A humble little blog about books, information, and other things that are good to know.

Posts tagged ‘popularity’

Perfect

Perfect by Natasha Friend

Image via Library Thing.

Title: Perfect

Author: Natasha Friend

Year of Publication: 2004

Genre Keywords: appearance, bulimia, death, depression, eating disorders, family, friendship, grief, parents, popularity, psychology, sisters, teen, young adult.

Summary: When Isabelle gets caught making herself throw up, she gets sent to a therapy group for people with eating disorders – and to her overwhelming surprise she finds Ashley, the most beautiful and popular girl at her school, also in attendance. The two become friends, bonding over binges and purges and the relief of finding somebody else who understands what they’re going through. But Ashley can’t help Isabelle deal with what’s really wrong: the unhealed grief she still carries from the death of her father nearly two years ago. How can Isabelle heal if she and her sister have been taught to pretend it isn’t there?

Who’ll Love It: Often fun and light-hearted in tone for such heavy subject matter, this quick read will appeal to anybody interested in the emotional lives of teenagers. The rags-to-riches fantasy element of an unpopular girl invited to the “popular table” in the lunchroom is a fun exercise in fantasy, but the story really drives home the point that popularity, prettiness, and seeming perfection doesn’t guarantee happiness, and can conceal some pretty painful demons. It’s a very readable study on the difference between appearance and reality.

The Real Story: Isabelle may be a fictional character, but bulimia is more common than many of us might imagine, with between one and six of every hundred people affected, depending where you are and which study you take seriously. You can get a good general overview of the sickness here. Lots of people believe that bulimia happens primarily to young girls who think they’re too fat, but anybody can be bulimic, and the link between eating disorders and stress or emotional trauma (as with Isabelle’s grief or Ashley’s family issues) is very real in situations where people don’t feel they can deal with their problems directly.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Image via the English at Katikati College blog.

Title: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Author: Sherman Alexie

Year of Publication: 2007

Genre Keywords: belonging, cartoons, First Nations, high school, popularity, poverty, teen, tragi-comedy, young adult.

Summary: Arnold Spirit – known on his Spokane reservation home as ‘Junior’ – is a smart guy. He knows he’s not quite strong enough to fit in with the other kids on the reservation, and he knows he’s never going to survive, much less succeed, unless he gets away. So he takes the first step: he asks to transfer to the nearby “rich white kid” school, Rearden High. He does a lot better there, making friends and even finding a girlfriend, and he’s a lot more likely to get a worthwhile education that might one day mean he can live his dreams of being a cartoonist. But the more he fits in at Rearden, the more unpopular he is back home, with people who think he’s sold out big-time. Is Junior strong enough to survive the judgment and rejection of his own people – and even if he does, will it give him a shot at rising above the crushing tragedy of Native American life?

Who’ll Love It: If you’re fed up with syrupy inspirational stories about ordinary people battling great odds, you may find this book refreshingly realistic. While most such stories focus entirely on whoever’s beating the odds, they tend to ignore the systemic problems that made the odds so darn bad in the first place, and they barely even glance at everybody else left below. But this is as much a story about other people’s failures as it is about Junior’s struggle to succeed, and it doesn’t shy away from depicting the hard knocks of reservation life: violence, poverty, alcoholism, and child abuse are just a few of the problems Alexie takes on through Junior’s eyes. I particularly loved the spin he puts on the familar “sports grudge match” sequence we know from the movies: does it really count as winning when you come from the team who has every advantage and your opponents probably couldn’t afford to eat breakfast?

The Real Story: The heartbreaking poverty in this story is a real and persistent problem for actual families and individuals living on reservations in North America. Spotlight on Poverty offers up an article on the topic, and the Property and Environment Research Center looks at some government-related problems that keep the problem alive. If you’re American, you can find the reservation nearest where you live on this interactive map. (Nothing nearly that nifty for Canadians, but at least we’ve got a list of bands available.) It’s strange to think that this level of poverty, comparable to what you find in Third-World nations, exists within a couple hours’ drive of where you’re sitting in front of your computer screen.

The Book Survey

One of my friends on Facebook posted a list of books the BBC seems to think we should’ve read, but probably won’t have. I’ve got plenty to say about this, but I’ll start off with my results, and then follow up with my commentary in a later post.

Have you read more than 6 of these books? The BBC believes most people will have read only 6 of the 100 books listed here.

Book

Image via Erin Ludwick's e-Portfolio.

Instructions: Copy this into your NOTES.  Bold those books you’ve read in their entirety. Italicize the ones you started but didn’t finish or read only an excerpt.

Tag other book nerds. Tag me as well so I can see your responses! (Or not – after all reading is not a competition! I’m betting that we’re all well over 6 books, and I am curious to see the common ground).

(more…)

Does My Head Look Big In This?

Does My Head Look Big In This?

Image via Journey Online.

Title: Does My Head Look Big In This?

Author: Randa Abdel-Fattah

Year of Publication: 2005

Genre Keywords: coming of age, culture, family, friendship, high school, identity, Islam, multiculturalism, popularity, religion, teen, women’s issues, young adult.

