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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Books about high school: The Physics of the Buffyverse, Prep, & The Kings of NY

I really wanted to like these books. I really did. And in some ways I suppose I liked all three of them. But not enough. All three are deeply flawed.

First, let’s consider The Physics of the Buffyverse, by Jennifer Ouellette. As you can guess, this work of...well, I’m not sure you can say science, I’m not even sure you can say non-fiction...attempts to explain the universe of Buffy and Angel in the context of actual science (not just physics). The blurb on the back of the book, like many blurbs, overreaches:
From electricity, conservation of energy, and special relativity to worm-holes, black holes, and string theory, The Physics of the Buffyverse provides a serious shot of science for those who prefer their physics with a pop-culture chaser.
Unfortunately, though, it does no such thing. The author, a successful professional science writer, presents an amusing account where the science is pretty much disconnected from the television shows. A notable exception is the discussion of the physics involved in Buffy’s defensive and offensive moves in hand-to-hand combat, perhaps because no flights of fancy are required other than Buffy’s superhuman strength. But attempts to explain vampires and other demons, telepathy, and witchcraft all inevitably fall far short of being convincing.

And what does all this have to do with high school, you may ask? Simply that the entire Buffy series is clearly a metaphor for teenage life, starting literally with the experience of Buffy and the Scooby gang in high school and continuing even when some are in college and others are in the so-called “real world” (definitely so-called in these circumstances). With that perspective, The Physics of the Buffyverse is still fun and worth reading, but you’ll be hungry again in an hour.

Next we come to Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld. This well-known novel, about a lower-middle-class girl who leaves Indiana to attend Groton, I mean Ault. The annoyingly self-centered Lee Fiora begins to wear on the reader after a while, although the portrayal of an elite New England boarding school certainly keeps the attention of a reader who attended one, and Sittenfeld does convincingly portray Lee’s social ineptness even if the book leaves a lot else to be desired. As an alum of a New England prep school, I was particularly interested to see whether Groton Ault seemed familiar to me, though there must be so many differences between single-sex Phillips Academy in the ’60s and coed Groton Ault in the ’80s that it might not be a fair comparison.

Generally, Prep managed to hold my attention throughout the story. But anachronistically modern slang didn’t help maintain the illusion that the action was supposed to take place in the ’90s. And why are there only two black characters, one of whom has to turn out to be a thief who gets expelled from the school?

Finally, we have a book that’s clearly a work of non-fiction: The Kings of New York, by Michael Weinreb, subtitled “A year among the geeks, oddballs, and geniuses who make up America’s top high school chess team.” You can see why that grabbed my attention. Presumably this book would be in the tradition of various true-life accounts of high-school mathletes and musicians, focusing on the tension between how normal the kids are and how unusual they are. And in a sense that’s what it is. But it never really grabbed my attention the way that I had expected. It was just never very exciting.

The New York Times Book Review gave it a wonderful review. I loved reading the well-written review, but the book itself didn’t live up to it. Or maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood.

A blurb on the back of the book makes the following claim:
The Kings of New York isn’t so much a book about high school chess as it is an unforgettable journey into the blessing and curse of adolescent genius. With a narrative rich in voice — a gathering of intoxicating characters — Michael Weinreb has delivered nothing short of a generational classic. This is a stunning book. You won’t soon forget it.
That’s indeed what I was looking for. But unfortunately I have in fact forgotten it.

So here we have three books that all deal with high school in one way or another. One takes place in an upper-middle-class suburban California community, one in an elite New England boarding school, and one in a gritty urban neighborhood of New York. Three different environments, three different points of view. I’m glad I read all three of these books, but in their own ways I wish all three had been better.

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