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School Days

Where You Go (Nook Book)

Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Process Mania by Frank Bruni (Grand Central Publishing, $25.00, 218 pages)

“For too many parents and their children, getting into a highly selective school isn’t just another challenge, just another goal. A yes or no from Amherst or Dartmouth… or Northwestern is seen as the conclusive measure of a young person’s worth, a binding verdict on the life that he or she has led up until that point, an uncontestable harbinger of the successes or disappointments to come. Winner or loser: This is when the judgment is made. This is the great, brutal culling. What madness. And what nonsense.”

Frank Bruni has the good sense to argue that adult life may begin with one’s acceptance into a college, but it does not end there. Students are responsible for what they make out of their education, whether at an elite or less well known university. As he states, “Great educations aren’t passive experiences; they’re active ones.” He builds up his case by noting that several prominent and successful leaders in our society attended smaller, less “prestigious” colleges. Condoleeza Rice, for example, attended the University of Denver as an undergraduate. Steve Jobs, of course, dropped out of college, as did Bill Gates. Did Rice and Jobs and Gates turn out to be losers? Failures? Not exactly.

Bob Morse, who heads the college rankings program at U.S. News & World Report, did not go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Cincinnati before getting his MBA from Michigan State. As Morse has concluded, “It’s not where you went to school. It’s how hard you work.”

Bruni emphasizes that some students will feel more comfortable at a small college offering a “more intimate academic environment,” even if schools like Kenyon, Denison, St. Lawrence or – a school I’m adding to his list – the University of the Pacific (UOP) are “less venerated than Princeton, Brown and Cornell.” For some, smaller colleges are “ideal environments: especially approachable, uniquely nurturing.” (UOP hangs banners reminding its students that it offers “Professors who know your name.”)

Pacific_Sign

In this calm, forthright book, Bruni tries to reduce the “madness” of the college admission process, noting that there are several inherent flaws and biases that applicants have little or no control over. For example, a particular college may need a couple of trombone players for the band. If you are the first or second trombone-playing applicant, you may get a large packet offering you admission and a scholarship. If you’re the third trombonist applicant, you’ll likely receive a thin envelope containing a rejection notice. If life, as John F. Kennedy stated, is not fair, than neither is the process of determining who gets into our colleges and universities.

Students who suffer the consequences of unfair admissions policies will learn that it will not be their last experience with life’s unfairness. What counts is their positive response to adversity and their perseverance in making the best of whatever circumstance they have to settle for.

Bruni’s book would be an excellent purchase for high school students who feel threatened by the highly competitive process of seeking admission to a so-called “elite” university. Reading his book may help such students to calm down, and feel encouraged to investigate various colleges, not just the “status” schools that their classmates may lust after. (Any school can offer a fine, valuable education to students ready to demand a lot from themselves and their environment.) This book is also a near indispensable guide for the parents of current high school students.

Where You Go… reminds the reader, young or old, high school student or adult parent, that “there’s no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything (in life) hinges.” Some, in fact, will find that a valuable lesson can be learned via being rejected by one’s top choice universities. One young woman, a graduate of the famed and “charmed” Phillips Exeter Academy, was rejected by all five of the colleges she applied to. She states that, “There’s a beauty to that kind of rejection, because it allows you to find the strength within.” That young woman started up a new federally-supported public elementary school in Phoenix, Arizona. A loser? Hardly.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Thank you to Daniel D. Holt for serving as editor on this piece.

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-where-you-go-is-not-wholl-youll-be-an-antidote-to-the-college-admissions-mania-by-frank-bruni/

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Mad Dogs and Southern Men

Men and Dogs (nook book)

Men and Dogs: A Novel by Katie Crouch (Little, Brown & Company, $13.00, 304 pages; Unabridged audiobook on 7 CDs, narrated by Gabra Zackman, $29.98)

Women coping with the traumas of their past, especially in middle age, seems to be a fascinating topic for many authors who are themselves women. Men and Dogs features Hanna Legare, a daughter of the South whose life trajectory has landed her on the West Coast – at Stanford University followed by a business career and marriage in San Francisco.

At the beginning of this tale, the focus of Hanna’s obsessive energy is the disappearance of her father, Dr. Buzz Legare, a well-liked and good-looking man. The event, a boating accident, took place in April of 1985 in Charleston, South Carolina, Hanna’s birthplace. Hanna refuses to believe that her father is dead. She constantly badgers her family and people from her past demanding a clear-cut explanation for the lack of a body or evidence that Dr. Legare has actually died.

After setting the theme of the novel, author Crouch brings the reader (or, in this reviewer’s case, the audiobook listener) to the year 2009 when Hanna brings her obsession to the boiling point. Her husband and business partner, Jon, seems to be fed up with the indiscretions and affairs she has indulged in over the last few years. Hanna’s defense, dating all the way back to high school, is that she has difficulty feeling secure and, therefore, she uses sex as a way of feeling in control. Hanna’s brother, Palmer, who is gay and veterinarian in Charleston, has also been unable to commit to a lasting relationship. The threads of their unraveling lives cross when Hanna goes back to Charleston for a time-out.

