The Gifted School, by Bruce Holsinger

ladybird

An image from ‘Going to School’ (Ladybird books series 563) by M E Gagg; illustrated by Harry Wingfield; First Published 1959

Bruce Holsinger’s The Gifted School reads like a how to book on bad parenting. Four women bond in mommy-and-me swimming lessons with infants, growing in friendship as their children age. But when this set of kids hits fifth grade, a new public school is announced. A public school only for the especially gifted and talented. With that, the BFFs (who celebrate each anniversary by gifting coffee mugs with friendship quotations on each other) are off and spinning to help their kids achieve recognition as the gifted and talented special kids the moms know they must be.

Rose Holland-Quinn is a pediatric neurologist married to a failing author she loathes. Samantha Zeller, formerly a personal trainer, married rich and politically influential Kevin and now lives atop the social ladder. Rose and Samantha each have a daughter named Emma. Annoyingly, one is referred to as Emma Z. and one is referred to as Emma Q.

Lauren, a widow, has what she considers the world’s brightest fifth grader, the creepy Xander, and Tessa, a 17-year-old daughter who is just out of rehab and who loves to vlog her life. Finally, the saintly Azra, mother of twins Charlie and Aiden, is divorced from their defiantly unsaintly father, Beck who is remarried to teutonic stoic Sonya.

In addition to these four families, there is the family of Samantha and Rose’s housekeeper (names I’m not even going to attempt to spell). This family, — a mother, grandmother and son the same age as “the Emmas,” Xander, and Charlie and Aiden, who is also applying to the gifted school, — is really the only other likable group.

The narration switches between about six characters.

Incidentally, if I’m misspelling names, I apologize, I listened to this book on audible.

There were phrases that clung to my ears like the shriek of a heavy metal guitar as I listened to this book: Emma Z., Emma Q., “the Emmas (truly, revoltingly privileged),” the CogPro, the Emerald Mall. Like those repetitive phrases, the irritating traits of the characters emerge repeatedly, and to such a deleterious level that it’s hard to envision this could actually happen. But perhaps that’s Mr. Holsinger’s point with The Gifted School.

The word gifted slashed like a guillotine through other topics. Around the table the talk ceased.

“It’s called Crystal Academy, Dad,” Samantha said into the silence.

“A private?” Azra asked, apparently as clueless as Rose.

“No actually.” Lauren leaned in, turtling out her short neck. “It’s a public magnet school for the profoundly gifted.”

“They’re hailing it as the Stuyvesant of the Rockies,” said Kev grandly.

“A high school?” Rose’s question.

“Grades six through eight in the lower school, and the upper school is nine through twelve.”

“Oh,” said Rose. Profoundly gifted. Words to make the bones sing. This must be the mysterious “other option” Samantha had been hedging about at RockSalt last week. “What, a city school, just for Crystal kids?”

“Oh no,” said Kev. “It’s a joint venture between the City of Crystal and the Four Counties.”

“All five school districts?” Gareth asked. “But that’s a huge pool of eligible students.”

“No kidding,” said Samantha. “Over a hundred thousand kids for just a thousand spots.”

“The one percent,” Blakey observed snidely. Everyone laughed but she was right: one in a hundred. Kev’s acerbic sister was enjoying the conversation, Rose could tell, watching the reactions among her sister-in-law’s friends as they took in the news about the school.

“How does admissions work?” Azra asked.

“They’re doing it as a test-in.” Lauren, happily in the know. “A first round of CogPROs in the districts starting in March, then more individualized assessments in a second round.”

“CogPROs?” someone asked.

“Cognitive Proficiency Test,” said Lauren. “It’s a standard IQ battery.”

Over her wine glass Rose looked a question at Gareth and he shrugged it right back. Neither of them had heard a word about this school.

“Where are they building it?” Gareth asked.

“The upper school will be out in Kendall County,” Kev answered. “But the lower school is going in the old Maple Hill site.”

