Review & Giveaway – Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

You guys… this book is wonderful.

Cover image, Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Cover image, Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

I’m not exactly convinced that the movie will be equally amazing, or even slightly amazing, but anyone even contemplating seeing the movie should read the book first.  Actually, read it right now.  I’m not kidding.

The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

“Admissions. Admission. Aren’t there two sides to the word? And two opposing sides…It’s what we let in, but it’s also what we let out.”

For years, 38-year-old Portia Nathan has avoided the past, hiding behind her busy (and sometimes punishing) career as a Princeton University admissions officer and her dependable domestic life. Her reluctance to confront the truth is suddenly overwhelmed by the resurfacing of a life-altering decision, and Portia is faced with an extraordinary test. Just as thousands of the nation’s brightest students await her decision regarding their academic admission, so too must Portia decide whether to make her own ultimate admission.

Admission is at once a fascinating look at the complex college admissions process and an emotional examination of what happens when the secrets of the past return and shake a woman’s life to its core.

When I was younger and full of the snobbery of college-age promise, I always read with pen in hand, ready to make notations, certain that this or that work of literature would suddenly explain the world to me in stark relief and beautiful language.  Sometimes it did; mostly, that pen was just a sign of my readiness to be transformed.  In the intervening decade, as my life became more full and my reading choices less profound (some would say; others, myself included, could argue this assumption, but that’s another blog post for another day), I stopped my habit of clutching a pen.

By the time I reached page 52 of Admission, I was digging in my purse for my favorite pen (and thanking the PR folk at Grand Central Publishing for sending me a paper copy of the book, enabling me to feel the extreme satisfaction of underlining this sentence: “There is a sound to waiting. It sounds like held breath pounding its fists against the walls of the lung, damp and muffled beats.”)  All told, I employed my pen eleven times to mark passages that seemed to me beautiful or particularly interesting or important.  I might have taken the time to underline more had I not read the last 2/3 of the book in one sitting, desperate to watch the journey unfold.

That careful unfolding is perhaps the best thing about the book.  The prose is beautiful, the story interesting, the backdrop profound, but it was the clarity of the author’s light shining into the murk her character had encouraged her life to become that floored me.  Portia is simultaneously far too aware of herself and utterly blind to the reality of her life.  Her struggle with the weight of the past, the penance of the present, and the impossibility of the future is at once shocking and intimately familiar.

I don’t often read other reviews before publishing my own review on a book, but this time I did.  The critical praise included in the book’s front matter seemed a bit strange to me, with most of the reviews focusing on the glimpses of college admissions culture that one can glean from this book.  That struck me as odd, because it did not seem to me that the book was about college admissions at all.  In fact, it is about Portia and her slow, difficult, and at times traumatic, recovery of her life.  Her sojourn in Dartmouth’s and Princeton’s Admission offices is the blindfold Portia uses to hide from reality.

“Her only tether was to the armchair and the orange folders, traveling slowly from stack to stack across her wooden lap desk, like that T.S. Eliot poem about the life measured out in coffee spoons, except that she was measuring hers with other people’s lives, which they had measured into these life-folders. Short lives, slivers of lives, fictions of lives.” (140)

and

“Her life was a port in the storm, a craft in unpredictable waters. Her life, it occurred to her, was a careful refuge from life.” (166)

One can, undeniably, learn quite a lot about college admissions while reading the book, but all those sections are a carefully crafted distraction from what’s really going on with Portia.  Along its winding road, this novel delves into the potential of young womanhood, along with all of its attendant responsibilities to justify and validate the struggles of all the women who came before; the weight of self-reproach and shame that falls on those who buckle under the pressure; the awareness of failure that marks middle age.  It also hints at the joy accessible to those who live, not through coffee spoons or any other measure of  habit, but through themselves.

Giveaway

I am absolutely thrilled to be able to offer a giveaway of Admission, hosted by Grand Central Publishing.  One lucky commenter, selected at random by random.org, will win a copy of the movie-tie-in trade paperback (U.S. only… sorry!).  Please answer this question in a comment below in order to enter this giveaway (or feel free to make up your own topic, if you prefer, but please say something substantive…it’s just more interesting!):  

  • Assuming you wrote them, do you remember what you said in your college application essays?  Care to share the topic(s)?

