Thursday, September 11, 2014

Book Review: Early Decision

I barely remember my college admissions process. I don’t recall giving much thought to my application essay, or touring very many schools, or any other of the numerous ways in which high school students try to prepare themselves for getting into the college of their choice. My parents, although college professors themselves, did not seem all that well-versed (and thus not terribly helpful) in the process. I had a handful of schools I was interested in, threw in a “safety” or two, and then sent off my applications almost haphazardly, knowing that with the top 10% rule in Texas, I’d probably be starting at the University of Texas at Austin in the fall of 2002. This is--spoiler alert--pretty much exactly how it all played out.  

But sometimes I wonder, what if I had gone to a different college, and thus started down a different path. Where would I be living? What would I be doing? My life would probably look almost unrecognizable to current me, even though I’d be the same person living it. The prospect is both scary and exhilarating, and I feel that at 30 I have much more wisdom and prudence to process and discard this thought than 18-year-old Marisa, who blindly chose a college and thus, a future. This future. 

All of this is to say that when I read Early Decision by Lacy Crawford, it left me thinking long after I put it down. I haven’t felt this engrossed in a book in quite some time.

A delightful and salacious novel about the frightful world of high school, SATs, the college essay, and the Common Application—and how getting in is getting in the way of growing up. Anne Arlington is twenty-seven, single, and in demand: she is the independent “college whisperer” whose name is passed from parent to parent like a winning lottery ticket, the only tutor who can make a difference with the Ivy League.

Early Decision follows one application season and the five students Anne guides to their fates: Hunter, the athletic boy who never quite hits his potential, a kind, heavily defended kid who drives his mother mad; Sadie, an heiress who is perfectly controlled but at the expense of her own heart; William, whose intelligence permits him to dodge his father’s cruel conservatism but can’t solve the problem of loneliness; Alexis, a blazing overachiever whose Midwestern parents have never heard of a tiger mom; and Cristina, who could write her ticket out of her enormous, failing high school, if only she knew how. Meanwhile, Anne needs a little coaching herself, having learned that even the best college does not teach a person how to make a life.

In this engrossing, intelligent novel, Lacy Crawford delivers an explosive insider’s guide to the secrets of college admissions at the highest levels. It’s also a deft commentary on modern parenting and how the scramble for Harvard is shaping a generation. Told in part through the students’ essays, this unique and witty book is so closely observed that it has been mistaken for a memoir or a how-to guide. A wise and deeply felt story, Early Decision reveals how getting in is getting in the way of growing up.

Early Decision, which begins at the start of the application season and ends with blurbs about each student describing where they ended up going to college and what they’re doing with their lives, is a fast, interesting read. The book is not as lighthearted or fluffy as it first seems, and you’re quickly drawn into the drama of each of the students Anne is working with during the fall season. At first I was annoyed by the essays that pepper the narrative--I am almost uniformly against intercalary features in books--but this component quickly won me over. The essays give a great glimpse into the personalities of each of the students, and demonstrate how they change and mature over the course of the semester. 

Anne is an interesting main character, and I identified with her struggles more than I thought I would. The A-student who always did the right thing, she churned through undergrad like a woman on a mission and enrolled in a prestigious graduate program, only to falter when she realized that “so much passion should come to nothing.” The fact that Anne was at the University of Chicago only made me love her more. I knew exactly how she felt. What was it all for? Why did it matter that someone was the foremost expert on a book or author that most of the rest of the population had never heard of, much less had the capacity to care about? How does that give enough meaning to your life to push you , to keep you reaching for the next brass ring? Oh Anne. I wanted to reach through the book and hug her, all while fist pumping and saying “Exactly! This is exactly why I did not want to pursue a PhD in English!” Although I already know that many people get pretty far down their chosen path only to realize it’s not what they want to do with their lives (law school, anyone?) it’s still comforting to read about a fictional character going through this same realization and coming out the other side okay, happier, even.

