Harmless, Harmful: A Review of Othello

They had me cornered–two adults sitting on the ground, and my friend in between them. I gave them all a bewildered look and sat heavily on the ribbed metal bench.

The man asked the dreaded question. “So, where are you from?”

I wanted to run away screaming, certain I would be here for hours. “Well,” I said tentatively, “I’m Italian-German on one side, and–or, well, I suppose more like Italian-German-American, since—” I broke off. They were nodding at each other in satisfaction.

“We knew you were American. You have the accent,” said the man sagely.

I glanced at them helplessly. “But . . .” I had an accent, but it definitely wasn’t American. “But, ah, I’ve never lived in the US,” I said. They just blinked at me. Inside, I sighed. Why did they assume—even invent—so much based on race?

“You still have an American accent,” said my friend, and I nodded weakly. What harm could it do?

Continue reading “Harmless, Harmful: A Review of Othello

Shattered: A Review of Into the Wild

Into the Wild

I shifted in my seat and stared out the car window. Outside, tall pine trees rushed by, a dreamy green blur on the edge of the monotonous asphalt highway. My eyes half-closed, I pictured the highway as a thin grey line running through an endless sea of trees. What if there were no lonely malls, no housing complexes, no power plants, only dense green forest? I opened my eyes once again. Beyond the blurry pines I could see a cellphone tower silhouetted against the sky. The pieces of my shattered fantasy fell about me. No, this was still America; only much farther north could my fantastical forests be found.

Into the Wild is a nonfiction book written by the journalist Jon Krakauer. An expansion of a 9,000-word article that Krakauer wrote for Outside magazine, it tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a young man born in California in 1968. McCandless traveled all over the country, but his true goal was to live in the Alaskan wilderness, living off the land. Through dramatic imagery and extensive research, Krakauer manages to patch together a vivid picture of McCandless’s adventures—a difficult feat, considering that once Christopher McCandless entered the woods of Alaska, he  never came back to tell his tale.

Chris McCandless was a complex young man with an intensely idealistic way of thinking. A devoted follower of the writings of Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, and Jack London, McCandless believed the only way to find the true self was to return to the wild. Many people remark that McCandless was a foolish, arrogant young man who underestimated nature. However, McCandless was experienced and knew that the wilderness would not be kind. But did he really?

Jon Krakauer brings the story of Chris McCandless’s adventures to life. He evokes a sense of yearning for the forest; he captures that feeling of restlessness that occasionally stirs and stretches within the self. Perhaps this is because Krakauer experienced it so acutely—he scaled a mountain in a fit of such yearning. Why is it that some feel this need to get away from society? Are they melodramatic romantics? Are they searching for some form of truth? Are they looking for a dream?

Into the Wild is a tragic and compelling book. A haunting, revelatory volume, it captures the delicate story of Chris McCandless, the young man who rebuilt his shattered fantasy—just to have his life shattered.

Ages: 13 and up

You can buy this book here.

Inside and Out: a Review of Till We Have Faces

Till We Have Faces

I knelt by the scattered makeup tubes which lay heaped on the floor, picking them up and putting them into their proper places. They were only props for a sketch we were performing, but the other girls with me were examining them expertly.

“Do you wear makeup?” one of them asked me, twisting a perfume bottle in her fingers.

“No,” I responded simply. I don’t, and I don’t particularly care.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” my friend said earnestly from behind me, “You would look really pretty.”

“I’m not pretty enough already?” I gasped in mock horror. The girls laughed, and that was that.

Later that night, the conversation came back to me. I wondered at the silliness of it. Why this fixation with outward beauty? Don’t our actions speak for themselves?

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold is a retelling of the story of Cupid and Psyche, written by C. S. Lewis. Orual is the ugly daughter of the King of Glome. Her beautiful half-sister, Istra, who is also called Psyche, is one of the people Orual truly loves. But Orual’s heart breaks when Psyche is tied to a tree on a mountainside, as a sacrifice to the goddess Ungit, who according to legend will devour Pysche. As Orual grows, her grudge against the gods deepens, the injustice of it torturing her day and night.

Orual is haunted by her ugliness throughout her life. Her father calls her a hobgoblin, and she never denies it. But as she grows older, she becomes more self-conscious. When she becomes queen, she dons a veil and does not take it off for decades. Eventually, Orual’s ugliness begins to affect more than just her face. As her grudge grows and her loneliness deepens, she realizes something terrifying: she is ugly—inside.

