Book Review: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

jane_eyreUnfortunately Jane Eyre would never become the best seller it once was, if sold within our time. It holds four-hundred odd pages of description-infused writing (hardly any of which is possible to hold in concentration for the average teenager of our generation), a heroine and love interest who both do not seem particularly attractive, overt religious themes mixed in with heavy-handed moral preaching delivered by the author, a plain love story (with a few plot twists thrown in for dramatic affect), etc., etc.

And yet…it has become a story adored by generations, one that has ascended to the lofty consideration of a classic.

Fortunately for me, that meant I was subjected to read this in school, which in turn meant I was definitely not allowed to read it at just face value.

Perhaps two years ago I picked up the book in attempt to immerse myself in a classic for the summer, and at the time, I was incredibly disappointed. Reading it as my impressionable, naïve, opinionated teen self of a few years ago (that I like to think was the Sophia of the past) Jane was a meek protagonist, who was incredibly boring when held up to the “empowered” female protagonists of today. I saw her as too clingy to her outdated morals, and unable to follow “her heart” for love within the book. Predictably I only read through the first half of the novel before sucumbing to complete disatisfaction.

And wow, I was wrong.

Now with two more years of life experience under my belt, along with a hefty dose of analytical interpretation from the English class this assignment was given for, the truth has been revealed in stark comparison. Jane Eyre is actually (when read properly between the lines as well as through its many intricate layers) a compelling and interesting story of 19th century female independence and empowerment, created light years ahead of its time.

It was even considered revolutionary within its time, author Erica Jong stating (of Jane Eyre), “When a book is beloved by readers and hated by contemporary critics, we should suspect that a revolution in consciousness is in progress.”

Jane Eyre is aware of her self-worth. She knows what her morals are, and she stands by them (and unlike many others she sticks to them regardless of the final outcome of her decision). She doesn’t follow the advice of others advising her against marriage, the first time, because she is prudish or caged up or weak unable to sway for love (the mindset I believed before), but instead because she is standing strong for herself, standing by her own integrity and her own beliefs.

Charlotte Bronte masterfully subverts many literary tropes of her time, and of our own. The things that made Jane so unappealing for me before-she was far from perfect (or rather she did not have imaginary flaws seen by only herself; she was completely real, and completely subjected to the human flaws we all have), she was not beautiful which allows her to fall into a relationship with Rochester not based on appearance, but instead due to her true self, not one hidden behind a façade of perfection and beauty.

One of the other things that surprised me after becoming fully immersed in the novel-the dialogue and characters still appear fresh and witty in their interactions. The plot is as intense and immersing as a YA novel of today.

And if you can put aside your phones and your short attention spans for a period of time its 461 pages are filled to the brim with intense gothic imagery and mood, as well as beautiful compelling plot points and twists-things you wouldn’t expect from a novel published 167 years ago.

If you have the time and dedication to read between the lines, perhaps you’ll begin to understand the revolutionary nature of this novel-perhaps even revolutionary for our time.

-Sophia U. 12th grade

Book Review: The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown

davinci_codeA book that became highly popular years ago, this is a title that many have heard of, but one that few teens from this generation have actually read.

The overall verdict: this is a book that either you will either fall in love with, or that you will hate. It’s rare to find an opinion in reviews that begs to differ.

In my opinion, it was a fast-paced page turner that kept me engaged and relatively entertained during the span of time that I was reading it, but there were still many holes that left me unsatisfied with the book as a whole with its completion.

The basic plot traces the story, both in a modern fictional account and in a “historical” context, of the search of the true holy grail-not only a treasure of time and religious history, but also one of deeper metaphorical symbolism. To provide a more in depth synopsis: a murder within the Louvre in tangent with clues hidden within the works of the great master Leonardo DaVinci (along with many other renowned thinkers and artists) leads to the discovery of a religious enigma hidden by a secret society for thousands of years, a secret that could cause catastrophic change in the base of worldwide religion.

Sounds a bit overdramatic with a dose of being formulaic, doesn’t it?

