I have only the most nodding acquaintance with Zen Buddhism, despite Jon Stewart and other pop references, but I do know a good middle-school story when I see one. Jordan Sonnenblick's Zen and the Art of Faking It is an excellent entry into this overcrowded genre. It is the story of San Lee, who has just moved to Nowheresville (Harrisville), PA, his family's umpteenth move in as many years. San has perfected his chameleonism -- he can adjust his personality to fit in successfully. Wondering what will be his shtick in Pennsylvania, he realizes that the social studies unit on Zen Buddhism is a rerun -- he got it last year in 7th grade in Houston. When a classmate who has caught his eye -- a pretty girl who plays the guitar and goes by Woody (a la Mr. Guthrie) -- expresses interest in his knowledge, San's new role is destined.
So San recreates himself as a Chinese Buddhist, sitting zazen in the morning before school, eschewing the trappings of wealth (well, he is actually pretty poor), emulating the archers of Zen in the Art of Archery in his pursuit of the perfect free throw, and helping out at a homeless shelter, all in the pursuit of Woody. Alas, San is really the adopted son of two white people -- one of whom is currently serving time for fraud. And, it's only a matter of time before his carefully constructed persona is revealed ... and San wonders if he's no different from his father.
I liked this book -- it was effortlessly funny and yet it also delivers its message about figuring out and being true to who you are. It does the latter without feeling message-y in the least. San is a very likeable character, self-aware and self-deprecating, and he gets himself into a number of humorous situations that would appeal to young middle schoolers. There's even a librarian -- who first appears as the antithesis of best practices for serving teens and she's got white hair and glasses -- but she ends up on the right side of things, and the true practitioner of Zen.
But I wasn't crazy about the audiobook. I've heard the reader, Mike Chamberlain, read two other titles, Spanking Shakespeare and Twisted, and I was not impressed by him either time. Here, he's creating a slightly younger character and I found his reading style to be almost remedial. It always sounded like he was reading a book (I could hear the pages turn, metaphorically), as each sentence was delivered with a measured pace and deliberate pronunciation. Chamberlain got San's humor, but when the time came for San to confront his father with his anger at his father's behavior or when he realizes what his fakery has done to his relationship with Woody, the voice was no different. It was different was when San would exclaim "Yikes!" at a situation he'd gotten himself into; in this case, the vocal change seemed intrusive: I would stop and ask myself, who's the eight-year-old who's intruded into the story?
Chamberlain's voice seems unusually high for a male adult, it almost sounds strained. You could argue that this is what a 13-year-old boy's breaking voice sounds like, but instead it was merely painful. This was an original funny story, but no great shakes read aloud.