April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Introducing Sarah Hill; Juicy Nonfiction | Adult Books 4 Teens

We have a smaller set of reviews today because I want to spend most of this space telling you about a big change to the column: new coeditor Sarah Hill. Sarah has been reviewing for Adult Books 4 Teens for the last two and a half years. She’s served on the Alex Awards Committee for three years, chairing the 2010 committee. Oh, and she’s the incoming president of YALSA, beginning in June. I’m sure you’ll all help me in welcoming Sarah to this space. Sarah and I will be writing alternating columns, so look forward to her book thoughts in a couple of weeks. To give you a little more information about Sarah, I spent hours tracking her down to interview her for today’s column:

Mark Flowers: Welcome to the column, Sarah. Can you tell us a little about what you do with yourself when you’re not writing reviews and working with YALSA?

Sarah Hill: In my day job, I’m the information services librarian at Lake Land College, a rural community college in central Illinois. I answer interesting questions at the reference desk and also handle all the library instruction. It’s different than the 12 years I worked solo in high school libraries, but the majority of my students are 18 or 19, so I still am able to do what I love—work with teens!

And, obviously, I read. I’m the softball mom who always brings a book to the game and listens to audiobooks daily on my commute. My mother is a retired high school librarian who also loved YA, so I’ve been surrounded by good books my entire life!

MF: Many of our reviewers come to us from the Alex Award committee or go on to that committee after starting here. Can you talk about how Alex runs and how the committee’s approach is similar to and different from this column?

SH: I think the Alex Award Committee is what started my love for looking for adult books that would appeal to my high school students. Angela Carstensen (initial editor of AB4T) was the chair of my 2008 Alex committee, and she really encouraged us to discuss teen appeal and interest while keeping personal opinions out of the conversation. I think the AB4T column works the same way—both the committee and this column try to figure out what adult books are going to be loved by teens. We all know that teens find some of these on their own. But sometimes library staff need to lay a book like Peter Feldstein and Stephen G. Bloom’s The Oxford Project (Welcome, 2008) on the table and watch the magic happen.

MF: What excites you about reading, reviewing, and recommending adult books to teens?

SH: I’m a firm believer that reading YA and working with teens keep me young. I naturally gravitate to older YA and adult books that are great for teens, except for the occasional racy historical fiction title or cozy mystery. I’m excited that this column will take me back to the “award committee mind-set” that I had when I served on Alex, Printz, and Odyssey—surveying reviews, blogs, and publisher catalogs to find the next perfect book for teens.

Thanks, Sarah! Now, on to the reviews. Today we present the newest installment in my years-long crusade to convince you that teens like nonfiction. Here are three great nonfiction titles for your consideration.

First is Jennifer Wright’s fabulously titled It Ended Badly: 13 of the Worst Breakups in History. Wright takes a look at some fascinating historical people and periods through the lens of horrible relationships, from Nero and Poppaea to Elizabeth Taylor and…take your pick. For me, the highlight has to be the chapter on Oskar Kohoscha and Alma Mahler, for no other reason than it gives me an excuse to quote comedian/musician/mathematician Tom Lehrer, who wrote a song about Mahler in the 1960s and had this to say about her in his stage act:

“Last December 13th, there appeared in the newspapers the juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary that has ever been my pleasure to read. It was that of a lady named Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, who had, in her lifetime, managed to acquire as lovers practically all of the top creative men in central Europe and, among these lovers—who were listed in the obituary, by the way, which was what made it so interesting—there were three whom she went so far as to marry.”

Kohoscha was not one of the men Mahler married, but that may have been her strangest relationship. How strange? You’ll have to read the book.

Speaking of odd liaisons, our next book is Alex Abramovich’s Bullies: A Friendship. In 2006, Abramovich, a journalist, found out that his high school bully had started a motorcycle club in Oakland, and decided it would make an interesting story to track down his former tormentor. The result is more about urban life in Oakland than the “friendship” of the title, but it remains fascinating throughout and should pique the interest of teens, both for the high school bully theme and the motorcycle club angle.

Last but not least, we have a new biography of basically the last person who needs a new biography: William Shakespeare. More words have been spilled about Shakespeare than almost anyone else in history, and a biography is especially daunting considering how little information we have about his personal life. Nevertheless, Paul Edmonson’s Shakespeare is a revelation. Edmonson takes the seemingly obvious, but rarely followed path, of simply sticking to the facts—none of the “may haves” and “probablys” that fill the pages of critically acclaimed books like Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World. Instead, he lays out Shakespeare’s life, times, and work in admirably concise prose, refusing to get sucked into guessing games and centuries-old debates. In other words, this is a perfect biography for someone who wants to know about Shakespeare and why he matters without needing a PhD in English to understand the background.