The giveaway will run from Wednesday, March 20 until Tuesday, March 30 at 11:59 p.m. pacific time.  The winner must be willing to provide a mailing address in order to claim the prize.

*FTC Disclosure – I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Grand Central Publishing, in exchange for an honest review.*

Jane Austen January

Portrait of Jane Austen in watercolor and pencil by Cassandra Austen (1773-1845), digitally restored and remastered by Amano1 Source: http://www.janeausten.co.uk/regencyworld/pdf/portrait.pdf via Wikimedia Commons

On Christmas Day in 1997, I received a collected volume of Jane Austen’s novels from my mother.  It is one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.  I had read Pride and PrejudiceSense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park several times, but this volume introduced me to the other books.  In January of 1998, I read all of the books, and in every January of the following years, I made it a tradition to read at least a few Jane Austen novels.  This coming January represents the fifteenth annual Jane Austen January, and I’m hoping to make it into a somewhat informal blog event.

This year, I plan to read Pride and PrejudicePersuasion, and Northanger Abbey, but I might add in Sense and Sensibility as well, depending on how much free time I have.  My goal is to write at least one blog post about each of the books and, I hope, to engage in discussions with other readers.  I’m totally open to discussing other Jane Austen works, but I probably won’t read more than these four books, so my comments will be limited to my last reading.  (It’s been a while since I read Mansfield Park and Emma…)

Every time I read these books, I discover something new about them, though whether that is due to my changing over the years, to the books’ being that nuanced, or just to my possessing a truly terrible memory, I’ll never know.

Is anyone game to join me in this fifteenth annual Jane Austen January?  Please let me know in the comments below.  (Lurking is also totally welcome.)  Discussions can take place on Twitter, if that’s convenient, and in the comments feature on this blog.  Check the side bar for my Twitter info.  Please also feel free to do your own thang with posts on your blog, if you have one.  I do this event every year, alone; this is my first attempt to bring other folk into the mix, so we’ll see how it goes.  🙂

A music post: Tori Amos rocks my world

Last December, I saw Tori Amos in concert in Los Angeles, and it was amazing.  It was stunning, actually.  I sat in my seat with wide, unblinking eyes and did my best to take everything in, to experience everything as fully as possible.  I was there with four of my friends, but once Tori came out on stage in her crazy dress and shiny leggings, my focus was set, and my experience was individual rather than collective.  I suspect the other three did the same.  When it was over, we gushed together.

I learned a few things that night.  I did not realize that I was so familiar with most of Tori’s songs that I would notice slight variations (an unexpected stress on a particular word in a song; a chord that used to be played differently; a slight lyric change).  I did not realize how much of my self was tied up with her music.

I’m one of those Tori fans for life.  It really doesn’t matter what she does (or doesn’t do); I will find a way to love everything she creates.  My experience of her music, my connection to it, has changed over the years.  I used to connect very emotionally to her music (possibly because I was a teenager at the time, possibly because the music itself was more emotional in nature), but my connection with her recent albums (except for Night of Hunters) has been more intellectual.  I want to figure out what the story is behind her songs; I want to hear and understand the architecture of the music and figure out how it contributes to the story; but I don’t often deliberately seek out the little personal corners of myself that connect to this or that piece of music or lyric.  My habit of intellectualizing Tori’s music ended on that evening in December when I sat in the Orpheum Theatre and listened to Tori play.

It was “Precious Things” that did me in.  Sitting there, I was reunited with all of my past selves who had listened to that song and found some comfort in it.

I am, of course, unable to listen to that song objectively.  All those past selves crowd in with their various connections to all the pretty girls, to all the pandering to boys whose faces I no longer remember, to all the times I cut myself down in an attempt to be what someone else may (or may not) have wanted.  I do not know whether that song is powerful in and of itself or if its power largely derives from my experience of it over the years.  Maybe it is infinitely more powerful to me because so many women of my acquaintance also connected with it.  Maybe that’s what music is.

