Laura McNeal's Blog

December 18, 2017

Eight months ago, at the party celebrating the publication of The Practice House, a friend who works in Hollywood asked me if I had actors in mind for the characters in the book. Just in case!! 

I laughed that particular nervous laugh that comes of not knowing the answer and also knowing I would never need to know the answer and secretly, privately, shamefully wishing I would some day need to know who should play Ansel in the movie {SO RIDICULOUS TO EVEN BE SAYING THIS} of The Practice House.

This friend was very serious. "Think about it," he said. "You should definitely know the answer to this question. That's how these things happen." 

I must make it clear right now: this is not an announcement. I did not sit on a plane with Reese Witherspoon a month ago JUST BY CHANCE and modestly slip her a copy of my book. No, this is a version of a game I used to play with my best friend Janet Kopp in Clovis, New Mexico, when we were six.

It went like this: Janet and I would dream about who we were going to marry when we grew up, and it was the same men every time. I was going to marry Starsky, and she was going to marry Hutch.  But get this: I would not be myself, because why would Starsky marry me?  I was going to be the Prell girl when I grew up--the beautiful girl in the Prell ads of 1973--and  Prell-Me would marry Starsky. 

In that spirit, and to celebrate selling 50,000 copies of The Practice House, I'm going to sit down on the shag carpet with Janet and cast the main parts, and after that we're going into her backyard to push the welded seams of her swing set to the very limits by swinging super hard on that two-seater thing while singing the theme song from "Gilligan's Island":

Aldine McKenna: Ansel Price: Ellie Price: Amy Adams
Clare Price: Charlotte Price: 
Fun, right? I never got this technical in 1973, but in the dream scenario, the whole thing would be sensitively directed by Reese Witherspoon, so if you know her, it's totally fine with me if you mention it.

As ever, 

The Prell Girl
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Published on December 18, 2017 11:08 • 10 views

October 17, 2017

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Aldine acts impulsively at several key moments in the book. It’s because she invites the missionaries into the house, for example, that Aldine’s sister meets an American, and it’s because she’s willing to move to an American state she knows nothing about—Kansas--that Aldine finds herself utterly dependent on the Prices. Is she brave or foolish? Is she to blame for what happens to her, and is she to blame for what happens to Ansel and Ellie? Does she seem more impulsive than male characters who strike out for unknown places?

2. On April 30, 1987, the New York Times columnist Mary Morris referenced an oft repeated line about the two most common plots in literature: 1) a man goes on a journey and 2) a stranger comes to town. She wrote, “Since women, for so many years, were denied the journey, we were left with only one plot to our lives – to await the stranger. Indeed, there is no picaresque tradition among women who are novelists. Women’s literature, from Austen to Woolf, is mostly about waiting, usually for love. Denied the freedom to roam outside themselves, women turned inward, into their emotions.” Discuss this in relation to the plot of The Practice House. Is it one or the other, or both?

3. How does Aldine’s Scottish-ness affect how she views Kansas? How does it affect how Americans perceive and treat her?

4. The building called the Practice House doesn’t appear until halfway through the novel. Does the title have an allegorical meaning that justifies its prominence? Is it significant, for example, that Charlotte’s wedding reception is held there? If you think the title does not fit the novel as a whole, what would you have called it and why?

5. The female characters in the novel take jobs that we now see as stereotypical: Aldine is a doctor’s secretary, then a teacher, and finally a waitress. Likewise, Ellie and her sister leave home in a burst of independence, but they find work serving food to men. Charlotte, too, becomes a teacher, and she seeks financial stability—upward mobility, in fact – by marrying an older, wealthy man. Is the book perpetuating certain ideas about the dependence of women, or is it documenting them? What role does historical fiction play in our understanding of the past? Of the present?

6. Women in the novel both resent and seek comfort in what used to be called the Home Arts. How is Charlotte’s life different from her mother’s? In what way did Ellie’s choices shape Charlotte’s? Is that pattern of cause and effect something that the characters are conscious or unconscious of? Does consciousness of the pattern mean that it can be broken?

7. The Price family leaves the Great Plains for California to find a new life during the Dust Bowl, just as the Joads do in The Grapes of Wrath. How is the California the Prices find different from your mental image of Steinbeck’s California?

8. To some extent, novels have a moral function in our society: they depict the social and psychological consequences of broken taboos. How does Aldine’s fate compare to that of other literary heroines who commit adultery, such as Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Hester Prynne? Who is punished for adultery in this novel, and how? Is there a tendency for novels to punish characters who break taboos, and what effect does that have on you now? Is it different from how you were affected when you read novels in school?

