Saturday, August 31, 2013

6 Campus Novels for Back-to-School Season

I love the fall! It's full of fresh starts, new clothes and the urge to buy books. As the weather turns crisp and the changing leaves rattle in the breeze, I want to pull on my favorite pair of super soft blue tights, splurge on a fancy coffee and take my time browsing at the corner bookstore. Here are six campus novel recommendations for your consideration when the same autumn urge hits you.

6 Campus Novels for Back-to-School Season

Moo by Jane Smiley

The setting is a Midwestern campus, at an agricultural college referred to as Moo U.  The weather, culture, and atmosphere of the Midwest is detailed so well I felt firmly planted in the middle of our country as I read. Moo is a satire on academia.  Students, faculty, staff and the animals are all main characters. I worked my way through grad school as the secretary to a provost, so I'm biased toward this character in the book. Smiley depicts her as the smartest person on campus -nice!

The best part: The funny bits and the depiction of working with animals as part of college education which is completely foreign to me.

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Prep is a coming of age story set at the Ault School in Massachusettes, a prestigious private boarding school. (Some believe Ault is a stand in for Groton, which the author herself attended.) Lee Fiora is an freshman from the Midwest attending on scholarship. Away from her family she struggles as an outsider in a place where everyone tries to conceal what makes them different, be it religion, class, or sexuality.

The best part: The working class girl's view of a wealthy institution.

Testimony by Anita Shreve

Another story set at a New England boarding school, but Testimony takes a much darker tone then Prep. On this private school campus a sex scandal on the verge of breaking. It is a tense and compelling story. Each chapter is from a different character's point of view, students, parents, faculty, both male and female. The poor decisions made in one night have consequences that change the lives of all involved.
Currently only $2.99 for the Kindle edition on Amazon.

The best part: The suspense and Shreve's clear and emotional writing.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Warning: Must love baseball. The sport figures heavily into this story. I have to imagine if you are not interested in baseball this book might be a chore rather than a pleasure. Please correct me if I'm mistaken.

The setting is Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan. Henry Skrimshander is a natural talent and star pitcher, who seems destined for the big leagues. But after one bad game Henry chokes and can't seem to recover. Everyone within Henry's circle is affected, the college President and his daughter, Henry's best friend, and his roommate.

The best part: The characters' desires to start over and their fears that make starting over such a struggle. I'm a sucker for any good starting over storyline. 

I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

The setting is Dupont University, an amalgam of many ivy league universities, in central Pennsylvania. The title character is a brilliant young student from a poverty stricken town in North Carolina. A loss of innocence ensues as Charlotte discovers that money, athletics, sex, alcohol and social status rule at Dupont. The pursuit of the intellectual is an afterthought, if it's thought of at all. Throw in a plagiarism scandal, a political scandal, and Charlotte is changed forever in many ways, but it is for the better?

The best part: Charlotte's brains, sweetness and purity and the culture shock she experiences from day one through the rest of her freshman year.

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

I was happily surprised to find that Admission was made into a movie staring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd. The movie has a more light-hearted tone than the book and is worth a watch.

Portia Nathan is a Princeton University admission officer. The novel depicts the inner workings of the incredibly competitive admission process. It's details are complex, funny, a bit depressing for any underachiever.  Portia's straightforward, efficient and secure world was always on shaky ground given the secret she's been keeping for 18 years.

The best part: Portia's opportunity for a more authentic life.

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