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    Weekend Reading, August 24: Back to School

    Well, it's that time of year. Fall classes are about to begin, or have begun, and I'm definitely sure I saw at least one batch of red leaves this week.

    So, with that anticipatory autumn sadness in the air, my book recommendation this week is Paul Murray's novel Skippy Dies, set in an Irish high school. If the title hasn't spoiled it for you already, the title character meets his demise in the first few pages:

    Skippy and Ruprecht are having a doughnut-eating race one evening when Skippy turns purple and falls off his chair. It is a Friday in November and Ed's is only half full; if Skippy makes a noise as he topples to the floor, no one pays any attention. Nor is Ruprecht, at first, overly concerned; rather he is pleased, because it means that he, Ruprecht, has won the race, his sixteenth in a row, bringing him one step closer to the all-time record held by Guido "The Gland"  LaManche, Seabrook College class of '93. 

    It's a marvelous novel, funny and sad, and pulls off the very difficult trick of writing about characters in their early teens, no longer in children but years away from even resembling adults, without either condescending to them or losing sight of their absurdities. Murray takes the kids seriously enough to let them be ridiculous, every bit as laughable and as mortal as their elders.

     And since, Skippy, like all of us, is mortal, my short-story recommendation this week is Donald Barthelme's classic, "The School," about a grade school where everyone dies, starting with the classroom pets and working its way up:

    Well, we had all these children out planting trees, see, because we figured that ... that was part of their education, to see how, you know, the root systems ... and also the sense of responsibility, taking care of things, being individually responsible. You know what I mean. And the trees all died. They were orange trees. I don’t know why they died, they just died. Something wrong with the soil possibly or maybe the stuff we got from the nursery wasn’t the best. We complained about it. So we’ve got thirty kids there, each kid had his or her own little tree to plant and we’ve got these thirty dead trees. All these kids looking at these little brown sticks, it was depressing.
    It wouldn’t have been so bad except that just a couple of weeks before the thing with the trees, the snakes all died. ...

    By the end the absurdity reaches the point of painful truth, and introduces a lesson which brings no convenient plan and no answers from the back of the book. Enjoy.





    Thank you, Doc!  Loved the Barthelme.  Had been curious about Skippy Dies.  Now I have to try.

    Thanks, destor. I'm a big Barthelme fan. Glad you liked it.

    I'm also now fascinated by the idea that Barthelme was ever accused of complicity in the "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" attack on Dan Rather... not because I think Barthelme was involved but because... wow... memes at work.  It's like "Catcher in the Rye."

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