9. Who seems the most opportunistic character in the novel—Charlotte or Aldine? Who seems the most innocent—Clare, perhaps, or Neva? To what extent does our sympathy with a character depend on his or her naiveté?

10. In some ways, novels can be compared to food. Some are considered comfort food, some are marketed as nutritious (particularly when taught in school), and others are haute cuisine. Who decides which is which? What makes a novel comforting, and what makes it culturally significant? Is there a relationship between “significant” novels and the behavior or persona of the main characters or the author? What would you call this novel, and why?

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Published on October 17, 2017 10:47 • 14 views

March 21, 2017

Picture My friend Nancy and I with our babies, the ones we named Joe and Sam. When we look at this picture, we second-guess our clothing and hair, but not our baby-naming.
In my family, the naming story that gets told most often is the one where my mother is trying to get the paperwork squared away for her wedding and she discovers that her legal name is not Laurie Jo, the only name she has ever, EVER been called. "Gertrude Greer," her birth certificate says. In the story, Laurie Jo calls home to ask her mother why in the world the name on her birth certificate would be "Gertrude," and my grandmother, who has been awakened from a sound sleep, says blandly, "Oh, well, the doctor was drunk, and that was one of the names we were considering."  

My mother, who still goes by Jo or Laurie Jo, finds this a narrow miss.  "What if all this time," she likes to say, "I'd had to be Gertie!"

From the very beginning of writing The Practice House it was called The Practice House.  It was as if I had decided to get pregnant because I liked the name Henry or Sam.  The germ of the novel, the spark, the root, the yeast, the egg was that name. The existence of a bungalow in my town called The Practice House, and all of the actual and metaphorical and, to me, incredibly rich and ominous meanings of the name and the idea--building a house at a high school where girls would practice--for a grade!--being housewives and mothers!--were the reasons for writing the book.  Once we were preparing to write the name on the book's legally binding birth certificate, though, my editor at Little A inquired gently whether I was open to considering other names for my baby.  

I really wanted the baby to be an official, legal, recognized citizen because she was, to be honest, about 15 years old.  And whether I called her the exact name she'd always been called around the house didn't seem essential. What if she were more of a Gertie than a Laurie Jo?  Maybe I needed to look at her with the eyes of a stranger.

So we began a process that was familiar to me from re-naming other babies whose names I thought I knew.   The Incident on the Bridge , in particular, had many, many other titles in its childhood and adolescence, including but not limited to:

The Last Flight of the Bean Clam
I Am on Fire and Have Dangerous Cargo
I Have a Diver Down
Snowboard Island

Crooked went all the way through kindergarten as When All the Good Holidays Are Over. The Decoding of Lana Morris was called The Big If until graduation.   Dark Water started life as The Pearl and The Egg. As with those books, I read the entire Untitled Work again with the Title Filter affixed to my brain.  Any time I came across a phrase or word that seemed even remotely resonant, I jotted it down, and then I sent the resulting list (see photo below) to my editor, and we tossed the names around, talking about which ones would likely get it teased on the playground, which ones were confusing or hard to spell, which reminded us of people we already knew, and which might be so over-familiar that there were would be four other girls in her class with the same name (a problem that afflicts Dark Water to this day).

​ The name that was first runner up was The Scottish Girl; second runner up (in my tally, at least) was The Sound of Her. Third runner up: Home by Water. I mention this because now that The Practice House has started going to school a little bit and making friends and hanging out with people, there are some readers who think her name is all wrong for her and can't even understand how anyone could name her that.  One Amazon reviewer has even asked why the book isn't called something like The Scottish Girl.  

The long answer is offered by Emily St. John Mandel in The Daily Mail, but I'll summarize in case you're in a hurry: we did not want to seem to be copying the papers of the writers next to us just to be popular.   We did not want to seem to be calling our baby The Scottish Girl just because The Girl on the Train and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Danish Girl and Gone Girl were getting asked to all the big parties.  We wanted her to be liked for who she is, and the original name still fit best, in our opinion. Although only one character ultimately teaches home ec in a place called the practice house, all of the women practice house-keeping and homemaking in an attempt to make themselves and others feel at home and happy.  The Practice House is both a literal place in the novel and an idea that every female character has to reckon with.  Is it the best title?  I think so, but maybe I'm not the best person to say.  I'm still fond of the name F. Scott Fitzgerald started out calling his famous baby, The Great Gatsby.  But Trimalchio in West Egg would have been hard for high school students to spell on their exams. Picture Pre-order The Practice House
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Published on March 21, 2017 08:07 • 106 views

March 7, 2017

I don't know why we always do this but we do.  We go looking for the true story behind the novel we just read & enjoyed precisely because it felt true.  What we like is believing ​in a whole and contained world with solid walls and living people.  And yet we ask: where'd you get the idea?  And the author can't just say, "Well, it all happened."  

