Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Rating: 4.5/5

“I might not be in love, but I’m in like. I’m in serious like”

Maddy spends all her days at home. She goes to school online, and only her nurse Carla and her mom visit her regularly. Everything she touches has to be sterilized, and there is an airlock in her house. Because her condition, SCID, means that even the slightest contaminant can kill her and that she’s essentially allergic to the world.

But after her birthday, a new family moves in next door. There happens to be a boy: Olly. And immediately, he catches Maddy’s attention. You can guess how the story goes from there.

I read beforehand that this book would be good for people who enjoyed Eleanor & Park (and who doesn’t), and it’s true. Because it’s pretty much the same story. Another lopsided romance novel between two misfits involving family issues. Plus a plot twist, which was foreseeable near the end.

This non-unique premise didn’t stop me from putting down the book every few chapters or so to squeal at the adorable-ness, that intensity of having a first crush. The feeling of slowly getting to know someone, the chats at 3AM in the morning, the lack of words when you finally meet them. The little notes Maddy writes to herself that unconsciously reveal her feelings. All these emotions are hyped up even more since Maddy has had barely any encounters with guys to this point, much less guys her age.

But all that youthful giddiness is mixed in with family issues, personal conflicts about what is worth dying for (literally), dry and sarcastic one-sentence summaries of classic books, journal entries, and the hum-drum of everyday life from someone who’s confined to her room. Maddy is likeable and intelligent, and I kept laughing at her conversations with Olly through out the book.

All in all, a book with multiple layers and a refreshing and quick re-introduction into (unrealistic) realistic fiction.

Personal notes:

  • This was the first physical book I’ve read for leisure in a long, long time. Most other books I’ve read on my Kindle. But I happened to see this in my school library, and it was faster and easier to get than the OverDrive copy.
  • Maybe reading this book the weekend college apps were due made this a lot more enjoyable. (I managed to read this in front of my laptop without getting distracted.)
  • Crushes on book characters >>> crushes on people

Song: She Is, The Fray

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The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT by Debbie Stier (Advance Copy)

Rating: 3.5/5 (Advance Copy)

Who knew preparing for the SAT could be so…interesting?

In an attempt to make up for her son’s less-than-ideal grades and extracurriculars, Debbie Stier has made it her mission to find the best preparation methods for the SAT to maximize her son’s score.  Her discovery method? Taking the SAT herself. 7 times. In one year. Using a different test prep method each month. Fun!

To be honest, I wasn’t particularly excited to start reading this book. As a high schooler who hadn’t taken the official SATs yet, I had heard enough of the hype surrounding the high-stakes test and its importance in college admissions. (In Stier’s words, “No one forgets an SAT score–ever.”) Both standardized testing and test-prep are multi-million dollar industries, and I thought this was just the story of another helicopter parent trying way too hard to game the system.

As I started reading The Perfect Score Project though, I began having a greater appreciation for this personal project.  Her motives for finding the perfect score formula are straightforward enough. Higher SAT score for her son= better college= more $ in scholarships = less student debt = chance at a better job. Although maybe, maybe,  just a bit, she also wants a second chance after her own miserable high school SAT experience to see how much she can improve her own scores.

Over the course of a year, we experience Stier’s journey, from the mental shutdown after SAT #1 to the pleasant surprises of the October SAT, to the outrage at that essay score that never seems to improve. Her victories and failures are easily quantified through her scores, and it’s a year of ups and down, showing the volatility of the test.

This is not just a book of numbers though. In between each test, Stier intensely searches for new test prep methods. Apparently there’s more to preparing for the SAT than expensive classes. Stier consults the Internet (Hello College Board website.), various connections she’s made through blogging, memory training experts, anything that shows hope of improving her scores, and she reports back on what works, and what doesn’t.

Aside from the SAT itself, Stier includes some of her personal struggles, including but not limited to: 1) convincing her kids to prepare for the test alongside her, 2)  trying to relearn the math she never learned in school, and 3) avoiding errors on those darn answer sheets. (Why put 40 bubbles in each section when there’s only going to be 35 questions maximum? That’s just asking for trouble.)

The Perfect Score Project is not a manual on how to get a perfect score on the SAT. Neither Stier nor her son was expecting a perfect score on the test, and she set 2400 as an ideal, not the goal she must reach. However, the book provided a interesting adult perspective and more than thorough explanation on test prep that was actually readable. Not that I’m any more excited to start preparing for the SATs.

