The Bookworm: Frats – the good, bad and ugly; intrigue and espionage

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Fraternity: An Inside Look at a Year of College Boys Becoming Men”

  • By Alexandra Robbins
  • c. 2019, Dutton
  • $28, $37 Canada; 367 pages

The fat envelope has arrived. Cheers broke out in your house because it means a new college freshman lives there. The school was chosen, it chose reciprocally, and now there are more decisions to be made: those of finances, housing, classes, major, and, as in the new book “Fraternity” by Alexandra Robbins, will your freshman go Greek?

"Fraternity: An Inside Look at a Year of College Boys Becoming Men" by Alexandra Robbins.

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In the years since her book, “Pledged” was written, Alexandra Robbins says she’s become somewhat of a “media pundit” on Greek life. In that book, she discovered that sororities aren’t all “pearls and purity.” While researching this book – surprise! – she discovered that fraternities aren’t just party-all-the-time houses filled with miscreants.

No, says Robbins, there’s more good news about the male side of such organizations than there is bad. Misogyny, sexual assault, binge-drinking and hazing aren’t as prevalent as you might think; still, as Robbins saw through the eyes of two young men, Jake and Oliver, unsavory old habits die hard.

Eighteen-year-old Jake was dismayed by what he saw at the beginning of Rush Week. His father had been a “K-Tau” in his day, and he assured Jake that he’d be a shoo-in for that fraternity but when he was “walked,” Jake felt relief. He didn’t like the lechery and drinking he saw at K-Tau anyway; instead, he felt Zeta Kappa would help him stay true to his ideals. He was happy being a straight-laced, straight-A kind of guy.

Sophomore Oliver was the youngest Phi Epsilon chapter president his house had ever seen, and he was proud of the men he led. Oliver was likewise proud of what he’d done at his fraternity: his brothers were empowered to make their parties safe for women, they didn’t tolerate name-calling or racism, and there was no harsh hazing allowed. It was the kind of fraternity parents could love, but it had its issues, too. Three of them, right in a row, could almost sink the chapter for good …

There is no doubt that readers could find two sides to “Fraternity”: one for parents who are concerned about news reports, and one for older teens who are thinking about Greek life for the fall.

"Fraternity: An Inside Look at a Year of College Boys Becoming Men" author Alexandra Robbins.

Here, author Alexandra Robbins offers comfort to both, in her repeated assurances that fraternities have wrongly gotten raucous, rotten reputations from a few bad apples; and with quick stats to prove that media and movies often portray fraternities unfairly - though she also lets readers see where pop culture doesn’t misrepresent. Except when prodding her subjects with their own past statements, Robbins then steps back and stays out of the way of the story, which highlights for readers the changes that happen in Jake’s and Oliver’s lives. 

One of those changes will lead to deep, inevitable disappointment; the other leaves wide-grin need to roar.

And so, “Fraternity,” which also includes advice, is a book for parents and teens alike, but if there’s a college in your town, you should read it, too. The fat envelope is coming soon, and the timing is right for this book’s arrival.

“The Lost Girls of Paris”

  • By Pam Jenoff
  • c. 2019, Park Row Books
  • $16.99, $21.99 Canada; 377 pages

The frame was beautiful. The picture inside it was of a stranger.

Who would give away that lovely piece of workmanship with a loved one’s portrait displayed? Who didn’t cherish it enough to keep it? And in the new novel, “The Lost Girls of Paris” by Pam Jenoff, who was the women in the picture?

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"The Lost Girls of Paris" by Pam Jenoff.

Grace was running late.

That was unusual, and so was the reason: she’d spent the night in a hotel room with her late husband’s best friend. Head down, embarrassed at such uncharacteristic behavior, she was surprised to spot a suitcase that had obviously been abandoned beneath a bench in Grand Central Station. She’d opened the suitcase and, in yet another unordinary action, took a handful of pictures that were inside.

It was a morning filled with uniqueness: Grace then barely missed witnessing an accident in which a woman was killed – the same woman, as it happened, to whom the suitcase belonged.

Eleanor was very protective of her girls.

She’d hand-picked each one of them, some for their fluent French and others for their dexterity. When they signed on with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), it was she who made sure they were physically fit and highly-trained for the jobs they’d do to help with the resistance in German-occupied France. She was the one responsible for bringing them home at the end of World War II.

In the meantime, Eleanor’s girls would do dangerous work. They’d be as prepared as possible for their tasks. She’d personally see to that.

Marie wasn’t entirely sure why she stayed with the SOE.

Eleanor had given her ample opportunity to quit. She knew how much Marie missed her daughter, how much she hated training, and how unconfident Marie was in herself. And yet, despite Eleanor’s offers and the danger involved, Marie couldn’t bring herself to quit. When her deployment within the SOE placed her in a flat above a tavern that was known to entertain Germans, her determination doubled.

It increased again when her very survival was in question …

If you’re looking for something to carry around with you every day this week, check this out: “The Lost Girls of Paris” is a novel as thrilling as every espionage story you’ve ever read, as soft as every war-romance you’ve ever heard, and as brutal as every war movie you’ve ever seen. Yep, that good.

"The Lost Girls of Paris" author Pam Jenoff.

Set at the end of and just after World War II, this novel capture readers’ imagination from the outset, with the death of one of its main characters. The intrigue never lets up from there, as author Pam Jenoff takes a heroic true story from the War and novelizes it without prettifying it; indeed, people die in this book – a lot. Further small details make this story, and they’ll sometimes make you forget it’s fiction.

For Jenoff fans, loving this book is a certainty. Anyone who enjoys spy stories will want to uncover it. Readers of all stripes, really, will find “The Lost Girls of Paris” to be picture-perfect.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.