To calculate the overall star rating and percentage breakdown by star, we don’t use a simple average. Instead, our system considers things like how recent a review is and if the reviewer bought the item on Amazon. It also analyses reviews to verify trustworthiness.
Unlike many of the reviewers, I found the structure of The Topeka School intriguing, intricately patterned, true to life as lived and the way we remember things. I really enjoyed the connections and the way the parts became whole. Nevertheless, I have a few gripes: I do have a problem dealing with, as Lerner acknowledges, 'the unstable mixture of fact and fiction'. I am aware that this is being done a lot now and often makes for absorbing reading, however, it still seems a bit like cheating (using your own life and passing it off as fiction). I am aware that all fiction has to come from somewhere and that writers of traditional fiction also draw upon their own and others' experiences to make stuff up but don't we expect fiction to be more imagined than non-fiction? And, isn't that harder? And isn't it fairer for the reader to know this when they read a literary work?
And, as much as I admire and really enjoy Lerner's writing and structure and originality, there lingers, for me beneath the surface, a discernible 'smarty-pants' undergraduate tone. And, more than a touch of self-indulgent whinging from a group of entitled, intellectually superior folk whose endless analysis of their personal problems at times tip into banality. Lerner's writing saves them.
This book was certainly a challenging read. If you are looking for a quick, easy read, this is not that book (buy it anyway for when you are wanting something with more depth). This book seemed like it was one long run-on sentence and had a non-linear time line and switches between four interrelated characters; despite this or maybe in spite of this, this novel was a must-read in my opinion and tries to help make sense of the country we now find ourselves in.
As I read this book, I have to admit that I wondered how much of it would make sense unless you grew up in Northeast Kansas during the 90s. Likewise, unless you were a Debater or Forensics "nerd" in high school, I wondered how much someone would understand the references to these activities that were discussed throughout the book. Like the author, I grew up in NE Kansas during the 90s (I am ever-so slightly older) and was a frequent visitor to Topeka, so a lot of references were familiar to me. (As a HS Forensics participant, and having had one child (so far) be a Debater, I was very familiar with the numerous Debate and Forensics references). Invariably, we saw protests from Fred Phelps' "church." Most of us, even my ultra-conservative mother, were appalled by the protests, but much like the book states, the objections to Fred Phelps had little to do with the demeaning of the LGBTQ community. While this book touched on a lot of issues, one of the most profound moments of this book for me revolved around the issue of Fred Phelps: Why were the citizens of Topeka (or anywhere) so offended by him when they agreed with him? (Please note: I do not agree with Fred Phelps or his ideologies.)
I never imagined that I would receive parenting insight with this book, but as a mom to two boys, the issue of toxic masculinity is a recurrent concern and is something that weighs on my heart. I do not want my boys to think it is acceptable to treat girls/women as only sex objects (as was my experience growing up in the 90s and even still now, ugh!) nor in any way inferior, yet I do not want them to feel that they are somehow inferior or invalidated because they are male.
And now, I feel compelled to address the, ahem, elephant in the room. This novel tried to provide a backstory for how Donald Trump happened. Yes, I still live in Kansas, but I can assure you there are cities/areas in this "red" state that are liberal (or purple), much like the family portrayed in this novel. (I would argue that we do not have "red" or "blue" states, we have concentrated areas in each state that lean politically one way and they are better defined by rural, urban, suburban.) The subject of Donald Trump and how anyone can support him is certainly a compelling psychological examination, no matter which side you are on. I think this book makes some interesting conclusions that show how some of this absurd current circumstance even became possible. Which brings it back to the conclusion about Fred Phelps: Why are they offended when they agree? Yikes.
So, go find a quiet, comfy space, grab a cup of tea (or coffee), and allot yourself chunk of time to try to read this gem of a book in a single setting (or 2). It's well worth your time.
I was eager to read THE TOPEKA SCHOOL based on its great, high-profile reviews and it being a Pulitzer finalist. I continued reading it for the same reasons. I tend to judge books by whether or not they stick with me in the days/weeks after finishing. This one’s residue has lingered longer than expected, surprising because I didn’t really like it. Or I thought I didn’t. The mom and dad characters, who take turns narrating in first person, have “voices” that are indistinguishable from each other and the main character, who’s story is told in third person until the end of the book when it switches to first person (perhaps to signify a more present awareness, or an acceptance of his current-self and a distancing--certainly not a reckoning--from his past/young dickish-self). The most captivating character is that of the community sap (that’s how he’s portrayed), Darren. Yet Darren’s story is reduced to thin slices at the end of each section. It is within Darren’s story that the only intrigue exists and builds up across the book (this also kept me reading), yet this plotline culminates into fizzles. The overall story itself is not compelling, but having been raised in a red bio-dome of a city similar to Topeka, I imagine that THE TOPEKA SCHOOL is a good reflection of growing up in a mid-west Wonder Bread family with limited/skewed interactions with non-Wonder Bread families. And therein lies its… I can’t say beauty… not charm. That’s the rub. Lerner has taken Wonder Bread, and through his talent with language, re-sliced and rearranged it to create a “novel” that is unsettling. Its residue is enduring.
I enjoyed it the originaity and complexity of this book. Some parts were a bit tedious and I was left with some questions when it ended but I was also sad when it ended. I had some.difficulty keeping up with all the different narrators and the end didn't really the up any loss ends. However I would recommend it as it gives you a lot to think about.
I found the unconventional writing and structure of this novel challenging and required more focus from me to read it. There are some beautiful sentences, just from the cover alone a sense of foreboding and menace. I did like the characters. This is an odd novel and I'm glad it is very short. I read Ali Smith's Autumn and this was similar but more approachable.
This is the second novel by Ben Lerner I've read, and I am now a devoted fan. His poetic skills breathe sublime life into his characters and their circumstances. No detail is too small, no event too sprawling to evade Lerner's careful-yet-lyrical evocations and cast his readers into eerily unique but ultimately shared experiences.
The stories compelling characters make it worth reading. The novel's development is a bit too smart for itself - parts in the early chapters in stream of conscious that only become identifiable as the book goes along. But the characters and strong segments more than make up for it, and the book is worth staying with.
As a former debate/forensics coach, I laughed aloud at descriptions of amusing but accurate descriptions of speech competitions. The characters interested me and I am inclined to read his two previous pseudo-memoirs.
My dad, a Kansas forensics and debate coach, couldn't read it because of the main part (that a high school debate wonk became the mind behind Gov. Brownback's deleterious economic policies). While a deep dive into polarization and toxic masculinity, I found it difficult to follow, often losing track of which character was which.