Book Review: In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster

country_last_thingsThere are the last things, she wrote. One by one they disappear and never come back. When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it.

If you enjoy post-apocalyptic novels, this book is for you. In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster is a contemporary novel, and the story takes place in, most likely, future New York City. In this world, from the little pieces of information that are presented by the main character Anna, North America is economic and politically destructed, surfers with wars; at the same time, environmental disasters hit hard to add on to the chaos. The whole country is twisted into something else. Anna, who probably comes from Europe, arrives at the city to look for her missing brother and struggles for her survival, where everything disappears and humanity is lost as a cost to stay alive.

As a post-apocalyptic novel, the story is filled with destruction and despair, but also with friendship, hope, and even love. The main characters are destroyed and remake into something stronger throughout the novel, and under the dark side of fate, we can always see hope. I recommend this novel to mostly seniors because of some more mature parts of this book. It is a really easy book to read – one afternoon is more than enough to finish it, but I can promise you, there are lots of sweet stuffs for you to discover! Get this book and start reading!

-Wenqing Z., 12th grade

Juniper Writing Institute: A Life-Changing Experience

photo by flickr user LMRitchie

photo by flickr user LMRitchie

I have been writing for more than half of my lifetime, but because my family moved to the US four years ago, I had to start over. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling to have to hold back something you know you have due to language barrier. For a long time, I begged life for a group of people to share the worlds I created with my pen and soul, but at the same time I worried that I wasn’t good enough to have one. As an international student, I felt that I’m locked, and buried alive.

That was why I was surprised to be accepted by Juniper Writing Institute. I knew this nine-day trip to UMass would greatly influence my life (cliché!), but really, I didn’t expect to receive so much from it.

After spending two months doing a writing sample but changing my mind last minute, flying across the whole country at night on my own with a crying baby on the plane, arriving six hours early and forcing myself to swallow a turkey sandwich that had too much mustard, how can anything be more satisfying and exciting than realizing that I finally met a group of people just like me? “What kind of writing do you do?” is how we start our conversation. Sitting under the shade of the fancy chapel and reading each other our own writings is how we relax. Snapping with big smiles when we hear juicy ideas get read out loud is how we enjoy life and appreciate our talent. I found “my people” for the first time, and even though we were only together for nine days, I found where I belong.

What I love the most was the writing workshop–we discussed each person’s writing sample for 45 minutes. For me, not only did I see many special and unique ideas and styles of writing, but also, I experienced something that changed my view on my own writing. My pod (our small group of twelve people, where I made great friends) surprised me by commenting that I describe things in an uncommon way. I never realized that combining writing style in my first language with English in fact resulted in something different and strong. Through this workshop, I found my strength and self-confidence to write more and better.

One of the most important things I realized from the experience with Juniper is that, a group like the Juniper writers is where I want to belong for the rest of my life. The vitality, intelligent, and possibilities within this group is what I was looking for all my life. Juniper Writing Institute helps me clarified my goal for the future. As young writers, we look at the same world but see differently and argue different sides–the energy from the crashes between angles is what pushes the future forward.

-Wenqing Z., 12th grade


Book Review: Hitler’s Niece, by Ron Hansen

hitlers_niece_novelWe all know Adolf Hitler as the leader of the Nazis, the center of World War II, and the murderer of millions. We might read about him in textbooks and discuss him during history classes, but we would never know him as a person. Like almost all of the famous people who have their names remembered, Hitler becomes more like a symbol that represents what he did instead of a human being. People forget that they were people just like us. After so many years, the real history might never be found, but from what Hitler left behind, we could always take a guess.

Hitler’s Niece is a fictional story by Ron Hansen that focuses on the interaction between Hitler and his niece, Angelika Maria Raubal, known as Geli. Some people believe that Geli was the only female that Hitler actually loved in his lifetime, and when Hansen read about this, he looked for more information and expanded it. The novel starts with Geli’s birth in 1908 and ends at 1931, before the World War started. Have you ever questioned how Hitler could rise to power that quickly? Well, the novel describes Hitler’s life from when he was a desperate young man to a fearsome leader. Hitler’s Niece is not the true history, but the reason it is outstanding is that it reads like history. The New York Times Book Review said: “Hansen succeeds in conjuring Hitler as he probably was”.

