Review: Old School by Tobias Wolff

11464Blurb:

At one prestigious American public school, the boys like to emphasise their democratic ideals – the only acknowledged snobbery is literary snobbery. Once a term, a big name from the literary world visits and a contest takes place. The boys have to submit a piece of writing and the winner receives a private audience with the visitor. But then it is announced that Hemingway, the boys’ hero, is coming to the school. The competition intensifies, and the morals the school and the boys pride themselves on – honour, loyalty and friendship – are crumbling under the strain. Only time will tell who will win and what it will cost them.

Review:

Rarely is literature so literary. To fully appreciate Tobias Wolff’s prep school bildungsroman Old School, you must have some degree of familiarity with Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway. But this moving and brilliantly written novel can also be appreciated—though only halfway appreciated, I’d argue—by someone who wiled away his English classes drawing spirals on his notebook, because its ideas are so universal. Here Wolff interrogates one of my favorite questions: Who are we? The story we tell the world about ourselves or the story the world tells about us?

Any teenager but especially any outcasted teenager such as this protagonist, a Seattle scholarship student in an East Coast prep school, spends nearly every minute of his life creating his life. Before attaining the halls of high school, a teen’s identity is created by his parents. Suddenly liberated around 13, 14, 15, a teenager decides for the first time who he will be. Oftentimes, Wolff astutely notes, the person he chooses is the wrong choice, which ironically only makes the teenager work harder and harder to embody this choice.

Old School’s plot revolves around a literary competition where renowned writers visit the boarding school campus for a reading and then share a private audience with a boy whose story he read and selected as “the best.” The collegial yet fierce relationships these boys share are strained with the visit of every new writer. And even though these boys’ attempts at not only creative expression but also self-creation may be farce and lie and fiction, you sorta see that by making up false stories, the boys find themselves moving closer to the truth. Kinda how like any bookworm, far from being holed up in escapist fantasies, is on the verge of something realer than most people will ever find.

4 out of 5 stars

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Review: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon

13273327Blurb:

The sheltered son of a Jewish mobster, Art Bechstein leaps into his first summer as a college graduate as cluelessly as he capered through his school years. But new friends and lovers are eager to guide him through these sultry days of last-ditch youthful alienation and sexual confusion–in a blue-collar city where the mundane can sometimes appear almost magical.

Review:

Take a dull boy in a dull city during a dull, liminal summer. Not an adult but soon-to-be, not really anything yet but certain he will be. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh begins at this doorway and records Art Bechstein’s quest for a summer of whimsy and profundity that will change him for the better.

June finds Art making fantastic new friends who all seem to know how to live better than he does. Inspired, Art sits atop a hill in Pittsburgh and thinks this:

I smoked and looked down at the bottom of Pittsburgh for a little while, watching the kids playing tiny baseball, the distant figures of dogs snatching at a little passing car, a miniature housewife on her back porch shaking out a snippet of red rug, and I made a sudden, frightened vow never to become that small, and to devote myself to getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

June leads to July and then August, sultry months that will find Art in various predicaments that are recounted nostalgically even as they are happening for the first time, and throughout Art will interrogate himself: How does one become “big”? But to answer how, it is necessary to answer what. What does it mean to be “big”?

Each character approaches bigness differently, and Art finds something to envy with every one. Big, mean Cleveland steps onto the page straight from a Hollywood action sequence. He is undoubtedly the biggest character in the novel. But you don’t even have to squint to notice how small he is inside. He resorts to showing off to hide his emptiness, and yet everyone around him idolizes him, fears him, historicizes him even though he’s a 20-something who has barely started living.

The other two principals in Art’s motley crew are Phlox, the girlfriend described as a movie star beauty but who is terribly mundane beneath it all, and Arthur, the cultivated gay man who feigns coming from a palace but actually grew up in a 2-bedroom ranch. Every character starts out big but pops at some point, floating downwards towards the blue-collar streets of Pittsburgh. Maybe down there they aren’t big, but there they can stop and think for a while. And maybe there, like Art, they’ll learn that bigness doesn’t come with living; it comes with remembering. Philosophizing, exaggerating, daydreaming—whatever you want to call it. People are big when they give you something to think about.

5 out of 5 stars

Review: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

894054Blurb:

Twenty-three-year-old Zhuang, the daughter of shoe factory owners in rural China, has come to London to study English. She calls herself Z because English people can’t pronounce her name…

Review:

Lately I’ve been obsessed with stories about impossible loves, those unrequited, betrayed, or starcrossed loves. I read books about two characters who’d die for each other but somehow cannot live for each other. I watch romantic movies with endings that are never happy, often sad, if I’m lucky hopeful. And I ask my friends about their loves and their friends’ loves and their friends’ friends’ loves: have any of them found someone and had it work out? has anybody found a love that is possible?

I want to know for selfish reasons. In the same way you’d swallow a pill to cure illness, I consume love stories to soothe an anxious mind and an ailing heart. But it’s also aesthetic, a universal pursuit for stories that show us impossibility and how it is sad and therefore quite beautiful.

I feel like Xiaolu Guo is a kindred spirit, a partner anthropologist observing, seeking, and probing impossible loves. Because in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers she creates a real humdinger of an impossible love: a 24-year-old Chinese woman with limited English plus a 40-something English man with limited empathy. Here’s the thing about impossible loves: we can’t stop believing they’re possible. Zhuang, the plucky and honest protagonist, recognizes it’s doomed from the start, and so do us readers. And yet, Zhuang continues to fill the pages of her journal with discussions of her love and we continue to turn the pages.