At first the story seems to be a novel/mystery complete with a well-developed set of characters. By two-thirds of the way through, a new theme becomes apparent – that of a cautionary tale. Perhaps a listener or reader who is herself entering middle age would find a sense of life’s lessons as the last of the story unfolds. For this reviewer, the message is clear; do not dwell on the past. Hanna could have benefitted by reading Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now.

Recommended.

Ruta Arellano

The audiobook was purchased by the reviewer’s husband. Katie Crouch is also the author of Girls in Trucks: A Novel.

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Coming Up Next…

Men and Dogs (large)

A review of Men and Dogs: A Novel by Katie Crouch.

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Room: A Novel

Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue (Little,Brown; $24.99; 336 pages)

The Soul selects her own Society – Then – shuts the door.

Jack could be assumed to be a typical 5-year-old boy being homeschooled by his mother and engaging in similar activities as his peers (watching TV, reading, art).   However, Jack’s entire existence revolves around the life created by his abducted mother in an 11 X 11 room created for the sole purpose of keeping their existence a secret.

Told from Jack’s point of view, the story unfolds portraying realistic outcomes that create the illusion of a non-fiction novel.   You will root for Jack and his ‘Ma’ to escape the confines of their prison-like life with despicable “Old Nick” and enter the real world (outer space) for a chance to live a “normal” life.

Before I didn’t even know to be mad that we can’t open Door, my head was too small to have Outside in it.   When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything.

You will be enchanted by the endearing dedication provided by Jack’s mother as she recalls the details of her own childhood in order to create an atmosphere where Jack can survive and strive within the limits of Room.   This is a wonderful life-affirming portrayal of the strength of a mother’s love for her son.   It is a force which can survive under even the worst of circumstances.

Recommended.

This review was written by Kelly Monson.   The book was purchased by the reviewer.   Room, the seventh novel from Donoghue, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize of 2010.

“Potent, darkly beautiful, and revelatory.”   Michael Cunningham

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With a Little Help From My Friends

The Island: A Novel by Elin Hilderbrand (Unabridged Hachette audio book on 13 CDs; $34.98)

When the going gets tough for Chess Cousins, she and three other East Coast ladies retreat to Tuckernuck Island off the coast of Nantucket.   These ladies are not just anyone; they are Chess’s mother Birdie Cousins, aunt Ida Bishop and sister Tate Cousins.   Tough doesn’t begin to describe Chess’s situation as her recently dumped fiance has died in a rock climbing incident and she has walked out on her editorial job at a prestigious culinary magazine.   To make matters worse, Chess decides to cut her shining golden hair and shave her head.

Birdie masterminds their trip to the family vacation home on Tuckernuck.   The house lacks hot water, electricity, and television and cell phone reception.   After a 13-year family hiatus from vacationing on the property, the ladies come together for the month of July.   The plan is to allow Chess the solitude and support she needs to get beyond her depression.

Author Hilderbrand present a masterfully simple story that expands as the days on the island are counted off, one by one.   The cadence of the story, narrated by Denice Hicks, is one of calm repetition that includes descriptions of the locale, conversations, meal preparation and the introspective thoughts of the ladies.   The activities they perform daily become part of the story line.   There are bursts of emotion that erupt from the interactions of the characters.   The narrator balances the dulcet tones of Birdie with the harsh outbursts from Tate and Chess.   India’s throaty voice is a sharp contrast to those of her sister and nieces.   This is only right as she is a worldly woman who is herself the widow.

The key male character is Barrett Lee, a golden hunk of a man in his thirties, who is the caretaker of the house.   He brings the food, wine, ice and clean laundry daily from Nantucket.   Although Nantucket is only a half-mile away by boat, it might as well be on another continent.   Both Barrett and his father Chuck before him have captured the hearts and imaginations of the respective generations of sisters.

The sense of isolation felt by Birdie, India and Tate serves to prompt them to deal with their own issues even though they are supposed to be assisting Chess.   There is a sense of dancing around each one’s life situation, avoiding the whole truth, shying away and then revisiting them again and again.   Each revisit brings more of the backstories to the fore.   The complexity of the emotions and fears brought on by the need for someone to love is flavored with loving kindness, frustration, self-awareness and anxiety.

In a sense, the book is a confessional.   The four points of view on love and loss, sibling rivalry and what it means to be loved are beautifully portrayed in this multi-generational saga.

Highly recommended, and, yes, it’s a fine example of chick lit.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A copy of the audio book was provided by Hachette Audio.

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Glorious Golf

Moment of Glory: The Year Underdogs Ruled Golf by John Feinstein (Little, Brown; Hachette Audio, Unabdridged on 11 CDs)

Warning:  If you’ve hated the sport of golf – or tried your best to ignore it – and wish to continue as a golf hater, avoid reading (or listening to) this book!

John Feinstein, author of the mega-selling A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour, has written a humanizing account of the game of golf in what proved to be a unique year, 2003.   This was the year that Tiger Woods – who had won half of the 12 majors from 2000 to 2002 – failed to win a single major tournament.   The void was filled by four unknowns, four golfers who had never before won a major.   Here are the names of the four players whose names were not Tiger Woods:  Mike Weir (the Masters), Jim Furyk (the U. S. Open), Ben Curtis (the British Open) and Shaun Micheel (the PGA Championship).

