewhat unlikable such as the protagonist in Blubber, Jill, who bullies Linda for being fat. And then there was Tony from Then Again, Maybe I Won’t who spied on his friend’s hot sister with his binoculars. What a perv!!!

Long before Gossip Girl, the books covered in Shelf Discovery introduced us to the world of S.E.X! Forever proved a girl could have sex and not get pregnant the first time or become a raving lunatic. It also kept generations of women from naming their male offspring Ralph. Wifey totally had a dirty mind. Flowers in the Attic introduced us the idea of brother/sister sex long before the Jerry Springer Show. And Katy Perry may have thought she was so lesbian chic when she sang, “I Kissed a Girl” but Jaret and Peggy were getting it on thirty years earlier in Sandra Scoppetone’s Happy Endings Are All Alike.

I’m not familiar with all of the books featured in Shelf-Discovery, but many of you might be. And I’m also not a fan of some of the books I did read. I wanted to fling Go Ask Alice across my teen-age bedroom. Even back then I knew it was a load of shite, and Go Ask Alice, which was allegedly based on the real diary of a teen girl messed up on drugs, was debunked several years ago.

I was also amazed to find out that many of the books we enjoyed as kids are now being enjoyed by today’s kids. Sure, kids have their Harry Potter and their Twilight books, but Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret also resonates with them. While visiting Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, Meg Cabot sheepishly tells the girls she is re-reading the Judy Blume classic. She expected blank stares from the students, but instead she got thunderous applause and cheers. Even though these girls live half a world away from suburban New Jersey, they totally adore Margaret. I still adore Margaret.

Reading Shelf Discovery reminded me why books always meant so much to me growing up (and still do). How fun was Sally J Freedman? And was I the only one who though Rosemary from Sister of the Bride was way too young to get married? But at least my mom and dad never sent me off to boarding school to die like the awful parents in The Grounding of Group 6. If you’re looking for a literary walk down memory lane and more than “seven minutes in heaven” you can’t go wrong with Shelf Discovery.

Book Review: The Vinyl Princess by Yvonne Prinz

the vinyl princessMusic sales are lagging. Record stores are becoming extinct. And the music in MTV has been replaced by various reality TV shows. The state of music is quite uncertain, which leads me to wonder: Do today’s teenagers obsess over music the ways teenagers did in the past?

Allie, the teenage protagonist of Yvonne Prinz’s young adult novel The Vinyl Princess does. She works at Bob & Bob Records in Berkeley, one of the last hold-outs of independent record stores.While her peers fill their iPods with the latest releases, Allie prefers the romance of putting a needle on the record’s groove and cherishes her massive vinyl collection.

She is also a walking encyclopedia of musical knowledge. Name a Beatles’ song, and she knows exactly what album it’s on. Allie puts her knowledge to good use (and not to mention, her access to all the great music at Bob & Bob), and starts her own music blog and hard copy zine, aptly titled The Vinyl Princess.

She blogs about vintage LPs and the tangibility of records. “I love the look of vinyl, the smell of it, the tiny crackles you hear before a song starts.” And others agree with her – before long her fan base grows, wanting her opinion on everything from David Bowie to the perfect music mixes.

Meanwhile, beleaguered store owner Bob (there is only one Bob) claims he’s going to shut down because people prefer to download music. Plus, a string of neighborhood robberies has him worried that Bob & Bob will be next.

Allie’s personal life also hangs in the balance. Her parents are divorced. Her dad’s new wife (barely older than Allie) is pregnant, and her mom is dipping her toes into the world of online dating. Allie has boy troubles of her own — she has serious thing for the mysterious Joel who often visits the store, but whose intentions may or may not be sinister in nature. Then there is Zach, who brings Allie homemade music mixes, and tries to fill her brain with new musical facts. Guess which boy she likes better?

As summer unfolds, Allie realizes she’s going to have to embrace some pretty huge changes, both personally and at work. But will hard-won maturity come at the end?

While reading The Vinyl Princess, I kept forgetting that it was a young adult novel. Prinz never talks down to her audience, respecting them no matter what generation they got slid into. Being into music makes Allie a cool girl — her love and knowledge of music was infectious, and her real-life problems rang very true.

The depiction of Allie’s blog was a bit unbelievable. It became hugely successful overnight, and within a couple of months a business wants to buy it. To anyone with a blog, this is quite unrealistic. It takes a very long time to get an audience in the blogospshere, and some of the best out there get ignored for absolute dreck.

Still, my complaints are minor. Allie is the kind of teenage girl character that needs to be represented more in pop culture: smart, relatable and interesting. The Vinyl Princess’s crown may be a bit tarnished, but it still royally rocks.

Book Reviews: Don’t You Forget About Me by Jancee Dunn

25153512Former staff writer for Rolling Stone and author of the rock and roll memoir, But Enough About Me, Jancee Dunn has turned her considerable writing talents to fiction, and the result is the poignant and endearing novel, Don’t You Forget About Me.

Don’t You Forget About Me is about Lillian Curtis. At 38, Lillian seems to a have a pretty good life. She works as a producer of the talk show Tell Me Everything! featuring old Hollywood star, Vivian Barbour. Lillian lives in New York City with her husband, and though their marriage is no longer passionate, Lillian is content. However, her husband feels differently. He wants a divorce. Not surprisingly, Lillian is completely shocked.

Vivian (who I saw as a combination of Auntie Mame and Betty White) convinces Lillian to take a sabbatical from producing the show. And Lillian ends up going home to New Jersey where her parents welcome her back. Back in her old bedroom, surrounded by posters of Duran Duran and Squeeze, Lillian has no idea where her marriage went wrong and wonders what to do next.

Then she receives an invitation to her 20th year high school reunion. This brings up a flood of memories, which include her ex-boyfriend Christian Somers. Lillian becomes obsessed with Christian, replaying their high school romance from first kiss to break up in her mind. She wonders what he’s up to, if he’ll remember her and if he still thinks about her the way she still thinks about him.

Though she’s closing in on forty, Lillian begins to relive her teen years. She listens to old mix tapes, reads faded notes sent in her classes (remember this was before text messaging) and re-connects with her old high school chums. One of these friends includes Dawn, a girl Lillian viciously betrayed when she became part of the popular crowd. And even though it’s been twenty years since graduation, Dawn isn’t so willing to forgive and forget.

Feeling like a big loser in her thirties, Lillian believes high school glory will make her feel much better. But she soon realizes the “best years” of her life weren’t really that great and there is a reason why we call the past, the past. And there is also a reason why our ex-boyfriends are our ex-boyfriends. Lillian knows she has to move forward with her life

Don’t You Forget Me is written in an engaging style that immediately grabs you. Lillian is a character that most of us can relate to even if you didn’t graduate during the era of acid wash jeans and big hair. Lillian can be frustrating, but at the same time you totally root for her. Don’t You Forget Me is a fun read with characters that stayed with me after I read the last sentence. If you’re looking for an entertaining summer read that won’t make you lose brain cells, pick up Don’t You Forget About Me.