Cultural, political, and personal differences complicate their relationship, but most difficult is the linguistic difference. When Zhuang arrives in London, her English is very poor. Guo writes her brilliantly—there are verb tense issues, vocabulary misunderstandings, basic syntactical errors—but it reads very true and creates this wonderful image of a foreigner displaced, helpless, and looking for a mooring. Zhuang writes English in her journal daily and makes slow progress until she meets her lover. Suddenly, a blossoming: Zhuang’s intimate awakening is accompanied by a linguistic awakening. As she finds words in this once impossible language, she finds hidden pieces of herself.

‘Love’, this English word: like other English words it has tense. ‘Loved’ or ‘will love’ or ‘have loved’. All these tenses mean Love is time-limited thing. Not infinite. It only exist in particular period of time. In Chinese, love is ‘爱’ (ai). It has no tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future.

But how much importance do words really have? Can malicious ideas take root even without words to hold them down? What ties two people to each other—words? history? desire? Whatever the answer, Zhuang learns that it’s not love.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

342081Blurb:

Curtis Sittenfeld’s debut novel, Prep, is an insightful, achingly funny coming-of-age story as well as a brilliant dissection of class, race, and gender in a hothouse of adolescent angst and ambition.

Lee Fiora is an intelligent, observant fourteen-year-old when her father drops her off in front of her dorm at the prestigious Ault School in Massachusetts. She leaves her animated, affectionate family in South Bend, Indiana, at least in part because of the boarding school’s glossy brochure, in which boys in sweaters chat in front of old brick buildings, girls in kilts hold lacrosse sticks on pristinely mown athletic fields, and everyone sings hymns in chapel.

As Lee soon learns, Ault is a cloistered world of jaded, attractive teenagers who spend summers on Nantucket and speak in their own clever shorthand. Both intimidated and fascinated by her classmates, Lee becomes a shrewd observer of–and, ultimately, a participant in–their rituals and mores. As a scholarship student, she constantly feels like an outsider and is both drawn to and repelled by other loners. By the time she’s a senior, Lee has created a hard-won place for herself at Ault. But when her behavior takes a self-destructive and highly public turn, her carefully crafted identity within the community is shattered.

Ultimately, Lee’s experiences–complicated relationships with teachers; intense friendships with other girls; an all-consuming preoccupation with a classmate who is less than a boyfriend and more than a crush; conflicts with her parents, from whom Lee feels increasingly distant, coalesce into a singular portrait of the painful and thrilling adolescence universal to us all.

Review:

When I went to college I was shocked to meet kids who had actually attended boarding school. I had grown up on a steady diet of boarding school literature, but conceptually, it seemed so preposterous. You went to boarding school if you were European and from the 19th century, not if you were American and born in the early 90s. I befriended one girl who attended a Massachusetts boarding school as a day student. When I asked her about the experience, she shook her head and said, “Never send your kids to boarding school. It screws you up.”

As I came to know more ex-boarding school students, her generalization gained credence. They were fully formed adults who behaved like they were in their late 20s. Meanwhile, the rest of us floundered about, worried about breaking dorm occupancy rules. After reading Prep I understand them better. I know how they came to be this way at the mere age of 18. In Prep Curtis Sittenfeld presents an authentic portrait of boarding school life that, for any sane parent at least, should serve as a massive flashing warning sign before sending any child away to school.

Our protagonist Lee Fiora decides to apply to an East Coast boarding school in a fit of precociousness and derring-do at the age of 14. She leaves her parents and calm Midwestern existence for a more exciting life at Ault School. Again: at the age of 14. It goes horribly, of course. She must face the gender, race, and class discrimination that props up the ivy-covered brick façade of Ault. She navigates loneliness. She struggles to answer this question: do I want to change myself, peel away my me-ness in order to fit into this archaic institution or do I want to alienate myself from everyone by becoming a conscientious objector to this lifestyle? She narrates her four years at Ault after the fact as an adult, and it is clear that even after maturing outside this fishbowl, she has no good answer to this question.

Two disclaimers:
1. This is not chick-lit, despite the title and pink belted cover.
2. It is an uncomfortable read.

If we’re supposed to read this book as chick-lit, it’s ridiculously marketed. It has too much bite to be considered chick-lit, with its extraordinarily detailed narration and its casual indictment of its wealthy and waspy characters. Lee’s perspective is devastatingly realistic, apparently so authentic that some have questioned how biographical this story is. Most reviews for this book are quite negative. Many people seem to hate Lee because she is always a bystander and never an actor. I must admit that even as an introvert, I found Lee’s introversion and resulting passivity infuriating and occasionally painful. She cannot decide how she wants to participate in this ridiculous life she’s accidentally chosen for herself at age 14 and thus she’s listless. She moves nowhere, being careful to make no obvious mistakes but because of that, truly making every mistake. As she says,

I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely.

Teenagers live in state of metamorphosis and high school is their chrysalis. Imagine if your chrysalis is inhabited by the spoiled offspring of Manhattanite bankers and national senators. Imagine if the floral pattern on your bedspread determines whether you are popular or not. Imagine that if you pine after a boy, you can never approach him; he will pursue, you will be pursued. Imagine if your chrysalis cannot be cracked open at the end of each school day when you return home; you must live among your peers in this extreme environment for four straight years.

Actually stop imagining that because it’s horrifying. It’s obvious how such a life could ruin a mere child. How can you decide who you want to be in such conditions? I loved Sittenfeld’s largely plotless but wholly profound depiction of these conditions because it allowed me to vicariously live them without suffering their consequences.

And after the melancholy final page, I was forcefully reminded me of three things: 1. we can only hope we have good parents 2. only by being rich, white, and male can you live your life effortlessly 3. boarding school will screw you up.

4 out of 5 stars