Monday, December 21, 2015

Dear Committee MembersDear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] the student cheater is amazed at my powers of discernment, my uncanny ability to detect a difference in quality between his or her own work and, for example, Proust's."

I received this book as a gift from my dear friend, Kat on Goodreads. In fact, I owe her much more: it was she who showed me this great website, and thanks to her I have been addicted to reading books and writing reviews for over two years. So thank you, Kat!!!

Dear Committee Members (2014) is a funny book, hilarious indeed to people like Kat and me, who are in academia, but almost everyone will get quite a few laughs out of it. The book is composed of over 60 (fictitious) letters of recommendation (LORs, for short) written by a Dr. Fitger - a Professor of Creative Writing and English in the Department of English - for his students, advisees, and colleagues. There is no narrative glue between the letters - they constitute the entire book - and no such glue is needed: there cleverly emerges a plot when the letters are read in order. It is, in fact, valid to categorize the book as a novel.

Professor Fitger is a once popular author, whose first book, Stain, made quite a splash and almost became a bestseller, yet his career is now stagnating and his fourth book is not selling. He has long been divorced, and his love affairs have not been too successful either; what's worse, his relationships with the three important women of his life are – to put it mildly - strained, yet his work requires maintaining professional contact with them. Professionally and personally spurned, entering late middle age, Dr. Fitger is generally dispirited and his bitterness abundantly spills into the LORs, with hilarious effects for the reader.

I had always believed I was a prodigious LOR writer - how wrong I was! With my meager output of about 350 letters of recommendation produced so far, and being quite a bit older than Fitger, I am just a flyweight compared to his heavyweight status. Yet even with my limited experience in writing LORs, I recognize the author's utter mastery of the subject, language, and peculiarities of LORology. While the main difference between Dr. Fitger and me is, obviously, that he has a good command of the English language, we share many experiences and views. For instance, like him, I have had to write a LOR addressed to myself - twice, in fact. Like him I have written letters for students or colleagues about whom one could only say "[He] has a singular mind and a unique approach to the discipline. He is sui generis." And in many cases I wish I were courageous enough to use Fitger's great phrase "This letter's purpose is to provide the usual gratuitous language recommending a student [...]".

I am leaving the funniest snippet for readers to find on their own (just a hint: it concerns Hamlet). Alas, the humor tires rather quickly and the customary sniping at other departments and schools (the opulence of the Economics department versus the inhumanly rough conditions that the English faculty have to slave in) is too cliché for my taste. Also, the satire feels lightweight and disappointingly "safe". Well, the author of the book , Dr. Julie Schumacher, happens to be an actual Professor of English at an actual university, so it is obvious that she is not allowed to venture beyond the bounds of acceptable satire as defined by the rampaging PC brigades.

What I like in the book is the author's success in constructing a momentous event in the past and using it to cast a long shadow over lives of many people (the "Seminar", attended by Fitger and "his" women, led by Fitger's old mentor). I also like the Darren Browles thread, which brings some respite from the unbridled "funniness". And, of course, I like the recursive nature of the setup: Browles as an alter ego of Fitger, whom the reader might construe as Schumacher's alter ego.

A fun read. Thanks again, Kat! Happy Holidays!

Three stars.

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