Tuesday, October 23, 2012

School Reading

(Liz) Rarely do I have trouble getting into a book.  I'm the opposite of ADD with my reading; I don't drift off, and I devour almost everything I begin.  But then occasionally there's the book that doesn't click and I end up pushing it to the back of the pile for another day.  One such book is The Secret History by Donna Tartt.  EVERYONE loves this novel.  My closest friends.  My colleagues.  Go into a bookstore and ask.  They will tell you it's great.  So what the hell's wrong with me?

Last weekend I gave a book presentation to a parents group at St. Thomas High School in Houston.  It's an all boys Catholic school, and I was the special guest for the meeting that coincided with Homecoming and the school's annual book fair.  Had I known it was Homecoming I would have worn a corsage.  I've given presentations at several private schools and find myself impressed by the differences between my high school (fall carnival involves mazes of cardboard boxes taped together) and these schools (fall festival involves mechanical bulls).  Their school: future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio is the baseball coach.  My school: my basketball coach taught my biology class, but we had the seventh period class and the school could only afford six class sets of dissection materials, so I never had to hack into critters.

You're sending your kid to
an elite private school! Congrats!
Either he's going to break down or
die! Bring on Harvard!
After my presentation, I started thinking about school themes in books and movies.  I'm a sucker for a Dead Poets Society and School Ties.  Somehow poetry and Latin are far less tedious in film form.  And so I decided to give The Secret History another try.  This time, finally, after years of abortive attempts, the book clicked for me.  It's great.  So here's a quick list, by no means complete, of some of my favorite novels set in the fascinating, disturbing world of the elite education institutions.  Some common trends: the new kid/new teacher is always the focal point, never join the exclusive organization because you'll end up involved in scandal (and possibly murder), language classes are torturous, and the charismatic artists and geniuses are always trouble.  In short, should you find yourself in private school, find the Gianna and stick close to her.  She'll moon you, but you won't end up pregnant, plotting to kill anyone, or reciting poetry in the woods.

The Secret History.  Let's start with the book it took me so long to discover.  Richard, the average guy from California, transfers to a small, liberal arts college in Vermont. Once there, he ingratiates himself with the elitist group of five students and their teacher who are obsessed with the study of Greek.  The idyllic life turns Greek tragedy, though, as a night of bacchanalian frolicking starts them down the slippery slope to murder.  It's smart, dark, and worth all of the bookseller love.  I haven't finished it yet, so don't tell me what happens, 'kay?

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.  Like your books too smart and clever for their own good?  Most of the time, aggressively clever stylizing in books irritates me, but this one is the exception.  The protagonist, Blue Van Meer, is a wise-cracking master of all things literary and cultural, and Pessl's first novel uses parenthetical asides masterfully (and in almost every sentence).  Blue enrolls in the elite St. Gallway School and connects to the popular kids (the "Bluebloods") and their favorite teacher.  A murder or two later, though, and Blue is in the midst of her own nightmare.  Special Topics was one of those books I couldn't quit talking about when it came out.  Lots of fun.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles.  It's pretty much required reading, right?  But I admit that I haven't read it since I was in high school and don't remember much beyond the charismatic Phineas (is that right?) and the quiet intellectual Gene.  They are attending the ubiquitous all boys prep school in New England, it's World War II, and everything changes after one summer.  Sure, your kids will get into the Ivy League if they attend these prep schools, but there's also the chance that they'll end up suffering or dying.  Is it worth it?

Cracks by Sheila Kohler.  New girl?  Check.  Private school?  Check.  Popular teacher/exclusive club?  Check.  Dark side of adolescence?  You betcha.  Cracks deals with the adult members of a girls' school swim team returning to their alma mater for a weekend when the school attempts to raise some money by rekindling their school girl nostalgia.  They instead are confronted with the kids they were, from cliques to swim meets to betrayal and darkness.  This is a great read and probably off most radars.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.  Dead Poets Society owes quite a bit to Miss Jean Brodie.  Welcome to the private girls school in Scotland, and meet Miss Brodie.  She's the woman with the unorthodox teaching methods who takes the best students under her wing.  She's a woman who isn't afraid to live (she has her romantic liaisons) and isn't afraid to bring out the best in "her" girls, but one of them will betray her.  Great book, and it's Muriel Spark, who's a great writer.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.  Last year's Booker Prize Winner was on our best of the year lists and quickly found its place among my favorite books.  It's also a book about school chums, the philosophical genius kid who's new, and the dark secrets that shake their world years later.  Required reading, and at about 150 pages, it's required reading that doubles as a nice way to spend an evening or weekend.

Others?  What am I missing?  It just occurred to me that these books would make a great series for reading groups.

No comments:

Post a Comment