Brown weaves a fast-paced and entertaining read that leaves you with cliffhangers at every chapter’s conclusion, leaving you flipping the pages till the end. Read as a shallow summertime read is a good investment, however reading too deeply into the “historical facts” may prove dangerous. Taken as pure fiction many of the “historical facts” serve as fascinating concepts for future introspection on secrets societies, treasure, and religion as a whole-taken as fact; however, many prove to be a stretch. Brown treads a thin line in his historical accuracy, writing a story of fiction, but stating many of the facts as the complete truth when transferred over to our world. The main warning: read with a grain of salt.

The plot also leaves you with too many twists to count- one of the most entertaining aspects for me. One moment an ally seems like a foe, the next it is revealed who in fact the true enemy is, and the moment directly after it turns out that one of the main antagonists was actually good all along! (You get the point.) It serves to be highly entertaining, but by the third plot deception it leaves you wondering how much of a formula Brown had at his disposal, and if he really did intend to be so repetitive.

Another thing that particularly struck me was the fact that many of the plot occurrences seemed just too perfect to conspire in real life. Many aspects of the novel proved to be highly unrealistic, a romance where one would never take place in real life, the fact that one of the main emulated ideas in the story is that of a scared and empowered feminine-yet the main (and only) female protagonist is, although being portrayed as smart and beautiful, is forced to act powerless for large stretched in the plot, and that somehow the protagonists always end up where they were supposed to with the answer they needed in the end.

Overall, the writing isn’t terrible-it is just a story that one must read with the intent of entertainment, not fact.

-Sophia U., 12th grade

Book Review: Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel

water_chocolate“A novel in Monthly Installments with recipes, romances, and home remedies”

As soon as one steps into the story of Tita, the youngest daughter in an intimidating Mexican family living in the late 1800s, one is literally swept off their feet into the world of Latin magical realism.

Following the story of Tita over the expanse of many years crammed into the divisions of twelve months of a year, the storyline defies time going forward, backwards, and sometimes seemingly sideways, all stories, tangents, and anecdotes falling into place with the conclusion of the novel.

The plot follows the love life of Tita, each month of the year in its division of the novel, preceded by a recipe, and each recipe offering valuable foresight into the misadventures of her life. The novel rotates around food, so it isn’t irrational that food should begin to take on a magical quality of its own.  It becomes undeniable that the preparation of the food isn’t just seasoning; it makes a home for Tita.

In January, the story goes back in time to tell of Tita being introduced into the world while being swept up on a wave of tears, being formed from when she first felt the stung of onions as her mother was chopping them in the kitchen. The novel picks up and what follows is a love story, but the heated career of her life is set against the backdrop of cooking, the food taking on magical alchemical properties of its own and helping to mold the story. Tita falls in love with a man who she cannot marry due to the archaic rule of her household; the youngest daughter must live and care for her mother until the mother’s death. She is set in tragic twist of fate, her older sister being married off to the man she loves.

The food comes into play with magic as she cooks her way through the kitchen. In February she makes a wedding cake for her sister’s wedding to the man she loves and accidentally cries into the batter, making all who consume become both sick in the heart and within their stomachs. A quail in rose sauce that she creates from a lovingly given bouquet of roses given to her by her lover makes the other sister of the family run off in love and passion with another man.

Overall, I thought it was a spectacular introduction to the world of magical realism, and reading it left me “hungry” for more. One should read perhaps though with a grain of salt, but still play along, you must accept the magic woven into the story as the characters do in their own lives for it to make sense and for the wonder to take a hold of you as well.

As a word of warning: this should be read by ages 15 and up. As it follows an intense impassioned love story there are minor bits of sexual imagery that should not be read by the wrong audience. Proceed with caution and eat all you’d like, for the story will take you on the ride of your life.

-Sophia U., 11th grade

Book Review: It’s Kind of a Funny Story, by Ned Vizzini

kind_of_a_funny_story_coverI came across this movie a few weeks back when a close friend and I decided to watch it as a close to our Friday afternoon. The movie was great in its portrayal of the characters so I picked up the book to immerse myself a step further.

I loved this book. To be frank it’s about teens and it discusses suicide, depression, drugs, and sex, but it’s a beautiful story, with an important message-sometimes it takes a fall to the very bottom in order to pick yourself back up again to get to the top.

