A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Saturday, February 3, 2024

Harvard College Essay Prompt Responses by Characters from Dystopian YA Fiction

Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are. (200 words)

Growing up in District 12, my extracurricular activities included caring for my delicate and sensitive little sister, desperately trekking through the woods in hopes of shooting some form of sustenance, and begging for burnt bread.  But my travel experience expanded greatly when I had the opportunity, at the age of 16, to make a trip to the Capitol! 

This experience definitely shaped who I am today.  I learned so much from spending several days in the company of a couple of dozen specially selected kids from all over the country -- all of whom were hoping to systematically murder me and everyone else.

I made some great friends during this trip, including Rue (who died, but in a meaningful way) and Peeta, who is just so incredibly sweet, and maybe also cute.  Can the nice guy also be the cute one?  I’m still not sure. I guess “shaping who I am” is still a work in progress.  I can’t wait to see how this works out -- in the sequels, or at Harvard, whichever comes first!

Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard? (200 words)

Like all other teenagers from post-apocalyptic Chicago, I am not diverse, or in any way divergent.  Not divergent at all!  Please don’t kill me. 

I grew up in Abdignation -- a word that everyone knows, obviously  – and at age sixteen was identified as Dauntless.  Which is what I am. Just dauntless, I swear!  I’m massively brave, and I have no other qualities whatsoever.

In particular, I’m definitely not still part of Abdignation.  Nope, I’m totally selfish now!  Also, I’m very clearly not Erudite -- even though I want to go to Harvard.  Just roll with this logic, okay?  I’m also not Candid, so maybe you think I’m lying here.  Totally not lying!  But also totally not candid! I’d flat-out beg you not to kill me, but of course I wouldn’t do that, being so entirely dauntless in every way. 

I will contribute to Harvard by being massively, humongously dauntless.

Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you. (200 words)

At the age of fifteen, I had a crucial intellectual experience that involved having a non-bubbly conversation with another fifteen-year-old.  This was important because it was the first time it dawned on me that the entire adult population of the world had been surgically altered to make them beautiful, pliant, incurious air-heads.

This intellectual conversation led me to make a bunch of weird outcast friends in the derelict rubble of the destroyed post-petroleum landscape, which was super rewarding – like a camping trip with trust-games and bonding, but extremely dangerous.  Also, it helped us save the world, although that required three whole books, a love triangle, and the defeat of the creepy, horrific Dr. Cable. Despite the fact that the one character who is always referred to by an intellectual title is irredeemably evil, I think being intellectual is a good idea overall.

How do you hope to use your Harvard education in the future? (200 words)

An education from Harvard will act like an amplifier of my knowledge, skills, and talent – maybe not as powerful an amplifier as one made from the bones of a slain mythical beast and molded into my own flesh, but I’ll still take this opportunity very seriously.

I plan to use the power and influence of my Harvard education to eradicate a world-swallowing abyss of pure evil – even if it means hiding in catacombs, suffering through years of battle and bloodshed, mind-melding with a thousand-year-old undead megalomaniac who dresses all in black, and ultimately sacrificing myself and those I love.

In the long run, assuming the world-saving career works out, I’d also really like to get married, settle down in relative obscurity, and co-manage an orphanage.

Top 3 things your roommates might like to know about you. (200 words)

1)      I know absolutely nothing about myself, given that like the rest of you, my memory was wiped clean right before I was dumped into this terrifying and seemingly inescapable labyrinth full of moving walls and vicious monsters.  Nonetheless, I am sure I need to save the day in a dramatic and heroic manner.

2)      There’s only one girl in the known universe, and I can communicate with her telepathically.

3)      Oh, wait, I think my name is Thomas?

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

2023, Reviewed

I’m not sure why The Fresco/Cable Family in 2023 was on our recommended reading list. If I gave this to my English teacher I’d get a D-minus.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan. I’ve read the whole series. I love the Alaska setting, the ridiculous adventures, the goofy humor, and the quirky characters. But… pacing? Plot? Is this a coming of age story? Or a quest that doesn’t really go anywhere? There’s definitely no story-arc with “rising action” and “denouement”. Isn’t that supposed to be a requirement or something?

The first chapter starts promisingly, with the main characters – Molly and Lizzy – exploring the Olympic Peninsula with their mom (Nancy) and Steve, one of everybody’s favorite recurring characters.  Manish and Billy the Dachshund also make an appearance (important!).  The majesty of the Hoh National Forest is perfectly described, but (reality check) would the shoreline beaches really be that warm and sunny in January?  And then Nancy goes on to the Bay Area and has a great time with a bunch of characters from the prequel series -- Kate, Craig, Matt, Raph, Amy -- but it rains like a monsoon?  Does the author not understand weather?

And then, boom, we’re back in Fairbanks Alaska waaaay too quickly. Darkness and ice fog may have been interesting early in this series, but I’m so done with it. Do we really want to hear more about snow-biking to school at 40 below zero?  What’s with the long sections about chemistry class, and the adult characters buying groceries and doing taxes?  Editor needed!

In the February chapter, Nancy heads to Anchorage for the Alaska Forum on the Environment.  Imagine a bunch of scientists and a lot of environmental leaders from rural Indigenous communities trying to problem-solve climate change. It’s genuinely interesting… although… good luck with that, Gen X, but we know we’re inheriting your issues anyhow.

Sorry, is that too dark?

The next chapter, though… I do not like that kind of dark.  Shiloh!  Why? Whhhhhy?