Tori’s new album Gold Dust reminds me of that December concert.  I’ve grown up with Tori’s music as the soundtrack of my life, its ups and its downs.  Tori has grown up, too.  When she sings her songs now, “Precious Things” and “Hey Jupiter,” for instance, she can sing them as the girl she was 20 years ago when she wrote them, as a mature woman, as a mother.  Nothing about Tori’s music is static – every time she changes, it does, too – and I think that’s my favorite thing about her as an artist, that her art gives me the room I need to grow and change and still love what I loved before.

Check out my guest post on Beauty in Budget Blog!

That’s me… If I see a camera pointed my way, I naturally make that face. It really bugs my Grandpa.  As an aside, I think that’s Joan Didion’s The White Album in my hand.

I’m not very good at taking care of my appearance… it all started with school uniforms, and by the time I got to public school, I didn’t recognize the difference between fashion and crazy.  Who was wearing lace-edged leggings three years past the fad?  I was!  Who was wearing pedal pushers five years before they got cool?  I was! (To be honest, they weren’t actually pedal pushers… they were regular jeans that were just way too short on me because I hit my growth spurt in 6th and 7th grades and grew 11 inches over the two school years… my inseams just couldn’t keep up.)  I sort of gave up on being hip or even marginally attractive.

That’s me in the middle, trying to pretend to be 5’4″ (I was actually 6’0″). I was 13, and I had really bad allergies.

Thank God for my friend Teresa, who has never accepted that slovenly homeliness is the best I can do.  And she’s right.  It really does feel good to take a tiny bit of care when selecting my clothing in the morning, and if I still can’t be bothered to brush or style my hair (employing, instead, the ubiquitous floppy pony tail… it ain’t pretty, but whatever), at least I’m moving in the right direction with my sartorial care.  Thank God also that Teresa started her blog about makeup, because I use it as an excellent and entertaining ‘how to be a girl’ reference manual.

And now I can add another plume to my sparsely feathered cap: Teresa has allowed me to write a guest review of e.l.f.’s Lip Balm SPF 15.  Please click on over to Beauty in Budget Blog (right here) to see the review and check out all the amazing advice on drugstore makeup: what’s available, what it costs, and whether it’s worth it.  I love this blog.

Armchair BEA 2012 – Day 4 (catching up) – Beyond the Blog

Yesterday was a bit nuts, but I am determined to catch up today.

Yesterday was day 4 of Book Expo America, in which I am participating virtually via Armchair BEA.  Today’s (yesterday’s) writing topic asks us to look beyond the blog for opportunities or tips to expand one’s writing to other communities online or in print or to expand one’s blog to be a source of income.  “Have you done any freelance writing?  Are you monetizing your blog and how so?  How do you make connections outside the book blog community on the Internet?  If none of these apply, we’d love for you to share a fun aspect about your blog or life that may be completely separate from books!”

I write and edit all day long as part of my job, but I don’t imagine anyone would be all that thrilled to hear about the number of business letters I have occasion to write.  The editing I do is even less sexy than writing business letters.  Don’t get me wrong–I enjoy taking a whole bunch of crazy and transforming it into standard written English, but that’s me.  I’d be happy eating oatmeal every day.  I’m just one of those people.  Given that the non-blog writing that I do is generally uninteresting, that I am not monetizing my blog, and that I have few connections either within or without the book blog community on the Internet, I figured I’d tell a cautionary tale about writing, editing, and managing difficult interpersonal relationships and about how I’ve failed at all three over the years (but in a fun way).

When I was in high school, I was the editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper and the sole contributor to the opinion page.  I wrote some crazy nonsense, and I still can’t believe that the school was willing to publish it every month and distribute it to all the students.  My favorite regular column was the advice column, “Dear Wildcat.”  In the first month, I couldn’t get anyone to submit questions, so, lacking patience, I decided to scrap the idea to answer real questions from students and just made up my own questions to answer.  I was 17 and writing both sides of the conversation… you can probably guess how that went.  All told, it was a great experience, but I learned that I’m best at humor writing, so a career in serious journalism was never in the cards for me.

During my stint as editor-in-chief, I also learned that I am a terrible manager.  I’m pretty much like Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I micromanage and am convinced that I can play all the roles, simultaneously, better than anyone else.  It’s a problem.  When I discovered that the other students had no talent for writing and didn’t understand even basic English grammar, my natural response was to write all of the articles myself and just give writing credit to the other students, because that was easier than trying to manage the process of editing and collecting final drafts (that were often still not quite written in standard American English…).  The students who wrote for the paper were terrible writers, for sure, but I was so much worse as a manager than they ever were as writers, sentences like, “The Akil has improve is by working harder” notwithstanding.

