Sunday, September 14, 2014

"Early Decision," by Lacy Crawford

Many of us, especially those involved in the higher education world and/or those who have children, are fascinated with the admissions process and everything that leads up to and accompanies it. Applying to colleges, at least the top-ranked colleges, has become a sort of arms race. More and more students apply for the limited spaces, agonizing over their grades, SAT scores, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, and the all-important “personal statement” essays. Sometimes it is the parents who are most invested in the process. There have been a few books -- both nonfiction and fiction -- about this process recently. The latest is “Early Decision” (William Morrow, 2013), by Lacy Crawford, a novel. The main character is Anne, a private college counselor. The novel covers one application season, and focuses on five students with whom Anne is working to help them write the perfect essays and maximize their chances of admission to top-tier universities. The focus is on the five students and their evolving interests and abilities and choices; an almost equal focus is on the parents of the five students. A major “message” of the novel is that parents are too involved in the process, and are too invested in ensuring their children are accepted to name-brand (preferably Ivy League) colleges. The portrayals of the students are empathetic, as it is clear that some of them have different desires regarding their educations than their parents do. In contrast, the portrayals of the parents are scathing. Anne walks a fine line: she is hired by the parents to help their children get into high-status schools, but she also wants to help the students discover their true interests and preferences, which might not always be found at these most prestigious colleges. We also learn about Anne’s own issues and insecurities. She is highly educated but can’t figure out what she wants to do with her life; she is successful at what she is doing, but doesn’t see it as a lifelong career. She has also spent too many years with her boyfriend, a handsome, dashing actor who is unreliable, unsupportive, and unfaithful. By the end of the book, especially as explained in an epilogue, there are some happy endings and some not-so-happy ones…just like in real life. This novel succeeds as an exploration of the craziness of the “Harvard or die” mindset among some parents and thus among some of their children. It also succeeds as a story that catches and keeps readers’ attention to the end.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Men Explain Things to Me," by Rebecca Solnit

Readers may have heard the term “mansplaining,” referring to men’s explaining things to women – often condescendingly – that women already know about, and may even be experts on. Rebecca Solnit -- an expert on many matters, including the environment, San Francisco, walking, and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, among other topics, and the author of 15 books -- inspired this phrase, with her essay “Men Explain Things to Me.” Now she has published a slim collection of her essays -- “Men Explain Things to Me” (Haymarket/Dispatch, 2014) -- that includes this essay. Solnit, who lives in San Francisco and whom I have heard speak (she is an excellent and engaging speaker), hastens to point out that not all men do this, but that it is enough of a phenomenon to warrant pointing out. Solnit provides some jawdropping examples, not only from her own experiences but from those of many others, including contributors to the website “Academic Men Explain Things to Me,” where “hundreds of university women shared their stories of being patronized, belittled, talked over, and more.” Solnit explains that this problem is not just a small annoyance, but something that has larger contexts (sexism) and larger consequences (silencing women). She notes “It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field: that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence” (pp. 4-5). Most of the other six essays in this small but powerful collection also deal with issues of gender and power. “The Longest War” and “Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite: Some Thoughts on the IMF, Global Injustice, and a Stranger on a Train” deal with rape and other sexual assault. Other essays speak of so many instances throughout history of women’s powerlessness, voicelessness, erasure. One essay explores the connections between same-sex marriage and women’s issues. Solnit always writes with passion backed up by facts and reason. She alludes to history, politics, art, literature, and current events. One essay focuses on the life, thought, and writing of Virginia Woolf. This is a potent, important collection of essays from one of our leading writers and thinkers. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

On Not Wanting to Read David Mitchell's "The Bone Clocks"

I am reading the rapturous reviews (and a couple of less rapturous ones) of David Mitchell’s new novel, “The Bone Clocks,” with trepidation. It may well be wonderful, but it is clearly not my kind of novel. Vanity Fair, for example, calls it “a “genre-warping, time-tripping, metaphysical thriller with a vengeance and a cast of thousands” (September 2014, p. 184). In my own reading choices, I am averse to each and every one of those five descriptors. More detailed descriptions of the novel have done nothing to make me think I would enjoy it or even get through it. That is all fine; I fully admit that my reading preferences are not always those of others, and I definitely understand that they may indicate limitations on my part. But what is the problem? Why can’t I just decide not to read “The Bone Clocks,” and leave it at that? Well, it seems that this novel is the latest “must-read,” and that I will feel out of touch and unadventurous if I am not willing to read it. Of course I have felt this dilemma numerous times over the years. And it is clearly not a big deal, for me or anyone else. But as I felt those familiar oh-oh feelings as I was reading the reviews, I was reminded of how we all have our own very clear preferences in reading, and of how those preferences do not necessarily align with what is anointed as “the best” by literary critics and other readers. And I was reminded of how I still have some of that feeling – perhaps left over from literature classes in college and graduate school? – that as a reader of serious fiction, I limit myself in ways that may or may not make sense, and may or may not be good for my own intellectual growth. Do any of you worry about this?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"Friendship," by Emily Gould