“Six or seven blocks from here.” Samantha nodded vaguely west, in the direction of her back deck.

“It’s a done deal,” said Kev. “The contractor’s an old buddy of mine and they finalized the building permits last week. The refurbish kicks off in January. They’ll be up and running by July, hiring staff this spring for a fall opening. These guys are moving fast.”

How do you know all this?The question never reached Rose’s lips, because the Zellars always knew, and besides, Kev had been on City Council the last three years. Any big building project in town, let alone one as visible as a new magnet school, would already be on his radar.

pikes peak

“So, Rose, will you apply for Emma Q?” said Edgar, still pressing for an answer.

“Who knows.” Rose was already seeing years of small classes, innovative pedagogy, Barnard admissions staff cooing in approval. “We might check it out.”

I should add as a disclaimer that as an aunt of four, I have never been intimately involved in the competitive nature of g.p.a.s, SATs, ACTs, magnet schools, and/or whatever the local name for the “cog/pro” is. Thank Goodness.

On a national level, though, it’s no secret that celebrity parents have recently been stung in similar FBI investigations. What a serendipitous time for The Gifted School to be published. As NPR put it: “The impulse behind the transgressions, though, is the same. Holsinger’s characters are privilege-hoarders, wedded to the conviction that their children deserve to go to the “gifted school” not by virtue of intelligence or achievements, but by virtue of being their children.” https://www.npr.org/2019/07/02/737125569/in-the-gifted-school-ripped-from-the-headlines-parental-scheming

The New Yorker said: “Holsinger captures the language of anxious parenting: the neuro-jargon, the tone of chirpy terror…There are moments of white-liberal affectation so sublime that they waft off the page like laughing gas…And yet the oblivious parents are more than fodder for hate-reading. Holsinger renders his helicopter moms and soccer dads so precisely that one understands their motivations, even feels their longing and pride…helps us to inhabit the élites themselves, not in order to vindicate them but so that we can know, viscerally, how they tick and what logic governs their actions.”

As the novel advances, the tension of what will these people do next to give their childrengifted an advantage, devolves into: ok, which ones get into the gifted school. And, for me: is anyone ever going to address the fact that Xander (and his sister Tessa to a lesser degree) is a total sociopath?

It’s a novel rife with fodder for a great book club discussion and it’s a quick read. Yes, there are annoying elements, and other than housekeeper and her family and the saintly Azra who is unfortunately not as present on the page as one would like her to be, there are no sympathetic characters. “Hate-reading,” is accurately funny.

I bet you can’t wait to read it to see if you recognize anyone from the halls of your children’s own magnet school.

MENU

During the Crystal Academy Open House, a buffet was set out for all attendees that included fun little tidbits like “grilled tofu” on a grill that proclaimed “NO MEAT ON THIS GRILL” and gluten-free and peanut-free options.

In addition, there were grilled hamburgers, grilled vegetables, and hot dogs. Lemonade. And an ice cream sundae bar, complete with chocolate sprinkles.

That’s what I’d serve.

MUSIC

My playlist would include:

Rocky Mountain High, John Denver

Be True to Your School, Beach Boys

Beauty School Dropout, Frankie Avalon

Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana

Smokin’ in the Boys Room, Motley Crue

MOVIE CASTING for The Gifted School

First, I would be shocked if this hasn’t already sold for production.

Second, I stalked Bruce Holsinger’s Facebook page (we have one mutual friend in common) and he had a photo of Zach Gallifinakis up with the caption “dream casting for Beck.” It made me laugh out loud. YEP.

Rose                            Laura Linney

Samantha                  Sarah Jessica Parker

Lauren                       Amy Poehler

Azra                            Indira Varma

Beck                            Zach Gallifinakis

Kev                             Paul Sparks

Gareth                       Luke Wilson

Betsy Layton              Maya Rudolph

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear John

grisham_john

Dear John:

Those piercing blue eyes of yours.  That confident, but low-key grin.  The dazzling intellect as not only a trial lawyer but a novelist. Yes, you are a catch.

