I associate August with the winding down of summer and the beginning of a new school year. I know for many people that association would connect better with September, but where I grew up the school year started in the middle of August so that we could take two weeks off in harvest season to go harvest potatoes (I don’t know if they do that anymore . . .). I was a big fan of school and I’m a big fan of “school” books. Here are five of my favorites. Feel free to recommend others in the comments.
- A Separate Peace, by John Knowles (original review from November 19, 2008). I have mentioned this before (you’ll see it in my review, in fact), but this is one of the first books I fell in love with. When I revisited it a few years ago, I was happy that it wasn’t just a youthful infatuation: this is a tremendous book about two boys at boarding school in the summer of 1942: “Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence.”
- The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark (original review from April 24, 2008). When I first read this, I didn’t know what to make of it, but this short, often cruel novel about a group of girls who fall under the spell of Miss Brodie, the unconventional teacher. But if you’re worried this is going to be a conventional novella about an unconventional teacher, worry no more. Did I mention just how cruel this book can get? And the film? Excellent stuff — it just took me a while to realize it.
- Old School, by Tobias Wolff (original review from July 8, 2009). Another book about boys in boarding school, and it’s as excellent as they come. Here we are in the early 1960s following around a young man who wants to be a writer. One day he’s fascinated by Hemingway, the next by Ayn Rand — then Rand comes to the school and our young man is disillusioned. This is also a story about guilt and justifications.
- The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart (original review from October 9, 2009). The newest book here, certainly the funniest, though no less serious and sophisticated, we go now to an elite co-ed boarding school. The boy’s club is old, venerated, and rules. Ah, but if I summarize more of the plot here it might come off sounding like blunt feminism. Though the book explores male / female relationships and power struggles, it’s incredibly nuanced and ambiguous, offering no easy solutions. It’s much more focused on a wonderfully rendered character. And the pranks are fantastic.
- Stoner, by John Williams (original review from September 21, 2010). John Williams’ Stoner has experienced a much deserved revival in the past few years, and I hope it continues. One of the best books on academia — one of the best books period. It’s so precise in its portrayal of literary infatuation and loneliness about a man who is dead when the book begins, a man who “did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and [whom] few students remember . . . with any sharpness after they had taken his course.” From that beginning, Williams succeeds in making us feel a reverence for William Stoner’s life.