My one qualm with the book was that I think it over-emphasized the importance of the personal essay and the effect it can have on an admission decision. Granted, Lacy fully acknowledges that her job is both to help the students work on their admissions essays and to hold the hands of the helicopter parents through the application process, which is a feat that should not be under-emphasized, because some of the parents in the book are kind of nuts. Other than that, I unabashedly and wholeheartedly recommend this book. I would be a good book for anyone who wants a trip down memory lane to reminisce about their own college applications process, for someone who is preparing to undertake the task themselves, and everyone in between. 
Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Give Pittsburgh a Chance: City Pools

One of my goals for the summer was to find more excuses to wear my swimsuit, and I am inordinately proud of us for going to Sandcastle, tubing in Johnstown with friends, and making it to two different outdoor public pools in Pittsburgh this year, all amidst weirdly cool periods and what seemed like neverending rain. I feel like I can put away my bikini knowing that I carped the diem out of outdoor swimming this year. 
It turns out that the city pools in Pittsburgh are WAY nicer than the small, weirdly warm, pretty rundown, kinda sketchy public pool we had in my suburb growing up. I stumbled across a picture of the Dormont Pool earlier this year and knew we had to make a trip. It's absolutely beautiful, and a whopping $4 for the entire day. They allow you to bring your own floats, and even have a waterslide! You can bet I went down that thing about 25 times.
The North Park swimming pool, pictured above, is the biggest swimming pool I have ever seen. The day we went it was pretty empty, and we spent hours floating around in our rented tubes, enjoying the sunshine. It was the best $4 I've spent in a long time. We went the afternoon after a 19-mile run, and if you can swing a pool day after that kind of mileage, your legs will welcome a long soak in a cool body of water. It's practically physical therapy. So is the ice cream from the snack bar that I practically inhaled, right?

Pittsburgh doesn't have a very long summer, but it sure does public pools right. Now that the outdoor pools are all closed for the season, I'm simultaneously reminiscing about the too-short season and already planning for next year.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Book Review: The Bully of Order

I haven't spent all that much time in the Pacific Northwest, having grown up in Texas and then continually migrated east, but I am fascinated by stories of early pioneers to the area, the gold rush, and the history of the area that came to be San Francisco and beyond. Which is why Brian Hart's new book, The Bully of Order, seemed right up my alley.

Jacob and Nell Ellstrom step from ship to shore and are struck dumb by the sight of their new home—the Harbor, a ragged township of mud streets and windowless shacks. In the years to come this will be known as one of the busiest and most dangerous ports in the world, and with Jacob’s station as the only town physician, prosperity and respect soon rain down on the Ellstroms. Then their son, Duncan, is born, and these are grand days, busy and full of growth. But when a new physician arrives, Jacob is revealed as an impostor, a fraud, and he flees, leaving his wife and son to fend for themselves.

Years later, on a fated Fourth of July picnic, Duncan Ellstrom falls in love. Her name is Teresa Boyerton, and her father owns the largest sawmill in the Harbor. Their relationship is forbidden by class and by circumstance, because without Jacob there to guide him, Duncan has gone to work for Hank Bellhouse, the local crime boss. Now, if Duncan wants to be with Teresa, he must face not only his past, but the realities of a dark and violent world and his place within it.

Told from various points of view, Brian Hart’s novel follows the evolution of the Harbor from a mudstamp outpost to a city that rivals the promise of San Francisco. The Bully of Order is a meditation on progress, love, and identity; a spellbinding novel of fate and redemption—told with a muscular lyricism and filled with a cast of characters Shakespearean in scope—where everyone is as much at the mercy of the weather as they are of the times.

The Bully of Order is definitely a big, gutsy book, written in a chaotic, confusing style that might be off-putting to some readers who are used to a more straightforward story line. However, if you stick with the twists and turns and get to the meat of the story, you won't be disappointed. It reads more like a Russian novel than what I would consider a typical explorer or adventure tale, jumping around in time and following the lives of its characters from various points of view.

Writing aside, the story line is compelling, even if it is kind of a downer along the way. Many, many things happen to the characters in this book, and not many of the events are happy ones. Again, in this way the book reminded me of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. It would be the perfect story to curl up with on a rainy or cold weekend day.
Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.