I believe that this book should be suggested to students at least 16 years old. First, I suggest you read this book because it’s an interesting book, and secondly it helps me personally in many ways. The author shows how Hitler was a real person, and how he could’ve emerged into a corrupt leader. Hansen is very strong in developing characters based on real history, and as a writer I learn from his works. I had a chance to meet Hansen this summer, and talked to him about this book. I told me that he even went to Hitler’s old apartment twice to research for Hitler’s Niece. I enjoyed reading it, and I believe you would too.

-Wenqing Z., 11th grade

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

handmaids_tale_coverThe world keeps changing. And it changed.

“Last week they shot a woman, right about here. She was a Martha. She was fumbling in her robe, for her pass, and they thought she was hunting for a bomb. They thought she was a man in disguise. There have been such incidents. Nothing safer than dead, said Rita, angrily.”

When belief was twisted into something that only fulfilled the physical need, there is a group of people that was labeled with the lost of self.

 “They can’t help it, she said, God made them that way but He did not make you that way. He made you different. It’s up to you to set the boundaries. Later you will be thanked.”

Holy, holy, the Ceremony stated.

            “ ‘And Leah said, God hath given me my hire, because I have given my maiden to my husband,’ says the commander.

Serena has begun to cry. I can hear her, behind my back. It isn’t the first time. She always does this, the night of the Ceremony. She’s trying not to make a noise. The smell of her crying spreads over us and we pretend to ignore it.”

Women who have the ability to reproduce—They are the handmaids.

“ ‘He asks, are you happy.’ Says the interpreter. I can imagine it, their curiosity: Are they happy? How can they be happy?

Ofglen says nothing. There is a silence. But sometimes it’s as dangerous not to speak. ‘Yes, we are very happy,’ I murmur.”

Under His Eye, this is how the world should be.

            “But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.

Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.

Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us.

She did. She did. She did.

Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?

Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.

Crybaby. Crybaby. Crybaby.

We meant it, which is the bad part.

I used to think well of myself. I didn’t then.

What did they do to her? We whispered, from bed to bed.

I don’t know.

Not knowing makes it worse.”

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is a dystopian novel that shows the reader a world in the future that is constantly at war. Most of the women lose the ability to reproduce, therefore people capture women who can and send them to train and become handmaids. According to the Bible, the man, the woman, and the handmaid go through the Ceremony to make babies. The author illustrates a world of extreme religious and uncontrolled chemical pollution through the life of a handmaid, Offred.

I recommend this book for students of 8th grade and above, and I want to give this book an 8 out of 10. The main topic of this book is very special, and the language and word choice were used in a way that perfectly set up the mood. Don’t miss it if you are a dystopia fan like me!

-Wenqing Z., 11th grade

Book Review: Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

brave_new_worldDystopian novels are my favorite kinds of novels. The author usually creates a “what-if” world that follows a certain idea and looks like a utopia, which is a perfect world. However as readers, we can clearly see how negative and horrible the situation is.

This novel presents the readers a world of total “happiness.” People take soma, a kind of drug, to forget the uneasiness in life and to feel pure happiness. There is no family and children are artificially made, and during this process, people intentionally damage some children’s brain to make them stupid. Therefore the people in this society are divided into five different level based on their IQs, which Alphas do the intellectual jobs while Epsilons do the simple and dirty jobs because they can’t understand anything more. A young boy John comes from his “wild” hometown with knowledge about the Bible and Shakespeare to this New World, which has no religion, no high art, and no intellectual world; technology’s good, but creativity is bad; soma and sex define happiness and meaning of living—so how will John react to this “perfect” world?

Brave New World is a very heavy piece of reading that I would recommend for high school students; personally, I was introduced to this book at a book club with a teacher during my 8th grade. The story involves GREAT numbers of allusion and symbolism that refer to many different literature works and scientific knowledge, so if you want to really understand things beside the main story line, research is necessary. Well, at least based on personal experience, this book basically can be used on ANY SAT essay. Yes, I know you may want to know this.

This book is definitely a 10 out of 10. The great structure and the complex ideals that expressed in the book are very profound, and the story line is also interesting and unexpected.  You can read it hundreds of times and still get new understanding from it every time you read it. This is a treasure chest you have to open during your lifetime, so do it now and put it on your shelf right now!

-Wenqing Z., 11th grade

Book Review: Anthem, by Ayn Rand


“You need to work with a partner or a group.”