Craig shares a story akin to many teenagers nowadays. He’s overly stressed out and pushed to the edge. He has a seemingly bright future ahead of him, but is unable to cope with his mounting stress and begins to consider suicide as one of the last options. Thankfully, instead, he chooses to call a local suicide hotline the night that he was planning to execute his suicide, where they direct him to check himself into the hospital for his own safety. To his parents’ alarm, he checks himself into the mental hospital, the only problem to him being that the teen ward is shut down, forcing him to live with the adult patients where he meets a host of interesting and- not to say the least- crazy characters.

The story that is woven is touching and heartfelt, and surprisingly uplifting for one that is about depression. It strikes many chords with the reader and holds many relatable aspects for anyone who has struggled with depression; on the other end of the spectrum, painting a realistic and tangible picture for those who have not.

The characters were all well written, thought provoking, and real to the point of being relatable, each of them holding an impressive back story of their life. I feel like the fact that the author himself was self-admitted to a mental hospital, makes this book a direct reflection of his experiences, and the characters projected through that are the immediate distinction. It’s one thing to write about such a serious subject from the standpoint of just research, but another to openly admit the personal stay in the ward and grow from the experience, reflecting it in the writing. This makes for a fully tangible approach to the story, where everything is bitingly real, yet incredibly touching.

This book is about suicide, but it’s not depressing; it’s uplifting to say the least- a reminder to give yourself some perspective and realize that however horribly messed up it may seem, you may really need humor as the best way to cope.

One of the aspects that struck me the most was Craig’s personal upbringing. This wasn’t a story where Craig’s hard life was too much to handle; he lived in a family that had a supportive and loving mother, father, and younger sister. He wasn’t in a broken household, and was actually quite privileged, which made me glad that the author was able to illustrate that mental illness does not discriminate. That mental illness is not a problem with the person, but instead on in a balance of chemicals in the mind. Even the most stable person can suddenly become depressed and the author effectively diffuses the cloud of stigmatism that one would encounter surrounding mental illness in the real world.

Through this light-hearted read, you’ll be able to touch on lessons that you may have forgotten, to be reminded again, while following Craig’s story. It is a story that touches on things that are not normally discussed in life, but are nonetheless important, painting an uplifting and humorous shade to the normally stigmatized and rarely discussed subject.

-Sophia U., 12th grade

Book Review: Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher

13_reasons_whyTo follow the style of the original book, this review will be divided and counted.

Thirteen Reasons Why follows the story of Clay Jensen, an ordinary high school student, unwillingly tied up with the recent suicide of his classmate, and first crush Hannah Baker. After her death her “tapes” (listing the thirteen reasons why she decided to commit suicide) are distributed and mailed around to the thirteen people who are mentioned in the tapes. Jensen, as one of the recipients of the tapes, spends the evening listening to them- retracing Hannah’s steps throughout the town…eventually learning more about the girl who slipped away, out of his life.

Overall I had many, many problems with this book. There were a few positives, but the way the author addressed the serious topic of suicide and depression disturbed me and left me unnerved. Here are my own eight reasons why…

Negative aspects of this work:

1. Hannah Baker holds a very shallowly based argument for suicide.

A majority of the reasons for her suicide are connected to her romantic interactions with other males in the town, or her own reputation at stake. Although it is irrefutable that suicide/and or depression could be triggered by anything, societal problems being one of them, the story portrayed by the author struck me as if it was written by someone who had no idea of the weight of the topic they were discussing.

2. There was too much focus on males within the story.

Let me explain a little more, the males within the story were portrayed as the main instigators of most of Baker’s reasons for suicide. All of them also connected to her because of some romantic, or sexual exploitation turned rumor. Perhaps the author was trying to hint at the fact that males should be more aware of their actions towards others and how it affects them, but I still saw it as a sometimes anti-male tirade.

3. Some parts of the novel were incredibly unrealistic.

Much like the first point I made, other details in the story showed up as questionable. One of those is that Baker’s parents are never mentioned as being a source of help for her within the duration of the narrative. And what about the fact that the whole new town that she moved into seems so messed up, and against her? The fact that she seems unable to make new friends despite how charismatic and kind she is. This book definitely had a few plot holes, and things left unexplained- which did not help with the overall narration style taking place.

