For the Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday:
August 22: Back To School Freebie: anything “back to school” related like 10 favorite books I read in school, books I think should be required reading, Required Reading For All Fantasy Fans, required reading for every college freshman, Books to Pair With Classics or Books To Complement A History Lesson, books that would be on my classroom shelf if I were a teacher, etc.
This week I’m doing ten favorite books set in schools
1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt– Richard arrives at the prestigious Hampden College, where he is accepted among a group of five students who study Classics with Julien Morrow, an eccentric, morally questionable professor. They spend a lot of time drinking they confess to Richard that one night they accidentally killed a man while drunk. By telling Richard what happened, they make him involved in the cover up. But when one of the group wants to come clean, the others decide that they must kill him too. This second murder leads to a slow erosion of what moral standards the group may have had, and ultimately emotional and psychological disintegration. I read this for the first time in high school at the same time that my English class was reading Crime and Punishment. I saw strong parallels throughout the novel (though there are also a lot of allusions to Greek Classics) and even noticed that Richard’s narration quotes Dostoevsky at one point.
“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”
2. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro– Yes, this was also made into a film. The film adaptation is pretty good but, unsurprisingly, the book is better. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are students at Hailsham, a school in the British countryside, where the teachers constantly remind the students how special they are. When the reader learns what makes the students at Hailsham unique, it doesn’t happen all at once. It’s a slowly dawning realization As you’re reading and speculating what the secret might be, you’re also hoping that you’re wrong. We’re never actually explicitly told the reason but eventually the evidence mounts to the point where it’s impossible for the reader to ignore. That element of slowly dawning horror was absent from the film, unfortunately, where we are told the secret in the first ten minutes. The film does explore the repercussions and implications, but it misses the slow impact of the book.
“I saw a new world coming rapidly. More scientific, efficient, yes. More cures for the old sicknesses. Very good. But a harsh, cruel, world. And I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go.”
3. Villette by Charlotte Bronte– Lucy Snowe, an orphan without resources, travels to France to teach English at a boarding school for girls. At the school Lucy becomes involved in the lives of several teachers and locals, and is visited by the ghostly figure of a nun, who was believed to have been buried alive on the school grounds as punishment for being unchaste. She also falls in love with M. Paul Emmanuel, another teacher at the school. But the lovers are kept apart by several antagonists. This book is said to be based on Charlotte Bronte’s time teaching English at a French boarding school where she fell in love with the (married) headmaster. Initially this experience inspired her first, unsuccessful novel, The Professor. After that book was rejected by publishers, Bronte reworked the material and turned it into Villette, which was her fourth novel.
“What I felt that night, and what I did, I no more expected to feel and do, than to be lifted in a trance to the seventh heaven. Cold, reluctant, apprehensive, I had accepted a part to please another: ere long, warming, becoming interested, taking courage, I acted to please myself.”
4. The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy– Will McLean is a sensitive writer, who attends The Carolina Military Institute to fulfill a promise to his dead father. Even though Will isn’t suited for the brutality of military training, his success as an athlete, his strong academic performances, and his general integrity, draw the admiration of his classmates and teachers. But the south in the 1960’s is in turmoil over desegregation, and the school has just admitted it’s first black cadet. Will is asked to support and mentor Tom Pearce, who is sure to face some degree of racism. But when it becomes clear that a group of students is trying to run Tom out of the Institute, Will encounters a secret so horrible that it could destroy the Institute. This is primarily a coming of age story told from Will’s point of view. In his four years at the Institute, Will has a romance, encounters corruption, and must decide what kind of person he ultimately wants to be.
“Evil would always come to me disguised in systems and dignified by law.”
5. On Beauty by Zadie Smith– This book has been described by the author as an “homage” to EM Forester’s Howard’s End. There are some specific parallels, but the novels are more broadly linked by the depiction of two families with very different values, becoming intertwined. In this case, one family is the Belsey family; Howard (a white Englishman), Kiki (his African American wife), and their children. Howard is a university professor and his nemesis is Monty Kipps, a Trinidadian, living in Britain, with his wife, Carlene, and their kids. In spite of the tensions between their husbands, Kiki and Carlene become friends. But rivalry between their husbands grows as Howard and Monty clash over university policies, as Monty’s successes highlight Howard’s failures. When their children become involved with the goings on at the university things get even more chaotic.
“He was bookish, she was not; he was theoretical, she political. She called a rose a rose. He called it an accumulation of cultural and biological constructions circulating around the mutually attracting binary poles of nature/artifice.”
6. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett– When British widower, Captain Ralph Crewe, who has been living in India sends his daughter Sara, to Miss Minchin’s Boarding School for Girls in London, he pays extra for her to have special treatment. Miss Minchin is openly kind to Sara because of her wealth. But she secretly resents the girl for that very reason. Sara is a generally kindhearted girl who makes friends with the underdogs of the school. But when Miss Minchin gets word that Captain Crewe has died, and lost his wealth just before his death, she is left with a large unpaid bill for Sara’s school fees and luxuries. So she takes all of Sara’s possessions, makes her live in the attic and work in the school as an errand girl. Despite her misfortunes Sara relies of the support of her friends, and her vivid imagination. Meanwhile, Captain Crewe’s friend, and business partner, Carrisford, is guilt ridden. Their business ventures did not fail as they’d believed, but Captain Crewe and Carrisford were both ill and delirious. By the time Carrisford had recovered and learned that their ventures had made them both wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, Captain Crewe was dead. He is determined to find Captain Crewe’s daughter, and heir.
