Monday, August 25, 2014

When I Tell You to Take My Advice and Come to an Event, You Should Listen! 15 Reasons to Come Out for Julie Schumacher's "Dear Committee Members" Tomorrow.

This is our last week of vacation, so to speak. I don't think we have another week with only two events until some time after Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, August 26, 7 pm, at Boswell
Julie Schumacher, author of Dear Committee Members.

I told our Doubleday rep Jason that I was a little disappointed with our first week's sale of Julie Schumacher's novel. I am hoping you are all marking your calendar to come on Tuesday night. We've got some big fans on staff of Dear Committee Members, and I think it deserves one last try to get you to come out. I have in the past offered five reason, even ten, why you should listen to me and come out for an author on my favorites list. But this time I offer 15 reasons. 15!

1. Boswellian Jen Steele recommends the book: "Jason Fitger, professor of creative writing at Payne University, is the go-to guy if you want honest, snarky, passive-aggressive letters of recommendation. He has no problem writing about his ex-wife, the university's "golden" child: the economics department, or the construction disrupting his office, all in a letter of recommendation for your prospective employer to read. Dear Committee Members had me laughing out loud, the perfect companion for an afternoon of reading."

2.Jim Higgins praised Dear Committee Members in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "In short, we enthusiastically recommend extending the invitation for Professor Fitger to join the Committee for Recognition of Excellent Epistolary Prose. Please note here that the position of secretary of our committee has been open for some time: might our invitation to Fitger also include a request that, henceforth, he handle our correspondence?"

3. For a change of pace, Carole E. Barrowman recommended Schumacher's previous young adult novel, The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls, on last week's Morning Blend. She offered: "Filled with her rants and commentary on the books she’s forced to read and the connections she discovers to her life. It’s super funny and a perfect light summer novel. If you have a voracious teenage reader in your house, she’ll love this book."

4. Time for another Boswell rec. Mel Morrow writes "Some say that every joke begins with a kernel of truth. So it is for Jason Fitger, protagonist of Dear Committee Members, the latest novel by University of Minnesota creative writing professor Julie Schumacher. Through his many, varied letters of recommendation, readers learn what irks Fitger as he trundles his way through tenure in the Department of English at Payne University. Just as Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry captured a bookstore owner's transformation from solitary curmudgeon to romantic hero, Dear Committee Members tracks the plodding rise of Fitger's star from infamous letter-obsessed recluse to English Department Chair: Dear Committee Members is the A. J. Fikry of the Ivory Tower. It is at once hilarious and familiar, illustrating in an utterly humane way some of the problems that plague contemporary campuses. I am eager to send copies to my tenured friends, accompanied by an overlong letter of recommendation (of course!)."

5. I just want to note that Mel just got her doctorate, so her rec (as one who knows of what Schumacher speaks) counts double. Thanks, Dr. Mel! But just in case you think I shouldn't be allowed to double count, I will throw in this rec from Jay Parini:,“Dear Committee Members is a brilliant book that, in my head, sits comfortably on my prized shelf of academic novels, right between Lucky Jim and Pictures from an Institution. But it’s funnier than either, and more wrenching in the end. "

Here's a Lucky Jim aside--I made a display of academic novels for back to school, promoting Schumacher's novel of course, and included Lucky Jim, only I accidentally wrote Martin Amis instead of Kingsley. A customer grabbed the sign and slammed it on the counter, furious that we mixed up father and son. I felt terrible for the bookseller who had to deal with this.

6. Laura Collins-Hughes reviewed Dear Committee Members in The Boston Globe. "You might be reluctant to contemplate the workaday world in the waning days of August, but I promise you that Dear Committee Members is very funny — funnier than I’ve shown you here, because I don’t want to spoil the author’s many excellent jokes. If nothing else, pick the book up when you head back to school. The laughter will be a solace." (the alternate jacket, as discussed in the post, is at left)

7. Carol Memmott in the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune has this take: "Each letter Fitger writes is imbued with the wisdom and comic chops that make Schumacher a wonderfully entertaining writer. Let this review serve as an LOR for Dear Committee Members. If there’s one thing new grads need in addition to the congratulatory check or gift card, it’s a few good laughs before reality sets in." Yes, I know it's not that different from the other takes, but I think you need to understand just how many people are crazy for this book.