4. Uninspired story

Overall, you can tell that the author probably has had no personal experience with suicide or depression- as it shows through the work itself. And according to the author, it was inspired by audio tours that people take at museums, seeing artifacts, and listening to the story in place- not exactly the inspiration you would think would be needed to portray such a serious topic.

Don’t worry though…there are some positive aspects:

1. The author does a very good job of highlighting the idea that “it’s all a matter of perspective.”

No matter how trivial something may seem to you-that same thing, or action or thought may mean something entirely different for someone else based off of their own life experiences. Basically you don’t know the back story, so don’t be so quick to judge.

2. There is a very good portrayal of the ripple effect.

The author did a wonderful job in explaining and showing how one action may unwittingly set off a whole chain of events following, despite the connections being almost unseen to the people experiencing it.

3. There is very good characterization of the main person Clay Jensen.

The author did an incredibly realistic illustration of how he was reacting to the tapes. His immediate train of thought as he was visiting the places mentioned within the tapes. As the tapes explain back stories to people that he was completely unaware of. All of his reactions were incredibly relatable, and maybe even something I would do within his situation, allowing me to extend more empathy to his character. His emotion and anxiety was palatable, something completely tangible that you could almost feel as you were reading along.

4. There is a very good sense of “what if.”

The entirety of the story leaves you thinking about “what if.” And in turn makes you reflect about your own life and the “what ifs” present there.

Overall, the book’s negative aspects outweighed the positive for me, but it came as an easy read, with parts that left me with little bits of (sometimes shallow) introspection to mull over. Perhaps read it with these bits of commentary in mind, but don’t take it too seriously- after all, the author didn’t seem to take such controversial topics that way either.

-Sophia U., 11th grade

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

fault_in_our_stars_coverAs the second of John Green’s books that I have had a chance to read, The Fault in Our Stars did not disappoint. Written from the perspective of the 16 year old Hazel Lancaster who is diagnosed with a type of terminal thyroid cancer, it recounts her experiences in falling in love with the 17 year old Augustus Waters, an amputee who is recovering from osteosarcoma, after their chance meeting at a Cancer Kid Support Group.

Although this book is about cancer and the two main character’s experiences with it, it is not a “cancer book.” It is not a book of just tragedy, or a book of just recovery or regret. Instead, The Fault in Our Stars holds valuable insight to the perspectives one would not usually attribute with those who are fighting cancer or another terminal disease. In stark realism to other stories of its type, Green portrays Hazel and Augustus struggling together with observations about the fragility of life, the importance of humor, and the wisdom of death (or the looming threat of it); finally in the end, each reaching their own conclusions about what these subjects signify within their lives.

Green has lived up to every expectation, and has even surpassed some of those I held while beginning to read this book. Even with just two paragraphs into the book, it delivers an incredibly insightful observation cloaked within Green’s down-to-earth writing style:

“Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.)”

Green writes with an incredible tenacity creating characters that are intensely fleshed out, vividly real, complex, and beautifully illustrated, transporting the reader into the shoes of both Hazel and Augustus, allowing for empathizing and connection with them on all levels. His ability of description also lends itself to create beautiful illustrations of the locations that play important roles within the story line making it easy for the reader to imagine themselves in the both the far reaches of where their favorite writer resides in Amsterdam, and in the closer homes or even bedrooms of the characters.

Despite the somewhat distant subject matter of these two teens fighting against cancer, Green manages to pull in the readers with the incredible points of realism and relatedness that they can hold with the characters. He also provides the perfect balance of humor and tragedy, the intense humor within the first half of the novel only serving to make the luminous final pages even more beautiful and heartbreaking. Ranging from the parts of incredible insight, to the intense humor and comic relief, to the final parts of tears and heartbreak, Green continues his winning streak, making this book one of my new favorites. Through the experiences of the characters you will learn a lot about yourself, and also be able to face topics that may have never shown up on your radar before, and in the end leave with a humbling story of love, friendship, and loss.

-Sophia U., 11th grade

Four things about Japanese culture and society that I bet you didn’t know

I’m not entirely sure on how to start this post, so we’ll start from the beginning… (And please excuse my tangent from the standard book review, welcome to an adventure in Japanese pop culture and society!)

