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Book Box | Seven college stories every family should read

Hey readers,

It’s a week to Graduation Day here at Duke University. The sun is out, the graduates-to-be are already posing for pictures on the steps of the Gothic chapel. On the lawns of the college quad, all is a happy bustle of bonhomie, as parents visit to watch their progeny get their degrees.

It’s a week to Graduation Day here at Duke University.

May is the season for graduations in campuses across the world.

But as you saunter down these sunny aisles, we invite you to explore our education system more. To scrutinise the stories that lie beyond; the stresses and strains, the ambition, intrigue and emotion in what is a dramatic microcosm of the real world. Here are seven books set in campuses as far apart as Princeton, Shantiniketan and NIT Durgapur, and also imaginary worlds. Both fiction and non-fiction, they grapple with the fears of a generation — of fitting in, of failure, of phantoms imagined and real, of coming of age.

Must-reads: Book 1 of 7


Portia works as an admissions office at Princeton University in this deceptively light novel that makes you question our college education system. A 2009 publication, Admission pairs well with the The Tyranny of Merit by Michael Sandel, the Harvard professor who questions our “meritocratic” system. A cinematic side dish to this story is the Netflix documentary Varsity Blues the college admission scandal. And while Admission has also been made into a film, the book version is way superior.

The Secret History. 
The Secret History. 

Secret societies that flirt with life and death have always been part of college folklore. Read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History to dive into these edgy aspects of college life. The action is intense and involves a group of students and a manic Greek professor. Its Lord of Flies meets Crime and Punishment meets How to get Away with Murder.

The Female Persuasion. 
The Female Persuasion. 

Greer Kadetsky is disappointed to go to local Ryland College. She has been accepted at Yale, but her lackadaisical artist parents have forgotten to do the financial paperwork. At Ryland, she has no energy to make friends. It gets worse. When she finally goes to a frat party, she gets groped. From here she discovers activism, friendship, and an idol in Faith Frank, a kind of Simon de Beauvoir meets Sheryl Sandberg figure. We follow her in The Female Persuasion for many years in a fascinating journey that explores activism, feminism, and how a single incident can shape your life.

The Art of Fielding. 
The Art of Fielding. 

If The Female Persuasion is about female friendship, The Art of Fielding explores male bonding. And baseball. But you don’t need to be a baseball fan to relish this absorbing book about the conundrums of college life and coming of age. Chad Harbach is a pleasure to read, his characters are well developed, and his prose flows. And if you appreciate this, head straight for The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Set on graduation day, it’s a fantastic read — a book of ideas around English Literature, love triangles, college life, religion, and mental illness.

Our Shantiniketan. 
Our Shantiniketan. 

Learning to identify birds and flowers, attending classes under a tree were usual features of life at the university established by Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore. “Shantiniketan taught us that there is no such thing as worthless activity,” says the celebrated writer Mahasweta Devi in Our Shantiniketan translated from Bengali. That she went on to become a social activist writer is clearly a tribute to the school and college she grew up in.

Young Blood. 
Young Blood. 

For readers looking for a racy, riveting route to get back to reading, Young Blood is the perfect start. The action moves across campuses including the author’s alma mater at NIT Durgapur to the spookiest of them all — the abandoned Khairatabad Science College in Hyderabad. Das skillfully combines character and setting to create chilling scenarios, using horror to help us confront our deepest fears and anxieties, dealing with peer pressure, suicide, love triangles, and so on. 


And finally, the book everyone has been talking about for the last five years. Educated is on every bestseller list and is excellent as an audiobook too. The real-life story of Tara Westover, the youngest of seven children born to survivalist cult parents in rural Idaho. Tara’s survival story, her journey to studying at Harvard and Cambridge gives one a lot to think about on subjects like bringing up children and education as we know it.

And now, back to May and graduation month. After this examination of education, it’s time to bring out the bubbly with our reader of the week, beverage baron Vikram Achanta. 

Reader of the week

Drinks entrepreneur Vikram Achanta has a favourite river book Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome. More deadly though, from the founder of beverage consulting company Tulleeho, are his river rafting stories.

Vikram Achanta
Vikram Achanta

Tell us about a river rafting trip that has had the most impact on you?

In September 2014, we went rafting down the Zanskar river. There was a sense of danger from the start — you are in a bleak Lord of the Rings kind of landscape, there is no network, no communication. The rapids are intense. The elements keep changing, with chilly winds most days. It is a long trip — you pack up camp every morning and are on the river by 8 am. It puts everything into perspective — suddenly the stakes are the very highest.

You are known for conducting the best pub quizzes. Which books and publications do you pick up your questions from?

My go-to is The Financial Times weekend supplement. I also find interesting trivia in The New York Times and The Guardian.

As a writer yourself and consulting editor of Brews and Spirits, what are your top three drinks books?

In Raw Spirit crime writer Iain Banks drives through Scotland in search of the perfect single malt.

The Joy of Mixology by Gary Regan

My book, Shaker Sutra – The Tulleeho Book of Cocktails. It has easy to follow cocktail recipes with desi ingredients, lots of anecdotes and interesting trivia.

What books are you currently reading?

The Kingdom by Jo Nesbo and The War that Ended Peace by Margaret Mcmillan

What book do you give away as a gift the most?

The New Journalism by Tom Wolfe

Finally, the promised review of Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand the book that has made history as the first Hindi book to be nominated to the International Booker Prize Long List. The book resonates with a myriad evocative images and descriptions, it is also very slow-moving.

Next week, we have six books on motherhood. And on being “childfree”. Also, historical fiction set in 19th century Bengal to celebrate Rabindranath Jayanti.

Until then, happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a book subscription service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have a suggestion or two on how to improve this books newsletter, write to sonyasbookbox@gmail.com. We’d love to hear from you. 

The views expressed are personal

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