My Summer Reading in Review (2016)

Now that the sun has set on yet another summer, I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on my summer reading endeavors. As usual I entered the summer with pale skin, a full heart and  intentions of reading six books over 10 weeks.

But then life happened.

I failed to read my intended six books and only read four. But don’t fret the summer wasn’t a complete bust. I did things. I got that tan, finished fourth in my fantasy baseball league, created this website, watched hours of Impractical Jokers and attempted the Ney- Ney.

Here is a quick summer reading recap:

1. July, July (Tim O’Brien)-  I’ll admit I’m a huge O’Brien fan and have enjoyed everything he has written. July ,July detracts a bit from the war-time violence O’Brien dispels in The Things They Carried and In the Lake in the Woods yet J,J still explores O’Brien’s common theme– the haunting nature of the past– yet in a more pedestrian and domestic way.

Favorite Line- “They agreed that human life mostly erased itself the instant it was lived. they agreed , too , that out of their own combined time on earth, which only amounted to more than a century, only a few scant hours survived in memory.”

2.Just Kids (Pattie Smith)-If your  into memoirs or considering writing your own this is a must read. Smith  examines her years as a struggling artist and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe in such a vivid and subtle way that at times this book reads like poetry. Smith puts on a clinic on how to effectively  mix sensory imagery and  simple yet haunting sentences.

Favorite Line: “I crave honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself.”

3.The Mysteries of Pittsburgh -(Michael Chabon) – Chabon scares me. His vocabulary is more expansive than mine. His sentences are complex yet polished and his thematic examination of masculine sexual identity takes some testicular fortitude to write about. What I liked most of Mysteries was the unexpected. Maybe I’m naive but I didn’t see the twist coming. And when it happened I had to put the book down few a few days so I could digest. Stylistically and thematically, Mysteries may be  the closest thing to The Catcher in the Rye that I’ve ever read.

Favorite Line: “No doubt all of this is not true remembrance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past , and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated everything.”

4.The Art of Work (Jeff Goins)- I found Jeff Goins on Twitter. I was soon turned on to his website and then to his new book The Art of Work. Goins is a self-help author who in The Art of Work combines amazing stories of average people chasing down their dreams with his own insight and experience.  This book is great for any adult who is looking to get something more out of their life… which, I got to believe that is all of us.

Favorite Line: “Life is too short to do what doesn’t matter, to waste your time on things that don’t amount to much. What we all want is to know our time on earth has meant something.”

Great Lines in Literature- The Great Gatsby

Work: The Great Gatsby

Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Published: 1925

Line: “He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that at your best, you hoped to convey.”

Analysis: Yes Nicky C is narrating but make no mistake these three sentences are about you dear reader.  The “he”  in the first line is of course Gatsby but the “you”, which is used 12 times in three sentences, is  you.  For the duration of  these three sentences you are the center of the universe.  Gatsby ( or Leo DiCaprio for that matter) does not just look at us– he blazes a stare that penetrates deep into our very fickle souls– and we lose sense of time, space, urinary retention, and are filled with an absolute wonderment that steals our breath.gatsby

In this fleeting moment, Gatsby is looking at us with a sincerity that is hard to  find and even harder to forget– which is both awesome and terrifying.  And because of the attention and love he gives us– we adore with him and encourage him to fight for Daisy, to chase down his impossible dreams and to close up the pool a day earlier.

College Essay Advice- Don’t be Afraid…Take the Plunge!

Here’s a conversation I have multiple times with multiple students every September…

Student: “But Mr. Armstrong I can’t do it. I just can’t do my college application essay.”


Student: ” Why? You want to know why! I have no idea how to begin!?!Really NO idea. I might as well drop out of high school and start scouting real estate under a bridge because that’s where I will be living the rest of my life.”

Once I’ve talk them off the ledge, discuss the dangers of bridge dwelling,  I address the real problem…how to begin the essay.

I usually start with this ancedote…

Remember when you were a kid standing on the edge of a swimming pool on a golden afternoon sporting a pair of water wings debating on whether you should jump in or not. A face stricken with fear. Knees knocking with excitement.

And remember how you rose up with a full heart , flapped those water wings and jumped in?

Well if your college essay is the swimming pool then you must let go of your fear, flap those wings and jump in.

By jumping in I mean use the first few sentences to plunge your reader (and yourself) into action.

Still not sure.

Over the years  I’ve read many effective essays that began simply with  “As I…”

… walked to the front of the classroom unprepared to deliver my speech on polynomials…

…tried to extinguish the grease fire…

…sat down to study,  a  twelve hour Breaking Bad marathon had just started…”

…stared into the black eyes of the demented squirrel…

The more technical name for “jumping in” is in medias res.

In Medias Res is Latin for “in the middle of”,  a technique mastered by horror writer Edgar Allan  Poe.

Now I do not reccomend writing your college essay about the voices you hear or how you have an innate desire to murder a blind old man but Poe’s style-not content– makes for a compelling college essay model. Poe belived that stories should be read in one sitting. To hook his reader, Poe immediately drops them into the heart of the action.  Check out The Tell Tale Heart to see what I mean.

Poe uses quick declarative sentences and intense sensory imagery to keep the reader on their toes.  I suggest adopting the same strategy for your college essay.   Remember you are not writing a five paragraph essay or a school report.  You are writing a story–your story.

Please understand college admission officers sit in dimly lit offices listening to soft rock, reading application essays all day.  Do them a favor… grab their attention. Plunge them into a story.  Make them want more of you.

My advice… pinch your nose,  tighten up those water wings and jump right in.

What are you waiting for?