As a reader of literary biographies and interviews with writers and the acknowledgment pages at the backs of novels, I confess that I'm always picking apart the story to find the true parts and the made-up parts and the Terrible Childhood Events that inspired fiction. Even that isn't enough. I go on pilgrimage to the very places where the transformation from life to fiction occurred--to Key West or Chawton or Rome--so I can stare at the holy typewriter or handwritten manuscript page.

When you're writing historical fiction, the sacred moments are the ones when you come across a photograph, artifact, or place that feels inhabited--haunted, really--and you hope somehow to hold out a wick to that still-burning candle and use it to light your book.  That's what these pictures show: the candle flames. to read  THE PRACTICE HOUSE
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Published on March 07, 2017 00:00 • 5 views

February 17, 2017

Picture You do it.  I do it.  We all do it.  We judge books by their covers.  That's what covers are for.

No lie: I spend more time dreaming/worrying about the cover of a book accepted for publication (and sometimes one that I'm just writing the first 50 pages of) than I spent planning my wedding.  Picking names for our children. Reading about childbirth when I was pregnant the first time.  (Okay, maybe not that last thing.  I was really, really scared of childbirth.) And yet I had more control over all of those events than I've normally had over the way our books present themselves.

When I talk about being a writer, formally or informally, people always ask if I get to choose my covers, and I think that's because they picture it more or less like a wedding: you get to choose your own dress, right? I mean, wouldn't you?  

The short answer is no, and there's a good reason for that: the publisher is paying for the wedding, not you.  The medium-length answer is what I once said to Tom after a book I had written got a cover I didn't like and I said so and my editor (whom I love and respect) said they really liked it.  The marketing team liked it.  All of them.  Everyone except me.  I hung up the phone and said, "It's like you spend years going to college and studying for a career and then you go through a whole bunch of interviews and you finally, finally get the job, and you're so happy, and then on the first day you show up for work, the boss says, "This is what we want you to wear.  Every day. This is who we want people to think you are."

This sounds ungrateful, I know.  But it might be a clown suit, and you pictured yourself in Chanel with these very sleek, very tasteful pumps that show just a tiny amount of toe cleavage.  I'm going to be a little academically obnoxious right now and talk about the semiotics of covers.  I've thought about this a lot (see above, under More Time Than Planning Own Wedding) and there's a clear set of signifiers, symbols, what-have-you in play:

Full-color realistic photo of a Flower, Cupcake, or the Back of a Pretty Woman = This Book is About Love. Normally this cover is High Gloss.Black and white, sepia, or muted color photo of a Solitary Symbolic Object = Literature.  Normally this cover is textured cotton.  If you are really lucky the pages will be deckle-edge.  Deckle-edge = Literature.  Deckle-edge is Chanel.  Sometimes I think if I never publish a book with deckle-edges I will die of disappointment.The Graphic Art Cover (main element is the type font or the unconventional placement thereof) = Experimental LiteratureDark Photo of Scary Thing in high gloss with colors intensified and in the red-purple-orange spectrum = Thriller.
Children's and young adult books follow similar rules.  Illustrations on textured cotton paper signify Seriousness and Artistic Intent and Good for You while Glossy Color Photos in the above-mentioned hues signify Fun Thing You Would Pick Yourself Not What the Librarians Give Prizes To.  

Obviously, there are exceptions, as there are exceptions to everything, but this is generally and broadly true.  So when I finally sold my first Adult Book (as opposed to Young Adult) after I'm not even going to tell you how many years of rejection, I began to plan my book wedding dress (the one it would wear until it died) even though I knew, from long experience, that the publisher was going to pick my book's wedding-every-day-until-it-dies dress. 

And the loveliest thing happened.  Little A, my publisher, sent me a questionnaire in which I was allowed to do on the page what I had been doing all of these years in my head.  The questionnaire asked what kind of cover I thought my book should have in order to convey to readers the kind of book it is.  The questionnaire asked (I'm talking very high and loud now and slapping the table with both hands) what symbolic objects from the book might be featured on the cover, which was like asking if I wanted to fly to Paris and try on some dresses there? And then--feel free to jump up and down with me on the carpet of the wedding-gown store!--I was told that sometimes authors make a Pinterest page of the kinds of images they think the book would like to wear.  