256px-Satellite_View_of_Japan_1999So, this summer I was granted the wonderful opportunity to study abroad in Japan through the program American Field Service (AFS for short, more info at the end of this blog post*). I was placed in Nagoya, the third largest city in Japan, and lived with my wonderful host family for six weeks. During the span of living there I also attended a Japanese language school, to learn more and improve on my Japanese. I am so grateful I was able to experience Japan through this way, because of this I came back home a more outgoing and open minded worldly person, not to mention my Japanese dramatically improved.

I can honestly say I made many new best friends there and through truly immersing and experiencing the culture first hand my view of the world has changed for the better. It may sound a bit cliche and cheesy, but it’s true! Living abroad, let me repeat living, not being a tourist, changes everything about how you view the world, literally with “different eyes.” Ask any exchange student who has come back and genuinely grown from their experiences, I know I have.

As a little about myself, I am of Japanese background so I am and was deeply aware of many Japanese traditions and societal values, but being a Japanese American is entirely different than being a true Japanese person. It is incredible the amount of differences between our two cultures, so although I believe myself to be Japanese, I now know that I am proudly Japanese American. Although the two cultures are dramatically different, there are so many aspects that have been carried to my own life through my ancestry that I only became apparent of with this experience.

So why am I posting this as a blog post you ask? While I was in Japan, I decided to document my experiences in writing on a blog, which before my trip I showed to the lovely Allison Tran (Mission Viejo’s teen services librarian). After my return, she read a majority of my blog posts, she asked that I would write this blog post on different aspects of Japanese pop culture and society. So let’s get started!

Four things about Japanese culture and society that I bet you didn’t know.

(As a quick note: a majority of these things are based off of my own experiences living in Japan, so they may be specific to Nagoya, my host family, or my own experiences. Everyone’s experiences are different, and because of this you may not encounter or experience all the same things that I have.)

1. Japan IS NOT (most of the time) the country it is portrayed as in the “Meanwhile in Japan” memes. Although there are many crazy aspects of Japanese culture that are truly like what you sometimes find while roaming across the internet, there are also huge differences in everyday life as well. I can assure you that any culture has their share of things that would be viewed as “strange” by other cultures or ethnicities. Japan is very much so a culture of opposites, old and new-look at the ancient capital of Kyoto versus modern day Tokyo, people hold values on both ends of the spectrum, and that stuff that you saw in the “Meanwhile in Japan” probably only applies to a fraction of the actual population living there.


Of course Japan has McDonald’s (photo by flickr user Nicky Pallas)

2. Japan and Japanese culture has a lot of adopted things from different cultures. Although they take many things and use them within their own culture, they change it and improve on it, putting a distinctly Japanese twist on it. Food, kanji (adopted Chinese characters), inventions, certain words and vocabulary, social norms of the younger generations, and fashion in Japan, are all things which a fraction of could be traced to another culture of origin. And although Japan does have a large amount of “borrowed” things, they will take it and modify it to be distinctly Japanese and entirely unlike the original imported item of choice. I often experienced culture shock finding so many familiar things there that weren’t all that familiar.

A member of the pop group AKB48 (photo by Dennis Amith)

A member of the pop group AKB48 (photo by Dennis Amith)

3. Dramas (basically television shows), manga (Japanese comics), J-pop (Japanese pop music), and anime (animation) isn’t as prominent as you would expect it to be. Of course there is a section in the bookstore of library dedicated to manga, but it’s not as if everyone is an “otaku” (the closest equivalent to this in English is a “geek” or a “nerd” who is obsessed with a certain thing like a certain manga, or anime shows). And yes, of course all of these are much more prominent in the country of their own origin, but I was definitely expecting a lot more. Everyone though does have their own favorites and many anime or manga in Japan could be connected to a certain generation as what they grew up to, similar to us saying we grew up reading dystopian novels that are popular with American teenagers nowadays.

