Sunday, July 25, 2010

Review: Admission by Jean Hanff Korlelitz

I was sitting in a very boring faculty meeting at the University of Tampa when my college advisor slid a file folder across the table.

I thought it might be a notes for an upcoming story (I was editor of the college newspaper, which is why I was at said very boring meeting) or something for my professor's Shakespeare class, but it was my college application. I don't remember why he had it, but I do remember being horrified by my essay. I think Tampa got the one about how I looked up to my older brother, which is a fine thing to write about, but that essay I'd labored over as a high school senior looked amateurish to a college junior.

"How did I even get accepted?" I whispered to my advisor.

"They were letting everyone in that year," he said, and laughed.

He wasn't exactly lying. Tampa did go on a big "recruitment" kick, which I took to mean letting in almost everyone with a pulse. I didn't want to go to Tampa. I wanted to go to Boston University, but my parents were divorcing the year I graduated high school and I was told they didn't have the money, so I was going to Tampa, which threw buckets of money in my direction (I'd guess more for my grades and SAT scores than my essay). Of course, 17 year old me was livid. How dare they squash my dreams of becoming a marine biologist and moving to Australia to work on the Great Barrier Reef?

It's okay to want to smack 17 year old me. I think I'd want to hit her too.

I'd forgotten about the faculty meeting incident until I started reading Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz, which is a novel about Portia Nathan, an admission officer for Princeton University. The book isn't so much about the inner workings of an admissions office (though there's plenty of that), but about Nathan, who is stuck in a rut until she's rudely pushed out and forced to find a new direction. Each chapter begins with the snippet of a fictional essay (Hanff Korelitz worked as a part-time reader for Princeton in 2006 and 2007) that looked very much like my essay about my brother.

The book is slow to start, and I almost gave up. I brought six books with me on vacation, and figured I might find something for apt for beach chair reading. But about half way through, I caught onto the story. It's beautifully written, too, so even in the slow parts, the rich language could be enough to pull you through.

I applied to Princeton for graduate school and didn't get in (nor was I admitted to 12 other English Liteature PhD programs). This I forgot, too, until I read Admission. That rejection might have been the best thing to happen to me. I'd be locked in a room somewhere preparing lesson plans for bored college students or writing some scholarly essay that three people would read. My life would have been a lot different if my parents did let me go to BU, too. Amazing how what seems awful at the time works out. Hopefully that's something high school seniors will keep that in mind when their admissions letters start rolling in.

One more note: this summer, I'm revising and updating a book I wrote three years ago. Gah. I feel like that college junior reading my high school essay all over again. I guess the good news is that the more I write, the better I get. Maybe I'll think the same thing if I look over this post three years from now.

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Review: Broke, USA by Gary Rivlin

For two years, I've written about personal finance for a few websites - first interest.com and cyberhomes.com, then bankaholic.com and now bankrate.com, creditcards.com and a few custom publications. I'm not financially savvy person and certainly wasn't when I started on this beat, but as I worked up from shorts to full blown features about deceptive practices of the credit card industry, I developed a stronger grasp on why money is such a complicated thing for so many people, especially because the deck is stacked against them.

Gary Rivlin's Broke, USA
shows how that deck is stacked in the favor of people who have realized how to exploit the poor. He looks into how payday lenders, pawn shops, check cashers and rapid tax refunders have sliced into the earnings of people who can least afford it, and the subprime mortgage crisis where he says the greed of a few caused harm to so many.

It's a bleak story, and probably not what most people would read on the first few days of their vacation, but that's what I did - the week the Federal Consumer Protection Bureau became a reality, at least by law so far.

The book is fascinating and frightening, though the narrative is slow and sometimes boring. I told a friend it reminded me of The End of Overeating, which was full of information that I think people should know but did not have a narrative that would pull almost any reader through (see Born to Run, Omnivore's Dilemma as examples of books that achieved that).

I don't know if that would stop people from finishing the book. I know I have an interest because of my work. But if you've ever wanted to learn why the poor stay poor, read this book. It's a painful eye opener.

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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Review: The Mighty Queens of Freeville

I picked up Amy Dickinson's The Mighty Queens of Freeville because it was on the display table at Barnes & Noble, and I've heard the title about a thousand times. Dickinson, aside from being the Amy behind the "Ask Amy" advice column, is sometimes a panelist on NPR's Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me. I listen to the podcast every Sunday while either running or cleaning. I'm fortunate enough to have played a round on the show and won Carl Kasell's voice on my home answering machine (or iPhone, in my case).

I always assumed that the book was about misers. Freeville sounds thrifty, right? Dickinson is funny on the show, so I gave it a shot.

The women in this memoir are thrifty, but that's not the point of the book. Freeville, New York is where Dickinson's clan is based, and the book is about the women in her family, most of whom were left by their husbands. Dickinson's father walked out after he mortgaged her mother's farm, which left them with nothing. One of the saddest passages is when the repo men come to take the cows away.

I liked the book, and I read it in two days. It's not perfect, and sometimes the essays overlap and repeat information she already shared. But what she has to say about women and the power of female relationships stuck with me, as did her story of women who did not follow the traditional marriage>children pattern, whether they wanted to or not.

I thought about this a lot today, for a stupid reason: I renewed my passport. I didn't know that you had to turn the old one in to do so. I love my old passport, which I got right before I left the U.S. to study in England in early 2001. The 20 year old in that picture is so fresh faced and excited about everything. Why wouldn't she be? She was about to live overseas! She wasn't even a senior in college and didn't need to worry about what she'd do with the rest of her life.

I'm turning 30 in less than two weeks. What would she say if she saw me now? My chosen industry is collapsing around me. My sister and sister in law are both pregnant. I don't even have a boyfriend. Would 20 year old me be upset? Would she worry that all the work she'd put in between then and now would be for nothing?

I hope not. I'd tell her that I have a great life. I wrote a book, bought a house and got a dog - slightly crazy dog, but dog who thinks I'm the best thing in the ENTIRE WORLD. I've written for news outlets I never dreamed would even call me back, especially after that awful internship in Washington DC where I landed one story on the cover of a Texas newspaper but spent most of my time in the National Gallery of Art (take THAT guy who said I'd never be a journalist - who covered the World Series parade for the New York Times, huh?) I survived a wretched breakup that at 20 I never could have handled. I still sometimes hate how I look, but it's not as often, and I've learned to accept that having hips is a GOOD thing. I'd also tell her that some people she watched in envy as they walked down the aisle - including that college roommate she has at 20 - wouldn't be together anymore at the time I am now, and the whole relationship thing is a lot more difficult than she imagined - but that's OK. It SHOULD be complicated. It SHOULD be hard because, for it to work, it can't be like anything she sees in movies or reads about in magazines (magazines that she'll realize are junk by her mid-20s). I'd also tell her that she learns to stand on her own two feet, which makes those hard times easier to handle.

So back to Freeville. I liked seeing how Dickinson's story played out and that even after her husband left her with an infant to run off with his secretary, she had a great life. A fantastic one as did the other women in her family who'd been dealt a bad hand.

So what will my 40 year old self think of me? Will I ever be that old? (As I'd say to my 20 year old self - yes).

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