Are you JUMPING with me, people??? 

I had already, at this point, actually started a Pinterest page of covers for The Practice House, but I was kind of embarrassed about it, and I knew it was just a thing I was doing for myself, like the Pinterest page I have of things I might knit but definitely never will.

That Pinterest page, called "Ansel and Aldine" is right here , if you want to see it, but it's okay if you don't.  I'm just putting it there to show you that the wedding-and-forevermore dress my book will be wearing on April 1st is not that different from some of the wedding dresses I let it try on in my head, and it incorporates a lot of the things I described at length in my questionnaire.  The cover Rachel Adam designed signifies, I think, the very things I hoped so much it would signify, and it also does something Little A pointed out is crucial in the Internet Age: when the picture is smaller than a postage stamp on your screen, it's still recognizable and intriguing.

So please, I hope you will all come to my wedding on April 1st and buy the book and read about Aldine and Ansel and Ellie and Charlotte and Clare and Lavinia and Neva, or at least look at the picture of the cover the book is wearing until death do us part and know that there is happiness sometimes.  

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Published on February 17, 2017 07:40 • 23 views

February 16, 2017

I don't know why we always do this but we do.  We go looking for the true story behind the novel we just read & enjoyed precisely because it felt true.  What we like is believing ​in a whole and contained world with solid walls and living people.  And yet we ask: where'd you get the idea?  And the author can't just say, "Well, it all happened."  

As a reader of literary biographies and interviews with writers and the acknowledgment pages at the backs of novels, I confess that I'm always picking apart the story to find the true parts and the made-up parts and the Terrible Childhood Events that inspired fiction. Even that isn't enough. I like to go stand in the very places where the transformation from life to fiction occurred: to stand on sacred ground in Key West or Chawton or Rome and stare at the holy typewriter or handwritten manuscript page.

When you're writing historical fiction, the sacred moments are the ones when you come across a photograph, artifact, or place that feels inhabited--haunted, really--and you hope somehow to hold out a wick to that still-burning candle and use it to light your book.  That's what these pictures show: the candle flames. to read  THE PRACTICE HOUSE
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Published on February 16, 2017 14:46 • 9 views

May 1, 2016

Person holding a freshly printed copy of The Incident on the Bridge: Sooooo, are you happy with it?

Me: Um, well, yeah, uh-huh.  Sure.
Picture Publication is supposed to be the highlight of writing, where you feel all your hard work has come to glorious fruition, where you dance lightly on the steps in Philadelphia to the theme from Rocky.    

For six years, Thisbe Locke, the 17-year-old girl in this story, was my imaginary daughter, and her sister Ted was, too, and boys named Fenimore and Jerome were my imaginary sons and also my imaginary former selves, and a novel about them was, for that space of time, this imaginary perfect thing I could achieve if I just worked hard enough.  For six years, I ran through the streets of Philadelphia/Coronado telling myself I MUST WRITE A BOOK THAT WILL SAY EVERYTHING I FEEL IN A BEAUTIFUL WAY THAT WILL DO JUSTICE TO ALL THE PAIN EVERYONE FEELS AND MAKE THEM FEEL BETTER BUT MORE THAN THAT I WISH SUICIDE FROM THE BRIDGE WOULD STOP.  

Which made light dancing on the steps even harder than usual to achieve.

This novel, for what it's worth, is a re-telling of the Pyramus and Thisbe myth.  Pyramus and Thisbe fall in love but are forbidden by their parents to see each other.  They try to make do with talking through a crack in the wall between their two houses, but that isn’t enough, so they make a plan to meet somewhere, in a quiet little cemetery, at the Tomb of Ninus.  Thisbe gets there first, and she encounters a lion that has just killed and eaten something.  In terror, she runs away, dropping her scarf, which the blood-smeared lion gnaws on for a while, then drops.  Pyramus thinks she’s dead, and he stabs himself.  Thisbe finds his body, thinks her life is ruined, and stabs herself.  

I always found this story to be even more unsatisfying than Romeo and Juliet.  One of the worst myths of all time.  Just ludicrous.  You can’t really even feel bad for them, they’re so impulsive.