I love reading novels about friendships, especially friendships between and among women. My own friendships, some very longtime, have meant so much to me. One of the (many!) joys of raising my now adult daughter has been seeing her great gift for friendship, making and keeping and nourishing her many friendships, especially but not only with women, from various times and aspects of her life. So I was prepared to enjoy the novel “Friendship” (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014), by Emily Gould, and mostly I did – simply because of the subject matter – although I wasn’t bowled over by it. Bev and Amy are longtime best friends, living in New York City, now thirtyish. They have each had serious ups and downs in their stuttering careers, their finances, their housing, and their romantic lives. Gould’s portrayal of these often-difficult years in millennials’ lives, especially in today’s economic climate, is one of the strongest features of this novel. These two characters are educated, come from at least middle-class backgrounds, and have been raised to think that they will be able to step into good jobs and prosperous, successful lives; it is hard for them to accept that it doesn’t necessarily work that way. We see how they struggle, doubt themselves, sometimes delude themselves, and are both hopeful and frightened about their futures. When one character is doing better and the other worse, their relationship is threatened, especially at times when one feels the other is not being supportive, or one disagrees with the other’s life decisions. One problem with the portrayal of the friendship, I feel, is that we are told over and over what great friends the two young women are, yet there seems to be something missing, something not quite convincing, about their friendship. Overall, though, this novel is very readable and, despite the setbacks the characters suffer, we as readers feel fairly confident that there will be at least reasonably happy endings for Bev and Amy.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

"The Hundred-Year House," by Rebecca Makkai

Writers and artists. Academics. Intriguing characters. Complicated relationships. A mystery. What more could this reader want? Rebecca Makkai’s novel, “The Hundred-Year House” (Viking, 2014) provides all of the above and more. The story of the Devohr house and its various inhabitants starts in 1999 and moves backward in time almost a century. As it does so, layers of secrets are gradually revealed. One of the most interesting aspects is that the house was first a family house, then an artists’ colony, and then a family house again; many of the family members were entangled with the residents of the artists’ colony in various ways, either simultaneously, or later as they did research. (As an aside: just the phrase "artists' colony" is enough to make me want to read a book....) Some of the characters are appealing, some not, but almost all are interesting. One reservation I have about the novel is that even at the end, there were a couple of loose ends in the plot that were not tied up (or perhaps were revealed so subtly that I didn’t figure it out?), and that was a bit frustrating.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

What I Read Before, During, and After My Trip

Just before, during, and just after a recent international trip (including long plane trips), I read several books that I am not going to discuss individually here, but simply list. 1. “The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories,” by Marina Keegan…..2. “Life Drawing,” by Robin Black…..3. “You Should Have Known,” by Jean Hanff Korelitz…..4. “The Awakening of Miss Prim,” by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera…..4. “Instructions for a Heat Wave,” by Maggie O’Farrell…..5. “Gone Girl,” by Gillian Flynn…..6. “The Silver Star,” by Jeanette Walls…..7. “Things We Never Say,” by Sheila O’Flanagan. The two among these that I most recommend are “Life Drawing” and “Instructions for a Heat Wave.”

Monday, August 25, 2014

On Re-Reading "Franny and Zoey"

After reading and posting (7/12/14) about Joanna Rakoff’s new memoir about her connection to Salinger, I thought about how I hadn’t read his work since my teens and twenties, and maybe it was time to go back to it. I picked up his novel “Franny and Zoey” (1955), the story of a brilliant, talented, and neurotic sister and brother in their early twenties, the youngest members of a large New York City family of brilliant, talented, and neurotic parents and seven children. I remember now my reaction when I first read it: I both admired and didn’t totally “get” it. And I had a similar reaction when I finished it this time. I was as angsty, intense, self-involved and concerned about the big questions in the world as any 20ish young person (I still remember marathon all-night sessions in college earnestly and intensely discussing the meaning of life and other momentous topics), but even to me, this novel and these characters seemed, and seem, a bit “much.” I was going to go back to Salinger’s other fiction as well, but now I think I won’t. Don’t get me wrong: I do understand how this fiction resonated, and still resonates with, so many young people, and to some extent it did with me as well, at least the first time I read it. And I do admire Salinger's gift of capturing the extreme version of this late adolescent condition. I am definitely glad to have read it. But I don’t think I need to read any more now.
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