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Book Review: Campus Novels

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I’m not enrolled in any classes this fall, but all those pencils, notebooks and forced-smile back-to-school photos in my Facebook feed have me thinking about one of my favorite literary genres: the campus novel.

Campus novels are a subset of fiction whose main action is set in and around a university or other campus. They can be romantic or satirical, coming-of-age stories or evocative murder mysteries. Classic campus novels include “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles, “Lucky Jim” by Kingsley Amis, and “Moo” by Jane Smiley.

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One of my favorite recent reads is “Stoner,” a 1965 novel by John Williams that wooed me from its matter-of-fact opening, in which we learn that William Stoner, a farmer’s son, attends college, falls in love with literature, becomes a teacher and eventually dies without fame or fanfare. He lives a life of quiet obscurity, but it illustrates the broader human struggle for meaning and identity.

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In “If We Were Villains,” author M.L. Rio tells the story of seven young theater students studying Shakespeare at an elite arts college. When secondary characters usurp the stars, the play spills dangerously over into real life, and one of the students is found dead. What follows is an exhilarating whodunnit that weaves Shakespearian dialogue into a moody campus setting. In other words, the perfect autumn page-turner.

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And speaking of Shakespeare, a recent release worth checking out is Julie Schumacher’s “The Shakespeare Requirement,” a sequel to her hilarious classic, “Dear Committee Members.” Both tell the story of Jason Fitger, a long-suffering English professor toiling away at a nameless liberal-arts college.

Whether you’re currently in school or just like to remember the feeling of trekking across the quad, a solid campus novel could be your perfect fall read.

 

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.