But I live on the far side of a 2-mile-long, 215-foot-tall bridge from which 360 people have killed themselves in the last 47 years.  Some of them went to the high school our sons attend.  Sometimes the bridge is closed for hours while a person paces back and forth near the 34-inch-high concrete rail. (There is no pedestrian lane, so to attempt to jump you must stand in a lane meant for cars.)  Police used to keep one lane of the Coronado-San Diego Bay Bridge open for cars to pass through while a negotiator was trying to talk a suicidal person out of jumping, but, inevitably, as a trained counselor was earnestly telling the depressed person life was worth living, a driver in a passing car, enraged by the long delay, would shout, "JUMP!"  Or, more frequently, "JUMP, A****!"  So now all lanes are closed during a suicide intervention.

Sometimes, though, all that is found on the bridge is an empty car.  The door may be open, the car still running, as if the driver couldn't wait a second longer, not even to kill the ignition.  
Picture Every time this happens, it's somebody's job to come to the Tomb of Ninus.   To ride to the base of the bridge in a boat and use the hook, lights, diving equipment, stretchers, or inflatable body bags fitted with ropes.  It's someone's job to reach down into the water for people whose arms have broken in the fall, who are babbling incoherently, whose last gesture before falling was, in an instinct from childhood, to plug the nose.  It's the job of others, in more delayed cases, to swim through silty, opaque water, through a concrete forest of poles, hoping to find the person but hopefully not to swim right into the face.  It's someone's job, before or after the finding and retrieving, to go to the front door of the next of kin and say, "Your daughter" or "your son."

For this reason, I wanted Thisbe to live in a real world: mine. I wanted cell phones and fortune cookies to be the crack in the wall, and the Tomb of Ninus to be the bridge over which many people are driving this very second in a state of elation, worry, hope, distraction, haste, leisure, boredom, or despair.
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Published on May 01, 2016 09:21 • 112 views

April 12, 2016

Picture Telling you to read this book is like that horrifying time I went to see Wolf of Wall Street with my devout Mormon mother and my 16-year-old son.  Guess which two people left after 15 minutes?  Only it's not like that, really, because I detested Wolf of Wall Street but I took four pages of envious, nerdy grad-school notes about things I loved in The Haters.

Still, though, a similar flesh-crawling awkwardness.  A fear of being pegged a Puritan because I cannot say out loud to you, not even one time, what the central joke of the novel is.  And yet it's mostly original and moving and smart.   I, a person who cannot discuss bodily functions with anyone unless motivated by fear of my own imminent death, want to give it four, possibly five, stars.  So be warned. 

This is why: Andrews does what Salinger did 76 years ago, which is to use an achingly real, profanely sweet and sweetly profane voice to hammer away at a problem he fears is unsolvable, namely the finding of the thing that is so good it cannot be made ungood or taken away from you.  The Holden Caulfield Conundrum is that success will inevitably lead to pride and self-satisfaction, which would turn you into a phony, and since detecting who is and isn’t a phony is the thing that makes you both miserable and authentic, you're constantly in danger of being loathsome to yourself.  In Holden Caulfield’s world, only authentic and sincere impulses and people are worthwhile, and authenticity cannot be faked or bestowed by others. 
The Wes Doolittle Conundrum is similar: loving something (in the case of The Haters, loving music by The Shins or Kool and the Gang) is risky because you might discover later that your judgment was flawed.  Once you lose your passionate innocent love for that thing, you also lose your sense of confidence in your own judgment of what’s authentically, intrinsically good, which is the only thing you value in your self or anyone else.  Hating on something, as experienced by Wes Doolittle, is a defensive reaction to the fear of disillusionment-- a profound existential dilemma that he calls “poisoning the well.”  The unpoisonable well that he’s looking for throughout the book is the authentically, indestructibly good thing—a performance, a band, an experience—that is Good in the moment and still Good later on and (most importantly) still Good in the presence of someone you respect.  His fear is that such a thing doesn’t exist, that a person is doomed to grow out of everything--to look back on things you loved in childhood and adolescence and see how flawed they were.
Holden and Wes are thus vulnerable in the same way: they both walk the earth in a judgmental frenzy plagued by self-doubt.  It’s as though they gain self-respect primarily by acknowledging limitations, which is what makes them authentic, but what good does authenticity do if there really is no unpoisonable well, if there is only “I liked it then, but I was wrong,” or “I thought it was good, but it wasn’t” or, in Holden's case, "she was good and she died."
Besides being a very interesting take on this dilemma, The Haters is stylistically brilliant and full of endlessly witty hyperbole.  It takes standard tropes of the young adult genre (the orphan and the road trip) and contemporary dilemmas (how do you get rid of the characters’ cell phones in a natural-seeming way so their parents can’t find them?) in impressively original ways.  And even the tediously crude language—oh, the tediously crude language—is arguably a literary necessity (though I genuinely hope I’m wrong).  The Holden/Wes narrator is always an outsider.  Society poisons the well, so only a subversive can find an unpoisonable way of being, and he or she’s only going to be able to do it in the company of other subversives who reject adult rules about what you can and cannot say or do.
Here’s the problem, though.  Catcher in the Rye was published for adults and later adopted as essential high school reading.  The Haters is presented as a Young Adult novel.  How Subversive-Raunch tolerant can Young Adult literature be?  It’s a genre that’s more pleasure-based than angst-based, ultimately intended to be either edifying or blandly escapist, and although the gate-keepers are keen to seek out and celebrate novels that push boundaries of all kinds, this book may have crossed the raunch line while simultaneously crossing the angst line. Cerebral/gross is a hard sell.  As some prominent reviewers have noted, it’s not funny the way Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (which I loved) was funny.  And yet it’s far more cheerful than, say, A Visit From the Goon Squad.  In many ways that’s a good thing to be offering young readers.  If Wes doesn’t exactly find an unpoisonable well, he at least finds an unpoisonable way of being.  
I would argue that this book, which I suspect will be vociferously banned, is an example of why censors are so bad at judging quality.  The authentically true good thing cannot be determined by a list of right words and wrong words or by a list of things the characters do that you wish they wouldn’t do (or at least wouldn’t talk about in such detail).  The existential crisis at the heart of this book is as real and probing as anything in Salinger, and it co-exists with a bunch of things I’d rather weren’t necessary.  If you took them away, though, would Wes be a convincing Generation Z bass player?  And whose fault is that, exactly? 

