Early Decision — Book Review

9780062240699The clock is ticking for thousands of privileged high school seniors — the early decision deadlines at top colleges are looming. Lacy Crawford’s roman à clef, Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy, is a glimpse into the world of an independent college counselor and her clients. The main character in Early Decision is Anne, a 27-year-old Chicagoan with degrees from Princeton and the University of Chicago who’s not quite sure what she wants to do with her life. She stumbles upon a career as a “college whisperer”  to students from wealthy families in Chicago and the North Shore. To the mothers, she’s a shoulder to lean on; to the fathers, she’s a voice of reason; and to the stressed-out teenagers, she’s a buffer between them and their anxious parents. But she wonders why:

. . . she was dating a man who cheated like mad and helping high school kids with their college applications .  . Every year, in late December as the application deadlines were bearing down, Anne swore she would never do it again. And then come spring, the phone calls came.

What I enjoyed most about Early Decision wasn’t the insider’s look at college admissions.  There have been several recent novels on that topic — most notably, Admission, by Jean Hanff Korelitz (made into a terrific movie starring Tina Fey) — as well as a spate of nonfiction accounts. Readers seem to have an endless appetite for information about the mysterious world of college admissions. I am no different — although, having weathered my three children’s college applications, I am growing a little tired of the whole subject. But I think  Early Decision is about much more than college — it’s about what it means to become an independent adult, and what it means to raise productive citizens. What decisions should parents make for children? How do we teach our children to make decisions for themselves? How can young adults gain self-knowledge and take control of their own futures? Anne, as well as her students, is struggling to make a life for herself:

Here is what was going to happen: Anne was going to wake up one morning in full possession of the authority she needed to go out and start her life. To acquire the position she really wanted — whatever that was — and succeed. . . She did not know how to explain why it hadn’t happened yet. She had been careful and diligent. She’d earned terrific grades. There had been classes in college about which she was passionate, and books she underlined so hard she tore the page . . . Her professors loved her, but none of them shared with her the knowledge she needed: How did such work lead to a life full of days? What, exactly, did one do?

Like her protagonist, Lacy Crawford was a private college admissions counselor.  As a high school English teacher, she discovered a talent for helping students with their personal essays for college. Parents began asking her to help their children with the admissions process, and a successful, 15-year career was born. When asked in an interview with The Atlantic why she didn’t write a tell-all memoir, Lacy said:

I have no interest in hurting people who have already been hurt by their parents’ ambition. These are stories of real devastation. And I was able to shine a spotlight on things with fiction that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise . . . I also didn’t want to write a memoir. I don’t have to relive my 20s. It wasn’t that fun the first time.

But reading Early Decision is fun — the humor is satirical without being mean-spirited, the writing is clever and fluid, the main characters are interesting and three-dimensional, and the ending is very satisfying.  Without giving too much away, I can tell you that nearly everyone makes the right decision. There’s an epilogue with updates on the five students that the book follows (four are wealthy, one is the daughter of a maid), as well as on the other characters — including April, Anne’s obnoxious neighbor. If you like ends tied up neatly in a book, this one is for you.

The literal French translation of roman à clef is “novel with a key”. The term originates from 17th century France when it was common for novelists to portray political and public figures masked as fictional characters. There might have been an actual key in the form of epigraphs. Today, the term is used a little more broadly, to describe a book about real events or people, with details obscured. (My favorite roman á clef of all time: Nora Ephron’s Heartburn.)

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Book Clubs — Women Only?

It is love and friendship, the sanctity and celebration of our relationships, that not only support a good life, but create one. Through friendships, we spark and inspire one another’s ambitions.  Wallace Stegner

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (before email existed), my husband and I and another couple decided to form a coed book club. We thought we would start with just the four of us, to see how it went. The first task, of course, was to choose a book that all four of us would enjoy and that would inspire a good discussion. The two men went out for a weekday lunch, and my husband came home that evening and reported that they had decided on The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. I was impressed that the two men had stepped up to the plate and made a decision, and started reading the book right away.

