Adult Books for Teens: “Yes Please!”

yes pleaseYes Please!
by Amy Poehler

If you think that arriving at stardom just consists of lucky breaks—or tossing your screenplay onto the lap of a sleeping star during air travel—then you need the reality check of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please! Her mid-life biography recounts the long years of work she endured—at all odd hours—to get to where she is today. Poehler has been a regular on Saturday Night Live, a host of various award shows and the star of the sit com Parks and Recreation. But before that she was a waitress and an office assistant. She lived in crummy apartments in major urban areas such as Chicago and New York where she learned about comedy at the ImprovOlympic (Chicago) and with the Upright Citizens Brigade (New York).

Something I love about stories of the ‘hard times’—and Poehler’s is no exception—it that a lot of what a person endures for his or her craft engenders great creativity. And, despite those crappy apartments and weird hours, those creative years often bind you to the best friends you’ll have in your life. Poehler’s recounting of her friendship with Tina Fey is only one of such stories. She has many, and she credits numerous people who have helped her on her path to success. The stories of Seth Meyers (SNL) and fellow cast members of Parks and Recreation are both funny and touching.

A good biography always generalizes experience outward to the reader. Most likely, the reader is not on the road to stardom. Poehler connects to her reader with experiences that level the emotional field. She is entirely sincere in her confession that most of her interesting friends are not famous, and that many famous people she knows aren’t very interesting as friends. Her reflections on divorce are funny and yet true. And what’s great is that they aren’t a rant against her ex-husband, something that would get tiresome. Poehler’s advice on learning to apologize is something everyone should read. Really—even if you aren’t going to read her book, check it out from the library and read the apology chapter. It captures how difficult it is—and how necessary—to properly apologize. And a proper apology does not include excuses or wording like, “If I offended anyone, I’m sorry that they got offended.”

The one irritating piece of the book is Poehler’s long whine (or maybe it just feels longer than it is) on how hard it is to write a book—and this takes place at the very beginning, in the prologue. It has too much of the ‘poor me’ thing going. I know many writers who toil equally as hard and for a much longer period without a mega-bucks book deal, without any guarantee that they will ever have an audience. It’s a shame that the book begins this way because it makes the reader wonder if she should keep going. And she should keep going as there is so much worthwhile coming. Actually, a reader could skip the ‘a book is so hard to write’ whine altogether without missing anything.

I listened to the audio version of Yes Please! because there are some fun guests narrating—Poehler’s parents, Kathleen Turner, Seth Meyers, Carol Burnett, even Patrick Steward reading some haiku. If you can, get a hold of the audio and have a listen.

High school housekeeping: Some of you know Poehler and her work. I think you’ll enjoy her biography. It does have some colorful language, but no more than the average YA book. It’s a good choice for any assignment of the ‘American Dream today.’ It’s a good personal choice for anyone interested in a public life. And it’s a good choice for anyone who wonders how she’ll manage her creative spirit while engaging in real life—so, I guess that’s just about everyone. The inevitable student question: Is Yes Please! As good as Tina Fey’s Bossypants? Skip the opening whine mentioned above, and yes, it is.

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Kendra by Coe Booth   kendra

Kendra is tired of her Nana’s constrictive rules about the way she dresses and whether she can talk to boys. Her Nana is tired of having to take care of Kendra and hopes to avoid what she couldn’t with her daughter Renee, who is Kendra’s mom. Renee is twenty-eight; Kendra is fourteen—just the age that Renee was when she became Kendra’s mom.

But Renee really isn’t much of a mom to Kendra. She’s left that role for her own mother so that she could pursue her education and her dream—to get out of the Bronxwood projects. And she succeeds mightily, graduating with a Ph.D. from Princeton. Sadly it is at Renee’s graduation ceremony and celebration that Kendra realizes just how little Renee wants to be her mom. Everyone is asking Kendra if she hopes to be just like her ‘big sister’ and end up at Princeton. Big Sister? Isn’t she supposed to move in with Renee and finally escape the hawkeyed Nana?

Kendra, though justifiably feeling abandoned, also defends Renee against the snarky comments of her best friend (and aunt, although she is only a year older then Kendra), Adonna. Adonna is a material girl, and she has her eye on a cute baseball player, Nashawn. But then, he is Kendra’s secret crush as well. Kendra assumes that Nashawn will only like the better-dressed, sexier Adonna and is surprised when Nashawn comes onto her, hot and heavy. But he’s made plans with Adonna, too. Kendra feels that she’s being used. She is so desperate for love and affirmation that she forgets her own worth. How can she get that? The novel reminds us many times that it isn’t coming from Renee.