I know I should be mentioning more about these aspects of pop culture so here are some sub-points to this topic:

  • Japanese dramas: The standard format of Japanese dramas are around ten to eleven episodes long depending on how well it is received and if liked even more, maybe a second season will be installed. I personally prefer dramas over anime because of the amount of dramas that can truly reveal aspects of daily life and culture in Japan, versus the selection in anime (but this may also be because I haven’t taken the time to actually watch many animes yet). Dramas are basically Japanese television shows, created for a Japanese audience. Since they are produced specifically for a Japanese audience the Japanese humor runs rampant and hilarious. Many Japanese dramas are also adaptations of other mangas, and sometimes animes, and due to the popularity many Korean and Taiwanese versions of the same drama crop up.
  • Manga: There are many different styles of manga and genres, very much similar to how one would organize a book collection by genre. Many very successful manga go on to have anime and drama versions. Manga can also be seen as forms of art within the storylines told and art forms themselves. Huge fan bases have been created for various manga, and often times these books are considered real forms of literature with overarching themes that can connect readers to the situations the protagonist is going through. I often read the more girly form of manga named “shoujo,” which isn’t necessarily girly, but known for its emphasis on emotions, relationships between people (not all romantic), and is usually directed towards a target audience of teenage to young adult women (although anyone can read it!)
  • J-pop (and other assorted music): Believe it or not, a majority of music is marketed towards the younger generation through television, (if you search through my posts you’ll be able to find mine about the amount of television watched in Japan…if you’re wondering it’s a lot.) There are many channels that are very similar to what MTV was originally, before all the reality TV set in, music artists are invited onto television show to perform and promote themselves. They sometimes have funny challenges for band members to participate in and interview questions so the watcher can learn more about their favorite artist. In this way people in Japan are much more connected to their favorite idol or artist through their television, and these performers probably reveal more things about their own personality and who they are through these shows versus how teens in the United States obtain information about their favorite music artist. It is also interesting to note that there are huge idol groups such as AKB48- which actually has 48 members- formed on the basis of fans being able to connect with at least one of these many girls who have a range of hobbies, likes, and interests. Many J-pop idols are also well into their 30s and 40s for age, yet are still extremely popular. SMAP is Japan’s number one idol group and is composed of members all in their 40s, who aren’t just listened to by women their age, but also by teenagers.
  • Anime: Personally I don’t watch a huge amount of anime, but in many cases it could be considered an art form. Much like in the United States there are huge fan bases for popular shows, and many “otaku.” Anime could be comparatively what some people watch in Japan today, versus what we Americans watch as television shows. Many go on for years, a famous example “One Piece” started as a manga in 1997 and is still running having around 400 something episodes. Studio Ghibli, the creators of many classics such as “Spirited Away” and “Totoro” are in particular regarded as one of the highest quality art form of anime produced in Japan.

Students working together to clean their school (photo by Allison Tran)

4. Many people don’t expect this- I certainly didn’t- but everyone works together so well in a group mentality in Japan, versus the mentality of Americans, which emphasizes independence. People act for the betterment of society, for the betterment of their family, or for the betterment of their group, not for individualistic means. I knew my host family’s neighbors extremely well, maybe even better than my neighbors here at home. It’s not as if everyone is extremely self-righteous and friendly towards everyone, but everyone acts more cooperatively and openly with other people. Certainly the culture is shifting a little at the borders and the younger generation may experience it in different ways, but everyone is there to support the others, often placing others before themselves. My own theory for why this came to be is the small size of Japan as a whole, because of this more people have to work harder to understand each other and be a team in times of crisis within the islands. It’s based on the shared experiences of living together, a shared awareness shaped by their own society. Perhaps many other cultures have this as well, but it was highlighted in sharp contrast for me coming from a very American mindset and cultural background.

Oh wow! The memories! You may not believe it, but after living somewhere and truly being a part of the community you may return home and experience homesickness for the country and people you were with before. I can now testify that although I only stayed for around six weeks, I am homesick for Nagoya and I miss my host family and my friends dearly, they have all become like a second family to me. If you would like to check out all of my previous posts and experiences from my time in Japan, check out my blog:

I have a bit of a backlog of posts that I started in Japan, but neglected to post, so if you keep reading, I’ll be sure to keep posting!