Orual discovers the error of her ways only days before she finally dies, in the form of a vision. In the vision, she is put on trial before the gods. She realizes that her grudge, which embittered her throughout her long life, was childish and sullen. To find beauty, she must look beyond the face. Beyond the hair, skin, lashes—beyond the physical. Mortals will only accept one with a truly beautiful face; the gods will accept one with a beautifully true soul.

Till We Have Faces is a singular novel. C. S. Lewis’s signature honesty and thoughtfulness make it heartbreaking and thought-provoking: a testimony of the difference between outward appearance and inward beauty.

High-school historical fantasy, ages 14+

You can buy this book here.

Observations on Staring: A Review of Wonder

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When I was about five years old, my family and I went to a museum in Paris. On the steps outside the museum, I painted my face green with face-paint and pretended to be a T-Rex. It was incredibly entertaining to pretend to be a dinosaur . . . until we had to go home. To do this, we took the subway. I remember sitting in my seat miserably, my face painted green and the people across the row staring at me. They probably thought I was adorable, but I didn’t see it that way. I almost started crying because I wanted that paint off my face so much.

Wonder, by R. J. Palacio, is the story of August Pullman. August is a homeschooled eleven-year-old. He eats ice cream, he rides his bike, and he plays video games. But August is not ordinary: he has a massive birth defect that makes his face horribly disfigured. All his life he’s faced involuntary winces, outright stares, suppressed yelps, second glances. Now he’s up against something more difficult than ever: school.

Have you ever looked at someone and wondered what they were thinking about? Wonder is especially interesting because it is written in the perspective of many different people. There’s August’s perspective, of course, but also the perspectives of Jack Will (August’s best friend), Summer (another of August’s friends), Via (August’s sister), and Miranda (Via’s friend.) It is intriguing to see how different people react to the same things. When Jack says something mean about August, he is disgusted with himself. August is surprised and resentful; Summer is sympathetic with Jack.

Wonder is like chestnut honey. When you first taste it you feel sweetness, although there is a hint of bitterness. When you swallow, the bitterness stays (although not unpleasantly). Just like chestnut honey, August is a sweet boy. He jokes about his defect, like the time he claims that UglyDolls were based on him. When I read that, I couldn’t help laughing a tad. But in the book there is also a bitter sadness that lingers—sometimes it rubs your throat raw.

Wonder is wonderful (no pun intended): funny, sad, insightful, and bittersweet. Being stared at for ten minutes in the subway felt horrible, but it is quite another thing to be stared at your whole life. I don’t think I’m going to stare ever again.

Ages: 11+

You can buy this book here.


A Pleasing Flash: A Review of Private Peaceful

private peaceful

“My life flashed before my eyes.” You can find that phrase anywhere—and curiously, it is always written when something goes horribly wrong in a story. But if it is so common, why is a description of “my life” never written? What would it include? Dinner? Sleep? Well, here is your answer at last.

Private Peaceful, by Michael Morpugo, is a story about the life of Thomas “Tommo” Peaceful. Tommo has one night left, and deep down in the trenches of World War I, he remembers every moment of his eighteen years of life. Sad and grim, with unique characters, Private Peaceful is a book—or a life—to remember.

There are two worlds in Tommo’s life: his war world and his home world. Somehow, both become infused with sadness—a sadness that creeps into every hidden nook and cranny—and then explodes. The first explosion comes at home, when Father dies, and then a dog’s death, Molly’s affair, and World War I. And of course the creeping, crawling sadness is everywhere in the war world. And then the sadness changes: it becomes grimmer, colder, harder. As Tommo describes the greedy rats, the vicious lice, the cold mud, and the harsh orders, you set your teeth and brace yourself as if you were in the trenches too . . .

In Private Peaceful there were extraordinary characters with strong personalities in both worlds. At home, there is Joe, big and friendly and unusual. Although disabled, Joe is that little bit of happiness in this story. Even though his signature is a large, inky thumbprint, for me his signature is “Oranges and Lemons,” the comforting song he sings day in and day out. In the trenches we meet another (despicably) unique character: Sergeant “Horrible” Hanley. This nickname is no misnomer. Sergeant Hanley is the harshest, most loathsome beast in the animal kingdom. And in the end, he leaves us readers with a smarting wound in our hearts.

Private Peaceful was a sad wonder. It is a must-read to anybody who enjoys tragedies and World War I stories; however, anyone can appreciate this book. When you read it, your life will flash before your eyes, but with unexpected pleasure.

Ages: 11+

You can buy this book here.

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