But John:  what’s with the level of dissing going on in The Litigators?  The bad guy law firm, filled with uptight maniacs; the hot, talented, deadly litigator lady whose only concern is monetary; the “good guy” law firm filled with alcoholics and sleazy grumps?  AND a dog named “AC,” short for ambulance chaser?  Is that really necessary?

ambulance chaser

 

Or course, the story is good.  The focus on the overwrought panting that comes with a new Multi-District Litigation over a “bad drug” before the scientific work is done.  That’s on target, and I know some of those guys you are writing about and you are downright accurate on the legion of private jet plaintiff’s attorneys more impressed with their stuff than with their client’s stuff.  And unfortunately, alcoholism is a persistent and growing problem in the professional field of law.  The American Bar Association’s statistics offer that as many as 20 percent, one in five lawyers in the U.S., suffer from some form of alcohol abuse or dependence.  http://www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/resources/alcohol_abuse_dependence.html. It’s definitely worth mentioning and focusing some attention on.  

The writing is engaging.  Actually, kudos.  Because I thought The Litigators had more character development than any of your legal novels in recent years.  And as the Washington Post said, all without any character who could possibly be played by Tom Cruise.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/book-review-john-grishams-the-litigators-a-swerving-stirring-retort/2011/10/19/gIQAEUD81L_story.html

Although, I think Tom could play Wally Figg if he wanted to.  (Have you seen Tropic Thunder?)

The Litigators is good.  Lots of legal vocab, behind-the-scenes insighty stuff.  But John, where’s the love?  I need the love.  Show me the love.  And I’ll come back to you again.

XXX,

Pamela Dae

Chicago-Skyline

MENU

In honor of The Litigators’ setting, Chicago, and one of its’ main characters, I would serve Pizza with Fig & Prosciutto

ingredients

  • Cornmeal
  • 1 1-pound package purchased pizza dough
  • 2 cups (generous) crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
  • 6 small fresh figs, cut into 1/4- to 1/3-inch-thick slices
  • 2 tablespoons fig balsamic vinegar, divided
  • 8 thin slices prosciutto (from two 3-ounce packages)
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 8 cups arugula

preparation

Preheat oven to 450°F. Sprinkle large rimless baking sheet generously with cornmeal. Roll out dough on floured work surface to 12×10-inch rectangle; transfer to prepared sheet. Sprinkle Gorgonzola over dough. Sprinkle with pepper. Place figs in medium bowl; drizzle 1 tablespoon vinegar over. Set aside.

Bake pizza until crust is golden brown on bottom, 15 to 20 minutes. Immediately drape prosciutto slices over, covering pizza completely. Arrange fig slices atop prosciutto. Bake until figs are just heated through, about 1 minute. Transfer pizza to cutting board. Whisk remaining 1 tablespoon vinegar and oil in large bowl; add arugula. Sprinkle with salt and pepper; toss to coat. Mound salad atop pizza. Cut into pieces and serve.

And you couldn’t have a book club discussion about this book without having at least one Pearl Harbor each.

  • 1 1/2 oz. Vodka
  • 3/4 oz. Midori
  • Top with Pineapple Juice

Pour over ice in a tall glass.  Here’s a video demonstration of making a Pearl Harbor, which is essentially pouring the ingredients over ice, but if you have five minutes:  http://everydaydrinkers.com/2012/06/how-to-make-the-pearl-harbor-cocktail/

MUSIC

Lawyers in Love, Jackson Browne

Lawyers, Guns & Money, Warren Zevon

Legal Man, Johnny Cash

I Fought the Law, The Clash

This Side of the Law, Johnny Cash

Chicago, Frank Sinatra

MOVIE CASTING

Oscar Finley — Brian Dennehy

Wally Figg — Donel Logue

David Zinc — Luke Wilson

Jerry Alisandros — Don Johnson

Nadine Gibson – Cameron Diaz

Happy Reading!