BulliesABRAMOVICH, Alex. Bullies: A Friendship. 256p.  Holt. Mar. 2016. Tr $26. ISBN 9780805094282.
Abramovich is a journalist who grew up on Long Island. In the early 1980s, when he was in fourth grade, he was bullied by a boy named Trevor Latham. In 2006, Abramovich happened to read Latham’s alumni note from his high school on Long Island and learned that he had become a bouncer and started a motorcycle club, the East Bay Rats, in Oakland. Intrigued, Abramovich pitched the story of Latham and the Rats to GQ and headed for Oakland to meet Latham for the first time in more than 20 years. Ultimately, Abramovich moved to Oakland for several years and wrote this book, which isn’t so much about Latham or bullying as it is about Oakland, the motorcycle club culture, masculinity, violence, and the meaning of family and friendship. The story is brutal at times—the Rats sponsored regular “fight nights” and lived in a part of Oakland where crimes were many and police were few—but also funny, touching, and occasionally ludicrous. The Rats referred to Abramovich as their “embedded” journalist, and while he resisted the phrase, he certainly got to know them and their community, which was, in fact, at times very much like a war zone. VERDICT Urban teens in particular may find much to connect with in this gritty tale of a changing city and some of the men who struggled to find a place in it.–Sarah Flowers, formerly of Santa Clara County (CA) Library

ShakespeareEDMONDSON, Paul. Shakespeare. 224p. (Ideas in Profile). illus. notes. index. Profile. 2015. pap. $12.95. ISBN 9781781253373; ebk. ISBN 9781782831037.
In this improbably short book, Edmondson manages to introduce readers to all of the most pertinent information about Shakespeare’s life, style, and works, as well as his passionate take on how and why to encounter Shakespeare’s works in the modern world. In clear, witty prose, Edmondson engages with nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, bringing many of them vividly to life. He is particularly strong in his take on the sometimes-neglected poems—the sonnets, yes, but also “The Rape of Lucrece” and “Venus and Adonis,” teasing readers with the surprising eroticism of those narrative poems. The strength of this work comes from Edmondson’s crystal clear focus on what he is and is not trying to accomplish. He never allows himself to get sidetracked in centuries-old debates and academic jargon—though savvy readers might have wished for more of his takes on Shakespearean controversies considering the deft power with which he dispatches the famous Anti-Stratfordian theories (in which some doubt William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon’s authorship) with a simple thrown-off sentence or two. Of particular interest for newcomers is the chapter “Encountering Shakespeare,” in which Edmondson lays out various methods for coming to understand and love Shakespeare, including tips on going to performances and an absolutely fantastic primer on reading the sonnets aloud. VERDICT A practically perfect introduction to Shakespeare for teens and anyone else newly interested in the Bard.–Mark Flowers, Ro Vista Library, CA

ItendedbadlyWRIGHT, Jennifer. It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History. 256p. photos. bibliog.  Holt. 2015. Tr $21. ISBN 9781627792868; ebk. ISBN 9781627792875.
“Happily ever after” did not happen for the 13 couples in this book. Starting with Nero and Poppaea, winding through the ages to describe the breakups of couples such as English King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, it is a veritable Who’s Who of bad relationships. There are some unbelievable stories here about famous, creative personalities who lived at the edge of society’s mores. These rulers, artists, and writers were already larger than life, but heartbreak does not distinguish among the rich, poor, and eccentric. Whether their culture tolerated cruelty that was not acceptable in many other time periods (Nero and Poppaea), condemned homosexuals to a prison sentence or worse (Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas), or even tolerated their bizarre behavior (Oskar Kohoscha and Alma Mahler), each breakup left its mark on the individuals involved. For teens who know their history of popular and literary culture, this book will be a light and breezy read. The author peppers comparisons with contemporary pop culture figures, which may motivate readers to head to the nearest Wikipedia article to learn more. There are many interesting rumors, facts, and stories here that certainly can encourage further research into the complete history. VERDICT Definitely hand this title to teens who enjoy talking or reading about history. Also consider suggesting to those who have just broken off an important relationship—it could certainly provide a fascinating perspective.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

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Mark Flowers About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is SLJ’s Adult Books 4 Teens cocolumnist and a supervising librarian at the Rio Vista (CA) Library.

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