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Old School by Tobias Wolff
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Old School (original 2003; edition 2004)

by Tobias Wolff

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1,823623,834 (3.77)82
Member:hovercraftofeels
Title:Old School
Authors:Tobias Wolff
Info:Vintage (2004), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 195 pages
Collections:Literature, Your library
Rating:****
Tags:prize, wite-a-thon, wolff, american, new england, humour, coming of age, vintage, fiction, faulkner award, northern california book award, random house, vignettes, reviewed, inscribed

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Old School by Tobias Wolff (2003)

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Showing 1-5 of 59 (next | show all)
I think this book is semi-autobiographical. It is the story of a young man in his years at prep school, a school that focuses on literary achievement. Quite bookish. Every year the school invites several famed authors to visit, and encourages the students' writing efforts with a competition. They submit a piece of writing, and the visiting author chooses one. The prized reward is a one-on-one chat between famed author and student writer. The boys compete fiercely for this honor, and talk about it all year. During the course of the novel, Robert Frost and Ayn Rand both visit the school. The final author in the lineup is Ernest Hemmingway, but he doesn't show. Through it all, the narrator, our unnamed boy, is searching for himself. Searching for himself as a writer, searching for his identity as a person, as a friend. There are subtle duplicities going on- he doesn't quite admit to his friends who his family really is, wanting to obscure parts of his identity in order to fit in, and it bothers him the entire year. When finally a chance comes and he realizes how he can show the truth of who he is, it involves another kind of fakery, which gets him expelled. And who will he be now? What does it mean to be a writer, what does it mean to tell the truth? to live it?

from the Dogear Diary ( )
  jeane | Oct 27, 2014 |
Old School is about a prep school boy trying to win a literary contest so he can meet Robert Frost, Ayn Rand or Ernest Hemingway. The three authors are characters in the book as they visit the school. I found the portrayal of Ayn Rand to be a little unfair, as did many of her followers on Ayn Rand websites.

One of the themes of the book that spoke to me was literature as a shared experience. Early on, the author explains why he and his classmates have such high esteem for English teachers in particular:

Say you’ve just read Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.” Like the son in the story, you’ve sensed the faults in your father’s character. Thinking about them makes you uncomfortable; left alone, you’d probably close the book and move on to other thoughts. But instead you are taken in hand by a tall, brooding man with a distinguished limp who involves you and a roomful of other boys in the consideration of what it means to be a son.

Much later, that brooding man with the limp is described:

He’d been a reader since childhood, and the habit had deepened during his years of travel for the Forbes-Farragut shipping line, but until he began teaching he’d rarely had occasion to talk about what he read. He could read a story like “The Minister’s Black Veil” and both shrink from and relish the soul-chill it worked on him without having to fix that response in words, or explain how Hawthorne had produced it. Teaching made him accountable for his thoughts, as as he became accountable for them he had more of them, and they became sharper and deeper.

After he leaves the school, the experience of reading is changed for the teacher:

For thirty years he had lived in conversation with boys, answerable to their own sense of how things worked, to their skepticism, and, most gravely, to their trust. Even when alone he had read and thought in their imagined presence, made responsible by it, enlivened and honed by it. Now he read in solitude and hardly felt himself to be alive. ( )
  keneumey | Jun 4, 2014 |
This book was chosen as "The Big Read" by the NEA, in partnership with a few other alphabet soup organizations. It is set in a boarding school for boys, many of whom are budding authors. Each year they submit manuscripts and have an opportunity to walk in the garden with a famous visiting author. The narrator of the story is one of those budding authors. His manuscript is not chosen when author Robert Frost comes to visit. When Ayn Rand is scheduled to come, he has become very ill and never gets around to writing anything. In his final year at school, the narrator learns that his hero, Ernest Hemingway is scheduled to visit. The narrator learns that his manuscript was chosen, BUT he "borrowed" all of the words on the page from someone else. His duplicity is uncovered, he is expelled from school, Ernest Hemingway commits suicide and never visits the school afterall, and the Dean resigns his position. By the end of the novel, you learn what became of this author. He eventually returns to writing, becomes famous in his own right, and is invited back to the very school he was expelled from for plagiarism. The novel comes full circle and the prodigal son returns home. ( )
  daatwood | Nov 21, 2013 |
I loved the cover of the book and felt it so accurately portrayed the atmosphere of the school. Heads bowed in unison but somehow also letting the reader know that each of these young men are individuals with their own stories. The is definitely a book for the lover of literature; otherwise, I don't see how anyone could understand the anguish these young men put themselves through attempting to gain the attention of a famous author. I loved the inclusion of real authors such as Frost and Rand. I loved the sudden and often unexpected small flashes of humor. I loved the ending which took the story into what seemed to be an entirely new direction but took the plot full circle.

I have never particularly liked or understood the parable of the prodigal son, but this book has cast an entirely new light on that story. The final sentence in the book is so powerful. And I can't think of any other novel that so well examines the consequences of acquiescing to a lie.

This isn't a book for everyone, but if you love literature and understand its grip, this is a book to explore. ( )
  maryreinert | Aug 17, 2013 |
Wow! Wish I could write like this! ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
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For my teachers
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Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375701494, Paperback)

Tobias Wolff's Old School is at once a celebration of literature and delicate hymn to a lost innocence of American life and art. Set in a New England prep school in the early 1960s, the novel imagines a final, pastoral moment before the explosion of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the suicide of Ernest Hemingway.

The unnamed narrator is one of several boys whose life revolves around the school's English teachers, those polymaths who seemed to know "exactly what was most worth knowing." For the boys, literature is the center of life, and their obsession culminates in a series of literary competitions during their final year. The prize in each is a private audience with a visiting writer who serves as judge for the entries.

At first, the narrator is entirely taken with the battle. As he fails in his effort to catch Robert Frost's attention and then is unable--due to illness--to even compete for his moment with Ayn Rand, he devotes his energies to a masterpiece for his hero, Hemingway. But, confronting the blank page, the narrator discovers his cowardice, his duplicity. He has withheld himself, he realizes, even from his roommate. He has used his fiction to create a patrician gentility, a mask for his middle class home and his Jewish ancestry. Through the competition for Hemingway, fittingly, all of his illusions about literature dissolve.

Old School is a small, neatly made book, spare and clear in its prose. Each chapter is self-contained and free of anything extraneous to the essentials of plot, mood, and character. Near the end of the novel, the narrator, now a respected writer, imagines that he might one day write about his school days. But he is daunted. "Memory," he says, "is a dream to begin with, and what I had was a dream of memory, not to be put to the test." Old School enters this interplay between dreams and the adult interrogation of memory. Risking sentimentality, Wolff confronts a golden age that never was. From the confrontation, he distills a powerful novel of failed expectations and, ultimately, redemptive self-awareness. --Patrick O'Kelley

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:59:06 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Determined to fit in at his New England prep school, the narrator has learned to mimic the bearing and manners of his adoptive tribe while concealing as much as possible about himself. His final year, however, unravels everything he's achieved, and steers his destiny in directions no one could have predicted. The school's mystique is rooted in Literature, and for many boys this becomes an obsession, editing the review and competing for the attention of visiting writers whose fame helps to perpetuate the tradition. Robert Frost, soon to appear at JFK's inauguration, is far less controversial than the next visitor, Ayn Rand. But the final guest is one whose blessing a young writer would do almost anything to gain.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 4 descriptions

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