Thursday, July 16, 2015

‘Smart Girl’s Guide to God, Guys, and the Galaxy’ (Book Review)

Growing up, I read a lot of neat little books – both Christian and secular, both good and bad – advising how to dress, act, and survive the teenage years. That might have been ages ago, but I confess that genre can still pique my interest. So it’s no wonder that I picked up a copy of Smart Girl’s Guide to God, Guys, and the Galaxy: Save the Drama! and 100 Other Practical Tips for Teens (Shiloh Run Press, 2014) after stumbling across it online. Authored by Susie Shellenberger, editor of the now defunct BRIO and Sisterhood Magazine, and stand-up comedienne Kristin Weber, Smart Girl’s Guide promises helpful advice with a dash of humor.

To be honest, I expected a lot more from Smart Girl’s Guide. While there are a few unexpected gems, like “Take an apologetics course,” much of the advice – and the reasoning behind it – is cliché: Respect your parents. Study your Bible. Dress modestly. Trust God rather than peers. In a huge market like young adult nonfiction, something unique is needed to make one book stand out from all the competitors, either in the topics covered or in how the advice is offered. Smart Girl’s Guide appears to have neither. It’s just another fish in the sea.

That’s not to say that the authors didn’t put a lot of effort into it. It just doesn’t really show. The content is generally boring, and the jokes tend to fall flat. It would’ve been easily improved by organizing the hodgepodge of tips around particular themes and eliminating some of the vagueness and repetition. There’s also room for expansion. I would’ve also liked to see lists of suggested books and classic movies that aren’t limited to a few of the authors’ favorites. And some of the tips require more research to actually carry them out. That might not seem like a big deal, but guides like this should aim to be comprehensive, requiring little additional work so that the kids will actually complete the tasks.

I also thought that the perspective offered was often too adult. Kids should be learning how to protect their personal information online and manage online account settings, not relying on a crutch like a junk email account to handle spam. They shouldn’t be signing up for online contests anyway considering the legal age requirements. And while window shopping at a mall might be a waste of time for the authors, it’s a convenient and relatively safe activity for teens. The authors’ alternative – hiking in the wilderness, with no mention of getting a chaperone – might sound like a great idea to many non-parents, but it’s probably one of the most unsafe things teen girls could do.

Another part that needed work was the titled advice about dealing with the opposite sex. “Have guy ‘friends,’ not boyfriends” sounds like a brochure headline for a one-way trip to the “friend zone.” And trust me, don’t ever go there. It’s lonely. I’m not saying girls can’t have male friends, but they often want more than that. They want attention, love, and sex. Those are biological realities, and God’s responsible for them. We need to quit pretending that these desires don’t exist or that they are somehow abnormal or bad. Instead, show teens how to be more selective in whom they date. Promote group and chaperoned dates to avoid being put in compromising positions. And encourage more honest parent-teen talks about things like sexual temptation and pornography. Since dating is probably the main topic of interest to most teen girls, I think that the authors missed a huge opportunity to make a real impact on their readers’ lives.

Perhaps my expectations were a little high, but nevertheless I was left disappointed. And that’s rather unfortunate because, of all the books in the series, Smart Girl’s Guide has the most potential. Teen girls eat up this kind of stuff, and their parents will often buy it for them. A book marketed to teen boys (The Guy's Guide to God, Girls, and the Phone in Your Pocket), their mothers (The Savvy Mom's Guide to Sons), or teen girls’ fathers (The Smart Dad's Guide to Daughters) are more likely to sit on the shelf.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

‘Oh, Yeah, Audrey!’ (Book Review)

Last year must have been a big year for Audrey Hepburn fans because Oh, Yeah, Audrey! A Novel (Amulet Books/Abrams, 2014) by Tucker Shaw is the second teen novel inspired by Breakfast at Tiffany’s (and written by a man) that I’ve read that was published in 2014. At its bare bones, I liked the book. SPOILER ALERT! Teenaged Gemma, obsessed with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, meets up in New York City with other fans she’s met online. Their goal is to complete a walking tour of places associated with the book and movie and finish up with a movie screening, all in honor of some anniversary. Blinded by her love and admiration for Holly Golightly (played by Audrey Hepburn), Gemma refuses to see the character for what she is: a prostitute. Gemma is convinced that the men in the book just liked handing over money for the sheer privilege of being in Holly’s company.

The meetup and tour get started, but Gemma quickly finds herself swept off her feet by one of the guys she met online. So much so that she abandons the rest of her friends and the tour. And who wouldn’t? Dusty is filthy rich and well-connected. He buys Gemma a vintage evening dress (previously owned by Hepburn herself). He takes Gemma to an exclusive art gallery opening, an overbooked classy restaurant, and an underground music venue. Gemma is infatuated with him but unaware that Dusty doesn’t share her feelings. He just considers it all advance payment for the services she’s expected to render at the end of their evening.