High school housekeeping: There are many reasons that Kendra will be an engaging read for teens—Kendra’s sense of abandonment, her involvement in a romantic triangle and her need to break out and be herself as well as to be loved with fewer conditions. I’m thinking about whether it’s fair to criticize a book because it turned out not to be the book I wanted it to be. I felt for Kendra as she was played by Nashawn and wanted the novel to show how she comes away from that, perhaps sadder, but certainly wiser. But this is not that book. Despite all its engaging qualities and realistically-portrayed teens and adults, it leans toward formula romance in its resolution. SPOLIER ALERT: I was genuinely surprised at how Kendra immediately (like, within seconds of being followed by Nashawn into dark but public places) agrees to both oral and anal sex to thwart her Nana’s threat of having her virginity checked by a doctor. These scenes are not gratuitous, and I could easily see them happening, just not without more development. And I so wanted Kendra to learn what all people must—others use you for their own purposes, but you’ll try not to see that—you’ll do really dumb things to stay around them because you are out of your mind with the infatuation and lust. And when they tire of using you, you’ll have to pick up the pieces.

Posted in Family Problems, Fiction, Hi-Low/Quick Read, Mature Readers, Multicultural, Read 180, Romance, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adult Books for Teens: “Colorless Tsukuri Tazaki”

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami  Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki

Sometimes I love a book so much, it’s hard to know what to say about it without the effusion seeming insincere. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is one of those books. It was a joy to read. Once I read the tale, I realized that even the design of the cover was perfect.

Tsukuru is colorless only in that each of his four friends in high school has a color associated with his or her name—black, red, blue, and white. However, Tsukuru thinks of himself as lacking the verve of his friends; he senses that he is empty, and feels lucky to have their companionship. And the five Japanese students are the best kinds of friends, each complementing the qualities of the others. None is perfect, but taken together, they seem somehow whole, a complete individual entity. So it is strange—a weird betrayal—when the friends split to go off to college (Tsukuru goes to Tokyo) and the other four ostracize Tsukuru. At first Tsukuru tries to find out why. But the only answer he gets is something along the line of ‘you should know.’ And so he gives up on finding out.

The incident colors his colorless life—that is, everything that happens to him for years to come is filtered through the deep loss of the people who knew him best. For a time, he is thoroughly obsessed with death and has suicidal thoughts. In his mid-thirties, he is still very much alone although he is a successful engineer, designing train stations. When he meets a woman with whom he may be able to share his life, she understands that Tsukuru can never fully engage in a relationship, in love, until he deals with the inexplicable loss of his friends. And so he begins a long journey backward in time and forward into foreign lands, seeking a peace of mind that will allow him to connect with others. He is truly on a pilgrimage.  And by engaging in his story, the reader, too, takes a metaphysical journey into the meaning of friendships, of love, of loss and life’s purpose.

High school housekeeping: A good high school reader should have a go at Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. Much of it deals with high school connections and betrayals, as well as young adult depression. It also shows a way through the past and its pain that I think could be very valuable for teens. Many students have an interest in Japan. Reading Murakami provides insights into Japanese culture. And life—in the all-encompassing, big picture way. I’m interested in your response to this lovely novel.

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Adult Books for Teens: “The Powers of Two”

Powers of TwoThe Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs by Joshua Wolf Shenk

The Powers of Two insists that the most creative grouping is pairs. Author Joshua Wolf Shenk uses lots of famous folks to make the point. There’s Paul McCarthy and John Lennon, of course. They appear throughout the book as examples. There are also Marie and Paul Curie, and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Less famously ‘known-as-pairs’ pairs appear as well–business partners Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger are one intriguing pair. We know Buffet, but learn how Munger works in his creative and moneymaking process. We know, too, that Theo Van Gogh’s support of his famous artist brother Vincent was critical. But Theo as a creative partner may be a new idea to us, and Shenk makes his case for this partnership. Sometimes he focuses on rivalries. Particularly nasty comments about one another dot the discussion of twin sisters Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren, who both wrote popular syndicated advice columns. According to Shenk, their life-long sibling rivalry is what made them so good at their jobs.

The discussion of pairs (and rivalries) that is the most fun to read is the one about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. This is true because they are often quoted discussing how their rivalry pushed them to greatness and includes a lot of important basketball milestones.

Some of the pairings that Shenk makes are a bit of a stretch. When there is a third person who appears to be integral to the creative pair, Shenk makes them into a sort of Venn Diagram—two pairs, with one of the people crossing over into each pair. Like me, you may find this a pairing too far. Sometimes three creative people working together are just a trio. And four are just a quartet.