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Class Rules: Exposing Inequality in American High Schools by Peter W. Cookson Jr.

Cover from Goodreads

Rating: 4/5

A very eye-opening read on the disparity between high schools around the nation. Cookson argues that the high school a student attends is the best indicator of the social status they will have as an adult, using examples from 5 different high schools, from an elite boarding school with some of the most privileged children in the country, to an urban school in the Bronx where 100% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

For each school, Cookson provides a breakdown of the factors that give the students their class consciousness, including family backgrounds, the perception of authority, the curriculum offered, self-identity of individuals within the school, even the physical building itself. Despite all being public schools except the boarding school, a different culture became deeply rooted within each school, associated with either the upper class, upper-middle class, middle-class, working class, or the lower class. The subconscious assumptions each student left with about their role in society  would essentially dictate their lives as an adult.

Public education, “The Great Equalizer” according to Horace Mann in 1848, was intended to allow the intelligent and hard-working to move up in social class, regardless of their social background, creating a meritocracy of sorts. However, with schools strongly replicating the class system, the current education system is doing the complete opposite, strengthening the barriers between social classes and allocating the best resources to whoever wins the birth lottery. Cook details his plan for overcoming this inequality in the last chapter, which involves bottom up involvement from teachers and other community members, rather than relying on the actions of policy makers who often don’t understand the whole picture.

As a high schooler student myself, Class Rules gave me a new perspective on the education reform debate and American society. Most of us will only have one high school experience, making us unaware of other environments. but Cookson’s book provides insight into the education and lives of other social classes.

[Cross-posted on Goodreads.]

The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow

Disclaimer: I am writing this at midnight. My thoughts may or may not be coherent.

The Drunkard’s Walk is an extremely thought-provoking read on a topic most of us tend to overlook-randomness. As the title suggests, the book discusses probability and how randomness applies to most aspects of our lives, from the corporate world, to pop culture, to medical studies, to history, to our personal lives.

Cover from Goodreads

For me, the biggest gain in reading the book was recognizing the logical fallacies that humans tend to make when using probability and underestimating the role of statistics in the world. Starting with the Monty Hall problem from a game show, the book highlights multiple instances in which we tend to follow the wrong train of thought. In the case of Monty Hall,hundreds of thousands of Americans were outraged by this correct answer to this problem, including many PhD’s who were later proven wrong.

Court cases are also explained in this book, taking seemingly sound “evidence” and showing how the “statistics” are unrelated to what is being asked for, deceiving everyone in the courtroom, as well as myself. In most cases, the faulty logic resulted in the wrong verdict, just one instance where lack of mathematical knowledge harms society.

A whole chapter of The Drunkard’s Walk is dedicated to the history behind probability and how the formulas and theorems were first proven (Hint: It’s usually because of gambling.) The beginning is pretty basic, but my brain began to hurt as mathematicians’ knowledge of statistics deepened and began to consider how to accurately collect and interpret data.

Another fault of our brains pointed out by Mlodinow is that we like to find patterns in everything, whether they exist or not. Our brains have a hard time grasping the concept of randomness, and we tend to believe that every result has a cause and can be foreseen, which seems true in hindsight, where we can cherry-pick evidence to support the result. However, when predicting the future, so many factors are involved that a minor change in any variable could change the outcome significantly, known as the butterfly effect. From the motion of molecules to the stock market, the butterfly effect makes it impossible to predict to the future.

The Drunkard’s Walk concludes by showing the biases humans have towards perceived “successful” people, even with proof that success (aka fame and money) is mostly random.

As a math nerd, I enjoyed reading The Drunkard’s Walk, even if it was a little brain-busting at times. The information will stick with me for a while and is surprisingly “real-life”

Depressing Realistic Fiction

I finished reading Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson last night, and instead of writing another review, I really just feel like talking about the book.

Cassandra and Lia are wintergirls, two former best friends who stopped talking to each other and made a blood oath that they would be the skinniest girl in the school, skinnier than the other. Six months later, Cassandra is found dead alone in a motel room with no explained cause of death. What no one knows is that before her death, Cassie called Lia repeatedly for help. 33 times to be exact. And Lia never picked up.

Now, Lia is haunted by Cassie’s death and her guilt for not answering the phone that night, as well as dealing with her parents and stepmother who keep trying to help her with her eating disorder when she doesn’t want to get better.

wintergirls

Wintergirls reminds me of a phase I went through last summer where I just kept reading depressing realistic fiction. And honestly, I liked it. The characters are more insightful even if they’re depressed and screwed-up. In fact, it’s the screwed up-ness that gives them their free-spirited personality.