Shiloh the floppy-eared rescue sled-dog of questionable ancestry and asthmatic tendencies was one of my favorites.  Sure, Eddy carries on the narrative role of bumbling canine comic relief, with Sinbad the cat as both his nemesis and his idol.  But the series will never be the same.

Not. Okay. At. All.

I was about to hurl the book out the window, but… recommended reading list… so here we go.

Next, we get to hear more about the dad, Jay, as he snow-bikes to Nome on the Iditarod Trail.  Right, yeah, he’s done this before. Like, what, three times, plus all the shorter trips? It’s dramatic, it’s gorgeous, it’s an unforgiving setting. And it’s even original – thanks to Jay’s remarkable ability to snap seat-posts. Seriously, is that even possible IRL? And is it possible to overnight-mail bike parts to remote villages? Who dreams up these questions?

By the time I got to chapters devoted to spring, I’d given up on 2023 having a clear plotline. Again, editing? Why so many Mondays?  Why am I reading about spreadsheets and dental cleanings?

Still, there were some good parts. Lizzy and Molly totally rock their junior year in high school, winning a state History Day award from their project on the trail from Valdez to Fairbanks, excelling in rock-climbing and horseback riding, respectively (both good sports for increasing tension via action sequences, especially if you happen to have a fear of falling), learning pottery, and preparing for Advanced Placement exams.

OMG who takes five AP exams at a time?  Thinking about this is giving me a headache.

Okay, moving on. Summer. Nancy takes the action overseas, meeting up with a character from the series prequels, Amy. [Note: giving multiple characters in a novel the same name is stupid and confusing.  Why?] As a middle-aged comic duo, Nancy and Amy take on a swath of Europe along the borders of Germany, France, and Switzerland, mangling several languages and wandering from belfries to forests and back again, croissants in hand.  This whole section cracked me up. 

Jay’s summer subplot is also entertaining. As if biking the Iditarod Trail hadn’t been enough, he takes on the Wilderness Classic, a race on foot and via pack raft, 190 miles cross-country from the Little Tok River to McCarthy.  The Wrangell Mountains! Lynx!  Bears! But why cover so much ground in a mere six days?

Yeah, the parents in this series are seriously weird. But you probably already knew that.

While the adults are wandering around the world, the YA characters are actually working. As in the last couple of books, they have summer jobs with the Alaska Songbird Institute.  Here the plot makes a little more sense.  Not only is the outdoor setting perfectly depicted in all its sunlit and mosquito-infested glory, but hatchling swallows are fascinating, slightly repellent, and entirely adorable. 

And there’s bird drama!  Are the younger trainee birders under Molly’s supervision useful, or a messy hassle?  Is one male swallow visiting two neighboring nest boxes?  Do the females know? The tension!

Next, Wasilla. (It's not just where Sarah Palin came from.)

This interlude is a high point, but too many great characters – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins from Utah – are crammed in too few pages.  Also, see the note above about names; there are two Jays in the story, and two Charlottes, and Robert marries Ben but also has a brother named Ben. Can we call Jay by his middle name, Egbert?

Back in Fairbanks, Nancy takes to the stage, this time as Lord Montague in an outdoor production of Romeo and Juliet.  The mom being Romeo’s dad is intrinsically funny – which works for me, because R&J isn’t really a tragedy, it’s a dysfunctional emo comedy gone very wrong.

Oh, sorry, am I getting dark again?

Perhaps in an attempt to inject some “pathos”, “drama”, and “irony”, none of the other main characters have a chance to see Nancy in her Shakespearean performance, because while Lizzy is recovering from wisdom-tooth surgery that results in dry-socket and infection, Molly and Jay come down with COVID.

A word about the COVID theme in this novel: it’s horribly done. 

Yes, it’s “authentic to the era”, but we’re all 3+ years done with the pandemic genre.  Having two central characters contract the illness in July and the other two in October is tedious. They all have mild cases. There is no drama here, only several chapters of hassle and coughing.  Pointless.

The August chapter is way better. The main characters are joined by their staunch side-kick Laurel, and they travel north of the Arctic Circle to backpack in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Gates of the Arctic National Park.

Cramming three teens, two adults, and a dog into one small pickup truck is like non-stop improv.

Breathtaking scenery! Mountain streams! Fossils! Hundreds of caribou bones! And (bonus) no other people!

The writing feels rushed when this chapter shifts to the opening days of senior year, but high school does offer dramatic potential. Engineering class involves popsicle sticks, PVC pipe, bloodshed and mayhem. Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Shelley, are all deconstructed, and we learn that (shocker) Mr. Rochester is gross, old and creepy. Not. A.Romance.

Meta-moment: one of our two heroes telling her dad, “You don’t know anything about literary criticism.  Seriously.”

Then, more repetition.  Is this book done yet?  No one wants to read about frustrating contracts with NOAA or NSF, or extended CVs.  What is with adults and acronyms?  No one wants to hear about – or be asked about – the hell of college applications. Ever.

Or descriptions of snow.

Seriously, it’s snow.  Call an editor, stat.

Okay, so I did actually enjoy this book. I laughed a lot, and I’m waaaay invested in these characters. But I’m holding firm on this being appalling writing in a “narrative” sense.  At the end I had no idea whether the heroes were even heroes.  Did they become better people? 

Did they realize their own tragic flaws?

I guess I’ll have to wait to find out in the sequels.