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Zen and the Art of Faking It

Review

Zen and the Art of Faking It

Right off the bat, San Lee can sense trouble. Once again he’s in a new town attending a new school with new classmates. He has the same old family problems to deal with and the same old inability to create his own identity --- or at least adhere to some well-worn teen stereotype that would help him fit in. Instead, he makes a list: Jock? Skater? Prep? Goth? Emo?

"I was sick of pretending to be like everyone else --- the artificial slang, the Internet research on sports I didn't care about, the endless watching of MTV so I could learn song lyrics, dance moves, cool clothing brands…maybe it was time to pretend something completely different. I didn't actually hear the beat of a different drummer, but maybe I could pretend to be unique." Clearly, San has some issues. But like all great heros of teen literature, he ends up having an identity foisted on him. And, believe it or not, it actually makes things better for him!

The idea that one can create quite simply an "identity" is crazy; everyone is searching to unearth their own specific identity and the "true to yourself" truisms that run through YA lit have a lot of validity as far as their experience goes. San tells his story in his own voice, a voice that is clear and strong and not particularly funny or winsome but real. When he discovers the wild-haired "Beatle-girl" singing along with her beat-up acoustic in the school cafeteria, San has met a kindred spirit. When she actually acknowledges him and engages him in conversation on his first day, San begins to find his footing. By the time his knowledge of ancient religions kicks in, he mistakenly becomes branded as a Buddhist. As the only Asian kid in his school, he takes for granted that this stereotype would be given to him --- but then he runs with it. And that's what makes ZEN AND THE ART OF FAKING IT different from other books of this genre.

“If you can't beat 'em, join 'em” seems to be San's attitude, and he relaxes into his role with equal parts dread and conviction. His dad in prison and his mom working hard as a nurse to support her son, San's family life leaves room for improvement. His new study of Zen leads him to places he didn't expect to go and begins to help him make something good out of what is a lacking environment. Spending more time with Woody and less at home eventually causes some trouble with his hard-working, well-meaning mom who doesn't want San to turn out like his lying, cheating father. Add basketball and THE TAO OF POOH to the mix and you have a fast and funny tale about finding yourself and then keeping up the appearances as your "identity" takes more and more energy to sustain.

ZEN AND THE ART OF FAKING IT is unique. There isn't a lot of preaching in this book, which is partly about conscience and morals, and partly about identity and trust. Jordan Sonnenblick --- the acclaimed author of DRUMS, GIRLS & DANGEROUS PIE and NOTES FROM THE MIDNIGHT DRIVER --- creates a lovable character in San, whose struggle we can jump right into but takes us places we didn't expect to be taken. This could have been a run-of-the-mill "new kid in town" story, but Sonnenblick is able to wend together both teenage angst and a primer on how "thinking without thinking" can help you do a lot of things, like play basketball well or get the girl. When San receives a note with an I Ching message on it ("When the way comes to an end, then change --- having changed, you pass through"), we know he has changed for the better and that, no matter what, the lessons learned are ones that will carry him through to his real identity as he grows into it.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 1, 2010

Zen and the Art of Faking It
by Jordan Sonnenblick

  • Publication Date: October 1, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Mass Market Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Scholastic Press
  • ISBN-10: 0439837073
  • ISBN-13: 9780439837071