College Freshman Reading

unknownWhen the Sunday New York Times offered a short summary of books on the summer reading list for freshman, I wondered what my alma maters and those of my friends has assigned for stirring the synapses of the new generation of college entrants.  Aside from requiring a book as an assignment for a class (usually freshman comp), college administrators are no more successful at guaranteeing the book will be read than are book clubs (unless the host threatens a quiz with strips of questions to be publicly answered).  For someone to read the book, it must be engaging.

Topics for required freshman reading range from diversity and tolerance to best sellers.  Sometimes the nature of the institution reflects the choice, for example, “A Few Good Men” has been a popular choice over the years for The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina.  Berkeley’s 2017 summer reading list includes “What Can We Change in a Single Generation?” and the score from Hamilton, while this year a number of colleges, including one of my alma mater’s, picked “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson – the memoir of an attorney representing poor clients in the South, as he follows  a client on death row for killing a young white woman in Alabama.

9781101947135_p0_v5_s192x300   I was happy to see one of my favorites on the Stanford Three Books List as well as the pick for Connecticut College – Homegoing  by Yaa Ghasi.   I have yet to read Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, but the University of Wisconsin has identified it for its freshmen – a strange pick for a liberal university.

Tufts University is asking its freshmen to read “The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility” by Tufts political science professors Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj.  Mount Holyoke College has chosen “Citizen: An American Lyric” by Claudia Rankine as the 2017 Common Read. The incoming Penn State class will join MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynsey Addario in exploring her passion for photography and how it shaped her personal and professional life by reading “It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War.”  The 2017 University of Pennsylvania freshman read is Walter Isaacson’s “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.”

What about the classics? Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was the only one I could find – for Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota.

Do you remember the book(s) you were required to read as an entering freshman?  For me, it was Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” – and I doubt I understood its implications until I read again many years later.

For More Freshman Read Titles, check:

The Goldfinch

9780316055437_p0_v3_s260x420After reading Donna Tartt’s 771 page novel – The Goldfinch – I’m torn between wanting to read it all again and trying to forget it. Maureen Corrigan from NPR calls the story “Dickensian” in her review – Dickensian Ambition and Emotion Make ‘Goldfinch’ Worth the Wait  – and following Theo from his precarious childhood to his final words as an enlightened adult does have notes of David Copperfield, but with the modern-day horrors of drugs, alcohol, shady friends, criminals, and shallow wealth.

The story revolves around a real 17th century painting (now housed at the Frick Gallery) of a small bird chained to a ledge.  Tartt conveniently offers a replica in the book, and the painting as well as the world of art and antiques play important roles in Theo’s life. Theo rescues this painting, a favorite of his mother’s, as he escapes from a terrorist explosion in the museum.  Although he survives, his mother dies, and a mysterious old art dealer gives him a ring and a contact before he too dies in the explosion.  Throughout the story, Theo manages to keep the painting hidden, and it becomes a source of solace when he can look at it, but eventually art theft, thugs, and greed become part of his adventures.

After the death of his mother, Theo’s life bounces from wealthy Park Avenue to seedy Las Vegas and back to New York City, picking up a Russian friend, Boris, along the way – as well as a drug habit that almost ruins his life. Tartt’s supporting cast of characters include villains and do-gooders with long descriptions of their lives and influence.  Pippa, Theo’s love interest, bounces in and out of the story, promising a happy ending that would be unrealistic.    The drug scenes were agonizingly detailed, and more than I wanted to know; at times, the horrors of Theo’s life were unbearable,  yet I kept reading through all 771 pages, appreciating Tartt’s philosophical quips and the convoluted story that kept twisting into another plot.

With one random act of violence, thirteen year-old Theo’s life is shattered, and you can’t help wondering what his life would have been like if he and his mother had not decided to run into the museum to get away from a sudden downpour.  As the action follows Theo and the painting, you will wonder how either survived but they both do.  Tartt ends with Theo’s soliloquy, “Life – whatever else it is – is short…fate is cruel but maybe not random…”   In short, make the most of it.

If you decide to commit to reading this long book, and it does take a commitment to read 771 pages and struggle through Tartt’s description of Theo wasting himself on drugs, don’t be intimidated by its length.  Before you know it, you will be caught up in the adventure and find it hard to put down.   In researching Tartt’s writing, I found her acclaimed first novel The Secret History – a murder mystery – now on my list to read.

Related Essay:  Holden Caulfield Redux

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

9781594486401_custom-553d89074bec5dc575e0e9f98f3dc0fdd950a14f-s2The suspense is delicious in Anton DiSclafani’s coming of age tale The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.  Thea Atwell has been sent away from the family’s Florida orange groves to a girls’ boarding school in the Appalachian hills because of a scandal  that stays secret until the reader is hooked and well into the middle of the book – no spoilers here.

The story moves back and forth from fifteen year old Thea’s new life among a group of girls – the horsey set at an exclusive boarding school – and her old bucolic life with her twin brother Sam, her pony Sasi, and her poor relation, cousin Georgie.  As Thea tries to adjust to her new surroundings among more girls her age than she has ever seen (she’s been home-schooled by her father), DiSclafani teases the reader with flashbacks to a gentler time back on the farm – before teenage hormones took over her life.

DiSclafani sets the story just as the Great Depression begins to affect all those wealthy family with daughters in boarding schools.  As the economy worsens, so do the lives around Thea: her uncle loses his house to foreclosure in Miami; philanthropists stop donating to the boarding school; and some girls are forced back home because their parents no longer can pay the tuition.  The world of debutante dances and the money class is shaken.

Horses play a major role in Thea’s life; her daring and proficient skills place her in the advanced riding class.  At the end of the summer, she stays on; Thea’s parents do not want her to come back home.  Letters from home are scarce – alluding to the incident and its consequences.  Eventually, the secret is revealed, but Thea continues to attract trouble as DiSclafani carefully rounds out her main character as a strong-willed yet vulnerable target, who inadvertently succumbs to feelings while looking for love.

A mix of family secrets and illicit romance, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is not targeted to a younger audience – the sexually explicit scenes would raise the rating to R –  yet NPR’s Mary Pols notes:

“{this} painstakingly constructed ode to a young girl’s sexual awakening — {is} just ladylike enough to be more bodice unbuttoner than bodice ripper… perhaps one of the classier books a young teen would hide under her covers to read with a flashlight.”

A page-turner that kept me riveted…

The Good House by Ann Leary

179512529Hildy Good, successful realtor and descendant of a famous colonial witch, knows everyone and everything in her small New England town on Boston’s North Shore – except herself – in Ann Leary’s The Good House. Although Hildy is an alcoholic in “recovery” after her daughters staged an intervention and sent her to rehab, she only drinks alone now and stashes her wine in the trunk of an old car for the summer, and in the basement for the colder winters. Leary effectively uses Hildy’s denial to reveal other secrets in the small town that involve betrayal, snobbery, confusion, and the ongoing rivalry between the local townies and the newly rich who have discovered the town’s charm.

A quick enjoyable and engaging read, with a little drama when a dead body is found in the ocean, and a love story that rekindles in middle age – The Good House manages to include a moral with its slow spin of a New England yarn.

Planning for Next Year’s Book Club Discussions


In Lynn Neary’s article for NPR – Now You’re Talking! The Year’s Best Book Club 154184690Reads – five books made the cut.  Two I’ve read and reviewed:

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

Two are on my library wait list: The Round House by Louise Erdich and NW by Zadie Smith; The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin is the last on Neary’s list – one I might skip over.

The local book club has two of my favorites on line for next year:

Caleb’s Crossing
Rules of Civility

What will you be talking about next year?