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Published on April 12, 2016 13:09 • 38 views

December 31, 2015

Picture "Nothing is more noble and human than a school." --Fidel Castro (sign on the wall of a school in Havana, Cuba) So true, Fidel.  So true.  As I proofread college application essays and type our credit card number over and over again into sites that send and receive our son's test scores, I find myself wishing, too late, for a chance to do certain things over again. 

DEAR INNOCENT, MISGUIDED LAURA OF YORE,Never friend a person who is willing to state his or her child’s SAT score in a post. (Instead of being an English major, develop math side of self so you can devise rubric for guessing this in advance.) When asked at a party/store/parade/street corner where child is applying to college, do not list them all earnestly and discuss inner hopes.  Say, “Oh, ha, ha, I can’t even remember now because I lost consciousness when I couldn’t remember our password for the College Board site!!!”  (Counts as true because you will forget it.  Over and over again. And you will really, really want to lose consciousness.)  Skip directly to next topic: how insanely, heartbreakingly, pathetically easy it was to get into college when we were young, and how crappy those college were, and yet LOOK AT US! WE ARE AMAZING!When encountering high school seniors at party/parade/store/street corner, do not ask, “Where are you applying to college?” Instead, pay for them to get a massage and a thousand donuts.Develop mal ware to destroy the Common Ap and go self-righteously to prison.  From prison, fruitlessly explain that the Common Ap enables schools to pretend that the Common Ap “makes it easier to apply to multiple colleges” when in fact it makes it NECESSARY to apply to multiple colleges.  Bonus: this will provide child with essay topic regarding difficulties of doing well in school while mother is self-righteously in prison.Raise children in a state with horrible weather so they can hit the geographic-diversity niche in a warmer, not colder, locale.Read Kafka, Sartre, and Becket exclusively for one year to prepare self emotionally for paying hundreds of dollars to enter multiple, expensive, very public contests where the stated criteria for winning are unevenly, subjectively, and invisibly applied.Chain smoke and drink absinthe instead of making dinner and being the serial Team Mom so that child can write the University of California essay “Describe the world you come from” in a unique way even if the world you and your husband provided for him, at great personal effort, is fatally pleasant, and so you will care less if that essay (or some other eternally unknowable reason) fails to earn him a spot.Remember that any college your child attends will provide the requisite angst for a lifetime of second-guessing.  Re-read your favorite novels set in colleges (see below!) to remind yourself of the many nuances and social perils of that time in your life when you are fantastically young, hopeful, and insecure. Four Great Novels with Painfully Realistic College Scenes Picture 1. Intuition by Allegra Goodman, 2006
College featured: Philpott Institute, Harvard
Number of freshman applicants to Harvard in 2015: 35,023
Application fee: $75
Amount earned through application fees: $2,626,725
Percentage of Applicants Accepted: 6
Did my child apply there?  HAHAHAHAHAHA. I am aspirational; not insane.

