"The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters," by Chip Kidd

"The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters," by Chip Kidd

There are certain staples of college literature classes. Profound novels by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens and other titans of British and American literature, for example. Books that provide a perspective on class and racial struggles like Toni Morrison's "Sula" and Nadine Gordimer's "None to Accompany Me" perennially appear on these lists. Even books by popular best-selling authors like Stephen King and Ursula K. Le Guin are assigned in courses on horror and science fiction in literature.

But what about books that professors don't assign? The ones that provide a raw, uncensored look at college life. Or the ones that show us the "behind the scenes" inner workings of the higher education system. Here are some books that may not be on a course syllabus, but should be read for their ability to capture the true college experience.

"The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters"
By Chip Kidd
Originally published in 2001
Paperback: 288 pages

Just who are the cheese monkeys, and what is their story? You never actually find out, for sure, anyway, but the search for the answer is entertaining and educational. Written by a well-regarded book cover designer (Kidd has designed covers for Michael Crichton, Anne Rice, John Updike and Larry McMurtry, among others), "Cheese Monkeys" is clearly autobiographical. But even those who are blissfully ignorant in matters of art and bereft of visual sensibilities will chuckle at this story of the trials of one student's first year in college.

The protagonist is an art major at "State U," not because he likes art, but because he doesn't, and he assumes that "if any school would treat the subject with disdain, it would be one that is run by the government." His initiation is "Introduction to Drawing," where the elderly Dottie Spang poses decapitated birds, rotten fruit and a block of cheese for still life inspiration and invites Mr. Peppie, the building janitor, to model in his skivvies. Despite the insipid nature of the class, the protagonist is redeemed because it is where he befriends Himillsy Dodd, a precocious elfin firecracker who becomes his muse.

Second semester, the action shifts to "Introduction to Graphic Design," taught by Winter Sorbeck, Dottie Spang's polar opposite. The class, including the usually unflappable Himillsy, finds itself artistically challenged, not to mention left in the cold, humiliated and driven mad by Sorbeck's tirades and irrational critiques. But the protagonist, whom Sorbeck dubs "Happy," remains undaunted. Before our very eyes, he develops a silent awe for his demented professor, and we witness his self-discovery as an artist, a graphic designer and a man.

"High Spirits"
By Robertson Davies
Originally published in 1982
Paperback: 208 Pages

Reading this collection of lighthearted ghost stories is a little like taking a class on Victorian England. The language is rich and flowery, the characters are regal and the humor is irreverent. Davies originally conceived the stories when he was a professor at Massey College in Toronto: He told a new one each year at Gaudy Night, the annual Christmas party. "High Spirits" contains all 18 of the stories exactly as he told them from 1963 to 1981.

Davies's ghosts aren't rattle-the-chains types and they are in the business of ribbing, not spooking. Queen Victoria, King George V, even Satan, all make appearances in these quirky vignettes. Since Davies originally told the stories to academics, many poke fun at the elitist, ivory tower nature of higher learning. In "When Satan Goes Home for Christmas" Satan tells the narrator: "You think you are cleverer than I; it is a very common academic delusion." In "The Ghost who Vanished by Degrees" the ghost of a graduate student who fell short on his thesis returns to seek his Ph.D. But he's been dead for so long that he's had time to prepare theses in hundreds of subjects -- from English drama to astronomy and mathematics.

The fact that these stories take place in a Canadian graduate school, combined with the author's Victorianesque speech, can be somewhat off-putting to the modern American reader. But Davies excels at storytelling and each story is less than 10 pages long, making this a perfect book to keep on your nightstand or in your backpack when you are in the mood for a quick dose of literary humor.

"The Human Stain"
By Philip Roth
Originally published in 2000