One of my graduate school professors frequently made his students cry. Never mind that we were grown adults. A single cliche used in a class paper could result in public humiliation. And yet the competition to get into his class was fierce. No honor surpassed the chance to be taught (and belittled) by such a masterful mind.
Tyranny like this abounds in campus fiction. There, heads of the classroom are often as selfish and manipulative as despotic heads of state. They turn their students into pawns, and they get away with it because students are impressionable and easily infatuated. Here are three books about teachers whose lessons hide plenty of booby traps: Each is a textbook case of leading the vulnerable student astray.
School (in this country, anyway) is like taxes; there is absolutely no getting out of it without breaking the law. So it makes sense that so many authors have set novels in a classroom — they were all there at some point.
School is a near universal experience, and yet each child reacts differently to the rigor of academic life and the pressure of being jammed together with one's peers for eight hours a day. Books about school are as varied as authors themselves; some depict those years as a warm, halcyon time of friendship and camaraderie; others equate high school to a torture chamber. Either way, it's always worth traveling back in time via a book when classes begin anew; it will help you empathize and prepare the students in your life. Here are five of our favorite stories set in schools — tell us yours in the comments.
The Harry Potter franchise has its last hurrah on Friday, and fans like me are facing a forcible graduation from the protection of a fictional universe we've always known. I was 7 when Harry began, but I'm 21 now, and it's time to broaden my horizons beyond Hogwarts.
But what to pick up first? To me, the perfect post-Potter book isn't an imitator, but rather something entirely different (darker, perhaps, or less padded with childhood optimism) that's laced with threads of familiar territory. Through striking and unexpected lenses, these three books give new life to my favorite foundations of Harry's literary magic.
By Lev Grossman, Paperback, 416 pages, Viking Adult, list price: $16.
Cry derivative all you want — Lev Grossman's novel, hailed as Harry Potter for adults, is all that and more. Combine Narnia, Potter and your sullen, booze-fueled college existentialist phase, and you'll have the world of Quentin Coldwater, a high school senior from Brooklyn who finds himself enrolled at Brakebills College, where he studies to be a magician. It's everything you'd want from a freewheeling postgrad wizardry experience, and the magic itself is wonderfully scientific — messy, sprawling, while technical in a way that Potter forgoes. But it's in the self-reflective thread of Quentin's journey, which culminates in a true-to-genre magical quest undercut by a vein of harsh realism, that The Magicians shines. The endgame is a heartrending, cathartic examination of the nature of magic and our relationship to the stories we wanted to live in as kids — required reading for anyone trying to recover from a lifelong love affair with a fictional world.
By Orson Scott Card, Paperback, 352 pages, Top Science Fiction, List Price $6.99.
The first installment in Orson Scott Card's classic science-fiction series offers a gripping study of how to make a soldier, told through the eyes of child prodigy Andrew "Ender" Wiggin. Set at a futuristic school where kids learn the art of war through battle simulators, Ender's Game shows the vicious toll that thankless expectation exerts on young people, while Ender's own journey has an uneasy sort of "chosen one" edge to it. Card expertly twists your emotions as you watch the boy genius molded — not entirely with his own permission — into the perfect leader, with his capacity for love and hurt compartmentalized behind ruthless cunning. Ender's voice is a mesmerizing mix of childlike wonder and calculating cynicism, and it's stunningly easy to get lost in his war games. This exemplary piece of sci-fi is a chilling and heartbreaking take on what happens when children inherit war.
The Secret History
By Donna Tartt, Paperback, 576 pages, Vintage, list price: $16.
Donna Tartt's acclaimed novel centers on a group of classics majors at a small college in New England whose aspirations toward antiquity careen terrifyingly out of control. But folded into the thrilling story, which is tinged with a crisp, dizzied academic appeal, are dark ruminations on the gifts and curses of the ancients. These ubiquitous archetypes, models and moral codes make up every story we know to some degree — whether it's a reluctant hero's quest, a battle between good and evil or simply a journey through a life. In The Secret History, Tartt offers a fascinating perspective on the influence of the classics on our lives, with a stunningly written moral narrative that warps and coils in on itself to reveal truths about good and evil that most would be afraid to discover.
These books aren't the fantastical J.K. Rowling adventures of my childhood, and they're certainly far less cheerful than a certain epilogue. But they embody what I'll always love about Harry Potter — meditations on magic, morality and growing up, shot through with the understanding that while real life isn't always just like storybooks, there's learning in that, too.
Annie Ropeik is an intern at NPR's All Things Considered and lives in Silver Spring, Md.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.
"Three Books..." is a new series in which we invite writers to recommend three great reads on a single theme.
I never used to read mysteries or thrillers. I thought they were empty calories — silly summertime reading, all about suspense and action. But then I moved to Florida, and everything changed.
Florida is mystery central: It must have something to do with the combination of moody swamps, corrupt politicians and a year-round demand for no-pressure beach reading. There are entire bookstores here that consist of little more than well-thumbed paperbacks with the word blood in the title.
Suddenly, all my friends were writing grisly murder yarns — and having a ball in the process. I had to take a crack! It was while I was looking for books to help me learn this new genre that I stumbled across a type of mystery that had it all — character and action, subtlety and suspense.
'The Secret History'
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, paperback, 524 pagesShelved in General Literature, Donna Tartt's The Secret History overturns all sorts of tired murder-mystery clichés. Its narrative voice is masterfully contrived, cranked to a near-Victorian pitch. This sprawling literary mystery follows a band of friends attending a private, manicured college in Vermont. The group, formed around their study of Greek classics — and their subsequent involvement in murder — exudes a sort of sinister ennui.
Tartt's prose is finely wrought, like something etched in glass. The coolly bloodless quality of the story telling heightens its sense of horror, as if we were tied up and forced to witness the wickedness of these characters.
These three books are not only captivating, guilty pleasures; I found them inspiring and instructive, replete with complex characters, rich settings and sophisticated style. I discovered that you don't have to sacrifice literary technique in the service of a great story. These were the kinds of book that I wanted to read and the kind I wanted to write: blood, guts, and brains — summer reading for all seasons.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.
'Smilla's Sense of Snow'
Smilla's Sense of Snow, by Peter Hoeg, paperback, 480 pagesDelving deeper into the bookshelves, I uncovered a favorite old novel that I'd forgotten was actually a mystery. Smilla's Sense of Snow is a perfect read for sweltering afternoons. A wonderfully complicated character, Smilla is an unmarried woman in her late 30s, part Danish and part Inuit, who takes an interest in the death of her young neighbor Isaiah.
Smilla happens to be an expert on snow and ice, and she treks across a frosty landscape in her hunt for the truth. The Nordic winter, described here so intricately and exquisitely, elevates the setting — it becomes both character and evidence, mood-setter and clue-holder: a pleasing combination of beautiful and deadly.
Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson, paperback, 336 pagesFirst I found Kate Atkinson's Case Histories, a thoughtful whodunit that tails private detective Jackson Brodie across Cambridge, England. Brodie is life-battered: His marriage is over; his weariness rises off the page. But he's a tough guy with a wry, wrung-out sense of humor.
The book is almost Freudian in its approach: childhood scars as relevant as fresh clues. Brodie's three recent cases — involving an unexplained disappearance; a shocking murder; and a hidden identity — all begin to intersect as Brodie grapples with his own impressively awful secret.