College gets a serving of self-help
Entering North or South Dining Hall, one might hope each item on the menu from angel hair pasta to zucchini is boiled, baked, fried or steamed with the warmth of caring hands and the compassion of thoughtful eyes reading a recipe book. In some cases, yes, dining hall food is made with good intentions, but what about when personal attention is needed to confront the trauma every college student sufferes on a daily basis?
To heal collegiate suffering, four New York Times bestselling authors compiled a book of self-help stories that deal with college life and the obstacles it presents. "Chicken Soup for the College Soul" considers perspectives from parents, professors, celebrities and, of course, students to create a loose guide to living life well in a college setting.
To some extent, the compilation succeeds in presenting an all around view of the many bumps and detours a student may experience throughout a college career. But the book's concentration on cute humor and sentimental memories sometimes drags into a realm of corniness difficult to ignore.
Taking the chronological approach, the book starts during senior year of high school, as students begin applying to colleges and receiving acceptance or decline letters. Including an essay from a college-admission application, bloopers from other essays, lessons learned by students who were declined into going to the local college and a message from Dave Barry, this chapter certainly gets the message that getting into college is just as crucial to one's sanity as the college experience is itself.
The high point clearly was the message by Dave Barry, who cleverly blows off the college visit as an attempt by the college to prove that they are the best college out there. Several of his points apply directly to the Notre Dame experience, particularly those regarding overbearing parents who have been mapping out their son's or daughter's life since conception. He also questions the value of such subjects as "Seventeenth-Century English metaphysical poetry," realizing a conversation will rarely turn to such scholarly matters.
The following chapter discusses one of the more difficult periods of any person's life, the transition from high school to college life. This chapter nosedives into a realm of sentimentality that reverses the comic tone of the first chapter. At this point, the change-up doesn't feel as an attack on the seriousness of the transition experience; instead, it efficiently brings out the deep emotion involved in leaving the nest and enduring college as an individual.
A remarkable poem from the perspective of a young man leaving his mother, "The No Hug' Rule" makes a whirlwind of the emotions felt by any college student who struggles with a desire for parental involvement and independence. Though not a traditionally beautiful work of poetry, "The No Hug' Rule" touches especially upon the emotional viewpoint of the male, who struggles with keeping up a macho guise regardless of the emotions he may feel.
The poem is also refreshing as the majority of the other stories come from the female perspective, touching on sisterhood, feminine encouragement, dating, breaking up and date rape. Though a couple of these stories peaked some interest, particularly "How to Get an A on Your Final Exam" and "Reverse Living," most of the stories fall into the huge ocean of schmaltz that characterizes a Robin Williams movie. Such lines as "One mention of Gaffield (an off-campus home at Northwestern University), and all our faces relax with a softness usually reserved for remembering a first love" are prime examples of the cutesy femininity found in several of the book's stories.
This cuteness once again takes a turn for the serious as the book turns to the "Tough Stuff" to help students deal with the important things that happen in life. The chapter is devoted to death, social isolation and rape and provides a dose of the intense emotion that can come from any intense experience. Not entirely depressing, these stories attempt to take goodness of what appears to be utter badness. Of course, there is no reason not to see this chapter as merely an after-school special in book form.
The book then goes into a mode of pure encouragement, as it lets everyone know that anyone can do whatever they please if they put their mind to it. A common theme of this chapter centers on disadvantaged persons making their way into college despite discouragement from the establishment of experienced, college-educated snobs who know who belongs in college and who belongs in the projects. The poem "From the Heart of a Blessed Temple" positively attacks the establishment, presenting a black kid from the projects who goes to college and graduate school after 30 years of believing "black kids from the projects do not go to college." It was the first truly inspirational moment.
The chapter continues to pep up those disadvantaged souls who some people would call "slow." Establishing a "Second Kind of Mind," one story shows the mind is a mysterious thing and positive encouragement can go a long way.
The final chapter has fun with graduations, once again calling upon Dave Barry to entertain readers with his wacky personality. Remarking on such non-graduation related subjects as area codes and box-opening semi-circles, his "Life Lessons" must be read to fully appreciate the value it adds to the collection as a whole.
The inclusion of Dave Barry in the opening and closing chapters indeed made "Chicken Soup for the College Soul" a delight to read. It is always nice to laugh when discussing stuff close to the heart college life. His humor was the perfect remedy for the rotten cheese with which the authors infected the rest of the book. It was the dips into mushy heartwarming, love that really put the impact on the college soul in question.
All Scene Stories for Monday, August 30, 1999