These books always makes you wonder why you even bother conforming with society when you could just do what you want and still be happy (or at least independent in a sense)

“I don’t know how they do it. I don’t know how anybody does it, waking up every morning and eating and moving from the bus to the assembly line, where the teacherbots inject us with subject A and subject B, and passing every test they give us. Our parents provide the list of ingredients and remind us to make healthy choices: one sport, two clubs, one artistic goal, community service, no grades below a B, because really, nobody’s average, not around here. It’s a dance with complicated footwork and a changing tempo”

-from Wintergirls

That quote almost completely describes me, which is kind of scary, because I’m not too sure why or how I do it either. Maybe I just don’t have the nerve to go against what everyone else says. And that’s another theme that keeps going around through all these books:  You have to be strong in order to be different. Lia referred to her refusal to eat as “being strong,” and in other books, the main character either doesn’t care or manages to deal with everyone judging them or trying to “help” them.

So now that I’m questioning all of life now, on to the next book on my list: 1984. If anything, I feel like this book’ll make me go crazy and start talking in newspeak like most of the people I know who’ve read it, or just make me start thinking about everything and make me confused. Again. Yay.

Every Day

Right before my last day of finals, I decided to start reading a new book instead of studying. Which completely goes against what I wrote about in my last post, but whatever. Every Day by David Levithan is an amazing book.

The main character,”A”, has no identity and wakes up in the body of a new person everyday.  Each morning, “A” wakes up to a new gender, a new bed, a new family, a new everything. And before going to sleep, “A” has to lose it all and be prepared to wake up in the body of another person whether “A” wants to or not.

Someone living their normal life would randomly have one of their days controlled by “A”, who could do anything he/she (depending on who the person was) wanted to and take no responsibility for the actions once the day is over. Obviously, this could be a disaster, but “A” tries to keep everyone’s life as normal as possible, because everything’s simpler that way

“A” has the power to access the brain of whoever his host is, but “A” chooses to only access enough information to get through the day and not appear too much out of character. “A” has learned that there’s no point in getting too attached to any person, since none of it matters once the day is over.

Until the twist in the story. One day, “A” wakes up in the body of a rebellious guy named Justin, and over the course of a day, falls in love with his girlfriend, Rhiannon. Perfect. Except “A”‘s only in Justin’s body for a day, and there’s no way for “A” to tell Rhiannon his/her feelings if “A” keeps changing forms everyday.

The rest of the book is spent solving that conflict and trying to communicating with Rhiannon, while also dealing with the challenges of living in different bodies every day. This leads to even more problems, which are all kind of simultaneously being solved and growing at the same time.

I love storylines like this. This book deserves 5 stars just based off the plot. The love story isn’t the central moving force of the story, (well I guess it kinda is, but…it’s different.) and the whole idea of a person like “A” out there is pretty intriguing.

“A” is a completely unbiased person (soul? concept?) who has literally lived thousands of past lives. What would “A” think of you if he/she/it got to live your life for a day? How would you react the next morning when you woke up and realized that someone was in your body, and that you don’t really remember much from the previous day?

Also, could you love a person if you were in a different body every day? Could you be in love with someone whose appearance changes daily? What makes you love someone?

Just a couple of questions that make you reflect back upon yourself. Once again, I love the idea of this book. (The writing is beautiful too.)

The only other books I’ve read by David Levithan are The Realm of Possibility, a collection of poetic snippets of peoples’ lives, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson, a collaboration novel with John Green.  Both books were pretty good, but Every Day definitely surpasses both

All these books include LGBT characters, which I’ll admit, I’m still not perfectly comfortable with reading about, but I’m getting more used to it as I keep reading. It’s not a topic commonly written about, or even talked about on a personal level, and I praise David Leviathan for writing so well about a sensitive topic.

That’s really all I have to say about Every Day, other then that you really should read it for the brilliant story and plot (and characters)

But anyways, I’ll be reading a lot more since it’s finally winter break, and here’s my mini- list of books I’m planning to read over the break, along with other books on my to-read shelf:

  • Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson
  • 1984, George Orwell (It looks a little too classic-y and long for my taste, but multiple people have told me that it’s good, so I’ll try)
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky
  • Annabel, Lauren Oliver 
  • If I really run out of books, something by Sarah Dessen (although I hope that doesn’t happen)
So happy winter break to everyone, and I hope to be writing more posts the next few weeks!