292408Several weeks later, when our friends showed up at the door for dinner and our book discussion, I thought it was strange that John was dressed as a cowboy and was carrying a can of baked beans. I remember thinking that most people bring wine, but that canned beans certainly were a more creative hostess gift. I got my legal pad with discussion questions, made sure everyone was settled with a cocktail by the fire, and jumped right in to the discussion.  How did the war affect the characters in this book? What was the role of religion in the book? What was the author critiquing in both American and European society? Our friends had nothing to say in response, and in fact, looked a little confused. I think they finally said something about the pioneers who settled the American West. At that point, I had to say what we were all thinking: “What book did you two read?” Well . . . it turned out they read Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner.  (By the way, one of my favorite books!) We’re still not sure how the men walked away from lunch with two very different ideas of what book they had chosen!

Many book clubs, including my own, have a special couples’ meeting once a year where men are invited. This usually involves much debate about what book will appeal to both genders and lots of emails about the date, location, and dinner menu. The books chosen tend to be nonfiction or historical fiction — The Absolutist (John Boyne), The March (E.L. Doctorow), The Devil in the White City (Erik Larson), Shadow Divers (Robert Kurson), The Healing of America (T.R. Reid). We’ve had some great discussions, and some so-so discussions . . . just like any book club meeting.

In Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderful novel, The Jane Austen Book Club, the book club consists of five women and one man. (The man, Grigg, is a science fiction fan who has never read Jane Austen and is coerced into the group.) I can’t imagine many coed book groups reading Jane Austen . . .

Men often poke fun at women’s book clubs. My husband recently received an invitation — for the two of us — to a golf trip reunion. (He went on this trip in June — yes, less than four months ago — and this group has already seen the need for several “reunions”.) I quote from the invitation: “We know some of you ladies have Book Club — AKA Wine Club — then come before . . . This will be a guys’ version of Book Club/Wine Club.”

There’s a website that sells book club themed paraphernalia (T-shirts, mugs, tote bags, cocktail napkins). These items feature slogans such as “My drinking club has a serious book problem”, “Read between the wines”, “I love book club — good friends, good books, good wine”, My favorite item is a pair of MEN’S shoes that are embroidered with the saying, “My book club can drink your book club under the table” (http://www.cafepress.com/+bookclub5_x_7_mens_shoes,928979346). I’m not sure what the market for those is! Maybe women with large feet?

In an article in the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/delia-lloyd/five-reasons-to-join-a-bo_b_476162.html) Delia Lloyd lists five reasons to join a book club. The final reason is:

Sometimes it’s fun just to chat. Finally – all book clubs – no matter how serious, entail some chit chat. And that’s just how it should be. Whether or not you’re in one that’s all-women – as seems to be the norm – or contains “the male element” (as someone ominously referred to men recently…yikes! sounds contagious!) we all thrive on friendship as we grow older. And book clubs are a great excuse to make and keep friends.

No excuses needed! Enjoy your book club and the friendships it fosters.

For more on women and book clubs:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/delia-lloyd/five-reasons-to-join-a-bo_b_476162.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/24/weekinreview/24rich.html

http://bookgroupbuzz.booklistonline.com/2011/07/08/why-so-few-men-join-book-groups/

http://www.newyorker.com/humor/2009/05/25/090525sh_shouts_hodgman: Very funny “discussion questions” for a hypothetical book club. A couple of my favorites:

 Book-club members who have actually read this book have called its plot “depressing,” “disgusting,” and “too much about poor people.” Does this suggest that you, as a reader, have a moral obligation to say that you liked the book?

On page 2, the author refers to “supper.” In books, food is often used as a symbol. Try to think of a time when food, or a particular meal, has been important to you. Then keep it to yourself.

