Tag Archives: America

Student Review: Colossus, by Niall Ferguson (reviewed by Alexander C.)

Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American EmpireColossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire by Niall Ferguson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Colossus, Niall Ferguson explores the complex questions of America’s role and power in the world. Ferguson argues that America is an empire and has historically acted in an imperial nature. To support his controversial thesis, Ferguson offers political and economic analysis of both current and historical events that support his claim.

Ferguson splits his book into two parts– “Rise”, where he discusses the origins of America’s power, and “Fall”, where he examines the potential challenges to the United States in the future. Ferguson argues that America’s rise to the status of a superpower was the result of what he calls “The Imperialism of Anti-Imperialism,” where America gained territory and global influence as the result of trying to defeat more obvious imperial powers, such as the Soviet Union and the British Empire. He claims this is why many Americans today deny that America has any form of imperial ambitions. In “Fall” Ferguson addresses the potential challenges to American power, such as the possibility of a united European Union. He also tell readers that he believes economic downturns and recessions are the largest problem for America, something that is very relevant in the present day.

While Ferguson’s claims and arguments are made clear throughout the chapters of Colossus, I found his language and writing style to be somewhat complicated, as it uses more advanced vocabulary, and does not flow like a traditional novel. Additionally, Ferguson’s effort to use data to support his arguments creates many statistics and charts that are somewhat confusing–most notably in chapters related to economics. These factors may be unappealing for some readers, especially those who prefer fiction books, and I could understand those who find it dry.

For those interested in history or current events, especially those interested in the motives and context of America’s recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Colossus is an important and interesting book to reader. Despite this, I believe that other types of readers would also find it interesting, as Ferguson’s thesis deals with issues relevant to both Americans and people around the world. ~ Student: Alexander C.

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Admissions Lottery, by Bette Johnson (reviewed by Samuel S.)

Admission LotteryAdmission Lottery by Bette Johnson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If twenty thousand students each year apply to a top university, but the school only admits two thousand students per year, how does the university decide whom to admit? As it turns out, usually about five thousand applicants to such a school have the necessary qualifications to be accepted, but the university rejects most of them based on other qualities they look for in the application. In Bette Johnson’s Admission Lottery, Johnson discusses the possibility of taking these five-thousand or so qualified applicants, and admitting them via a lottery system. The idea itself, though entertaining and simple, seems incredibly impractical in a real-world setting.

Granted, Johnson does address some of the flaws in this theory, and notes that the purpose of this book is simply to entice admissions officers to think of more effective ways to admit applicants. The writing style is extremely intriguing and encourages the reader to read on; however, this starting point which she creates in her book seems to raise more questions than it answers.

One problem in Johnson’s logic is that she bases her idea on the Pygmalion effect in psychology. This theory states that if people are treated as extraordinary, they will rise to the occasion and produce extraordinary results. This effect has been proven time and again by psychologists, however the magnitude of the effect has been proven rather small. And so, it would be risky to expect that randomly admitted applicants who may be slightly less-qualified will succeed to the degree of their slightly more qualified peers. Moreover, basing a whole admissions process on the idea that everyone is equally capable of succeeding completely disregards that some people have innate intellectual abilities. So we immediately start seeing holes in Johnson’s ideas.
Another glaring problem is that Johnson defines a success as admitting a student who gets good grades. To understand this decision, we must note that she wrote this book as the Associate Director of Admissions at MIT. In the admissions department, the only thing officers can do to see they’ve done a good job is look at the grades produced. Especially in MIT, where grades are scrutinized daily. And so, it makes sense that she exhibits a bias favoring the paramount importance of grades. However, Johnson fails to realize that not all students who maintain high GPA’s are happy where they are. The goal of college admissions is not to accept people who will maintain high marks in their classes, it is to admit students who best fit the mold of the university and its culture. And so, it would be illogical to define success as simply better grades in one’s courses.