High school housekeeping: Despite the fact that Shenk tries too hard to turn every creative group into pairs, there is a lot to like about this book. There’s much to think about in terms of how having someone to bounce ideas off of can increase the creative output of everyone in the group. Or that rivalries, nasty as they can be, are opportunities for greatness. This is a good choice for Common Core ‘outside reading’ of ‘informational text’ (newspeak for nonfiction—fiction has plenty of information in it, too, no matter what the new-standards bearers are selling you).

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“Freaks Like Us”

Freaks Like Us by Susan Vaught   freaks like us

Sunshine is the one person who understands Jason, who helps him when the voices in his head make it hard to know what is real and what is an illusion. The two of them, plus Drip (Derrick), ride the short bus home from school each day and battle the bullies who make hard lives even harder. Sunshine is so shy that she almost never speaks; she is selectively mute.  Drip has ADHD; Jason—Freak—is schizophrenic. They call themselves the ‘alphabets’ because their disabilities are known by acronyms—ADHD, GAD, SCZI, SM.

One day after school, Roland and Linden, who bully the group regularly, stop the three friends from getting on the bus. Roland calls Sunshine ‘pretty girl’ and says he wants to go out with her. Freak feels frustrated that he can’t stand up to Roland. Finally, the three escape when Sunshine’s brother sees the situation and intervenes. They ride home and step off the bus to go to their separate houses.

Sunshine never arrives. She’s missing. When the FBI intervenes, Freak realizes he is the number one suspect because people think the voices in his head will make him do anything. His mom has even brought along a lawyer to sit in on Freak’s interview with the FBI agent.

Freak has to learn to be Jason as he and Derrick search for clues to Sunshine’s disappearance. But the FBI agent says that once twenty-four hours have passed, the outlook for finding a missing teen is pretty bad. And the clock is ticking.

High school housekeeping: Freaks Like Us is a good little mystery wrapped in a book about the true meaning of friendship. I mean is it literally little—a few hundred pages in a small format. It’s a moderate read, about 7th grade level. It’s good for a quick diversion. With its mystery and underdogs, it’s also a good book for struggle teen readers who want to push themselves to the next level.

Posted in Family Problems, Fiction, Hi-Low/Quick Read, Horror/Mystery/Suspense, Read 180, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adult books for teens: “The Burn Palace”

The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns    burn palace

A nurse in the obstetrics ward of the Morgan Memorial Hospital comes back to her post after a quick tryst with Dr. Balfour. In sleepy Brewster, Rhode Island there hasn’t been much to worry about in the many long years since the town’s founder, Wrestling Brewster, was eaten by wolves. So, Nurse Spandex isn’t too worried about deserting her post. If anyone noticed that she had left, she will just say she had to use the restroom or lie down for a bit because of her cramps. But then she sees that one of the babies is wiggling in a weird way under its blanket. Struggling. So she jumps to help. And finds the baby is gone. A huge red and yellow-striped snake is in its place.

The appearance of the snake quickly wakes up the sleepy town. The baby’s mother—an unwed teen—says she didn’t want the baby anyway, that is it like “Rosemary’s baby.” That is, the baby is the devil’s child, conceived in a satanic ritual.

A town under the spell of witchcraft is creepy enough. As people whisper about strange incidents out in the woods, a man is murdered and scalped. Is the strange teacher with the snake necklace from the yoga center involved? What about Carl? He appears simply to be small-town quirky, but as his stepson, Hercel, knows, a darker side is always peeking through a crack in the door. Carl, who has a hard time keeping a job, is now working at the ‘Burn Place.’ The Burn Palace—the crematorium—is often smoking, and the other men who work there are collecting jewelry from the corpses before incinerating them, employing some dark comedy and some light drugs to get them through their rituals, and thinking of ways to scare the creepy Carl. Even the local coyotes, animals that are usually skittish, have become vicious prowlers, ready to tear up the local dogs and children.

To detective Woody Potter, it seems the only normal creatures around are the local Wiccan witches who are receiving terror threats from neighbors who blame them for all the horror. If only Woody could make the connection between them and the strange coin the murdered man had been carrying. But no, that can’t be enough. With evidence of psychically powerful children, cunning and narcissistic adults, webs of deceit, underground schemes for making money off the dead, and at least one sociopath on the loose, it will take some work to figure out what is going on in Brewster.