*  As a bit of background related to AFS: A group of young American ambulance workers named the “American Field Service” were sent to France during both world wars to help with aiding the war effort by tending to the wounded French soldiers on the front lines. Many of the young American ambulance workers and French soldiers formed extremely close bonds with one another, becoming almost inseparable friends. The Americans soon realized that one-on-one relationships between people of different countries was major piece of the puzzle in creating world peace, dispelling ethnic stereotypes, and as they said, “breaking down barriers and forming bridges” between different cultures. As soon as World War II ended they decided to do something to recreate the great friendships they encountered with the French soldiers for other people as well. In 1947 the first student exchanges were started.  Since then AFS has been promoting positive diplomatic relationships between countries through high school age student exchange. I honestly belief that AFS is an amazing organization that is achieving what was originally intended to occur- the promotion of better country relations and the dispelling of racial stereotypes through one-on-one relations between people of different cultures.

Ok, thanks for reading through such a long post! I hope you learned a little more about Japan, and rid yourself of some stereotypes!

-Sophia U., 11th grade

Book Review: Looking for Alaska, by John Green

looking_for_alaskaUntil I picked it up again, Looking for Alaska had been sitting on my bookshelf collecting dust. But let me tell you, this has been one of the most fulfilling books I’ve read. I often speed through books being left with a small impression of the story, the characters, the situation, but without much profound and deep pondering on my part, Looking for Alaska however, was something entirely different.

Looking for Alaska follows the story of Miles Halter, later nicknamed “Pudge” – an average teenager who has the unusual hobby of memorizing people’s last words. Convinced by the last words of François Rabelais, “I go to seek a great perhaps” and tired of his dull life in Florida, he decides to attend boarding school in Alabama to seek a new start. He meets his roommate and soon-to-be best friend, called the Colonel, introduces him to Alaska Young, the beautiful, moody, wild, yet emotionally unstable girl who he becomes instantly infatuated with.

They spend their time bonding over elaborate pranks against the school and “Weekday Warriors” (the rich students of the school who go home every weekend), studying, and generally breaking the rules. About halfway through the book a terrible tragedy occurs making the way Miles and all the other characters of the book completely rethink their lives while making sense of what happened, to solve the mystery left behind.

This book deserved every award it has received. It’s gorgeously written– a hilarious, impassioned, thought-provoking, deep, profound, and relatable story. The characters are often seen as the bad behaving and rebellious in the story, but despite that are incredibly fleshed out, vividly real, complex, and beautifully illustrated, making the reader through their stories confront the not so easily pondered and discussed topics of self-discovery and on the other end of the spectrum-loss. This book was almost impossible to put down, pulling you in deeper with every word, allowing you to empathize with what the characters are experiencing, making you ponder your own life and beliefs along the way.

The story is not divided by chapters, but instead marked by the amount of days leading up to the tragedy and then the days after. The first half readers will be left grinning the entire time, and at the end they will deeply moved, maybe even to the point of tears, but also left with deep and profound ideas to mull over.

Overall I was very impressed by Green’s writing. He leaves the reader with a deep impression of the characters, all having their own distinct stories and all holding their own distinct beliefs. The story itself is very deep and profound, but what made this one of the most valuable books I’ve read was the simple yet extremely inspiring and deep messages he left with me. Reading this book made me look back on some of the events that happened in my life, and made me re-analyze them in a new light. It helped reintroduce many of the things that I had locked away in my memory bank, making me rediscover and confront troubling things from the past.

Alaska had chosen as a topic of her essay in the religious studies class the students were taking, Simon Bolivar’s last words, “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” which she interprets as life-the labyrinth of suffering. Miles, through his loss and tragedy, in the end concludes the only way out of  the labyrinth is through forgiveness.

Through the experiences of the characters you will learn a lot about yourself and be able to face topics you haven’t been confronted with before. As a final word of warning, there is lots of mature content, but everything in it serves to define character, give voice, and develop profound themes in the story. Indeed, this award-winning book is even on many high school reading lists and can help to open the topics of loss, self discovery, and friendship.

Sophia U., 11th grade

Book Review: Carpe Diem, by Autumn Cornwell

carpediem_coverAfter a careful search in the library, I rediscovered a book I read a few summers ago.  Carpe Diem revolves around sixteen-year-old Vassar Spore, an academic overachiever. Her life goals include graduating high school with a 5.3 GPA, (“the new 4.0”), attending the prestigious Vassar women’s college (which she was named after), marrying a PhD graduate, and receiving a Pulitzer Prize. To reach all of these goals her next two summers have been completely planned out with Advanced Placement courses and extracurricular activities.