But one must also notice that Johnson’s motive to create a new college admissions process is that it would save admissions officers a lot of time and effort. She writes that admissions officers now spend far too much time, “make[ing] mountains out of molehills…agonizing over every application, trying to make a case where the differences are so small” (6). And so, rather than take the time to account for all these personal differences among applicants, Johnson argues that it would be more effective to ignore them. Ultimately, she makes the assumption that all the applicants are more or less the same, so it doesn’t really matter whom gets admitted.

Overall, Bette Johnson has produced an extremely entertaining and thought-provoking book, explaining her radical ideas on the college admissions process. However, she does not do a thorough job of backing up her ideas, and she ultimately does not propose a better, more logical solution. This work definitely deserves a read, but must be read with a touch of rationality and sensibility. ~ Student: Samuel S.

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Student Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (reviewed by Yuval L.)

The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered by many to be amongst the finest American novels. The novel relates the story of teenager, Huck Finn, and a runaway slave named Jim, who sail a raft down the Mississippi River. Both of these characters seek freedom in different ways. Their journey in some respect alludes to the adventurous development of a young American nation in its quest for freedom.
Huck runs away from his abusive father who is trying to get his hands on a treasure he found. His father kidnapped him but he does not return home, because it was starting to get “rough living in the [widow’s] house all the time” (2). Huck’s quest to escape from civilized society may be viewed as an analogy to the American break from the rigid social structure of Europe. In some way, this trip down the Mississippi River can be analogous to the American movement for independence and freedom. Just like the colonials, Huck escapes civilized life by going into unknown territory. This may be one reason that this book has become so popular.

Like many of its contemporary American classics, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn reflects an anti-racist spirit. Huck’s companion for the trip, a runaway slave, is also seeking freedom. In some strange way, they found freedom by process of seeking it. The final destination of their trip is not as important as the actual time and experience Huck and Jim share on the raft. Their day to day is unpredictable, and they are accountable to no one. Life on the raft is free. I would recommend this book to anybody who enjoys reading the classics. ~ Student: Yuval L.

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Student Review: The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck (reviewed by Adam R.)

The Grapes of WrathThe Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Times of strife and suffering, while terrible, also reveal powerful lessons about the human spirit. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is a brilliantly written novel which gives an interesting insight into life for lower-class Americans during the Great Depression. The book follows the exodus of the Joads, a family of Oklahoma farmers, as they are forced to leave their land because of the emergence of industrial farming techniques and travel to California in hope of a better future.

The story alternates between the travels of the Joads and short vignettes about life during the time. Steinbeck switches between beautifully crafted descriptions of imagery, and the colloquial slang spoken by the farmers, showing his talent for writing in different styles.
Primarily, the story teaches that, “If you’re in trouble or hurt or need – go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help” (514). Throughout the book, hard-working farmers are shown in a positive light, while wealthier, powerful individuals are shown as uncaring and harsh. This lesson, along with many others that are taught, shows that, ultimately, when the novel was written, its purpose was to protest against the changes which were occurring in America at the time. While the story’s context makes it more interesting from a historical viewpoint it also causes certain issues to be portrayed in a simplified manner.

The Grapes of Wrath is a thought-provoking book and a classical piece of literature, but it should be read with some prior knowledge of the story’s context. ~ Student: Adam R.

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Student Review: When I was Puerto Rican, by Esmeralda Santiago (reviewed by Jacob A.)

When I Was Puerto RicanWhen I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Originally I assumed When I Was Puerto Rican would be an inspirational memoir about a woman who had to overcome lots in her life. I could not have been more wrong. Esmeralda Santiago was not necessarily the worst main character in literature I’ve ever read, but she was definitely in the top 5. It’s extremely difficult to criticize her life story but in reality the way in which her issues were depicted throughout the span of this memoir was in a terrible fashion. When speaking of big themes such as assimilation, diversity and acceptance it is crucial to do so with a purpose and not in a staggered fashion. Santiago did not divide her stories up chronologically, and nonetheless provided no ambiguity in her descriptions. Whether it was dealing with a corrupt family, or taking over as the mother figure of her siblings, Santiago did a poor job of describing her emotions throughout this time period. In general the idea of assimilating to American culture appealed to me, but if you’re a person who doesn’t appreciate the movement for acceptance than this book is not for you. The only highlight of this story was the fact that in the end Esmeralda and her family finally find peace in New York and become American. They have something to look back on in their lives, and get to have two separate identities. I found that touching. In general however this book was poorly written and did not do a good job of examing the big themes that could have been covered in this story. ~ Student: Jacob A.