Opening paragraph: "All day the snow had been falling.  Snow muffled every store and church; drifts erased streets and sidewalks.  The punks at the new Harvard Square T stop had tramped off, bright as winter cardinals with their purple tufted hair and orange Mohawks.  The sober Vietnam vet on Mass Ave had retreated to Au Bon Pain for coffee.  Harvard Yard was quiet with snow. The undergraduates camping there for Harvard's divestment from South Africa had packed up their cardboard boxes, tents, and sleeping bags and begun building snow people.  Cambridge schools were closed, but the Philpott Institute was open as usual.  In the Mendelssohn-Glass lab, four postdocs and a couple of lab techs were working." 2. The Group by Mary McCarthy, 1963
College featured: Vassar
Number of freshman applicants to Vassar in 2015: 7,597
Application fee: $70
Amount earned through application fees: $531,790
Percentage accepted: 24
Child applied there?  No. Poughkeepsie is too cold for him (see Note to Self #5).

Okay, so this breathless, engrossing ancestor of the Elena Ferrante novels  is not actually set in college.  The action begins three months after commencement, but because it concerns eight women from the same class at Vassar, it qualifies both as a full-body immersion in collegial intrigues and a cautionary tale about how snarky poets will be if you write a little too successfully (and sexily) after graduation.  The book was #1 on the bestseller list for five months in the U.S. but banned in Italy, Australia, and Ireland.  Louise Bogan sniffingly called it "women's secrets clinically told" and Robert Lowell said, “No one in the know likes the book” to fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop, a Vassar classmate of McCarthy’s.  So if you don't get into Vassar or any of the Ivies, maybe you can go to a nice midwestern college and make friends with people who will send you Christmas cards and knit hats for your babies and buy your book and pretend to like it even if they don't.

3. After This by Alice McDermott
Colleges featured:  Michael Keane goes to a university in upstate New York and his sister Annie Keane goes to study literature for a year in England.
Number of freshman applicants to Syracuse University in 2015: 28,269
Application fee: $75
Amount earned through application fees: $2,120,175
Percentage accepted: 49
Child applied there? No because, again, COLD.  (I tried to get him to apply to a school in Ireland but he rolled his eyes.

Do not pay attention to the negative reviews on Goodreads that suggest nothing happens in After This.  Everything that matters in life happens in this book.  The inner life of a whole family unfurls.  The chapter where Michael Keane goes to a college bar on Halloween is as real to me as any freezing cold autumn day I passed as an unfinished person in Syracuse.  The evening Annie spends at a professor's house in England is as full of rueful epiphanies as a Chekhov story.    4. Brideshead, Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, 1945
College featured: Oxford
Number of freshman applicants: See this discouraging comment on College Confidential
Child applied there?
No. My Anglophilia did not get passed down, fortunately, nor did the deep desire to leave the material world and live exclusively in an Evelyn Waugh novel.

The best way to persuade you to read this book is to start typing it into the blog word for word, but once I begin doing that, we'll fall under its spell and we'll be here all night, and then we'll miss the New Year's Eve turkey burgers I plan to make, which will feature homemade buns (we're an elegant family).  So trust me that this is the book you want to read when all the applications are finished, or when you get your first acceptance, or when you get rejected from your top choice and you feel the world is ruined, because this book will remind you that the most wistful, gorgeous, searing novels are written by those who feel like outsiders, so if you are one, at least for now, you're in the best possible company.
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Published on December 31, 2015 17:17 • 69 views

November 29, 2015

Children's books are full of passageways.  Armoires, rabbit holes, train stations.  They lead to a world more wonderful in the literal sense--talking lions, talking rabbits, invisibility, dragons, time travel, and flight.  In a certain kind of delectable fantasy, the only thing more wonderful than having magical powers and meeting friendly beasts is the discovery that the ordinary, unhappy, misfitting child is actually the savior of the world.

The other kind of children's book, the type where you can't fly or talk to animals, where you have to go to school and you hate the way you look (or are) and you can't fly and you can only talk to stuffed animals (and you'd better not do that in front of any of your friends), is full of passageways, too, but they're emotional. The child goes from innocence to experience.  From ignorance (sometimes blissful, always dangerous) to knowing the score.

I used to be the world's most earnest missionary for the second kind of book.  Realism was the cause I could take door to door.  Epiphany and empathy, I believed, could save anyone. Get down on your knees with me and read.