Feinstein’s account begins with a detailed explanation of the first fall of Woods, who arbitrarily decided to fire Butch Harmon, his talented swing coach, in order to restructure his game.   Woods, golf’s reigning king, abdicated his throne for a year, permitting four commoners to enter the arena.   This is covered by Feinstein in an introduction which is the weakest part of the telling.   Feinstein has a maddening tendency in his intros to jump around from present to past, past to present and back again.   It all becomes confusing enough to make a reader want to think about abandoning the read.   But stick around because Feinstein calms down when he begins to tell the tale of four young golfers who came up the hard way.

None of the four subjects – Weir, Furyk, Curtis and Micheel – would have been placed on a list of projected winners of a major tournament in 2003.   In fact, as well detailed by Feinstein, each of the winners would shock the golf world that year.   Curtis, for example, had never visited England before beating everyone on the links course known as Royal St. George’s.   The newly married golfer from Columbus, Ohio had been listed as a 300-1 outsider before his major win.   His win was so unlikely, in fact, that when one of his best friends (and fellow golfers) was told that Curtis had won the British Open he literally fell to his knees in shock.

Micheel won the PGA Championship with an 18th hole penultimate blind shot (onto a 45-foot hill) that landed just two inches from the cup.   “On the most important day of his life, he made the shot of his life.”   But none of these four players broke through simply because they were lucky.   Each worked for years in college and/or junior circuits (Hooters, the Nike Tour, the Hogan Tour, PGA Qualifying School) before they became overnight successes.   Even if you, like this reader, know little about golf and nothing about these four men, you will finish feeling like you’ve spent quality time with each of them.

Each of the four players profiled is a likeable once-underdog, four individuals who suddenly came out of the shadow of the fist-pumping Woods.   But then John Feinstein has always loved such stories…  As he wrote in A Good Walk Spoiled:  “I’ve always (been) someone who thinks that the unknown fighting for his life is a better story than the millionaire fighting for his next million.”

This is an absolutely perfect book to read and/or listen to on the weekend of the playing of the U. S. Open at Pebble Beach.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This review is based on the audio book version of Moments of Glory, a copy of which was received from Hachette Audio (Hachette Book Group U.S.A.).   The unabridged audio version is well read by L. J. Ganser.   Unfortunately, Ganser’s voice sounds far too much like that of Casey Kasem of American Top 40 and his skills are sadly lacking whenever he attempts to dramatize women’s voices (quoting the wives of the four golfers profiled here).   It would have been nice to have had a woman reading the women’s parts.

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An Audio Book Giveaway!

First, congratulations go out to Cheryl Kelley of Gilberts, Illinois and Margie Takala of Minnetonka, Minnesota as the winners of Life and Life Only, a fine novel by Dave Moyer!   Munchy the cat picked their names out of the official contest bucket.   Life is about life, especially as it relates to baseball, love and Bob Dylan.  

Now we would like to announce another great giveaway.   This time we’re giving away three (3) copies of the audio book version of The Unnamed by Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award-winning author, Joshua Ferris.   This is an unabridged version of the novel, read by the author, on 7 CDs.   This Hachette Audio book has a value of $34.98.

This was an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection on its release.   I’ve started to listen to it and it’s terrific.   Anyone who has ever had a health condition that the medical establishment does not quite seem to “get” will relate to this story.   It is the tale of a man attacked by an unknown condition that makes him walk until he literally drops and sleeps from exhaustion.   He’s lost 17 months of his life due to this condition – skeptically called “The Condition” by his mental health professionals – and he’s now experiencing the third occurrence.   Maybe, he’s told, this condition is just brought on by stress or worrying.   Right.

That’s my take and here is part of the official synopsis from the publisher:

With The Unnamed, Ferris imagines the collision between one man’s free will and the forces of nature that are bigger than any of us.  

Tim Farnsworth walks.   He walks out of meetings and out of bed.   He walks in sweltering heat and numbing cold.   He will walk without stopping until he falls asleep, wherever he is.   This curious affliction has baffled medical experts around the globe – and come perilously close to ruining what should be a happy life.   Tim has a loving family, a successful law career and a beautiful suburban home, all of which he maintains spectacularly well until his feet start moving again.

This is a novel about Tim Farnsworth, a man who believes that he’s going to lose his house and everything in it.   How can you win a copy of the audio book?   It’s simple.   Just send an e-mail with your name included in the message to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   That’s all you need to do to be entered once.   For a second entry, tell me why you would like to win this particular audio novel.   You have until midnight PST on Wednesday, March 17, 2010 to submit your entry(s).  

Anyone in the U.S. or Canada is eligible.   The only restriction is that you must supply a residential address if you’re selected as a winner.   Audio books cannot and will not be mailed to a P.O. Box.   Thanks to Anna at Hachette Audio for making these prizes available to our readers.

Good luck and good listening!  

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