Staff Recs: Back to school

The Arts Desk spotlights some of their favorite artworks dealing with the highs and lows of college life.


Susan Behrends Valenzuela

If the first month of classes is stressing you out, here are some books and shows to lighten things up. (Illustration by Susan Behrends Valenzuela)

School is back, the semester is anew. Perhaps you’re still not in the mood for four-hour lectures, bulky worksheets or reading theory. If that’s the case, we’ve got you covered with a selection of staff favorites that will help you ease into the scholastic mindset. Charting the collegiate antics of Gnossos Pappadopoulis in the novel “Been So Down It Looks Up To Me” to the woes of the Glass family in J.D. Salinger’s book “Franny and Zooey,” this batch of recommendations is meant to help you find the balance between putting on a thinking-cap and gallivanting around campus. 

“Franny and Zooey” by J.D. Salinger


“I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting.” 

No matter the year, the emotional strains of entering adulthood endure. That’s why Salinger’s short story remains relevant, despite the 60-year time difference. First published in The New Yorker in 1961, “Franny and Zooey” describes emotional and existential crises from the perspectives of two college-aged siblings, Franny and Zooey Glass. The book begins from Franny’s point of view at the moment in which she becomes aware that life may be meaningless. She struggles to find a real identity within college, and begins to believe that everything around her is mundane and unimportant. She faces the complexities — not uncommon to college students — of religion, friendship and struggle, in developing one’s authentic self. Zooey tries to console Franny, and in doing so illustrates underlying truths to complicated relationships within their family. Along with unanswered questions, Salinger filled this book with wit, insight and hilarious observations about college students. — Clara Scholl

“Abbott Elementary” by Quinta Brunson

Television show

If you are looking for a feel-good show, then “Abbott Elementary” will bring your spirits up. The television show might not be college-themed, but “Abbott Elementary” will let you enjoy a simpler style of television and life. It is perfect for taking a break from the hard studying sessions, and its second season will be premiering on Sept. 21. “Abbott Elementary” was created by Buzzfeed alum Quinta Brunson, and it follows the lives of teachers at an elementary school in Philadelphia. With a predominantly Black cast, this mockumentary series follows peppy second grade teacher Janine Teagues (Quinta Brunson) and her over-the-top efforts to improve the school. Bringing back mockumentary nostalgia from shows like “Modern Family” and “The Office,” “Abbott Elementary” stands out as a light-hearted comedy that is not afraid to touch on graver issues like public school funding — or the lack thereof. The cast is incredibly hilarious and reminds me of some of my favorite elementary school teachers. Some of my favorite moments from the first season include a reference to “Dead Poets Society” elementary school style, TikTok bait for school supplies and a “desking challenge.” Without trying to give too many spoilers, I absolutely recommend making this your next go to show if you are someone who enjoys some wholesome short-form comedy. — Natalia Palacino

“Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me” by Richard Fariña


Few are the artworks that tap into the collegiate heart, one that acts like vapor in its fluid motions through first experiences with the high and lows of love, sadness, pensiveness and pure excitement. In one of the few works of writing counterculture icon Richard Fariña authored before his untimely passing, he manages to entertain said wild heart by crafting a woozy, satirical romp through the ins-and-outs of college life in Ithaca, New York. With Gnossos Pappadopoulis — a stand-in for the writer to explore his own wild ambitions and flirtations with both psychedelics and revolutions during his time at Cornell University — as his hero, Fariña hurls into a frantic adventure that finds as much philosophy and fun on campus as it does in the midst of military motions during the Cuban Revolution (of course, such madness is all filtered through mescaline, it was the ’60s after all). But, rather than sinking into the tropes of a cute time capsule, Pappadopoulis’s carefree spirit of adventure and ever-present inquisitiveness highlight the best qualities of a thinking youth whose knotted desires to change the world and get plastered make them dynamite personalities. As such, reading “Been So Down It Looks Like Up To Me” takes on an explosive quality in which Fariña achieves a shrewd manipulation of the reader’s pupils by engrossing them in a rhythmic reading brimming with energy and involving all sorts of outlandish scenes that intertwine hallucinated monkeys, a secretive cult leader and every radical student’s dream: an usurping of the dean by a rowdy young crowd. — Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer

“Nice Docs, Baby!” by Blue Foster


If there was ever a shoe brand that epitomized NYU culture, it would undoubtedly be Dr. Martens — its instantly recognizable yellow stitches and clunky silhouette have become a staple piece of many students frequenting Washington Square Park, as I’m sure many of you have noticed. “Nice Docs, Baby!” is a satirical song by Blue Foster about a stereotypically sad indie guy — we all know the type — repeatedly complimenting a girl’s docs before walking into her hookup with another man at a college party. With appropriately melodramatic lyricism and a few nods to adjusting to college life, “Nice Docs, Baby!” charmingly emulates the silly culture of an arts-dominated college to a criminally catchy tune. The song also has an upbeat rhythm excellent for walking around campus, making it a fun and perfect distraction from the dull, exhaustive experience returning to college life can be. — Stephanie Wong

“Give Me A Minute” by Lizzy McAlpine


Written during her time at Berklee College of Music, Lizzy McAlpine’s second album, “Give Me A Minute,” captures the essence of being a college student, delivered through her honest, Phoebe Bridgers-esque songwriting and soft folk leanings. Across the album’s 13 songs, the Pennsylvanian singer-songwriter dwells on universal college experiences like entering adulthood, creating a new home and the complications of young romance, often interconnecting these three themes. “I’ve got to do this on my own / I need to build myself a home,” she sings on “To the Mountains.” Later, on “Apple Pie,” she admits, “Some days feel empty / Some days feel whole / Some day we can be in the same city / Some day we’ll be grown and I’ll be fine” as drums shuffle under her vocals, accompanied by delicate fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Food is important to McAlpine — “I wanna eat pancakes for dinner,” she sings on “Pancakes for Dinner,” before continuing with her list of desires — “I wanna get stuck in your head / I wanna watch a TV show together / And when we’re under the weather we can watch it in bed.” McAlpine has a gift for making the specific universal and the mundane exciting, for verbalizing feelings and experiences that are often hard to describe. While I’m not rushing to the mountains any time soon, I might just have pancakes for dinner. — Yas Akdag

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