Sunday, January 17, 2010

Old School by Tobias Wolff

I found a copy of this book when we stayed in the Guest House of Davidson College (NC) over Thanksgiving break. "Required reading for 2009," a sticker on the cover proclaimed, and that was enough to convince me to grab the slim paperback and head back to the room. Also, it isn't a long book, and I was pretty sure I could finish it before our trek back south. The unnamed narrator attends a New England boarding school in the early 1960s; one of few Jewish boys amid a sea of WASPs, he works hard to disguise his background in order to fit in. Part of his assimilation plan is to win the school literary contest, judged each year by a famous author. According to the narrator, the winner of this contest attains ultimate Old Boy status; his own intelligence and valor would be unassailable should he succeed. Unfortunately, the boy fails at winning twice--Robert Frost chooses someone else's poem (deemed trite by the narrator), and his bout with flu precludes a writing submission when Ayn Rand is the judge. (He does meet Rand though, and his fever-laced description of her supercilious audience with the students is hilarious.) The third try at the contest is a hit, but only because the boy suffers a horrific case of writer's block and plagiarizes someone else's work. Submitting a short story from another school's literary magazine--a story about a Jewish teenage trying to fit into WASP society no less--the narrator suffers from little guilt because he feels he surely could have written this story. Indeed, as the weeks pass, he often thinks he is the real author--after all, the story sums up his deepest fears and dreams so well, the words are more his than the actual author's. A school master discover's the boy's deception, and what unfolds after that raises important questions about honesty and integrity, both literary and otherwise. This plot outline sounds deadly serious, but actually the tone and language of Old School is not heavy-handed at all. Indeed, Wolff manages to keep the reader chuckling about the foibles of youth and the often unworthy adoration we throw at icons. I loved this book--it reminds me of a droll Separate Peace or Catcher in the Rye.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

With razor sharp wit, Rhoda Janzen skewers her life and serves it up to the reader in the delightful little memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. Janzen, a professor of poetry, is a master of language--with the poet's trusty economy she uses just the right word at the right time--even her expletives are judiciously (if frequently) applied. Raised in a close-knit Mennonite family, Janzen wanted nothing more as a child than to escape a rigid religious world. After a string of bad luck in middle age, Janzen returns to live with her parents to heal and reflect...and to write. She balances her perspective between guilelessness and knowledge so perfectly that her childhood frustrations blend seamlessly with those of adulthood. (Her school lunch of borscht mortally embarrasses her; her husband leaves her for someone he met on But the most intriguing theme of the book is Janzen's love/hate relationship with Christianity. She is quick to poke fun (and it is fun to read, believe me) at Jesus lovers, but she can't help but swoon when she hears the old hymns. Mostly, Janzen's fondness for the Mennonite community she once fled comes through loud and clear.

Interesting note: Since writing this book, Janzen has remarried and undergone treatment for breast cancer. Also, she earned one of her degrees, a Masters in Creative Writing, I think, from the University of Florida just down the road a piece.

Many thanks to T.M for passing on this book to me. She always gets me the good stuff.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Best Book of the Year--The Help

After a year's worth of reading, my vote for the best book of 2009 is Katherine Stockett's The Help (see August 19, 2009 ). I've continued to ponder the book's messages, most notably that you never can be certain what another person is thinking, even if she is from your very own neighborhood. Talking with other readers about The Help has kept the joy of reading this book alive and well. Some older women have said to me that the book doesn't accurately portray the help/hirer relationship from that era--that these bonds were much more trusting and reciprocal than portrayed in the novel. Others have echoed this sentiment by taking the opposite position: The Help does indeed authentically demonstrate the early 60's friendships between maid and Mrs. It shows the very best case scenarios to the very worst. No one yet has come forth to volunteer a worst case scenario from her own past. Maybe such a story would be TMI in this day and age, almost impossible to discuss in a setting of tact. And that's why we read books, actually, to view our own lives through their gentle refraction, to discuss plot and character, when deep down we're really talking about ourselves.