Now and Zen by Linda Gerber 2006
Penguin S.A.S.S. series
IQ “Knowledge shifts our perspective as surely as a climb up the mountain. Once we have observed and studied and climbed to the highest vantage point, we can shift our internal perspective. And then we have the responsibility to reach out and help those who can’t yet see.” Pg. 205
Now and Zen is about Nori Tanaka who is studying aboard in Japan as part of the S.A.S.S. (Students Across the Seven Seas) program. Nori is Japanese and she travels to Japan in order to learn more about her culture. Most people in Japan assume Nori is a native and expect her to know all about Japan, including the language. Many of the other Americans assume Nori is a native as well, especially Erik a really cute guy from Germany. He expects her to know all about Japan. Nori doesn't mind acting like she's a native at first, but her pretense is preventing her from really getting to know Japan and turning off her new Japanese friend and tour guide, Atsushi.
When you put this book down you will sigh with disappointment once you realize, contrary to what the book will have you read, you are not actually in Japan. Japan is now the number one Asian country I wish to visit. Linda Gerber does a wonderful job of describing the majesty of Mt. Fuji, the entertainment of karaoke clubs, the peaceful of temples and the hustle and bustle of Japanese transportation.
I really liked this book. Nori was such an easy character to relate to. She is Japanese so she's expected to speak the language and know all about Japan which puts her under a lot of pressure. She wants to live up to everyone's expectations but she really doesn't know anything about Japan because her parents don't talk up her heritage that much. I can relate because as a Panamanian, people assume I speak Spanish and know all about Panama. I know a little about Panama but my Spanish is deplorable. It's the ultimate second generation (and later generations as well) immigrant struggle, when you visit your home country you are viewed as the American and never fit in, but when you're in America, people look at your skin color and/or your 'exotic' (I despise that word to describe people) name and will never fully accept you as an American. We are stuck in the in-between. At the same time, Nori was annoying because she could be very pessimistic and cynical until you wanted to shake her and be like 'You are in Japan, which is amazing. Appreciate it!' I've never understood why people don't appreciate the gift of travel, I would love to see the world! She could be rather rude to the people around her and close minded, but that's an authentic teenager.
The writing is fast paced and authentic, with well developed characters in Nori, Atsushi, and Erik and there's some good plot twists. I would have liked to learn more about secondary characters like Amberly, whose troubled past is hinted at and briefly explained but it could have added an interesting new development in the story. Also I thought Nori's friend Val who is staying in America was a bit random and unnecessary but oh well. The author did a good job of developing a love triangle, both boys were likable and I could understand why Nori was torn between the two and why she dropped the one when some ugly flaws came to light (unlike other annoying YA main characters who hold onto their crush even if he's a jerk. Ugh).
A refreshing, light read with descriptions of beautiful and intriguing Japnese culture and history. Now and Zen also touches on the issue of spirituality (Zen Buddhism) and learning to look within and use our internal perspectives to help the world (the IQ says this so much better than I!) The ending is left open, but not in a cliffhanger way. I'd recommend this book to all who love chick lit, armchair traveling and Japan. 8th Grade and up.
PS I love the S.A.S.S. series, although my small quibble with the series is that there has never been one set in any African or Latin American country. European countries yes (England, Sweden, Italy, Austria, France, Spain, Ireland, Finland) and there was one set in Mexico. There's also one set in Australia. So for any future S.A.S.S. writers, how about you write about an American girl who goes to Africa (preferably African American, since usually the girl traveling to the country is of the same heritage). Or a Latina who goes to a Latin American country. I do appreciate that the series has books set in China and Japan. So far Now and Zen is my favorite in the series (I've read 2 others, the one about Mexico and Spain which will eventually be reviewed here).
Oh and I was interviewed by the Rejectionist! Check it out, I had fun with the questions and I love the snarky, insightful Rejectionist blog so it was an honor to be interviewed :)