Summary: Amal is an Australian teen like any other . . . except that she’s a Muslim of Palestinian extraction who’s decided she’s ready to wear the hijab full-time. She knows it won’t be easy, attending a posh private school away from her Muslim friends while sporting such a hotly-contested marker of her Muslim identity, but she feels passionately about it. Now she’s dealing with all the usual trials and tribulations of high school – crushes, mean girls, friends with body-image issues, and more – but also with the judgments of teachers, friends, and strangers trying to identify what the hijab says about her life and placing her in the role of a full-time apologist for Islam, even in its most twisted and horrifying iterations.

Who’ll Love It: If you’re open to walking a mile in the shoes of a young Muslim woman, this book is a great way to do it. The central character is one of those rare gems – strong and smart and (mostly) confident, yet still believable. Readers who like a good relationship story that centers around friendships and family relationships (as opposed to romantic ones) will find an added bonus in the wide range of people supporting Amal as she tells her story.

Food For Thought: Does My Head Look Big In This? investigates some of the key assumptions many Westerners make when confronted with a Muslim, particularly a Muslim woman. For instance, when you see a woman in the hijab (or niqab, burqa, or what-have-you), do you assume she’s been forced to wear it by some man in her life? Do you stop to wonder how your assumption affects her or makes her feel? It’s worth spending some time with the idea.

Creature

Creature

Image via Fantastic Fiction.

Title: Creature

Author: John Saul

Year of Publication: 1989

Genre Keywords: conspiracy, corporate, experiments, Frankenstein, high school, horror, medicine, popularity, science, sports, suspense, techno-thriller, teen, thriller.

Summary: A corporate promotion lands the Tanner family in a gorgeous company town nestled in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Everything there seems perfect . . . but is it a little too perfect? The family’s eldest son, Mark Tanner, doesn’t have a chance to think about it; he’s too busy not fitting in. Short and scrawny in a high school full of athletic superstars, he’d rather be exploring nature or caring for his pet rabbits than roughhousing on the football field. Still, when the local sports clinic offers to help him boost his growth, he decides he’s tired of being the runt of the litter and signs on for a treatment program. Maybe that’s not the best idea, though, because it seems like one of the other boys getting treated is growing out of control, in every sense of the word.

Who’ll Love It: It’s not technical or scientific enough that people with no background will be lost, nor is it saturated in sports jargon so that you have to understand football to follow the action. Rather, it’s a story with fairly universal themes and a fairly wide appeal amongst horror fans (which, granted, is a fairly specialized genre to begin). Be prepared to marvel at the callousness of the sports clinic’s employees and the corporation running the town.

Themes for Thought: The Frankenstein medical-science theme is obvious – a classic cautionary tale about delving into science without enough respect for human life. But are there other cautionary tales here? Sports can be a deep obsession in North America, leading to physical and psychological injury for players and those who aren’t able to compete. (Consider the ever-expanding archetypal tale of popular athletes picking on the nerds and misfits.) And on a more literal level, think about all the stories in the news lately about athletes caught doctoring their bodies with performance-enhancing drugs. Perhaps the fictional medicine described in the novel is representative of ethical boundaries being breached in the sports world every day. Think about it . . .

Eggheads Have A Long Shelf Life

Eggs with faces sprouting cress for hair - a rather cool craft idea!

Eggheads sprout good ideas - and a healthier Canada. Image and concept courtesy of Youthwork Practice's craft page.

The latest issue of MacLean’s magazine (August 16, 2010) has a can’t-be-missed article about the direction Stephen Harper’s leadership is taking, and Canadians who believe in the value of critical thinking should pay attention. “Cracking Eggheads”, with a byline by Paul Wells, calls itself an article about “why Stephen Harper thinks he’s smarter than the experts on everything”.

The scary thing, though, is how the current system of government lends itself pretty handily to situations where it’s in a politician’s best interests to do what looks good on TV instead of what experts have shown will actually bring about the desired result. This could turn into a long-term trend in no time flat.

Harper is a politician who wants to continue to have power, so he’s focused on the optics of his decision-making. It’s particularly strategic, now that Ignatieff is the Liberal leader, for him to contrast himself against the “ivory-tower egghead” image by presenting himself as a salt-of-the-earth, keep-it-simple sort of leader. Anybody who’s distrustful of academia will gravitate towards Harper almost instinctively.

Here’s an example of Harper’s modus operandi taken directly from Paul Wells’ article: economic experts designed a comprehensive multi-year system of tax cuts for investment and income, tailor-made for Canada  to gain an economic boost. The Conservatives touted it in 2004 and lost the election. In 2006, they decided to simplify and switched to a simple GST cut. Sure, the experts pretty much unanimously agreed it was a dumb idea. But voters resented GST and liked the idea of paying less of it, so Stephen Harper’s popularity spiked. Says Wells: “The GST promise helped them win, and Harper’s team learned to treat conventional wisdom among specialists with a certain disdain.”

Double Chocolate Cherry Cheesecake

Let them eat cake. Image courtesy of Raw Food Nation. (Click for recipe!)