“Perhaps to be able to learn things quickly isn’t everything. To be kind is worth a great deal to other people…Lots of clever people have done harm and have been wicked.”
7. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss– Kvothe is an innkeeper who was once a swordfighter, magician, and musician, rumored to have killed a king and started a war. When he save the life of Chronicler, a travelling scribe, he agrees to tell Chronicler the story of his life. As a child, Kvothe grew up among a group of traveling performers. When the troupe acquires a scholar Kvothe gains tutoring in science and “sympathy” (a magic that changes one object by using links with another). When the troupe is massacred, Kvothe is left alone. In order to learn more about the reasons for the massacre, Kvothe manages to get in the University, where the vast archives might have the information he seeks. But he also makes some dangerous enemies, among the students and the instructors. This is the first in a trilogy, followed by The Wise Man’s Fear. The third is forthcoming.
“I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. You may have heard of me.”
8. Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman– While I might have appreciated this book before I became a teacher, I don’t think it would have resonated with me as much. There are parts where I was reading and thinking “OMG this is my life!” Not literally. Some things have changed in education since the book came out in 1964. But surprisingly few. When Sylvia Barrett graduates from college and gets a teaching job, she’s eager to shape young minds. She ends up buried in interoffice memos, lesson plans, and letters to and from students/parents/other teachers/administration. The story is told entirely through these memos, notes, and letters. If it were written today, the story might be told via emails and texts, but the content would be largely the same. What keeps this book in the humorous (rather than being just depressing!) is that in spite of all of the crap they have to go through, at times the system is redeemed by teachers who genuinely care about their students, and by students who want to learn. That doesn’t always happen and too many fall through the cracks in a flawed system. But when it does happen that connection does happen it’s worthy of celebrating. It’s something that Sylvia learns in the course of this book. But its also something that she’ll constantly have to remind herself of as she struggles through the days that can feel endless.
“I am writing this during my free . . . oops! un-assigned period, at the end of my first day of teaching. So far, I have taught nothing — but I have learned a great deal. To wit:
We have to punch a time clock and abide by the Rules.
We must make sure our students likewise abide, and that they sign the time sheet whenever they leave or reenter a room.
We have keys but no locks (except in lavatories), blackboards but no chalk, students but no seats, teachers but no time to teach.
The library is closed to the students.”
9. The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling- Did anyone actually think that I was going to leave Hogwarts off my list? Has anyone reading this list not been “sorted”? I’m a Ravenclaw, in cause anyone was wondering. Haven’t we all had moments where we long for an owl messenger or a hidden train platform? Over the first six books in this series, Hogwarts becomes a character in and of itself. Which makes the fact that the seventh book takes the characters away from Hogwarts all the more jarring. But it’s also interesting to see that they carry it with them wherever they may be. For all the characters, Hogwarts itself, the teachers, the students, the ghosts, and Quiddich becomes ingrained in who they are as people. And I think most readers could say the same.
“What is the difference, Potter, between monkshood and wolfsbane?”
At this, Hermione stood up, her hand stretching towards the dungeon ceiling.
I don’t know,” said Harry quietly. “I think Hermione does, though, why don’t you try asking her?”
A few people laughed; Harry caught sight of Seamus’s eye and Seamus winked. Snape, however, was not pleased.
Sit down,” he snapped at Hermione. “For your information, Potter, asphodel and wormwood make a sleeping potion so powerful it is known as the Draught of Living Death. A bezoar is a stone taken from the stomach of a goat and it will save you from most poisons. As for monkshood and wolfsbane, they are the same plant, which also goes by the name of aconite. Well? Why aren’t you all copying that down?”
There was a sudden rummaging for quills and parchment. Over the noise, Snape said, “And a point will be taken from Gryffindor house for your cheek, Potter.”
10. The Gemma Doyle Trilogy by Libba Bray- In 1895, Gemma Doyle has a vision of her mother’s death, just before her mother commits suicide in India, and Gemma is shipped off to boarding school in England. At the Spence Academy for Young Ladies, Gemma must deal with the guilt about not having prevented her mother’s death, her continuing visions of the future, and being shunned by her classmates. She’s also been followed by Katrik, a mysterious Indian boy who warns her to fight off her visions. As Gemma manages to form bonds with some other girls at Spence, she and her friends are drawn into the other worldly realms of her visions. They look at it as a “bit of fun” before their future as the wives of Victorian men. But there may be more danger than they’re aware of. The realms of Gemma’s visions are powerful, and several organizations want that power for themselves. This trilogy (A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing) has strong echoes of Gothic novels like Jane Eyre or Rebecca. But it also has elements of fantasy that call to mind a more feminist Harry Potter. The series also deals with social issues in Victorian times. It’s hard to explain but it’s a lot of fun!
“Felicity ignores us. She walks out to them, an apparition in white and blue velvet, her head held high as they stare in awe at her, the goddess. I don’t know yet what power feels like. But this is surely what it looks like, and I think I’m beginning to understand why those ancient women had to hide in caves. Why our parents and suitors want us to behave properly and predictably. It’s not that they want to protect us; it’s that they fear us.”