Back to School Reading: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

August 21, 2014 Book Reviews 1 ★★★★

Back to School Reading: Dear Committee Members by Julie SchumacherDear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on 2014
Genres: Fiction, Humorous, Literary, Literary Fiction, Satire
Pages: 192
Format: ARC
Source: the publisher
Goodreads
four-stars
Finally a novel that puts the "pissed" back into "epistolary."

Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, a small and not very distinguished liberal arts college in the midwest. His department is facing draconian cuts and squalid quarters, while one floor above them the Economics Department is getting lavishly remodeled offices. His once-promising writing career is in the doldrums, as is his romantic life, in part as the result of his unwise use of his private affairs for his novels. In short, his life is a tale of woe, and the vehicle this droll and inventive novel uses to tell that tale is a series of hilarious letters of recommendation that Fitger is endlessly called upon by his students and colleagues to produce, each one of which is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive-aggressive strategies. 

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. My views of the book are my own and unaffected by this consideration.

A perfect compendium of snark and inappropriate sharing that I loved. Jay Fitger will remind all former students of the teacher who, while mired in bitterness and hellbent on passive-aggressive social suicide, cared deeply for students and colleagues, if you managed to peel back the protective layer of bluster far enough to discern their truest selves. 

A tenured professor at a second-rate liberal arts university, the best days of Jay’s career are fading into the distant past. His novels have, after the first, never sold well and are now out-of-print. He’s ruined all of his romantic relationships — the last was scuppered through a dramatic misuse of the university email system in a move so boneheaded that it can’t help but elicit a guffaw or two at the brilliance of Jay’s self-sabotage. Even the English department’s physical surroundings are a wreck as renovations to the floor above to provide luxurious accommodations for the Economics faculty leave the poor scholars below covered in dust and disrepair. 

Jay’s plight emerges through a year’s worth of hilarious recommendation letters he pens in support of students and colleagues. These chronologically arranged missives are discursive, sarcastic, delusional and full of inappropriate observations — in short, a hoot. Jay’s view of the world is cantankerous, more so for being couched in language that condescends in an ostentatious superior tone. He skewers university hierarchies, the state of publishing and creative writing education, along with the feuding between scholarly approaches within the English department. Regardless of theoretical/ideological affiliation, no member of a liberal arts faculty will fail to recognize the frustrations of scrambling for decent tech support, jobs for students, and recognition that mark Jay’s working life. It is all familiar and would be heartbreaking if it weren’t so funny. This book will make its way into offices at colleges and universities around the country where everyone will read it, publicly deny that Payne University resembles their institutions, while privately acknowledging the essential, if exaggerated, truth of the picture Jay paints.

Satire works best when there is an emotional heart that provides a counterpoint to its criticism — without this relief the pointed humor becomes too bleak and hopeless. As a reader I want to think there is some light left in the darkness. I am happy to report that there is a heart beating at the center of “Dear Committee Members” and one that avoids the trap of treacle. Kudos to Ms. Schumacher for making it plain that underneath the hurt, frustration and disappointment is a decent human being, even if he can’t come out and admit it.

Released just in time for the new school year, “Dear Committee Members’ is the perfect preparatory reading for professors, students and administrators who want to start new academic year refreshed, entertained and ready to do battle with words. Enjoyable homework that is all too quickly finished. 

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