 

Used Books

I love everything that’s old — old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wine.  Oliver Goldsmith

Years ago, when my husband and I bought a used car, the salesman kept referring to the car as “pre-owned”.  Apparently “used” is a dirty word when it comes to selling cars. Our local Friends of the Library holds a book sale every September, and I noticed that they refer to the books as “gently used”. Whatever they’re called — “pre-owned” , “gently used”, “well-loved”, “like new” —  used books bring back memories. At the book sale yesterday, I spotted Gorky Park and remembered reading that Cold War thriller on my honeymoon. I saw piles of Berenstain Bears paperbacks and remembered reading those awful books over and over to my children. And The Scarsdale Diet brought back memories of a short-lived attempt to live on 700 calories per day. (Whatever happened to Jean Harris, the private school headmistress convicted of murdering Herman Tarnower, the Scarsdale Diet Doctor?)

Yesterday was Bargain Day — all books 50% off the already low prices. People were lugging multiple loads of bags and boxes of books to their cars. There were supposed to be 100,000 books at the sale, and some frenzied customers looked like they were trying to bring home as many of those 100,000 as they could. I was on the lookout for certain old books I’ve been trying to track down for years  . . . no luck there, but I did score a copy of Noteworthy (the Ravinia cookbook,  long out of print) to give to my aunt, a hardcover copy of The Match (my husband’s favorite golf book) to give to my son, and a coffee table book about Chicago street names for my collection.

In the book business, we are always looking ahead to the newest books. We get advance copies of books months before they’re published.  I’ve already read books that will come out this fall and winter. If I haven’t read a book within a few months of its publication date, I feel like I’ve missed it and I need to move on to newer books. The used book sale reminded me that there are countless treasures from the past waiting for me to discover them. (Sadly, I have to admit some of those treasures are sitting on my own bookshelves.)

What overlooked book is sitting on your shelf? Maybe you should give it a try . . . or maybe it needs a new home.

Unlikable Characters — Why I Love Them

As a writer,  I subscribe to Chekhov’s world view — “It’s not my job to tell you that horse thieves are bad people — it’s my job to tell you what this horse thief is like.”  Claire Messud

We all have favorite characters in literature — but often, those aren’t the most likable or admirable characters. They’re usually the most interesting ones.  Jay Gatsby is complicated and fascinating, but would you want to have dinner with him? (Although you might want to go to one of his parties.) Holden Caulfield would probably be annoying. And who wants a friend as conniving and disingenuous as Scarlett O’Hara?

In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Claire Messud (The Emperor’s Children, The Woman Upstairs) took issue with the idea that characters should be likable. When asked, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora (the protagonist of The Woman Upstairs), would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim,” Messud answers, “What kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert . .  Hamlet . . . Raskolnikov . . .Antigone. . . If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a friend for me?’ but “Is this character alive?’ “.

A couple of weeks ago, our store hosted a luncheon for Maggie Shipstead in honor of the paperback release of her wonderful comedy of manners, Seating Arrangements. Maggie mentioned that she had participated via Skype in book group discussions of her novel and that a common criticism was that the characters weren’t likable. Seating Arrangements takes place over a single weekend, on an island very much like Nantucket, as a family of New England WASPs gathers for a wedding. Not everyone in the novel behaves well — in fact, most of the characters behave rather badly. Winn, the father of the bride, lusts after one of the bridesmaids and is obsessed with joining a golf club that won’t admit him. No, I don’t want him at my next party. A lesser writer would have portrayed Winn as a stereotypical upper-class jerk, but Shipstead makes him come marvelously alive.

The runaway hit of summer 2012 was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn — and it’s still selling so well in hardcover that it hasn’t been released in paperback yet. Now there’s a book with unlikable characters! Even Nick, the supposed “good guy” in the book, is not really a sympathetic character.  Amy is the “horse thief” in the book and certainly Flynn tells us what this horse thief is like. Is that why Gone Girl has been so popular? Or is it the intricate plot with twist after twist — and that controversial ending?