Did we create this by our electoral choices? Are we, the Canadian people, at fault here? I’m not sure we should let ourselves off lightly and focus on criticizing Harper. This is politics at the level of electing a student body president, where popularity trumps good ideas and solid research. If we’re voting based on who’s telling us what we want to hear, rather than based on smart decision-making and leadership, we probably deserve what we get. And we give politicians no reason to approach us with solid, expert-backed ideas if we’re willing to vote for whatever guy is going to promote an easy-way-out option. It might not be a good solution, but does it ever look like fun to us. It’s the reason why the grapefruit diet will always be less popular than the chocolate-cherry-cheesecake weight loss plan.

Do I really need to point out that its popularity doesn’t make it a good decision?

To be fair, and to complicate the mix somewhat, we also have to think critically about why Maclean’s is criticizing Harper’s thinking. It’s certainly possible (maybe even probable) for a journalist or media outlet to exhibit bias. But if the facts reported are correct, Harper’s government is making political decisions that conflict with expert consensus across a broad range of issues – crime, drug control, taxation, climate change, even data collection itself. He’s taking the lazy road. But the job of any head of state is (ideally) to set up our society and government in such a way that our country can achieve its goals and succeed. That’s different from a politician’s job. A head of state has to set aside political ambition and run the country in the smartest way possible. But a politician’s only job is to win.

Stephen Harper is a politician, not a head of state. He tells us what we want to hear, and we lap it up.

But I for one am quite concerned about the implications of a government lacking the humility to accept the advice of experts on policies that touch on their own areas of expertise. What’s more, experts are impaired in their ability to monitor policy success without a comprehensive census, so we may not even be able to find out if the policies our so-called leaders select for us have done any good for Canadians. Without any hard data, we’re arguing in the realm of opinions instead of making smart choices about what to do. Taking the teeth out of the census has crippled Canadian experts. Which doesn’t matter, I suppose, if nobody’s listening to them anyway.

Except it should matter, and I’m even more concerned that our government values their short-term goal – staying in political power as long as possible – more than the nation’s long-term goal – moving towards a better future for all Canadians. We elected these people. We voted for politicians who have long stopped caring how the history books will describe them once they’re gone. They don’t care about their legacy, and neither do we.  Their main interest is in what web polls and the blogosphere are saying – their level of popularity. And by swallowing their sweet-sounding rhetoric instead of looking closely at expert critiques of their policies, we’re telling them that they’re right to do it. Making Canada a better country doesn’t matter. Image is everything.

If we’re such a short-sighted society, being led by short-sighted leaders, how can we possibly survive the challenges that face us in the near future?

This has become a society where information mows you down every time you step out the front door – and if you don’t, it’ll come through your window and find you. It’s past time for us to learn how to sift through that information and decide what constitutes real knowledge and what’s just talk. Gathering knowledge is smart political action. We have to think critically, inform ourselves about the issues, and refuse to make decisions based on sound bytes and shortcuts. Maybe if we make long-term consideration a priority, we can turn the tides and elect a government willing to do the same for Canada.

I’m not much of a drinker, but believe me, I’d drink to that.

Stephen Harper raises his glass for a toast.

Cheers, Canada! Image courtesy of Maclean's online.

Prom Dates From Hell

Cover art for "Prom Dates from Hell"  by Rosemary Clement-Moore.

Image courtesy of Teens at Random from Random House.

Title: Prom Dates from Hell

Author: Rosemary Clement-Moore

Year of Publication: 2008

Genre Keywords: demons, friendship, girl power, high school, horror, mystery, popularity, prom, suspense, teen, young adult fiction.

Plot Summary: Maggie Quinn, a sharp-tongued  and strong-minded journalist for her high-school paper, has no great love for the petty dramas of high school, especially those manifested by her school’s popular clique, the Jocks and the Jessicas. (Yes, all the pretty, perfect cheerleaders at Avalon High are actually named Jessica.) Then, in the last few months of school, she starts noticing strange things happening to her popular classmates – bad things. And the cause seems to be supernatural. Maggie has always been told she might have some of her ancestors’ fabled second sight, but it will take more than just strong intuition to battle what looks like a demon from Hell. With the help of a clever science teacher and a particularly good-looking local university student, and of course with her own clever wits and powers of observation, can Maggie rescue the Jocks and the Jessicas from disaster? And if she can . . . should she?

Who’ll Love It: Anyone who loved the brains and bravery of Nancy Drew, but always wished she had a bit more of an attitude . . . and that the ghosts in her mysteries actually turned out to be ghosts. Maggie Quinn even compares herself to Nancy from time to time, and the parallels are definitely apt, but Maggie is definitely an updated form to appeal to modern readers in an age of wisecracks and girl power.

Fun Trivia: This is just the first book featuring fearless demon detective and journalist-in-progress Maggie Quinn. Follow her through the college sorority scene in Hell Week, then on to spring break in Highway to Hell. Apparently, unlike Nancy Drew, this girl detective actually ages over time!

Look at some of the spiritual and supernatural issues in Prom Dates from Hell at my paranormal blog, The Shadow Side.

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