You have to be a true believer to say that over and over again, and I still believe, but doubt has crept in.  It's become clear to me, all of a sudden, in the most painful way, why reluctant readers are reluctant; more specifically, why a person in my house, born to me and deeply beloved, does not want to be saved by literature.  He doesn't want to go through that passageway.  Why would he voluntarily make that journey from innocence to experience? Why would he want to give up hours or even minutes of his day to suffer someone else's mistakes, inflict harm, acknowledge that harm, and try to atone for it?  Where's the joy in that?  I'll stay right here, he's basically saying, planting his feet at the entrance to that passageway.  I don't want to go through it.  

There's a certain kind of reader who doesn't care when you say, "But it's so beautifully written.  It's so cathartic. It's so true." And that kind of reader, my live-in non-reader, is the living incarnation of the report-card phrase a brilliant, sardonic teacher I used to know always pretended he was going to write in his progress reports to parents: "Nature or nurture, it's your fault."  Believe me when I say that I used to think it was a matter of the right books and persistence.  It's like teaching kids to eat well!  They'll develop a taste for true goodness if you keep offering it! Did we read aloud to him as often as we read to his older brother, who does, in fact, like to read?  On our laps? Every day and every night?  Did made-up stories unspool from our mouths on command for years and years?  Did we listen to audiobooks on road trips?  Have thousands of books in the house?  Read our own books in front of him?  Yes, yes, yes, yes.  I swear to you that if I had one wish--I don't need three--I would go back in time and hold both boys on my lap again and read one picture book after another the way we used to do, forever and ever.

Here's the problem, and I don't see how it can be fixed, really.  The first books we offer to children are full of joy. Fun.  Delight.  Wonder.  You go to a picture book or a children's story to feel good and powerful and safe.  But that is not why you go to literature, if you go to literature, when you grow up.  Literature (as distinct from genre fiction) is about making mistakes, inflicting harm, acknowledging that harm, and atoning for it, sometimes only by telling the story, not by actually being able to fix anything.  It's about not finding all the answers, not getting what we want, and articulating all the inchoate longing we feel.  There's always joy and wonder and grace in a great book, but it's mixed with sadness and limitation.   There's a certain kind of reader who says no to that, and he used to sit on my lap.  I understand his reluctance, finally.  I see his point.

And yet I'm standing on this street corner beside the Salvation Army man, and I'm handing you seven books for young people that were published this year. Individually and collectively, they offer wisdom, surprise, and exaltation, but they also ask the reader to suffer varying degrees of vicarious pain.  One (and only one) of the following books was read in its entirety by the Boy Who Wants Never to Grow Up, so I will put that one first in case you know and love someone who sees with unusual clarity what we all know to be true: childhood is another country, and once we leave it, the tunnel vanishes, the door closes, the back of the armoire becomes solid wood. The only way back is for another child, your own or someone else's, to take you by the hand and lead you there temporarily, or for an author to do the same thing.  May at least one of these titles bring you that joy. Picture

Confessions of an Imaginary Friend by Michelle Cuevas

Age category: written for children but has an Alice in Wonderland-Little Prince appeal for adults

Source of pain
: discovering you are imaginary

​Source of joy
: being imaginary


The War That Saved My Life
by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Age category: written for children but has an ageless quality, like really good pudding or layer cake on a rainy afternoon

Source of pain: Abusive mother, birth defect

Source of joy: a very satisfying pony and a bunch of believable, smart, not-abusive adults and kids


​The Way Home Looks Now
by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

Age category: written for children but I dare you to read it aloud and not be impressed and moved

Source of pain: death of a sibling

Source of joy: getting to know a previously severe and unknowable parent; helping someone you love to recover from grief


Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Age category: younger side of adolescence

Source of pain: being an adolescent; interacting with friends and family

Source of joy: realistic, rewarding connections with friends and family


Whippoorwill by Joseph Monninger

Age category: adolescence

Source of pain: an abusive parent once removed (this one lives next door, not in the narrator's house)

Source of joy: saving a dog and being saved by friendship, a loving parent, and a dog


A Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern

Age category: adolescence

Source of pain: assault of a developmentally disabled high school girl named Belinda

Source of joy: being Belinda (trust me on this) as she recovers from this with the help of a loving family and her own moxie

Calvin by Martine Leavitt

Age category: adolescence and beyond, especially if you loved Calvin and Hobbes

Source of pain: diagnosis of schizophrenia

Source of joy: surreal journey across a metaphysical and literal Lake Erie in hopes of recovering a childhood state of bliss

Extra note: This is a great love story that is also an existentialist play that is also a deeply moving homage to a comic strip hero. And it's very short.
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Published on November 29, 2015 11:35 • 35 views