Back to School – Fourteen Excellent School Novels




Countless academic satires as well as tons of other novels which take place in school or on campus have been written. The following are all ones I have read and have found enjoyable and/or moving.

‘Election’ by Tom Perrota (1998) – Here is a novel about high school politics wherein a history teacher decides to get involved in a school election much to his detriment. Given the circumstances and the manipulative overly ambitious girl Tracy Flick, who can blame him?

‘This Side of Paradise’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920) – This is Fitzgerald’s first novel written when he was only twenty-three years old, and I like it better than ‘The Great Gatsby’. It is a thinly disguised version of Fitzgerald’s college days at Princeton turned into fiction.
“They slipped briskly into an intimacy from which they never recovered.”
“I’m a slave to my emotions, to my likes, to my hatred of boredom, to most of my desires.”

‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark (1961) – What would a list of school novels be without Miss Jean Brodie at her prime?
“Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.”
“It is impossible to persuade a man who does not disagree, but smiles.”

‘The Sweet Hereafter’ by Russell Banks (1991) – This is probably the saddest novel on the list, because it begins with a school bus crash that kills fourteen of a small town’s children and cripples several others. Not only does it tell what happens in the town’s schools afterwards, but also it explores the entire town’s reactions through the points of view of four different townspeople.

‘The Groves of Academe’ by Mary McCarthy (1951) – There have been many satires of academic campus life, and this novel is one of the sharpest.
‘To be disesteemed by people you don’t have much respect for is not the worst fate.’ – Mary McCarthy, New Yorker

IllTakeYouThere‘I’ll Take You There’ by Joyce Carol Oates (2002) – I consider this one of the prolific lady’s best. It takes place in the 1960s with a girl being asked to join a popular sorority, then getting kicked out and falling for a troubled but brilliant grad student in one of her classes.
“The individual who’d been myself the previous year… had become a stranger.”



‘Pnin’ by Vladimir Nabokov (1957) – ‘Pnin’ is an academic comedy about Professor Pnin who is supposedly based on Nabokov’s time teaching at Cornell University in New York. The novel has been described as ‘heartbreakingly funny’.

‘Caleb’s Crossing’ by Geraldine Brooks (2011) – The school scenes here are particularly memorable. The Pilgrim boy is an indifferent student more interested in other things. The Indian boy is the far superior inquisitive student and will go on to Harvard. All is seen through the eyes of the sister of the Pilgrim boy.

‘Lucky Jim’ by Kingsley Amis (1954) – Some novelists hit the jackpot on their first novel and will never again attain that success. That’s Kingsley Amis. This would go on my list as one of the funniest novels ever.
“If you can’t annoy somebody, there is little point in writing.‘

‘The History Man’ by Malcolm Bradbury (1975) – a dark and scathing satire about the absurdities and contradictions of campus politics and life. This is the novel that killed sociology as an academic discipline.

“Marriage is the most advanced form of warfare in the modern world.”

‘The Getting of Wisdom’ by Henry Handel Richardson (1910) – It is one of the few classic coming-of-age stories depicting a girl becoming a woman as she attends a girls’ school.
“The most sensitive, the most delicate of instruments is the mind of a little child.”

‘Wonder Boys’ by Michael Chabon (1995) – The hilarious blocked novelist Grady Tripp is also a professor, but the main reason I’m including it here is because the New York Times review by Michiko Kaukitani contains a sentence that is perfectly suited for all of us book bloggers: “It is a beguiling novel, a novel that for all its faults is never less than a pleasure to read.” This is the perfect line in order to hedge one’s bet about a novel. It is also accurate. ‘Wonder Boys’ is a modern classic.

‘Staggerford’ by Jon Hassler (1977) – This book humorously pins down school life in a small Minnesota town through the eyes of a teacher. Jon Hassler is a Minnesota writer who died in 2008. He is too good to be forgotten. Hassler has been described as a Minnesota Flannery O’Connor. The several novels of his that I have read, including Staggerford, have all been excellent.

lucky‘A Good School’ by Richard Yates (1978) – The story of a boy in the shabby second-rate Connecticut boys’ boarding school Dorset Academy in the 1940s much like the one Richard Yates attended himself. This is a strong novel by one of the best, if not the best, late twentieth century writers.