There’s so much to love in The Burn Palace, It’s a murder mystery, a sometimes fast-paced thriller, and a super creepy horror novel with lots of deep, dark humor. A special treat is the top-quality writing. There are plenty of poetic descriptions of rural New England just in case you wondered if a book could have everything. Quite possibly, The Burn Palace does.

High school housekeeping: This is a great read for mature teens. There is adult content. And an adult reading level, too—so this is a good chance to really enjoy a book while kicking your reading up a notch.

Posted in Family Problems, Fiction, Horror/Mystery/Suspense, Mature Readers, Over 375 pages, Supernatural | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adult Books for Teens: “Out There”

out there
Note: I wrote this for the Inlandia Institute blog (which is published on the Press-Enterprise website) and as an article for the Press-Enterprise book section this Sunday. I’m reposting here because I think teens will enjoy Out There.

While this weekend is the official beginning of the season of hysterical consumerism, it is also the dawn of the season of thanks. We’ve just crossed the threshold—Thanksgiving—and will continue in our journey of gratitude through the new year, when loved ones and the less fortunate move us to act on our better impulses.

Those of us who are ‘bookies’ have another group to add to our gratitude list. Writers. Ask most avid readers, and they’ll tell you that books have saved their lives. They aren’t speaking metaphorically. Through the power of others’ words, readers learn first to live, and then to tell, their own stories.

This symbiotic relationship between readers and writers has been detailed in several recent young adult and adult bestsellers. The most popular recent novel in which a reader seeks a writer is The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. So pervasive are the book and the movie that I probably don’t need a spoiler alert when I say that that journey doesn’t go as planned. And yet what a transformational journey it is. Up and coming author Rainbow Rowell does a brilliant job of taking her protagonist on the journey from reader to copycat writer and finally, to a young woman telling her own story in Fangirl.  Ruth Ozeki transcends space and time in A Tale for the Time Being to bring together an adolescent diarist from Japan and an author living on a remote island off of British Columbia when the girl’s journal, housed in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, washes up on the author’s shore.

This season, in an act of gratitude for writers who toil on worthy but lesser-known projects, why not make a promise to dig deeper and make a connection to authors unknown to you? As a starter, I’m recommending Out There by Sarah Stark, published this spring by the independent Leaf Storm Press.

Out There is the story of Jefferson Long Soldier, just home from two tours in the Iraq War. Wearing the high-top sneakers he’s beaded and a headband he’s finger-crocheted from plastic sandwich bags, he nervously walks on his hands in the Albuquerque International Sunport to engender the courage it will take to cross the “security barrier, to the free world, to Esco and Cousin Nigel and home.”  Jefferson senses that there are “snipers in the airport, explosive tumbleweeds on the highway, insurgents in stolen minivans, undercover extremists buying lattes in front of him and single mothers wired for explosives behind.” Yes, his war experience has left him with PTSD, but he has a plan for getting better.  He knows that reading One Hundred Years of Solitude throughout his service has saved him. He still has the novel strapped to his chest with an Ace bandage, and many of its words seared into his brain, words that he has recited to fellow soldiers, that he reviewed whenever someone he knew—or had just met—died.

Since One Hundred Years of Solitude has saved Jefferson, he knows that he must find its author, Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez—GGM as Jefferson thinks of him—and ask him the big question, Why? He knows GGM will understand all that he has been through because, upon returning from war, the character Colonel Aureliano Buendía is asked where he has been. He replies, “‘Out there,’ an incomprehensible faraway place. As in, You cannot understand where I have been.”

In taking the road trip from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Mexico City by motorcycle, Jefferson doesn’t know if he will achieve his goal. Garcia Marquez is very sick with cancer and a recluse. Jefferson is not sure where he lives. Yet, as we know, the journey itself is often the destination. The danger, beauty and transcendence of the crossing are illuminated with poetic language. Jefferson experiences both people and events as magically real and otherworldly as GGM himself would have enjoyed. And Jefferson will find what he seeks—that “large, unidentified piece of his spirit” that had gone missing, had remained behind in the war.

Jefferson’s reunification with his deeper being is brought about by his ability to take the language of GGM, which “had been a blanket of comfort ever since the night Ramon from Las Cruces was shot in the throat, two feet from Jefferson,”  and transform it. He moves from chanting the novel’s lines as a form of eulogy to altering and rearranging those lines until he has created a paean to life and the living.

While most of us have the good fortune not to have gone to war, we have, in other senses, been ‘out there.’ Writers have brought us back with the right words at the right time—words that we inhabit as they inhabit us, until finally, we speak our own language. That’s worth being grateful for.

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