Even when I’m not in any way responsible for the material that gets published, it still drives me absolutely batty to come across published material that could have been written by a monkey.  About a decade ago, a guy who knows my dad purchased a community newspaper and tried his hand at publishing.  He had grand plans to transform the newspaper into a community information hub for the San Gabriel Valley area of LA County, but his newspaper was so terrible!  After the first edition, I wrote a letter to the editor requesting that he hire a copy editor.  He ignored me and proceeded to publish another edition that was full of grammatical crazy.  I wrote another letter to the editor that referenced the number of grammar and spelling (!) errors and begged him to hire a copy editor.  He ignored me and published another edition.  I, full of 22-year-old righteous indignation, took a red pen to his newspaper and mailed it back to him.  He ignored me.  I kept it up for another three months until he called my dad (!!) and asked him to tell me to stop sending him proofread copies of his newspaper.  At that point, after six months, I finally realized that he didn’t care about the quality of what he was publishing, and I was fighting an unwinnable battle.

I’m ten years older now and a lot more mellow.  Even so, it drives me wonky when I read a book, even a free one, and encounter truly stupid errors, but I no longer ride out on my steed of grammatical justice to defend the honor of the English language every time I read a book that was published without the benefit of a competent editor (every other time, maybe).  So, yeah, I’ve mellowed, but I still have a tendency to be very critical of what I read.  I suspect that the hyper-criticism that comes naturally to me could be off-putting to many (particularly authors and publishers).  But I’m not really writing a review blog here, so maybe it’s moot.

I love early 90s hip hop – and I think I might be a feminist…

I’m helping some friends put together a playlist for their wedding, and that means I get to listen to some of my favorite guilty-pleasure music: early 90s rap and hip hop!  On my way into work this morning, I was rocking out to House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” and I realized that my favorite early 90s hip hop songs always feature the ridiculous–the threat of violence combined with the exhortation to dance, for example–and I wonder what that says about me.

Officially, I love every single thing about this song–I love anything that makes me laugh–but my favorite verse refers to Vanilla cruising through the town perusing all the lovely ladies and grabbing–but not using–his 9 while he runs away from chumps who may or may not be full of 8-ball.  Running away in bumper-to-bumper traffic is hard core?  Seriously?  I love it.

Honestly, white people, just stop it.  Bagpipes are not hard core.  Anyway, I love the notion that House of Pain’s lyrics are so brutal and effective at administering whoop-ass that an actual shotgun is necessary to use as defense against them, but everything will be OK if you just get out of your seat and jump around.

Regarding this one, can I just say that it’s ridiculous that curse words and pot references were edited out of the radio/MTV edits of this song, but the lovely lyrics: “Uh oh, I crave skin, rip shit, find a honey to dip it in, slam dunk it stick it flip it and ride that B double O T Y oh my” are A-OK?  What does that say about our society?  But I still love the song… I’ve got a shovel, and I can dig it, fool.

This one is not my favorite early-90s hip hop songs.  If I’m going to listen to a song that blatantly objectifies women, it’s going to be “Baby Got Back.”  Anyway, I included this one because it’s just so blatantly awful.  To be honest, the sad thing about all of these videos is that these dudes probably did get a lot of booty.  In a just world, a honey who saw Vanilla Ice coming towards her with all of his hubris and dorky sweatshirts would have laughed at him and walked the other way.  But that’s not the way the world works.  Wreckx-N-Effect oh-so-elegantly stated the dominant mores of our society: “Now since you got the body of the year, come and get the award.  Here’s a hint – it’s like a long sharp sword.”  Hooray for you sweetheart–in exchange for being so beautiful and shaking your rump so mightily, you have the privilege of having your body used.  How wonderful.

I was in junior high when these songs came out, and I admit that, at the time, I loved them because they sounded cool, not because they were funny in an ironic way.  And it’s only as I grow older (and because I have daughters instead of sons) that I see what’s so awful about the lyrics of some of the songs and what they represent.

Anybody else love early-90s hip hop?