Wednesday, August 27, 2014

book review: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

The basics: Set over the course of one year and told entirely in letters of recommendation from Jason Fitger, a curmudgeonly professor of creative writing at Payne University, a second-tier Midwestern school, Dear Committee Members is a satirical look at the current state of academia, particularly the humanities and English.

My thoughts: I work in academia, and I have a fondness for novels set in academia. Julie Schumacher is a professor creative writing, and it's clear she knows academia well in this novel. I found Fitger's commentary hilarious, but as satirical as this novel is, it's firmly entrenched in reality:
"The LOR [letter of recommendation] has become a rampant absurdity, usurping the place of the quick consultation and the two-minute phone call--not to mention the teaching and research that faculty were supposedly hired to perform. I haven't published a novel in six years; instead, I fill my departmental hours casting words of praise into the bureaucratic abyss. On multiple occasions, serving on awards committees, I was actually required to write LORs to myself." 
At times I wished to read the actual responses to Fitger's letters or be privy to the conversations and emails he references, but Schumacher's dedication to only using letters of recommendation he writes provides a solid structure to this novel. Fitger is a character who is not afraid of saying (or writing) what is on his mind, even at inopportune times. In a few instances, I found myself asking, "but he wouldn't really put that in a letter of recommendation, would he?" As these moments of perceived implausibility passed, however, Schumacher found clever ways to reinforce them. Due to her well-formulated story and characters, the novel's premise works. It shouldn't be possible to tell a story through a single man's letters of recommendation, but Schumacher pulls it off, with humor and wisdom.

Favorite passage: "Sometimes when the year grinds to its end and the new term begins I feel I'm living the life of a fruit fly--the endless ephemeral cycle, each new semester a "fresh start" that leads to the same moribund conclusions."

The verdict: Dear Committee Members is a fast, smart read. It's laugh-out-loud-funny, assuming you get the somewhat inside jokes. It's also a biting commentary on current trends and issues in academia. Despite telling the story entirely through Fitger's letters, the reader grasps both his perspective on events as well as how others view the same events. This duality adds a depth to this slim novel; Fitger is an impressively well-developed character.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 192 pages
Publication date: August 19, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Dear Committee Members from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Julie Schumacher's website and like her on Facebook.

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  1. I love novels set in academia. It reminds me of my grad student days. I can't wait to get to this one.

  2. I have this one coming up. I'm often wary of epistolary novels but this one seems like fun. Thanks for your thoughts!


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