Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Books 17-21: "Might as well finish this one first..."

I'm not doing so well at this "post a review every single time I finish a book" idea that I started this year, and the past month or so has been the worst yet. It happened because I spent a long time on #17, and then flew through the rest so fast that every time I thought, "I should talk about these books," I also thought, "Well, I'm already halfway through this one, so I might as well finish it first."

Five books later, I really need to get books some books out of my house and haven't started number 22 yet, so here we go:

Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be, by Frank Bruni

I decided that I needed to read more books about my field just as I was walking through Barnes & Noble past a table that this was sitting on the corner of, so I picked it up and brought it home. (I paid for it first.) Bruni offers a fascinating, horrifying portrait of admission to elite colleges, painting a nightmare landscape of tears, paid consultants, and a girl who applied to over 60 colleges on purpose through the Common Application. At the same time, though, Bruni dissects the way elite colleges perpetuate their own reputations, manipulate their exclusivity, and the way that "US News and World Report" actually produces their list of the nation's top schools.

Bruni's main argument, backed up by example after example, is that no one actually cares where you went to undergrad. They may care about the schools you went to for degrees after that, but employers and grad schools care more about the skills and experiences you pick up in undergrad more than they care about the name of the school on your degree. Bruni argues that college students should seek out a place that will give them new experiences, challenge their ideas, boost their confidence, and nurture their critical thinking, and points out the fact that there are overlooked schools all over the country where this can happen if high achieving students can shake off the blinders of the Top 25.

This idea was fascinating to me, because I have often wondered what would have happened if I went somewhere else for undergrad. I got into my first choice school, but couldn't afford it, and ended up with a choice between two state schools. The one I ended up going to offered better financial aid and scholarships, but there were really three deciding factors:

1) They seemed to want me. They recruited me for their Honors Program, called me to check in every couple of weeks, sent someone to my Senior Awards Night to personally award me a scholarship, and basically made me feel like they actually wanted me there. I chose them over schools that offered me a full ride scholarship, even though it meant working all the way through school, because of the personal touches.

2) Several close high school friends were going to the other school. Sometime during senior year, I decided that I liked my friends, but I wanted to be away from everyone I knew. Bruni's book suggests that this was a wise choice.

3) I hated the other campus. Mom and I drove all the way out there (the round trip was over six hours), and neither one of us was impressed. I didn't like the way the buildings looked, didn't like the way the town looked, and didn't like the way the other students looked. Mom talked repeatedly on the drive home about how our tour guide (who was probably a perfectly nice girl) had a "herpes cold sore, right there on the side of her mouth!" If I ask my mom about that tour now, she probably still remembers this, a couple of decades later. Within a week of that tour, I committed to my undergrad school, and saw it for the first time at an Open House after I had already decided to go there. Good thing I liked it.

Bruni's book was a good read.

Carsick, by John Waters, was not a good read. I love John Waters' movies, but the structure of this tale of Waters deciding to hitchhike across the United States from Maryland to California got old fast. Waters breaks the book into thirds, two of which are imaginary: a story of the journey where every ride that picks him up is a magical, wonderful experience; a story of the journey where every ride is a horrible nightmare of violence and depravity; and the actual true story of what happened.

The middle section of this book was a drag that became more and more of a slog as the book went on, and the actual rides were interesting enough to have really been a book on their own, but Waters didn't spend nearly enough time on them. Instead he wasted time on imaginary characters that weren't that entertaining or compelling, and weren't expected in a book that was marketed as nonfiction.

The Night Sister, by Jennifer McMahon, was also not what I expected, but in a good way.

Set at the Tower Motel in London, Vermont, it jumps between three time periods while telling the dark, violent story of one family. In the 1950's, the motel is a thriving tourist attraction run by Rose and Sylvie's parents. Something a little strange is happening at the motel, but Rose isn't quite sure what to make of Sylvie's nighttime disappearances, the unspoken strain on her parents' marriage, and the threat of a new highway cutting off the flow of tourists. In the 1980's the motel is closed, but Rose's daughter, Amy, and her friends Margot and Piper play among the 28 locked rooms and the crumbling castle tower. Amy's grandmother, who never got over the disappearance of Sylvie decades before, raises Amy alone, and the three girls are fast friends until the day they discover a dark secret that shatters their friendship. In the present day, Piper returns to London after a call from Margot telling her that Amy is dead, a suicide after killing her son and husband, leaving her daughter behind. Next to the body the police found a photo of Rose and Sylvie, with the message "29 rooms", and Piper knows she has to come home and help Margot deal with the secret they've held about the motel since childhood.

This book is an exercise in building tension, and at the end turned out not to be the book I thought I was reading. In hindsight, all the answers were there, but McMahon deftly drops the clues in front of the reader while simultaneously convincing you to look the other way. I really enjoyed this book.

I also really enjoyed Adam Christopher's The Burning Dark, a ghost story set in space. After losing a leg in battle and earning the highest honor in the fleet, Captain Ida Cleveland has been sent on a final mission to supervise the decommissioning of a space station orbiting Shadow, a purple star emitting toxic light that drives people to madness.

Is Shadow's light to blame for the moving shadows and apparitions that crew members see around the station? Is it behind the system failures and glitching environmental controls, or the radio transmission Ida keeps picking up of a Russian cosmonaut who died a thousand years ago? And why doesn't Ida's service record seem to exist anymore? And why can't anyone find the station commander? When crew members start getting attacked in the halls or vanishing, is it already too late, or can Ida save himself, the fleet, and all of humanity?

For the last book I went from space ghosts straight to zombies. Peter Stenson's Fiend gives a very different picture of the zombie apocalypse, told through the eyes of Chase, a longtime meth addict who thinks he's hallucinating but instead discovers that he woke up in a completely new, very dangerous world.

Humanity went to bed, and the ones that woke up the next morning had become mindless flesh-eaters in the night. The only ones who survived were junkies. Now the survivors of humanity, a collection of speed-abusing truck drivers, meth addicts, and violent drug dealers dipping into their own stashes fights to stay alive while also trying to score the next high, to keep themselves from turning. Chase and his acquaintances, who can't really be called friends, are fighting their way through hell, but as addicts they also carry their hell with them, proving that there are all kinds of monsters, human and otherwise.

This book is dark, and makes no move to glamorize addiction. It was a little disturbing, but I'm glad I read it.