I have left out so many school novels starting with ‘Small World: An Academic Romance’ by David Lodge, ‘A Separate Peace’ by John Knowles, and ‘Galatea 2.2′ by Richard Powers.

What are your favorite school or college novels?  I would like to hear about them.

‘Wise Children’ by Angela Carter – A Show Biz Story

‘Wise Children’ by Angela Carter (1991) – 234 pages




Here is a novel about the dance act the Lucky Chances who are identical twin sisters Dora and Nora Chance.  The sisters are part of the Royal Family of the British Theatre although unacknowledged by their father.

 “We are his natural daughters, as they say, as if only unmarried couples do it the way nature intended.  His never-by-him recognized daughters, with whom, by a bizarre coincidence, he shares a birthday.”

 Yes, it is William Shakespeare’s birthday and their actor father’s birthday and Dora and Nora’s birthday all on the same day, April 26.  This is highly apropos since Shakespeare is surely the guiding light of ‘Wise Children’.  Many of the scenes take place on stage with either members of the family acting or Dora and Nora dancing.

This is a jolly old London novel filled with risqué humor with a bawdy detour to Hollywood.  It covers over 100 years of the theatre stopping in at the sisters’ act in the London dance halls of the 1920s and then at a memorable Hollywood movie production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (‘The Dream’) in the 1930s.

Much of the action centers on Dora and Nora’s famed actor father Melchior Hazard, him with “that selfsame knicker-shifting smile”.  The final scene in the book takes place at his hundredth birthday party as Dora reminisces about their lives in show business.

‘Wise Children’ was Angela Carter’s last novel.  She died at the age of fifty one a year after it was published in 1991.  I read one of her books a few years later and wasn’t much taken with it.  However after seeing all the acclaim that Angela Carter has received since then, I decided it was time to read ‘Wise Children’.

‘Wise Children’ is a witty lively read that keeps moving and is quite funny in pinning down this show business family.   It gives you a good feel for what these old London dance halls must have been like, and we are entertained by Dora and Nora’s cheerfully ribald antics.  We watch as the dance halls go from music revues in the 1920s to sleazy topless shows in the late 1940s.

The Hollywood scenes capture the early days of motion picture sound and the whole idea of highly respected London Shakespearean actors going to Hollywood to get some quick cash and then becoming enamored by the latest Hollywood starlet.  And thus the outraged ex-wife back in London.  How many times has that situation happened?


’10:04’ by Ben Lerner – A Novel About Writing a Novel

’10:04’ by Ben Lerner    (2014) – 241 pages


The technical term for ’10:04’ by Ben Lerner is that it is a lame metafiction. According to, Meta-fiction is “fiction that discusses, describes, or analyzes a work of fiction or the conventions of fiction.”  Or, more simply, metafiction is a fiction that deals with writing fiction.

The word MetaFiction sounds like one of those pretentious modern terms, but the first great metafiction novel goes all the way back to ‘Don Quixote’ by Cervantes in the early seventeenth century.  In ‘Don Quixote’, Don Quixote’s friend advises him how to make his story look like other tales of chivalry, and thus the first great metafiction was born.  I love the games that Cervantes plays with his knight Don Quixote and his trusted squire Sancho Panza.

A more recent example of a metafiction that I admire is ‘Dublinesque’ by Enrique Vila-Matas in which he and some of his author friends go to Dublin to celebrate Bloomsday.  ‘Dublinesque’ is one of the most charming novels ever written.  Another great work of metafiction is ‘Pale Fire’ by Vladimir Nabokov which dazzles us with its hunor and depth.

However I do not find all metafiction so entertaining.  For example, this year I found ‘My Struggle – Book I’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard to be mundane and essentially humorless, a long slog.

But I’m here today to review ’10:04’.  The novel is about Ben Lerner writing a novel which happens to be ’10:04’.