coverFor me, The Dinner, by Herman Koch, was this year’s Gone Girl. (Actually, the Wall Street Journal calls it the “European Gone Girl“, but I thought of it first, I promise.) The entire novel unfolds over the course of a dinner at a fashionable restaurant in Amsterdam. Two couples meet to discuss a problem with their teenage sons. We gradually learn that the boys have committed a crime. But what is it? Who among the four parents is culpable? Not one of the characters in this book is someone you’d like at your dinner table. In her review of this book for the New York Times, Claire Messud says, “North American readers care inordinately that fictional characters be likable. This premise is strange, given that few real people are thoroughly nice and those few aren’t interesting.  Surely what actually matters is that characters clear this vital hurdle: that they be interesting.” The characters in The Dinner clear that hurdle . . . how about a book group meeting over dinner to discuss them and their motivations?

For more on likable/unlikable characters in literature, check out this link to Page-Turner,  the New Yorker’s book blog: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/05/would-you-want-to-be-friends-with-humbert-humbert-a-forum-on-likeability.html.

Summer Reading?

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Here in the Midwest, summer is almost over — school is in session and the leaves are just starting to turn. September is a glorious month, usually full of warm sunny days and cool nights. Book clubs are meeting and debating their reading lists, 2014 calendars are hitting our shelves, and children are writing book reports (“I need to read a memoir by Friday!”). So maybe this isn’t the best time to talk about summer reading (a.k.a. “beach reading”). I’ve never quite understood why I’d want to read differently in the summer than I would any other time of year — what’s the difference between reading on a lounge chair on the porch and reading on a couch in front of a fire? But it seems that most people want to read lighter books in the summer. Customers circle our fiction table, saying they want something “light . . . not depressing . . .funny . . . but not trashy.” There simply aren’t too many good books that fit that description.

Well, I have just had the pleasure of reading a book that is clever and amusing, with only a touch of sadness.  Even though it’s September, it’s not too late for some summer reading.  Where’d You Go, Bernadette? would be just as addictive and wickedly funny on a cold rainy day as it was on the August day when I reluctantly read the last page. Maybe that would be even more appropriate, since the book is set in the Pacific Northwest.

Bernadette Fox is a once-famous architect and a reluctant transplant to Seattle. She’s the wife of a brilliant Microsoft executive and the mother of a brilliant 15-year-old daughter, Bee– and so antisocial that she hires a virtual assistant from India to take care of almost all her personal business. She hates the other mothers at Bee’s politically correct private school, calling them “gnats”:

Because they’re annoying, but not so annoying that you actually want to spend valuable energy on them.

When Bernadette disappears, just before a family trip to Antarctica, it’s up to Bee to track her down.  Exactly how she does that is told in a series of emails, letters, blog posts, notes, and interview transcripts — involving the police, various Microsoft employees, school administrators, neighbors, and cruise line officials. The book  has just the right amount of dark humor — it’s satire with the edges sanded down. Author Maria Semple is a TV writer (Arrested Development and Mad About You), and that comes through in her sharp dialogue and surprising plot twists.

One more thing . . . Bernadette is not the most likable of characters. But she is certainly an interesting one, and isn’t that more important in a novel? That’s a subject for another post.

Why another book blog?

We read to know we are not alone.  C.S. Lewis

Only connect!  E.M. Forster

I follow quite a few book blogs, because I love reading about books almost as much as I love reading the books themselves. There are lots of terrific book blogs, and I will include links to those. So why another book blog? First of all, I thought our customers at Lake Forest Book Store would enjoy a blog with a local angle. I’ll be writing about what’s happening at our store and in the community — visiting authors, local book clubs, our bestsellers (which are rarely the same as the New York Times bestsellers),  and funny things that happen at the store. (Yes, a lot of funny things happen at the store — both funny peculiar and funny ha-ha.) Also, I’ve found that many book blogs are very specialized. There are great book blogs about chick lit, science fiction, YA, poetry, the classics . . . you name it. I’m an omnivorous reader and I wanted to create a blog for all kinds of readers. What kind of reader are you? What’s in your “to read” stack? What have you read lately? What’s your book club reading? I’d love to know!