With this storyline, I think Oh, Yeah, Audrey had a lot of promise. However, when it comes to the execution, I would’ve preferred more. The book got a really, really slow start. And I mean really. Over 100 pages in (out of 243 pages total), I still didn’t know the plot. The author could’ve speeded things up by jumping right into the action, revealing the necessary background information as each character was introduced rather than placing so much at the beginning.

The characters didn’t need so much introduction anyway. They were rather cookie-cutter, even for Young Adult Fiction. It’s far-fetched enough to have one rich guy spending money like water on the heroine, but to be honest, two is a bit ridiculous. The book also fed off of some particularly annoying stereotypes: all Californians are rich, all Asian men are gay, and all gays are fashionable. All this wrapped up into one dreadful character, or should I say caricature. Or maybe it’s brilliant parody of Mickey Rooney’s dreadful portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi. I can’t tell. At any rate, it does raise the question of why a Japanese-American would be so in-love with the whole Breakfast at Tiffany’s craze.

As for improving the main plot: I would’ve liked to have seen Gemma come into conflict with Holly Golightly’s other unseemly characteristics, not just her escort service. It seemed as if Shaw’s heroine had read a rose-colored version of Truman Capote’s short-story, free of theft, racism, and slander. The subplots also could’ve benefited from further development. I don’t think Shaw got his money’s worth out of them. Gemma and her friends come to terms with their sort-of-enemy way too early in the course of the story. Gemma’s parental issues seem relegated to needless filler. I also think that the significance of the heroine abandoning the walking tour for a date is lost when the reader considers that she and her friends together had abandoned it to go shopping and checkout the Hepburn dress auction beforehand.

I guess in the end I have to admit disappointment. Oh, Yeah, Audrey had not just an entertaining story to tell, but also an important lesson about how naïve young people can end up in trouble. I really wish the book had been a draft, not the finished product. Some teen girls will probably like it, but I think it ended up as merely a shadow of what it could’ve been. If asked, I’d have to recommend Being Audrey Hepburn by Mitchell Kriegman instead.

Monday, June 22, 2015

‘Going Clear’ (Book Review)

After reading insider Jenna Miscavige Hill’s tell-all memoir Beyond Belief about her growing up in the Church of Scientology, I thought it would be a good idea to read something that would give me a slightly more objective view about L. Ron Hubbard and his religious creation. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief (Knopf, 2013) was just the thing.

In this book, author Lawrence Wright pulls together material from considerable research and numerous personal interviews to tell story of one of the newest and one of the most controversial religions around today. He starts off with Hubbard’s early life and goes into his wobbly career with the U.S. Navy, his involvement with the Occult, and his stormy relationships with his wives (both official and common) and children. This helps the reader really put Hubbard’s science fiction writing, development of Dianetics, and founding of Scientology into a larger perspective.

While at first, Going Clear might appear as a Hubbard biography, later on the book shifts focus, discussing the suspicious take-over by David Miscavige, the church’s turbulent relationship with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, charges of abuse, and other scandals and lawsuits. Wright fills his narrative with testimonies of members past and present, both famous and not-so-much, providing a variety of perspectives about Scientology, its legitimacy, and where it’s headed.

As the work of a previous Pulitzer Prize winner, I wish the book had been a smoother read. It seemed to jump from here to there at times, probably because there was so much information and so many people to discuss. It made it difficult to remember who was who sometimes. However, I really appreciated how Wright took the time to explain a lot of scientologists’ practices and beliefs. One problem I had had with Hill’s book was that she often seemed to assume her readers knew what she was talking about, and the Scientologese (Scientology unique set of acronyms and vocabulary) is not always easy for a casual reader unfamiliar with the religion to remember.

Some readers might take issue with me calling Going Clear “objective,” and I admit that’s a bit of a stretch. A better word choice might be “fair.” Wright lets both side have their say, while he does betray his own position at times. For example, I think he could’ve been more critical of filmmaker Paul Haggis when discussing Haggis’ upset about the church’s support of CA Proposition 8 (2008) concerning the legal status of same-sex marriage. I thought that Haggis’ correspondence with church officials provided an excellent illustration of how celebrities were accustomed to receiving special treatment. Here was one who thought he had a right to demand a change in the church’s doctrine and political position, regardless of the view of the church’s leaders or other members. Haggis’ behavior shows what problems the church faces when constantly catering to high profile members’ sense of entitlement, and I think Wright was too focused on the discussion about the treatment of homosexual members to make observations like these.

I would like to say that, whatever biases might have penetrated the rest of the book, Wright’s conclusion was quite fair. Christian readers might think of 1 Corinthians 15:12-34 and how Christianity stands or falls on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead when, in Going Clear, Wright notes the significance of a statement made by Scientology’s then-spokesman Tommy Davis. In effect, Scientology stands or falls on Hubbard’s claims that Dianetics helped heal him from his war wounds. As Wright shows, Hubbard unabashedly lied about his war record and exaggerated his health problems. All I can say in response is “Case closed.”