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Student Review: When I Was Puerto Rican, by Esmeralda Santiago (reviewed by Charles P.)

When I Was Puerto RicanWhen I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For this review, I read the memoir When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago. The book chronicles the author’s struggle to find her identity as a result of constant change in her environment. Esmeralda began her life in Puerto Rico as the oldest of numerous children and her early life was unstable due to moving often and a lack of stability in her parents’ relationship. The central theme in Esmeralda’s journey is a search for her true identity. Her constant internal struggle is summarized by a quotation following her relocation to America: “For me, the person I was becoming when we left was erased, and another one was created.” Esmeralda informs the reader that she is shaped by her environment, rather than a circumstance where she shapes her environment. Esmeralda is not confident with her identity, so she tries to fit into a mold to appease others rather than trying to be herself. Esmeralda is the main character and also the most riveting one, partly because of her uneasiness with technicalities that most would not stop to think about. For example, she obsesses over how she speaks the English language, down to intricacies of pronunciation that an English-born speaking person would not think to ponder. Throughout the memoir, I thoroughly enjoyed her analysis of such small details. In conclusion, I gave this book 4 out of 5 stars because it opened up my eyes to new ideas about finding happiness. Liking oneself is more important than the affection of others, and that “fitting in” isn’t determined by others but by belief in one’s own identity. I highly recommend this memoir to anyone that feels that they don’t belong because it provides a story of how one overcame odds to be happy with their own identity. ~ Student: Charles P.

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Student Review: Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides (review by Laura S.)

MiddlesexMiddlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974” (3). The first thing that popped up in my head after reading the very first sentence of the book, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, was a question mark. The author expands on an eye-opening and controversial topic, hermaphroditism and sexual identity, questioning the readers: what if this was your life?

The novel takes place in Greece and Detroit back and forth, creating contrast between the two different countries. The story begins about the main character, Cal, telling the readers about his grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides. The author creates complicated and interesting relationships among the characters of the book throughout three generations, describing each one of them in a unique and passionate voice, provoking readers’ curiosity and imagination. He also uses great literature devices such as metaphors and similes, encouraging the readers to picture the scenes: “…’Begin the Beguine’ floats on the humid air. It freezes squirrels on telephone lines, who cock their heads alertly to listen. It rustles the leaves of apple trees and sets a rooster on weather vane spinning” (169). Eugenides’ rich descriptions make things come alive and his voice in the novel plays a big part in bringing up the controversial topic about hermaphrodites.

Cal, the narrator, whose gene pool was polluted by incest in an earlier generation, rendered Cal as a hermaphrodite. He lives his childhood as a girl until fourteen by a doctor’s mistake and from then, lives a life as a male. Despite the unique premise, Eugenides doesn’t devote as much time to the story element as he does to the unpredictable story of the three generations. It was an enjoyable reading but it could have been better if the author hadn’t dragged the story for too long in the beginning.

Middlesex received the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and got recommended by Oprah’s Book Club. In my opinion, this book does deserve the prize and recommendation. It broadly questions the readers about making big and hard decisions in your life. Some characters deny their fate and choose to live a new life instead. Even though a mistake made by his grandparents resulting in a birth of a human with 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, failure is part of human life.

Overall, I loved reading this book and I think it deserves 4 stars out of 5. It is suitable for young adults even though it has some sexual contents – they were relevant to the plot of the novel. Therefore, I highly recommend to the students of Newton South High School.–Student: Laura S.

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