 “I was there at the age of thirty three because a doctor had discovered incidentally an entirely asymptomatic and potentially aneurismal dilation of my aortic root that required close monitoring and probable surgical intervention and the most common explanation of such a condition at such an age is Marfan, a genetic disorder of the connective tissue that typically produces the long-limbed and flexible.” 

 Please take the above sentence, because I don’t want it.  Lerner may be making some sly comment on medical lingo.  He also may be using these words to obtain precision.   However I found this sentence and the many other sentences like this in the novel off-putting.

There’s a lot of medical jargon in the book. I was not delighted by the several pages devoted to the author’s wisdom tooth extraction.  Nor did all the other pages devoted to the author’s various medical procedures do anything for me. Then there is the sperm donation scene.  That shtick is a stale old comedy routine.

The danger for Ben Lerner is that he may come across as an insufferable hypochondriac and not very funny.  When he talks about his book, he talks about the huge advance the publishers will be paying him.  Contrast that with the sparkling insights expressed by the various writers in ‘Dublinesque’.   Instead of “a nice crossing of reality and fiction” which is probably what the author intended, many of the scenes are distinctly unpleasant.

The novel begins and ends with a bad storm in New York City.  The New York presented here is pretty much the standard issue New York with no original thoughts or insights regarding the city.  The way Lerner talks about the storms sounds like an extension of his hypochondria.

’10:04’ is somewhat of a diffuse hodgepodge with a story thrown in here and a poem thrown in there.  The only character that comes across distinctly is the Author himself, and I found the Author somewhat repellent.



Vera Caspary and ‘Laura’

‘Laura’ by Vera Caspary   (1943) – 194 pages


Vera Caspary was a strong independent woman who had a highly successful career as a novelist and screen writer.  She wrote eighteen novels and ten screenplays.    In her autobiography ‘The Secrets of Grown-Ups’, she wrote:

“This has been the century of the woman, and I know myself to have been a part of the revolution.  In another generation, perhaps the next, equality will be taken for granted.  Those who come after us may find it easier to assert independence, but will miss the grand adventure of having been born in this century of change.”

 It was fairly easy for her to get into the screenwriting business in the 1930s, because the studios paid next to nothing for writers in those days.  She had her fights with Hollywood directors and producers, but she hung in there.  In the 1950s she was gray listed by Hollywood for her political views, but she continued on with her productive writing career.  In her seventies, Caspary taught writing workshops to prisoners in the New York Women’s House of Detention.

In her autobiography, she sums up her life as follows:

 “Everything good in my life has come through work: variety and fun, beautiful homes, travel, good friends, interesting acquaintances, the fun of flirtations and affairs, and best of all the profound love that made me a full woman.” 

 The novel ‘Laura’ is her most famous work by far, but I suspect there are other novels among her writings that would be well worthy of attention.

Perhaps the best way to describe the novel ‘Laura’ would be to call it a psychological mystery thriller.  Whereas the classic movie ‘Laura’ is usually classified as a film-noir, the novel is more astute and better reflects Caspary’s views on the relations between men and women.  Although Caspary had her battles with director Otto Preminger in the portrayal of Laura, she praised the film warmly in her autobiography for its nuanced direction.

In ‘Laura’, Caspary uses a technique of multiple narrators first used by Wilkie Collins in ‘The Woman in White’  The three main narrators are the aesthete columnist Waldo Lydecker, the policeman Mark McPherson, and the advertising executive Laura Hunt herself.   The other main character is Shelby Carpenter, Laura’s fiancé.

Laura Hunt is highly successful in the advertising business, and she makes her choices on her own despite the spurious manipulations of the men around her.  As Vera Caspary also started out in advertisement writing during her early days, it is a good bet she based Laura Hunt on herself.

laura-otto-preminger (12)I found ‘Laura’ to be a good read with a lot of twists and turns that make the story fun.  It also contains many subtle and clear-eyed insights into the relations between men and women.  Caspary’s depiction of the policeman Mark McPherson is particularly interesting as he is shown not to be the hard-boiled detective type at all, but rather someone who spent 14 months reading books and thinking about the world while recovering from a bullet wound. With his literary enthusiasms and sensitivity and straightforward manner, Mark McPherson proves himself to be someone worthy of Laura Hunt’s interest and attention.