“You have to know how to corroborate.”

“Group spirit is more important.”

“Don’t stand there by yourself, joy others!”

Do you hear these in your daily life, in school during classes, in field during sports, or even in the simplest activities? People say that the future society is for the one who knows how to work with others. However, in the novel Anthem by Ayn Rand, the author expresses her opinion by this future world with no ego.

In this world, the previous human history was abandoned that cities were covered with plants that grew incessantly. And in the society now, people don’t have the word “I,” “she,” or “he” in the dictionary.

“We are alone here under the earth. It is a fearful word, alone. The laws say that none among men may be alone, ever and at any time, for this is the great transgression and the root of all evil.”

Everyone works as a group and studies as a group, and everyone should be the same; when it comes to jobs, the law makers work as a group to decide the jobs randomly, which a genius may ends up being a street cleaner for the rest of his life. Ironically, people are named as a word with numbers, such as Equality 7-2521, but in fact, there is no such thing as real equality in this society.

There is no love. The government sets up reproduction process, sex, randomly. There is no marriage, no family, and laws control even the basic relationships.

However, an individual develops in this world. How will he survive and what can he change about this cold world?

I give this book a 9 out of 10. The topic is very unique that the author focuses on the idea of ego that people are forgetting in our society now. The only thing that I hope the author would add is the formation of this kind of society, which the story does not cover. How did the world change into this society that all men must be alike?

“Over the portals of the Palace of the World Council, there are words cut in the marble, which we repeat to ourselves whenever we are tempted:

‘We are one in all and all in one.

There are no men but only the great WE,

One, indivisible and forever.’”

-Wenqing Z., 11th grade

Book Review: My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult

my_sisters_keeper_cover“In my first memory, I am three years old and I am trying to kill my sister.”

The first sentence of My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult shows how special the book is. The author seems to have a talent on catching the sensitive problems of teenagers. Maybe we should put away all the awards that this book earned first and look at this interesting book itself.

First, the book uses days to separate each chapter, which this book starts on a Monday and ends on a Thursday. In each chapter, different characters tell the story in their prospective and finally connect the whole story. We can see how each character think and change through out the book, which is a very important element of the story. Jodi Picoult didn’t write these characters– she brought them to life and recorded their story.

The main character, Anna, is not born by chance. She is a medicine that is scientifically planned, so she can donate her blood and organs to her sister Kate, who has leukemia. Who is she? The youngest daughter, or just a shadow of Kate?

I think this book is suitable for teenagers around 13 years old and above. I will rate this book 10 out of 10, yes. Every character has their own emotional life that even a single word can touch deeply in your heart, and somehow you will find out that there is a part of you that is similar to them. And together we will see this 13-year-old girl fights her battle for her existence; together we will see how this war ends.

“In the end, though, I did not kill my sister. She did it all on her own.”

“Or at least this is what I tell myself.”

-Wenqing Z., 11th grade

Creative Tribute: The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin

Editor’s note: Have you read the 1979 Newbery Award winning title, The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin? If not, put this clever mystery on your to-read list. If you’ve read it, you’ll be able to picture the following script as an edge-of-your-seat awesome movie trailer.


This is a game that is worth two hundred million dollars.

[I, Samuel W. Westing, hereby swear that I did not die of natural causes. My life was taken from me- by one of you!]

Sixteen heirs, one winner.

[They were mothers and fathers and children. A dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge. And, oh yes, one was a bookie, one was a burglar, one was a bomber, and one was a mistake.]

Who is the dead soul looking for?

[Who among you is worthy to be the Westing heir? Help me. My soul shall roam restlessly until that one is found. The estate is at the crossroads. The heir who wins the windfall will be the one who finds the…]

Who is the final answer?

[“Somebody’s in real danger, and I think it’s me.”]

For the two hundreds million, the answers are given.

[Wrong! All answers are wrong!]

What is the real purpose behind everything?

[“Uh—uh——UHHH!” His hand flew to his throat. He struggled to his feet, red-faced and gasping, and crashed to the floor in eye-bulging agony.]

That one- that person is the answer!

[Shhh! They were struggling with their conscience. Millions and millions of dollars just for naming the name.]

The heir who wins the windfall will be the one who finds the… what?

Who will be the one?

Welcome to The Westing Game.

-Wenqing Z., 11th grade