8. From Rebecca Schuman, writing in Slate: "But about halfway through Fitger’s year, something changes in the novel. And it’s not that the letter-of-recommendation format grows old—on the contrary, Schumacher manipulates that format into an authentic, coherent, well-paced character study while never missing the chance to lambaste the LOR process’s more annoying aspects (students we barely know hunting us down in desperation two days before a letter is due; students who received awful grades demanding recommendations anyway; letters for jobs in industries of which we have no knowledge; poorly-designed Web forms that cut us off mid-sentence). No, what changes is Fitger himself..."

9. The floor now goes to Lisa McLendon of the Wichita Eagle: "You don’t have to be an academic to enjoy this novel (you will get more of the jokes, though), which gives an incisive and entertaining – and fairly cynical – look inside the ivory tower."

10. Schumacher's publicist, has been incredibly helpful, offering a number of useful links, including this combination review/profile in Inside Higher Ed? "The conceit is a tricky one: letters of recommendation are, by definition, not supposed to convey very much about their authors. But Dear Committee Members works by convincing the reader that, if anyone could be the type to turn a letter ostensibly about someone else into a meditation on his own stalled career, his failed marriage, or his loss of religious faith, Jason Fitger is that person. And academe, of course, is just where one would find him."

11. I always love discovering agent pages. This glimpse at Curtis Brown's pitch page for Dear Committee Members (to sell foreign rights?) has an alternate jacket. I actually like it a lot, but I think it reads a little girly for the project (which to my thinking, is gender neutral), plus it implies that these letters still go by mail, and they often don't nowadays. In fact, one of the best bits involves Fitger trying to work through an LOR website.

12. Maureen Corrigan on Fresh Air calls DCM "a mordant minor masterpiece!" Here it is in context: "Julie Schumacher's novel is called Dear Committee Members and one of the reasons why it's such a mordant minor masterpiece is the fact that Schumacher had the brainstorm to structure it as an epistolary novel. This book of letters is composed of a year's worth of recommendations that our anti-hero — a weary professor of creative writing and literature — is called upon to write for junior colleagues, lackluster students and even former lovers. The gem of a law school recommendation letter our beleaguered professor writes for a cutthroat undergrad who he's known for all of 'eleven minutes,' is alone worth the price of Schumacher's book."

13. Bruce Jacobs of Wichita's Watermark Books and Cafe writes in Shelf Awareness, a bookstore newsletter: "Gradually, Schumacher peels aside Fitger's tough façade to show a man who still believes in the power of literature and the role of teaching. He is perhaps most genuine in one letter where he describes his student as 'not yet a candle ready to illuminate anyone else's darkness, but he understands that darkness exists, and he does not turn away.' Can we ask anything more than this from a college education that still holds on to the study of literature and hasn't slipped finally and irrevocably into vocational practicality?"

14. Hey, it's Anne Beattie recommendation: "Let’s not look at this as an epistolary novel about the academic world, but as a laying out of the Tarot cards of our society’s past and future. It’s that indicative. That important. In the end, the future looks not quite so grim, but my reading is that like so many novels that investigate independence and fierce belief (with Melville in the lead), we have to read between the lines, infer, assume, and hope that the American virtues of compassion, empathy, and even wild projection will continue. This is a funny, very sad, disarming novel. My pitch to Hollywood would be: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress meets Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood but—and here I’m just another expendable would-be savior, like Ms. Schumacher’s character Jay Fitger—nobody would know what I was talking about. My hat’s off to the author of this flawlessly written, highwire act of a book. Hollywood be damned." Oh, I love this.

15. And finally, because we do have another event this week, here's my take: "I write this recommendation for Julie Schumacher’s new novel, which is coming out at the end of August. Schumacher, whose novel The Body Is Water, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award, has pulled off a literary hat trick. While keeping to a variation of the epistolary form, she’s created a powerful character in beleaguered English professor Jason T. Fitger, woven a plot that documents his rise and fall and possible redemption, and crafted a series of zinger missives that capture all the craziness of the modern academic world. You or any reader will be fortunate to place a copy of Dear Committee Members on your bookshelf, physical or otherwise. I remain, Daniel Goldin."

Oh, this isn't fair to Nick Weber. He's getting his own post, which I will send out separately.

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