“I’m not nearly as interested in writing about crime as I am in the actions of normal people under high tension.”  – Vera Caspary

 The more I study the life, writing, and views of Vera Caspary, the more I am intrigued by this extraordinary woman.


‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr – Child-Like Wonder

‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr  (2014) – 530 pages


‘All the Light’ has become quite a phenomenon which probably has not been commented on enough.  Who would have expected to see Anthony Doerr on the best seller lists?, but there he is.  Currently the Minneapolis Public Library has a list of 648 people waiting to check out this novel.  It is not often that you have a highly literary writer score such a success.

Now that I’ve read ‘All the Light’ I am ready to analyze this book’s success.  First I want to give you a fine example of the style of the writing.

“What mazes there are in this world, The branches of trees, the filigree of roots, the matrix of crystals, the streets her father re-created in his models . . . None more complicated than the human brain.”

 This exhilarating observation is from the blind French girl Marie-Laure who is one of the two main characters in the novel.  We meet up with Marie-Laure in the year 1934 at the age of six when she suddenly goes blind.  Her father, the master locksmith at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, builds intricate models of the streets near their home that Marie-Laure can use to find her way around the neighborhood.

The other main character is a German boy, Werner Pfennig, who is about the same age as Marie-Laure.  He develops an interest in radios at an early age due to a scientific broadcast from France hosted by Marie-Laure’s grandfather. His acuity with electronics earns him a scholarship to an elite Nazi school.

Anthony Doerr explains large parts of the surrounding world through these two young intelligent characters.  There is a child-like wonder to the writing which describes the natural miracles around us in short breathtakingly beautiful sentences.  The writing here is exquisite. We even see the severe brutality of the Nazis through the eyes of the child Werner.



In 1940, the Germans invade France (thanks to an assist from the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson?), so Marie-Laure and her father flee to the walled seaside city of Saint-Malo.  It is here that Marie-Laure finally meets Werner in 1944 as the Allies land in France and are ready to re-take Saint-Malo.

To what do we attribute the success of ‘All the Light’?  As I’ve said before, the writing about nature is most stunning.  The whole approach of the style and the plot has a child-like clearness.  The plain story has the feel of a folk tale passed down from generation to generation.  Plausibility is not a major consideration.  Credibility is sacrificed for enchantment.

But man or woman cannot live on enchantment alone.  While reading ‘All the Light’, I longed for some world-weary cynicism like you would get from Graham Greene.  Yes, the world is wondrous and a miracle, but there is also a lot of bad stuff in this world starting with the Nazi point of view.  I longed for some dirty realism while reading ‘All the Light’.  I wanted a more complex adult view of things.

Still it is nice to see that a literary novel and Anthony Doerr are making the best seller lists.

‘Last Night at the Blue Angel’ by Rebecca Rotert

Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert (2014) – 325 pages


‘Last Night at the Blue Angel’ is a show business novel, albeit small-time show business. Naomi Hill is a singer in a Chicago jazz nightclub, the Blue Angel, trying to make it to the big time. She is also the single mother of ten year old Sophie. Sophie is devoted to her mother,

Mother is a singer. I live in her dark margin.”

Sophie goes to her mother’s shows but must stay at a spot marked ‘X’ backstage which is designated for her. She does her school homework while her mother performs.

The year is 1965. Naomi and Sophie live in an old hotel near the Blue Angel. The novel alternates between Sophie describing her current life with her mother and Naomi telling how she arrived at this Chicago nightclub in the first place. Whereas the daughter Sophie is steady and sensible, her mother Naomi is flighty and self-involved. Sophie worships her mother but can see only too clearly that Naomi has other things on her mind such as her music and friends. It is no secret that family friend Jim is deeply in love with mother Naomi, and he is always there to make sure that Sophie is provided for. Jim is like a surrogate father taking care of the everyday school details that her mother tends to forget. Naomi is so caught up in her music career, she takes Jim for granted and sometimes does not give Sophie her full attention.