Suddenly, all of her meticulous planning is flipped upside-down when her eccentric, bohemian Grandma Gerd demands that Vassar spend the summer backpacking through Southeast Asia with her. Her usually-conventional parents agree to let her go after being blackmailed by Grandma Gerd, who threatens to tell Vassar about “The Big Secret.” Vassar is abruptly thrust into a completely different world filled with dirt, pests, and people from all walks of life. While traveling, she learns about LIMing (Living in the Moment, as coined by Grandma Gerd), and meets a Malaysian cowboy/bodyguard, named Hanks. And as stated in the book’s summary, “Vassar Spore can plan on one thing: She’ll never be the same again.”

I really, really enjoyed reading Carpe Diem. At first, the plot seemed predictable: a serious student learns there is a lot more to life than just books. Cornwell, however, exceeded my expectations and developed Vassar into a much deeper character. Vassar prepares meticulously for challenges. She changes into someone willing to live in the moment, taking things in life as they come. I sense that Cornwall draws on her love for Southeast Asia and her own experiences traveling abroad to describe Vassar’s misadventures.

This story offered me a valuable lesson. I am also a hardworking student in high school and go to great lengths to focus on school, grades, and getting into college. Rereading this book made me step back for a while and think about my real priorities. Once in awhile, I want to drop everything and “just LIM it!”

Rereading this book triggered my own memories of traveling abroad and domestically, experiencing new and novel things, taking in new cultures and mindsets, and expanding my perception of things. This book was also a valuable read because it broadened my interest and knowledge about Southeast Asian culture and travel.

I recommend Carpe Diem for readers who enjoy stories of adventure, exotic cultures, and travel, seasoned with lots of laughs. This book was enjoyable all the way through, with a balance of humor and seriousness to satisfy any reader. Based on the reading level, I would recommend this book for readers aged ten and up, though the content is acceptable for precocious readers who are under ten years old.

-Sophia U., 10th grade

Book Review: Little Blog on the Prairie, by Cathleen Davitt Bell

little_blog_prairie_coverIf you have ever experienced a power outage, or had your phone, laptop, or tablet die on you with no place to recharge, you are familiar with the excruciating torture of being disconnected from technology. How would you cope without smart phones, fridges, microwaves, or flushing toilets?

Meet Gen, an average teenager, who intends to spend her summer relaxing at Club Med and preparing for soccer team try outs in the Fall. Gen, who has been begging to have a cell phone for years, finally convinces her parents to allow her to have one, but there’s a catch. She must join the family at Camp Frontier, a historically themed ten-week “vacation” in the wilderness of Wyoming that promises the ultimate experience of living as an American pioneer of the late 1800s. Gen deals with the harsh reality of wearing petticoats, squatting in uncivilized outhouses, and must find ways to save her sanity in her new life on the prairie. Things may turn out to be OK after all when she manages to sneak in her cell phone to secretly update her friends on the horror stories of living on this (as the book states it) “Little Hell on the Prairie.”

Things continue to look up with the introduction of the cute guy named Caleb, who lives in the next clearing over. Her friends, who she has been regaling with stories through text, have been posting her stories in a highly popular blog on the Internet, gaining her an audience of huge proportions. However, Gen has more important things to worry about like churning butter, pulling weeds, or milking her cow.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, although the plot and character development seemed shallow. It was an easy read with a bit of romance between Gen and Caleb and moments that will leave you giggling. The story is good for a tween and teen girl audience, but more advanced readers may be frustrated. The idea of Camp Frontier seems far-fetched. What family would embark on a ten-week pioneer experience in the middle of nowhere? Also, it’s hard for me to accept how the short texts provided between of the narrative could fill up a whole blog that attracts lots of dedicated followers. The texts provided were amusing, but they didn’t paint the whole picture of pioneer life to the blog audience. I didn’t dislike the book, but many parts of the plot were not credible.

If you read Little Blog on the Prairie without thinking deeply, you’ll find it an entertaining light read. Although Gen may seem shallow at times, her reactions are very amusing and easy to relate to. The book’s content and language level suits readers 11 years old and up. I recommend this book specifically for tweens and teens.

– Sophia U., 10th grade