Rebecca Rotert is a former singer herself, and the scenes that take place in the Blue Angel capture the nightclub life well, but what gives this novel its edge is the voice of the daughter Sophie. I don’t always care for child narrators, but in this case it works. The best way to let us see this girl’s situation is through her own eyes. Sophie is not popular in her school and has no friends until Elizabeth arrives, but other people’s racial attitudes get in the way of their friendship. Also the fact that Sophie’s mother is a nightclub singer does not sit well with Elizabeth’s family.

We get the story of Naomi’s small town family in Kansas and her escape to Chicago and a singing career, but this background is nowhere near as vivid as the Chicago story. Two of Naomi’s friends from Kansas, cross-dresser Rita and the Catholic nun Sister Idalia, follow Naomi to Chicago. The pieces fit together a little too neatly as Sister Idalia is now Sophie’s teacher in parochial school, but this does not detract from the story.

The mother/daughter relationship at the center of the novel resonates with emotion as Sophie starts to question some of her mother’s behavior which she formerly accepted unconditionally. She is growing up but is still vulnerable. You will be moved by ‘Last Night at the Blue Angel’.


‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan

‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan   (2014) – 334 pages


The father of author Richard Flanagan was a prisoner of war to the Japanese and a survivor of the building of the Siam-to-Burma Railway during World War II.  Flanagan’s new novel ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is about the harrowing construction of that railroad among other things.

In 1942, the Japanese had just conquered the country of Burma from the British.  They saw Burma as a good launching point for an attack on India, but it was difficult to get supplies to Burma.  Allied forces were bombing the sea routes.  Thus Japan decided to build a railway from Bangkok in Siam (now Thailand) to Rangoon (now Yangon) in Burma (now Myanmar).  All of the Japanese men were fighting the war, so they used men from Southeast Asia and Allied prisoners of war as slave labor to build the railway.

The working conditions for building the bridge were atrocious and at least 100,000 men died during the fifteen months it took to build the railway.  The project was ill-supplied. Not enough food was available, so the men had to work while near starvation.  Huge epidemics of cholera, dysentery, and malaria swept through the workers.  Beyond that, dozens of men were beaten to death by their Japanese and Korean overseers.

There was another novel and movie about this railroad, ‘The Bridge Over the River Kwai’, which was hopelessly unrealistic and naïve in its treatment of the situation.  ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ captures its full horror and desolation.

‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is mainly about the Australian prisoners of war who had to work as slave laborers building the railroad as well as their Japanese and Korean overseers.  Dorrigo Evans is a doctor and officer, so he must deal with the illness and injury of the Australians.  Some of the scenes in the novel are horrific.

Flanagan begins each section of the novel with a short piece of Japanese poetry.  The lines from the last section serve as a good description for the entire novel.

In this world

we walk on the roof of hell

gazing at flowers.


 Not the entire novel is about building the railroad which is  ‘the roof of hell’ part of the novel.  There are also large sections taking place in Australia with Dorrigo Evans before and after the war.  These are the ‘gazing at flowers’ parts of the novel.  Early in the novel Dorrigo Evans has an intense love affair with his uncle’s wife Amy.   Somehow there does not seem to be much point to these love scenes beyond showing that the world is not all misery and heartbreak.  But these sensuous scenes also serve to make Dorrigo’s heroism seem more ambiguous later.

However ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is a complex novel, and a lot of its power derives from that it does not present its scenes as cut and dried.   The parts of this novel may not fit together neatly, but that may be a good thing as we struggle to a deeper meaning of events.   Richard Flanagan goes to great lengths to understand the mindset of these Japanese captors who treated their prisoners and workers so cruelly.  In today’s world we have seen even the United States routinely using torture when dealing with its political prisoners.

‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is a fine example of a novel that is open-ended, that preserves the mysteries of life and has no easy answers for them.



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